Thursday, January 24, 2008

Rosario Giuliani - Alto Saxophonist Extraordinaire

In his All About Jazz website review of Mr. Dodo, Rosario Giuliani’s 2002 Dreyfus Jazz CD [FDM 36636-2], C. Michael Bailey astutely comments that “The musicianship of Rosario Giuliani is exhilarating. His total package of performance, composition and improvisation is not so much a breath of fresh air as it is a gale force wind blowing across a landscape littered with Charlie Parker and John Coltrane disciples. He has a confident, masculine tone that is at once assertive and tender, betraying bit of Julian Adderley and Eric Dolphy.”
Indeed, if you like your alto playing searing, sensual and sonorous, welcome to the world of Rosario Giuliani. His is an alto tone that is big, biting and burning – all at the same time; it is a sound that totally envelopes the listener.

In addition to Adderley and Dolphy [and perhaps even some ‘early years’ Art Pepper], Giuliani also incorporates a style that is reminiscent of Chris Potter before he moved on to “the big horn,” especially the Potter of Presenting Chris Potter on Criss Cross [CD 1067].

Other alto saxophone contemporaries such as Jesse Davis, Kenny Garrett, Jon Gordon, Vincent Herring, and Jim Snidero, and are also reflected in Giuliani’s style, and yet, despite these acknowledgements, he is very much his own man.

Whether it’s running the changes on finger-poppin’ bop tunes, improvising on modal scales and odd time signatures or finding his way movingly and expressively through ballads, Giuliani enveloping sound is a force and a presence. He has a technical command of the instrument that lets him go wherever he wants to on the horn including employing the dash difficult Paul Desmond device of improvising duets with himself.

Giuliani’s recordings will also provide an opportunity to hear some wonderful rhythm section players frequenting today’s Italian Jazz scene such as pianists Dado Moroni, Pietro Lussu, and Franco D’Andrea; bassists Gianluca Renzi, Jospeh Lepore, Pietro Ciancaglini, Dario Deidda, and Rimi Vignolo; drummers, Lorenzo Tucci, Benjamin Henocq [Swiss/Italian], Massimo Manzi and Marcello Di Leonardo. All of these guys are virtuoso players who can really bring it.

Rosario’s music is a reflection of a young player finding his way through the modern Jazz tradition with straight-ahead, bop-oriented tunes such as Wes Montgomery’s Road Song, re-workings of Ornette Coleman’s The Blessing and Invisible [which frankly I enjoyed more than the originals with the exception of the playing Messer’s Blackwell, Hayden, Higgins and La Faro – to his credit, Ornette used some very fine rhythm sections on his early albums], and, as is to be expected from today’s young, reed players, Coltranesque extended adventures such as the original Suite et Poursuite, I, II, III.

Interestingly his tribute to Coltrane album is done without the ever pulsating and bombastic Elvin Jones like drumming, but rather as a Duets for Trane in which he an pianist Franco D’Andrea perform on nine Coltrane originals such as Equinox, Central Park West and Like Sonny. There is very little “sheets of sound” to be found anywhere on this recording, but rather, an introspective and original examination of Coltrane’s music by someone whose playing would have made him smile.

These two also combine on Live from Virginia Ranch, a quartet album on Philology [W114.2].

[It would seem that producer/owner Paolo Piangiarelli has a penchant for recording pianist D’Andrea in duos with alto players on his Philology label as he also issued Our Monk in 1994 [W.78.2] with Phil Woods on alto, after whom, Piangiarelli named his label!].

Rosario has a lovely way with ballads as can be heard in his sensitive and thoughtful interpretations of Tadd Dameron’s On a Misty Night, Bob Haggart’s What’s New and Michele Petrucciani’s lovely Home. Many other slow tunes are given a prominent place on his recordings which could be considered somewhat of a rarity as the tempo - "slow" - is often a stranger to youthful Jazz musicians.

He even put out an early recording Connotazione Blue [Philology W144.2] that is devoted entirely to standards such as Skylark, What is This Thing Called Love and Invitation that are interspersed with an original, four-part blues odyssey entitled Blues Connotation. It is his way of showing his conversancy with these musical forms and to pay homage to these strains within the Jazz tradition.

Giuliani is in demand by movie composers such as Morricone, Umilani, and Ortolani and even has a CD out entitled Tension that features his interpretation of Jazz themes from Italian movies.

This recording along with 9 other CD’s under his own name to date represent a staggering body of high quality playing which can only get better now that he is under the tutelage of Francis Dreyfus, producer of Dreyfus Jazz.

Rosario Giuliani is a player of distinction who makes Jazz, in all its modern manifestations, an exciting adventure.

I recommend him to you without reservation as someone who will reward you many times over should you chose to include him and his associates in your musical vocabulary.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Bill Evans by Chuck Israels

An Article on
by Chuck Israels

Chuck Israels is a composer/arranger/bassist who has worked with Billie Holiday, Benny Goodman, Coleman Hawkins, Stan Getz, Herbie Hancock, J.J. Johnson, John Coltrane, and many others. He is best known for his work with the Bill Evans Trio from 1961 through 1966 and his recordings with the Bill’s Trio include The Town Hall Concert; The Second Trio; Trio '65; Live at the Trident; Time Remembered; and Live at Shelley's Manne Hole. Chuck is also acknowledged for his pioneering accomplishments in Jazz Repertory as Director of the National Jazz Ensemble from 1973 to 1981. He is now the Director of Jazz Studies at Western Washington University in Bellingham.

While somewhat technical in places, Chuck’s essay offers a number of insights into what made Bill’s style unique and how through hard work and application he developed the immediately identifiable sound that most Jazz musicians strive to achieve. I thought it might also serve to enrich your listening experience of Bill’s music and provide a gentle reminder to either revisit his recordings if you haven’t in a while or perhaps look into them if Bill’s music is new to you.

