Joshua Redman and The Bad Plus – Bad to the Bone

The Bad Plus Joshua Redman

With parallel careers spanning the last two decades saxophonist Joshua Redman and piano trio The Bad Plus have forged equally acclaimed, but distinctly separate paths in contemporary jazz. An opportunity to collaborate in 2011 revealed an unforeseen compatibility and subsequent world tours deepened both musical empathy and personal friendship that’s resulted in the quartet’s explosive debut album, The Bad Plus Joshua Redman. Stuart Nicholson spoke to Redman and Bad Plus bassist Reid Anderson about how this evolving partnership has brought out the best in all of them, especially through the rigours of the road...

For the last two years or so concerts by tenor saxophonist Joshua Redman with the piano trio The Bad Plus have been making the jazz media, promoters and the public sit-up and take notice. Reviews have been effusive – Albany’s Metroland said: “It’s as though Redman is the long lost fourth member of the quartet,” while Los Angeles Times concluded: “The Bad Plus (plus one) roared as if a quartet were always lying just beneath their surface.” Since jumping on the touring circuit following their debut performance at New York’s Blue Note jazz club in 2011, the quartet have finally consummated their relationship on record with the release of The Bad Plus Joshua Redman (Nonesuch). The music is knotty, challenging and explosively satisfying, and succeeds in the tricky task of jumping ahead of pre-release expectation by offering a fresh and original slant on improvised music that delivers on the present, yet, promises much for the future.

The Bad Plus’ repertoire has always had a reputation for making the word eclectic appear narrow and limiting, ranging from Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring to covers of hits by the Pixies, Aphex Twin and Nirvana, leavened by a series of originals from pianist Ethan Iverson, bassist Reid Anderson and drummer Dave King that often contain essences from a variety of stylistic sources that are sometimes mischievously referenced. The Bad Plus Joshua Redman is no exception – there’s a fresh look at two Bad Plus staples, ‘Silence is the Question’ from 2003’s These Are The Vistas and ‘Dirty Blonde’ from 2004’s Give, plus seven new originals from the band members including ‘Country Seat’ with its essences of Aaron Copland, ‘The Mending’ with a nod and wink in the direction of Erik Satie while the through-composed (meaning the song unfolds continuously without repeating itself) ‘Beauty Has It Hard’ has the kind of clever/tricky writing we’ve come to associate with Bad Plus with a more-is-more solo from Iverson. All this is achieved against a backdrop of shifting textures, metres and rhythms that has became a part of The Bad Plus’ portfolio of surprises.

What is interesting about this meeting of musical minds is that it seems much more than a let’s-get-together-and-see-what-happens collaboration. Ever since their major label debut in 2003 with These Are The Vistas, The Bad Plus has scrupulously worked towards a specific group identity and only once, in 2009, when vocalist Wendy Lewis joined them on For All I Care, has a fourth voice emerged on one of their recordings (with, it must be said, mixed results). But here Joshua Redman, far from jumping in with his stylistic bag of tricks, has opened up his own creative space within the group that offers much more than a tenor saxophone plus rhythm with an approach that really does sound as if he is the long lost fourth member of the band. This association seems to have grown organically into something more than either party expected following their original collaboration on the Blue Note jazz club stage in 2011.

“It was a special anniversary year at the Blue Note,” explains Bad Plus bassist Reid Anderson. “They wanted something more than just groups, they wanted to have guests and the idea of Josh playing with us came up and we wanted to try it, we’d never played with him. We maybe knew him a little bit, but certainly we had a lot of respect for him as a musician, but we didn’t know him personally. But we had a great week and he seemed to enjoy himself as well, and that was followed by a tour, some dates in the States and touring in Europe in the summer, and we just established a great rapport with one another and wanted to continue it – it just kind of evolved naturally, it just started out as a situation where we didn’t really know where it would go, into something that was a lot of fun for us.” Redman concurs, adding, “it was one of those rare instances that, you know, something that may have not have arisen in the most organic fashion turned out to be artistically serendipitous and something that obviously proved to be a long lasting partnership and something that has been very inspiring for me and hopefully for them as well.”

 

“Being on the road was glamorous for about the first six months, and then the reality sets in!
– Joshua Redman

 

Entering the musical world of an established trio with their own particular style, which in the instance of The Bad Plus has been developed over almost 20 years, has its own unique challenges, which both parties acknowledge. As Anderson observes: “I think that Josh – he will have his own opinion about this – but I suspect what his experience is, is that he can come into this established sound and it is easy to become a part of it, he doesn’t have to come in and be ‘Joshua Redman, bandleader and one of the most famous musicians of our generation’, he can come into this and just completely commit himself to this band sound and become a part of it. For us, we don’t really do a ‘backing band’, so anybody who comes in and plays with us has to deal with The Bad Plus and the people we’ve done it with, I think they’ve enjoyed that.”

Clearly this was the case with Joshua Redman, who came well prepared for the challenge, having memorised several songs from The Bad Plus repertoire for his Blue Note debut with the trio. “Yeah, they are a tightly knit jazz group that has existed in the past 20 years,” he agrees. “Certainly they’re one of the most dedicated jazz groups, and I think their eco system, they have a fairly closed eco-system in terms of how they function as a group and what they do as a group – but obviously they are all incredibly open minded and flexible musicians – really for the most part has existed as ‘The Bad Plus’ and as just ‘The Bad Plus,’ even though they have done other projects. That has been the primary thing they have all been devoted to since the band’s inception. Initially, I basically was a guest with them, so when I played at the Blue Note with them it was entirely their repertoire, I mean they sent me a list of tunes and recordings they had done of those tunes, and basically I learned them and tried to integrate my voice and my sound and my approach into what they did as a band. But I never thought of myself as a ‘guest soloist’, you know? Although that may have been the way it was portrayed initially, it was really important for me, in any project I’m involved in, it is really important for me to find a way to contribute to the collective.”

