Daily Archives: August 28, 2017

For Trumpeter Jim Rotondi’s Birthday, my Liner Note for the 1999 CD “Excursions”

Best of birthdays to trumpet master Jim Rotondi, who has been teaching the last several years in Austria at the University of Graz.  Over the years, I’ve had the pleasure of writing liner notes for three of Jim’s CDs for Criss Cross, the first of which — for Excursions (1999) — I’m posting below. It was a first-class date on which the personnel of One For All (Eric Alexander, Steve Davis, Dave Hazeltine, Peter Washington) plus Kenny Washington on drums, play a series of terrific charts.

 

Jim Rotondi (Excursions):

For Excursions, his third Criss-Cross recording, Jim Rotondi surrounded himself with his top-shelf colleagues from the sextet collective One For All.  “I feel comfortable when I play with these guys, freer to select options that I might not normally choose,” the 37-year-old trumpeter avers.  “I think music works best when you throw something a little different in the mix just to see what happens.  Sometimes you get results you’d never have imagined.”

The familiar surroundings (the only “ringer” is impeccable trapsetter Kenny Washington, replacing regular OFA drummer Joe Farnsworth) spur Rotondi to etch in sharp focus the qualities that have won him numerous admirers in recent years as a featured soloist with Lionel Hampton, Charles Earland and — more recently — Kyle Eastwood.  Projecting one of the most beautiful sounds in jazz, he plays with staunch confidence, nuanced maturity and intuitive melodicism — and reaffirms his charter membership in the no-holds-barred society of improvisers.

Rotondi comments: “One thing that differentiates a Lionel Hampton experience from a One For All experience is that it’s much more blues-based, more elemental.  One For All uses more complex forms, and if we play a blues it probably won’t be straight but a variation on the blues.  Gates grew up in the straight blues, and it’s important to him to keep it in there.  The spirit is to go for it, to try to deliver 100 percent every time.  I think that’s the spirit of One For All, and we translate it to this record as well.  We’ve come to have a reputation as a group that flexes its musical muscles, one with a lot of technical prowess.  Really, we just believe in going for it, in trying to play everything at the peak of its potential.”

Rotondi is effusive about One For All front-line partners Eric Alexander (tenor) and Steve Davis (trombone), both familiar to Criss-Cross devotees.  “We think the same way,” he says.  “The three of us are like one voice; we phrase the same way naturally, without talking or thinking about it.

The Rotondi-Alexander partnership began a year after the trumpeter settled in New York.  “I met Eric when he was attending William Patterson College in the ’80s, and it’s inspiring to see him come so far.  When I first met him, he didn’t have a wide variety of tools and language, and now he has probably the biggest arsenal of any of the young players out there.  He did it with discipline and dedication.  To me, every song that he writes captures his spirit more than the previous one.”  Alexander’s contribution here is “Jim’s Waltz,” taken at the camelwalk pace that Kenny Washington likes to call the “grown-up’s tempo,” featuring Rotondi’s burnished tone.  “It’s typical of Eric’s personality — uplifting, happy,” Rotondi comments.  “The melody is all major key, very diatonic, but still interesting.  It goes to a couple of unexpected places, but makes perfect sense — which I think is his essence as a writer and player.”

Let’s digress with a synopsized account of Rotondi’s pre-New York years (Rotondi scholars who want more should refer to the notes for Introducing Jim Rotondi [Criss-1128] and Jim’s Bop [Criss-1156]).  Rotondi’s mother is a piano teacher, and the Butte, Montana, native played piano from the age of 8; he took up the trumpet upon entering high school.  “My background when I began to play trumpet was more in classical music,” he relates.  “My live music exposure pretty much consisted of Maynard Ferguson, Stan Kenton and Buddy Rich, but when I was 14 I picked up a collection of the Clifford Brown-Max Roach EmArcy recordings and Woody Shaw’s Rosewood.  After I got those records — and many others — I started experimenting with different things that I hadn’t been aware of before when I was practicing the piano.  I think it’s extremely important for trumpet players to have a piano.  As Dizzy said he told Miles, on the trumpet you’ve got one note, but on the piano you’ve got 88.  If you understand all 88, it’s a lot easier to find the right place to put one.”

Rotondi wound up at North Texas State University, eventually landing in the school’s elite One O’Clock Lab Band.  “When I arrived they automatically placed me on the bottom, because so many musicians are there,” he recalls.  “I didn’t have it completely together; in fact I was quite a distance from it!  I learned a lot in terms of basic skills; pulled up my technique and ability to sight-read music, and learned about the professional ethic.  After school I went to Miami and worked on a cruise ship for a year, with the aim of saving money to move to New York, which I did in June 1987.”