The professional life of pianist-composer Bill Evans spanned a period of twenty-five years, from 1955 to 1980, coinciding with the careers of many musicians who made major contributions to the art of American jazz: Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Julian Adderly, Philly Joe Jones (the last three worked with Evans in Miles Davis' group), as well as Jim Hall, Scott La Faro, Phil Woods, and many others. Each left his personal mark on music, but there are aspects of Evans' work that may prove uniquely significant. He was a pathfinder while others, claiming to be the avant-garde, trod all too familiar ground. Clifford Brown influenced the sound of almost every jazz trumpeter who followed him. Coleman Hawkins, Lester Young, Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, and Sonny Rollins have had similar influence on their musical progeny. The full influence of Evans' music has not yet been felt.

General reaction to Evans' work has centered on easily recognizable idiosyncrasies, with much attention given to his voicings and the entirely mistaken idea that he was not playing in meter. Few have gone deeper into his work to find the underlying principles. Superficial imitation of Evans' obvious characteristics only results in the loss of identity of the imitator. In contrast, a search for the universally applicable principles in his music provides a broad avenue for the pursuit of personal jazz expression. His greatest contribution to the development of jazz lies beneath the surface of his style, in his creative use of traditional techniques. Evans was quick to recognize parallel cases to his own in which he could apply his extensive knowledge of the music. He did this by melding the appropriate device to the situation at hand, drawing from a wide range of musical background and history and putting old ideas to work in new ways.

Evans' view about rhythm was a combination of the swing of Bud Powell with the more varied cross rhythms of Bartok and Stravinsky; he carried this synthesis to great lengths, achieving a rare subtlety of placement and drive. He would start an idea with a short rhythmic motive, repeat and extend it with increasing complexity, and end it in a burst of notes that resolved those complexities. In this, he was not limited to the basic jazz unit of the eighth note and its typical subdivisions. He used complex relationships, adding to the swing that comes from the more usual duple/ triple conflict in jazz by layering other duples and triples over the more basic ones. He did this with a supreme clarity and unerring sense of his rhythmic goal, which often revealed itself in an exciting resolution many measures after the start of the phrase.

The development of these rhythmic techniques can be traced in a long line from Louis Armstrong's performance of "West End Blues" through Lester Young and Charlie Parker, to some of the work of Lennie Tristano and Lee Konitz. These men clearly influenced Evans' sense of rhythm, but none drew on as many sources at once as he did. The integrity of this variety in Evans' playing was remarkable. Nothing sounded pasted on or eclectic; ideas filtered through him and emerged with deep conviction and he rarely did anything superficial.

Every great jazz musician has a highly developed sense of rhythm, which operates independently of the other musicians around him. He does not need any external input in order to keep time. Evans' internal clock was so well controlled that he could risk considerable rhythmic freedom at the same time that other musicians playing with him took risks of their own. It was rare when such adventurousness resulted in what musicians graphically refer to as a "train wreck." The incidence of dropped beats was remarkably small in Evans' playing, considering the number of opportunities there were for such errors in his daredevil rhythmic style. He actually welcomed the interplay of his colleagues' rhythmic ideas and was empathetic to what they were doing.

Another remarkable aspect of Evans' playing was his command of tone color. With fingers like pistons, poised a scant millimeter over the keys, he dropped into the depths of the action as if propelled by steel springs, or he would caress the keys with the stroke of a loving mother touching her baby's cheek. All dynamic gradations short of bombastic pounding were at his command, and he used them to express delicate nuances of melody, and to separate and distinguish various voices of the harmonic texture. In some important ways, Evans' harmonies consisted less of chords than of piling up of contrapuntal lines in which the tension and release between the melody and the secondary voices was exquisitely shaded by his control of pianistic touch. His legato line was unsurpassed by any other pianist. No note was released before its fullest time, giving his playing a richness that resulted from the momentary clashes of overtones as successive tones overlapped in the sounding board.

Evans' superficial imitators mistook this sound for the wash that comes from standing on the sustaining pedal. Critics pointing to Evans' influence on young pianists often confused over-pedaling with complex finger-work. His sound was in his fingers and the subtle linear aspect of Evans' harmony was Chopinesque just as his textural interjections were often derived from Rachmaninoff, Liszt, and Debussy. His bass lines were steeped in knowledge of Bach. The entire piano literature was open to his voracious pilferage. Yet everything was synthesized into an integrated style; wide open and broad enough for any musician to find references to his own particular sensibilities.

Evans once said that he strove for the improvisational freedom to change direction at any moment. When you realize the rigorous and unflinching logic with which he followed that principle, the enormity of the challenge begins to become apparent. A motive-thirds or fourths, for example-would move upwards through the chord progression, then, in an instant, down, then up, then down, continuing through a series of chords without an error or harmonic miscalculation. The choice of sustaining or abandoning a direction was always made according to aesthetic and expressive principles and never for the convenience of technical limitations. This gave Evans his spontaneity and great flights of fancy, and the ability to accompany, to follow another's musical direction in conversational sympathy. He could listen and put his responses at the service of another musician's creative impulse, and he could do this while maintaining the identity of the accompaniment, adapting his own musical motives to the direction of the soloist.
A characteristic part of Evans' keyboard aesthetic lay in the way he separated the main line from the accompanying texture by tone and touch, as well as in the more conventional jazz technique of keeping the melody active in the right hand while the left hand was playing chords. He would sometimes play a darkly colored inner voice as counterpoint to the brighter line of the melody. The technique was certainly pianistic but it was also orchestral in its effect, suggesting French horns against trumpets, or violas against flutes. Evans' playing was colorful, not in the usual sense of flash and mercurial change, but in the sense that control of timbre was an integral part of his playing. This was simply the way he heard music and when he played a harpsichord, the result was the same; different colors for different voices without using the harpsichord's various stops or manuals.