Perhaps part of the success of this collaboration lies in the way Redman, by immersing himself in Bad Plus’ musical world has re-discovered a long lost part of his musical psyche that has made for his perfect fit with the band: “[Bad Plus are] very influenced by the sorts of jazz I have been influenced by from a very early age, but maybe haven’t had as much of an opportunity to kind of explore those sides of my influence with other groups – I mean, specifically, they have all been influenced by a lot of the music my father [Dewey Redman] was involved in, they’ve been very influenced by Ornette [Coleman] and Keith Jarrett’s American Quartet, and Charlie Haden’s music and Old and New Dreams, these just happen to be groups that my dad was really involved in, and music that I have been listening to for as long as I can remember. So, you know, I feel that playing with them has definitely brought out a side of my musical personality that perhaps I had not explored as much previously.”

You only have to glance at the websites of both The Bad Plus and Joshua Redman to see their often-demanding touring schedules together, a reflection of their musical commitment essayed on The Bad Plus Joshua Redman. Today, touring is a fact of life for the successful jazz musician, but it comes with its own stresses and strains: “Yeah, musicians often find themselves out on the road saying, ‘they didn’t tell us about this in [music] school!’” laughs Reid Anderson. “The hardest thing to do is to walk out of the front door – it’s very intense, it’s a 24-hour-a-day job, and the way we tour it’s often a different country every day travelling, and doing a soundcheck and repeating it day after day. Of course, it can be very rewarding and it’s a job that when you turn up for work people applaud you and tell you how much they like what you do, which is gratifying, but it’s definitely not a situation where you can always exercise choice – if the lobby calls at 5am you gotta be down there at 5am, you have to take two flights and drive for two hours, and do a soundcheck and play the concert, that’s your day and you have to deliver, you have to deliver a good performance, no-one cares how tired you are at the end of the day… Personally, I couldn’t go out there just to play music, go through everything that it takes to do it, you have to be out there playing music you really care about that you can get behind to justify the sacrifice that it takes to do it.”

It’s a sentiment echoed by Joshua Redman. For him the romance and glamour of touring the world’s top jazz spots and festivals quickly wore out. “Well, being on the road was glamorous for about the first six months, and then the reality sets in!” he says with a knowing laugh. “You know, it’s not an easy life, and it hasn’t got any easier the older you get, it’s a lot of late nights and very early mornings and a lot of it is long and stressful travel, not that much sleep, or very little sleep. The older you get, you’re not as resilient, it becomes more of a physical drain, physical stress, you don’t recover as well, and also emotionally it can be tough. I have a family at home, got two young children so it’s very hard for me to be gone from them and my wife – you know, you shouldn’t become a professional musician to see the world! Although that is a perk. A lot of what you see of the world is hotels, airports or train stations, and you eat some very good meals along the way! But you know what makes it all worthwhile? Those two hours a night when you step up on the bandstand and you get to make, or try to make, beautiful music with other musicians, and connect with them and to do it for an audience and do it for the people. There’s nothing I’d trade that for in the world. That is an incredible luxury, as hard as life on the road can get, the luxury of being able to play music for people and the connection that can come out of that, and not to sound too ‘touchy-feely’, but a sort of communion that can come out of that, there’s nothing in the world that’s like that feeling. It’s a luxury to be able to do that and make a living doing it.”

Review

The Bad Plus and Joshua Redman – The Bad Plus Joshua Redman ★★★★

The Bad Plus Joshua RedmanNonesuch

Joshua Redman (ts), Ethan Iverson (p), Reid Anderson (b) and Dave King (d). Rec. date not stated

If we were to look at the career trajectories of both Redman and Bad Plus, we would see in the case of Redman an involvement in pianoless groups in more recent times – Back East (2007), Compass (2009) and Trios Live (2014) – and piano ensembles (such as James Farm) interspersed with the jazzwith-strings Walking Shadows (2013). What is perhaps lacking is the creation of an effective and definitive context within which to focus his talents as an improviser: his recent career a series of ‘projects’ rather than the refinement of an overall vision for himself as an artist. In contrast, The Bad Plus have created a context for themselves, a trio sound that is their own, but there has been a feeling since their heady days of hearty deconstructionism following their major label debut with These Are the Vistas, of searching, but not quite finding, a real direction for their music. Thus this collaboration gives much to both parties: to the saxophonist an effective context within which to function as an improviser, and the trio, who seem energised by a sense of direction fresh blood has bought, a driving force that is perhaps the discovery, as contemporaneous press reviews of their live concerts have noted, of the long lost fourth member of the group. As with other Bad Plus albums, there are some insanely intricate passages, but leavened with touches of humour and rock inflected energy from the fine drumming of Dave King. Redman effortlessly fits into this world, but his solos suggest fresh paths to be trodden and fresh horizons to aim for, and with bits of each party rubbing off on the other, the future looks good. – Stuart Nicholson

Discover...

Feature Sonny Rollins – Tenor Of Our Times

Feature EST – Three Falling Three 

Feature John Coltrane – In The Temple Of Trane 

This article originally appeared in the July 2015 issue of Jazzwise magazine / Photo by Cameron Wittig & Jay Blakesberg

Avishai Cohen – Burning Brighter

Avishai Cohen

Bassist Avishai Cohen has in the last decade of his prolific, high-level 20-year career, moved from bass hero and bandleader, into the echelons of significant stylistic innovator and powerful musical mentor. Known for spotting the stars of tomorrow, his gifted current trio of pianist Nitai Hershkovits and drummer Daniel Dor has helped him produce one of his strongest albums to date: From Darkness. Kevin Le Gendre spoke to Cohen about how his young charges push him and the music beyond the limits

Most contemporary jazz musicians work in a range of groups but many feel that there is a particular kind of band that acts as home, a place to which they feel bound to return time and again. Personnel may change but the instrumentation, like a steady heartbeat, remains the same. For the Israeli double bassist and composer Avishai Cohen that staple ensemble is bigger than a duo but smaller than a quartet.

“Basically I never stopped playing with a trio,” he tells me on a clear phone line to his home in Motsa Illit, just outside of Jerusalem. “The trio is always the main engine in my music, sometimes it’s with strings or sometimes it’s with horns or different things but it always remains the main core of what I’m doing. It’s enough because of the piano, and my writing for me to able to convey my thoughts and feelings. Whether I’m with other musicians or in the trio itself, I think in terms of the trio.”

