“Jack the Bear”

May 29, 2021 • 12:45 pm

Here’s another great song in our Duke Ellington series, again recorded by the “Blanton/Webster” version of the band that was going from 1939-1942. That name came from members Jimmie Blanton on bass and Ben Webster on tenor sax.

This song, “Jack the Bear”, recorded on March 6, 1940, begins with a display of Blanton’s proficiency and swing on the bass—involving solos like the two below and complex plucking—a form of playing previously absent from jazz. It’s hard to overestimate how influential Blanton was on subsequent jazz bassists, and it’s sad to think that he died just two years later of tuberculosis. He was only 23.  Before Blanton, the bass was used like a tuba in earlier jazz—to provide a consistent beat and deep supporting tone.

The other solos are by Ellington on piano, Barney Bigard on clarinet (though I still consider Benny Goodman the best jazz clarinetist ever), Cootie Williams on trumpet, Harry Carney on baritone sax and Tricky Sam Nanton on trombone (with mute). This is truly an all-star lineup, with the sidemen being artists in themselves. The Blanton-Webster period of Ellington’s group produced the most artistic jazz ever.

Blanton returns with another solo at the end.

A note from Jazzwise (I’ve already discussed Ko-Ko, one of my favorite Ellington songs):

The first intimation that Ellington and his orchestra were on the threshold of greatness came from their second session for RCA Victor in Chicago in March 1940. ‘Jack The Bear’ contains a rare moment of jazz history actually being made – Jimmy Blanton shattering the traditional concept of jazz bass playing with his virtuoso pizzicato technique. On it he shows how the bass could contribute exciting solo lines and interact with the ensemble without surrendering its basic timekeeping role. Then there was ‘Ko Ko’, which has been described as “one of the monumental events in jazz music”. It is an orchestral tour-de-force with the minimum of solo space (24 bars from ‘Tricky Sam’ Nanton and 12 bars from Ellington) that succeeds as a piece of absolute or ‘pure’ music in that its minor 12-bar blues form (repeated seven times) has no obvious ‘melody’ in the conventional sense. Its tonal ambiguity and use of dissonance, particularly in the fourth chorus, instantly separates Ellington from the conventional dance bands of the period. Here is a glimpse of the future more profound, even, than Charlie Parker’s ‘Ko Ko’ from 26 November 1945 (not the same tune). Here Ellington looks both ways, to freedom (bi-tonality and his amazing piano splashes of colour that anticipate Cecil Taylor) and form.

If you want to hear the quintessence of Ellington (and, to my mind, jazz in general), get this CD set (66 songs from the Blanton-Webster band) from Amazon; click on the screenshot:

Jimmie Blanton:


Concerto for Cootie

May 25, 2021 • 2:15 pm

Why not continue with a little more Duke Ellington, perhaps the greatest jazz artist in history? My favorite songs come from 1940-1941, when the band featured the incomparable combination of Jimmie Blanton on bass (he died shortly thereafter of tuberculosis) and Ben Webster on tenor sax. Ellington was never as good as he was in those two years. This song, “Concerto for Cootie”, was recorded on March 15, 1940, and features the growling trumpet of Cootie Williams. (The song title was later changed to “Do Nothing Till You Hear from Me”.)

Jazz doesn’t get any smoother than this, though this isn’t “easy-listening” jazz. Make sure you listen for Blanton’s superb backup. And here, from Ehsan Khoshbhakt’s “Notes on Jazz” is his analysis of “Why Concerto for Cootie is a Masterpiece“. I don’t necessarily agree with everything the critic says, but I do agree about the near-perfect blending of solos and the orchestra.

Concerto for Cootie is a masterpiece because every thing in it is pure; because it doesn’t have that slight touch of softness which is enough to make so many other deserving records insipid. Concerto for Cootie is a masterpiece because the arranger and the soloist have refused in it any temptation to achieve an easy effect, and because the musical substance of it is so rich that not for one instant does the listener have an impression of monotony. Concerto for Cootie is a masterpiece because it shows the game being played for all it is worth, without anything’s being held back, and because the game is won. We have here a real concerto in which the orchestra is not a simple background, in which the soloist doesn’t waste his time in technical acrobatics or in gratuitous effects. Both have something to say, they say it well, and what they say is beautiful. Finally, Concerto for Cootie is a masterpiece because what the orchestra says is the indispensable complement to what the soloist says; because nothing is out of place or superfluous in it; and because the composition thus attains unity.
Concerto for Cootie should not be considered as an ordinary arrangement. Its unusual structure, the polish of its composition, the liberties with certain well-established rules that are taken in it, the refusal to improvise these characteristics are enough to place it rather on the level of original composition as this term is understood by artists of classical training.