This ability to give different color and weight to different voices gave Evans' playing a textural variety not found in the work of more conventional jazz pianists. Often, a single line served as accompaniment to the improvisation in the right hand, establishing a three-voice textural hierarchy. The right-hand melody carried the primary interest, with the bass player's line next in importance. Against this, the third voice appeared in Evans' left hand, clear and separate, shading the other lines, emphasizing a poignant harmony or nailing down a contrasting rhythm. Occasionally (in the blues, for instance) this was done with as few as five chromatic notes, extracted from the changes. The remarkable thing about this was the clarity it produced; by eliminating voices from the chords, Evans brought out the melodic character of the secondary lines, making them respond to, as well as guide, the progress of the improvisation. This also allowed for the possibility of increasing textural density by adding voices to the chords in order to build intensity from chorus to chorus. Another result of this simplified left-hand texture was the freedom to choose more varied colors in the melodic realization of the harmonic progression. If the thrust of melodic development called for chromatic alteration of the harmony, it would not be in conflict with a complete and specific left-hand chord. Motivic or serial development could then take precedence over the more limited interpretation of the harmony that a fully spelled out chord would require.

Evans' approach to arranging music was equally individualistic and exacting. The melody of each standard tune was subjected to intense scrutiny until every harmonic nuance was found. Accompaniments were fashioned from standard progressions which were then carefully adjusted and fine-tuned to the contours of each melody. This was done in so complete a way, tat when the accompaniment was played without the melody, the notes that were most strongly evoked were always those of the original missing tune. These exacting progressions were repeated during the improvised choruses, so that the individual character of the piece was implicit in the solo. Obviously this is not the only way to integrate an improvised solo into a piece of music, but if followed to its logical conclusion, as it was by Evans, it can be a strong organizational element and a liberating one.

Another aspect of Evans' approach to phrasing and rhythm was not unique to him but was developed from the tradition epitomized by the work of Charlie Parker. The great majority of jazz forms are four square in nature; their phrase structure occurs in regular multiples of twos or fours. The eight-measure phrase is such a commonplace occurrence that few musicians give it much thought once they have internalized it in their formative years. What makes jazz phrasing and rhythm interesting and inventive is how it plays off unpredictable irregularities against the regularity of the under- lying forms. In this, Evans, like Parker, was a master. His phrases would start and end in ever-changing places, often crossing the boundaries between one section of a piece and another. In a thirty-two-measure form, for example, the last two measures are usually a kind of vacuum between choruses where the harmony cycles from the tonic to the dominant in order to be ready for the tonic that normally comes at the beginning of the next chorus. Jazz musicians call this a "turnaround." Many sophisticated improvisers save some of their best "licks" for such moments, partly because the harmonies fall into a limited number of patterns which recycle throughout the performance.

Evans' view of the turnaround was that it belonged to the following chorus, rather than to the one just ending. In practice this meant that a new idea introduced at the turnaround could be carried over into the next chorus. This simple conceit is hardly earth-shaking, but it had an electrifying effect on the ensembles. One could move from one chorus to the next with confidence, knowing whether a solo was continuing, building, or ending, by staying alert during the tumarounds. Evans made it a guiding principle to dovetail the joints of a song, making for smooth and interesting transitions. He was not alone in this practice, but he was a master of it and it made everyone who played with him feel comfortable.

Evans' compositions are each constructed around one main idea. "Re: Person I Knew" is built on a pedal point; "Walkin' Up," on major chords and disjunct melodic motion; "Blue in Green," on doubling and redoubling of the tempo; and "Time Remembered," on melodic connection of seemingly unrelated harmonic areas. Each piece is so committed to a central idea that a program of Evans' music is foolproof in its variety from composition to composition.

"Peace Piece" is an example of the depth of Evans' compositional technique. It is an ostinato piece, composed and recorded long before the more recent superficial synthesis of Indian and American music; in fact, it owes more to Satie and Debussy than to Ravi Shankar. The improvisation starts simply over a gentle ostinato, which quickly fades into the background. Evans allows the fantasy that evolves from the opening motive (an inversion of the descending fifth in the ostinato) more freedom than he would in an improvisation tied to a changing accompaniment. He takes advantage of the ostinato as a unifying clement against which ideas flower, growing more lush and colorful as the piece unfolds. Polytonalities and cross rhythms increase in density as the ostinato undulates gently, providing a central rhythmic and tonal reference. The improvisation becomes increasingly complex against the unrelenting simplicity of the accompaniment, until, near the end, Evans gradually reconciles the two elements. This effective use of form to communicate abstract feelings and ideas is one of the strongest aspects of Evans' work, and one that separates him from most jazz improvisers. His interest in other music that contained this strength guided him intuitively even when his conscious attention was on smaller details. Monk, Bud Powell, and Bela Bartok were equally masters of things Evans needed; he borrowed from them without regard to their source.

Evans had an uncanny capacity for concentration and profound expressivity. He considered his work to be "controlled romanticism," and he exercised this control with exquisite care. He knew when to give rein to his imagination and when not to risk losing his grip on the piece. Intellect and deep feeling co-existed in his music, giving the lie to the view that they are mutually exclusive. In this respect he was a perfect partner for Miles Davis, and their recorded collaborations remain monuments in the history of American music.

It is true that Evans worked in small forms. The thirty-two-measure song was his own back yard, and he never ceased to find new corners of it to explore. He played with a sense of discovery, even as he worked and reworked the most familiar territory. He had the great improviser's gift for creating spontaneous expressivity in the performance of a piece he had played hundreds of times. But Evans did achieve a high artistic goal; he raised the performance of the simplest song into a worthy experience in expressivity and communication. That he stayed inside the boundaries of the song form is more a reflection of how Evans saw himself than of his depth as a musician. He thought of himself as a man of ordinary gifts committed to honesty in his work. He shunned superficial embellishments he did not feel, and probed deeply into music he had learned well. To some, he sold his talent and his training short by not embracing greater projects, such as a symphony or an opera. When opportunities for large recording and writing projects presented themselves, he left them to others of lesser talent who rarely brought out his best performances. In that sense, he remained, to quote Gunther Schuller, a "cocktail pianist" all his life-in the same sense that Schubert was a "song writer."

