Monday, June 29, 2009

Jazz and The Bear Comes Home

Rafi Zabor The Bear Comes Home

There have been many novels that reference jazz songs or musicians. But there are few novels that are based in jazz. Rafi Zabor's (so far only) 1997 novel The Bear Comes Home is one of those rare novels. It circles around the main character rightly named, Bear, who is an alto sax perfectionist.

The story follows Bear through his life striving to emulate John Coltrane and Sonny Rollins. He also struggles with his own demons and relationships just like us humans do. The story is compelling, touching, thoughtful, loving and inspiring for us all. While based in jazz it is an easy story to digest and you will fall in love with Bear--no doubt about it.

The Bear Comes Home was a national best seller upon its release in 1997. I always hoped that Rafi Zabor would write another novel but it has since not appeared. I highly recommend this book which after twelve years is still available at your local bookstore and online.


Sunday, June 28, 2009

Jazz Soundtracks — Part 8

Portions of the following are excerpts from the book Film and Television Scores, 1950-1979 (McFarland, 2008) by Kristopher Spencer, founder of

Another couple of jazz legends who cut soundtracks during the ’60s and ’70s are Herbie Hancock and J.J. Johnson.

On Blow Up (’66) — Michelangelo Antonioni’s existential crime film about a hip London fashion photographer who thinks hes witnessed a murder — Hancock draws upon his hard bop and rare groove chops. The results arent particularly cinematic — one could easily be fooled into thinking this is one of Hancocks Blue Note recordings from the same period — but they are kicky nonetheless. One of the best tracks is the bouncy Bring Down the Birds, which dance pop group Dee-lite sampled for their early 90s hit Groove is in the Heart. The soundtrack also features Stroll On by The Yardbirds, who appear in a riveting club scene.

By the time Hancock scored Death Wish (’74), he
’d already moved on to fusion. For this Charles Bronson vigilante flick, Hancock creates a mood of sophisticated yet funky suspense. The densely arranged and tension-mounting main theme is worth the price of admission alone. On Do a Thing and Paint Her Mouth, he opts for more minimalistic arrangements to more disturbing effect. The centerpiece of Death Wish is the 9-minute Suite Revenge, which explores stylistic cues from atonal symphonic, as well as African tribal drumming and Hancocks penchant for synth sounds. Hancock’s score for Death Wish, while not as immediately accessible as the groovier Blow Up, is an intriguing, richly detailed crime score every bit as gritty as the movie.

One of the best soundtracks of ’72 and of the blaxploitation era is Across 110th Street, featuring music by legendary jazz trombonist J.J. Johnson and songs performed by Bobby Womack & Peace. Hit-maker Womack’s theme song boasts a memorable hook, a sweeping arrangement and a lyrical message that doesn’t pull punches about organized crime and the drug epidemic. Womack also contributes a tender ballad (“If You Don’t Want My Love”), an up-tempo pop number (“Quicksand”), a bit of hard funky rock (“Do It Right”) and raucous feel good soul (“Hang On In There”). Johnson performs instrumental versions of most songs, but his contribution is most noticeable on “Harlem Clavinette,” which raised the bar on cinematic funk with its pulsating rhythm and bubbly mix of brass, wah guitar, clavinet keyboard, percussion and electronics. J.J. Johnson also contributed excellent soundtracks for Cleopatra Jones, Trouble Man (with Marvin Gaye) and Willie Dynamite.

Want to read more about groovy soundtracks? Visit

Saturday, June 27, 2009

J. J. Johnson: The Benchmark

Jay Jay Johnson (a.k.a. J.J. Johnson; b. 1924 - d. 2001)

Widely known as one of the masters of the trombone along with his former co-leader Kai Winding, J. J. Johnson is the benchmark against which all trombone players are measured.

J. J. along with Kai gave the trombone a vogue-ish feel during their time together. Most people don't associate the trombone nowadays because so few use it in their bands (except in large ensembles). J. J. Johnson made it sound essential no matter what the setting (quartet, quintet, ensemble or orchestra). At times you would almost think you were listing to a saxophone.

