Saturday, September 26, 2015

Tony Bennett's Latest

I worked hard on this review, hoping to be the first to post on Amazon. Of course, this morning, there were three other reviews, that were like, "Hey this is a good recording". So I may not be first, but you can judge if I'm best. Here's the review, in its entirety:

Shadows of Ella, hints of Evans, and all the things Tony Bennett is

Last fall, Tony Bennett released a fantastic vocal jazz record together with Lady Gaga, Cheek to Cheek. In an interview with the Wall Street Journal, Lady Gaga said that she loved working with Tony Bennett, loved jazz, and that she planned to record “one jazz record a year, forever”. One year to the day later, Lady Gaga’s next jazz album is nowhere in sight. Instead, we have Tony Bennett, the octogenarian king of jazz, who basically reinvented the concept of the duet with his two duets albums, stretched that work with a pop diva, and now, much in the mold of his inimitable work with Bill Evans many years ago, we find him paired with one of today’s premier jazz pianists, Bill Charlap. And, as Tony has become one of the defining masters of the American songbook, he stays close to home by taking on a number of standards by Jerome Kern. The result is an eminently listenable, fascinating jazz record.
Understated, but classy cover
One big difference between this Bennett-Charlap recording and the Bennett-Evans recordings is that this time, they went ahead and used a full rhythm section on a number of the songs. With Peter Washington on bass and Kenny Washington on drums, the sound has more of a club atmosphere and less of the intimacy of the pure duets with Evans. Another difference is Bill calls in his life partner and fellow jazz pianist Renee Rosnes to do some fabulous piano duet work on four of the tunes. (As a jazz pianist, those tunes really stood out for me.) Throughout, the solos of Charlap tend to be more evenly constructed and hone closer to the original songs, especially so as each song is kept (for the most part) close to or under the classic three minutes twenty seconds time frame. The selection of songs is solid and includes all the “standard” standards: Yesterdays, All the Things You Are, The Song is You, and even I Won’t Dance, which Tony may have done simply because it was still fresh in his repertoire from last year’s Lady Gaga recording.

"Benedetto" is Tony's real name. Yes, this is his sketch. 
Tony sounds great, and the recording is very clean. (It was produced by Tony’s son, Dae Bennett and Bill Charlap, with another son, Danny Bennett, as executive producer.) Charlap is absolutely on top of his game here, carrying each tune along until it’s time to solo, cleverly breaking and shifting the solo while keeping the feel, then throwing it underhand back to Tony so Bennett can knock it out to the finish. It’s a formula that Tony has stuck with for five decades, and I personally am glad that he decided to not try and change it up. The CD booklet includes full liner notes and a nice background essay/exposition by WSJ columnist and jazz writer Will Friedwald. There are plenty of calm photos and a portrait of Jerome Kern to fill out the booklet.

One of the best albums to come out last year.
I don’t know how much longer Tony is going to be with us, but I hope it’s a long time and I hope he keeps singing, because treasures like this five star vocal jazz album are few and far between. Maybe he will do like Ella did with Norman Granz and work through some of the songbooks of some of the other great American composers. And if he keeps Charlap, his trio and Rosnes along for the ride, there will be lots more great music to come.

I’ll also keep my eyes open for that next Lady Gaga record, while I’m monitoring the airwaves.

Saturday, September 19, 2015

Sharing with other jazz musicians

Recently, after two years of music lessons with a private instructor, two years learning on my own, then two years with a different instructor, I found myself in a practice rut. Although my passion for making and listening to music felt no weaker, I was lacking motivation and drive. I stopped my lessons again and started looking for something to get me back on track. As my readers know, I delved into Practice-opedia, and that was very helpful in giving me new ideas and “tricks” to get back at the piano, but it didn’t actually help me to make any music. It was about then that Jim Robitaille, the author of a book called Sound Origins contacted me to offered to give me a copy of his book. He asked me to review it on Amazon, too, but there were no strings attached. I'm always happy when a fellow musician wants to share music or musings with me, and the timing couldn’t have been better, so of course, I agreed to read his book.
It's not a philosophy book, but it will make you think
Jim Robitaille is a noted musical scholar and accomplished musician. In addition to performing with a plethora of jazz musicians, he’s also a teacher and composer. In this book, however, he does not make any attempt to improve your chops or give you a pep talk. Instead, he covers, in a very personal way, what it means to make music. By that I do not mean he defends its value or tries to convince readers of the worth of the endeavor of making music. Sound Origins is more about thinking of music on a different level and incorporating that into one’s own musicianship. I think the best way of thinking about it is, it’s harnessing the forces and energy in the universe that make music, rather than beating a song out of a Steinway or Les Paul.