Rotondi, Alexander and Joe Farnsworth stuck together, worked small but steady gigs and sideman jobs.  Farnsworth landed a gig at Augie’s, the Upper West Side saloon that nurtured much of New York’s young talent in the ’90s’; in 1994, they brought in butter-toned Davis — currently a two-year member of Chick Corea’s Origin Ensemble — whose warm, enveloping sound and ability to generate instant momentum in his solos makes him a perfect fit.  Of Davis’ title track, Rotondi says: “This tune is a classic example of the music Steve writes.  Simple melodies, putting interesting chords underneath them; he finds these perfect little chord-melody combinations.  He’s one of the strongest writers of the younger guys.  This tune is a nice Bossa Nova in an AAB form; it goes through a lot of different tonal centers, which makes it interesting and fun to play on.”

Formidable pianist David Hazeltine rounded out One For All in 1995; his up-tempo arrangement of “Angel Eyes” is, Rotondi exults, “classic Hazeltine.  He’ll take a standard and slightly alter the harmony or chord changes, which makes the tune more interesting to solo on.  Eric and Dave like to have everything very well worked out; they think things through, and don’t like to leave a lot to chance.”

The oft-paired (on Criss-Cross at least) Peter and Kenny Washington bring their customary excellence to the proceedings.  “Whatever you think a bass player should be, Peter is,” Rotondi comments.  “And I’ve always loved Kenny’s playing; he has an encyclopedic knowledge of everything musical, and brings it to every record he’s on.  He’s always an asset.  He completely took care of business, and did it with aplomb.”

Rotondi’s “Shortcake,” a peppery medium-bright minor line with a Latin feel that begins with a pair of storm-cloud chords, “was written for my girlfriend,” the composer remarks.  The bravura trumpeter bites off the notes with brash panache, evoking the sound of Freddie Hubbard, a major influence.  Ditto on Rotondi’s arrangement “Little B’s Poem,” a memorable Bobby Hutcherson melody on which both Hubbard and Woody Shaw have had an earlier say.  This cool, restrained, stop-start version is spurred by Hazeltine’s intuitive comping and Kenny Washington’s ingenious rhythmic formulations.

Don’t think Rotondi is anyone’s style clone; he’s assimilated the entire post Clifford Brown trumpet tree and reached his own conclusions.  He states: “Clifford and Woody were my initial influences.  Though other guys during Clifford’s time — and before — played as much if not more than he, Clifford covered so much and nailed everything perfectly, even though his playing is completely spontaneous-sounding and creative.  I think it’s a testament to his talent and ability that, young as he was, he never flubbed.

“Woody Shaw to me is the last true trumpet innovator; on his early recordings there’s a strong Hubbard and Booker Little influence, but he found his own language.  The way I hear it, playing with McCoy Tyner opened him up to the solutions he ultimately found.  He inspired me to strive to find my own way to play, to find my own voice — because he really found his.  He blended his version of bebop trumpet with avant-garde elements he was exposed to through playing with Dolphy and Coltrane — it was all in his playing.

“The first thing that struck me about Freddie was his sound, a combination of round, darkish warmth with the bit of edge that I think the trumpet needs to have.  Then it was the long melodic lines he constructed that went all through the changes.  Freddie likes to tell the story of running back and forth between Sonny and Trane, and revealing to one what the other was working on; I’m sure practicing with them opened him up unbelievably.

“I’ve done a lot of transcribing of Booker Little; by the age of 22, when he died, he’d completely found his own voice.  Tonally, his playing reminds me of a Classical approach applied to jazz, very precise, the same fat tone from the lowest end of the trumpet all the way up to the top.

“Kenny Dorham to me is the true melodist of all of them;  every trumpet player should study K.D. to learn the importance of making a melody.  They are logical and beautiful, and make so much sense.  He was the first guy I know of to really put Bebop harmony, i.e., tritone substitutions and other devices, clearly in his playing.

“Lee Morgan and Blue Mitchell were early influences.  I still think of Blue Mitchell as the best ballad trumpet player of all time, principally because he never overplayed.  He just played the melody, and let his tone do all the work.”

Rotondi’s gorgeous reading of “What Is There To Say?” — co-arranged with Eric Alexander — would make Mitchell smile.  “I got the tune from Nat King Cole’s ‘After Midnight’ session,” he explains.  “It’s simple, with potential to interpolate some interesting chords.  I try to find lyrics whenever I can to any standard I’m going to play.  It will keep you from playing anything extraneous if the lyrics are in your ear.”

Excursions concludes with Rotondi’s arrangement of Benny Golson’s “Little Karen,” followed by a fingerpopping “Fried Pies,” a Wes Montgomery blues on which all members stretch out.  “On my last few records, I’ve tried to include something from a great jazz composer and see if I can do something different with it,” Rotondi remarks.  “On One To Ten [1961, Argo] Benny took this tune pretty straight-ahead; I gave the A-section a Horace Silver-like mambo treatment.  And Gerry Teekens always likes to have a blues on the record, and I do, too.”

