Sunday, January 31, 2010

Ashley Brown Reinvigorates the American Songbook

Listening to vocalist’s Ashley Brown’s debut recording, “Speak Low” (Ghostlght Records), it struck me that she sounded like someone who should be on Broadway. Then looking at some of her press materials, I discovered that she is on a National Tour of “Mary Popkins,” after having originated the role on Broadway and winning several awards for her performance in that role. Born in Florida, she is only 28 but shows a poise and confidence in her delivery of someone with decades of experience. On “Speak Low” she sings a number of familiar favorites from the American Songbook where she is matched by some well known jazz masters including Lee Musiker, Yaron Gershovsky and Eldar Djangirov on keyboards; Lee Soloff on trumpet; Jay Leonhart on bass; and Victor Lewis and Rick Cutler on drums. Despite the jazz trappings on this, one should have no doubt that she is a classic pop and Broadway vocalist. That describes her music and is not a judgment on it.

She possesses such a lovely voice and delivers the songs in such an appealing manner, as is immediately evident listening to the opening Kurt Weill & Ogden Nash collaboration, “Speak Low,” with strings adding atmosphere to her lover’s plea. In contrast her vocal on“If I Were a Bell,” with lovely reeds added by Lawrence Feldman, is pure joy. It is hard to shake images of the movie “Casablanca,” on “As Time Goes By,” but Musiker’s arrangement contributes to the freshness of Brown’s wistful handling of this classic. A medley of “Smile”/”Make Someone Happy,” sports a crisp latin groove as Yaron Gershovsky’s piano and Victor Lewis’ drums stand out in backing her uplifting vocal. Can one get much lovelier and romantic than Brown sounds on “My Funny Valentine,” with Lew Soloff’s mellow trumpet echoing the mood. Gershovsky contributes the arrangement (and takes a short piano break) for “Saturday Night is the Loneliest Night of the Week,” on which she scats some while avoiding copying Sinatra’s classic recording. With only Eldar’s piano, she captures the doleful character of the Gershwin classic, “How Long has This Been Going On.” Vocally she waltzes on “I’ve Got the World on a String,” while on “My One and Only Love,” she romances her love without getting sugary.

It is easy to fall in love with Ashley Brown’s singing. It is refreshing to listen to a vocalist from the musical stage whose can take what seem like overly recorded songs from the American Songbook and captivate us with performances that sound like they these songs written yesterday. “Speak Low” is a superb first recording by someone who may become one of the leading singers of the classic American song in the 21st Century.

For purposes of FTC regulations, I received a review copy of this CD from Crossover Media.

Lively old-time blues and hokum from Veronica & the Red Wine Serenaders

Enthusiasm for blues, old-timey and other American roots music has led not only to audiences worldwide, but also individuals and bands playing such music. One such group of musicians hails from Milan, Italy, Veronica & the Red Wine Serenaders. They have an eponymously (self-titled) recording on Totally Unnecessary Records that is a mix of old times blues, string-band, country, and hokum by a group that is a mix of string band and traditional jazz in its instrumentation. Veronica Sbergia fronts the band with her vocals, ukulele, kazoo and washboard and among the remaining musicians, the most prominent is Max De Bernardi who plays a variety of guitars including resophonic, as well as mandolin and contributes some vocals. Alessandra Cecola rounds the core of the band on bass with others adding dobro, harmonica, piano and clarinet to various tracks.

The recording opens with a nice rendition of the Mississippi Sheik’s “Bootlegger’s Blues,” with a nice vocal and some nice guitar and mandolin from De Bernardi. Miss Sbergia has a lovely voice and delivers this song in what this listener views as a more successful interpretation than pretentious rendition on the recent Mississippi Sheiks tribute CD. It’s followed up buy the hokum-ish “You Drunk Too Much,” with lively cdlarinet and stomp down piano. “Nobody Knows But Me,” is a nice performance of a number that sounds like it was from the songbook of the Blue Yodeler, Jimmie Rodgers. with some nice dobro. “Busy Bootin’” is a skittlish number with De Bernadi handling the “you can knock but can’t come in” type of hokum, with twin slide guitars and a feel suggestive of R. Crumb & the Cheap Suit Serenaders. I have no idea of the origins of “Lullaby of the Leaves,” which has an Hawaiian tinge. “Me, Myself and I,” is a vocal duet with nice slide guitar and a skittle feel (including a kazoo solo) that gives this song a different tone than the famous Billie Holiday recording. “Doggone My Soul,” is a nice handling of a traditional blues with the ensemble coming of as a jug band, while Hank Williams’ “Lovesick Blues,” shows more of the country side of this group. “Mr. Ambulance Blues,” is a classic blues styled performance again with clarinet, “You May Leave (But This Will Bring You Back),” is more jug band style with lively kazoo, and “I Wanna Go Back To My Little Grass Shack,” is a lively Hawaiian number. Among the remaining numbers are a couple of numbers from the era of classic blues, “I Wish I Could Shimmy Like My Sister Kate,” and a live performance of Bessie Smith’s “Good Ole Wagon.” While one would be hard pressed to describe this recording as deep blues or roots, it is a lively, entertaining disc that is fun to listen to. I do not know where one can obtain this in North America, but Veronica has a web presence at myspace ( and on facebook (

For purposes of FTC regulations, I received the CD for review from Veronica & the Red Wine Serenaders.

Chicago Blues Buddies Strong Friendship Commemorated

It was in 1960 that Elvin Bishop, then a newcomer to Chicago, met and was mentored by Smokey Smothers (oft referred as Little Smokey to distinguish him from his older brother Big Smokey). Smokey at the time was at the Blue Flame and also working with Howlin’ Wolf at the time. Later Smokey would also encourage Paul Butterfield and helped inspire that band. Elvin and Smokey have remained close friends through the years, even while Elvin’s career took off with Butterfield and later as a blues-rooted rock act with several smash hits. With his career in rebound at the time, Elvin instigated and participated in the 1993 award-winning album, Bossman!  and later recorded at live album with his old friend for Alligator. Later at the 2006 Chicago Blues Festival they reprised their collaborations.

More recently, Smokey’s health has been in decline and as Dick Shurman has noted, Elvin seized the moment to compile a new CD, Little Smokey Smothers & Elvin Bishop “Chicago Blues Buddies” (Brown Derby), with the proceeds going to Smokey. The CD is a nice retrospective that opens with a couple tracks from “Bossman!“ including ”Remembering,“ where the two trade licks and recall their younger days. Next up are five performances from the 1993 Chicago Blues Festival which are the musical core of this disc and strong performances including ”Smokey’s Shuffle,“ ”Crack Head Woman,“ and ”Mother-in-Law Blues,“ marked with strong vocals from Smokey and playing from both. It is followed by an interview of the two by Chris Heim and Steve Cushing. The next two selections are from the live Alligator recording from San Francisco’s Biscuits & Blues, ”Thats My Partner,“ and then the last two selections are from a 2006 Ground Zero appearance shortly after their Chicago Blues Festival appearance.

This serves as a solid retrospective of a wonderful partnership with the release of the first-rate 1993 Chicago Blues Festival performances particularly welcome as are the tracks that Alligator and Black Magic graciously lent to this project which can be obtained from BlueBeat Music ( from whom I purchased this. I am not sure if this set is available from other sources, but it is well worth seeking out not simply for the music but for the good cause that it was compiled for.

Updated November 21, 2010. Word was received today that Little Smokey passed away. RIP. Bluebeat Music shows this still in stock as of today.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Jazz Vocalist Nancy Harms Impresses on Debut Recording

There are any number of new CDs coming out from known and lesser known jazz singers. One that came to me from the Crossover Media folk is from Nancy Harms, a singer we are sure to hear more from in the future.

Vocalist Nancy Harms is certain to enchant many on her debut CD, “In the Indigo” (, exhibiting a subtle and sophisticated vocal style mixing the soft whisper of an Astrid Gilberto with a strong dash of Billie Holiday’s horn-like phrasing. Backed by a supple, tight studio band featuring the keyboards of Tanner Taylor, bass of the Graydon Peterson and drums of Jay Epstein, with producer Robert Bell adding guitar on two selections while Kelly Rossum’s trumpet adds welcome embellishments to four of the eleven selections here. This disc is comprised of mostly fresh reworkings of standards with the lovely rendition of “Bye Bye Blackbird,” opening with Peterson’s bass providing a skeletal backing for her wistful vocal with the trio and Rossum’s muted trumpet (in a Miles Davis’ vein) then coming in. “I Wished On the Moon,” is among many songs oft identified with Lady Day, but Ms. Harms places her own stamp on the lively rendition here with more strong trumpet, before an intimate performance on “Softly, As in a Morning Sunrise,” with a delightful trip backing. The title track is one of two originals that she was involved in writing and is a romantic number with a light latin touch with Bell adding some nice flamenco-tinged guitar. Her melancholic whispering vocal on “Cry Me a River,” is complemented by Taylor’s sparse piano playing and solo, while an unexpected cover is of John Mayer’s “Great Indoor,” benefits from Taylor’s atmospheric organ. “Blue Skies” opens with her original verse before she launches into Irving Berlin’s classic for another enchanting rendition that opens in an intimate manner before her and her trio kick the tempo swinging her and her vocal coming off as trumpet-like with her precise phrasing. Its yet another excellent performance on a marvelous recording by a singer who certainly enchants the listener here. “In the Indigo” is available from and can be downloaded from itunes, among other sources.

A Marvelous Retrospective of the Blue Lioness

The following review has appeared in issue 322 of Jazz & Blues Report (December 2009 to January 15, 2010) on page 13, and the issue can be downloaded at For purposes of FTC regulations which may be applicable, the review copy of the CD was received directly from Sista Monica and Mo Muscle Music.

Vasti Jackson was the one who described Sista Monica Parker as “The Lioness of the Blues,” which suggests the power she brings to her performances. In the writer’s humble opinion, she has been the finest female blues singer of the past decade and a half. I have had the pleasure of seeing her at the 1997 D.C. Blues Festival, one of the few performances she has made on the East Coast of the US and it was one of the most memorable performances in the 20 odd years of this event. She can belt out the blues with the power of Etta James, Koko Taylor or Big Maybelle, yet she delivers and caresses the lyrics with the subtlety of Ruth Brown and Irma Thomas. Her new CD, “Soul Blues & Ballads,” is a compilation of her recordings over the past 15 years. On her website she expounds about the songs here, “They have been carefully tucked between up-tempo, high energy, rock n’ Chicago style blues songs on eight (8) different CDs. They span almost two decades of expressing my love, my lessons, and my losses. I have had to let go and live on. It’s been healing to sing my blues!” On the CD insert she dedicates this to the three great women who inspired and influenced her Katie Webster, Koko Taylor and Ruth Brown. “These women paved the way for me to open up and write about my heartaches and expose my woundedness.”

As for the music, there is a focus on slower and medium tempo songs where she caresses a lyric and goes from a whisper to a scream (to borrow the title of a classic Esther Philips album and Allen Toussaint song). The opening “I’m a Woman,” by Vasti Jackson, is a different song from the Leiber-Stoller song associated with Peggy Lee and others or the Koko Taylor answer to Muddy Waters and Bo Diddley, while her own “Honey’s It’s Your Fault,” with Danny Beconcini on keyboards and Larry McCray on guitar, is a strong mix of singing and spoken parts. “Behind My Back,” is another strong soulful performance about how her lover has been cheating on her with Monica belting out about how “you have been playing behind my back with my best friend,” and not taking it anymore. Notice how relaxed and powerful her singing is. She opens “Leave the Door Open,” almost whispering before she starts singing about loving her baby down to her bone and wondering if enough to stay at home but tired of fighting about every little bitty thing. “I’m leaving the door open and you can come through,” with nice organ and jazzy guitar from Chris Cain. Most would emote or sing over the top on Etta James’ “Come To Mama,” but Sista Monica is right on the money here with an outstanding piano solo. I’m not gonna go through every track, but a couple standout. One can look at how she and her accompaniment build things up so her vocal and the backing just explode towards the end of “Never Say Never,” as well as on Katie Webster’s, “Pussycat Moan,” where she sings about a woman who is mad at her lover, and moans about him telling her best friend “he didn’t want her no more,” but knowing its a lie because when Sista turns her back he tries to come in Sista’s back door with a terrific piano solo break from Beconcini before she comes back in snarling “why don’t you pack your bags, don’t you see I don’t need you no more … this here pussycat ain’t gonna be your pussycat no more,” then vocalizing and moaning against Mike Osborne’s blistering guitar. From her first CD, “Get Out of My Way,” this still resonates and sounds as fresh today as when it first came out. The CD closes with the uplifting gospel-soul rendition of Warren Haynes “Soul Shine.”

There is a generous amount of music here with thirteen outstanding performances for about 70 minutes by one of the blues and R&B world’s finest singers here. I add that she could have selected from her earlier recordings, a dozen different performances and had as compelling a recording. She is just that dynamic and soulful. For those lacking anything by the Sista, here is a good place to start. This is available at cdbaby, amazon, itunes, rhapsody and other locations. For more information on Sista Monica, and her other recordings, performance schedule and such, go to her website,

Happy 80th Birthday Bobby Bland

I believe it was this past Wednesday and it was celebrated with some of his friends joining him as detailed more fully in the accompanying article:

I would quote Mark Jordan’s article, but that would be too easy. please give it a read. B.B. king, Latimore, Bobby Rush, Floyd Taylor and others came by to see Bobby and wish him well.

Bland though has cancelled a scheduled show at The Birchmere in Alexandria, Virginia and one certainly hopes that any health issues are minor ones, but only time will tell. I have been fortunate enough to see him a number of times including with B.B. three decades ago in Buffalo. He is one of the most extraordinary singers to have blessed the Blues & Rhythm area. Ace once issued an anthology of some of his best recordings that was simply, and properly entitled “The Voice.” Hopefully we will have the opportunity to see Mr. Bland performing regularly in the future. he is an American Treasure.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Cafe Society Story Is One For Ages

The following review appeared in the January 16-March 1, 2010 issue (issue 323) of Jazz & Blues Report which is downloadable as a pdf file from

by Barney Josephson & Terry Trilling-Josephson

I remember going to The Cookery when I was living in New York between 1978 and 1983 and having the privilege of seeing Alberta Hunter, Helen Humes and others perform there. What an experience and to hear its proprietor, one Barney Josephson introduce the performers before getting to listen to some American originals. I also remember reading about Cafe Society, legendary night clubs that Josephson operated from the late 1930s until they closed as a result because of Red Scare witch-hunt of the post-war World War II era. I knew that Cafe Society was where Big Joe Turner and the Boogie Woogie Trio played after their success at the legendary Spirituals to Swing Concert and that Billie Holiday had started singing “Strange Fruit” there. But there is much more to the club’s (and Josephson’s) story than that.

While Barney Josephson died in 1988, his widow, Terry Trilling-Josephson had taped his recollections as well as written down some remembrances when tape was not available. As she notes in her preface, she then conducted interviews with some of those who had played important roles in Barney’s life or performed at his clubs. She supplemented her interviews when necessary (she was unable to interview Lena Horne for example) with existing printed materials such as published interviews and contemporary press coverage of both Cafe Society and the Cookery. The result is “Cafe Society: The Wrong Place For The Right People,” part of the University of Illinois Press’ “Music in American Life” series.

Cafe Society pioneered as a night club admitting per-sons of all ethnic and racial backgrounds without preference to any particular group based on class or status, as opposed to the segregation that marked almost all other night clubs. It also presented a diverse group of performers in a dignified fashion. Blacks for example were not presented in a stereotypical role such as a Jungle Band or in mythical idyllic southern pastoral setting shows that bands played in while performing in shows at clubs like Cotton Club. This reflected Josephson’s egalitarian values when he grew up.

Barney Josephson was the youngest of six children born to the widow who had emigrated from Latvia (then part of the Russian Empire). His mother worked as a seamstress to support her family in Trenton, New Jersey. He graduated high school but did not go to college, rather working in the show store of one of his brothers who was a Hoover republican. Another brother went to law school and became a communist although not a Communist Party member. Through his brother he was receptive to socialist ideas, especially those relating to the equality of people, and became friends with the one black student at his school. He developed a love of literature, theater and the arts as a child and continued while helping his brother’s shoe business.

Somehow, he ended up opening Cafe Society in Greenwich Village with his friend John Hammond suggesting most of the musical talent such as the Boogie Woogie Trio, Billie Holiday and others while he himself decided on some of the other talent including the comedian, Jack Gilford, who was the initial emcee at the venue in addition to providing a comedy routine.
Opening between Christmas and New Year with the United States not out of the Depression was not the expected recipe for success, a point that Gilford would remind Josephson regularly. He would send Josephson a letter every year timed to arrive at the anniversary of Cafe Society’s opening in December 28.

The text of one letter is given in the memoir:

“Dear Barney I keep telling you if you open a nightclub in New York City three days before New Year’s Eve you will fail. I warn you three fat piano players will not attract business. Also a female black singer with a gardenia in her hair, a blues shouter singing about a sheik in any key, and a curly haired white comedian trying to convince audiences he looks and acts like a golf ball, will get you run out of town on a rail. Take my advice and go back to Trenton and open a shoe store that sells health shoes.

Yours, Jack. December 28, 1977.”

It was not simply having someone like Hammond to suggest talent. Josephson had been to enough night clubs to know what he did not want. He did not want Blacks being in servant rolls. As far as the decor, he has a number of artists, including cartoonists for the New Yorker, do a mural for the walls, most of which spoofed high society. And there was the talent. So many famous performers were there. Teddy Wilson led a band, the great Mary Lou Williams performed there while the appearances by Hazel Scott, Lena Horne, Mildred Bailey, the Golden gate Quartet, and Zero Mostel (and how Sam Mostel got to be called Zero is told here) were crucial in their careers.

Sometimes someone would audition and he trusted his instinct in hiring them and then making suggestions as to repertoire, often buying outfits for them. He suggested “Strange Fruit” to Billie Holiday, which led to one of her signature numbers as well as recounts how the song got to be recorded.. After all, what could follow that. Even later at the Cookery when he hired Susan McCorkle who was singing mostly unknown songs, he had here concentrate on better known songs and she became recognized as a song interpreter). Josephson also hired performers for extended stays, months, even years at a time. He also provided management services for some. He was a man of his word and even when he had a management contract, he did not take any money from his performers. For example he managed Hazel Scott early in her career including handling her money which enabled her to have quite some assets which she married Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. and then hosted the reception for at Cafe Society.

Cafe Society with its mix of entertainment was quite successful even though its booking policy defied what was viewed as common sense at the time and a second venue opened, Cafe Society Uptown. His clubs were trailblazing in how they presented music and as his memoir makes clear, what he did in booking unknown artists and how he had an open, diverse audience broke many rules on how night clubs operated. Its fascinating to hear his account of the two venues, and the fascinating stories of the performers.

What caused Cafe Society to shut its doors was the Post-World War 11 Red Scare. His brother Leon had been arrested in the mid-1930s in Denmark as an alleged participant in a plan to assassinate Hitler. He was exonerated but when he returned to the United States his passport was taken and even though a Communist, the Communist Party USA wanted nothing to do with him. He still worked as a lawyer for progressive courses but after World War II the House Committee of UnAmerican Activities, subpoenaed him to testify which he refused, citing the 1st Amendment. He was eventually convicted which was affirmed by the 2nd Circuit of the United States Court of Appeals (Justice Tom Clark dissenting) and the Supreme Court refused to hear his appeal. He was sentenced to a year in prison. After his brother is to jail, smears about Josephson and Cafe Society started, press coverage almost completely ceased and various licensing and regulatory agencies started harassing him and the clientele. It was only a matter of time until he was forced to close first Cafe Society Uptown and then the original venue.

He gives his own overview of the Red Scare, which saw many writers, performers and artists blacklisted while others betrayed their friends. Hazel Scott, then married to Congressman Adam Clayton Powell, testified that she only performed at certain benefits because Josephson directed her to. Josephson flat out contradicts this, stating he always left it to the performer. whether to perform for a cause. He was often asked him years later why he did not hire her for the Cookery, and here he cites her ‘false’ testimony. It was not the innuendo of being a communist or a fellow traveler. There was an undercurrent of racism. He was accused of being a red, but even worse encouraging race mixing. How dare he treat Blacks as good as Whites. It is telling that he was harassed at a time when mob-owned clubs were left alone.

After Cafe Society closed, Josephson opened an eatery called The Cookery around 1955 which expanded to three locations. However, by 1972 only one remained open, the largest one in Greenwich Village. He started presenting music there by happenstance. One day pianist Mary Lou Williams came by and mentioned to Barney how hard it was to find a place to work. She had tried to get booked at the Village Gate and was turned down. Somehow she convinced Barney to hire her and a bassist. While the Cookery lacked a cabaret license, he was still able to present a drummer-less entertainment without one. What started as an experiment, led to another decade of him presenting some of the musicians and singers who had played Cafe Society like Helen Humes, Big Joe Turner, Eddie Heywood as well as others of a similar vein like Ruth Brown and the marvelous jazz singer Susan McCorkle.

Of course, there was one singer most identified with The Cookery, and that was Alberta Hunter. Josephson recounts how he came to meet and have her perform, and have a relationship that would lead to her touring around the world as well as visiting the White House and her perform at the Kennedy Center Honors for an old friend, Marian Anderson. As good as the music Josephson continued to present, she became so identified with the Cookery, that when she passed away, a void could not be filled. This and some personal issues led to the closing of that establishment

Barney Josephson was a most remarkable man. Being true to his values and his instincts, he operated night clubs that presented pioneering music and comedy and pioneered in race relations. He treated musicians as friends and family and the many recollections of him included here display the affection so many had for him. He lived a rich life and contributed so much to our lives and culture. There are biographies of a number of performers that may provide a different perspective on some of the events discussed here. For example, there is a new biography of Hazel Scott that I have not read. But this is Barney’s story and it makes for a compelling read. For those interested in jazz, blues, cabaret, social history and more, “Cafe Society” is spellbinding.

The review copy of this book was provided by the publisher or its publicist.

Saturday, January 02, 2010

Unsung Tenor Master With Energetic New Disc

The following review appeared in the June 2009 issue of Jazz & Blues Report (Issue 317) and Lalama impressed this listener immensely.

Veteran tenor saxophonist Ralph Lalama has been playing for decades, and probably is most noteworthy for his work with the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra on their long-standing Monday night gig at the fabled Village Vanguard, but has also been part of Joe Lovano’s Nonet. He has recorded several albums for the Dutch Criss Cross label. His most recent album is Energy Fields (Mighty Quinn) with a strong quartet filled out by John Hart on guitar, Rick Petrone on bass and Joe Corsello on drums for an interesting collection of material that is handled with robust authority throughout.

The disc opens auspiciously with a vigorous rendition of Woody Shaw’s “Moontrane,” followed by a boppish rendition of Charlie Parker’s “Buzzy,” with Hart and Lalama taking the head in a fashion akin to Parker and Gillespie. Hart’s fleet guitar with his single note runs punctuated by chords is a foil for Lalama’s vigorous playing with a sound at times suggestive of Sonny Rollins and Dexter Gordon. Lalama’s original “Nonchalant” showcases his ballad sense while Hart contributes a fresh arrangement to “Old Folks,” one of the staples of Ben Webster’s repertoire, but with Lalama’s strong playing following Hart’s initial solo, while his attack on “Like Someone in Love” is evocative of Rollins and Gordon in sound and approach

Other selections also taken at this high level include Wayne Shorter’s “United,” the classic ballad “Indian Summer,” and the swinging “Just in Time.” Lalama is marvelous through as is the entire group producing an excellent set of strong, contemporary jazz. This can be obtained at or from amazon.

For FTC purposes, I received a review copy from the publication.
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