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In the history of the great jazz men of the 20th century, one could wax endlessly on the players who graced the stand with the likes of Duke Ellington and Count Basie.  Leaders at the very top of their game, both the Duke and the Count were able to not only pick the best to join them but also cultivated orchestras that brought out the best in the musicians.

Think about it for a moment.  They played non-stop.  They toured at length and when they weren’t on the road they were in recording studios or sitting in for an evening with someone else’s group in a smoky nightclub.   Those cats were blowin’ man!

Lester Young, nicknamed “Prez”, was born in Mississippi in 1909 but by the early thirties had settled in Kansas City.  KC was a hot bed of jazz and Count Basie, a NJ native, had set up shop there after being in Bennie Moten’s band and Prez eventually landed in the tenor sax chair in the Count’s orchestra from 1933 to 1940.

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A wonderful photo of Prez blowing hot while the Count listens

After leaving Basie in 1940 (legend is that he refused to play on Friday the 13th and was sacked but I find that hard to believe) Young set out on his own. He led a few small groups and backed up Billie Holiday occasion on a few studio dates.  If you’re looking for a great album from this period, check out “A Musical Romance” – Billie Holiday and Lester Young.  A true gem.

I’ve read where he also worked with the great Nat King Cole on some of Cole’s early jazz combo work but I’ll need to research that a bit more.

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Bille and Prez

Prez was drafted into the Army for the Second World War and unlike many of the white musicians, he wasn’t assigned to a band unit (like Glenn Miller’s or Artie Shaw’s) but was among the enlisted where sax playing was not permitted.  He landed in military jail on a one-year drug sentence and was dishonorably discharged.  Following his Army years his drinking increased steadily and began to interfere with his ability to stay in a group or meet recording dates.

Prez style had begun to change to a more emotional approach to phrasing before the war and continued to do so afterwards.  Although he struggled with alcohol his post-war recordings are considered among hs finest.

He sat in with his old boss, Count Basie, every now and then including the now legendary performances Basie had at the Newport Jazz Festival in July 1957.

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Prez in a nameless hotel room..someplace.

He continued to perform and, sad to say, his final years have been characterized as simply that “he drank himself to death”.  He passed at the age of 49.  In a taxi on the way to his funeral, Billie Holiday commented to critic Leonard Feather “I’ll be the next one to go.”.  She died 4 months later at the age of 44.

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The quintessential photo of Prez outside The Five Spot, NYC (1958)

Enjoy…

 

 

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The theme of crime and punishment is a common one in song (especially the blues) and yes, there do seem to be a lot more songs about the punishment side of things. I’m guessing once you land in the pokey you have a lot more time to write lyrics. There’s a whole genre of blues and country tunes just about prison.

I was recently listening to the Dead run through a fairly solid version of “Me and My Uncle“.  November 1973 at The Pauley Pavilion at UCLA.  Although performed many times by the band, what a night that must have been!  Bobby was in fine voice and Jerry was moving with bluegrass speed across the fretboard in both country fills and an inspired solo. But no punishment here – pure crime only.

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Among the most famous prison songs of course is Johnny Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues“.  Cash had carefully nurtured the image about being an ex-con (sorta a 1955 version of gansta rap).  Hard time?  No such thing – pure hype.  Johnny spent a few nights on a county cot for misdemeanors (usually associated with drunkenness) but he didn’t miss much freedom in his wild days.

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Another C&P themed classic was “I Fought the Law“.  Although made popular by The Bobby Fuller Four, the song was actually written by Sonny Curtis of The Crickets (Buddy Holly’s former backing band). Curtis had joined the band after Holly’s tragic death.  It was also covered well by The Clash in 1979.  I included The Crickets version here as it’s a little more obscure.  Surprisingly, Fuller didn’t vary it much in his cover.

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One of my favorite live tunes about prison life is Commander Cody’s cover of “Riot in Cell Block #9“.  An R&B classic from the iconic duo of Lieber and Stoller (“Hounddog”, “Jailhouse Rock”, “Stand By Me”),  I witnessed The Commander play this tune a number of times back in the ’70′s and it never failed to be a rockin’ good time.  Originally released by The Robins, it was covered a lot including by the original Blues Brothers.

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Last up is a tender ballad about two compadres living a life of crime. “Pancho and Lefty” was penned by the late Townes Van Zandt an it’s a beauty.  I always liked the cover by Willie and Merle (as in Nelson and Haggard) but there are many to choose from.  I’ve included a version by Townes himself here.  If you haven’t heard this before it’s truly worth a close listen.

