Weekly Wire
Nashville Scene Vocal Chords

Veteran bassist makes the connection between jazz and pre-rock pop

By Ron Wynn

OCTOBER 4, 1999:  Jazz vocalists are enjoying a banner year in 1999, with Diana Krall, Cassandra Wilson, Harry Connick Jr., and Dianne Reeves all scoring hit albums. Audience response to such relatively new performers as Kevin Mahogany and Kurt Elling has been overwhelmingly positive, and the industry is finding room to record several established veterans, among them Mose Allison, Jimmy Scott, Abbey Lincoln, and Freddie Cole.

Ironically, the year's finest vocal project comes from a band led by a bassist, Charlie Haden's Quartet West. The foursome's classic '91 release Haunted Heart superbly blended film scores and jazz interpretations, weaving Jeri Southern's and Jo Stafford's soothing vocals around rumbling, bluesy tenor sax solos by Ernie Watts, Larance Marable's nimble drumming, pianist Alan Broadbent's equally fluid phrases, and Haden's own robust bass lines. Now, some eight years later, their latest release, The Art of the Song, wonderfully juxtaposes show tunes, film standards, and originals with orchestral and quartet backing, resulting in a masterpiece that reaffirms jazz's links with pre-rock pop.

Haden has always been a stylistic maverick; his earliest professional stints came as a child singer with a family band that toured the South and occasionally appeared on the Grand Ole Opry. From the late '50s until the mid-'80s, he split his time between experimental, avant-garde units (most notably Ornette Coleman's late-'50s and early-'60s ensembles) and more traditional groups (Keith Jarrett's late-'60s and early-'70s quintets). He also organized and led various editions of The Liberation Music Orchestra, a freewheeling cooperative that performed everything from gospel to outré jazz. In the '80s, he played in a unique trio with saxophonist Jan Garbarek and percussionist/guitarist Egberto Gismonti.

Still, Haden has always loved the conventional song form, and when he assembled Quartet West in 1986, he chose players who were comfortable not just with improvisation, but also with background vocals and with finding new ways of interpreting classic songs. Stylistic flexibility was another prerequisite; Haden has never worried about whether certain songs or settings are appropriate for jazz albums, and as a result, he has expanded Quartet West's audience without sacrificing one iota of artistic integrity.

He's also uncanny at selecting the right vocalists for particular pieces. Shirley Horn and Bill Henderson divide the singing duties on The Art of the Song, and both offer marvelous efforts. Horn's rendition of "Lonely Town," which was originally sung by Mary Martin in the 1945 play On the Town, mirrors the delicacy of Martin's version but expresses far more grit and vulnerability. She's equally delightful on "In Love in Vain," though some film buffs may prefer Jeanne Crain's more sprightly take in the 1946 film Centennial Summer.

Horn doesn't have the greatest range, but she possesses a shimmering, joyous charm, and she doesn't try to duplicate a prior vocalist's approach. Her best vocal is "The Folks Who Live on the Hill": Bing Crosby zipped through the Jerome Kern/Oscar Hammerstein II original with an inviting congeniality, but Horn's treatment takes a more distant approach to the folks of the title.

Better known as a booming, shouting wailer able to handle lush ballads and blues, Henderson sings with more restraint and less flair on "You My Love" and Haden's "Easy on the Heart." While he doesn't make anyone forget Sinatra's definitive "You My Love," his twists, animated delivery, and emphatic conclusion make for a decent interpretation, and he's especially dynamic on "Ruth's Waltz," another Haden original. While not as compelling a lyric interpreter as Horn, Henderson is more dramatic, and he's better at fitting his voice into sometimes crowded instrumental settings.

Though also a wonderful pianist, Horn confines herself to singing on this date, as Quartet West ably handles much of the musical accompaniment. Watts has been the group's primary soloist since its inception, and his tenor work remains exciting. He plays with a precise, measured ease, eschewing showy effects in favor of full, warm statements and often dazzling passages. Broadbent is also a careful improviser; he doesn't indulge in the barrage of octave leaps or pounding two-hand movements patented by the hordes of McCoy Tyner imitators. Instead, he provides lush interjections on such songs as "Why Did I Choose You" or "Scenes From a Silver Screen,"adding elegant keyboard refrains to string arrangements from a chamber orchestra conducted by Murray Adler.

