Friday, December 24, 2010

Cry up, Look Down.

The same names are always cited as the first holy trinity of sax players (Lester Young, Coleman Hawkins and Ben Webster). The listing of the second trinity is more subjective, but the first two slots almost always include the same two names John Coltrane and Wayne Shorter.
Two player/composers who signify two sides of the same coin, John Coltrane being spirit while Wayne Shorter representing intellect. That is not to say either forever stayed neatly within the domain of their specific forte.
If John Coltrane’s masterpiece A Love Supreme (Impulse!) was man crying up to God, then Wayne Shorter’s The All Seeing Eye (Blue Note Records) was God gazing down on man.
 Around this time other musicians had extended pieces which were sometimes described as “their Love Supreme” (Lee Morgan “Search For The New Land”, Hank Mobley “Thinking of Home”, both Blue Note Records) While compelling in their own right, suite-like construction is where the similarities end. Separated by a year both Wayne Shorter and John Coltrane’s album share the same artistic intent in regards to conveyed emotions, using drastically different sonic tools.
Wayne Shorter started out as one of Blue Note’s stable of artists in the late 50’s early 60’s, some times referred to as the young lions. He cut his teeth before joining  the army in various R&B groups.
He was with Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers from 1959-1963. Always being about artistic evolution, it was during this time he put an offer to join a new Miles Davis group on the back burner. Like Miles, Art Blakey had a genius for cherry picking collaborators from the best of each generations players. Drummers aside, the list of Jazz Messengers reads like a roll call of jazz royalty. Within each new version of The Jazz Messengers, Art put equal foresight into who became the bands arranger. Horace Silver, Kenny Dorham, Benny Golson to Wayne, he being perhaps the most forward thinking of this impressive list. While Art would experiment with brief forays into ethno-world music, usually using a multi percussionist approach (Orgy In Rhythm Vol. 1&2, Drums Around The Corner, Holiday For Skins all Blue Note Records) that mixed with a modal flavoring, Art never had a major departure from his hard-bop template.
Finally after his five year stint as a Messenger, Miles persuaded Wayne to join what would be known as his second great quintet (1965-1968 Shorter/Williams/Carter/Hancock). This version of Mile’s band created what could rightfully be called high-art and was also the one incarnation of the band in which all the band members did writing for the group. While with Miles’ group all the members recorded Blue Note albums, sometimes using songs which had also been recorded by the quintet.
It was while with Miles too, that there was exciting experimentation going on at Blue Note Records. They had always had the policy of paid rehearsals which allowed for the possibilities of far more complex pieces. Not having to worry about getting a piece down within  the first few tries and not having to rely on trying to morph well known standards allowed for a decade of some of the most forward looking music, which has withstood the test of time, some of it just starting to be appreciated now. Of great help to the equation too was that a lot of the musicians had played and composed together over the course of many now, classic albums.
This was Wayne Shorter’s first of two extended ensemble albums. The other, Schizophrenia (Blue Note Records) would be his last fully acoustic album and contain the same line up save for a switch to the less progressive Curtis Fuller on trombone. Schizophrenia is the more accessible of the two, but ultimately The All Seeing Eye offers a more intense journey for the listener.
Although only one of two larger ensemble works by Wayne, this was no mere experiment. It was an artistic avenue which he decided to detour from, much like Herbie Hancock’s one off foray, Speak Like A Child (Blue Note).
The band assembled for this album had an impressive pedigree. They borrowed from all that was going on in jazz at the time, while never aligning themselves with a specific movement or its aesthetic. This suite contains strong elements of chamber jazz, but not the proper staid version of the Modern Jazz Quartet. It also has symphonic leanings but is not outright third stream music. It would not sound out of place alongside pieces by Charles Mingus or Shostakovich. It may be even closer to the later, the free influenced discordance which occasionally bubbles up coming from groupings of instruments as opposed to Mingus’ preference of one screaming.
All the parts of the suit were written by Wayne except for the last, Mephistopheles, written by his brother Alan Shorter.
Contributing to the success of the album was the already established understanding of extended and complex forms by the players.
Drummer Joe Chambers had written one half of the two suite piece on Bobby Hutcherson’s album Components (Blue Note Records) which also featured Spaulding/Hancock/Hubbard/Carter from this album. His playing is full of intricate voicing without ever being distracting. Aside from Elvin Jones or Tony Williams no one else would have been as organic of a fit.
Trombonists Grachan Moncur started his musical life on cello but soon switched. He was in Benny Golson/Art Farmer Jazztet and also cut some genre defying albums with Jackie Mclean and Bobby Hutcherson, (One Step Beyond, Evolution, Destination Out all Blue Note Records) which, although smaller ensembles, share a great deal in common with this album. He still continues to this day to play with and write for his own larger ensembles. He, along with Roswell Rudd have brought a symphonic modernism to playing and writing for the trombone.
Freddie Hubbard had been a Jazz Messenger and also made a string of classic Blue Note albums as leader. His own albums often blended modal jazz with masculine blues drenched hard-bop. As a “sideman” Freddie has appeared on many forward leaning albums. Often his place on these albums has been referred to as that of playing the “straight man” to all going on around him. His oeuvre contains too many appearances on experimental albums, all of them seminal for their genre for this to be true. (John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman). His tone here, as always is bright, complimenting the other voicings well both in tone and what is played. Never does he appear lost or stick out.
James Spaulding is a multi instrumentalist who makes jazz flute work without sounding overly fragile. Here he is heard only on alto sax which he plays with great fluidity and a controlled frenetic series of bursts. He played on Bobby Hutcherson/Joe Chambers Components and also the larger ensemble works of Freddie Hubbard (Blue Spirits, Ready For Freddie, Night of The Cookers all Blue Note).
Ron Carter was, along with Herbie Hancock and Wayne part of Miles’ group. More so than almost any other jazz group these players had always displayed an almost telepathic rapport. Ron Carter’s playing manages to fill the low end, more as a lead voice than one in the background providing a time signature. His tone deep, rounded and rich. One of jazz’s all time great bass players he brings something to every session in which he appears.
Alan Shorter, Wayne’s brother was somewhat jazz’s enigma. Many critics disliked his horn playing, citing a lack of technique, yet he contributed to the early important body of work of new thing jazz progenitor Archie Shepp (Impulse!). Alan was also a writer/social commentator. He would sometimes stop mid concert to yell at the audience about their lack of understanding and “not understanding or being ready for him”. He released two albums which have only now been reissued (Orgasm on Verve). He wrote and appears on the final track, one which is often cited as listeners favorite. Aside from the piece being well written, I find no fault with his technique, nothing lacking. He gels with the band seamlessly.
Herbie Hancock has  has created a body of work compelling in its diversity and power, most of the time there is a certain cerebral aspect to his playing which turns some people off. There is ample evidence, although usually occurring on other people’s dates and especially in Blue Note catalog of the sixties, that he could swing too.  He has always, even within one piece been able to vary his attack and tone yet remain instantly recognizable. He also does not seem to need a specific playing situation to bring out his best. Solo, duo et al it is equally worth listening to.
Wayne Shorter, like Herbie Hancock has sometimes turned people off with what is viewed as an overly intellectual approach to his playing. Wayne can cut it with the best of them, but he seems to have always put equal effort into the actual compositions. Regardless of the size of the ensemble, his solos statements always serve to enhance the main body of the whole as opposed to a piece just being a vehicle with which to soar over.
The CD is broken up into different songs, although when listening it does make one long suite, flowing uninterrupted. Often during this time, the few that would dare to write and record such music were forced to name the different parts to give the illusion of several songs in hopes of radio play.
I enjoyed the entire album. Some stand out moments are:
On the title track when Freddie Hubbard enters he sounds somewhat like Miles in his aggressive mode, but with far greater articulation. As he solos there are percussive burst from Herbie Hancock which come and go. Wayne enters the piece with a buzzing solo which builds seeming to gain moment from the locomotion of the drums and the percussive piano patterns. All this occurs as a thick tapestry of bass continues uninterrupted under it all. There are some great time changes and a Morse code like beat which both piano and sax state as the piece slows, before picking up again as it approaches its climax to the flurry of piano runs and hi-hats and the main theme being stated once more by the group en-masse.
Genesis starts with a piano pattern which could have been composed by one of the piano figures from the romantic era. The piece quickly morphs in both tempo and texture. Everything drops away for a symphonic sounding bass solo from Ron Carter with soft modernist piano heard playing low underneath. This is indicative of the mercurial quality to be found in Herbie Hancock’s art.
Face of the deep with its slow tempo start of bowed bass and multi horn voicing is amazing for not just its moodiness but the outright beauty of the initial piano figures heard. Within this piece are moments of a trio, brushed drums, bass and piano. It is laconic and sweet like watching a rose wave in a soft breeze. The first sax solo too follows in this mood, not breaking the spell.
The often cited Mephistopheles starts with an off kilter sounding march which then changes as the bass and drums again beat out a Morse code type of beat. The piano provides a percussive staccato. The solos have an urgent sense of drama to them that Berlioz or Goethe would have approved of.
This is by no means light music, nor would it be for most people instantly accessible. A bad trend over the last few years has been the co-opting of jazz. Jazz has become homogenized, made safe, a soundtrack for people to shop at the Gap to. There is nothing wrong with jazz’s lighter moments, but aside from tiny pockets of resistance, it is ceasing to be  an active living art form, high art, in much the same way as American cinema.
This album, like a handful of others allows us to hear greats creating art of the highest order and we should all take advantage of that less it disappear like anything else unused, unappreciated.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Alvin Queen-Mighty Long Way (Justin Time Records)