Evans made two records in collaboration with guitarist Jim Hall, in which one performance in particular stands out as an example of the highest level of achievement in ensemble playing. Their improvisation on "My Funny Valentine" ranks among the great jazz duets, along with the classic Amstrong/Hines "Weatherbird." It has every quality of memorable chamber music. I cannot imagine a note or nuance that might be changed. It is as perfect, in its way, as a movement of a Bartok string quartet. But spontaneous and inspired as that performance is, it is clearly the result of careful preparation. The saving of the chromatic line for the second section of the tune, the pedal tone at the bridge, the exchange of roles in the opening and closing choruses, all indicate an agreement about details that could only come from thorough planning. This is a responsibility that Evans took upon himself, and once a musician has been exposed to his arrangement of a song, it is difficult to accept any other. He found the crevices in which to insert harmonic details that fit so beautifully that later hearings of the melody seem to call his harmonies to your ear. The effect is one of melody, bass line, and inner voices having a three-way magnetic attraction binding them to one another. Sometimes, as in "My Funny Valentine," Evans would leave something out for clarity, or bring it in at a more effective moment. By leaving the chromatic secondary line out of its usual place in the first and last sections of this song, he focused attention on its entrance in the second eight measures, and kept it from disappearing into a background drone.

The sphere of Bill Evans' influence is expanding but its ultimate growth depends on the further understanding of the many artistic truths in his music. Time, the exigent critic and generous healer, will dole out the legacy in judicious portions as we find ourselves better prepared to receive it.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

With the 70 anniversary of Benny Goodman's famed Carnegie Hall Concert just a few days away, the editorial staff of JazzProfiles thought the following commemorative article might be of interest to its readers.

When Carnegie Hall Swung
Benny Goodman headlined and Jess Stacy stole the show


January 12, 2008; The Wall Street Journal

"Sunday evening, January 16, 1938: Benny Goodman and his Swing Orchestra" read the placard 70 years ago in front of New York City's most prestigious classical-music venue. "The First Swing Concert in the History of Carnegie Hall."
Headlining this sanctum sanctorum must have seemed the only thing that Goodman, the 28-year-old, Chicago-born clarinet player, big-band leader and "king of swing," might then do to top a phenomenal 2½-year ride to the peak of the popular-music world. New York seemed to agree. Carnegie Hall sold out at once: all 3,900 seats.
At 8:45 p.m. that Sunday night, a nervous Goodman, in white tie and black tailcoat, launched the band into the evening's first number: "Don't Be That Way." The tempo was restrained, the orchestra tentative, the soloists polite. But 2½ minutes into the tune, drummer Gene Krupa jolted the ensemble to life with an explosive two-bar break. The event would need more such jolts. This "definitive program of swing music" came saddled with program elements that kept the concert out of step for its first half-hour.
A "20 years of jazz" segment and a quarter-hour "jam session" with guest players from the Count Basie and Duke Ellington orchestras proved wearying. Not until Goodman's trio and quartet -- specialty combos featuring first the impeccably brilliant pianist Teddy Wilson and then the rhythmically enthusiastic vibraphonist Lionel Hampton -- took the stage did the concert gain traction.
Goodman was at his best in small-group settings, where his melodic ease, great technique and strong sense of swing were on full display. The trio's "Body and Soul" and the quartet's "The Man I Love" and "Avalon" charmed the audience -- and the quartet's five-minute upper-tempo "I Got Rhythm" positively sizzled.
After intermission, the orchestra too was in fine form, demonstrating, for the Carnegie Hall crowd, just what this swing-era fuss was all about.
"Bei Mir Bist Du Schon" had the concert audience clapping in time (if unhiply on the wrong beat); and at the close of the band's euphoric performance of "Swingtime in the Rockies," the Carnegie crowd let out a roar worthy of Harlem's Savoy Ballroom. Then Goodman called again on his trio and quartet, for three more numbers.
It was good pacing to go from combo to big-band and back, but it also seemed emblematic of a schism that ran through the jazz world of the late 1930s: the split between young swing-music idolizers, hooked on the big bands' riffs, and an earlier generation of traditionalists who felt "true jazz" was played only by small groups of collectively improvising players.
This concert's earlier "history of jazz" segment paid homage to the "classic" jazz of the '20s; its most effective moment, for many, was when Bobby Hackett, a 22-year-old cornet player from Rhode Island, re-created the late Iowa cornetist Bix Beiderbecke's melancholy 1927 version of "I'm Comin' Virginia."
Beiderbecke had died an alcoholic's death in New York in 1931. A generation of jazzmen were haunted by his lyrical sound. Several of the men on stage, including Goodman, had played with Bix back in the day. Jess Stacy, the Goodman orchestra's outstanding pianist, had his style shaped through crucial exposure to Beiderbecke in 1923, in Davenport, Iowa, when Bix came aboard the riverboat an 18-year-old Stacy worked on.
"He played the pian-a," Stacy told pianist Marian McPartland decades later on her NPR program "Piano Jazz," "and he played [the type of] harmony like [he had], you know, [in his own] 'In a Mist'?" Stacy was referring to Beiderbecke's Debussy-like composition for keyboard. Beiderbecke had steeped himself in the sounds of such modern-classicists as Ravel, Elgar and MacDowell. "He played 'Clarinet Marmalade,' with that type harmony. Back in my head, I'd known that that was possible. But I didn't know how to do it, you know? But when I heard him do it -- it just bowled me over."
Bix, with his relaxed manner and modernist harmonies, seemed, for some, the ghost at the banquet of this swing-music concert, with his implied reproach: Mine was the path you might have taken. But toward the end of this longish evening, Benny Goodman found a way to merge these opposing visions of jazz via "Sing Sing Sing" -- the most raucous and elaborate of his big band's signature items, a "killer-diller" that had evolved into an epic.
The number began with a vengeance, as Krupa beat a tattoo beneath the snarling brass and strutting reeds. Riff patterns unfolded smoothly, and then Goodman's clarinet emerged, full of subtle spirit and insinuation. "Sing Sing Sing" rolled on and on -- through a false ending and a surprise return, a raucous Harry James trumpet solo, and three rhythmic ad-lib choruses by Benny that conjured the intimacy of an after-hours session even as they worked their way up to a tentative high C.
And then, after 9½ minutes, Goodman, in true jam-session fashion, turned "Sing Sing Sing" over to Stacy, who'd never before been featured on this number: "Take it, Jess."
The pianist began to unfurl a long, driving, ruminative meditation on "an old A-minor chord" -- a thoughtful exploration that would still sound fresh 70 years later. "I used to listen to records every night," Stacy told McPartland. "I listened to a lot of Ravel; I listened to Debussy and MacDowell. If you'll notice, in that chorus a little MacDowell crept in there." His extraordinary three-chorus, two-minute solo, which stretched from steamboat-stride to barely audible Impressionist ripples, induced what one witness called "a magical stillness." At last the band, booted by Krupa, returned for a thrilling half-chorus finale.
Benny Goodman's one-night stand at Carnegie Hall faded into the mists of memory -- until 1950, when acetate recordings of the event were issued on an LP that became one of the best-selling jazz albums of all time. An eventual CD version, "Benny Goodman: Live at Carnegie Hall" (Columbia), introduced still younger listeners to the concert that began as a press agent's brainstorm and turned into legend. Most all who heard the recording (including Goodman) thought Stacy stole the show with his two-minute soliloquy -- a solo seeded with the subtle phrasings and harmonic shadings that the pianist first encountered so long before, when a 20-year-old cornet player in Davenport came aboard the riverboat to play the piano.
Mr. Nolan is editor of "The Archer Files: The Complete Short Stories of Lew Archer, Private Detective," by Ross Macdonald (Crippen &Landru).

