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Music Reviews

Bobby Darin

Bobby Darin

Aces Back To Back

Hyena

A few years ago when a Bobby Darin box set came out I heard an interview with its producer, a longtime Darin friend, on NPR. They played a demo tape of one of Darin’s songs, recorded, if memory serves, with him just sitting on a beach, singing and playing guitar into a portable tape recorder. I can’t remember the name of the song, though it was almost certainly from his “folk rock” period. But I’ve always remembered the image, and the evident love with which the producer spoke of his friend.

Something has stayed with me since then about Darin as a kind of fluid performer, whose audience didn’t always have time for the A to Z of his interests. Those who associated him with Vegas show bands, and liked that, didn’t see why he felt the need to sing that dirty hippie music, and the dirty hippie crowd distrusted the intentions of Mr. Clean, White And Neat trying to take on their concerns.

Perhaps what best symbolizes Bobby Darin’s awkward place among the performers of his day is the live version of his composition “Simple Song of Freedom,” included here. This starts out kind of stilted (“Hey there, Mr. black man…”) and finishes with a hideously inappropriate Vegas flourish (“Freeeedom!” the backup singers screech), but in-between, Darin’s sincerity is obvious. It was 1971. And he was, by most reports, genuinely concerned with what was going on around him and not merely angling for publicity, though it’s hard to believe he was blind to that aspect. But in 2004, it’s harder not to lend a sympathetic ear to sentiments like “…leave the people be who love to sing” and “We the people here don’t want a war.”

Rewind. Here are some things I knew, or thought I knew, about Bobby Darin prior to hearing this album:

I remember my mom singing “Splish Splash” when I was a boy. I thought she liked him a lot (she denies this now), so I consigned him to the place where you consign such people. Although, a favorite story in George Burns’ All My Best Friends told me that Darin was in Burns’ words,

“…some kid. The day of Gracie’s funeral he was worried about me staying alone in the house. So he stayed with me that night. Nobody asked him to, he just did it. That was very important to me.”

That made me like him a little more. But I still didn’t think his music held much of a good time for me. Of course, if one keeps half an ear open at the movies and on airplanes, one knows “Dream Lover” and “Mack The Knife.” Plus I knew he used to be married to Sandra Dee, and I thought I knew what that meant.

Aces Back To Back is producer Joel Dorn’s ambitious attempt to put together a case for Darin as both underrated and influential. Joined by Darin’s manager Steve Blauner and archivist Jimmy Scalia, Dorn has put together a 20-song set containing some but not all of the hits along with lesser-known material, all in rare and/or live performances.

Roughly the first half of this CD is devoted to what the accompanying DVD of the same material calls “The Darin everybody knows.” This is the Darin who sings “Beyond The Sea” and “Mack The Knife.” The Darin who one of my favorite writers, Will Friedwald, said in his thorough and expert Jazz Singing was “easily, after Sinatra, the greatest of the Swingin’ Lovers.”

But this material was recorded and filmed for Darin’s TV variety show in 1972, and that was not a good period for pop music. Though it’s hard to fault Darin’s vocals on the CD version, the DVD reveals what looks like a man on autopilot (check the eyes) who was near the end of his life.

For the most part, the material doesn’t help. “This Could Be The Start Of Something Big,” doesn’t sound like it. But at least that can arguably be called a classic, one of only two of Steve Allen’s alleged 8,500 songs to penetrate the national consciousness. I don’t agree, but it can be. But “Alone Again (Naturally)?” “Song Sung Blue?” Darin works what little drama can be found in the lyrics and is never less than tuneful, but it’s like getting John Huston to read jump-rope rhymes. Yeah, it would probably sound pretty good, but it would never be anything more than a curiosity.

Not all these songs are a total wash, especially a kidding-around version of “Beyond The Sea,” where Darin does seem to be having fun, and the obligatory “Mack.” This was a song he made so much his own that even Old Blue Eyes didn’t touch it till nearly 10 years after Darin was dead.

On this set, what these songs do best is set up the contrast to Darin’s folk rock stage, represented by Dylan’s “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight” and the pretty but lyrically baffling “If I Were A Carpenter” (you thought “I Am The Walrus” was surreal). When Darin gets the Vegas showroom out of his voice, he’s a much better singer.