In a bit of 52nd Street scene (NYC) tabula rasa, Alvin Queen seemed destined to have his life entwined with jazz in some way. Growing up in the Levister Projects (New York) during the fifties, Alvin’s father was a jazz devotee, taking him to shows at The Apollo. The familial enthusiasm for jazz combined with the numerous clubs which dotted the landscape where one could go to see jazz live made Alvin an early convert.
His artistic naissance included playing in the school marching band and playing at the age of eleven as a stand-in drummer for altoist Jimmy Hill which, because of his age, required him to have to be accompanied by an adult. Alvin also needed a chaperone for his next baptism of fire, the annual Gretsch Drum Night held at the original Birdland. Here was where he garnered enthusiastic responses from what now reads like some of jazz percussion’s royal court (Elvin Jones, Charlie Persip, Max Roach and Mel Lewis).
It was at this event that Alvin would be introduced to Elvin Jones who initiated the next event in the artistic evolution of Alvin’s life which could definitely be seen as a “consecration” of sorts. While still in his adolescence, happenstance found him once again at Birdland; this time as John Coltrane’s classic quartet was recording their live album (1963). Elvin Jones had Alvin sit in with the band midway through first set. Although this part of the concert went unrecorded both audience and band responded enthusiastically.
The two skin men would remain friends, Elvin even talking to Phil Grant, then president of Gretsch drum to get Alvin a new set.
Such an auspicious debut allowed Alvin to quickly become a jazz journeyman where he learned and contributed to the work of such established greats as George Braith, Horace Silver, George Benson and Oscar Peterson.
The first time Alvin had been to Europe was as a member of Charles Tolliver’s band (1971). Finding the respect jazz received there and lifestyle conducive to his art Alvin would move there permanently in the late 1970’s settling not in Amsterdam or France as did many of his expat peers but in Switzerland.
The initial talent which was apparent in Alvin’s playing was fostered by not just the community but his fellow artists.  After thirty five years of forging an artistic identity  Alvin felt it was time to lead his own group and nurture an upcoming generation as he himself had been.
Mighty Long Way is Alvin’s second outing with his working group, expanded from his pervious album I Ain’t Looking At You (Enja Records) quintet to a septet.
This album is a throwback to a golden period of jazz not as an exercise in nostalgia but organically conjuring up jazz as it had initially inspired Alvin. The now largely vanished social aspect as it existed in clubs and lounges, where audiences packed small venues to not only hear great music at an arm’s length but to catch up with their friends and neighbors as the artists entertained.
The album is made up of two originals by band member Jesse Davis, covers of “I Got A Woman” (Ray Charles) and “United” (Wayne Shorter) “Lets Us Into The House” and “Mighty Long Way” both by Joe Pace which share a sort of sanctified rhythmic structure Alvin often affiliates with a youth of not just church but the Apollo Theater shows he attended. In a nod to his past, the rest of the program is rounded out by works of former employers who were also teachers then friends, Horace Silver and Oscar Peterson.
The Oscar Peterson tune “Sushi” finds the band locked into the first of many grooves and shows the inherent logic in the lineup of Alvin’s ensemble.
The song starts with Mike LeDonne’s Hammond B3 organ out front. Over the span of his career Alvin has worked with, if not all then, most of the greats of jazz organ. He knows how to comfortably play with and propel a piece which features this distinctive sounding instrument. Sonically, on this album the organ is easy to distinguish but Mike’s approach is one of overall subtlety. In lieu of providing steady swells of sound broken only by solos statements he opts to have his voice come and go within the span of a song.
The front line of guitar and horns initially play the melody in a seamless unison under which can be heard the percussion of both Neil Clark and Alvin.
The first solo is taken by Jessie Davis on alto saxophone, the organ providing pulse points with the rest of the band keeping up a big sounding tight but loose groove. Jessie’s playing has muscle but does not slip into discordance, sounding as if his long turned phrases would be comfortable inhabiting space in hard-bop, (old) R&B or soul jazz.
Terrel Stafford who appears on both trumpet and flugelhorn throughout the album has the second solo. On this piece he has a warm mid-range tone playing quick runs but never getting too out ahead of the band. There are few moments where the band quickly pauses during his solo which allows for some nice drama but does not disrupt the groove.
The guitar by Peter Bernstein has that classic hollow body tone possessing a bright ringing tone which is not mired down by any type of studio gadgetry. With its vintage sounding cadence one is instantly reminded of what a perfect fit guitar and organ are when done right.
Mike’s solo is comprised of more rapid runs then those of the sonic foundation he helps layout for the ensemble sections in which he appears throughout the rest of the song.
The end of the song finds the band playing once again in unison and the two percussionists with their unflagging energy give the song a live feel.
“Cape Verdean Blues” by Horace Silver has an even deeper groove than that of its original version off the Blue Note album of the self same titled album. The double percussion falls into a sort of infectious syncopated entrainment which sets the toes to tapping.
Here the trumpet has what Jelly Roll Morton might have been referring to when he mentioned the Spanish tinge. This version is six minutes long but the groove makes it disappear in the blink of an eye. Over all the song has a celebratory feel to it and must be one of the shining moments of this group’s live performances.
“Blues On Q” was written by Jessie Davis for Alvin. It has the light night feel, the other face of a good juke joint, when the people have stopped dancing but not having fun. Elias Bailey appears here and on “Alba” playing contra bass. It has a dark fuzzed out tone; a beautiful woman who is also most likely a little dangerous. The horns are plaintive yet it is the joy to be found in briefly being blue. It is the wisdom to be found hidden in every cigarette and cocktail found in lounges, clubs and juke joints of time gone by. It is harder to show diversity of chops and create tension on a slower piece as rapid tempo is not there to fall back upon for a dramatic device. Here the band shows it is more than up to the task.
The album is 68 minutes long, the sound is pristine but not overly produced and liner notes are included.
“The Drum Thing” is a musical dialogue between Neil Clark and Alvin. It was partially inspired by the conversations Art Blakey would have with Babatunde Olatunji and Apollo Theater jam sessions.
The piece shows off not just the percussionist’s virtuosity but their tight interplay as they sonically build off of each other’s ideas. This is the perfect way to end the album as it pays homage not just to a music and culture but an instrument as well.

Alvin Queen- drummer& leader
Jessie Davis- alto saxophone
Terell Stafford- trumpet & Flugelhorn
Peter Bernstein- Guitar
Mike LeDonne- Hammond B3
Elias Bailey- Contra bass- Alba & Blue On Q
Neil Clark- Conga drums and percussion

More information on Alvin:

Jazz Age Gabriel: Bix Beiderbecke

Jazz’s start can not be summed up with any big bang theory. A more accurate image would be a pebble thrown into a lake, concentric circles branching out from the initial impact, all the generations of composer/players and their contributions.
While who was jazz’s “all father” is a subjective issue which can make for some interesting debates, more easy to agree upon are the first waves of composer/musicians who midwived this art form in its naissance. 
Along with Louis Armstrong (1901-1971) Jazz’s other initial great horn soloist, was Bix Beiderbecke (1903-1931).  Their styles were drastically different but both paved the way for generations of Jazz musicians and soloists to come. Louis Armstrong had a more direct effect on soloists while Bix, once memory of seeing him perform live began to fade,  seemed to influence more through a sort of sonic osmosis. 
Too often represented by apocryphal tales, Bix’s real life reads very much like something from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s oeuvre. It makes for perfect symmetry as Bix supplied the soundtrack for this era whose list of tragic anti-heroes he would join.
As a child Bix took piano lessons, a few years later he started playing coronet on which he was self taught. Bix possessed an amazing natural ear which made him initially not bother to pick up the ability to read music. Once he started playing coronet, his school work began to flounder. His parents decided to send him off to Lake Forest Academy in Illinois. The nearness of Chicago proved too great a temptation and Bix soon found himself sneaking into late night speakeasies which affected his marks. His nocturnal explorations and playing music for local and school functions caused his grades to further slide. Getting more absorbed in the jazz life, Bix would eventually wash out.
Bix would now become a professional musician. He split his time up amongst several bands including The Wolverine Orchestra, which was named after Jelly Roll Morton’s (1890-1941) “Wolverine Blues.” It was with this orchestra that Bix’s reputation began to be made with their 1924 recordings of “Jazz Me Blues” and “Fidgety Feet.”
Throughout Bix’s short career he would have several friends/peers who would collaborate and inspire him. Hoagland “Hoagy” Carmichael (1899-1981) met Bix when he was in the Wolverines. His composition “Freewheelin” was in their book, renamed by Bix “Riverboat Shuffle.” He also acted as a sort of unofficial manager/booking agent, getting them dates around the University of Indiana. Later, Bix would be the catalyst for one of Jazz’s most often performed songs and one of Hoagy’s best known, “Stardust.”
Frank Trumbauer (1901-1956) had studied both piano and violin as a child and at the age of eleven switched to C-melody saxophone. He served in World War I playing in army bands. Once he was demobilized he stared playing in dance bands and was one of hot jazz’s early great soloists. He had initially heard Bix with the Wolverines and admired a musical kindred spirit.
They finally got to play together in an early incarnation of one of Frank’s bands (1925). Bix had been freelancing and recording small group sessions as a leader during this time and Frank’s simpatico attitude and musical sophistication held appeal for him.
The logistics of leading a band made it difficult even for the most talented leader/musicians. He would lead large ensembles again, but Frank had to break up this incarnation of his band. The silver lining though was that they were able to continue their musical partnership, playing together in Jean Goldkette Orchestra.
This was actually Bix’s second time in this band. His first run was short lived as his reading skill at that time was non-existent and the band played their songs not from memory like The Wolverines but from scores. With Frank’s help and wood shedding it, Bix was able to read, although his ability still largely stemmed from his ear. It probably did not hurt that by this time both he and Frank had established themselves as key soloists which made their inclusion in the group have added appeal. This second residency proved a much smoother run and also afforded him the cache to do some small group dates as leader.
The other important thing to happen for Bix during this time was his introduction to Bill Challis (1904-1994). He was the arranger for Jean Goldkette’s band and then later Paul Whiteman (1890-1967). He would also help Bix with his own small group sessions done at this time. Bix was an admirer of Claude Debussy, Arnold Schoenberg and Maurice Ravel. He began composing for piano again, influenced by the emotional and technical possibilities which he gleamed from their music. Bill Challis helped transcribe his songs, which were all piano pieces. “In a Mist” (1928) was his most popular and shows a definite influence of the French Impressionistic composers.
As would often happen in the early days of jazz, the bottom line eventually would cause the Goldkette Orchestra to have to fold, going out though on a high note with a final recording session which included the song “Clementine.”
After this, Bix was still able to find work, leading small sessions and participating in projects with other musicians. Bix, still teamed up with Frank Trumbauer would next find themselves in Paul Whiteman’s (1890- 1967) orchestra.
Paul started out as a viol player for the San Francisco Symphony. Like many of his peers he would play in armed forces bands joining the world of working musicians after the war. A residency at the still existing Fairmount Hotel in San Francisco helped him put into practice ideas he had about music. Paul wanted to mix the entertainment aspect of what was popular in music, the dance components with the virtuosic soloing of hot jazz’s improvisers and aspects of classical or concert music.
He had many of the great players who were to transition from the hot jazz to big band era. Aside from many of the great soloists of the day, Paul also sometimes featured vocalists in his band too. Among the band’s singers, Bing Crosby got his start with the orchestra.
Paul was by all accounts very fair in the treatment of his musicians and is said to have paid the highest salary of the day. He would try helping Bix whose health was on steady decline from years of alcohol abuse. After a nervous breakdown in 1920 Paul would pay for Bix’s trip home to recuperate. Bix did regain his health and moved back to New York. Although no longer touring with Paul, he participated in some radio broadcasts with the Paul Whiteman Orchestra and led small group sessions under his own name and with Hoagy Carmichael. Bix resumed his drinking which once again affected his health. He would participate in sessions with artists who would usher in the swing era and worked once again with Bill Challis in transcribing more of his piano music (“Candlelight,” “Flashes,” “In the Dark” 1931). He would die of an alcohol seizure leaving behind a body of work which influenced players and composers in various ways for generations to come.
We are going through a sort of renaissance of important early jazz reissues. There is Fats Waller’s (1904- 1943) If You Got To Ask You Ain’t Got It (2006),  Louis Armstrong’s The Complete Hot Five And Hot Seven Recordings (2006), and Jelly Roll Morton’s The Complete Library Of Congress Recordings (2005).
Quietly starting this reissue revolution was Bix Restored (Sunbeam Records, 1995). This is a five volume set which began coming out in 1995 (Volume 1).  Each set is sold separately, containing three CDs and a liner note book. While the packaging is not as “fancy” as some of the other boxed sets out there, it is actually more practical for easy and repeated listenings without risking tearing any kind of cardboard accoutrement or scratching the CDs when taking them from retro looking cardboard sleeves. As it should be, these are made first and foremost to be listened to and enjoyed. The liner notes, written by different experts on each volume are very informative but never dry. The back of each liner note booklet reproduces original ads for various records by Bix and his peers.
Volume Five is a single CD which contains alternative (previously un-issued) takes of Bix, his immediate peers and others playing music which Bix made famous. In keeping with the drama of Bix’s life, new Bix recordings were discovered as Volume Five was being put together and are included too.
The sound quality is very good. There are some slight hisses and clicks here and there but nothing distracting and considering that it is truly music of another time, amazingly little of it. Throughout the collection the remastering is of the highest quality. When dealing with old recordings, the process is truly an art unto itself. Michael Kieffer and John R.T. Davis did the remastering for the entire collection save Volume Five, which John passed away before being able to start. Volume Five was done by Michael with Seth Winner helping to dramatically clean up the newly discovered Bix; which had been a test printing (“Futuristic Rhythm”).
Throughout the collection the producers and engineers show a profound knowledge and deep affection for both Bix and the music of his time.
As much as what cuts should make it into an anthology, the choice cuts, is subjective an interesting aspect of this collection is lack of dead space. Often with large collections there are certain CDs I reach for first; perceiving some of the others in the collection to not be as “strong.” The way this collection is set up, that is completely avoided as each volume presents a wide cross section of the various ensembles Bix appeared in. This phenomenon is rarer than it should be and here occurs from the intuitive track organization of the producers. The other common sense aspect to the tracks/packaging is how the discs are numbered. Each CD has the volume number printed on it along with the track titles and also which disc it is in the anthology. The first disc in Volume Two is not numbered as “1” but being as there are three discs per volume, “4”. It makes for an easier task when searching for specific tracks and is not as typical a practice as one would think.
To be sure there are some novelty tunes which have not aged well, but such pieces can be found in any pre-bop anthologies. While I am not a fan of some of these songs, the amount of music in each volume and in the entire anthology makes them in the extreme minority. At their worst, the vocal novelty tunes sort of come across like pre-Carl Stalling (1891- 1972) Looney Tunes soundtracks. And even some of these tracks offer up hidden gems of musical moments. On Volume 4, CD #12 , “Barnacle Bill the  Sailor” finds Bix performing with Hoagy Carmichael and Orchestra (1930). This short lived version of his band featured many up and coming kings of swing including Benny Goodman, Tommy Dorsey and Gene Krupa. Affected vocals aside, there is a bright percussive horn break by Bix which makes it all worth while.
In our time Bix is not known or heard as much as he should be by the more casual listener. Aside from people with a profound knowledge of jazz or those who specialize in music of a specific era, Bix’s influence seems on the wane. One of the reasons for this is the dichotomy of a modern listener’s expectation versus the reality of listening to one of his recordings. When reading some of the myriad text about Bix, the first thing always mentioned was his tone. Hoagy Carmichael likened it to “A bell being hit with a mallet.” Bix did truly posses a warm mid-range tone but what the modern day listener may not be prepared for is that the experience of listening to one of his recordings is different from listening to one of Miles Davis (1926-1991), or any modern horn players’ oeuvre. Bix’s solo statements are briefer than what would come after him and often occurred at the very start or end of a song. Like a musical truffle, sometimes these rich sonic treasures must be hunted for within a song. 
Part of this had to do with the then technical limitations of recording; part of it was the time Bix was living in. Records needed to make a return on investment and this often meant leaning towards the music’s more populist aspects which did not include overly long solos. Personal tastes aside it is not a case of “better” or “worse;” it is just that Bix’s was often a briefer beauty than later day players.
Some of my favorite tracks in the collection are only tenuously “jazz” pieces. There was a brief time as jazz slowly morphed from “hot” to swing and then close on its heels, the big band era; that progressive charts could be played and recorded without worry that they be palatable to casual listener, people who needed music in back ground or that just wanted to dance. Paul Whiteman envisioned a new art form, an American music which embraced its European classical roots plus the caffeinated vernacular of this brave new world. Although he had some definite misfires, he was serious about pursuing his vision. It was he who had commissioned George Gershwin (1898-1937) to write his “American Rhapsody” (1924) which would be renamed “Rhapsody In Blue.” For the premier, George Gershwin would play the piano backed by Paul Whiteman and his orchestra in a night billed as “an experiment in modern music.” Paul Whiteman’s visions of this future music were in keeping with some others’ ideas of mixing the high and low to create a new art. In 1928 Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975) had composed “Tahiti Trot” which was basically “Tea for Two;” a favorite starting point for jazz improvisation to this day.  Charter member of France’s Le Six, Darius Milhaud (1892-1974) used jazz elements in his 1919 ballet music Le Boeuf Sur Le Toit. There would be further ripples of this idea felt in, among others, the music of Stan Kenton (1911-1979), Claude Thornhill (1909-1965) and the third stream/chamber jazz music which would also take inspiration from some of these ideas of musical merging.
These mini suites lean more towards their classical forefathers than something that Duke Ellington would later try. The sonic cadence is very much like that of some of the old RCA/HMV classical records made by Bruno Walter or Otto Klemperer.
“Tchaikowskiana” (Volume 4 CD 10) starts with a statement from the brass before the strings and reeds take over. Several times the piece switches gears, but the ambiance overall seems nocturnal and dream like as if Little Nemo is about to take stage in the mind’s eye. There are several Tchaikovsky melodies played and the piece as a whole is structurally a fantasia.  There are no big Bix solo moments but even to someone without an over familiarity of Tchaikovsky, it is all very enjoyable. The reeds achieve a deep woody sound and the violins have a different sound than modern classical music listeners are used to; clarity in some sections missing but not an ambient warmth.
“Concerto in F” (Volume 4 CD 10) was written by George Gershwin. Unlike “Rhapsody in Blue” he did all the orchestration himself. While both works are enjoyable, this one has a greater complexity and somewhat more subtlety. This 1928 recording was its first appearance on record. At this time there was beginning to be even more of a cross pollination between American and European artists. There are some great solo horn parts to be heard. This is more or less straight out classical piece although it does not give off a whiff of museum dust nor does it trap the listener in any type of genteel stillness. This piece is successful because it does not seek to merely ape or simplify a concerto piece. Instead it offers up a (then) new way to create an older art form.
With the hindsight of time it is easy to say Bix spent a life in rebellion to his straight laced upper middle class roots; that he only ever sought his parents’ approval which, even once he was famous he never received. It is never that simple though, to be sure those things figured into how he lived his life. With every great artist regardless of medium, there is that “X” factor, the unknown ingredient which makes them great. To try to explain a magic trick is to potentially rob it of its magic. With this collection here is magic, spell unbroken waiting for all to discover and enjoy.