It’s an ideal conclusion for an impeccable album.  For Rotondi and his colleagues, way past their apprenticeships, individual influences are now a point of departure; their voices are prominent landmarks in the narrative of mainstream jazz.

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For the 89th Birthday Anniversary of Pianist Kenny Drew (1928-1993), My Liner Note for the Reissue of the Xanadu Album “Home Is Where The Soul Is”

Today’s the 89th birth anniversary of pianist Kenny Drew (1928-1993), one of the great acolytes of Bud Powell. I had an opportunity to delve into his musical production while writing the liner notes for a reissue of a trio date that he made for Xanadu in 1978, with Leroy Vinnegar and Frank Butler.

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Kenny Drew, Home Is Where The Soul Is (Liner Notes):

“One might take a single pianist like Kenny Drew and find in his playing many of the period’s dominant tendencies: “funk” [extensive use of blues voicings on tunes that are not strictly blues], Debussyesque lyrical embellishments, finger-busting up-tempo solos, and multiple references to earlier styles both gently contemplative (Teddy Wilson and Nat Cole) and hot and bluesy (stride piano via Monk).” – David Rosenthal, Hard Bop: Jazz and Black Music, 1955-1965.

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Although the late David Rosenthal’s observations on Kenny Drew (1928-1993) pertain to the pianist’s musical production during the 1950s, they also apply to Drew’s performance on the slamming trio date contained herein. Xanadu proprietor Don Schlitten, who wrote in the original liner notes that the Harlem native’s best recorded performances (two enduring dates helming a trio and a combo, and sideman appearances with, among others, Sonny Criss, Dexter Gordon and Paul Chambers) transpired in Los Angeles during a 1953-56 West Coast residence, hoped to elicit a similar vibe by “bringing Kenny home to the ‘cats’” to cut a pair of albums. One participant was bassist Leroy Vinnegar, who had settled in Los Angeles not long before his four recorded interactions with Drew in 1955 and 1956. The other is drum-master Frank Butler, out of Kansas City, whose intuitively spot-on responses within the flow on Home Is Where The Soul Is and For Sure—the latter is a formidable quintet with Xanadu regulars Charles McPherson and Sam Noto on the front line—belies the fact that he was interacting with Drew for the first time. Like Drew, these Los Angeles bebop warriors were 1928 babies.

It’s interesting that the proceedings conclude with Drew’s a cappella tour de force on “Yesterdays,” which he played on 16 separate occasions during his 43 years as a recording artist. This version (not included on the original LP release of Home Is Where The Soul Is) is different in feel and configuration than the brisk interpretation 24-year-old Drew uncorked on his first leader date, done on April 16, 1953 for Blue Note in the percolating company of bassist Curley Russell and drummer Art Blakey. “Kenny’s work is cast in the modernist mold, but it seems to owe allegiance to no one model,” Leonard Feather wrote on the back cover of the original 10″ LP. “On the contrary, a careful hearing of these sides will reveal that he has already developed his own personality at the keyboard.”

Feather was softpedaling Drew’s informed, idiosyncratic, virtuosic allegiance to Bud Powell, four years Drew’s senior and a fellow Harlemite, which is evident in the younger pianist’s efflorescent treatments of “Be My Love,” “Lover Come Back To Me” and  “It Might As Well Be Spring.” But he is nonetheless correct that Drew had already constructed his own nascent voice, one informed by close study of tributaries established by Powell, Art Tatum, Teddy Wilson, Nat Cole, George Shearing and perhaps, by 1953, Horace Silver. He’d been at it for while: Feather writes that Drew, whose mother was a classical pianist, took his first lessons at 5, was a skilled boogie-woogie pianist during adolescence, and assiduously soaked up Tatum, Wilson and Fats Waller during his teens. After high school, he apprenticed at a dance school run by the pathbreaking Trinidad-born dancer-choreographer Pearl Primus, who incorporated African and Caribbean elements into her touring show.

During the latter ’40s, as Ira Gitler wrote in the liner notes to Drew’s 1961 Blue Note record, Undercurrent, Drew augmented his university of the streets education, alternating on piano with Walter Bishop, Jr. in a band with uptown up-and-comers Sonny Rollins, Jackie McLean and Arthur Taylor. Feather remarks that Drew entered the fray for real after a maiden studio voyage with Howard McGhee in January 1950 for Blue Note. Over the next two years, Drew would share bandstands and record with the likes of Coleman Hawkins, Lester Young, Charlie Parker, Stan Getz, Miles Davis, Rollins, Milt Jackson, Oscar Pettiford, Sonny Stitt and Paul Quinichette. He began to garner national attention in 1952, when bebop clarinet pioneer Buddy DeFranco brought him on the road; indeed, Drew’s aforementioned trio debut date occurred the same week as two DeFranco sessions for Norman Granz’s Clef label. Perhaps Drew’s blend of orchestral chops, impeccable touch, stylistic range, and improvisational imagination, not to mention the level of authoritative intention at which he operated, reminded Granz of Oscar Peterson. Whatever the case, Granz signed Drew to his Norgran imprint, for which he generated two solos and four trio numbers with bassist Eugene Wright and drummer Specs Wright.