Somewhere in between the rock and a hard place representing Darin’s folk and showman aspirations, respectively, are a couple of country ditties. “Jive” is nice-and-easy, and sounds like the best radio announcer theme song you ever heard (“Jive’s alive, from nine to five, my main man!”), but it’s very likable. “Long Time Movin'” is more substantial, with a clever lyric listing the things the singer won’t miss as he moves on.

Finally comes a too brief medley of standards performed with (unless my ears deceive me) a jazz quartet. These should make the final argument to anyone still inclined to dismiss Darin as a lightweight.

So what’s my picture of Darin now? Well, it’s of someone who really should have sung a lot more jazz. Certainly the jazz stuff — “Moon River” and “All The Way” especially — has held up a lot better than the “showbiz” material with which this set opens. He may or may not have been, as Dorn argues, “one of the greatest entertainers and singers of the 20th Century.” But on the evidence presented here, my conclusion would be: Underrated to be sure, and worthy of further investigation.

Bobby Darin: www.bobbydarin.com

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Music Reviews

Skip Heller

Skip Heller

fakebook

Hyena

This album is consciously a showcase for guitarist Skip Heller’s band rather than himself as a soloist. That band includes Robert Drasnin on reeds, Joe Doria on organ and John Wicks on percussion. Drasnin’s clarinet is featured to especially good effect on the opening “Yodel,” and Doria’s lines are fresh throughout.

The songs are an interesting mix. “Never Can Say Goodbye” gets a disappointingly muzak treatment, but “Monk’s Mood” is played in melodious form and is a solo showcase for Heller. And everyone who records “Powerhouse,” better known as the conveyor belt music from the Warner Brothers cartoons, goes to heaven. Known fact. Stan Ridgeway lays down a nice vocal on “The Man In Me,” which serves mainly to remind that it’s long past time I had his Mosquitos album replaced on CD.

In an interview with Goldmine last year, included with the press materials, Heller says he sees “…jazz as a ‘how,’ not a ‘what’.” Seems like a good state of mind to me. How many dusty, dictionary definitions of what jazz “is” can we take (I’m looking at you, Ken Burns)? I’ve long thought if there is one solid thing about it, it is that it is fluid.

As a guitarist, Heller’s jazzy-cool style sometimes reminds me of Vinnie Zummo, a former player with Joe Jackson, and now solo artist and session musician. Like Zummo, Heller is extremely able, but his taste for sonic wallpaper is sometimes his undoing. Heller is a smart, talented guy with a good ear for his fellow artists, but maybe not quite enough to say.

Pleasant, but unremarkable.

Skip Heller: http://www.skipheller.com/ • Hyena Records: http://www.hyenarecords.com/

Categories
Music Reviews

Snatches of Pink

Snatches of Pink

Hyena

MoRisen

Who knew?

Who knew that we were overdue for a glam rock revival? Well, the jury might be out on that, but if your tastes run to T Rex, Hanoi Rocks and wearing really high platform shoes, then Hyena needs to be on your wish list. Brawny songs, loud guitars and the obligatory Bowie cover (“Moonage Daydream” this go round) bring back the mid ’70s in all their excessive glory. Snatches of Pink have been around forever, and while they aren’t going to make anyone forget Marc Bolan or Mick Ronson, they certainly attack the concept of hard rock with a vengeance, and more power to ’em. If your favorite thing about Velvet Goldmine was the soundtrack (and if it wasn’t, you need to up your meds…) then Snatches of Pink might be just the thing for ya. Rock on, all you young dudes.

MoRisen Records: http://www.morisen.com/

Categories
Music Reviews

Great “Live” Jazz

Great “Live” Jazz

Various Artists

Hyena

Joel Dorn and the boys and girls at Hyena records have put together a new, low-priced (less than $10 at CD Now/Amazon) compilation of live jazz, drawing from their catalogue of releases both on Hyena and Dorn’s previous label, M. Since I reviewed most of those original releases, what I have done here is put together a “compilation” of sorts of my own, quoting my old reviews as appropriate and adding new material when necessary.

