Viewing: jazz - View all posts

The Vegas Showroom Is Forever!  

 

Why have the entertainers that worked the strip during the classic Vegas era held our attention all these years? While working on my new album and creating the new concert evening “Micah Barnes At The Sands” I have been thinking about that question a whole bunch.  

 It feels like the answer lies in what Vegas has represented in our collective memories all these years. 

 It’s certainly fun to imagine Vegas crawling with swingers out for a good time, theres an argument to be made that Vegas was where the American personality and culture found its greatest expression! In fact the romance of that bygone era with its atmosphere of sin and smoke and sex seems like the last time we were classy and lowdown at the same time, especially as we look back through the prism of decades of loosened morality, shorter hem lines and a much more casual approach to night life.  Now “dressing up to get down” is a quaint look back at another era. Back then it was an expression of sophistication! 

 For many decades we looked back at that “Mad Men” moment in the 50’s and early 60’s as last gasp of the old guard before a younger generation toppled the establishment and took over the pop cultural landscape.  The teenage revolution that gave us Elvis, The Beatles and The Supremes seemed to suddenly make Frank Sinatra your father’s music, but in fact there was a time when The Rat Packers were the hip new thing!  

 Frankie, Dean and Sammy encapsulated a fascinating moment of masculine cool and non conformity that expressed a new kind of new swagger that poked fun at the rules of the old establishment. But back when Broadway shows and Hollywood movies still gave us our hit songs the heppest cool cats and chicks of the day like Judy Garland, Lena Horn, Nat King Cole, Peggy Lee, Tony Bennett and  Mel Torme played the Vegas showrooms on a regular basis. 

 It’s been an awesome adventure uncovering some of the lesser known songs from these great entertainers and finding my own way to express that exciting moment in time when the biggest names lit up the big showrooms of Las Vegas!

 

 New Recording Adventure!  

 

Nothing compares to the thrill and creative energy when an artist is taking new music to the recording studio.  

My band, Micheal Shand, Russ Boswell and Al Cross and I have been developing arrangements for a new batch of songs which we will be testing with live audiences throughout the recording process. Thats what worked so well for me while writing, arranging and recording “New York Stories” and I wanted to follow the same approach with this new batch of tunes. The major difference is that whereas New York Stories was made up of original songs paying tribute to romance and The Big Apple, this new batch is mostly comprised of cover tunes. 

Touring across Canada with NY Stories I’ve had a chance to “road test” a whole lot of the new material. However last spring when I was still struggling to figure out the “spine” of the new recording I had a revelatory moment while thinking about the “stories” these new songs seemed to be telling.  More about that later down the road but suffice to say once the new album had landed in a focused direction making decisions about which songs to try and include started to become easier and thats when I knew it was time to begin the process of readying the music for the studio.  Starting over the summer the band and I got together for arrangement sessions and this fall we’ve begun cutting tracks “live of the floor” at Union Sound Company downtown Toronto. 

We’re also doing a series of Ontario shows to put this new music on it’s feet in front of the public. Check the website for dates and venues!  Its the audiences  who told me which songs belonged on New York Stories and this time around it’s no different! 


 

New York City Jazz: Lullaby Of Birdland 

 


 

Birdland is a famous jazz club in New York City located at 1678 Broadway at 44th Street. Owner Morris Levy rnamed the club Birdland in honor of Charlie “Bird” Parker and it is that club after which this classic Jazz standard of the Bebop era was named.  The legendary venue continues to book the top Jazz acts today, and with it's lushly appointed booths and classic look serves as throw back to a time when nightclubs were  where you found the sophisticated elite of society.

 Jazz Pianist George Shearing, composer of “Lullaby of Birdland,” first played the venue in 1949 the year that it opened.  In 1952 Levy decided to have station WJZ in New York broadcast a disc jockey program from there, and he asked Shearing to record a theme song for the show.  For weeks Shearing tried to come up with something but to no avail. Suddenly one night in the middle of dinner he jumped up, went to the piano and wrote the whole thing in about ten minutes. The pianist explains, “Actually quite a lot of my compositions have come this way--very slow going for a week or so, and the finished piece comes together very rapidly, but as I say to those who criticize this method of working, it’s not that I dash something off in ten minutes, it’s ten minutes plus umpteen years in the business.”

Somewhat later George David Weiss added lyrics to the tune, and Sarah Vaughan recorded it in December, 1954, for Mercury with trumpeter Clifford Brown. It was one of her biggest hits and became a standard in her repertoire. Being one of the first Jazz standards I attempted to learn as a young teenager, Ive always appreciated both the songs Bebop style melody which manages to nicely pay tribute to Charlie Parkers inventive playing style and to the simple poetry of the lyric, which is both imminently singable and emotionally engaging.

