Monthly Archives: May 2013

Jazz at the Denver Public Library Used Book Sale by Peter Furlong

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The annual Denver Public Library (DPL) Used Book Sale is held under multiple tents on the grounds of DPL Central Library at the corner of 14th Avenue and Broadway.  The dates are June 6-9, 2013, and browsing and buying begins daily at 10am. In addition to books on all subjects, you can find audio books, DVDs, compact discs (CDs) and even some sheet music.  Bring a bag to carry your treasures home; you are sure to find something of interest in this huge sale of used books and music.

All used materials for sale are placed in categories for easier shopping.  The biographies of music personalities should be found in the “Biography” category—all genres of biography are here.  To find “How to Play Jazz Piano” or other books for students of music, look in the “Art” category.  Written music in sheet or book form is  also found in “Art.”  Music guides and music history works are in the “Art” category.  The fun of book shopping is to find the unexpected prize—sounds of Aha! may be heard in the background.

For the best selection of jazz and classical CDs, look in the “Better Books” section. To find pop and world music and lesser quality jazz and blues discs, you will have to explore the general media CD category. Whenever buying a used CD, open the case and make sure there is a CD inside and it matches the title on the case.  Many of the available CDs have come from the DPL circulating collection; although the cases are worn and include replacement cases, the library staff does a good job of maintaining the actual discs and my experience has been very good with playing their discs.  Note that there is some donated music here in excellent condition—maybe played once.  Also, The Denver Post has recently donated to DPL a large amount of CDs they received as review copies; these will be in “like new” condition.  Find these gems at the sale. CDs will be priced for about a dollar during the sale; CDs found in Better Books will be sold at a slight premium.

The price you will pay for books in the general sale section will be two to three dollars for a hardback book.  Trade paperbacks are a lower price and mass market paperbacks are even less.  All books classified as “Better Books” will be priced at a premium—average price $5.  Good deals abound.  You may wonder how these books have arrived at this place and time.  DPL catalogued books are removed from the library shelves due to inactivity, or there are excess copies of that item.  Room must be made on the shelf for new book arrivals.  The branch libraries, upon determination that a book is no longer needed, will ship it to the Central Library where volunteer book sorters will prepare the item for the next sale.  When shopping at the sale, let staff know of any suggestions you may have to improve your book-buying experience.

Recently, there have been a lot of autobiographies written by aging rockers.  The Library has been purchasing these new titles in large volume, distributing them to all the branches around the metro area, and designating some of them as “featured titles.”  When the public’s need to read the new releases wears off and the “hold” list for these books dwindles to zero, these excess books will find their way to the used book sale.  Look for hardback titles in the “Biography” section written by Keith Richards, Neil Young, Carole King, Patti Smith, and Pete Townsend priced at $3 each at the June sale.

Here is a sampling of used materials I have acquired over the years from DPL and a brief description of each.  The featured musical artist here is Ben Webster (1909-1973).

Music GuideMusic Hound Jazz: The Essential Album Guide. Visible Ink Press. Detroit, MI. 1998.

From the profile on Ben Webster: “One of the ‘Big Three’ tenor saxophone players of the ‘30s and ‘40s, along with Coleman Hawkins and Lester Young, Ben Webster carved a unique niche for himself.”  However, Webster was initially told he needed to quit attempts to emulate Hawkins.  He shed this mantle and built his reputation working with several different big bands in the ‘30s—Fletcher Henderson, Benny Carter, Cab Calloway, etc.  Following his three years of work with Duke Ellington and his Famous Orchestra, he played with smaller ensembles on New York’s 52nd Street and on the West Coast, where he was associated with Art Tatum, Coleman Hawkins, Oscar Peterson, and Billie Holiday.  He was then off to Europe in 1965 where he continued to record and add to his global fandom.

I like to have one or more jazz and blues guides within arm’s length as I listen to KUVO Jazz radio.  The on-air hosts are great in providing their historical perspective, but this only whets my appetite for more information.  An objective of KUVO is to educate as well as entertain our listeners.

Used Book. Ben Webster: His Life and Music. Jeroen de Valk. Berkeley Hills Books. Berkeley, CA. 2001.

Webster became an expatriate in 1964.  He played a four-week gig in London at Ronnie Scott’s jazz club and then he went to Scandinavia.  He soon settled in Copenhagen.  For the next nine years he played and lived there and in Amsterdam.  He never returned to the United States and rarely went into the studio to record.  Often when he left town for a club engagement, he played with local musicians.  The author writes, “…he had to play with mediocre, downright pitiful musicians.  In these years (1964 to 1974), American musicians used the expression ‘a European rhythm section’ for an accompanying group that let the tempo slow down or hurried it on, and made it impossible to swing.” (p. 137) However, in Copenhagen, Webster had a regular rhythm section consisting of pianist Kenny Drew, 18-year old bass player Niels-Henning Orsted-Pedersen, and 24-year old drummer Alex Riel.  Amsterdam hosted a trio of pianist Cees Slinger, bass player Jacques Schols and drummer John Engels.  “Unfortunately, these musicians were not always available, so on tour Webster often had to make do with local talent.”  (p. 138) There is an extended discussion by the author of this music accompaniment problem.

When things were going badly on stage and he was lonely, Webster battled an alcohol problem.  He seemed to be surrounded with people and admirers, but never had a close friend.  There were cultural differences.  The drinking and scandals that arose spoiled many of his club tours.  However, the people in Copenhagen and Amsterdam loved the American jazz musicians and acknowledged the artfulness of their music.  When not playing his horn, Webster shot outstanding pool and, throughout his life, entertained his friends with his piano playing.

CD reissue.  Cotton Tail.  Ben Webster.  Various recording locations and dates. RCA Victor.

From the CD notes written by Loren Schoenberg: “This collection traces Webster’s ascent to the pantheon of jazz: from his brusque beginnings in the Kansas City band of Bennie Moten, through the journeyman years of the ‘30s, … (follows his) sterling four-year stint as one of the most elegant voices in the Duke Ellington Orchestra, and finally touches on his status as an icon on New York’s fabled 52nd Street.”

Joining the Ellington group in 1940 along with Webster were pianist and composer Billy Strayhorn and bassist Jimmy Blanton, marking the beginning of major changes to the band’s writing and sound.  Fourteen of the twenty-two selections are from the Ellington recordings; each of the numbers has been chosen for including a solo contribution by Webster’s tenor saxophone.  Included in this collection of Ellington tunes are “Cotton Tail”, “Just A-Sittin’ and A-Rockin’”, and  ”Chelsea Bridge”.   Included among other tunes on the CD is a rousing rendition of “Cadillac Slim” from Benny Carter and his Chocolate Dandies.

More on the Sale: This year there will be an estimated 80,000 used books for you to choose from.  You should find that the quality of the selections has improved.  I can  cite two reasons for this: first, approximately 75% of the titles have been donated by individuals and businesses and only 25% are former library holdings; and second, during the sort process, books have been subject to a higher standard of condition test for inclusion.  Books with some damage or in excessive supply are more readily subject to recycling.  The result is an improved book-buying experience.

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Hush Point – Album Review

Hush Point Album Cover

Hush Point

Hush Point’s debut self-titled album, released in May 21, 2013, is a breath of fresh air in today’s jazz scene. Hush Point is a group – consisting of alto saxophonist Jeremy Udden, trumpeter John McNeil, bassist Aryeh Kobrinsky, and drummer Vinnie Sperrazza – that really functions as a band, not just a collection of individual musicians brought together for a recording date. The album not only features tunes by Udden, McNeil, and Kobrinsky, but also has extensive collective improvisation. The effortlessly blending of their individual voices during collective improvisation illustrates how in tune with each others’ thought processes this group is. The band’s near-telepathic communicative ability is especially evident on the album’s opening tune, a rendition of Jimmy Guiffre’s “Iranic.” Hush Point plays this song as a piece about dialogue, alternating moments of call-and-response with counterpoint playing. By placing this song as the album’s first track, Hush Point is showing the listener how important playing and improvising together as a group is for this band. The album’s second piece, a bouncy playful McNeil number called “Peachful,” highlights the group dynamic again with a contrapuntal section by McNeil and Udden, filled with fluttering improvised lines from both. McNeil and Udden’s comfort playing together also comes through very clearly on McNeil’s “Finely Done,” in which both horn players echo and complete each other’s melodic ideas like a married couple finishing each other’s sentences.

Recorded earlier this year in Brooklyn, NY, Hush Point is an album of unique material with an obvious knowledge of the jazz tradition. It seems to occupy the space between Gerry Mulligan’s pianoless quartet and Ornette Coleman’s. This is particularly apparent on “Get Out,” a piece by McNeil in which I can’t tell if his playing reminds me more of Chet Baker or Don Cherry. This album elegantly straddles the line between cool and free jazz and ultimately teaches a very important lesson about what it means to make free jazz: namely, free jazz can be beautiful. Too often any jazz described as free is assumed to be loud and atonal. By incorporating cool[1] harmonic influences in a malleable way, Hush Point creates music with the emotional expressiveness of free jazz that won’t scare off lovers of more traditional styles. The best example of this is Udden’s “Fathers and Sons,” which features plenty of color from Sperrazza during extended rhythmically free sections that eventually dissolve into short unaccompanied solos by first Udden and then McNeil.

Sperrazza’s drumming throughout the album deserves a little more attention. His low-key brushwork is easy to overlook, but his crisp cymbals and amazing dynamic range provide extraordinary color on each song. Listening to the album, this fact becomes apparent on the seventh track, “New Bolero,” which is the only piece to feature Sperazza using sticks instead of brushes. He also spends most of the song on the drums as opposed to the cymbals. These two minor differences change the song’s mood dramatically, adding a darker feeling than anywhere else on the album.

