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This week on Jazz Spectrum – April 26-28

Song of the Week

Each week, Fritz exchanges thoughts with Aly Krajewski about the Song of the Week featured on Jazz Spectrum Saturday.

By Fritz Byers

Hi Aly,

e.e. cummings was right to say that 

“Spring is like a perhaps hand
(which comes carefully out of Nowhere)arranging
a window,into which people look.” 

I remember feeling exactly that way. But that was some other spring. 

Speaking of which . . . I suspect that, like me, you have trouble thinking the words “some other spring” without hearing the way Billie Holiday sang them. We’ve talked, more than once, about the way a singer can make a tune their own. We all have our favorite examples of that. But I’m not sure any claim of right of this kind is more comprehensive than Billie’s claim to “Some Other Spring.” Although we can’t be certain, I’m pretty sure it was written for her, or at least with her in mind.

Surprisingly little is known about the circumstances of the song’s composition, which I think in itself tells us something about how personal, even intimate, was its creation. We can safely conclude that the song was written by Irene Kitchings and Arthur Herzog, Jr., but the various reference sources can’t even agree on who did which part. Each of them was a proficient composer, each an accomplished lyricist, and the usual sources, often so reliable on these things, are a jumble. Let’s just consider it a collaboration.

I doubt I’m going out on much of a limb to assert Irene is the best jazz pianist and songwriter to be born in Marietta, Ohio. She’s so obscured by time that I can’t even figure out in what year she was born, although it appears to have been in the first decade of the 20th Century. 

She married the pianist Teddy Wilson in 1931, and she likely had much more influence on Teddy’s style than is commonly recognized, since, among other things, she introduced Teddy to classical music and encouraged him to deepen his sense of harmonics. Through Teddy, Irene met Billie, and their friendship outlasted the marriage. It’s thought, although as best I know without real proof, that Irene wrote “Some Other Spring” to mourn the breakup. 

Billie is credited with introducing Irene to Arthur. (He collaborated with Billie on two of her classics: “Don’t Explain” and “God Bless the Child.) From some alchemy between Irene and Arthur, “Some Other Spring” emerged.

 And Billie took it from there. Her July 5, 1939 recording of “Some Other Spring” is the first of three Kitchings tunes Billie recorded around that time, and it is by far the best-known. (“Ghost of Yesterday” and “I’m Pulling Through” are the others.). While we’re briefly digressing about other Billie recordings, the B-side of the Vocalion 78 rpm record of “Some Other Spring” is “Them There Eyes,” which pairs nicely, as they say; the two songs would likely be enough to secure Billie’s reputation as a consummate singer if they were the only things she’d ever recorded. (I’m influenced here, in part, by a current debate in the tennis world about how many majors you have to win to deserve election to the Hall of Fame. Two seems to nearly guarantee enshrinement, although, as in almost everything, about half of the world disagrees -needless to say -- fervently.)

The band on the July 5 date is not the usual assembly of familiar names we associate with Billie in those years: Sonny White on piano, Tab Smith, Kenneth Hollon, and Stanley Payne on saxophones, Bernard Addison on guitar, John Williams on bass, and Eddie Dougherty on drums. The only member of the crew whose name percolates up in Billie’s usual studio circles is the trumpeter Hot Lips Page.

Aly, you know how much I cherish this recording. I’m eager to hear what you have to say about it.

After Billie, we’ll hear the Toledo piano-legend Art Tatum, recording in January 1956 in a trio with the bassist Red Callender and the drummer Jo Jones. We’re so lucky that Norman Granz had the notion to record Art so extensively in solo and group settings toward the end of his life; he passed in November 1956, but we have all those Pablo recordings, solo and in various groups. Like almost everything Art did, this one leaves you wondering just how many hands he has. And it’s at the same time immensely tuneful, immensely tasteful.