There is no denying that J.J. Johnson is one of the most important musicians in jazz history. He practically has never made a bad record. Many jazz fans will point to the two Blue Note albums, The Eminent Vol. I and Vol. II as the J. J. Johnson albums with which to start. I would not disagree. And for those of you that enjoy soul/R&B, J. J. Johnson also did the soundtrack for the 70s classic "Across 110th Street" featuring vocals from Bobby Womack.

If you want to hear an unfashionable instrument sound so incredibly beautiful, these two albums are a must for your collection.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Jazz Soundtracks — Part 7

The following is an excerpt from the book Film and Television Scores, 1950-1979 (McFarland, 2008) by Kristopher Spencer, founder of

What is the soundtrack for sex and seduction? Is it a sultry Latin dance number, smoky torch song, the bump and grind of funky soul, or the vivacious shake of rock and roll? The short answer is all of these things and more...

from Skin-dependent Films
To see nudity and sexual situations in legitimate Hollywood features one is generally limited to the pre-code and post-code eras of filmmaking. While the Hays Code imposed limits on the big studios, outlaw independent impresarios like Dwain Esper, Kroger Babb and David Friedman road-showed the grindhouse circuit during the ’30s, ’40s and ’50s exhibiting their low-budget exploitation flicks for the more daring moviegoer. By selling sin in the guise of seemingly well-intentioned sex hygiene scare films and vice racket exposés, the legendary “Forty Thieves” and their progenitors managed to show audiences a bit of bare thigh, breast or bottom before hastily packing up and high-tailing it to the next town. When the raincoat crowd got their fill of one type of exploitation flick — such as the natives-gone-wild “goona-goona” pictures — the skin-dependent filmmakers produced pasty and g-string burlesque shorts or not-so-naughty nudist camp docudramas.

Needless to say, such skid row cinema was too low profile to warrant legitimate soundtrack releases not to mention an actual score. In fact, most striptease and stag films of the period featured canned recordings of generic jazz, nameless lounge exotica or incognito big band blues. Short of sitting through campy but quaint video reissues like Teaserama (starring Tempest Storm and Bettie Page) or Love Moods (starring Lili St. Cyr), the grind-curious must resort to retro rockin’ strip club compilations like The Las Vegas Grind and Jungle Exotica series or Take It Off: Striptease Classics. These feature long-forgotten groups with cheeky names like the Genteels, the Lushes and the Whips who cut 45s of stroll, jive and slop for seedy joints with names like Louie’s Limbo Lounge and the little films they subsidized...

from Big Budget Seduction
While Hollywood was still under the watchful eye of the Catholic Church’s Legion of Decency, filmmakers nudged the envelope of acceptable on-screen sexuality with innuendo (like Lauren Bacall suggesting to Humphrey Bogart that he “put his lips together and blow” in To Have and Have Not, ’44), or with symbolic imagery (like frothy waves splashing over the semi-clothed Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr in From Here to Eternity, ’53).

During the ’50s, certain filmmakers pushed the boundaries of subject matter. Elia Kazan transplanted Tennessee Williams’ melodrama A Streetcar Named Desire (’51) from Broadway, complete with its original cast. The film’s hothouse atmosphere of sexual frustration is made all the more palpable by Alex North’s influential jazz-tinged score.

A few years later, Kazan made a film that was even more brazen in its suggestive sexuality as one of its characters is a “child bride.” Baby Doll (’56) concerns a cotton gin owner married to a Lolita-esque teenager who is holding out on her hubby sexually until she turns 20. Another man attempts to seduce the girl and steal her husband’s business. Kenyon Hopkins’ sultry score, as orchestrated by Ray Heindorf, lends Baby Doll an atmosphere of decadent Southern charm. The lush score is like a jazz symphony, with occasional lapses into small group jazz and blues, featuring soloists on harmonica, saxophone, trumpet and guitar. The only break in musical character comes when Smiley Lewis, the legendary New Orleans R&B artist, is featured on the rollicking “Shame, Shame, Shame.” The Legion of Decency condemned the film, though that hardly hurt its box office...

The most celebrated sex comedy of the ’50s remains Some Like It Hot (’59), which the American Film Institute later named as “the funniest film ever made.” Music is integral to the film’s charm, as Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon play musicians who have witnessed the Valentine’s Day Massacre, and in an effort to avoid the mob, doll themselves up and join an all-female traveling jazz band featuring Monroe. The movie relies on innuendo, the cheeky kink of its cross-dressing heroes and Monroe’s undeniable sex appeal for much of its illicit kicks. Composer Adolf Deutsch supplies a mix of ’20s hot jazz and pop, including period hits like “Sweet Georgia Brown” and “Down Among the Sheltering Palms.” Monroe delivers memorable vocal performances on “Runnin’ Wild,” “I Wanna Be Loved By You” and “I’m Thru With Love.”

Friday, June 12, 2009

10 Downloads For The Weekend

I am not a fan of downloading one song but I thought some people would enjoy a quick list of songs that would be great for your weekend activities. Also, this a good way to decide if you really want to buy the whole album. Which in this case I highly recommend you purchase the full album the first chance you get.

Just to make it more fun I put them in a sequence I thought might be enjoyable for you. It's a nice mixture of classics and current artists.

If you try any of these out please let me know what you think.

1) Miles Davis: So What from Kind Of Blue
2) Branford Marsalis: Cain and Abel from The Steep Anthology
3) Stacey Kent: Let Yourself Go from Let Yourself Go
4) Charles Mingus: Better Get It In Your Soul from Mingus Ah Um
5) Dave Brubeck: Blue Rondo Ala Turk from Take Five
6) Pat Metheny: Day Trip from Day Trip
7) John Coltrane: Bass Blues from Traneing In
8) Claire Martin: Riverman from Take My Heart
9) Roy Hargrove: Strasbourg from Earfood
10) Thelonious Monk: Nutty from The Columbia Years

Happy Listening...

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Jazz Casual Listening

From time to time I have been asked about CDs that would good just as basic dinner party listens. These would CDs that I don't necessarily think are that great but are worth having around for those friends who can't stand to listen to a 45 minute Miles Davis electric era or John Coltrane latter spiritual album.

Try these recent CDs out the next time your looking for something palatable and to impress party goers.

1) Melody Gardot (My One And Only Thrill/Verve): Melodic and heavily Billie Holiday influenced. Good orchestration and decent songwriting. While I think Madeline Peyroux does this much better My One And Only Thrill is still worth the download.

2) Manu Katche (Neighbourhood/ECM): The debut from this consummate sideman drummer. It features a stellar cast including Jan Garbarek and Tomasz Stanko. It's relaxing and upbeat in the right places and doesn't disappoints from start to finish.

3) Jacob Young (Sideways/ECM): A veteran guitarist whose sounds is starting to come into its own. This release is probably the most distinctive so far and shows the promise of great things to come.

4) Jim Rotondi (Blues For Brother Ray/Positone): A smokin' trumpeter in the vain of Freddie Hubbard. He is also member of the band One For All with the outstanding saxophonist Eric Alexander and pianist David Hazeltine. This release is has a crisper production than many of his previous outings but is a perfect listen for newcomers and party goers alike.

5) Minsarah (Minsarah/Enja): This will be the most difficult to find in physical form but you can get it from iTunes. A quartet led by pianist Florian Weber. The writing is very well performed and mellow like a Sunday morning coffee. The do a wonderful cover of a Bjork tune "New World". Definitely worth the listen.

I hope you and your friend enjoy the choices. Till next time...

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Jazz Soundtracks — Part 6

The following is an excerpt from the book Film and Television Scores, 1950-1979 (McFarland, 2008) by Kristopher Spencer, founder of

The jazzy surf movie soundtrack Gone with the Wave (1965) is a West Coast-style session featuring seasoned players such as Shelly Manne (drums), Paul Horn (saxophone and flute) and Howard Roberts (guitar), but this time the leader is none other than Hollywood composer Lalo Schifrin, who sits in on piano.

"A Taste of Bamboo" is one of the more imaginative tracks, with tuned percussion and piano ringing out an "oriental" melody over a quick, slippery groove of guitar trills. "Breaks" is a bit more conventional, but grooves even harder, with Manne's drums crashing like waves behind Roberts' nimble fretwork, Schifrin's chomping piano chords and Horn's liquid sax solo. "Aqua Blues is another up-tempo ride that wouldn't sound out of place on Schifrin's Bullitt soundtrack (1968). Another highlight is "Breaks Bossa Nova," an outstanding showcase for the soloists, this time working it out over a sweet Latin groove."