One standout track is “Bar Talk,” in which Udden all but abandons harmony to craft a piece based exclusively on short melodic fragments (obviously inspired by Béla Bartók, as the title implies) that features intricate backgrounds, seamlessly weaving his own and McNeil’s improvisation with the composed sections. Another highlight is McNeil’s arrangement of the second Jimmy Guiffre piece on the album, “The Train and the River.” Most great songs about trains – from Billy Strayhorn’s “Take the A Train” to Johnny Cash’s “Folsam Prison Blues” – capture the feeling of sitting still and moving at the same time, i.e. relaxing in a comfortable seat while rolling across the country at 90mph. Normally this is done with the rhythm section pushing forward while the melody seems to sit  just the beat, but Hush Point reverse this cliché. Here McNeil, Udden, and Sperrazza all push the rhythm forward together, while bassist Kobrinsky really lays  into the beats, seemingly stretching them with heavy quarter notes on beats three and four of many bars, as well as the frequent use of peddle tones.

The final track, “Cat Magnet,” composed by Kobrinsky, is the album’s biggest curveball. It has the album’s most straightforward harmonic progression and lyrical melody, which is played by McNeil with support from Udden. The improvisations that follow the head stay true to the expressive melodic content. This exemplifies perhaps the most remarkable characteristic of Hush Point: in a jazz culture often focused on flashy playing, Hush Point is a band with chops that instead focuses on the feeling of the music above all else.


[1] (that’s cool as in 1950s West Coast/cool jazz)

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The Chicago Blues Festival on a Budget By Peter Furlong

Chicago Blues 250You want grit and bravado as your background for blues music, so check out the Chicago Blues Festival, an annual free 3-day music presentation in downtown’s Grant Park held the first full weekend of June. This is a great site for visitors: you’ve got the lakefront to the East, the Loop to the immediate West, and the beautiful city skyline to the North. And to the immediate South, the museums and the end or beginning of the Illinois Central, the rail line that brought the emigrating blues man from the rural States of the South to the industrial North for increased opportunity, equality, and freedom. This is the center of contemporary Blues music.

Event.   All the music on five stages is free and begins daily at 11 AM. Dates are June 6-9, 2013. The first festival day, Thursday, consists of a performance in the evening in Millenium Park. Please note that Millenium Park is a recently-built, beautiful outdoor auditorium within Grant Park. The subsequent Friday through Sunday headline acts will be in Grant Park and occur at the Petrillo Music Shell; the lineup includes Irma Thomas, Bobby Rush, Otis Clay, Eddie Floyd, James Cotton and many others.

For me, afternoon performances are best in that the crowds are reduced but enthusiastic, and you can get close to the musicians. Performances are continuous throughout the day; you can catch lots of great music if you happen to be on that day with your comfortable shoes and attire and the weather permits. There will be lots of Soul food, too. A future blog entry will include a review of this event. Visit the City of Chicago web site for more event information. http://www.cityofchicago.org/city/en/depts/dca/supp_info/chicago_blues_festival.html

Flight.   To get there, my choice is Denver’s own Frontier Airlines. The cost of my tickets, purchased two months in advance, is $227. You could choose Southwest Airlines (Dallas) or United Airlines (Chicago); but Frontier, although no longer owned locally, employs the most Coloradoans relative to the total employ of any of these competing airlines. Purchase early for best price and flight departure time—you don’t want to be rising at 4 AM to get to DIA 1.5 hours in advance if it is not necessary. Arriving at DIA, the RTD AF route drops me off in front of the Frontier desk where I use a kiosk to print my boarding pass and walk the indoor pedestrian bridge to Terminal A. As always, give yourself ample time to proceed through security.

When you arrive at Chicago Midway, a walk through the airport will take you to the origin of the Orange Line, the train that will take you to the Loop in a 30 minute ride through the South side of the city. Your destination is the HI-Chicago Hostel at 24 E. Congress Expressway, a short walk from the train stop.

Lodging.   The Hostel atmosphere is bluesy. You will be roughin’ it a bit here, but the location is an easy walk across Michigan Avenue to and from the music stages. At $34 a night and ample continental breakfast included, the price is terrific; get an annual membership online and your second night is free. Attend to details—reserve a bed in a dorm room that has bath and shower rooms within your suite, and bring a lock to secure your things in the lockers provided in the dorm room and lobby areas. You do not want to go down the hall to use the toilet or shower if it is not necessary.

The hostel concept is to provide inexpensive housing to those travelling alone or with a youth group that does not want to break their budget on motel/hotel prices. Enjoy meeting other hostellers from all over the world to share travel tips. My chief complaint of hostels throughout the world is that the bed mattress is not firm, but always saggy; apparently, young people are forgiving of this condition.

Common-use areas include a computer lab, travel book library, and WIFI accessibility. The one large screen TV is unobtrusive and avoidable. A great cost-saving tip is to use the spacious kitchen for meal preparation; the dining area is very community-oriented where you can meet and dine with other travelers. Cafes are plentiful in the neighborhood.

In Chicago, the Hostel is open 24 hours; respect your sleeping dorm mates when entering late by minimizing light and noise. You will probably agree that the European-style of lodging is not the first choice of a travelling American, but Blues and Jazz fans are a special breed of cat. Opt for practicality. Visit the web site of Hostelling International Chicago for more information. http://www.hichicago.org

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