Guest Host - Jazz Cafe, 7/10

Once again, it's the busy season for me on the air, and I'll be filling in on the early side tomorrow morning for Ed Blanco on the Jazz Cafe from 7 to 9 am.  No big surprises here, just the usual mix of blues, jazz, and creative backbeats in the first hour, with a healthy dose of new stuff in the second hour.  Then, next weekend, I've got a little more space as I'm filling in for Gary Ferguson.  Following that, I'm covering Skip Lezama's Saturday morning show.

On Saturday, July 30, it will be the end of the first year of the "relaunched" Passing Notes, so I'm putting together a "best of" show featuring interviews from the year past.  Among the people we'll hear from again are Cassandra Wilson, Judy Collins, music critics Greil Marcus, Alex Ross, Kevin Whitehead, and John Swenson, as well as biographers of Cab Calloway (Alyn Shipton) and Bobby "Blue" Bland (Charles Farley).  I hope you'll tune in!

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Terell Stafford - This Side of Strayhorn

This Side Of StrayhornTerell Stafford
This Side of Strayhorn
MaxJazz (2011)

Terell Stafford's resume is long and his credentials impressive, but often when reading biogaphies of the trumpet player, one is still led to see his stature as a musician in the context of his time in band Horizons (with Bobby Watson, Victor Lewis, and Shirley Scott) or his gigs with McCoy Tyner, Benny Golson, Kenny Barron, Cedar Walton, and Herbie Mann, to name a few. Perhaps the man is modest; that's good to know. But for the past fifteen years, Stafford has been putting out albums of ever-increasing quality. This year's Stafford release, This Side of Strayhorn, is a masterful combination of players, arrangements, and materials, and should finally establish Terell Stafford as a name that stands alone.

Though certainly never forgotten as an essential writing and arranging partner of Duke Ellington, Billy Strayhorn's reputation has been further burnished by the recent PBS special on his life, as well as books by David Hadju and Walter Van de Leur. On This Side of Strayhorn, the composer's work is given a surprisingly full voice in the setting of a small group. With arrangements by pianist Bruce Barth, production by Grammy-winner John Clayton on the excellent MaxJazz label, and joined in the group by Barth, Tim Warfied on saxes, Dana Hall on drums, and Peter Washington on bass, Stafford is already miles ahead on this recording.

As if resuming the playing of Strayhorn's work after some long the delay, the tune "Raincheck" begins with a vamp on open voicings that, after a few bars, settles tightly and confidently into the main theme, with Stafford and Warfield locked into some wonderfully harmonized playing. After a bright and brisk run through the head, Stafford takes over with a well-formed solo that is as good an introduction to his rich, clear tone as any you'll hear. As will happen for most of the album, Warfield and Barth are given almost equal time to solo. And, as they will for much of the album, Washington holds down the bottom of the tune with a strong sense of melody, all the while touching base with Hall's understated but effective approach on drums.

Stafford flexes his Latin jazz chops on "Smada," a groovy samba with a simple chord structure that really encourages all three soloists – Warfeld, Stafford, and Barth – to stretch our for a couple of minutes at a time, with each artist building in intensity chorus after chorus. "My Little Brown Book" finds Stafford employing the straight mute and Hall the brushes for a soft take on this whimsical song. One of the essential Strayhorn tunes, "Lush Life," is played not-too-slowly but rubato throughout, understated and loose so as to take advantage of this familar ballad. "Lush Life," done this way, still has surprises to offer.

"Multicolored Blue" is a delightful throwback, with Stafford working the plunger mute in all its gutbucket glory, turning the tune into a salty conversation with Warfield's tenor as both players find plenty of speakeasy smoke and sawdust in each bar. Stafford impresses fully with his technical command of the instrument, producing sounds out of his horn that brass players rarely use any more. In an album of outstanding music, this is my favorite tune.

The next three tunes all have their pleasures. "UMMG," another familiar Strayhorn tune, is taken with a lighter and slightly slower approach. "Day Dream" is a solid but fanicful exploration of the song's structure. "Lana Turner"is an appropriately sexy midtempo number that still can evoke the world of the ingenue-turned-femme-fatale. The album's closer, "Johnny Come Lately," is particularly interesting in how it breaks down the song in terms of melody, harmony, and rhythm –in a manner strikingly reminiscient of Miles Davis' second great quintet.