This maxim has just materialised on the band’s From Darkness, which emerges as one of the early key releases of 2015. Built on the musical raw materials – middle eastern and latin rhythms, European classical harmony and western pop sensibilities – that have defined Cohen’s career since he debuted on the Smalls scene in New York almost two decades ago, this new work enriches a discography that has now swelled to some 15 titles. This is a substantial figure for an artist who, although having had the not insignificant honour of recording for Blue Note France, largely issues work through his own Razdaz label.

Independent and industrious, Cohen, resident in Israel since 2007 following 15 years in New York, chooses his musicians discerningly and the …Darkness trio features two stellar collaborators in 27 year-old pianist Nitai Hershkovits, the bassist’s duet partner on 2012’s Duende, and drummer Daniel Dor, a 28 year-old graduate of the New School in Manhattan. Following several international gigs with the band in the past few years, the leader thought it was time for the tapes to roll.

“We do many concerts as a trio during the year, we became very solid and something happened in such a way that I really knew it was time to document another trio, which I hadn’t done for eight years,” the 44 year-old reflects. “I have one trio record really, Gently Disturbed, which has become liked by many fans. Since then I haven’t done it so the fact the trio sounds so great made me just want to document it.”

As is often the case the last player to join the group did so on recommendation from an existing member. Hershkovits had already built a strong chemistry with Dor in a number of other groups and duly put his name forward to Cohen who hired him pronto. The impact of the new arrival is not something the leader wants to understate at all.

“Something really came together when Daniel joined, it put a different kind of weight on things,” Cohen gushes. “He has enough of a sound or character so that the music is to do with him as much as anybody else, if not more. Since he joined the trio moulded into this thing it had to get to, something that’s really solid. I never had an agenda but it’s as if there’s an agreement on rhythm.

“What did Daniel change in my trio sound?” Cohen muses. “Well, it’s like a heavier sound, but in the lighter parts of it he brought this delicacy that I’ve never really had from any drummer, so the range of dynamics from his playing in a trio setting is so effective and so strong.

 

“There’s a bass line that sounds like something between Beethoven and a death metal group.”

 

“You know I think a lot of the character of bands or records… it comes from the drummers,” Cohen argues. “The greatest bands have the greatest drummers, whether it was Led Zeppelin with John Bonham or The Police with Stewart Copeland or John Coltrane with Elvin Jones.

“Daniel has the quality, he has a stamp in the way that he plays: everything is very clear. It’s a very assertive and present kind of drumming with this beat, this bigger than usual sound than you would hear in jazz, and also compositionally we can kind of feed each other as a result. I basically wanted to make a record with more groove, and luckily my compositions went there and provided that for me.

“On the second tune on the album ‘Abie’ there’s a bass line that sounds like something between Beethoven and a death metal group and it was something I realised after we recorded, where I just had to say to myself ‘wow the energy here is not the usual energy of a jazz CD.’

Distant though they may be, Cohen’s days as the junior player in bands are worth recalling. Although he worked with two very significant members of his peer group, Danilo Pérez and Kurt Rosenwinkel, the leader who put him in a much brighter spotlight was Chick Corea, co-producer of Cohen’s 1998 debut Adama as well as his boss in the sextet Origin, then the pianist’s own trio. Cohen has an important point to make about the ultimate value of that crucial stage in his career for all concerned. Such a high profile gig had to have carpe diem moments.

“I never wanted to be just another bassist for someone like Chick,” he states. “I wanted to be special and strong and affect him as much as he did me. When I did get the chance to start playing with him I’d already known a lot of his music and I sensed that it would not be enough to be another even very good bassist who could execute his music. I felt that he wanted me to bring something new, fresh and challenging to him. I was challenged and enjoyed growing and learning so much from him, but I think that he also got something from my enthusiasm. Chick doesn’t just want people to make him look good; he really wants a push and a kick in the butt in a good way. I was happy to be able to do that and learn a lot and get inspired to just become my own bandleader from one of the best teachers.”

Things have come full circle then. Cohen is now Corea to Dor and Hershkovitt, an experienced player and leader developing music with accompanists who have grown up in a world that is vastly different to the one that he knew as a younger man. Needless to say there is an expectation on Cohen’s part that their personalities will be sufficiently strong to ensure that he is not the one who can lounge in a comfort zone by dint of his achievements to date. He needs stimulus.

“On my god… so much! Every time we play they challenge me. I always seem to get my ass kicked in a good way,” he says with a hearty chuckle before going on to expand on his original point.

“You know I think they control the language that we have and to me they’re like the new generation in jazz because they can play pretty much anything, but not just play it, really make something out of it. They are so informed about so many things, they play very intricate music like it’s their own. I get so much inspiration from these guys.” 

Review

Avishai Cohen Trio – From Darkness ★★★★

RazdazAvishai Cohen

Avishai Cohen (b, el b), Daniel Dor (d) and Nitai Hershkovitts (p). Rec. 2014

The tried and tested axiom of ‘new players, new life’ or rather ‘younger players, greater energy’ acquires much credence here. Israeli bassist-composer Cohen has risen to A‑list bandleader status by way of a prodigious and consistently high quality output for the best part of two decades but the arrival of the explosive junior drummer Daniel Dor has given his ensemble sound a substantial shot in the arm. The strength of the backbeat and the fluency in the polyrhythms lay a solid foundation for the intricate meshing of middle eastern, latin, classical and rock sensibilities that are Cohen’s trademark, which has in turn exerted a substantial influence on the likes of British groups such as Phronesis and Kairos 4tet. Stylistically, this is by no means a radical departure from previous work but there is a sharpness in the execution and richness in the group dynamics that make the session notable. As he has proved on many an occasion the leader is a very expressive improviser who can easily hold the attention over extended solo passages, but the focus here is largely on relatively short pieces where a concentration of ideas is the order of the day and the harmonic movement is not necessarily reduced. In any case Cohen’s writing creates a grand, overarching narrative in which a series of shifting, vivid moods serve the provocative nature of the title – from darkness comes light, and to a certain extent life. So, somewhat appropriately, the album finishes with a wry but emotionally charged reading of a ballad for troubled times – Charlie Chaplin’s ‘Smile’. – Kevin Le Gendre

This article and review originally appeared in the April 2015 issue of Jazzwise. Subscribe to Jazzwise

Explore...

Feature Charles Mingus – Triumph of the Underdog

Review Charles Mingus – Mingus Ah Um (50th Anniversary Edition) ★★★★★

Review Gary Burton and Chick Corea – Crystal Silence: The ECM Recordings 1972-79 ★★★★★

Dr John – Hanging with the Hoodoo Man

Dr John

To say Malcolm John ‘Mac’ Rebennack Jr, aka Dr John, has lived a colourful life would be something of an understatement: from spells in jail, being shot in the hand, scoring drugs and his upbringing in deepest, darkest New Orleans, he is the very embodiment of the Crescent City’s rich gumbo soul. With his riotous album Ske-Dat-De-Dat: The Spirit of Satch, he celebrates another Big Easy scion, Louis Armstrong and his timeless trumpet and vocal legacies. The Good Doctor tells Michael Jackson how jazz has always woven itself into his work...

“Louis came to me in a dream and said ‘Cut my stuff yo’ way’,” recalls Rebennack, “and man, he never came to me in a dream before, even though we wuz both booked with (legendary boxing and jazz promoter) Joe Glaser back in the game.” Rebennack remembers Glaser’s vintage roster represented, ‘the spectorama of trumpet players’ including Dizzy Gillespie, who at the time thought Louis was Uncle Tomming (selling out to white audiences). “I told Dizz then ‘he can’t be Tommin’, he’s anything but that, he just knows the procedures to get across’.” Words of experience from a white man who infuriated segregated white and black unions in New Orleans by backing black musicians in the 1950s and 60s. Eventually, singer Joe ‘Mr. Google Eyes’ August brought Dizzy to a Dr John show and the bebop progenitor confessed he now concurred about Armstrong. “He totally agreed with me and that made me feel much better,” reflected Rebennack, who idolised both Gillespie and Armstrong.

Dr JohnIn honor of Pops a ‘spectorama’ of latter-day trumpet heroes are assembled for Ske-Dat-De-Dat including Nicholas Payton, Arturo Sandoval, Terence Blanchard, James Andrews and Wendell Brunious, who turn in cameos respectively on ‘What a Wonderful World’, ‘Memories of You’, ‘Wrap Your Troubles in Dreams’, ‘Dippermouth Blues’ and the warm and fuzzy ‘That’s My Home’. A signature track from the record is a funkified update of ‘Mack The Knife’, which features Blanchard and Paris-based rapper Mike Ladd. During his version of this storied narrative, originally titled ‘Die Moritat von Mackie Messer’ in the original Brecht/Weill iteration from 1928 (adopted as ‘Moritat’ by Sonny Rollins, the same year as Armstrong waxed it, by the by), Rebennack shouts out to star guests Bonnie Raitt and Shemekia Copeland, much as Armstrong tipped his hat to Weill’s widow Lotte Lenya in his 1956 version, an addition furthered by Bobby Darin. The merry murder ballad was also morphed by Ella Fitzgerald, who forgot the lyrics in Berlin in 1960 and improvised. Rebennack appreciated Fitzgerald and her simpatico with Armstrong and was once convinced Ella was looking out for him. “I was in this rehab years ago, having a vacation from my life in the psych ward and I was totally convinced this nurse was Ella Fitzgerald.”

Rebennack’s rambunctious life as wannabe hustler, songwriter and record producer is kaleidoscopically portrayed in his autobiography Under A Hoodoo Moon (St Martin’s 1994), in which, early on, he has his own Mac the Knife moment, trying to get even with his formative ‘junko pardna’, a sketchy character called Shank:

“One night, after he had pulled some bad issue on me, I tore over to [Shank’s] house, ready to stab him. I came in there with my knife out, and he croaked, ‘Is that all you got to use on me?’… he pulled this huge revolver out from somewhere, didn’t even point it at me, but he got me backpedaling fast. Later, I found out his gun not only wasn’t loaded; it didn’t even have a firing pin. It was some antique from the Wild West days.”

Rebennack’s days as a potential McHeath, mercifully, were fraught with misadventure, such as the time he fixed on shooting rhythm & blues singer Lloyd Price for stealing one of his songs, but the Price gig at which the showdown was supposed to occur was cancelled. In attempting to sue Price for the theft of ‘Try Not To Think About You’ (which Price recast as ‘Lady Luck’), Mac ultimately discovered the lawyer he enlisted was also on Price’s payroll.

A further rift involving blade and gun proved more hazardous. It’s an infamous road story involving Dr John’s defence of his greenhorn singer and Jesuit High School classmate Ronnie Barron, but Rebennack fleshed it out during our conversation:

“Ronnie’s mama was chopping some meat with a big knife and she said ‘I’m gonna chop your cajones off if you don’t look after my son, ’cos he’s way underage.’ So I took him on the road and I walk in his motel room and he’s getting pistol whipped by this guy, some big robbery guy in Florida; so I’m hitting this guy’s hand on a brick trying to get the gun out of his hand and pull his eyeball out and I thought my hand was over the handle but it was over the barrel.”

The resultant gunshot severely damaged Rebennack’s left ring finger and made him switch from guitar to keyboards after an unhappy spell playing bass in a Dixieland group at NOLA’s Famous Door lounge. Mac, who studied guitar with Fats Domino guitarist Papoose and the versatile Roy Montrell, recently demonstrated vernacular Telecaster chops in Chicago on a rousing version of Earl King’s rebellious ‘Mama and Papa’, otherwise sticking to piano or Nord, peppering ballsy cuts from Locked Down with such Rebennack perennials as ‘I Walk on Gilded Splinters’, ‘Make a Better World’ and ‘Such a Night’.

“Yeah, I play a little bit of guitar now. I never really stopped, even after I first got shot in my finger, but I remember Leo Fender at some point asked me to play his Jazzmaster guitar and I said ‘these things get outta tune’ and I didn’t play it, so he stopped endorsing me. If I had any of dem guitars now, I’d probably be rich. Aah well, that’s life.”