Have we shared our thoughts about Dakota Staton? Let’s do so sometime soon. Her 1958 date on Capitol, Dynamic!, from which this “Some Other Spring” is taken, is sensational. A terrific program of standards, with arrangements by Sid Feller. Why don’t more people talk about her? Last week, we wanted to ask the same question about Lorez Alexandria. This week Dakota. Among other things, we’re using SotW to resuscitate the legacies of some of our very best singers. Let’s agree we’ll keep that up.

The first set concludes with Frank Wess, working in 1954 with a quintet. Frank is widely acclaimed as a jazz flutist, but this track shows how warmly inviting a tone he achieved on slow-tempo ballads. Count Basie showed Frank off to good effect during his decade-plus with the Orchestra, but this recording is among my favorites, which is saying something, given that Frank recorded for 60 years. Henry Coker is the trombone soloist, and the pianist is the great Jimmy Jones, best known for his work with Clifford Brown on the albums featuring Sarah Vaughan and Helen Merrill. 

Everyone deserves the chance to take a breath after that set.

Okay. Anita O’Day. My friend John Bigelow kept me near-prisoner in his home one evening, playing Anita O’Day records for me without letting up. This was forty years ago, and I haven’t broken the spell yet. This recording, from 1961, is perfectly emblematic of her style, her sense of swing, and her aching way with a lyric.

I would listen to Jimmy Rowles play chopsticks. In fact, I have, many years ago at Bradley’s in Greenwich Village, when he was waiting for the rest of the trio to come on-stage. This recording, from 1959, is a sextet date, so it doesn’t give us nearly enough of Jimmy’s floating sense of time and free-spirited whimsy, but you can hear why Billie Holiday chose him to record with him throughout her last years. 

The Norwegian singer Karin Krog is next. I first encountered her when I heard this 1970 recording with the tenor saxophonist Dexter Gordon, which was about as good a reference as you could have. Dexter loved the tune, and you can tell from his playing here. (He also recorded it as an instrumental, which you should check out.) “Some Other Spring” is the title track of this date with Karin, and the whole release is worth everyone’s time. 

This late in a set, why leave Scandinavia? So we finish with the Swedish pianist Bobo Stenson from his 1986 recording, Very Early. Bobo has great delicacy in his touch, and a deeply lyrical impulse. But don’t dismiss him as a precious melodist. On this recording, he plays tunes by Ornette Coleman and John Coltrane, and he gets right down to them. His version of “Some Other Spring” is a worthy capstone to this episode.

I hope – really, I KNOW – you’ll enjoy it all, just as you can be sure I’ll enjoy your reflections.

Hoping this spring’s blossoms don’t fade,

Your comrade in music

Fritz

Aly's Response

Hey Fritz,

How fitting that I write this response to you on a rainy Saturday morning in April. No matter how many times I remind myself of what April showers bring, I can't help but feel a tinge of melancholy in the pit of my stomach while watching the rainfall from a café window – coincidentally, that's almost exactly how I feel when I listen to almost any version of "Some Other Spring", too. Thanks for indulging me in selecting a morose song during a season that typically calls for brighter tunes. Someday, I'll grow out of being a "perpetual moody teenager" in my music tastes...today is NOT that day, though.

Rather than attempt to wax poetic on all of your (typically) great selections this week, I'd like to focus on the one that caught my attention most ardently: Art Tatum's. (We'll have to talk shop about Billie's and Karin's versions another time - some other time, perhaps?) 

With a Toledo-born piano player for a father, it was a no-brainer that I would be raised on Tatum's catalogue throughout my life. I remember distinctly doing a biographical project on Tatum in the 4th grade, complete with posterboard and presentation – though, I must admit, I was negligent on this project (probably too busy being 9 years old or something) and my dad had to do a lot of "heavy lifting" to help me get it done. Sorry dad.

I do remember all of the fun facts that come with Art's biographies, though: like the tale of when Tatum walked into a club where Fats Waller was playing, and Waller stepped away from the piano bench to make way for Tatum, announcing, "I only play the piano, but tonight God is in the house." Or when Russian composer Rachmaninoff, after hearing Tatum play, claimed he was "the greatest piano player in any style." And then there's the story of a young Art, training himself by unknowingly playing music designed as duets, completely unaware that the music was written for two players; sadly, this has been debunked, but I'll never shake that imagined snapshot from my head – and let's be honest, it's not a far-fetched possibility for a man of his considerable talent to have literally learned how to duet with himself.

Foolishly, I assumed I had heard the full version of Tatum's "Some Other Spring" before this week; I learned quickly that I may have only heard a snippet of it years ago. I can tell you that I have since remedied this by listening to it on a loop for over three hours this past weekend. It's an enchanting version, with a smooth texture that lends itself to repeat listens. It's also so easy to self-transport while listening to it – evocative of the mise en scene of its genesis. Though this version wasn't recorded til later in his life, I was struck with the images of him performing it while he was cutting his teeth in Toledo in the 1920s and early 30s. Picture it...

You're walking down Dorr St. in the early evening, where the hums of music and traffic weave through the city's veins and arteries; the day's gloomy rainfall has ceased, and you can feel the slight humidity on your skin as you walk. You turn in to the dimly lit embrace of a small jazz club nestled in a row of shops closing for the day. A young man sits poised at the weathered piano, his fingers flexing and relaxing over the keys in preparation. The air is thick with the heady perfume of cigar smoke and the wafting scent of recently fallen rain on the pavement. 

As the evening sun dips below the horizon, casting long shadows across the worn wooden floorboards, the club comes alive with the syncopated melodies of the man's piano. His hands move with a fluid grace. His eyes are closed, lost in the music, as he delves deep into the guts of each tune, roving around them like a meandering animal learning its surroundings. Around him, other musicians easily fall in place, enveloping the gaps that the piano carefully leaves for them. The bass hums like a soft heartbeat; the drums punctuate the air with their syncopated rhythm. A hushed ease creeps through your body; it finds hibernation somewhere between your ears and rests gently. With each delicate keystroke, the man weaves a narrative of love lost and dreams deferred without the need for lyrics, his fingers coaxing forth a cascade of longing. 

We have little of Tatum's own words to understand the intricacies of his time in Toledo; a private man most of his life, what exists in his biographies usually comes from family or acquaintances reminiscing. Until someone invents a time machine and I can go ask the man himself, I'll keep looking out of café windows on rainy days, dreaming up scenes from an unmade movie in my head, envisioning how Art Tatum may have spent his early days haunting around Toledo – how he spent his wistful springs here.

To sign off, I'll share an equally gut-punching spring stanza from edward estlin:
when more than was lost has been found has been found
and having is giving and giving is living–
but keeping is darkness and winter and cringing
–it’s spring(all our night becomes day)o,it’s spring!

'Til the clouds roll by,

Aly

The Friends of Herbie Nichols

By Kim Kleinman, Contributing Writer

I first learned of Herbie Nichols through AB Spellman’s Four Lives in the Bebop Business. It is a sad book on the whole, but there is a battered pride: Cecil Taylor, fierce and defiant, yet vulnerable; Jackie McLean, overcoming detours not solely self-imposed; and Ornette Coleman, fragile and lonely. But Herbie Nichols?!?! Surviving on Dixieland gigs? What the hell? Sad and proud, but mostly sad.

On that basis, I dutifully bought a Blue Note collection of his which turns out to have been the lion share of his recorded output. I liked it well enough but my young ears criminally underappreciated it. I didn’t play it often. Coleman was challenging, but I had glimmers of understanding his aims, whereas Taylor was simply overwhelming. I had no idea what Monk was doing, but I liked him and bought as many of his records as I could. By comparison, I couldn’t understand why Nichols didn’t work and record. He was more accessible than Coleman and Taylor. He wasn’t Ahmad Jamal or Oscar Peterson, but why was he different from the pianists of his era who were sidemen on the albums from that era that I did buy?

More recently, I listened to him, Elmo Hope, and Bud Powell by way of trying to understand Thelonious Monk in the context of his generation. Monk isn’t just another piano player or composer, but I have only reluctantly concluded he also wasn’t simply delivered from the gods. He had predecessors and contemporaries. The harmonic and rhythmic ingenuity of these four, including hearing chords that shouldn’t be there but are and giving the most angular lines an insistent swing, is a shared trait. Nichols was neither alone nor unfamiliar. Powell and Monk were revered in their own time—and ours. Hope was also obscure but he worked and recorded, including as a sideman. But Nichols somehow was the outlier.

Nichols’s tunes are quirky but perfectly charming and one of them, “Serenade,” with Billie Holliday’s lyrics became “Lady Sings the Blues.” That is a singular contribution to the art and should have counted for something. Those compositions deserve to be heard—and they are getting to be. There are a handful of albums that are specifically dedicated to these tunes, a conscious effort to call attention to this oeuvre as a whole. It is more than simply playing one of these tunes among some standards as part of a set or a recording of a composition of Tadd Dameron’s or some other established composer. The friends of Herbie Nichols, the players who have participated in these celebrations—Roswell Rudd, Steve Lacy, George Lewis, Misha Mengelberg, Han Bennik, and Frank Kimbrough and Ben Allison—indicate his impact on the music. He speaks to them and they in turn incorporate his aesthetic in their own.

Roswell Rudd, a Nichols sideman in the early 1960s, is one of the most important friends of Herbie Nichols as he was at the very center of this nexus of the earliest recordings that celebrated and uncovered “the unheard Herbie Nichols.” Before making two albums by that name more than a decade later, he enlisted his old friend Steve Lacy in 1983 for “Regeneration,” which featured three Nichols tunes juxtaposed quite naturally with their usual celebration of Monk’s music. Rudd and Lacy had backgrounds in Dixieland and their trombone/soprano saxophone has a hint of that part of the tradition even when they are at their freest.

The pianist on “Regeneration,” Misha Mengelberg, is the leader of “Change of Season” (1985) with Lacy, trombonist George Lewis, and drummer Han Bennik playing an all Nichols program. Beside once again pairing soprano and trombone, the album features Mengelberg and Bennik, whom I first knew from Eric Dolphy’s “Last Date.” Nichols’s appeal to those drawn to that adventurous side of the music is as telling as the Dixieland ones.

Rudd’s two volumes of “The Unheard Herbie Nichols,” featuring a trio with guitarist Greg Millar and percussionist John Bacon, provide completely different voicings—sparer with a guitar as the chordal instrument—on tunes that Nichols could never record.

It is that same spirit that drove Ben Allison and Frank Kimbrough to form the Herbie Nichols Project to mine the treasure trove of manuscripts in the Library of Congress as well as arranging the trio recordings for quintet. They recorded three albums from 1995-2001. Kimbrough brought that same fastidious curation to his monumental “Monk’s Dreams,” which is “the complete compositions of Thelonious Sphere Monk” over six glorious CDs. 

When Kimbrough died in 2020, his colleagues paid him the fitting tribute of recording 58 of his compositions with the same loving reconstruction from recordings and manuscripts. Kimbrough’s playing was rich, reflecting such wonderful influences as Monk, Nichols, Andrew Hill, and Paul Bley. He was very much a friend of Herbie Nichols.

And his friend Ben Allison has recently returned to Nichols’s music with a trio album with guitarist Steve Cardenas and tenor saxist Ted Nash that approaches these tunes with an ensemble as fresh as Rudd’s very different trio.

Thanks to such friends, the music of Herbie Nichols is not completely unheard anymore, making our listening as fans that much richer.

Jazz Spectrum