Indeed, a good example of this is Mr. Robitaille’s take the cross pollination of art forms. He discusses at some length, and again with many personal examples, how poetry, painting, conversation, even science fiction and random noise, can become driving influences in the creation and composition of music. There are lots of meaty explorations like that in this short book. If anything, I would say one of the weaknesses is that the author makes a brief suggestion and then leaves it at that, without delving much into what the expectations for a given thought activity (or whatever) might be and where it might lead. Part of this may be simply wanting to leave it to the reader’s imagination and motivation, part of it may be not wanting to limit the reader, but I think the author probably had more thoughts to share, and I think those would have made the book more interesting.

The electronic version of the book that I received had several examples of songs with the sheet music in the book. This did a lot to emphasize and illustrate some of the points the author made. This is an easy read, and although it is a short book, I believe any serious musician will take away something of value from this book. Especially if you find yourself where I did, wanting to make music but having “forgotten” how to even be musical, Sound Origins is a great place to start over from. 

I truly commend Mr. Robitaille on his insight and effort to put such difficult subject matter into words. And, I thank him for sharing his book with me and the readers of Late To Jazz.

Monday, September 14, 2015

Another curiously compelling jazz book

For years until his recent retirement, I enjoyed reading about the jazz scene that Nat Hentoff wrote about for the Wall Street Journal. I was not familiar with Nat Shapiro, a record producer with BMI and Columbia, until I came across this book. The two Nats produced this volume of quotes (I hesitate to say “wisdom”) of jazz musicians from back in the day, commenting on just about everything jazz: the music, audiences, venues, other musicians, narcotics, changing tastes, and everything in between. While I wouldn’t call it educational, it is an intriguing look into America’s quintessential art form.
I wonder what Mary Lou Williams and Billie Holiday thought about the subtitle of this book...
Although this is not any kind of an instruction manual or history book, it still provides a lot of information about jazz music and the people who make it. It does so without any of the conventions of a music history book, so there’s no roots of jazz, discographies, explanations of types of music, or anything like that. It just provides a glimpse of what some of the stars and lesser lights who made their living playing jazz music were thinking at the time they were making it. It’s actually quite fascinating reading. Some of the musicians are more candid than others, so it’s particularly interesting when several people comment about the same person or event. Then you can compare narratives and separate fact from hyperbole. That makes the reading a lot of fun. Ultimately, this book seems to feel fine with saying, jazz musicians are entitled to their opinions, and, here’s some of them. It’s not bad entertainment.

Some might question the value or purpose of this book, but I think it serves well to represent what jazz was once upon a time. It’s easy reading, too, since it is broken up into such loose sections and consists only of quotes from musicians. It’s valuable for getting a feel of what jazz was about, but it also presents aspects of jazz from angles that many people never think to consider. (Especially valuable are the comments by the musicians about other musicians. Fascinating.)

This isn’t my favorite book ever about jazz, but I enjoyed it and I feel like I learned a few things. My next book review, however, will be much different. (Hint: It’s almost a philosophy book, about, yep. Jazz.)

Thursday, September 3, 2015

Moving on

I’ve been in a reading frenzy of late, as opposed to a practice frenzy or a write-in-my-blog frenzy (as readers may have noticed). That’s mainly because I’ve been in an incredible, invincible, indecipherable, undefeatable practice rut for the last two months. Maybe it’s the heat. Maybe it’s the tendinitis in my elbows. Maybe it’s the distraction of yard work. It’s something, but the bottom line is, I just haven’t been practicing the piano like I’m capable of. I felt so sorry for my instructor, after torturing him for two months, I decided to stop lessons for a while. Instead, I picked up a book to hopefully get me out of my practice rut.

I bought Practice-opedia after reading comments by the author in an article in the Wall Street Journal about how to keep kids progressing with their music lessons during the summer. Everything he said made sense, and I thought that a 376 page books of practice strategies and ideas would be the ticket out of the rut. Unfortunately, all it served to do is to make the ocean of practice I’m swimming around in, wider and chopper. It’s hardly a good thing.

Practice makes perfect, making this the perfect book. Maybe.

Of course, some ideas in the book are worth pursuing, and there’s certainly nothing wrong with having a new perspective. But some of the ideas are just aimed too specifically at children learners who shuffle from lesson to lesson, and I think what I really need is something that helps with the big picture. I need a practice book for a musician, not for someone who might ot might not become a musician.

So, I’m reading, I’m studying, I’m practicing (a little), and I’m trying. I’m moving on, on my own. We’ll see how this goes.