Haden chooses an apt conclusion for an album making the connection between song form and jazz tradition. His vocal on this last selection, "Wayfaring Stranger," sometimes glides and at other times wavers, but it ultimately serves as a touching lament and tribute to the parents with whom he began his career. It's the perfect wrap for a work that illustrates not only how much theatrical and film scores have influenced jazz, but also how all three are an integral and irreplaceable part of this nation's musical heritage.

Memphis blues again

Memphis musicians Gus Cannon, Phineas Newborn, and Shirley Brown made brilliant releases during the '60s and '70s that got minimal distribution and promotion before disappearing from sight. Among this threesome, only Brown remains alive; she's currently recording for Malaco. But thanks to reissue mania, the fine albums these artists made are available again.

Jug band music, which blended Delta blues with hokum lyrics and country riffs, had its brief heyday during the late '20s and early '30s. Gus Cannon, an invigorating vocalist and fine banjo picker from Mississippi, toured the Midwest with medicine shows during the '20s. He teamed with Will Shade to make some records for RCA between 1927 and 1930 as Gus Cannon's Jug Stompers. They quickly became passé by the mid-'30s, and Cannon returned to a life of playing for neighbors and scuffling at odd jobs.

Then in 1963, some folkies called the Rooftop Singers topped the charts with a Cannon composition, "Walk Right In." Then 79 years old, he was quickly ushered into a studio to cut an LP of 13 songs fleshed out with salty narration and biographical nuggets. Newly reissued by Fantasy, Walk Right In is truly both a relic and a classic; the CD mastering clearly accents the under-recorded accompaniment of Shade on jug and Milton Roby on washboard, while Cannon's voice still sounds coarse and acerbic. It's by no means great singing, but the disc provides a wonderful portrait of a bygone era.

Leonard Feather once said he considered pianist Phineas Newborn one of the three greatest modern jazz stylists, comparable to Art Tatum and Bud Powell. Newborn could play as fast as anyone, with dazzling harmonic flair and even more amazing rhythmic intensity. He was an unquestioned virtuoso, able to quote Bach one minute, then zip through "Amazing Grace" or "I Got a Right to Sing the Blues" the next. Unfortunately, his career was marred by battles with mental illness and by unsympathetic record labels.

Here Is Phineas: The Piano Artistry of Phineas Newborn Jr. (Koch/Atlantic) was recorded in 1956, when Newborn was just starting to astound listeners. The solo numbers, particularly "The More I See You," are breathtaking; here, he ranges across the keys so fast it seems impossible, yet he never fluffs any notes or misses any chords. Veteran bassist Oscar Pettiford and drummer Kenny Clarke are eclipsed by Newborn on "Celia" and "I'm Beginning to See the Light," while his guitarist brother Calvin joins him on several other selections.

Newborn was only 24 when he made this record, but he never achieved the stardom many forecast for him at the time of its release. Here Is Phineas reminds us of how staggering a talent he was, and what a loss jazz suffered with his death in 1989.

Shirley Brown scored Stax's last big hit in 1974 with "Woman to Woman." A year later, her career was derailed, caught in Stax's shattering descent into bankruptcy. The label tried to regroup in 1977, and Brown rejoined the roster and made the LP For the Real Feeling. But by that time, it was too late for both Brown and Stax.

Many people never heard For the Real Feeling, since it vanished almost immediately upon release. But Brown reared back and belted out bluesy numbers like "Love Starved" and "After a Night Like This," as well as steamy ballads such as "Move Me-Move Me" and "Eyes Can't See." The album didn't pack much commercial muscle, but that wasn't Brown's fault.

In reissue, none of these releases is going to generate any pop excitement, but it's great to have them back in circulation. They're further examples of the excellence that has long been the norm in Memphis music--even when its purveyors go unrewarded.

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