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

The Search for Roy DuNann

The editorial staff of JazzProfiles is hard at work creating the forthcoming, multi-part features on Victor Feldman and Michel Petrucciani.

In the meantime, I thought that you might be interested in reading about Roy DuNann, recording engineer extraordinaire and one of the great unsung heroes of the 1950s boom in small group Jazz recording that took place on the West Coast.

My interest in re-visiting this article about Roy DuNann was inspired by a recent e-mail from Dr. Hans van der Plas, my Jazz buddy who lives and works in Northern Holland.

Hans recently forwarded the following link - - which describes today's recording techniques with their emphasis on loudness to the point of distorting the music [let alone also helping to destroy the ears of its listeners]. It's certainly interesting to contrast this approach with that of the recording style used by Roy DuNann.

Ironically, the humble and self-effacing Mr. DuNann, who did so much to preserve the audio quality of the music on so many of the 1950s Contemporary Records that he recorded wasn't even a Jazz fan!

Our thanks to the writer Thomas Conrad whose initial quest to know more about the pioneering and resourceful Mr. DuNann led to this article which was originally published in the April 2002 edition of Stereophile.

The Search for Roy DuNann By Thomas Conrad •

I don't remember the year, but I remember the moment when I first became intensely curious about Roy DuNann. It must have been about 1975, right after I moved to Seattle. I bought a Sonny Rollins LP called Way Out West, took it home, cued it up on my Thorens turntable, dropped the tonearm, and suddenly I was in a room with Rollins and Shelly Manne and Ray Brown. It was a shipping room with records stacked on shelves all around the musicians, but I wouldn't know that until many years later.

The song was, improbably, "I'm an Old Cowhand," and it began with Shelly Manne striking a woodblock in the right channel, and the blows carried in a perfectly defined acoustic space that included me. Then Rollins' tenor sax came in, so real in the left channel that I believed I could walk up and touch it. Deadpan, Rollins bit off the notes of Johnny Mercer's cowboy melody, the details of his pronunciation audible in his reed, now raspy, now clarion-clear.

The label was Contemporary, and the back of the album jacket said, "Recorded at Contemporary's Studios, Los Angeles. Produced by Lester Koenig. Sound by Roy DuNann." What made the sound truly astonishing was the recording date: March 7, 1957.

I found other Contemporary albums, and discovered some extraordinary music, such as Art Pepper Meets the Rhythm Section and Sonny Rollins & the Contemporary Leaders and Teddy Edwards' Teddy's Ready. The sound of these albums had a naturalness and sense of space that I had never heard before—except in live music. And that purity of sound was achieved in the very early days of stereo, in 1957 and 1958 and 1960. Who the hell was this Roy DuNann?
It was not easy to find out. Lester Koenig, owner of Contemporary and producer of all of its sessions, died in 1977. He had typically provided voluminous liner notes for each album, but none of them talked about recording techniques or the engineer. Reliable reference works and histories, such as Jazz: The Essential Companion by Carr, Fairweather, and Priestley, and the scholarly West Coast Jazz by Ted Gioia, never mention DuNann, though the latter repeatedly affirms the historical importance of Lester Koenig and his label.
The most comprehensive reference work of all, The New Grove Dictionary of Jazz, contains no entry on DuNann, though it covers the Contemporary label in detail, even praising Koenig's "high standards" and "concern for quality"—without ever mentioning sound. It was easy to find references to Rudy Van Gelder. Van Gelder's quantity certainly exceeded DuNann's, since he engineered hundreds of famous sessions for the Blue Note label in the 1950s and '60s, and has remained active to the present day. But the quality of Van Gelder's early recordings, with their fuzzy pianos and flat soundstages, is not in the same class with Roy's.
The only people with whom I could share my enthusiasm for DuNann's work were jazz engineers and producers. Jim Anderson knew about Roy DuNann. He's one of the most respected engineers on the current scene, responsible for the lick-your-ear sound of Patricia Barber's recordings, and he absolutely lit up (over the phone) when I mentioned DuNann. Anderson remembered his college days at Duquesne, when he first heard some of the DuNann Contemporaries in a friend's dorm room and was stunned by their "beautiful golden round bloom."
Joe Harley knew all about Roy—or rather, Roy's sound. Harley is the producer of several dozen sonically exceptional recordings for labels like AudioQuest and Groove Note and Enja. He had been a DuNann fan since he was in high school in the late '60s. But, like everyone else who admired Roy's work, Harley mused, "I wonder whatever happened to him. I wonder if he's still alive." Harley was the first to tell me that DuNann's last known whereabouts were Arizona.
My respect for DuNann's achievements reached a new level in spring 2001, when I received a batch of Contemporary titles on the JVC XRCD label. They included classics like Art Pepper + Eleven, André Previn's West Side Story, and, yes, Way Out West.
For the XRCD reissue program, JVC engineers Akira Taguchi and Alan Yoshida micromanage every element of the mastering and manufacturing processes in order to get the highest-quality transfer from the original master tape. In its XRCD version, Way Out West was sublime. Another title in the batch was Art Pepper Meets the Rhythm Section, and it made me laugh out loud. No recording from January of 1957 had any right to hit me in the face like that—Pepper's alto fiercely alive and dancing on air, Paul Chambers' bass hitting deep and hard. I had to find Roy DuNann, and ask him how he'd done it.
It was not easy. There was, as far as I could discover, not a single DuNann living in the state of Arizona. There were DuNanns in southern California, but no Roys. Fantasy, Inc. in Berkeley, California, current owner of the Contemporary catalog, couldn't help.
The breakthrough came by way of Bernie Grundman, the well-known mastering engineer who runs the BGM mastering studio in Los Angeles. I learned from Joe Harley that Grundman had briefly worked under Roy at a Phoenix recording studio in the mid-1960s. When I reached Grundman, he had some interesting things to say about Roy, and one stopped me cold. He said that Roy had moved to the Seattle area many years ago because his children lived there. "I'm pretty sure he's still in Seattle...if he's still alive."
I called Seattle Directory Assistance and got his number immediately. A high, clear, rather inflectionless voice answered on the second ring. I asked to speak to Roy DuNann.
"Is this Roy DuNann, the audio engineer?"
There was a moment of silence. "I used to be."
I suddenly did not know what to say next. "I've been looking all over for you," I finally told him.
"I've been right here," he responded in his dry, logical engineer's voice.
Roy DuNann lives about 20 miles from me, up a long, curving, gravel driveway in a log-cabin house surrounded by tall conifers and leafy trees, in Bothell, Washington, a northern suburb of Seattle. On a Saturday afternoon in the late summer of 2001, I sat with him and his wife, Dorothy, around their dining-room table while Roy talked into my portable Sony tape recorder.
Roy and Dorothy are both 81. Dorothy is neatly turned out in sweater and slacks, with beautiful hair and a warm smile. The fact that someone from a magazine (even one whose name she does not know) is there to write about Roy makes her smile frequently. Roy is more skeptical—virtually no one has asked him about his work at Contemporary for at least three decades—but willing to make his best effort to remember those years because, on the phone, he has agreed to do so. Roy is compact and light on his feet, with hearing aids in both ears, dressed in clean jeans and a western shirt. His blue eyes sparkle with alertness. He gathers his thoughts before he answers each question, and a smile plays around the corners of his mouth when he encounters certain memories.
Roy was born in Oakland, California, and went through high school in Piedmont, an Oakland suburb. He got interested in electronics in the early 1930s, when he was in junior high school. The fact that he was a ham radio operator plays into this story in several ways.
"That's probably one thing that blew out my ears—wearing headphones all the time," Roy speculates in his matter-of-fact tone. He attended the University of California at Berkeley but joined the Navy before graduating. "Pearl Harbor came along shortly after I signed up," he remembers. Along with 10 other American hams, Roy was sent to England to learn about a radical new technology called radar.
After the war, one of Roy's Navy buddies (Warren Birkenhead, also a ham) got him a job with a young company in Los Angeles called Capitol Records. Roy's first job was in quality control—not with recordings, but with the Packard-Bell 78rpm record players (including one crank-up model) that Capitol was providing to record stores for demonstration purposes. They needed a QC guy, Roy relates, because the Packard-Bells "had many problems." All day, Roy "listened to one chorus of Peggy Lee and some test tones."
He was rescued by Capitol's decision to set up its own recording facilities. Capitol had been using independent studios, but by 1947 they were selling a lot of records, and they wanted their own. They needed some technical types to outfit the new studio and set it up for them, and Roy and his friend Warren Birkenhead were drafted.
More than 50 years later, when I talked to Bernie Grundman, he remembered Roy as a "natural engineer" who "could look at a circuit and intuitively know what change to make to create a desired response." Roy's experience at Capitol was typical of a pattern that applied to his entire career. He was given a challenge, not because he had prior experience in technologies like radar or recording, but because, somewhere up the chain, someone believed that this "natural engineer" would figure it out. Through rare engineering instincts and old-fashioned American ingenuity, Roy always did. But these are not virtues Roy would claim for himself. He is the most humble of men, genuinely puzzled by the interest in his work of so many years ago.
Roy and Warren set up four lathes for lacquer mastering in Capitol's new studio on Melrose Boulevard in Hollywood. They designed an innovative system connecting two lathes with a 12" aluminum bar, which could record two originals simultaneously. Roy remembers that, even before they were finished setting up the studio, Capitol acquired an Ampex single-track tape recorder, serial number 3.
The first engineer whom Roy saw use a lot of mikes for a session was John Palladino. Roy "thought it would be fun" to work in the studio because he liked country and western music, and Capitol had artists under contract like Tex Ritter, Tex Williams, and, later on, Tennessee Ernie Ford. From Palladino, Roy "picked up how to mike different things" and also how to operate Capitol's 10-channel tube console.
In those days, Roy emphasizes, "The engineer did everything. I set up the studio, put the chairs out, put the mikes out, punched the Record button on the tape machine, mixed the session, edited the tapes, cut the master...everything. The console had nothing in it but mixing controls. We did very little modification of the signal in any way except volume-wise. The final tape would be it—you couldn't modify it. Except with a scissors."
Roy became Capitol's studio manager, and in the days before engineers were identified on record sleeves, he did hundreds of sessions. He recorded Nat "King" Cole, Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin (including "That's Amore"), Peggy Lee, Kay Starr, Jo Stafford, and Stan Kenton. He says, "I never heard anything louder than standing out in front of the Kenton band. No wonder I developed hearing problems."
Capitol rented its recording facilities to other labels, and also cut masters for them. One was a Dixieland label called Good Time Jazz, owned by Lester Koenig. "Lester was a very fussy guy, a perfectionist, and he thought Capitol was the best mastering facility," Roy remembers. It's easy to understand why Koenig would want to hire Roy away from Capitol, but it's more difficult to understand why Roy would accept the offer. But life as studio manager for a large label was becoming stressful. "The business guys" at Capitol were starting to come around the studio too much. Roy liked Lester and liked Dixieland—almost as much as Tex Ritter.
Almost immediately after Roy went to work for Koenig in 1956, two things changed. Koenig decided to begin recording modern jazz, and he decided to set up his own studio. Roy knew little about the former and a lot about the latter, but his experience at Capitol had not prepared him to set up a studio in the absence of money and space. Once again, he had to figure it out.
Koenig had an office in a little building on Melrose Place, a short street off Melrose Boulevard, and in the back was a little shipping room where "a couple guys worked shipping out Good Time Jazz records." Right off the shipping room, across a narrow hall from one another, were two tiny offices, one vacant, one occupied by a publicist who wrote a monthly newsletter. In a corner of the shipping room was an Address-O-Graph machine, for the newsletter.
"Lester decided he wanted to try recording jazz groups in the shipping room," Roy remembers. "There were records stacked all over the place on shelves. We needed a little control room so we could listen on loudspeakers without feedback into the studio. So we set it up in the office across from the publicist's. Lester had a German friend who had worked at Telefunken with an engineer named Neumann. This friend had brought a Telefunken condenser microphone with him from Germany. It was named after the most famous German World War II U-boat, the U-47. Later there was a Neumann U-47, of course. It may have been the same microphone.
"The recording studios at the time were using broadcast microphones—RCAs, Western Electrics—ribbon-type dynamic mikes. This Telefunken really sounded different. Lester liked it so much he bought a few condenser mikes out of Germany and Austria, including a couple of Austrian AKGs, C-12s, that were really expensive. Lester had these AKGs and Telefunkens when I got there. They were about all he had. He was using them when he was still recording in other studios. He would bring them with him to the sessions."
Roy explains that "Lester wanted to set up the studio as cheap as possible, and make it sound as good as possible." Lester's expensive condenser mikes had high output because of the tube preamps built into their heads. When Lester took them into a recording studio (like, for example, Capitol's, which was set up for a variety of microphones, primarily dynamic), the signal coming off Lester's mikes had to be attenuated so that they did not overload the equipment.
"So," Roy continues, "it was my idea—why attenuate the microphones and then amplify the signal again? Why don't we just take the signal out of the microphones and run it through variable attenuators, and we wouldn't need any amplifiers? So that was the original console. Nothing to it. I probably had eight attenuators. That was before they had sliders, even. Couldn't find any decent sliders. Didn't even want one. We did all our mixing by turning knobs. We went from the attenuators right into the tape machine—no other equipment."
Forty-five years later, Bernie Grundman reflected that "Roy was making the best sound in the business by cutting corners. It was such a clean signal path. All the gain that was needed for the mixing function came right off the microphone preamps. Roy could mix like that, on the fly."
The 45-year-old picture begins to clarify: In a tiny shipping room, whose acoustics are a miraculous accident, often in the middle of the night after the musicians have finished their regular gigs, Roy DuNann goes to work. The drums are in one corner. There are no baffles, but a piece of acoustical material is draped on wires about 4' over the drummer's head. The musicians are as far apart as they can get, which is not far, and those superb microphones are up close on each instrument in order to minimize leakage. Forty-five years later, Joe Harley says, "Simple is better." You cannot get any simpler than this.
Today, few would be interested in the purity of the DuNann sound if the music were not so strong. Lester Koenig had taste. He brought the hottest jazz musicians on the West Coast into his "studio," and also matched them up with the best East Coast players, like Sonny Rollins, when they were in town. He created conditions in which they were able to do some of their finest work.
Koenig even had the vision to record Ornette Coleman when Coleman could not get a gig anywhere in California. Coleman's historic first two albums, Something Else! and Tomorrow is the Question, were recorded by Roy for Contemporary in 1958 and 1959, respectively.
Among the many ironies and paradoxes attached to Roy's career is the fact that modern jazz was for him, at best, an acquired taste. At one point I asked him a rather breathless interviewer's question: "What was it like, in 1958, to come in and set up a session for some new musician you didn't know, and hear Ornette Coleman play like that? Jazz was changed forever from that moment. It must have been incredible. You were there, Roy. What did you think?"