That’s right — it’s Ink 19’s equivalent of a cheesy sitcom “clip show.” So just pretend I’m being held at gunpoint and being forced to ruminate on the recent past…

• •

It starts with Les McCann’s rhythmic “Maleah,” an immediate hit with me. This is what I want from a piano player, sheets of cool beauty slowly melted by warm, silver ripples. Al Cohn & Zoot Sims’ “Mr. George” follows; a tenor sax duet falls into the category of music that is perfectly fine, but does not happen to do anything for me personally…at least at first. I must admit that by the end, the way the two swing together has really grown on me.

• •

Someone once said that if you cannot tap your foot to it, it is not a jazz song. This may be unacceptably limiting, but if we accept that definition, then “Work Song” from Cannonball Adderley has to be one of the jazziest songs I have ever heard. Man does that thing roll!

• •

“My Foolish Heart” by Stan Getz is next. This is the perfect soundtrack to watching the rain on the windows of a train. As you ride away thinking of a meeting with an old lover in which sparks flew but turned to ash when you tried to catch them like fireflies.

Trust me.

• •

Freddie Hubbard & Jimmy Heath’s “Bluesville” is a good jazz-funky jam from 1965. Heath’s tenor sax just bounces along and Hubbard’s trumpet punctuates the duo’s thoughts like the score to a good thriller. It does not take a special ear to say that Eddie Harris was a remarkably skilled tenor sax player, or to appreciate the quotes that he mixes into his “Chicago Serenade” (I counted “My Favorite Things,” “So What?” and I think, “The Odd Couple”). Or as Joel Dorn himself told me,

“‘Chicago Serenade,’ that is as good an example of how you can swing lightly and pull an audience with you… “

• •

“Night Train” is more to my liking than some Rahsaan Roland Kirk I’ve heard, being a rare instance of him playing a bluesy, honking tenor (in duet with Kenny Rogers on baritone). Unfortunately, to my ears the rhythm section sometimes swings like a dusty crate here, but why pick? “Slow Freight,” a solo piano blues by Ray Bryant, is next to appear. Dorn’s typically chatty, informal liner notes have it that in his humble opinion, Bryant is “the living master of the solo piano.” I dunno if I would go that far. The stripped-down sound of Ryuichi Sakamoto’s piano pieces is more to my personal liking — but there ain’t no flies on Bryant, neither. Or on Sonny Stitt’s Deuces Wild, with Don Patterson on organ and Stitt on electric saxophone.

• •

So: Some wonderful soloists leading bands of great musicians playing great music. What more do you want out of life?

Categories
Music Reviews

Aaron Neville

Aaron Neville

Orchid in the Storm

Hyena

Originally released as an EP in 1983, Aaron Neville’s Orchid in the Storm is now the latest reissue on Joel Dorn’s Hyena Records.

One of the most distinctive soul singers around, both with his brothers and on his own, Neville’s voice often reminds me of an electric organ, smoothly played and beautifully modulated. One or two of his hit songs like “Don’t Take Away My Heaven” even managed to make pop radio worth listening to for five minutes in the nineties.

And that was with a Diane Warren song and mainstream production, yet. Here, he pays tribute to the sound of the R&B/doo-wop groups of his youth like The Drifters and The Penguins: Strings, beautiful vocals and classic songs all combining to make something joyful and heartfelt, like the first time a beautiful girl lets you kiss her, on the dance floor or off. Exquisitely sung, sometimes multi-tracked vocal arrangements comparable to Marvin Gaye or Kirsty MacColl (no small praise coming from me) set a romantic and intimate tone that is irresistible.

In order to make the EP more of an LP, Dorn and Neville have added four bonus tracks that originally appeared on compilation albums and such. Numbers like the “Mickey Mouse March” from Hal Willner’s Disney album (damn, I need to have that replaced on CD) fit perfectly. But even with these extras, this is a short CD — a little over half an hour long. I was left wanting more, hoping that if this re-release is successful Neville and Dorn will reunite for a sequel.

Oddly, one of those bonus tracks comes closest, to my ears, to the purest ideal of the collection: “Save the Last Dance For Me,” from a 1995 tribute to the late songwriter Doc Pomus, demands to be listened to. Even when you are just trying to skim through tracks looking for things to say about them, you find yourself stopping to let this one play on. Trust me.

The law of averages being what it is, someday Hyena is going to send me something that doesn’t gladden my heart and make me feel like a record company flack. Unless it goes under before it has a chance to disappoint me, like Dorn’s previous Label M.

But that day has not yet come (knock on wood), and until it does, what can I say? Another winner from Joel Dorn.

Hyena Records: http://www.hyenarecords.com

Categories
Music Reviews

Les McCann / Eddie Harris / Rahsaan Roland Kirk / Cannonball Add

Les McCann

Les Is More

Eddie Harris

A Tale Of Two Cities

Rahsaan Roland Kirk

The Man Who Cried Fire

Cannonball Adderley

Radio Nights

Hyena

As I’m writing these words, our… let’s just call him a “president”… is on a campaign blitz through ten states to boost GOP candidates in the upcoming midterm election. By the time you read it, however, this will be old news.

This sense of displacement is sometimes akin to how I feel reviewing these reissues. The four titles now being reissued on jazz “populist” Joel Dorn’s latest label, Hyena, were initially released in the ’80s on his first, Night Records. Since then and before now, he has been the producer behind Label M and 32 Records, cherry picking from the musical orchards of his past.

(See upcoming interview elsewhere on Ink 19 for more on Joel Dorn)

Someone once said that if you can’t tap your foot to it, it’s not a jazz song. This may be unacceptably limiting, but if we accept that definition, then “Work Song” from Cannonball Adderley’s Radio Nights has to be one of the jazziest songs I’ve ever heard. Man does that thing roll!

The performances on Radio Nights were originally broadcast live from a New York club in the late 1960’s. According to the notes, Cannon never planned a set before the group took the stage and the stuff they played depended more than usual on communion with the audience.

A Web site called “Jazzitude” informs me “some accused Adderley of ‘selling out’ due to the enormous popularity of his group’s funky crossover hits.” I guess we’re never going to get rid of the mentality that says hits automatically equals lack of substance… and Madonna makes that a continual question mark. One might think that having played in Miles Davis’s Kind Of Blue sextet would earn the man some slack, but no, apparently not.

Of course, some 35 years after the fact, debates about this kind of thing seem sillier than they must have back in the day. Didn’t everyone know who these players were going to be? Didn’t they know that Miles Davis was going to be MILES DAVIS, or that Cannon’s group here would one day be called legendary?

Of course, they didn’t. And, the flip side for those of us coming to such greats late in life is that we approach them sometimes overly conscious of their places in the pantheon. Sometimes I think musicians can’t win for losing, even when they’re dead.

But I digress.

Now, back to the music… Let me put it this way: I suspect there may be better Cannonball Adderley CDs, but just because there’s better doesn’t mean this one is the worst. You dig? Besides, you have to love a jazz musician who plays improvisations on themes from Fiddler on the Roof, don’t you?

Rahsaan Roland Kirk’s The Man Who Cried Fire disturbs my cats. This is not necessarily a sour note to sound — Davis’s Sketches Of Spain has the same effect, and that’s one of Miles signature and singular albums, flawless according to the All-Music Guide (and I like it, too). Admittedly amazing in the breadth of his gifts, Kirk was called by that same AMG “Arguably the most exciting saxophone soloist in jazz history.” His facility is displayed here on tracks like “Bye Bye Blackbird,” in which he also briefly essays an impersonation of Miles. But I have found his sputters, skwonks, gulps and vocalizations a bit dreary on previous hearings, to be honest. One can’t help but admire the versatility and energy required, but I still find it a little monotonous on tracks like “You Did It You Did It” here, in which Kirk sounds like Mr. T having a heart attack while choking on a whistle.

Still, this material makes a stronger case for Kirk’s deserved prominence than I’ve heard before; “Night Train” is more to my liking, being a rare instance of him playing a bluesy, honking tenor (in duet with Kenny Rogers on baritone). Unfortunately, to my ears the rhythm section sometimes swings like a dusty crate here, but why pick?

“A Visit From the Blues,” from Kirk’s last concert in Paris, is flat-out beautiful before you know that. But all the more so when you read in the liner notes (reproduced from the original, as with all these titles) that Kirk was partially paralyzed following a stroke at the time. Not to mention being on dialysis.