A precedent to Dr John’s Armstrong tribute was his pithy Ellington homage Duke Elegant (Blue Note, 2000), which featured guitarist Bobby Broom. Broom was backstage at Chicago Blues fest, along with this writer and his kids (it was father’s day after all and I knew the writer of ‘My Children, My Angels’ would be down with that). Dr John greeted us all and ‘jaw jerked’ benevolently.

Broom had this to say about his time with the Doctor: “I was in Mac’s band from 1994 to just about 2000. When I joined him, I knew about its place in the story of jazz music, but I had no idea about the strong influence on the creation of R&B that New Orleans had. During my time with him it all started making sense that, as with all melting pots, New Orleans always had the perfect traditional ingredients for any new, cultural creation – whether in food, religion, jazz or R&B.

“Mac embodied those musical traditions ­– in R&B, blues and jazz. He knew I was a jazz guitar player and a music lover who could lean a little in different directions and he let me bring that to the band.”

Talking of such inclusivity Ske-Dat-De-Dat is particularly generous in the space allotted to sidemen and women, even for a typically expansive Dr John project. That’s the product of formative years working at Cosimo Matassa’s legendary studio in New Orleans and thence with the Ace, Ron and Ric and Mercury labels, where he put sessions together, pooled talent and often wrote songs with others in mind. ‘Tight Like This’ for example is a steamy, Afro-Cuban tinged feature for Arturo Sandoval, where the leader is conspicuously hands off, and ‘Sometimes I Feel Like A Motherless Child’ is singer Andy Hamilton’s baby, the Doctor lets him have it.

Though an inimitable frontman ever since he hatched his mythical moniker and caught the imagination of the psychedelic set in tumultuous 1968 with his eerie, eclectic cave-jam Gris-Gris (incidentally Mac was never a devotee of psychedelics), Dr John wasn’t desperate to be centre of attention. Many of the acts he supported, ‘back in the game’ – to borrow a nostalgic phrase his sandpaper rasp over the phone frequently delivers ­– he found disingenuous.

“My pa told me: ‘Kid, you got kicked outta three schools, my advice is go out on the Chitlins Circuit with dem old men’. But the whole thing about those frontmans (sic) was a lotta them had a three dollar bill attitude… it was in the days when nobody saw acts on the TV, so Sugar and Sweet would pass off as Shirley and Lee and Earl King would pass off as Chuck Berry or Guitar Slim, James Booker as Joe Tex. People didn’t even know who the real front guys was because there was so many shuck guys out there.” Rebennack refuses to bracket Marvin Gaye in that number however, “I loved that Marvin played good drums every soundcheck, better than his real drummer and I loved Big Joe Turner; I had a real blessing working for him.” Turner’s ‘Piney Brown Blues’ first heard in his father’s record store when he was in knee pants, made a big impression.

“My pa sold three kinds of records, there was what they call race music back then, which was blues and R&B, there was spiritual and gospel and there was jazz – bebop and traditional jazz.”

Though his primary influences included his wildly flamboyant confrère James Booker and crucial stylist Professor Longhair in New Orleans, Mac always craned an ear for jazz from further afield and comments in Under a Hoodoo Moon about checking McCoy Tyner: “Every break I used to get from working joints in the Quarter, I used to go to Vernon’s to hear John Coltrane when he was in town… I used to sit up behind McCoy Tyner, because I wanted to learn how he played piano. But Trane’s music would get so intense – and my head was getting so narcotised – that I’d nod out every time they started.”

Another jazz great Rebennack intersected with was Art Blakey, though at first not in ideal circumstances, when he, tubaist Ray Draper and pianist Walter Davis woke an angry Blakey as they night tripped through his apartment to score heroin in the early 1970s. Through the connection of Mac’s road manager Barbara Becker, Blakey would eventually record Bluesiana Triangle (Windham Hill, 1990) with Rebennack and David ‘Fathead’ Newman and during the session, “Art was sweet enough not to mention the way we’d first met,” Rebennack recalls. That date turned out to be prescient, given a somewhat chilling version of ‘When The Saints Go Marching In’ (more pertinent to the song’s somewhat apocalyptic lyrics than the touristic version) and Blakey’s croaky vocals on ‘For All We Know’, as Bu (Blakey’s Islamic nickname) would be dead within six months.

Before expedient DA Jim Garrison cleaned up New Orleans in the early 1960s, there had been a genuine 24/7 music scene embracing more of a community, less dog-eat-dog. Since there was plenty of work, musicians would swap out gigs and play several engagements a night. This has contributed to Rebennack’s laidback attitude and the peculiarly relaxed, yet rhythmically layered, crowd pleasing funk that emanates from NOLA. Musicians from the City all share a brotherhood and at Chicago Blues Festival, Rebennack was pleased to share the bill with Aaron Neville.

“I used him on the first session he was on, at Cosimo’s studio, when we was all dittyboppers,” Mac recalls fondly, “Me, Charles (Neville) and Aaron played ‘Please Send Me Someone To Love’ on this tribute to me in New Orleans, we’ve been playing that since we were kids, I love Percy Mayfield’s songs.” And indeed, he learnt the songwriting craft from the likes of Mayfield: “Me and Shine (guitarist Alvin Robinson) wrote a song that we thought was a killer for Percy, but when he heard it he said ‘You can’t take that long to get to the hook!’ We was writin’ songs but didn’t care how long it took to the hook, so Percy pulled our coattails to that and it made some kinda sense to both of us.”

In LA in 1967, a couple of years after release from spells in Angola, Fort Worth and Lexington correctional facilities, Mac Rebennack refashioned himself as Dr John, a throwback to a nineteenth century medicine man/freed slave/purported Senegalese Prince who ran a voodoo practice and whorehouse with a certain Pauline Rebennack. In many ways the connection with this original hoodoo hustler and journeyman made sense, since Rebennack himself was an itinerant troubadour who had dabbled in pimping and the dark arts (early on, goofer dust – graveyard dirt mixed with gunpowder and church-bell grease – was a favorite concoction to curse his enemies). By 2013 even his ‘Dr’ appellation was vindicated when Tulane University bestowed an honorary doctorate of fine arts, so he became Dr Dr John.

Another self-graduated entertainer, organist Dr Lonnie Smith, worked on a tribute record to Fats Domino in New Orleans with Herbie Hancock, Norah Jones and Rebennack and remembers his counterpart with affection: “Doc is very funny, very soulful and the strange thing is we both walk with a cane, don’t we? He plays from the heart, it’s not about anything that’s not real, and that’s the way his music comes across; he’s a very beautiful person.”

 

“I just feel blessed to play music and be doin’ what I’m doin’.”
– Dr John

 

So, getting back to the star studded new album – for which he owes thanks to his longtime “hellfire trombonist”, arranger and co-producer Sarah Morrow; such flirtatious duet partners as Raitt (‘I’ve Got The World on a String’) and Copeland (‘Sweet Hunk O’Trash’) and the Blind Boys of Alabama – did the Doctor ever meet his main man Satchmo, outside of a dream?

“I met him in Joe Glaser’s office where on the wall was a picture of Louis sittin’ on a rock right outside New Orleans. I knew he was sittin’ by the bridge which went to Bucktown and right there I knew he could see Ralph Schultz’ Fresh Hardware store and my pa’s shop.” Rebennack’s father’s appliance and record store, where he fixed turntables and amps and span records, had a defining influence on young Mac. “I was askin’ if he was looking at my pa’s shop – but Louis was laughing so hard at Schultz, because Schultz could marry you, give you your birth tag stickers, whatever ya needed at his hardware store – that I never got to finish the question.”

Subsequently, Dr John is as synonymous with New Orleans as Armstrong himself and has traveled a long and winding road since copping Louis Jordan and Joe Turner from his father’s Top 20 list. “Back then I thought I was gonna be a Liberace type guy or somethin’, I didn’t know what the hell I was gonna be, I had some dream of dat – you always have fantasias.” He adds, “Listen, whatever ya get, that’s what ya got and I don’t care, I just feel blessed to play music and be doin’ what I’m doin’.”

Though the Night Tripper of yore has had health concerns of late, he remains sanguine and still tucks into a gamey gumbo of squirrel, alligator and specklebelly goose when back at the crib. “If ya eat squirrels that comes outta the swamps, ya get good, if you get ’em that’s close to the Gulf, that’s not good.” His gratitude to the open armed Spiritual Church of New Orleans (he learned bass in the Church band when he was a sprout) is evidenced in the purified modulations of ‘Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen’, delivered by soul singer Ledisi and gospel quintet the McCrary Sisters on Ske-Dat-De-Dat. ‘Wrap Your Troubles in Dreams’, a more secular cure for life’s ills, along with James P Johnson’s ‘Sweet Hunk O’Trash’ (originally recorded in 1949 with Pops and Billie Holiday) typify Dr John’s taste for a hybrid of sacred and profane. It’s all grist to the mill or rather gris gris to the pot Broom refers to, a rich brew, with Rebennack re-stamping the legacy of Armstrong who stretched the canon and spiced it with humour. Such adaptation borne of dry joie de vivre was encapsulated by one of Dr John’s songwriting collaborators and sometime Sidney Bechet sideman, Pleasant Joe: “My old partner Cousin Joe used to play with all the bebop bands in New York and I could see why they would hire him, because he had funny lyrics to all the blues. Anyway he told me a long time ago, he said ‘The best way for a musician to croak is to fall over on the last song of the show – the band gets paid, and you don’t have to play an encore,’ that’s the way to go.”

This article originally appeared in the November 2014 issue of Jazzwise. Subscribe to Jazzwise

Explore...

Feature The 10 most memorable Louis Armstrong moments on YouTube

Review The Dave Brubeck Quartet – Time Out (50th Anniversary Legacy Edition) ★★★★★

Review Wes Montgomery – The Incredible Jazz Guitar of Wes Montgomery ★★★★★

Diana Krall – Standing in the Smoky Haze

Diana Krall

Diana Krall has often walked a fine line between consummate jazz performer and canny crossover artist, not least with her recent vaudeville, jazz and blues inspired album Glad Rag Doll, and now even more so with Wallflower – her classy new, string-laden record peppered with songs by The Mamas & the Papas, Paul McCartney and Bob Dylan. Peter Quinn spoke to the Canadian singer...

When you’re in that slightly euphoric, post-gig state, be careful what you agree to. You could end up doing a 10-day protest tour with a songwriting legend. Diana Krall was backstage in her dressing room with husband Elvis Costello at the 27th Bridge School Benefit in Mountain View, California, earlier this year when fellow performer Neil Young popped his head around the door.

“Neil said, ‘Diane I’m going to do this thing against the tar sands, you wanna come?’ And I was, like, sure!” Krall tells me on the phone from Paris, where she’s about to bring her marathon Glad Rag Doll World Tour to a conclusion. Young was supporting the cause of the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation community, who were presenting a legal challenge against tar sands expansion in their traditional Albertan homeland.

Diana Krall“And then I got a phone call,” Krall continues. “Neil Young’s asking you to go on this protest tour across Canada. And I went, ‘who else is doing it?’ And they went, ‘just you’.”

Cut to the first gig at Toronto’s Massey Hall. “I thought I had to do half an hour and they were like, no you have to do an hour – and there were a lot of flannel shirts out there! Neil said, ‘Diane just play whatever you want’. So I just walked out and opened with ‘Every Grain of Sand’, it was awesome. I’m so proud to say that I was actually part of something meaningful, a proper protest tour to make a statement. To be with Neil Young, to do that, I don’t think it’s really sunk in until now. It was really something else and something to tell my kids.” Diana Krall: vocalist, pianist, songwriter, mother and environmental campaigner. She even has the Neil Young/Diana Krall ‘Honor The Treaties’ hoodie and t-shirt to prove it. Sadly, the legal challenge didn’t succeed. “The fucking pipeline went through,” Krall notes. “I’m so mad about that and the way it was done.”

During my last conversation with Krall, an interview for The Arts Desk in 2012 when we talked about Glad Rag Doll, an album of vintage jazz and blues songs, it was very clear that she’d spent a lifetime contemplating the material. Produced by 16-time Grammy winner David Foster, the song list for Krall’s new album Wallflower is something quite different, a collection of some of the greatest pop songs from the late 1960s to the present day.

“I didn’t want to make a jazz-musician-making-new-jazz-standards record,” Krall says. “These aren’t the new standards, this is a classic pop record.” And, while Krall plays piano on the title track and contributes the occasional solo, it’s Foster who takes on the main piano duties. “David’s a great pianist, he’s a great accompanist, and I can’t play the way he plays. It’s not my style. It will take me a lot of practice to learn all of these songs and I’ll never play them the way David plays them.”

This also means that, as a listener, your focus is entirely on the voice, which is late night, grown up, über-sensual à la Julie London. The kind of voice, in other words, that chanteuses such as Melody Gardot can only dream about.

Having worked with some of the best arrangers around, including Johnny Mandel (When I Look In Your Eyes) and Claus Ogerman (The Look of Love, Quiet Nights), how did working with Foster compare?

“I picked all the songs, but it was what he did with them that was really incredible. He’s just kind of a genius. We recorded the Paul McCartney song [‘If I Take You Home Tonight’] and then the next day he came with that whole middle section, orchestrated. And I said, how did you come up with that? We’re both from Canada; we’re both from the same place – small towns 70 miles from each other. We have a lot of similar reference points and a love of jazz. I didn’t realise how amazing he was until I worked with him. I didn’t realise he had everything going on.”

I remark that it’s difficult to marry Foster’s love of jazz and his ability to create such incredible beauty with his support for the Republican presidential nominee in the 2012 US election, Mitt Romney (Foster spoke at a private fundraising event for Romney in September 2012). “I actually don’t even want to know that, OK,” Krall laughs. “Don’t make me look at that”. Krall, remember, is an artist who refused an invitation to the White House when George W. Bush was in office.

Framed by The Mamas and the Papas (‘California Dreamin’’) and Crowded House (‘Don’t Dream It’s Over’), and including duets with Michael Bublé on ‘Alone Again (Naturally)’ and Bryan Adams on ‘Feels Like Home’, plus other hallowed classics such as ‘Superstar’ and ‘Desperado’, I wonder how she even begins to try and make these songs new.

“Well, it helps to be quite naïve and realise that they’re hallowed classics after you’ve done them,” she says. “You’ve got to put your head in the sand a little bit, you know, and not kind of think about it. I’ve spent my whole career doing that, because I’m singing songs that were done by Frank Sinatra and Nat King Cole. After we did ‘Superstar’, they said you just can’t help thinking about Luther [Vandross] and I went ‘Luther? I forgot about that!’”

Hearing ‘Desperado’ and knowing that Krall is a huge Ray Charles fan, I’m reminded of the quote in the sleeve notes to The Very Best of The Eagles in which Don Henley states: ‘When I play it and sing it, I think of Ray Charles. It’s really a Southern gothic thing’.

Diana Krall

“Well, there you go,” Krall says. “And anybody who gives The Eagles a hard time should look at that quote. But I associate it more with Linda Ronstadt. I really love Linda and I heard a lot of her at home. My dad had those records she did with Nelson Riddle.”

If the Bob Dylan title track, written in 1971 but only released in 1991 as part of The Bootleg Series Volumes 1-3, sounds like a folk song that’s been around forever (“I have seen you standing in the smoky haze. And I know that you’re gonna be mine one of these days”) and ‘California Dreamin’ features harmonic substitutions that take the breath away, the real revelation of the album is McCartney’s ‘If I Take You Home Tonight’. It’s almost impossible to believe that the song is an outtake from his 2012 Grammy-winning standards album, Kisses on the Bottom – named after a line from the album’s lead-off song ‘I’m Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter’, as every Fats Waller fan will know – produced by Tommy LiPuma and for which Krall acted as musical director. The song is, quite simply, drop-dead gorgeous. “I know,” Krall agrees, “that’s why I did it. I think it’s my favourite song on the record, actually.” How it didn’t make the cut on Kisses is an unfathomable mystery.

Given that Wallflower is a collection of classic songs from the late 1960s to the present day, the one real surprise is that there’s nothing by Canada’s holy trinity of singer-songwriters: Neil Young, Leonard Cohen and Joni Mitchell. Except, there very nearly was. Krall did actually record ‘A Case of You’ for the album. At the time of our interview the track list had still not been finalised, although Krall tells me that the version of ‘A Case of You’, re-recorded with Vince Mendoza, was “stunning”. Tantalisingly, it’s one of a number of songs that didn’t make the final cut. Krall sings Mitchell, arranged by Mendoza. Now that I would love to hear. Perhaps at some point in the future an expanded edition of the album (The Complete Wallflower?) will be made available, complete with outtakes.

When you think of Krall’s die-hard jazz fans who’ve grown up with her early albums such as Only Trust Your Heart, All For You and Love Scenes, I wonder if – after Glad Rag Doll and Wallflower – they should be getting nervous now that she might be doing something similar to Nat King Cole and leaving her jazz material behind.

“No, no, because I’m not going to go out and tour this record,” she says. “I’m still doing jazz concerts, I’m doing my last Glad Rag Doll concert on Sunday with the whole stage set-up. I don’t want to abandon jazz and swing music and all the things I love. The same question happened to me with Look of Love. It was a similar thing; there wasn’t a lot of jazz playing in there. I’ll just figure it out as I go along and I’ll look forward to playing my next jazz record, I guess.”

This is good news for the music. In a feature in the July 2014 issue of DownBeat celebrating the magazine’s 80th anniversary, ‘The 80 Coolest Things in Jazz Today’, Krall is honoured as one of five so-called Gateway Artists, people ‘who have drawn listeners to the beauty of jazz’. Harry Connick Jr, Robert Glasper, Wynton Marsalis and Esperanza Spalding complete this select quintet.

“Well, if it wasn’t for Harry Connick and Wynton Marsalis I wouldn’t be doing this. When that Wynton record Think Of One came out I was like, wow! It was at the start of my college years. Then I went to see When Harry Met Sally and I heard Harry Connick and I thought: I want to do that. Harry’s a true jazz pianist and I have so much gratitude for him, so I’m glad he’s included in there because there’s only one of him and he’s an unbelievable musician.”

The one disappointing thing to note about the list – disappointing in that it doesn’t reflect the reality of the current scene at all – is that of the 80 coolest things, there are just six women. In addition to Krall and Spalding, the other four are guitarist Mary Halvorson, vocalist Cécile McLorin Salvant, pianist Hiromi Uehara, plus the NYC-based concert producer and Blue Note Records exec producer, Megan Stabile.

“Well, that’s not very good,” Krall says. “What about Cassandra Wilson and Terri Lyne Carrington, and the million other people? Dianne Reeves, Renee Rosnes? It’s too bad there’s only six women.”

From the straight-ahead trio date of her debut Stepping Out (1993) to the perfect pop of Wallflower, Krall has carved out one of the most successful careers of any female jazz artist, with Grammy Awards and multi-platinum albums too numerous to mention. Let’s just hope that there’s a little more Frim Fram Sauce along the way.

Album Review

Diana Krall – Wallflower ★★★★

Diana Krall WallflowerVerve  

Diana Krall (v, p); plus various personnel including David Foster (p). Rec. date not stated. Buy from Amazon / Buy from iTunes

Produced by David Foster, who also takes on main piano duties, this new studio album from Diana Krall presents a 12-track collection of songs from the 1960s to the present day. Krall only plays piano on the title track – a Bob Dylan rarity that, once heard, immediately lodges itself in your consciousness – and the occasional solo, so you can’t help but focus on her voice (although Foster’s no slouch on the piano). And it’s captured here to perfection: late night, grown up, über-sensual à la Julie London. If the album’s two duets, ‘Alone Again (Naturally)’ with Michael Bublé and ‘Feels Like Home’ with Bryan Adams, are largely forgettable, there are some genuine standouts including heartfelt arrangements of ‘California Dreamin’ and ‘Superstar’, plus a surprisingly touching take on the Crowded House hit, ‘Don’t Dream It’s Over’. Best of all is Paul McCartney’s ‘If I Take You Home Tonight, an outtake from his 2012 Grammy-winning album, Kisses on the Bottom. Krall was musical director on that album and clearly recognises a great song when she hears it. – Peter Quinn

Photos: Top image by Verve; all other images by Tim Dickeson 

This article originally appeared in the October 2014 issue of Jazzwise. Subscribe to Jazzwise

The 10 most memorable Louis Armstrong moments on YouTube

Louis Armstrong

The great trumpeter Miles Davis once said of Louis Armstrong: “I can’t even remember a time when he sounded bad playing the trumpet. Never. Not even one time.” Duke Ellington, too, paid tribute to Armstrong, saying: "He was born poor, died rich, and never hurt anyone along the way." Below are just a few of the memorable moments that Louis Armstrong left behind on film, courtesy of YouTube.

1) When the Saints go Marching in

Louis may look slightly embarrassed when Jewel Brown starts dancing but nobody can upstage Satchmo when he puts his trumpet to his lips.

2) Hello Dolly

Who cares about the lyrics? Louis gives up on singing the song part-way through the verse to play his trumpet instead. Keep watching to the end – nobody can end a note like Louis does at the climax of this raucous account.

3) Nobody Knows the Trouble I've seen

Louis couldn't help but sing with a smile, even when singing the lyric: "Nobody knows the trouble I've seen / Nobody knows my sorrow." Still, this is a surprisingly moving account of the Spiritual.

4) Umbrella Man

Two of the greatest Jazz trumpeters of all come together in a little comedy number that quickly transforms into a play-off followed by a scat-off in which Dizzy Gillespie gives Satchmo a good run for his money.

5) Birth of the Blues

Perhaps the greatest singer of the 20th century strolls onstage, cigarette in hand, and struggles to contain his laughter when Louis sings directly into his face. Here are two extraordinary musicians having the time of their lives.

6) Basin Street Blues  

Louis Armstrong clearly thrives on having a first-rate backing group in this recording from 1964 of a song that he first recorded in 1928. Each player is given a little chance to shine as Louis goes back to his roots.

7) Dinah

This film from 1933 shows that Armstrong always tended to move freely between the lyrics of the song and his own vocalisations. His joyous solo at the close of the track is pure sunlight.

8) What's My Line?

What's My Line? is rendered farcical by having one of the most distinctive and famous voices in history on the show. Never was Armstrong so quiet on television, nevertheless, he still finds the opportunity for a little impromptu song:

9) Uncle Satchmo's Lullaby

One of the strangest duets in the history of music, and the little girl's dolly is truly the stuff of nightmares. From the 1959 film La Paloma, once watched, this scene can (unfortunately) never be forgotten...

10) What a Wonderful World

We couldn't leave any survey without including Satchmo's most famous song. Remarkably, this video has received more than 80 million views on YouTube, which just serves to demonstrate his enduring popularity today. 

This website uses cookies to ensure you get the best experience on our website

If you do not change browser settings, you consent to continue. Learn more

I understand

Call 0800 137201 to subscribe or click here to email the subscriptions team

Get in touch

Jazzwise Magazine,
St. Judes Church,
Dulwich Road, 
Herne Hill,
London, SE24 0PD.

0208 677 0012

Latest Tweets

@ashleyslater247 hahaha
Follow Us - @Jazzwise
Happy birthday to British sax star Tim Garland @EditionRecords @TimGarlandMusic @jazzfm @vortexjazz @KirkdaleBooks https://t.co/bt66XvZ6Da
Follow Us - @Jazzwise

Newsletter

Sign up to the Jazzwise monthly E-Newsletter

 

© 2016 MA Business & Leisure Ltd registered in England and Wales number 02923699 Registered office: Jesses Farm, Snow Hill, Dinton, Salisbury, SP3 5HN . Designed By SE24 MEDIA