More information on Bix Restored:

Poetry of Stillness: Luciano Troja’s “At Home with Zindars”

There are partnerships in jazz which burn bright in people’s memories despite the passage of time; Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn, Billie Holliday and Lester Young, Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie. It makes for a perfect symmetry that the pianist Bill Evans (1929-1980), known for among other things, his finely nuanced delicacy and the composer Earl Zindar’s (1927-2005) partnership is less immediately known to the casual jazz fan but produced important and powerful music.
            Earl was born in Chicago.  He graduated from DePaul University and went on to earn a Masters Degree in Music Composition from Northwestern University. Shortly after this he was able to further his studies with Dr. Leon Stein and Walingford Riegger earning a Fulbright Scholarship to Oxford. He would also attend Columbia University (postgraduate) collecting many awards and commissions along the way including membership into American Academy of Letters.
            Like the best song writers, Earl’s pieces always allowed for the artist to put their own spin on a piece while the voice of the composer also remained ever present. Earl had a classical background and was equally at home composing within that genre. His non-jazz pieces have been performed by orchestras world wide.  He did not merely “jazz up” chamber like pieces nor did he attach classical filigrees to hang lead weight like off of the structure of a jazz piece.
            Bill Evans, one of modern jazz’s most influential pianists was a multi- instrumental, child prodigy (piano, flute and violin). He started formally studying piano and the age of six. As a teen he sometimes substituted as pianist in his older brother’s band, while a music scholarship to Southeastern Louisiana College allowed him to continue his formalized studies. Bill Evans was not one of those geniuses who was fully formed from the start.  In university he delved into Bud Powell and Horace Silver while also gleaning further approaches to the physicality of playing via his study of Bach’s piano pieces.
            Much like a great, secret recipe, the components that went into forming the artist can be known but not the direct measure of each. As a young man he was said to be the best boogie-woogie pianist in his area this early encounter with music so inherently of the gut and heart combined with the habit of reading his mother’s piano sheet music which allowed him to delve deeply into the works of Debussy, Stravinsky, Petrouschka, and Darius Milhaud, things of the mind, helped in creating the complexity of his musical identity.
            Bill Evan’s importance is in both how he played and his conceptualization of the piano trio. To be sure, there had been trios before his but it was the famous trio with  Paul Motian (drums) and Scott Lafaro (bass) where what he had been working towards was crystallized; radically changing how a piano led trio was perceived and what they could do. He brought a greater degree of improvisatory interplay to the trio format, where all three musicians equally contributed and explored but not merely at set moments within the framework of a piece.
            Bill Evan’s actual playing influenced to varying degrees most pianists who came after him and even added things to the palettes of his direct peers. He embraced the pieces written by Earl as they allowed for a showing of contrasts between a sort of sonic density and fragility; both brought forth by use of space and delicacy of how the melody was stated. Both composer and musician too were fond of unique time signatures, Earl working concurrently with Dave Brubeck as two of the first composers to have varying time changes occurring within one piece.
            The importance of Bill Evans impact on music can not be overstated and Earl’s compositions often proved to be the ideal vehicle, displaying both artists’ voices to best effect.  Regardless of medium, certain artists’ work, whether it is Claude Monet’s (1840-1926) “Water Lilies” or the recordings of Bill Evans, retain their power because although countless others may have discovered them previously they still manage to resonate personally to each person newly acquainted with the works. We all derive our own totems and meanings from the artist, fully individual like a snowflake yet part of a far bigger and older club.
            Bill Evans has had many albums which acknowledge his influence, tributes both direct and through artistic osmosis. “At Home with Zindars” is Italian pianist Luciano Troja’s latest album which celebrates the musical partnership between Bill and Earl, less a tribute album and more a valentine. The album is solo piano and made up of a program of songs penned by Earl the exception being “Earl and Bill” written by Luciano and “How My Heart Sings” written by Earl and his wife Anne. Earl had deep San Francisco roots, teaching composition for six years at San Francisco State University and regularly playing with the Ernie Heckshire Orchestra at the Venetian Room in San Francisco's landmark Fairmont Hotel. Luciano traveled to the bay area to spend time with Earl’s family who gave the project both their blessing and support.
            Luciano, like his hero, began playing piano at the age of six. Initially he was self taught and later would formally study via courses and clinics. Starting out self taught has allowed him to approach his playing via emotion first and technique second.
            “Mother of Earl” the first track shows the benefit of Luciano’s musical “upbringing”. Some times a piano player greatly inspired by an artistic antecedent feels the need to overly compensate, going beyond displaying the natural outgrowth of how their art evolved from that of their heroes and bogging the tension of a piece down in overly showy technique. Luciano is possessed of articulate tone but never at the sacrifice of delicacy which is needed for playing any piece associated or inspired by Bill Evans. The song has a tone poem quality about it switching moods from elegiac to sort of hushed joy and Luciano is able to deftly altered the cadence of his attack to follow suit.
            “Four Times ‘Round” is contemplative but never overly cerebral, a danger for all pianists possessing chops. The piano pattern here seems to rise and fall creating orchestral (like) swells, showing that Earl was not just a song writer but a composer. It has a beauty which unfurls like a flower to the sun. In his playing, Luciano’s influences as raw materials are visible but his musical identity is not merely frankensteined from them. The innate beauty of Earl’s writing comes through in his execution of the piece as does what resonated within the piece for Bill and the further possibilities his playing would introduce to it.
            “How My Heart Sings” a collaboration between husband and wife is the poetry of thinking of a beloved’s face and then feeling it almost as a physical presence. Rightful it has become a modern standard and the name of one of the better biographies on Bill Evans. It is slow and fragile like holding onto a good dream upon waking. The structure is similar to what one may encounter in 18th century classical piano pieces (Debussy, Albeniz, Granados et al). Here Luciano shows he can go gentle without the piece dissolving in his hands.
            Not all the pieces are taken at the same pace which sidesteps any possible feeling of monotony. The album is over an hour long with very good sound. It comes in a slip case with distinctive slip sleeve for the CD. There is a booklet which has bilingual essays by Luciano, a biography on Earl with quotes, remembrances from his family and brief excerpts from his letters. It is one of the better new piano CDs I have heard in a while.There are still many great up and coming artists emerging but far fewer poets, here is a chance to discover one.

            More information on Luciano:

The French Connection: Lua Hadar interviewed

Maxwell Chandler: You come from a musical family, your father being a saxophonist, what was the music you heard growing up and how did it influence you?

Lua Hadar:  My father played both classical music and what at the time was popular music, the Great American Songbook. He played in bandstands, he played casually, and he played at Roseland Dance Hall in New York. He also played symphonic music.

Around the house he really only played symphonic music and some opera. We heard classical music at home but when I sang with him at the piano we would sing popular songs. I had a great deal of classical influence as a foundation.

Every summer I would see my father play in these big hotels like Brown’s and Grocinger’s. It was the “Borscht Belt”, that’s what they called the Catskills. Once or twice a summer we would get to dress up and go see him perform and see the stage show. I would see him in these bands and I would see all the singers and the comedians Afterwards the Latin bands would play, I would see people start to come onto the dance floor and I would love the Latin rhythms. I think all of that had a great influence on me. 

MC: Had you always known you wanted to be a singer and when did you start singing professionally

LH: When I was tiny I said I wanted to be an actress when I grew up but I always sang as well. I think those two things were always linked for me

MC: You graduated summa cum laude with a B.A in Theater Performance. Had you at this point seen a connection between singing and theater?

I went to college at Albany State University in New York. I have a degree in theater from there. But even during that period I performed the Fantastics and I performed in a number of musical things. Actually I did a French music concert in the context of my French minor at school as well.

I graduated from college when I was 21 and then went to acting school for about a year. Then I went out into the New York audition circuit with my picture and my resume. So I would say probably from the age of 22 or 23 I started getting little gigs off Broadway; sometimes way – way off Broadway; it was music and theater.

MC:  You continued your studies at the Neighborhood Playhouse School of the Theatre and The Dalcroze School of Music, also studying with Metropolitan Opera coach, Joan Dornemann. Where you actively touring and performing outside of school by this point?

LH: After college I sang in an off Broadway show and somebody told me I should study. I was put in touch with a teacher who eventually put me in touch with a coach, Joan Dornemann at the Metropolitan Opera. When I met her, she chose her words very carefully and said to me “If you have the kind of voice and the kind of sound and tone color and the big voice and the small body and you can act; it seems that you could do opera.” She was very, very careful but then she took me under her wing. She set me up with people and coaches and for seven years I studied Opera.

They wouldn’t let me sing out professionally while I was studying because they didn’t want me to sing any of my potential repertoires. They didn’t know what type of a vocal type I was going to be because the voice starts to change in your late twenties (At the time I was in my mid twenties) and we didn’t know if I was going to be: a lyric soprano, a dramatic soprano or a mezzo soprano. So they wouldn’t let me sing anything that a woman would sing. They only let me sing tenor arias.

MC: Sometimes life within the universities/ schools can be a little insulated, creating a sort of disconnect between expectations and realities of what it will be like on the outside for a working artist. Did you experience any type of reality shock upon leaving your studies?

LH: Absolutely! The University, with all the theater history and theater practicum, provided a sort of high minded view of what theater could be like and was like in the real world.

I graduated college wanting to be a reparatory actress and then I got out into the real world in New York and started auditioning. You are given half a minute to sing eight bars and you have to come in looking like the thing they were casting for or else you didn’t even get to sing your eight bars. That was a great surprise to me.

Really each one of us, we are all small business owners and we are our own business. No one taught us how to publicize ourselves or how to run a small business. 

I think that things have changed now in the schools, like at UCLA where they are teaching the business of entertainment.  We really need to learn how to put ourselves out there.  Half a lifetime later I’m beginning to learn now.

MC: You spent five years with an Italian theater company, was this after your formal studies?

LH: I had reached a point in my opera studies where I had gotten to that late part of my twenties and my voice had made a change; because it’s a normal biological thing that happens. Things had become frustrating for me and I was really tired of waiting for life to begin; I really wanted to be out in the world. In a classic way I decided to run away from opera.

I had started studying languages in high school…that was one of the things that made studying Opera attractive to me because it included the languages I was interested in; it included the history and the music, the theater and the design. It all sort of came together and I was quite passionate about opera and I still love it. 

At the time I did speak some good Italian but in order to perform in Italy (which is what I wanted to do) I needed to have a really high, high level of Italian to perform in adult theater. I was able to find my way in through theater for youth because the language demands were simpler. I retraced some steps to the International Children’s Theater circuit that I had been involved with during my college days and was able to hook a up a residency with a theater there. I worked there for 5 years.

MC: Ethnomusicologist Robert Brown created the term “World Music” which has sort of morphed into a blanket term for “exotic” (and made safe akin to some animal at a zoo) music for yuppies to listen to while on their laptops in Starbucks. David Byrne famously wrote an essay “I Hate World Music” (Oct. 1999 NY Times) which was against such a term. You refer to your music as “Music without borders” what is your conceptualization of this?

LH: My objective in singing an eclectic song list is that the audience gets to experience a feeling of unity. I think I fall in the middle between the purist definition of world music and the corrupted definition of world music.

I want people to understand and get the music. I want people to feel like they can cozy up to whatever other cultures I present on stage; so that it doesn’t feel alien; so that they can feel one with the other people in the audience, listening to the concert. I feel like world music has a very altruistic objective of helping to create world harmony.

MC: Your band “Twist” differs from the usual line up one expects behind a singer. How did you come by the selection of instrumentation?

LH: We started out with a trio and I started to want to hear more in the band. Late in 2007 I began to add in the reed player; that was what my ears were hearing.

I have a nice friendship with Frank Jackson, Bay Area/National legend, and I was talking with him about it at the time. We were beginning to do more Latin tunes then, so I asked him “What do I need to put in the band?” So we had a nice conversation about and I said I thought I would like to add Latin percussion to the band and he said “Yes! Yes! Latin Percussion.” So the next time we did a series of concerts I added in a Latin player…that was also towards the end of 2007.

Then when we were planning the CD and we were doing a few French songs we knew we really had to have an accordion there to speak to the French color. So we added in the accordion in 2008..

MC: Is this your first time as bandleader? Do you find a difference between singing with a band and singing with an ensemble of which you are the leader?

LH: Yes. I really had to learn how to be a bandleader and I don’t even quite consider myself a bandleader. I kind of share that role with Jason Martineau, the band’s Music Director; but he has really taught me a tremendous amount. I started working with him in 2005 when we started to produce my first professional album It’s About Time. Then we produced a show to tour that CD which was called It’s About Time Already.

He told me to not hold back. He told me to speak out loud, count off for the band and to permit myself to be the leader. I have always had huge respect for instrumentalists and I didn’t want to tell them what to do but they wanted me to tell them what to do.

MC: For poetry in some circles in Paris there are still rigid rules of declamation, the same goes with some of the classic cannon of chanson. How are the Gallic portions of your set received in Paris?

LH:  I was really relieved and really happy that they received me well. I didn’t even want to put anything French in the set list. When I put the set list together I very much favored English language songs from the Great American Songbook. The pianist that I performed with, Sheldon Forrest, said “You are developing a reputation for being an international singer with an international repertoire; I would not hold back. I think that you should do this.” He encouraged me also because he knew that the audience for this show would be not only French but also a lot of ex-pats.

So with that in mind I went ahead and put a German song, several Italian songs, several French songs and some English American Songbook songs in. It went over extremely well and I was extremely relieved.

MC: For the more casual traveler there is a rigid definition of what “is” Paris. The Eiffel Tower, berets etc, but a lot of what we think of as quintessentially Parisian was absorbed into the culture via somewhere else, Edith Piaf was of Italian parents (real name  Edith Giovanna Gassion) Picasso was Spanish, Van Gough Dutch. Your Parisian flavor is authentic but not in trying to recreate artificially an atmosphere or bygone days, it is your totem of the city, what it gives you.

LH:  What a fabulous thing to say. That’s so insightful on your part about them and about me and about Paris.

For many different reasons France and Paris have been in my life as I‘ve grown up. I think the first time I went to Parris I was fifteen. I have no idea how many times I have be in and out or through Paris. I have by no means lost my love or curiosity for Paris. There is so much I still have yet to know about Paris but it is kind of like how I intersect with Paris.

MC: Languages seem to be one of your muses, what other non music things inspire your work?

LH:  I love to cook. I don’t know if the cooking inspires my work or if my work inspires the cooking but I find it to be a great creative expression. One of the great joys of my life is to have friends over for a nice European style dinner party where you linger into the evening and finish with an after dinner drink and discuss all sorts of fun things. It’s all sort of part of my life. 

But I don’t like to measure! All I want to know is the ingredients. I don’t want to know how much. You know you’re going put some thyme in there, some lemon etc. From there I just sort of smell it and feel it and add whatever I think needs to be added; which is exactly like jazz.

You learn that standard song so that you know how it goes and then once you know what the ingredients are, you see what comes from you.  You have to follow your instincts – that’s what makes it work.

MC: How long will you promote the new album before the next project, what tells you it is time to move on?

LH:  We performed a show that was like a “Twist experiment”, in that we had the trio plus the saxophonist, at the very end of October 2007. Then we began to record the CD in March of 2008.

I am really happy that this most recent show, French Connection, still has a strong relationship to the CD because four of the songs in the show are on the CD and that is a solid representation. So for now I know that the CD still represents us and when I get the gut feeling that we are doing something that we don’t have a CD to represent it then we’ll make another one. It’s an internal clock with its own logic.

MC: Do you find that because you incorporate elements of cabaret into your work that it is sort of venue specific, having more emotional impact in certain places over others?

LH: I tailor the show to the audience and to the venue. Because we knew we were going to open this new show in the Rrazz Room in San Francisco, which is known as a jazz and cabaret room; I felt completely comfortable putting in a song like “The Golden Gate Bridge”.

If I were take the show to Yoshi’s in Oakland I might take that song out.  I might talk more or less because an audience in Yoshi’s might be more interested in knowing the specific names of each song writer and more about the history about how the song was developed into a jazz tune, like “Someday My Prince Will Come. “

I always tailor it to the audience.

MC: To write about music, to file it in a store or on a site there must be a genre label assigned it. What is the biggest misconception about what you are about/do?

LH:  I think it is hard for people to get what we do. That is why I always appreciate when people write about us and take the time to see the big picture that goes beyond the pigeonhole. I suppose you could call us alternative jazz depending on how you can define that.

People need to take the time to understand who you are, why you are doing it and where it’s come from and what the elements of it are in order to understand you. If I am going to be pigeonholed with the myriad of jazz artists of the world – somebody is going to be a more authentic jazz artist than I am because I am my own mélange. 

I think what we do is some that is eclectic. I take cumulative influences in my life and they stay there. I think we all become the sum total of our experiences and for me that shows up in my music as well.

MC: What is your dream project?

LH:  My as yet unrealized dream project is a world tour for Twist. I am working on it but I really want to bring this music all around the world. I want to sing for audiences in Asia, Europe. Africa, Australia…everywhere.

The Tears Which Water The Flowers

You can say that jazz is one of, if not the only, purely American art form. While that is no longer true, and while in it’s infancy it needed the nurturing which it could only receive abroad due to segregation, that heady stew which drew from so many diverse sources could only have been cooked in what was then, the great melting pot.
While being an older music, Portugal’s Fado is made up of as many diverse ingredients. Aside from sharing jazz’s multi ingredient make up it also shares jazz’s emotional ability. The music manages to resonate an emotional landscape to its audience which is felt by each listener  to be unique and deeply personal, while at the same time embracing all who are open to it.
To classify Fado as Portuguese “Blues” is to paint too simple a picture, to miss the point. Even the sorrow, base component for both is of different worlds. Nor should Fado or its cousins Tango, Duende and Flamenco be categorized as mere world/folk music.
Such terms too often now conjure up images of urban hipsters on a shopping spree at Borders.
Much like (Western) classical, one could spend their life familiarizing themselves with specific pieces, becoming a connoisseur in the same way one would with Wagner’s Ring Cycle. Indeed, there are complexities to rival any piece from the classical canons. There are established “rules” which gave way to sub genres and different “cults” of performers and compositional styles. Another way too, it is similar to the world of jazz, with its divisions of Bop, Cool, Free et al. Jazz, Fado, like all great art, steeped in tradition and ever in flux.
Like jazz and classical too, the established structure is often added to by each generation, new groups of players and composers adding reflections of their world view to renew the music and make it distinctly their own.
The cadence of the fadista’s voice can vary, although never according to the purist, but never the lyrical structure nor their intent.
Lyrically Fado songs are all about a sort of nostalgic longing. It is heartbreak, but also a thankfulness that something could have ever been a trigger for such powerful emotions.