May 15, 2021 • 1:45 pm

As I’ve said several times, I’m reading a biography of Duke Ellington, which is a superb book. I’ve heard many of his songs during the last 2 decades or so, and this one, “Ko-Ko”, is my favorite of them all. I can’t take credit here for my discerning taste, as “Ko-Ko” is almost universally regarded as one of Ellington’s best. It was recorded on March 6, 1940, an epochal day in jazz.

It’s amazing that this is even considered jazz. It’s dissonant, lacks melody, has no “swing”, and in fact conjures up a menacing mood. But it’s a masterpiece of instrumentation and imagination..

This is the best of all Ellington’s versions, and it was done by the “Blanton/Webster” version of the Ellington Band, with Jimmy Blanton on bass (he died of TB at only 23) and the great Ben Webster on sax. This is the version that Ken Burns had the sense to include on his CD of his excellent “Jazz” television series.

The composition of the band can hardly be any better: many of these musicians stayed with Ellington for decades, and were fantastic players and contributors to the music (Ellington was rarely the “composer” in the traditional sense, with band members contributing substantially to “head arrangements”). If you know jazz, you’ll appreciate this lineup below:

Composer, Lyricist: Duke Ellington Guitar: Fred Guy Producer: Michael Brooks Mastering Engineer: Darcy Proper Drums: Sonny Greer Bass: Wellman Braud Bass: Jimmy Blanton Alto Saxophone: Johnny Hodges Alto Saxophone: Otto Hardwick Clarinet, Tenor Saxophone: Barney Bigard Tenor Saxophone: Ben Webster Baritone Saxophone: Harry Carney Trumpet: Cootie Williams Trombone: Joe “Tricky Sam” Nanton Trombone: Lawrence Brown Trombone: Juan Tizol Trombone: Wallace Jones Cornet: Rex Stewart

I’m stunned that although Wikipedia has an article on Charlie Parker’s song “Ko-Ko”, another great jazz classic (with no relation to Ellington’s song), there is no standalone entry for this song, though there’s an entry on what appears to be a foreign Wikipedia page. Somebody needs to rectify this!

World record: Lowest note sung by a woman

May 2, 2021 • 3:15 pm

Okay, shoot me, as this is clickbait from HuffPost, but how can I resist not listening to the lowest note known to have been sung by a woman.

The facts:

Joy Chapman, a singer from Surrey, British Columbia, has officially set the Guinness World Record for “Lowest Note Ever Sung By A Female.”

Chapman’s noteworthy achievement came in February after she hit a C# note at 34.21 hertz (cycles per second) with her talented pipes.

Chapman has been singing all her life and noticed her voice was more versatile than the voices of other singers.

. . . . But it was only in the last few years that Chapman decided to take a deep dive into doing low notes.

“Working with many vocal coaches over the years, I found it strange that they did not want me to continue scaling down the piano,” she said. “They always stopped part way and just said, ‘that’s low enough, you’re freaking me out now.’ I didn’t realize why they stopped me or that what I had was so unique.”

But with the help of her niece, who is also a singer, Chapman began researching the lowest possible note a human being could sing.

Her niece discovered that in 2019, British singer Helen Leahey sang from a D5 to a D2 note at 72.5 hertz, but she was confident her Aunt Joy could beat that.

You can see Chapman win the high honor for the low note in the video below, but don’t get too attached to that record.

And here’s her achievement:


April 21, 2021 • 3:15 pm

I’ve posted various versions of this song before, but this is the best I’ve found. It shows how underappreciated Dickey Betts was as a guitarist. He also wrote the song, which is a tribute to the iconic jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt, who played intricate songs using just two fingers on the frets, his other two playing fingers having been injured in a fire.

Wikipedia says this:

Written by guitarist Dickey Betts, the song is a tribute to Gypsy jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt, in that it was designed to be played using only two fingers on the left hand.

Betts wrote the majority of “Jessica” at the band’s farm in Juliette, Georgia. He named it after his daughter, Jessica Betts, who was an infant when it was released. She had bounced along to the song’s rhythm, and Betts attempted to capture her attitude with its melody. He invited fellow guitarist Les Dudek over to collaborate on it, and Dudek performed the bridge. The arrangement was crafted prior to recording, which took place at Capricorn Sound Studios in Macon, Georgia.

This version is from 1984, when Betts was still at the height of his powers. But note that he sure uses more than two fingers on his left hand.

There’s a smoking piano solo, too. Enjoy!

