March 24, 2015


One on One

Benny Carter - All That Jazz, Live at Princeton

When the great jazz trumpeter Clark Terry died last month at the age of 94, OJ posted comprehensive obituaries/appreciations from the New York Times, NPR and The New Yorker, so please read those pieces for an overview of the life of this wonderful musician, and by all accounts, even better person.  I'll focus, instead, on two of my favorite Terry recordings, both made relatively late in his long career.

One on One features CT in duets with 14 great piano players.  Recorded when he was 80, the album shows that he was still at the height of his remarkable skills.  While all of the cuts are excellent, in the interest space, I will limit myself to comments on 6 of them. With "Solitude" (Ellington) and Swingin' the Blues" (Basie) Terry pays tribute to the two legendary bandleaders in whose sections he played.  Terry's muted trumpet solo on "Solitude" appropriately reflects the bittersweet tune and provides a showcase for Tommy Flanagan's (All That Jazz #18) sensitive accompaniment.  Junior Mance sets a Basie groove (and throws in more than a few of the Count's licks) in "Swingin' The Blues," which starts with Clark vocalizing the swish of Papa Jo Jones's ride cymbal and ends with him acting out the entire drum kit.  In between we hear his mastery of the blues and of the trumpet, his easy fluency that makes it sound like he's talking to us directly rather than communicating through his horn.  "Willow Grove" is another blues, but rather than the Kansas City Swing feel of the Mance duet, here Barry Harris is in pure bebop mode.  Terry starts on the flugelhorn (best described as a slightly larger, mellower-sounding trumpet), an instrument he popularized and on which he had gorgeous, fat sound.  After a couple of choruses, he engages in one of his popular routines that was always amazing to see in person: he holds the flugelhorn in one hand and his trumpet (here muted) in the other and plays a duet with himself, alternating phrases.  This could perhaps be a mere novelty in the hands of a lesser musician, with Terry it was always a delight.  Kenny Barron joins CT for "Intimacy of the Blues" (another blues, and another Ellington composition), and his walking bass lines and perfectly-voiced chords make it seem like there's an entire band backing Terry's scurrying, swinging solo.  Terry returns to muted trumpet on "You Can Depend Me" supported by John Lewis's typically spare, but always compelling, playing.  The classic ballad "Misty" opens with the melody stated by Dr. Billy Taylor before the tempo picks up for Clark's swaying solo.

As I've mentioned in previous posts, there are some artists whose musicianship, taste and generosity of spirit put their playing (in the words of Ellington) beyond category.  For these players, the genres of traditional jazz, swing, bop, etc. become almost meaningless, as their styles can fit in any setting.  To be clear, they are not chameleons, changing their sounds or their styles to fit in; rather no matter what the setting, they can fit in simply being themselves.  Clark Terry was certainly one of these musicians, as a career that included playing with everyone from Basie and Ellington, to the Tonight Show band, to avant gardists such as Cecil Taylor would attest.  Another such player was (no surprise if you've read more than a few of these posts) Benny Carter.  In 1990, when Clark was all of 70, he joined Benny (then 83) for a concert at Princeton University.  All That Jazz - Live at Princeton features BC and CT working with a rhythm section as great as the two masters deserved: Kenny Barron on piano, Rufus Reid on bass, and Kenny Washington on drums.  While there are a number of highlights, I'll start to wrap up this too-long post with comments about two songs.  On the Thelonious Monk tune "Hackensack", CT's astounding virtuosity is matched by his infectious joy as he steps lightly through the chord changes (based on the changes to Gershwin's "Lady Be Good").  And joy, humor and swing are thrown together on Benny's "All that Jazz."   Singer Billy Hill cajoles Benny and Clark to join him on the vocal, and after fine solos from Terry, Barron and Carter, Terry delights the audience with his never-gets-old "mumbles" routine.

A fitting coda to Terry's life was the documentary "Keep on Keepin' On", which was released in early 2014, around the same time as the fictional jazz movie "Whiplash." The contrast between fact and fictions is astounding:  "Whiplash" features JK Simmons in his Oscar-winning role as a sadistic jazz instructor, while the documentary shows a frail and aging Terry continuing to teach and inspire his students (especially a blind pianist who had been a student of Terry's at William Patterson College), not only with the wisdom and knowledge gained over a 70+ year career at the height of the jazz world, but with the love, generosity and humor that always infused his music.

Posted by at March 24, 2015 7:08 AM

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