He wore his gun outside his pants for all the honest world to feel.”

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Enjoy…

 

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Some nights just call for quiet jazz piano.  The only light in the room from the glow of the amplifier tubes.  Just remember to invite Gene Harris along.  I’ve been a long-time fan of great solo and small group jazz piano – Oscar Peterson and Thelonious Monk of course, some early pre-Top 40 Nat King Cole, even some small trio stuff by Ellington.

A few years ago in my search for sound I came across Gene Harris.

Born in Benton Harbor, MI – a smallish town on the east coast of Lake Michigan (across the lake from Chicago), Harris was known for a style that was warm and influenced by blues and gospel.  It is sometimes referred to as soul jazz.

From 1956 to 1970, he played in The Three Sounds trio with bassist Andy Simpkins and drummer Bill Dowdy. They recorded on both Blue Note and Verve.

According to Wikipedia…

He was mostly retired to Boise, Idaho, starting in the late 1970s, although he performed regularly at the Idanha Hotel there. Then, Ray Brown convinced him to go back on tour in the early 1980s. He played with the Ray Brown Trio and then led his own groups, recording mostly on Concord Records, until his death from kidney failure in 2000.

 

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  1. “This Masquerade”- written by Leon Russell
  2. “All the Things You Are” – great jazz standard with Johnny Griffin as guest on sax.
  3. “Straight, No Chaser” – a Monk composed standard with guest Clark Terry
  4. “You Don’t Know Me” – country ballad made famous by Ray Charles
  5. “Blue Bossa” – a wonderful standard composed by Kenny Dorham

Enjoy…

 

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Back in 1997, Grape Records released a compilation CD that celebrated the works of Irish poet William Butler Yeats (1865 – 1939).   It’s a fascinating look at Yeats’ writings and is highly recommended for all (including those of you who don’t have the” auld sod” in your genes).  A highly creative blend of poetry and music across genres with an all-star cast ranging from Richard Harris to Van Morrison with input along the way from the likes of Shane MacGowan (of The Pogues and later Shane MacGowan and The Popes fame), The Waterboys, and Christy Moore.

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W.B. Yeats

My favorite track is a toss-up between Van Morrison’s “Before the World Was Made” and The Waterboys “The Stolen Child”.  Both are just stellar in so many ways.  I’d heard the Van track many times before and was happy to find it on this compilation but I hadn’t heard The Waterboys tune. I’m glad I did.  Just perfect.

The disc also includes a track of Yeats himself reading his poem “The Lake Isle of Innisfree“.  A glimpse of history there and a perfect toast to the old country included below.

  1. “The Stolen Child” – The Waterboys
  2. “Before the World Was Made” – Van Morrison
  3. “The Lake Isle of Innisfree” – W.B. Yeats
  4. “Yeat’s Grave” – The Cranberries
  5. “The Fish” – Sinead Lohan

Enjoy…

 

 

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Question Mark and the Mysterians (usually written as ? and the Mysterians on record labels) were formed in Bay City, Michigan, in 1962.

The group took its name from the 1957 Japanese science fiction film The Mysterians, in which aliens from the destroyed planet Mysteroid arrive to conquer Earth.  A slight detour here, the film is a classic of the sci-fi genre.  Director Ishiro Honda had some good films on his resume at that point and The Mysterians was no different.  I tracked down a sci-fi film blog called V-Cinema (found here: http://www.vcinemashow.com/the-mysterians-1957/  which summarized the film as follows:

1) Men with advanced (read: atomic) technology land on the home islands and destroy civilian targets.

2) Said men want a small piece of land on which to build a base.

3) They also want to breed with Japanese women, much as the American GI’s did.

4) Lastly, their secret purpose is to take over Japan for themselves. America never wanted Japan’s land but our cultural influence was unmistakable.

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Digression over…back to the band…

Sometimes referred to as the first “punk rock” group what is less well-known is that they were the first Latino rock band with a hit record in the US when they released “96 Tears” in 1966.

They started out as an instrumental act inspired by surf music and included Larry Borjas on bass, Bobby Balderrama on guitar, and Robert Martinez on guitars and bongos.  Early on Martinez switched to drums and his brother Rudy Martinez joined on vocals, calling himself “Question Mark” (written “?”).  The war called and Robert was drafted and Borjas enlisted. They were replaced by Eddie Serrato on drums and Frank Lugo on bass. Frank Rodriguez joined on keys, and this formed the classic “96 Tears” lineup.

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Rudy “Question Mark” Martinez wrote their biggest hit, “96 Tears,” in 1966.  The song started out as a poem called “Too Many Teardrops,” written years before the band was even formed.  The song is mostly noted for Rodriguez’s catchy Vox organ riff.  A low-budget adventure, the song was recorded on March 13, 1966, on a house porch in Bay City, Michigan.

The band released two more singles (“I Need Somebody” and “Can’t Get Enough of You Baby”) also charted, but were nowhere near as successful as “96 Tears”. These were compiled on the album 96 Tears along with a handful of other songs.

Question Mark and the Mysterians’ second album, Action, featured the band at the peak of its musicianship, but the album was not a commercial success. The band then briefly recorded with Capitol Records, Tangerine Records and Super K. The band lineup changed as the original members left for other projects. Mel Schacher, future bass player for Grand Funk Railroad, briefly became the bass guitarist until Richard Schultz took over on bass and co-wrote numerous songs with Rudy Martinez; including “She Goes to Church on Sunday,” which was licensed to Paul McCartney’s publishing company.

  1. “96 Tears”
  2. “She Goes To Church On Sunday”
  3. “Turn Around Baby”
  4. “I Need Somebody”

Enjoy…

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As noted in the past, every so often I come across an artist who is not entirely new to the music scene that just blows me away on every level.  The Milk Carton Kids are a case in point.  This indie duo has been around since 2011.  They’ve released three albums and are taking the music world by storm.

TMCK are Kenneth Pattengale and Joey Ryan.  Formed in Eagle Rock, CA (near LA)  they’ve been compared to Simon & Garfunkel, The Everly Brothers, and Gillian Welch’s work with David Rawlings.  I hear a bit of Jayhawks in here too with a slightly more basic approach to the instrumentation.  It’s all good.

Featured on NPR’s Mountain Stage, SXSW, and tours with Joe Purdy and Old Crow Medicine Show, they combine perfect vocal harmonies and vintage acoustic guitar sound to create beautiful melodies.  They craft lush folk tunes that are bittersweet and flat out beautiful.

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Here’s a bonus for you… early on they were known for releasing their music for free!  The first two releases “Prologue” and “Retrospect” are still available for free download at their website.  http://themilkcartonkids.com/

It was difficult to choose just a few for the list below but be sure to take a listen to “Michigan”, probably their most popular tune, and “Hope of a Lifetime” – one of the most beautfiful tunes I’ve heard in a long time.

If you’re in the mood for some great music and like acoustic guitar with beautiful vocal harmonies, look no further.  You’ll be hearing a lot from The Milk Carton Kids.

  1. “Michigan”
  2. “Honey Honey” – clip from Conan – 3/27/13
  3. “Years Gone By”
  4. “Memphis”
  5. “Hope of a Lifetime” – from the 2013 Americana Music Festival

Enjoy…

I took some time off from writing the blog.  Busy with life and recharging the batteries a bit but I’ve been listening to a lot of great music over the past month and looking forward to bringing some of it your way.

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Let’s start off with some Ben Webster.  One of my favorite players of all time.  Ben wasn’t always held in the highest regard by critics mostly due to his sticking with the classic swing sound and not going “avant-garde” like ‘Trane and Sonny but, for me, he was, and still remains, one of the greats.

Affectionately known as “The Brute” or “Frog”, Webster was born in Kansas City, Missouri, and along with Coleman Hawkins and Lester Young is one of the most influential swing players.  He laid down some raspy, throated growls but also played with a warmth that turned many ballads into works of beauty.  His rendition of “Danny Boy” for example is just a thing to behold.

He always said he was forever in the debt of the great Johnny Hodges.  Johnny taught him to really play and was a major influence. He started out young on piano and violin but eventually took up the sax.  I have a recording somewhere of him on piano which was impressive but just not at the level, of course, of his sax playing.

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Webster played in a number of great outfits over the years but is known for his time with Ellington starting in 1935.  While the Duke is always a treasure, the years when Webster was in the band are still regarded as the greatest group Ellington had ever assembled.

Webster left the DEO in 1943 after an argument with the Duke and went solo.

If you’re looking to add some Webster to your collection there’s a lot out there but no better place to start than his 1953 release “King of the Tenors” with pianist Oscar Peterson and other jazz luminaries such as Harry “Sweets” Edison and Benny Carter. The disc is perfect from start to finish and showcases Webster’s talents well.

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  1. “Danny Boy”
  2. “That’s All”
  3. “Tenderly”
  4. “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore”
  5. “Bounce Blues”

Enjoy….