What I’m Listening to That (Mostly) Isn’t Jazz Guitar

March 17, 2012 by  

ParkerPotterDavisJordanandRoachviaWikimediaCommonsWhile my main love in music is jazz guitar, there are other players and other instruments. Admittedly, I found most of them from their guitar player sidemen, but not always. Here are a few of my favorite non-guitarist jazz artists.

Art Tatum

There is a famous story about pianist extraordinaire Art Tatum that has made the rounds for years. Fats Waller was playing a gig at some club in New York. He stopped upon seeing someone enter the club. “Ladies and gentlemen,” Waller said. “I can play piano, but God has just entered the room.” The one Waller called “God” was Art Tatum.

Tatum was born in 1909 at Toledo, Ohio. He began losing his sight at a very young age, though he did retain enough to get around with minimal assistance. He learned to play piano by ear when he was three years old, and as he grew older, acquired an incredible facility for playing complicated musical pieces, even playing both parts of duets. His chief influences were the famous stride players of the day, including James P. Johnson, Willie “The Lion” Smith, and Thomas “Fats” Waller.

He moved to New York in the early 1930s, and immediately began achieving fame among the top piano players of the day, mostly based in Harlem. One of the main ways players got this fame was from their participation in “cutting” contests, where players did their level best to “top” the previous player.

Tatum’s arrangements grew increasingly sophisticated, playing the popular show tunes of the day. In a typical arrangement, he might move back and forth among a number of playing styles, including swing, stride, and such. These were accented with wild chromatic runs on the keyboard and explosive improvisation. He would change keys in mid-bar, and then bring it back, and likewise would make major shifts in tempo mid-bar, yet it all came together and worked.

He influenced many pianists, though few could come even close to his skills. One of the very few who approached his talents was the late Oscar Peterson.

Like many jazz musicians of the time, he picked up a few bad habits along the way, mainly alcoholism. He could easily put away a quart or more of booze every day, which, along with overeating contributed to his enormous size, over 300 pounds. This led to eventual kidney failure and death in his mid-40s.

Fortunately, he recorded extensively, and most of these recordings from the early 1930s to his death in 1956 are readily available from many music sources. Among his arguably best recordings were his Solo recordings, done by his then manager, Norman Granz. From about 1952 to 1955, he would invite Tatum to the studio and basically just turn on the tape recorder and walk away. Tatum proceeded to play what he wanted to, often recording dozens of tunes, only stopping for another swig of the bottle and tape changes. These were released originally on the Verve label, but Granz was later able to take control of the masters and had them cleaned up and re-released on his Pablo label, most active in the 1970s and 1980s. These recordings, “The Complete Solo Masterpieces”, show that he had lost none of his skills in his twilight years.

In the late 1940s, he cut 16 solo pieces and eight group pieces on the Capitol label. The group pieces with bassist Slam Stewart and guitarist (you knew I couldn’t do a jazz story without a guitarist!) Everett Barksdale demonstrated playing with such an attitude as I had never heard before. They all knew they were at the top of their game, and were not afraid to show it.

I can remember driving with my mother in her later years with one of Tatum’s CDs playing. She had taken piano lessons as a young girl, and remarked, “I don’t like him…he’s showing off.” “Of course he is!,” I told her. “If I had a talent like that, I’d be showing it off every minute of every day!”

The Solo Masterpieces and Group Masterpieces recordings on Pablo are all available on emusic.com. The iTunes Store has several tracks from the Solo Masterpieces sessions, as well as the complete Capitol Sessions. The Amazon MP3 Downloads store has almost 1,200 tracks available, all without DRM (like the emusic.com recordings).

Here are a few sample pieces that I highly recommend:

Art Tatum Solo Masterpieces

  • Tiger Rag
  • Elegie
  • Indiana
  • After You’ve Gone

The Complete Capitol Recordings of Art Tatum

  • Willow Weep for Me
  • Don’t Blame Me
  • Melody in F (with Stewart, Barksdale)
  • Just One of Those Things (with Stewart, Barksdale)

Billie Holiday

The fans of Billie Holiday come from two camps: pre-WWII and post-WWII. I like her post-WWII work better. The tragedies of her life and the abuse she brought upon herself with drugs, alcohol, tobacco, etc., added a patina to her voice that, while never great like an Ella Fitzgerald or Sarah Vaughan, conveyed emotion and drama far beyond almost any other singer. Yes, she led a tragic life, but she also had great joy and great accomplishments along the way. She was adored by her fans who overlooked her personal faults and simply drank in her own take on the popular tunes of the day.