On tour with DeFranco in San Francisco in late 1953, Drew was arrested on heroin-related charges. His appearance on a July 1954 Zoot Sims session in Hollywood indicates that he served little if any time, but his relationship with Granz—for whom Drew recorded a marvelous trio recital with Wright and drummer Larance Marable in L.A. that September—fizzled out, and his career gained no traction. He resettled in New York in 1956, but remained on a similar treadmill, despite sidemanning on two hands’ worth of iconic hardbop classics for Riverside and Blue Note (the short list includes John Coltrane’s Blue Train, Johnny Griffin’s Way Out!, Jackie McLean’s Jackie’s Bag and Bluesnik, Kenny Dorham’s Whistle Stop and Showboat, and Dexter Gordon’s Dexter Calling), as well as leading two highest-caliber trio dates for Riverside with Paul Chambers or Wilbur Ware on bass and Philly Joe Jones on drums, and an epic duo encounter with Ware. In 1958 (the year his son, Kenny Drew, Jr.—himself a meta-virtuoso pianist—was born), Drew worked with Buddy Rich. In 1959, he moved to Miami for a year or so, before returning to New York City.

The first time Drew saw Paris was late 1961, on a European tour of Jack Gelber’s play, The Connection. After visiting Italy, Germany, Switzerland, Sweden, Belgium, the Netherlands and Denmark, he decided to emigrate. He met and married a Danish woman, and moved to Copenhagen in 1964. By 1978, he was Europe’s first-call pianist, with 8 contemporaneous LPs for Denmark’s Steeplechase label that showcased him in solo, duo, trio and combo contexts, generated on 14 separate recording sessions between 1973 and 1977. During those years, he recorded all but two of the numbers (“Three and Four Blues” and “West of Eden”) that comprise Home Is Where The Soul Is.

The set opens with “Work Song,” which Drew initially recorded in 1965 for Fontana with a trio led by Danish drummer Alex Riel that also included bassist Niels-Henning Ørsted Pederson, with whom Drew played extensively for the remainder of his life. At the time, this group was frequently functioning as a rhythm section for touring horns-for-hire at Copenhagen’s esteemed Jazzhus Montmartre, a hallowed venue that offered Drew a mutually beneficial sinecure as house pianist until it closed in 1976. Drew did “Work Song” a second time on a 1969 Ben Webster date for EMI-Odeon, also with Pedersen and drummer Makaya Ntshoko, and again two months before the Home Is Where The Soul Is session, in Warsaw, with a Polish trio.

He debuted Ellington’s “Prelude To A Kiss” with a working quartet (saxophonist Joe Maini, Vinegar and Marable), documented on Jazz West in December 1955, and revisited it in May 1974 with Pedersen and drummer Albert “Tootie” Heath on the sessions that generated the Steeplechase albums Dark Beauty and Dark and Beautiful. That same May 1974 encounter also generated a tour de force presentation of “It Could Happen To You,” a Powell favorite that Drew had previously waxed with DeFranco (the day before his Blue Note debut) and in 1958 with Chet Baker. There, as here, Drew opens with improvised rubato “concertizing” before morphing into deep two-handed swing.

The Drew-Vinnegar-Butler trio addresses Drew’s original, “Only You,” at a brisk clip that imparts a much different ambiance than its balladic representation on Lite Flite, Drew’s February 1977 New York quintet recital with Thad Jones, Bob Berg, George Mraz and Jimmy Cobb. He concluded Home Is Where The Soul Is with the gentle, elegiac “Ending,” which first appeared on Ruby My Dear (Steeplechase), recorded in August 1977 with bassist David Friesen and drummer Clifford Jarvis. The version contained herein stands in calming contrast to the joie de vivre embodied on the preceding track, Drew’s modal “Three or Four Blues,” on which the composer’s solo ranges from Basie-esque pointillism to two-handed Tatumesque turbulence.

Drew’s insouciant, humorous, imaginative treatment of this number and, indeed, of everything else on Home Is Where The Soul Is, completely justifies Schlitten’s determination to illuminate his artistry in this spontaneous, familial context. Here, as on the preponderance of the Xanadu catalog, Schlitten’s instincts were spot-on.

Ted Panken

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