Fado comes from the Latin word Fatum which means [an utterance , esp. a divine utterance]; hence [destiny, fate, the will of a god]; personif. Fata, [the Parcae or Fates]; [doom, fate, misfortune, ruin, calamity].
However, this definition gives only the smallest clue, a glimpse into what Fado has to offer, is about.
Like all music which has become deeply rooted in a culture’s identity, the exact origins of Fado remain unknown. It is known that Fado started appearing in the 1820’s. Within to be found, there are elements of African slave rhythms, Portuguese sailor music and some Moorish influences.
Initially there were but two types of Fado, originating from two specific areas in Lisbon. From Alfama and Mouraria came Fado which had a more salon/drawing room style. A chamber music using vernacular, beautiful but rigid in how the pieces were arranged and performed.
The other type came from Coimbra and incorporated Brazilian hall music popular with the heavy influx of Brazilian students who were appearing at this time.
While both styles proved to be equally popular, it would be another hundred years before any Fado music was put down on wax.
A key lyric ingredient for Fado is the feeling known as Saudade. It is the nostalgic aspect of Fado. It concerns people, heartache and remembrance as opposed to the other often used ingredient Banzo. Banzo is a nostalgia for one’s culture and homeland. Both are connected to the music through a beautiful sense of longing. An inner ache made into music in hopes that sharing this will perform some sort of release, but also showing a respect for the broken heart whose pain lets us know we are alive. Life so sharply felt is always worth living.
Lyrical content aside, another thing which was initially required for a piece of music to be considered Fado was a specific line up of instruments.
 Sonically, the most prominent instrument is what’s known as The Portuguese Guitar. This is a twelve string instrument descended from a Moorish lute-like instrument and what is known as a Cistern. The tuning involves “watch key” tuning keys as opposed to modern day machine head pegs which are found on most guitars. When used for soloing, it posses a fuller sound than its relatives, the mandolin, lute or cistern.
This guitar was teamed up in the early days with a Spanish Guitar (classical style guitar) which the Portuguese called a Viola and a bottom end provided by a double bass. 
Now one can find larger instrumental ensembles playing Fado on a far more diverse group of instruments both acoustic and electric. This early trio of instruments though, made sense in their portability and the perfect supportive counterpoint they provided to each other and the voice telling the tale.
For those not strict or “conservative” in their definition of what can be considered Fado, Fado music can now be heard, combining traditional instruments with more modern day technology to great effect (see the albums of Madredus and Mariza who combine an organic Euro-groove feeling with Fado’s power).
The first known “star” of Fado was a prostitute named Maria Severa. She was born the daughter of an innkeeper in 1820 in Lisbon. Her voice is unrecorded but there are many tales, all hard to confirm as hard fact which have become part of the public consciousness of Portugal.
Her legends all seem to contain many of the same elements which can be found in the powerful art form she helped birth.
Her first lover was shipped off to Africa during a flourish of Portuguese colonialism. She lamented his passing but soon was attached to a count. In his salons she shocked everyone by performing what would become Fado. Eventually the count was forced to separate himself from her. After this second major heart ache, in a fatal  mood of Saudade she committed suicide in an orgy of the senses, drinking and eating (game bird) herself to death in one sitting.
The major lexicon began to form when poets, a natural fit for such subject matter, became involved in applying their pen. The early body of Fado work, the “standards” quickly numbered over two hundred.
The first and eternal modern day queen of Fado is Amalia Rodrigues. She had a long career and never seems to have taken an artistic mis-step, a rarity for any artist with such longevity.
Amalia was born July 23, 1920. Much like Louis Armstrong with his second birthday which was always give as July 4, Amelia always insisted she was born on July 1st.
In the timeless tradition of many great artists, she started working at an early age, hard, tedious jobs. At the age of nine she gave her first recital at her primary school. At this time too, she was selling  fruit on the streets of Lisbon and doing embroidery work. During these formative years she could also be found working in a cake factory and in a souvenir shop with her mother and sister.
Her talent and drive were such that every year marked an important “first” for her. Too many to list, too many to keep this interesting. Two artistic touchstones however should be mentioned: 1935 marks the first time she performed, accompanied by a guitar during a benefit concert. 1945 sees Amalia make her first recording a 78 RPM single, done in Brazil.
During her career Amalia did extensive touring. She wracked up an impressive amount of appearances in movies, both at home and abroad. She seems to have fared better on the big screen than some of the other musical greats who tried, sometimes being the only good thing in a film.
In the 1950’s her power was such that she worked directly with many of her country’s greatest poets, some even writing lyrics specifically for her.
Amalia was often considered “the only” cultural ambassador to Portugal (literary giants Fernando Pessoa and Jose Sarmago might beg to differ). In her final years she was still making albums, the last one cut only a year before her death. In celebration of her long career there was a five hour television documentary made with her complete cooperation and featuring many candid conversations with the artist and some rare concert footage. This was eventually edited down for a DVD titled “The Art of Amalia”.
When  Amalia died at the age of 79 the prime minister called for three days of national mourning. Her house in Lisbon is now a museum.
The best album for beginners, and the one I started off with is:
The Art of Amalia Rodrigues (Hemisphere). This is a compilation with pieces spanning the years 1952-1970.  Unlike “best of” albums by jazz singers one does not get the feeling they are viewing only a small part of the picture, one aspect of the performer. Another contrast I have found from Jazz singers and even opera divas is that there is no division of artistic periods. There is none of that “I enjoyed this incarnation of her band when she had…” Nor is there such cherry picking of which recording labels receive preference from the enthusiasts. It all seems to have the same sonic feel and there is always an immediate connection with whom ever is accompanying her, year and record label aside.
The songs are of three different Fado styles although only the experienced Fado listener is going to notice any huge difference.
I am not a Fado conservative, but when I want my insides to vibrate in melancholy sympathy to the music, I prefer the traditional type of Fado. All the pieces on this album even the “evergreen” pieces have that.
Even though there are decades separating some of these performances. None give that feeling of coming at us from a distant, other time. It is unlike the earliest Edif Piaf recordings which sound as if they were only made to emerge from a Zinc tulip of a Victrola. Indeed, upon first listening, before reading the linear notes, I was surprised to find out how old some of the pieces were.
When I listen to the album it is always from start to finish. There is not one track without power. One favorite is Vou dar beber a dor (track 5 1968). The Portuguese Guitar does a bright, repetitive playful pattern. Her voice sounds sensual and playful always without the least affectation.
Jazz, Fado, you can tell people about it, but it is a road they must go down themselves. A trip which can last a life time and one which I highly recommend.