At the same time, her last works from 1957 or so until her death in 1959 can be very difficult to listen to without the context of her earlier works. This was my problem when I first listened to her as a teenager. Someone gave me her last recording, and I just couldn’t see past the cracking voice, the limited range, the rasping tones, and because of that, it took me another thirty years before I could seriously listen to her and absorb the stories she told through her music. I guess it’s like your first cigarette, your first sip of black coffee, or the first sip of an exquisite single malt scotch. All acquired tastes, and all ones I still enjoy (though I stopped smoking 17 years ago, I still miss it every day).

With that said, here are some of my favorite recordings of the great Lady Day…

The Complete Billie Holiday on Verve 1945-1959

Aside from some bootleg concert and broadcast performances, as well as the famous Lady in Satin recording on Columbia, this is truly the legacy of Billie Holiday. This 10 CD collection contains every master cut she put to record during her time with Norman Granz, as well as some private rehearsal recordings. Not cheap, but this is the one to get if you are really a fan of Lady Day. All 256 tracks can be downloaded at the Amazon.com MP3 downloads store at 99 cents each or $90.30 for all ten albums. The 10 CD set can be purchased for under $170.00 (used versions for under $80 at Amazon) and I personally recommend it if only for the excellent booklet that comes with it. The iTunes store only shows two cuts from the entire 10 CD collection, and they are DRM’ed to boot. If you’re buying from Amazon, here are some personal recommendations (some may even make you cry your eyes out):

  • You Turned the Tables on Me
  • He’s Funny That Way
  • Remember
  • My Man
  • Too Marvelous for Words
  • I Thought About You (the definitive recording)
  • P.S. I Love You
  • I’ve Got My Love to Keep Me Warm
  • Isn’t This A Lovely Day?
  • Autumn in New York
  • When It’s Sleepy Time Down South
  • Just One More Chance

Lady in Satin

Billie always liked recording with strings. She had her first opportunity since the mid 1940s after the Verve label dumped her in 1958, and teamed up with arranger Ray Ellis to record this masterpiece on Columbia. She was clearly on her way out when this was recorded. There are photos of her in the recording session, drink in hand, in tears, listening to yet another take. Ellis was able to get her to keep it relatively together and got 12 sides done, and in so doing, created one of her finest recordings. All cuts available on Amazon MP3 Download store. Nothing at the iTunes Store, or emusic.com. Some picks:

  • I’m a Fool to Want You
  • I’ll Be Around
  • The End of a Love Affair
  • For All We Know

Irene Kral

Irene Kral (not Diana Krall, a fine piano picker and singer in her own right) was Roy Kral‘s (of the famous Jackie and Roy duo) kid sister. She turned out to be an incredible, but virtually unknown jazz and ballad singer. She recorded a few albums in the late 50s and early 60s, then toured for a while before settling down in southern California, where she worked until her death at age 46 from cancer. She was influenced by Carmen McRae. She achieved much of her fame after her death when her music was featured in the movie The Bridges of Madison County. She was a very articulate and emotive singer, who truly understood the lyrics of a tune and used that understanding to convey the feelings that the composer likely had when creating the tune.

The iTunes Store has many Irene Kral recordings, as does the Amazon MP3 Downloads Store. emusic.com also has several of her albums available.

Here are some of my favorites:

Where is Love

  • A Time For Love/Small World
  • Lucky to be Me/Some Other Time
  • Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most

You Are There (only available as CD)

  • Mad About the Boy
  • You Were There
  • You Are There
  • Noel Coward Medley
  • Summer Me, Winter Me

I’ve gotta save more of these for another day. I can’t believe how long this one wound up!