In his inflectionless voice, Roy said immediately, "I would have sent him home."
"You would have sent him home."
"Yeah. I got so I could listen to a lot of the jazz stuff and know where one chorus was going to end and the next one begin. It was important for knowing where to make a splice. But with Ornette, you couldn't tell where you were. It just started out and it ended. It wasn't music at all for me."
Shortly after Roy started at Contemporary, Koenig bought a very early Ampex two-track recorder. Roy remembers, "We put up two Altec coaxial speakers in the control room, and we started hearing things come out of two different speakers." Koenig wanted to begin cutting his own stereo masters for stereo LPs, and bought one of the very first Westrex stereo cutting heads. In a Los Angeles junk store, Roy found a Western Electric cutting lathe that had been used on the Al Jolson film The Jazz Singer in the 1920s, and bought it for $200. He convinced a colleague from his days at Capitol, Howard Holzer, to come over to Contemporary, and together they set up the lathe in what had been the publicist's office. The publicist moved "down the street."
Their first stereo masters cut with the Westrex head "sounded terrible," and technical assistance from Westrex was not helpful. So Howard and Roy built their own 100W tube amplifier.
"Those tubes would get red-hot," Roy remembers. "Fiddling around with condensers and resistors and coils and whatnot, we were able to EQ this terrible-sounding signal so that the finished track sounded almost like the original."
Reverb was added during mastering, with a 4' by 8' EMT reverb plate that stood in the shipping room "in the big padded box it came in." Many years later, some CD reissues of Contemporary recordings sounded oddly dry and sterile because they used the masters as-is, with no reverb added. For JVC's XRCD series, Akira Taguchi added the reverb digitally.
Another step that Roy took during mastering was to roll back the 6dB high-frequency wide-curve boost that he had tweaked into the Ampex during recording. Long before Dolby, Roy was figuring out his own methods for reducing tape hiss.
Contemporary began putting out some of the first stereo LPs on the West Coast. It is only with the perspective of history that we now recognize them as some of the best-sounding LPs ever made. Contemporary also started doing mastering for other people—at first, just for friends. One of Howard Holzer's friends was Herb Alpert, who was just starting a label called A&M to record his band, the Tijuana Brass.
Roy left Contemporary and moved to Phoenix in the early '60s. His first wife's asthma was an important factor in the move. Once again he set up a studio, this time for "a guy with money who wanted to get into the music recording business." But the studio, called Audio Recorders, ended up doing radio commercials.
It was here that Bernie Grundman went to work when he got out of the army, because he knew Roy's Contemporary recordings and "idolized" him. Grundman relocated to Los Angeles, briefly worked at Contemporary himself, then moved over to A&M to run the rapidly growing label's mastering studio. Howard Holzer also worked at A&M by this time, and the two of them persuaded Roy to move back to Los Angeles and join Alpert's label. Roy was put in charge of equipment: finding it, maintaining it, rebuilding it.
He did not record any sessions for A&M—by this time he wore hearing aids in both ears. Over the years, while he cared for the equipment used to record groups like the Carpenters, those late nights in Lester Koenig's shipping room faded into the shadows of history for almost everyone, including Roy.
When his first wife died, he retired and moved to Seattle because all three of his children lived in the area. He met Dorothy at a square dance and married her in 1987.
It seems fitting that Roy DuNann's hearing aids are remote-controlled, with adjustable EQ and balance, and directional mikes. But he cannot hear today what makes his Contemporary recordings so special. When he left Contemporary, he took none of the LPs with him. He was unaware that there had been audiophile reissues of his albums, such as the Analogue Productions LP of Way Out West. He had never heard of the JVC XRCD series. Roy is embarrassed when extravagant praise of his work is read to him. When I point out that, over and over, such audio authorities as Joe Harley and Jim Anderson mention how Roy's recordings "put you in the room" with the musicians, Roy just smiles.
It doesn't compute. We never tried for anything like that. We just tried to balance the instruments, to keep separation so people would think it was stereo."
Roy's modesty cannot obscure his achievement. Eric Dolphy once said, "When you hear music, after it's over, it's gone in the air. You can never capture it again." Until the mid-'50s, that was pretty much true. Music, especially improvised music, is a very different art form from painting or literature. Its preservation beyond the moment is dependent on its delivery system—the recording. Charlie Parker died in 1955, and those of us who never heard him live will never know much about what he sounded like.
But thanks to Roy DuNann—thanks to his genius for mixing on the fly at 3am, thanks to his intuitive respect for a clean signal path, thanks to his willingness to set up the studio fresh for each session, thanks to his constant fussing over his equipment, checking, tweaking, rebiasing—we possess vivid knowledge of what Sonny Rollins sounded like when he was 27. And Art Pepper in his prime. And Ornette Coleman as he sounded before he came East and turned New York on its ear.
Before I put away my Sony portable recorder and gather up the CDs spread over the dining-room table, I read Roy and Dorothy a quote from Bernie Grundman: "Roy did a lot for this industry. He showed us all how good it could be. His best recordings are not just good for their era. They are some of the best-sounding recordings of all time."
Roy shakes his head, but Dorothy, smiling to hear her own convictions confirmed, says, "I always knew my Roy was smart."
Sidebar: A Selected Roy DuNann Discography
Originally released on Contemporary, reissued on JVC XRCD
Barney Kessel/Ray Brown/Shelly Manne, The Poll Winners, JVCXR-0019-2 (1957)Art Pepper, Art Pepper Meets the Rhythm Section, VICJ-60087 (1957/1997)Art Pepper + Eleven, Modern Jazz Classics, VICJ-60245 (1959/1998)Andr;ae Previn/Red Mitchell/Shelly Manne, West Side Story, JVCXR-0209-2 (1956/2000)André; Previn/Leroy Vinnegar/Shelly Manne, My Fair Lady, VICJ-60216 (1956/1998)Sonny Rollins, The Contemporary Leaders, VICJ-60244 (1958/1998)Sonny Rollins, Way Out West, VICJ-60088 (1957/1997)
Originally released on Contemporary, reissued on the Fantasy/Original Jazz Classics
Ornette Coleman, Something Else!, OJCCD-342-2 (1958)Ornette Coleman, Tomorrow Is the Question, OJCCD-342-2 (1959)Bob Cooper, Coop! The Music of Bob Cooper, OJCCD-161-2 (1957)Curtis Counce, Sonority,* CCD-7655 (1956–58)Curtis Counce, You Get More Bounce with Curtis Counce, OJCCD-159-2 (1956–57)Teddy Edwards, Teddy's Ready!, OJCCD-748-2 (1960)Victor Feldman, The Arrival of Victor Feldman, OJCCD-268-2 (1958)Hampton Hawes, All Night Session, Vols. 1–3, OJCCD-638-2, -639-2, -640-2 (1956)Hampton Hawes, Four!, OJCCD-165-2 (1958)Barney Kessel, Easy Like, OJCCD-153-2 (recording date uncertain)
* Not in Original Jazz Classics series