Monday, February 1, 2016

Sinatra at the Sands, at 50

Sinatra at The Sands —  all pictures (except record covers) by John Dominis/Getty Images
“It was probably the most exciting engagement I have ever done in my life, since I started performing.”
Frank Sinatra about playing with Basie at the Sands in January 1966

Last December we celebrated the centennial of Frank Sinatra. I won’t go into why he was important as a crucial part of that moment when American popular music equalled top musicianship, not only from the interpreters, but from the composers and songwriters; let’s just say that if you love music you should have at least two or three of his albums at home.

Among his very prolific output, one of the most popular — not necessarily the “best”, however you measure that — is Sinatra at the Sands, recorded in the last week of a month-long stay at the Copa Room in the Sands Hotel in Las Vegas, which ended on Thursday, February 1, 1966, fifty years ago, today.
“The Basie orchestra was a like juggernaut. When they came at you, after the downbeat and the orchestra started to play, you knew that you had to be part of that or you got lost […] We did things that were really jumping […] I tried to stay in the realm of what the orchestra was playing. I hang back just a little bit, in a sense.”
Frank Sinatra about playing with Basie at the Sands

Top row: Quincy Jones, Frank Sinatra, Count Basie, _____, Marshal Royal, Grover Mitchell.
Front row: Teddy Reig, Al Grey, Eddie ‘Lockjaw’ Davis, Freddie Green, Bill Hughes,
Sonny Payne, Eric Dixon, Charlie Fowlkes, Al Aarons, Bobby Plater?,
Sonny Cohn?, Harry ‘Sweets’ Edison, _____.

Friday, December 18, 2015

Going with a bang (and the Gibsons' party)

It's been seven months since my last post, far too much, even for what is, in the end, a vanity project. I'm afraid I cannot promise a more consistent rate of delivery: there are three or four overdue items I must do, and when that is done, we'll see where this goes. To keep with the foggy discourse, and even if it looks like a contradiction, next year I'll start a new blog, based purely on research, most of it fresh. I'm fairly sure it will be enjoyed by regular visitors to these pages, where the launch will be duly announced.

Now, in the spirit of the season, I wish you the very best for the coming celebrations, whatever you celebrate, and don't forget you're part of the elite of this planet, with a roof over your head, access to the internet, and the ability to read. That, and an impeccable taste for music.

End of the formalities.

Clark Terry and Ruby Braff

Sunday, May 17, 2015

The King is dead, long live the blues

BB King by Naiel Ibarrola

BB King has died, and it feels like the end of an era. There are artists who seem to have been "always there"; in King's case, he was already playing when my father was a toddler; when he released his first hit, "Three O'Clock Blues", Elvis was 16. He's also the last world-wide known bluesman to have come from the cotton fields of Mississippi, where he was born in 1925. He certainly is the last bandleader to have gone from playing the "chitlin' circuit" to packing the most select venues in the world.

It is the end of an era.

Monday, May 4, 2015

A couple of books about jazz in Spanish

Being one of the most spoken languages in the world, both in terms of people and geography, Spanish has a bibliography about jazz that would need libraries equipped with an ICU. And if we don't take translations into account, one shelf would do. A small one.

That is why it is so newsworthy that we have several new original works about jazz in Spanish, which may interest English-language readers. First of all, history professor and journalist Sergio A. Pujol has just published Oscar Alemán—La guitarra embrujada (Oscar AlemánThe Haunted Guitar, Planeta, Buenos Aires, Argentina), his biography of the great Oscar (stress on the last syllable, /osKAR/) Alemán, which promises to be a great read. Besides the author's proven abilities (he's the author of a history of jazz in Argentina, among other books), his subject, the guitar virtuoso Oscar Alemán (1909-1980) is vital to appreciate how early and far jazz travelled throughout the world (Alemán's heyday was as Josephine Baker's featured star in Paris, France), mainly as music for dancing, when record labels carried the title and the name of the dance that went with the music (like "stomp" or "fox trot").

You can go here for a wide-ranging sample of Alemán's music.

Argentinian paper Página 12 carries an excerpt of the book here.

The publisher's page for this book can be found here.

Some time ago I wrote this about other far and wide travels of jazz in the past.

Thursday, April 30, 2015

Hard bop repertory — a suggestion

(For Ira Gitler.)

The central position of hard bop in what is widely considered as the mainstream of jazz is an interesting phenomenon. It is paradoxical how despite its pervading presence, the lingua franca, thanks to the enormous recorded legacy, and even today, among students at music schools, there is very little literature about it. Whatever the reason, there are few biographies of musicians relevant to that genre — some don't amount to much more than listening guides —, but, for instance, no biography of Art Blakey! There's no definitive treaty of the music either (Rosenthal and Mathieson's books are clearly not enough), which, given that it would have to deal with African-American heritage more so than any other branch of jazz, it should be seriously considered by one or several scholars.

Going back to the first point, given the numbers of musicians who play in or around the hard-bop genre, among them many music students fresh out of schools, at least some of them must really like the music (in spite of all the cynicism by old farts who've seen it all). So here's my suggestion to those looking for a less-trodden path in that realm: why not explore Hank Mobley's compositions?

Hank Mobley at the Soul Station recording session, Sunday, February 7, 1960
(photography by Francis Wolff)

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Recommended jazz recordings: a list of one


We are smack dab in the middle of Jazz Appreciation Month — pretty meaningless for some of us, but still a nice try at giving exposure to a sophisticated, exciting, and unlikely art form that cuts through class, racial and national considerations. In practical terms, this means events, photo-calls, blurbs, smiling faces... and lists of recordings. Of these we have many, past and present, and they tend to rely more on received wisdom and hype than on critical value — fine if you're OK with "this is great", but not so much if you need "this is great because...".

Besides, there's the wishfulness of recommending more than, say, five records to someone who's not really into jazz at all. With all the incredible stuff around us today, all kinds of music, books, films, TV... either physically or through the internet, an hour of undivided attention has become a luxury.

Because of that, and the fact that recommending anything above five records is an open door to political correctness (of all misconceptions about jazz, the one about its cultivated, unprejudiced listeners is the funniest) and, frankly, a way out for wimps, let's see if I can cut through all that background noise by telling you one (1) jazz album you should have.

It won't be anything by Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, or John Coltrane. Those are extraordinary musicians, genres unto themselves, which are not representative of jazz. Say what? No, they're not. Go for any of those by all means, but don't think for a second that the rest of "jazz" is at the same level as the best of their recorded works; bear in mind their excellence and avoid future disappointments. And although many wouldn't admit this, you wouldn't be alone if your first impressions are that Kind of Blue is too slow, or Giant Steps is too overpowering (and don't get me wrong, those are masterpieces).

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

RIP Juan Claudio Cifuentes, 'Cifu' (1941-2015)

(For once, this entry is not a parallel translation of its Spanish sister)

After all the arguments and bickering — which, yes, it's better than many other things, but we could do without most of it, really — there is something about intense music fandom, including jazz, that benefits your health. Case in point would be the dean of Spanish jazz commentators, Cifu who, even as a septuagenarian and having survived two cancers, never lost the enthusiasm for the music. I would introduce him to new, unknown, talent with zero commercial value, and, if he liked it, he would push it harder than Samson in the temple. Last time we spoke, it was about Gigi Gryce and his looking forward to doing a series of programmes with the complete recordings of Artie Shaw and His Gramercy Five. We never got around to finishing it.

Cifu by Jaime Massieu, October 2014

Cifu is how friends called Juan Claudio Cifuentes de Benito, who's died earlier today, having suffered a stroke last week. He was husband, father, grandfather, friend... but for a gigantic amount of people in Spain and beyond he was the face and voice of jazz, judging from the reaction in social media (and he didn't even like computers).