Answers to the “young musicians quiz” (and two more to guess)

April 21, 2021 • 8:00 am

Yesterday’s “Guess the music stars” quiz, which showed famous musicians (rock and country) as young kids and asked you to guess who they were, got a surprising amount of attention. In lieu of today’s wildlife photos (send yours in, please!), I’ll give you the answers to yesterday’s quiz, along with my comments.

The photos came from a set published on the “Don’t worry be happy” public Facebook page on May 4 of last year, and you can see the photos, and others I didn’t show, at this link. I was surprised at how few were guessed correctly by most people, but of course I knew the answers when I posted them, so to me it seemed easier than it really was.  But on to the photos!

1.) Carlos Santana.  This would have been one of the hardest for me to guess, I think, but a fair number of people got it.

2.) Ron Wood. This would have been tough for me as well because I’m not a big Stones fan.

3.) Neil Young. COME ON, PEOPLE! How could you miss this one?

4.) John Lennon. Another toughie.

5.) Johnny Cash. Maybe the overalls would help given his poor background as a farmer’s son.

6.) Janis Joplin. Of course! Lots of people got this one.

7.) David Bowie. Another hard one.

8.) Freddie Mercury.  Did anybody get this?

9.) Van Morrison. You can sort of see the future rock star in there. . .

10.) Mick Jagger. Lord, this one isn’t easy!

11.) Jim Morrison. Another hard one.

12.) Paul McCartney. Come on! This is dead easy!

13.) Keith Richards. Not easy. . .

14.) Elvis Presley. Everybody should have gotten this one.

15.) Sting (Gordon Sumner). Not that easy.

16.) Chuck Berry. Not that easy, either.

17.) Ringo Starr. In my view, this one’s easy.

18.) Same as #5, Johnny Cash.

19.) George Harrison. The hair color would throw you off if nothing else.

20.) Mark Knopfler.  A fair few people got this one, but I wouldn’t have.

Since you did so well, here are two more musicians to guess. All comments and guesses below, please.




Guess the music stars

April 20, 2021 • 12:00 pm

I’m writing today and can’t brain beyond what I’m writing about (for publication).

Here are 20 rock or country stars as kids. They are NOT obscure! Can you guess who they are? I think you’ll be able to get about seven, and I’ve numbered them for your convenience.

If you’re good and put your guesses in the comments below (or the ones you can’t guess), I may provide a key this evening or tomorrow. I took this from a public Facebook post but of course am not going to tell you the source until you guess. If you do a reverse image search, you’ll be cheating.

Oh, and do not look at the comments until you guess.






















Bernstein on the Beatles

April 18, 2021 • 2:15 pm

Reader Tim sent me this video because he knows I love the Beatles—the best rock group of all time. Apparently Leonard Bernstein is at least in partial agreement with me, as in this seven-minute lecture he points out the originality and quality of a few Beatles songs as standing out from what he sees as the musical dross of rock and roll.  He is a bit of a snob about rock, but not so snobbish that he ignores it all (he likes “5% of the whole output”, with the rest “mostly trash”).

The songs he mention include “Good Day Sunshine,” “She Said,” “Got to Get You Into My Life,” “She Loves You,” “Eleanor Rigby”, “Penny Lane,” “Love to You”, and “I Saw Her Standing There.”  The video appears to cut out then, and there may be more; if you find the rest, let me know.

He concentrates on changes in key and tempo, which irks me a bit, as it ignores the lyrical content of the songs and the beauty of the tunes, and concentrates on novelty of rhythm and key (as well as the use of instruments like sitars and string quartets, but that’s okay. He is, after all, a classical musician (but one who wrote the music for “West Side Story”). At least he singles out the Beatles as opposed to the many other rock groups manqué that have been suggested to me over the years for being “as good as the Beatles.” Of course, none of them are.

Darwin rocks out!

March 26, 2021 • 1:30 pm

Thanks to the new app Wombo, we can see Darwin rocking out as he might have done had there been this kind of music in the mid-19th century.

First: Chuckie D. sings the James Brown hit, “I feel good.”

Then, feeling his oats, he essays “Tunak Tunak Tun” by Daler Mehndi. Look at the old guy boogie!


Intersectional music made with mathematics and Siri

March 21, 2021 • 1:30 pm

I like this song as it combines several genres: beat-boxing (vocal percussion), rap, and traditional Indian song. You wouldn’t think they’d mesh well, but they do (I particularly like the last singer overlaid on the earlier ones).

Of course I had to try the query to Siri, but when I did, I got a visual rather than an audio answer: