Sunday, January 30, 2011

Charles Tolliver: Paper Man Revisited

Charles Tolliver
Trumpeter Charles Tolliver is one of those musicians that frequently gets overlooked by writers and listeners. I think of Tolliver's trumpet playing as smack dab in the middle of Freddie Hubbard and Woody Shaw; he has wonderful vocabulary in his playing, and a lot of passion(Hubbard), but also a very clean articulation and technique, and also logic in his solos(Shaw). Above all, he is a very musical player, and at times, I liken him to saxophonist Wayne Shorter, who improvises like a composer. And Tolliver is a prolific composer. He is also a pioneer in the music business, if you consider that he and Stanley Cowell were some of the first jazz artists to start their own label in the 70's(Strata East).

Whenever people ask me my top 10 favorite jazz albums, Charles Tolliver's Paper Man is always on that list. I first heard it when I was in college, and I'm still not tired of it. It's one of those magical lineups that is in some ways expected, but in this case, produced something extraordinary. Charles Tolliver is well featured and well recorded on trumpet, and all the compositions are from his pen. The one and only Herbie Hancock plays a piano which, for my ears, sounds almost like an upright at times, and perhaps not a well maintained one. Whatever the case, it's relevant for no more than a split second, because Hancock's playing seems extra inspired throughout the session. The great Ron Carter plays some rhythmic and harmonic ideas that are downright shocking. And the amazing Joe Chambers adds a superbly sensitive rhythmic foundation with his supple drumming. My former employer Gary Bartz appears on three tracks and is in great form as usual.

If you have Paper Man in your collection, I hope the following writing will inspire you to dig it out and listen along. If you don't have it, it's really hard to find. ( It was also released as Charles Tolliver and his All Stars on the Black Lion label.) For some weird reason, this masterpiece is not available on Itunes. What a shame!

The first track, "Earl's World", is a bold opening statement, a combination of heavy and light all at once. The tune is half 12/8 riff, half medium swing. I love tunes that get right to the point, and this one does. And it's a great vehicle for solos. Tolliver comes out with powerful ideas, and his solo is perfectly shaped, driven by the enthusiastic comping of Hancock and Chambers. Hancock's solo begins introspectively, with slick interpolations of 12/8, shifting into some ultra-slick metric modulations.

(One thing you'll notice about this recording is that the piano is one one side of the stereo image, and the bass is on the other. The trumpet and drums seems to be spread evenly. There is great clarity in the recording, and it only adds to the enjoyment of the interplay.)

Joe Chambers
Track Two, entitled "Peace With Myself", is a colorful waltz. Hancock's comping is extra-creative, and he and Carter share some humorous musical comments. It's amazing how strong the rhythm is on this track, and yet there is a lot of openess in the beat. At times, Chambers seems subdued, but when you realize how subtly musical his playing is, you just sit back and marvel at his tasteful musical reflexes.
Hancock ventures into 20th century impressionism, reminiscent of his work with Miles Davis. Hancock's approach to rhythm is so multi-layered. (Sometimes I almost laugh when I read something like "Jazz Rhythm is primarily eighth notes." Whomever takes that to heart would be highly confused by this Herbie Hancock solo.) Ron Carter brings us down to nothing while Hancock and Chambers sound as if they are faraway ghosts.

"Right Now", the third track, is a composition that originally appeared on a Jackie McLean recording(entitled Right Now.) I also recorded this tune on my third CD for the Steeplechase label back in the 90's. The form is basically a diminished scale line over an almost New Orleans type of syncopated rhythm. The bridge is a release into Bud Powell-like Bebop. This tension and release built into the structure makes it endlessly fun to improvise over. The melody statement in Tolliver's hands has a bold clarion call , like a call-to-arms, or maybe in this case, a call-to-play-some-jazz. Hancock's solo, combined with Carter's disruptively inventive hemiolas, and Chamber's perfectly swinging beat, is a thrill ride. Carter, quite a sober man personally, is almost comical in his comping here; at times, he almost sounds like he's in another room, it's that adventurous. This conflict continues on Tolliver's solo, building into a short but sweet Chambers drum solo. And the battle continues all the way to the vamp out.

"Household of Saud" is a song dedicated to pianist McCoy Tyner, and this fourth track is where Gary Bartz makes this a quintet. This is one of my all-time favorite tracks; the melody is almost a  Tyner lick harmonized in 4ths and made into a composition. It's hard swinging and intense. Tolliver sounds strong. Bartz's solo has a nonchalance about it; he's a master of sounding relaxed over intense rhythm sections.

"Lil's Paradise" is a rather inventive tune, very expansive. It uses long pedal point sections over a relaxed jazz bossa type groove. Again, the musical teamwork is great. Bartz takes a lyrically beautiful solo.

The title track, "Paper Man," is one of those sort of bluesy boogaloo tunes with a catchy riff. It's a great way to end the album. I'm listening to this and again wondering why this album is not widely available. If anybody finds a link or something, please let me know. Meanwhile, here is a link to Mr. Tolliver's website.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Recent Gigs and Activities

Rayannah Kroeker
I'm just mini-posting regarding my musical activities this past weekend in Winnipeg. First, on Friday night, I brought a trio into a small bookstore cafe called McNally-Robinson. This was not my usual trio, however. I asked bassist Steve Kirby and vocalist Rayannah Kroeker to join me in presenting some new music for the first time. To back track a bit, I've been on a songwriting/lyric-writing kick since November of 2010, and unfortunately, my own singing voice sounds like yodeling Slim Whitman on PCP. So I enlisted Miss Kroeker to lend her lovely voice to my music. She clearly put in a lot of time on the songs, and some of them are not easy to learn. Professor Kirby eliminated the need for a drummer with his consistent pulse and deep groove; many of the tunes had a funky edge, and Kirby seemed to be channeling a combination of James Jamerson and Jimmy Garrison all at once.

The music performance is unfortunately a bit of an afterthought in this bookstore cafe;many of the audience members are there mostly to eat dinner. However, it's a decent sounding venue and some friends came out to listen:local young phenoms Will Bonness sat in on piano, as did Luke Sellick on bass. All in all, a great night and I was pleasantly surprised as to how the songs came out (thanks to Kroeker's wonderful interpretation and Kirby's supportive bass). The last time I really wrote lyrics before last year was when I wrote the Centennial High School Fight Song in 1987, but that's another story for another blog.

Kelly Hughes, proprietor of Aqua Books
Saturday was a long day. I began the day with an open rehearsal at the new hot spot for music in Winnipeg:Aqua Books. I've been preparing for my stint as the Songwriter-in Residence at Aqua Books, something that Kelly Hughes, the proprietor of the bookstore/cultural venue asked me to do a few months ago. My idea for the residency was to present my songs in the form of two concerts, and feature singers affiliated with the University of Manitoba Jazz Program. I realize that it might have been easier to sing the songs myself, (Did I mention that my singing voice sounds like yodeling Slim Whitman on PCP?), but I thought that it would be interesting to see how these young singers interpreted the music.

We rehearsed from around 3:30 to 6pm, and boy, was it fun! Instructor Anna- Lisa Kirby and her students Amber Epp, Heitha Forsythe, Brooke Van Ryssel, Joanna Majoko,  and Erin Propp were all outstanding. All of them clearly did their homework. and brought something special to the music. The performances will be February 10th at 9pm and March 12th at 8pm. I'm really excited about it, and somewhat relieved, now that I have heard the material sung by real singers! Also, we will be joined by genius bassist Karl Kohut and drum wizard Curtis Nowasad.

After a light dinner at the Eat!Bistro, which is connected to the bookstore, I played drums with the Kerry Politzer trio. Kerry is my wife, and she is not only a brilliant jazz pianist, but an amazingly prolific singer-songwriter. Karl Kohut stayed to play bass with us. This night was not only the first time Kerry has sung in three years, it is kind of a comeback- after the birth of our son Liam over a year ago.

Furthermore, this was Kerry's first time playing guitar in public-a fact which even a guitarist in the audience was surprised to hear, due to Kerry's proficiency on the instrument.  Kerry's easily one of the most talented people I know, and I am a fan of her songs and her singing. I believe that the audience was pleasantly surprised and impressed, if not also emotionally moved. After a moving ballad entitled "Joseph", a woman in the front row was in tears.( or maybe it was because of my terrible drumming. Not sure about that one....)I'm hoping Kerry will get more chances to perform in Winnipeg later in the year.

A long day, but a satisfying one. Songs, songs, and more songs!

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

One of the worst gigs I ever did, plus an amusing story....

One of the worst gigs I ever did in my life was maybe a bit less than twenty years ago. When I was back in Maryland, I did a lot of work with various vocalists in the Baltimore-Washington area. Many, many........MANY vocalists! (Now, vocalists, you know I love you, all of you, and my upcoming performances at Aqua Books in Winnipeg should be demonstrative of that love!) Working with jazz singers can be great because there are many skills you can learn on a singer's gig that you don't on an instrumental gig. You have to know many more songs, in the singer's key, plus you have to be able to read her( or his....) arrangements. You have to be able to come up with intros and outros on the fly. You have to be able to play a ballad. You need to really be able to support. And I take pride in my ability to do those things, in my own limited way. Much of that is because of my work with singers like Gail Martin, Iris Benjamin, Heidi Martin, Ethel Ennis, Sunny Sumter, Karen Francis, Pam Bricker, and many others. Later I worked with singers like Vanessa Rubin, Cassandra Wilson, Janis Siegel, and Sinne Eeg (a wonderful Danish vocalist.), among others.

But professional musicians can be mercenaries, and at a certain point, you just accept gigs because your calendar is blank, rather than whether the singer or whoever gives you any musical thrill. Well, I took a gig with a singer who will remain nameless, mostly because I cannot remember her name. (Whew! Off the hook on that!) Now this vocalist, or voice owner, as they say, was a very quiet gal in her speaking voice and her singing voice. Even the microphone did not help. She was, in the Seinfeldian lingo, a "low talker". And I would say "low singer" but that would imply that she was a female Baritone, which is not true. (She was not, as far I could tell, a member of the East German Olympic Team.) Actually, I don't remember her vocal range, because I could never really hear her.

This vocalist, let's call her Mrs. Fourth, was also in the habit of singing every tune a fourth away from the key. I don't mean that she sang a fourth away from the original key( female keys are typically a fourth away from the male key). I mean she sang a fourth away from the key that we were supposed to be playing in! And what made it hard to try to follow her was that she had arrangements from her teacher that were heavily re-harmonized and arranged. So I felt it was safer to just play the arrangement and hope she would figure it out eventually. Which she rarely did.

So needless to say, it was quite difficult to figure out what to do because this whispering voice in a strange key was going against a whole bunch of chord changes that almost obscured the tune beyond recognition. And so it came time to bring this "unique" act to the stage, meaning a gig at a local sports bar. Let's get this clear: Sports Bars and Jazz Music is like Sports Bars and anything else not Sports Related. So we were already set up to fail in so many ways.

And then it really took a turn, well, maybe not a turn, for the worse, if you read the following and see what I mean; the bassist who had been hired was an older gentleman who apparently had toured with some famous big bands. In the 30's. And that's the last time his upright bass had been played, because when he went to tune up his bass, he could not turn the tuning pegs. They were almost rusted shut!(Maybe the bassist had arthritis, also. If so, well, I'm sorry then.) He literally could not tune his bass to the keyboard. And to top it off, he wouldn't read the charts; he would play the changes he knew from the 30's.

So imagine in your mind this Charles Ivesish scenario of Mrs. Fourth whispering in C, while I played in G a cornucopia of random harmonies, whilst the bassist played in F# or G# some other song from days of yore. This might be performance art to some. Did I mention that we were in a Sports Bar?

I also forgot to mention that there was a drummer on board our rapidly sinking musical ship. He is a good friend of mine, and will also remain nameless. My friend the drummer , who is a very good musician, was also in mercenary mode. And he could hear what was going on as well as I could. This was too much for his sensitive drummer's heart, so he went to the bar, looked at the drink menu, and said, "OK." Meaning he was not half in the bag, he was all the way in the bag. I think he drank the bag....

The icing on the cake was that one of my dear teachers, who knew me as a trumpeter and had never heard me play jazz piano before, showed up to the gig because he lived nearby. Talk about embarrassment! I just had to play it cool, and my teacher was very gracious. And I will end on a positive note and say that I did get paid for the gig. Just like a mercenary should.

And Mrs. Fourth, if you should ever read this and recognize yourself, I am sorry, I mean no disrespect.
And I will tell you that I recently tried to sing on a gig and I sounded like Alvin and The Chipmunks on crack! Singing is really not as easy as it seems.

Finally, I will leave you with a short anecdote about my friend the drummer. We actually had the following conversation while driving to a gig one time:

Me: So, how have you been? What have you been up to?

my friend the drummer: I've been reading the Bible alot.

Me: OK.

Drumfriend: I'm a born-again Christian now.

Me: OK. Cool.

Drumfriend: Also, I'm not doing NEARLY as much coke as I used to.

                                                             - FIN-

Monday, January 24, 2011

My latest article in Keyboard Magazine,etc...

Go ahead, TRY to sound like ME!

I think one of the most difficult things to deal with as a jazz player is this: how do you study the greats and then NOT sound like they do? Why should we transcribe solos never to play them? Well, my advice is to listen to a lot of different players and steal bits and pieces from all of them. Then hopefully all that information will jumble around in your brain and become your own language.

With that in mind, I bring you my latest article for Keyboard Magazine. It's the third in a series of articles with the theme of " Five ways to play like....", well in this case Herbie Hancock. I admit that no one can sound exactly like anyone else. But it's fun to try, and it is part of the learning process. Hancock was one of my early influences;in fact, his playing on the V.S.O.P Live recording was what made me want to switch from trumpet to piano.

Horace Silver
The next article will be about Horace Silver. Silver is an important Hard Bop piano pioneer, and one of the most prolific composers in jazz. You probably know Song For My Father. Anyway, that will probably be out in a few months.

Speaking of Hancock, a few years back I was asked to to a recording for Chesky Records featuring the music of Hancock. Luckily, I was able to get Buster Williams on bass, Lenny White on drums, and Steve Wilson on alto and soprano saxophones. (The CD is perhaps the only available documentation of that band, which was the configuration of Buster Williams' band for many years.)Chesky is an audiophile label, which means they record live to two track using special microphones and such. We recorded in this huge church in Manhattan; the size of the hall added a pretty majestic natural reverb to the music. And we only had a few hours to do the whole CD, which is typical in the jazz world of recording. The recording, in my opinion, was not well promoted, but if you are curious, you can take a gander here at the Chesky website. I think it got some play in Europe, but I've barely seen any mention of it anywhere else.

Just a few items of business: my Rockethub project is still in need of funding  if you are so inclined. Even the smallest donation would help. Take a look if you haven't already.

Also, if you are in the Winnipeg area, I'll be performing this Friday with bassist Steve Kirby and vocalist Rayannah Kroeker at Mcnally Robinson Bookstore in the Grant Park Mall. I've been on a lyric-writing jag as of late, and this will be the first time some of these songs have been presented. And on Saturday, my wife Kerry Politzer and I will be performing at Aqua Books. Kerry is an amazingly gifted pianist and singer/songwriter. Karl Kohut, a Winnipeg based talent, is joining us on bass. Should be a fun weekend.
Kerry Politzer

Sunday, January 23, 2011

The Human Ipod

For those of you who were asleep in the 90's, there was a very popular hip hop band called the Fugees. One of the members from this trio is Lauryn Hill, arguably, well, now that I think about it, definitely, the most talented and most compelling artist of the group. Lauryn Hill seemed to have a plethora of potential as a female rapper who could actually sing and sing well, not to mention being quite fetching. (See photo!)

In the late 90's, Lauryn Hill, riding on the success of her solo recording, seemed poised to rule the world. However, as it can happen in the topsy-turvy world of the music biz, she went insane and dropped off the face of the earth. Well, that's not exactly true, but she did have five children. As the father of merely one child, I can tell you that four more would probably put me in the clock tower wearing something in a semi-automatic.....

Rumors abound of a follow-up to The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill. (Although she did release a live solo guitar album which  is actually not as bad as people say. It's not on the same level as Miseducation but some interesting material. I plan to investigate further....) Hill is currently on tour and there have been reports of concerts being delayed for 3 hours while fans wait angrily for Hill to show. Also, the fans have been reported to say things like:

 "Nobody could participate because NOBODY knew the music!" a concertgoer told entertainment blog Sandrose, via "Everybody was looking around like 'WHAT SONG IS THIS?"

Now, tardiness is not something I like to condone. Who knows what the excuse could have been? Unless she was, ahem, indisposed due to some bad shellfish, there's no reason for being three hours late. And especially due to the fact that Hill has been for the most part out of the game since 1998, you would think she would try not to make her audiences angry at her. This apparently has been happening throughout the tour. So it wasn't like, "Oh, my flight was canceled and I had to connect through Denver to get here, I'm so sorry." It gives off a certain arrogance, and for someone who claims to be a humanitarian, it shows a lack of respect for your audience, most of whom would be instantly fired if they showed up to their jobs three hours late with no reasonable excuse.

But what fascinates me most about this Lauryn Hill comeback tour is the remarks about the music. There were comments about the music being unrecognizable and not being able to sing along with hits. This is where I would overwhelmingly defend Hill. As a jazz musician, I enjoy, and I believe I am expected, to play things in a new way every night. Even if I were lucky enough to have a so-called "hit song", which I'm not banking on ( at least not if it's a jazz song), then I believe it would still be understood that jazz musicians are improvisers, not classical musicians. Therefore, our whole being is about taking material and making it new, and having the freedom to find new things every time out. We are decidedly NOT playing the same thing every night.

I don't know how happy I would be playing in a pop band that just did a "show" every night. Although I've played in bands that had a certain repertoire, it was still possible to find something new to play even within certain confines. One thing I love about playing with Jack DeJohnette's band is that he encourages us, verbally and musically, to try different things all the time. And the audience response seems to be not only just to the quality of the music, but to the happy energy that we as musicians give off as we surprise ourselves!

I would think that if you were a so-called fan of an artist, then you would go to hear them do what they do, as opposed to expecting to hear things exactly like they are on a recording from 13 years ago. Why not just buy the CD? Then you can listen all day long to the same thing over and over. But in terms of a live show,why wouldn't you respect the artist to give you something of quality regardless of whether it's exactly like the recording? If you are so easily disappointed by your favorite artist, why did you become a fan in the first place?

the ipodification of life
I think it's only going to get worse in terms of how concert-goers will perceive the artist-audience relationship. When you can carry thousands of songs around with you in a tiny ipod, and you can press a button and listen to free music on youtube and whatever else, it's only natural that you would take your music for granted. And now that everyone and their mother can make their own music using Garage Band and loops and so on, then that takes away another layer of respect that professional musicians should get. When you have a culture that has so much music at their fingertips, and is increasingly miseducated  as to why Lauryn Hill sounds better than your cousin Jerry who made some beats on Garage Band, then I don't think that makes things better.

The Great Gary Bartz
If you go to see a band, or a movie, or a play, or poetry, or ballet- trust the people on stage to present good art. Don't put your own expectations on it. As Gary Bartz used to say, "Hey, we don't come down to y'alls job and tell YOU what to do!"

Friday, January 21, 2011

Aebersolds: Why They Are Still Great Teaching Tools

The best way to really learn jazz improvisation is to get a gig with a great jazz group that goes on the road or plays every night in a club. Ha! I am well aware that this is not 1955, so those sort of opportunities are rare at best. There is touring still, but it has been getting dry as the decades progress. Even within my limited career, I remember tours in the late 90's that went between 9 and 11 weeks. That's a lot of playing! Nowadays, a weekend stint is a blessing, and 10 days seems like a really long tour. (Talk to older cats about going on the road for months and years at a time! I think the only people that do that currently are pop stars and maybe Chris Botti.)

So there isn't a lot of touring, and for some students, there are few or maybe no local gigs to give them a chance for bandstand experience. And I admit, while the bandstand is a great place to learn, you also need to have a concept together before you get on the bandstand. So how can a young player work out their ideas without a steady gig or even a decent rhythm section at their disposal?

Jamey Aebersold
I am constantly encouraging my students to practice with the Jamey Aebersold recordings. (And trust me, I am not a paid spokesman!) For those of you not familiar, Jamey Aebersold is a saxophonist, pianist, and highly successful jazz educator. From Indiana originally, and now a professor at the University of Louisville, Aebersold introduced his Play-A-Long recordings in the late 60's. The Aebersolds, as they are affectionately known, are essentially Music Minus One recordings, which is much like the Karaoke concept: you hear the backing track and then you provide the melody.

However, the Aebersolds are specifically designed for jazz and to help you learn how to improvise. The first few in the series of 126 recordings are focused on the basics: chords and scales, ii V I progressions, and blues forms. Eventually there are recordings that feature the repertoire of one jazz great, such as Charlie Parker, or Miles Davis, or Cannonball Adderly. There are accompanying books of course, and the charts of each song are clearly written, and also transposed for Bb, Eb, and Bass Clef instruments. Furthermore, the solo forms are clearly delineated, and for each chord, there is an appropriate scale written. It's essentially handing you the keys to the gate of jazz improvisation on a silver platter!

The great Ben Riley
The best thing to me about the Aebersolds, beside the clarity of the presentation, is that there are some really legendary cats in the rhythm sections of these recordings. The idea that you can play along with Kenny Barron, Ron Carter, and Ben Riley while sitting in your practice room is fairly amazing, Now, are you actually playing with them? Are they actually playing with you? No. However, it might be the closest that I'll ever get to playing with those cats. ( Barron and Carter were colleagues of mine when I taught at Juilliard, and I STILL never got to play with them!)

I believe that having the experience of playing in time with a recorded rhythm section is a form of training. One-it trains you to play in time in a more stimulating way then if you only played with a metronome. Two- it reinforces the form of these tunes. Three- it trains you to play and listen simultaneously. All of these things are essential for playing real jazz, and these things-time,form,and listening, are so often missing from young jazz players.

Sheets of Sound.....
I still recommend the old fashioned ways of transcribing solos and playing along with your favorite recordings. However, this can be very time consuming, and I know some players who had transcribed many solos but couldn't really "put it in their own words", so to speak. It makes sense that you would use a combination of techniques to learn good jazz playing. I personally did a lot of listening before I had ever heard of the Aebersolds. And I did try to play along with recordings, however laughable that must have sounded at the time. ( I think I was in 8th or 9th grade trying to play my trumpet along with John Coltrane on "Summertime" from My Favorite Things. Trane was playing "sheets of sound". I was playing "sheets of toilet tissue.")

Randy Brecker
I hope some of my students will read this and maybe, um, take the hint? I still play trumpet along with Aebersolds in my office when I have time between students. And recently, I asked Randy Brecker how he maintained his technical accuracy on trumpet. Brecker told me he plays along with Aebersolds every day. I contend that it's a fun way to practice: not the only thing to practice, but combined with listening and other things, it's a great help in developing a concept. Hopefully, you will then get a chance to try out your stuff on a real bandstand!

Link to Jamey Aebersold site

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Pride And Joy: My Latest CD and also a RocketHub Project....

Some of you may know that I have finally released a CD which features my Mad Science fusiony organ trio called Pride and Joy. It's on the Piloo Records label( and it's also available on Itunes and CDBaby( This was a real labor of love: it took about two years to get it mixed, mastered and pressed. Not that it actually took that long; it was only because I was otherwise occupied with moving to Canada and my son being born, etc... But it's finally out, and I am quite proud of it.

Tom Guarna
This band has existed in a few different configurations: the first two CDs featured drumming phenom Rodney Holmes( Mad Science(Sunny Sky), which also featured saxophonist Gary Thomas, and Realization(Sirocco) respectively). Brooklyn-born Tom Guarna has been a constant from the beginning, which was about 10 years ago. The drum chair is now occupied by a young musical wizard named Kenny Grohowski. He's an interesting talent: studied with Jimmy Cobb at the new school, and can also play speed metal! He can do it all.

Kenny Grohowski
It's a great combination of musicians, on and off the band stand. It's got a lot of contemporary energy combined with old school sophistication.(or I sound like I know what I'm talking about?)We haven't been so successful in bringing the band to a theater near you in the past few years, for perhaps a multitude of reasons. One of the most important reasons is lack of funding.(If only Mad Science was a subsidiary of Haliburton! Then we'd be part of "rebuilding" Iraq....) However, there is a new trend on the rise called  crowdfunding.

Crowdfunding is a 21st century mix of patronage/cyber-busking. You post a project that needs funding and people can basically donate money to help you. It's pretty simple. I've set up a project at As of this writing, I have one person who has donated! I figure, hey, it's worth a shot. But in all seriousness, I've dreamed of getting this band off the ground for a long time. Maybe this might be our chance.

So no pressure of course, but remember, as a wiseman once said: The Greatest Nation is A Small Do-nation!

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Upright Citizen: R.I.P. Charles Fambrough

I was saddened last night when I heard the news of the death of bassist Charles Fambrough. "Broski",as he was known, worked with so many of the legends, from McCoy Tyner to Art Blakey, from Grover Washington, Jr. to Airto Moreira. I was first made aware of Fambrough from an Art Blakey record called Album of The Year, (which also featured a very young Wynton Marsalis).
Another favorite was an album called Thunder and Rainbows, a power trio of Fambrough, pianist Kenny Kirkland, and drummer Jeff Watts. (Many folks are not aware that Charles was the leader on this date.) Fambrough was a driven bandleader and composer. Albums such as "The Proper Angle", "Upright Citizen", and "The Charmer" showcase his formidable compositional skills. And others such as Blakey and Tyner performed and recorded his tunes. Indeed, Broski's tune entitled "Little Man" is practically a jazz standard.

I was fortunate to work with Charles every now and then for the last 10 years or so. I first met Charles at Ortlieb's Jazz Club in Philadelphia. I remember how nice he and his wife Delores were to me. (I usually find people and musicians from Philly to be very down to earth and the Fambroughs are no exception.) Charles was a talkative guy, quite opinionated, and always seemed to be talking about music. He seemed like somebody that  could not hide his enthusiasm if he heard good music being played.

He had high standards for what he wanted for his band. I suspect that probably came from his years with Art Blakey. He told me how he would play with Blakey at the Vanguard, and there would be a line of horn players standing near the stage, waiting for their chance to sit in. Then Blakey would call the Walter Davis Jr. composition "Uranus", a tune which has many treacherous harmonic twists. That would make most of the horn players sit down!

Charles liked energy in his music, especially when it came to rhythm. He almost approached it like a sport. He wanted the music to be at as high a level as possible. I'm thinking of some of the drummers who shared the bandstand with Charles and myself: Lenny White, Ralph Peterson, Wilby Fletcher, Mike Clark, Ari Hoenig, Johnathan Blake, Byron Landham. If you played with Charles, you needed to bring some energy.

I only recorded with Charles twice. One record is called Stone Jazz, which is arrangements of music from the Rolling Stones. And the other is Towner Galaher's Courageous Hearts. Charles appeared on many recordings as a sideman; check out his section on

I have fond memories of a New Year's gig that I played with Charles and his wife Delores (she is a fine vocalist) many years ago. I took the bus out to Allentown, and Charles picked me up. As we drove to the gig, Charles had so many stories about the "cats" that it was astounding. I'm always humbled when I speak to older players who have been playing longer than I've been alive; it always gives me a humbling perspective. However, I never felt like Charles condescended to me; he always treated me like a peer.

Charles had health issues for many of his last years, but it never seemed to deter him from his passion for music. He talked about his condition like it was a minor nuisance. He seemed determined to press on despite his health. It's a shame that he passed so young. R.I. P., Broski.