What's most impressive, in the end, with This Side of Strayhorn is the sheer versatility demonstrated by Stafford and his group in playing these challenging tunes across a wide range of styles. Confident in practically every note he blows, humble enough to let others do what they do best, generous in sharing in stage with his fellow musicians, Terell Stafford makes it known in no uncertain terms that his time has come, his voice is clear, and his future is brigher than ever.

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Housekeeping Notes

I hesitate to post a message like this, but I'm trying to streamline the social media I use to promote Passing Notes, this culture blog and the WDNA radio show.  There's been some changes made in how to connect, mostly to streamline the process and protect everyone's privacy. You can click your way to becoming a Friend of Note, as follows. . .

* "Like" PN on Facebook - http://on.fb.me/nMvLB7
* Follow on Twitter - http://twitter.com/markehayes
* Get the PN Daily Feed - http://feeds.feedburner.com/blogspot/bcWLg
* Get the PN Weekly Newsletter - http://eepurl.com/elBqw
* Listen to PN every Friday through iTunes - http://bit.ly/bbhRtI

PN Video Jukebox - Herbie Hancock

Here are 12 videos featuring performances by Herbie Hancock, with the heavy presence of the Headhunters here, and Chick Corea there.

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Oriente in Concert: WDNA Jazz Gallery

Undead Notes - The Last Man On Earth (1964)

The contemporary zombie movie makes a protean appearance in the 1964 Ubaldo Ragona/Sidney Salkow film, The Last Man on Earth.  Starring Vincent Price and a cast of all Italian actors, this adaptation of Richard Matheson's 1954 novel I Am Legend has many of the elements that, a generation later, define the parameters of the world of the zombie apocalypse.  Produced on a low budget and differing significantly from Matheson's novel, The Last Man on Earth is nevertheless successful in its stark imagery, sustained mood, and the precise, restrained performance of the great Vincent Price.

In the year 1968, the world is three years into a plague that has killed billions, and turned untold numbers into vampire-like creatures who shun sunlight, hate mirrors, and are repelled by garlic.  Shambling, stupid, and weak, these undead don't pose much of a threat to our antihero, Dr. Robert Morgan (Price), who roams the city by day exterminating the sleeping undead, then holes up in his fortified house at night.

At the start of the plague, three years earlier, Morgan had been researching a cure, not realizing that he was in fact immune, having been bitten by a vampire bat in Panama some time before.  As Morgan seeks to find a cure, the plague is killing people by the thousands, and the government has decreed that bodies of the recently deceased are to be burned to prevent them from returning as the undead. Mogan's wife and daughter succumb to the plague.  His daughter's corpse is burned, but Morgan manages to arrange a burial for his wife Virginia (Emma Danieli).  But she, now undead, claws her way out of her grave and shows up at Morgan's door one horrible night.  Morgan must lose his wife all over again.

Back in the apocalyptic present, Morgan, who has survived by creating a regimented existence for himself, struggled to sustain his ongoing project of ridding the city of undead.  For Morgan's character -- and Price plays him as a weary mix of grief, hope, obsessiveness, and black humor -- to continue the work must at times appear to be a futile task. There are millions of undead; his quest is absurd.  If he were to find a cure, how would he go about implementing it?  Every now and then, it appears Morgan has a lachrymose evening in his wife's crypt or a boozy night watching home movies, but he's up the next day to turn wooden stakes in the lathe and go a-killin' all over again.

This changes, naturally, when Morgan discovers a young woman, Ruth (Franco Bettoia), off in the distance on his daily rounds. Morgan chases her down, convinces her to come back to his house, and, after a time, she reveals to him that she, too has the plague.  The difference is, however, Ruth is part of a group of survivors who are under treatment and have managed to avoid the whole undead thing.  They are starting a new society, and Ruth, in fact, was sent to spy on Morgan, who's managed to destroy some of the new breed in his daily rounds.  When Ruth falls asleep, Morgan takes a chance and gives Ruth a transfusion of his blood, which, containing antibodies for the plague, cures her.  It is, however, too late, as the militia of the new breed arrive to rid the world of Morgan, who is seen in their eyes as a monstrous remnant of the old world.

For viewers seeking gore and gruesomeness, keep in mind that the film was made in 1964, so, being under the motion picture code, there was no way to go beyond the consensus censorship of the period.  The undead are extra pale, have shadowy rings around their eyes, and extreme cases of bed-head, but are otherwise intact in appearance.  They talk a little, and say things like, "Morgan! Arrr! Come out, Morgan!"  They can hit things with sticks and throw rocks, but generally have a hard time getting around given the rigor mortis in their joints.

The most frustrating aspect of this otherwise effective film, in truth, is the new breed -- the hybrid undead, so to speak -- who appear in the last twenty minutes of the film. Their presence in this post-apocalyptic world is so poorly explained and unexplored -- though their hatred of Morgan is clear enough -- the waste of a good idea becomes all the more nagging the more one reflects on the film. Another understandable annoyance is the poor dubbing in post-production, a flaw no doubt inevitable as all the actors but Price must have been speaking their lines in Italian-accented English.

Neither of these shortcomings detract from the strengths of The Last Man on Earth.  It presents a compelling dramatic situation made all the more tortuous by the internal conflicts Morgan faces both as a scientist and a family man;    The settings of urban environments starkly empty of people are all the more chilling for the effective use of black-and-white film.  First and foremost, Vincent Price's performance will be a surprise for many in its emotional nuance and control -- there's not a moment of camp and scenery-chewing to be found.  Most of all, The Last Man on Earth, as it offers the first glimpses of what would become a whole richly explored genre of horror film, carries with it the suggestion of yet-unexplored areas of the premise.  Just how long can a survivor last -- and why bother?  How strong are the bonds of family between the living and the undead?  If the undead develop a culture of their own, how does it happen, and what does it look like?

Richard Matheson, the author of I Am Legend, preferred this version of his book to 1971's The Omega Man, but ultimately didn't care for the casting of Price or for some of the director's choices.  Matheson helped with the screenplay, but used the pseudonym Logan Swanson in the film credits rather than his own. It would remain for George Romero and others to work out the movie world of the zombie apocalypse in the years to come, but The Last Man on Earth is still the first word.

NOTE: This review is cross-posted at Mort-Vivant, my blog about zombies (and science fiction and comics). These cross-postings will continue until Halloween 2011, when Mort-Vivant finally walks alone!

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Playlist - 88 Jazz Place, 7/5

Song, Artist, Album

Little Things Run the WorldThe Slow Ascent, Roxy Coss, Roxy Coss
Those Memories of You, Jacqui Sutton, Billie and Dolly
Twin Guitar Special, Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys, The Essential Bob Wills (1935-1947)
Hoe-Down, Oliver Nelson, The Blues and The Abstract Truth
Trio Blues, John Scofield, This Meets That
Hip Hug-Her, Booker T and the MG's, The Very Best Of
Three Hundred Pounds of Joy, Howlin' Wolf, His Best
Diamonds At Your Feet, Muddy Waters, His Best, 1956 to 1964
Midnight Blue, Kenny Burrell, The Best of Kenny Burrell
Blue Train, John Coltrane, Blue Train
I Can't Give You Anything But Love, Audrey Silver, Dream Awhile
Bird Song, NY Jazz Initiative, Mad About Thad
Picadillo, Manhattan School of Music Afro-Cuban Orchestra, Tito Puente Masterworks Live!!!
King Tubby Meets The Rockers Uptown, Monty Alexander, Harlem-Kingston Express
Sorry, No Decaf, Joel Fraham, Sorry, No Decaf
Tea for Two, Lester Young, Lester Young with the Oscar Peterson Trio
Caravan, Duke Ellington, The Essential Duke Ellington
I Can't Get Started, Chet Baker, Young Chet
Heebie Jeebies, Louis Armstrong, The Essential Louis Armstrong
Hold 'Em Joe, Randy Weston Trio, Jazz A La Bohemia
Footsteps, Eric Alexander, Don't Follow The Crowd
Jealous Guy, Ben Allison and Man Size Safe, Little Things Run The World
Blues On The Corner, Avery Sharpe Trio, Live
The Basilisk, Majid Khalik, The Basilisk
Dear Old Stockholm, Houston Person with Ron Carter, Dialogues
For The Great Sonny Clark, Ben Wolfe Quintet, Smalls Live
Strange Brew, Papa John Defrancesco, A Philadelphia Story
Nardis, Bill Evans Trio, Explorations
Juju, Gretchen Parlato, The Lost and Found
Doxy, Miles Davis with Sonny Rollins, Bags' Groove
Green Chimneys, Thelonious Monk, Underground
Orinthology, Bud Powell, The Amazing Bud Powell, Volume One
Milan, Ahmad Jamal, After Fajr
Raincheck, Terell Stafford, This Side of Strayhorn

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Guest Host - 88 Jazz Place, 7/5

Once again, I'll be filling in at 88 Jazz Place's morning show while Frank Consola is on vacation.  On the day after Independence Day, we'll help you clear your fireworks hangover with a full hour blues set, some hot jazz from the 20s and 30s, and a somewhat random but nevertheless enjoyable mix of new music.  Tune in from 7 to 11 am on 88.9 FM in South Florida, wdna.org online.  While you're at it, click a link to the left on down below and become a Friend of Note!

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Listener's Notes - From the CD Stack

In fairness to the artists who have been kind enough to send me their work, I'm gonna reach back to late 2010 for some of today's music.  First up is a solid, clean set of tunes straight ahead and in the pocket with the excellent Ben Wolf Quintet, Live at Smalls.  Filled with outstanding playing -- particularly tenor Marcus Strickland -- and fine writing and arranging, Wolfe really demonstrates that he can direct a group and compose a song.  Any one of Wolfe's tune's show how a song should be built from the ground up, with "For The Great Sonny Clarke" in particular as a superlative number.

One young musician who's been known to play at Smalls from time to time is tenor Roxy Coss, whose first album appeared earlier this year.  A prodigal talent and product of the jazz education infrastructure in the US, Coss makes New York her home, where she keeps a full slate of gigs. This self-titled debut features her compositions and melodic approach to solos, joined often by Kate Miller on trumpet.  Leading a tight band through a wide range of compositions and styles, Coss does her most interesting work on fusion-tinged "The Slow Ascent" and the bright, swinging "Cherry On Top," where she breaks out the flute for a brisk, confident solo.

Pianist and composer Soren Moller assembles a fine ensemble for his Christian X Variations. named after the Danish king who tried to protect Denmark's Jews from the Nazis during World War II.  A tribute to those who would speak out against discrimination, the Variations are partly through composed, partly improvised, divided into five movements and played by ensembles that alternate between nonets and quartets.  All that complication simply means that this is an organized, thoughtful and largely moving series of compositions -- moving from tight group playing in the through-composed sections and, appropriate to the theme, lyrical passages of improvisation featuring American Dick Oatts.

A New Yorker through-and-through, the impeccably trained violinist Majid Khaliq has released The Basilisk, an outstanding first album full of excellent playing, notable compositions, and well-chosen tunes from the jazz tradition.  Joined by Charles Porter on trumpet, Ivan Taylor on bass, Jonathan Blake on drums, and Jeb Patton and Eric Lewis on piano, Khaliq is fully in charge of his group and his material --five distinctive originals and three covers, including an fresh take on "Polkadots and Moonbeams."

Jacqui Sutton appears as the face of what she calls "frontier jazz," a blend of jazz and country styles that is signified well in the title of her CD, Billie and Dolly.  A mix of the vocal sensibilities of Holiday and Parton, Sutton provides a charismatic focus for a group that manages to create a distinctive sound by blending banjo, accordion, flute, cello, and a variety of percussion with bass, piano, and trumpet.  Full of new textures and musical surprises, Billie and Dolly offers a enjoyable and moving set of songs.  Check out Sutton and company's reworking of "Those Memories of You" for a taste of their cooking.

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