Now about what I was saying about displacement, up top there…This is an excerpt from the lyrics to Les McCann’s “Compared To What,” a stomping, pounding live recording of which finishes up his compilation Les Is More, and which was a big hit for him and Eddie Harris in 1968: “The President, he’s got his war / Folks don’t know just what it’s for / Nobody gives us a rhyme or reason / Have one doubt, they call it treason

1968, ladies and gentlemen, talking to us. I don’t know whether to be pleased because some things are timeless… or depressed, because… some things are timeless.

I seem to have digressed again.

These albums were originally drawn from “underground” tapes of shows, many of which the artists themselves did not know were being recorded. As a result the audio quality varies at times, a buzz being audible on Kirk’s “Multi-Horn Variations” for instance. But that ambiance is still kind of a kick, evocative: you can almost hear who’s listening and who is not. The records are full of affection for the music, the musicians, and the audience — even that square lady who’s not listening… yet.

After listening to Les Is More, I can hear why Joel Dorn says in the liner notes that McCann is ” a consummate entertainer.” Drawn from over 500 tapes in McCann’s personal collection, this is a portrait of art in the air, whether it’s on the radio (vintage interview snippets are used as links) or in the clubs: What you call your soul-jazz.

It starts with the rhythmic “Maleah,” an immediate hit with me. This is what I want from a piano player, sheets of cool beauty slowly melted by warm, silver ripples; followed a track later by the slow-burning “Samia.” Featuring Eddie Harris on tenor saxophone, this one somehow snuck by me on first two hearings, but on the third grabbed me in its embrace. This is why we never say things about these collections until we’ve gotten to know them, children. Next comes an interesting grouping of tracks on which McCann does not play; but recorded for himself in nightclubs of the ’60s. An “Unidentified Blues” by Stanley Turrentine, “Somewhere” and “Oh Babe” by Cannonball Adderley are the most welcome.

Getting back to McCann, “Little Blue Volkswagon” is a little too blue for me, but your mileage may vary, and besides, how blue can you get… as a man who should know once asked. McCann’s definitively slinky “Clapformation” follows.

Eddie Harris’s Tale of Two Cities combines live performances from 1983 and 1978, in Chicago and San Francisco, respectively. It doesn’t take a special ear to say that Harris was a remarkably skilled player, or to appreciate the quotes that he mixes into his “Chicago Serenade” (I counted “My Favorite Things,” “So What?” and I think, “The Odd Couple”). A multi-instrumentalist, besides playing tenor and electric (on the playful “Illusionary Dreams”) saxophones, Harris scats very likeably here on “Sonnymoon For Two.” He also plays a strangely elegant duet with his own beautiful (prerecorded) piano on “Don’t Let Me Go.”

More than any of the rest of these albums, this one leaves me curious to hear more from the featured artist. I suspect Harris deserves more attention; he was a player and composer of distinction who sounds like he would have been a fun guy to go see. Maybe even more fun to get to know, because as strong as the music is, that’s how friendly the little talks before and after the songs sound.

Harris came up in the ’60s, playing and recording on his own or, occasionally, with McCann, and had a few hits in that decade. But the next 25 years don’t seem to have been as good to him, though he continued releasing albums till his death in 1996.

The consensus seems to be that he was underrated. Based on the evidence I’ve heard presented so far on this, the Les McCann, and compilation appearances, I think you could certainly make a case for that. Harris also seems to have been torpedoed by purists for getting too close to rock (for more about him, I refer you to the interview with Dorn).

This is what I said in a review of the Head Jazz compilation that was one of the last releases on M, Dorn’s previous label: “M is producer Joel Dorn’s project, and it could be seen as a vanity label were it not for the fact that that the compilations and albums are so good (I haven’t heard one yet that wasn’t worthwhile to some degree) and that Dorn actually is a pretty big name in jazz.”

All this goes for Hyena, too. Loyalty to labels is a ridiculous thing, but the releases from Dorn and Co. over the past three years have been some of the most reliable and consistent I’ve heard. I was sorry when Label M lost it’s funding, and I’m glad that Dorn has a new place to play.

For completely selfish reasons, of course.

Hyena Records: http://www.hyenarecords.com/