 I'm including Sarah Vaughan and Clifford Brown's classic version of "Lullaby Of Birdland" here for those who haven't heard it!

            

New York City Jazz: "Stompin' At The Savoy"  

 

 The title of the beloved swing standard “Stompin’ at the Savoy” refers to the Savoy Ballroom in the Harlem originally taking up the entire block on Lennox between West 140th and 141st Streets where the Savoy Apt. complex now stand. Incredibly that was our NYC address during the writing of "New York Stories" something I didn't realize until running for the milk one morning and spotting the plaque in front of the apartment complex!  Now maybe thats why the swing music kept infiltrating my dreams at night leading to the writing of so many "old school" style tunes on New York Stories!

The plaque reads: "Here once stood the legendary Savoy Ballroom, a hothouse for the development of jazz in the Swing era. Visually dazzling and spacious, the Savoy nightly featured the finest jazz bands in the nation, and its house bands included such famous orchestras as those of Fess Williams, Chick Webb, and Teddy Hill. The great jazz dancers who appeared on its block-long floor ranged from professionals like Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers to everyday Harlemites. During a time of racial segregation and strife, the Savoy was one of the most culturally and racially integrated of institutions, and its fame was international. It was the heartbeat of Harlem’s community and a testament to the indomitable spirit and creative impulse of African-Americans. It was a catalyst for innovation where dancers and musicians blended influences to forge new, wide-spread, and long-lasting traditions in music and dance. Whether they attended or not, all Americans knew the meaning of ”Stompin’ at the Savoy.” 

 The song itself  features a melody written by Chick Webb's saxaphonist Edgar Sampson and a lyric by Andy Razof (best known for his collaborations on Honeysuckle Rose and Ain't Misbehavin' with Fats Waller). "Stompin At The Savoy" was introduced to the public by Chick Webb's band featuring vocalist Ella Fitzgerald who gave the song it's first fame.

Here is my favourite version of the song recorded many years later in a  duet version by Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald! 

 

Crowd Sourcing The Songs! 


Audiences tell you what they like. You just have to listen. 
Many years ago while living and making music in LA a friend took me to a Frank Black concert at the Troubador a legendary venue on the Sunset Strip and I learned a really valuable lesson. Frank Black (the founder and frontman of the hugely influential band The Pixies), tours new material for a year before stepping into the studio to record.  Working out the kinks in front of his die hard fans allowed him to hit the studio ready to record material that had been already lived in and worked out in front of audiences instead of second guessing brand new arrangements.   

Thats how I approached the making of New York Stories, testing each "chapter" of the story in front of live audiences at the Jazz Bistro in Toronto and at venues across the country before cutting songs live off the floor with the trio. The audiences tell you what they like if you are listening and so of course I was able to shape and reshape the album long before stepping into the studio! It worked so well that I'm planning the same approach on the next recording! 

Performing  the"New York Stories" material across the country I have been working cover songs into the set to help communicate the vast musical history of New York from Uptown Jazz and Broadway to Back Alley Blues and Doo Wop. The songs that have gotten the most response have stayed on the set list and Ive brought those tunes home to my trio in Toronto for us to work out the arrangements in advance of upcoming shows where we will test out the tunes some more! 
 Songs by Tom Waits, Stephen Sondheim, Cole Porter, Mose Allison and Laura Nyro are all getting their moment to "audition". It's surprising what material is getting the most response, the little known Marvin Gaye tune "The Bells", an old Harold Arlen tune covered by Sammy Davis Jr  from the show "St Louis Woman" called "AnyPlace I Hang My Hat Is Home" and of course "A Sunday Kind Of Love", (an old pop standard that became a Doo Wop hit before Etta James shaped it into an R&B classic)  

The music will be Crowd Sourced in that we're taking our cues from the audiences favourites,  
so come out and make your choices heard!  
The musicians are listening! :)

Charity Season Is Here Folks!  

 
Being able to sing in support of a cause or a charity is something that I take very seriously these days. In fact from the very beginning of my career the charity component has been an important focus, but recently with the success of "New York Stories" there have been so many more opportunities to give back, in fact last year the holiday season was my busiest in terms of charity concerts! Yahoo! 

This year has presented an deepening of that commitment and it is with great pride that I announce having taken on the artistic directorship of the LOFT Community Services "Home For The Holidays" annual fundraising concert. LOFT is a charity that I have been involved with for a few years performing for their annual concert along with folks like Molly Johnson, Billy Newtown Davis and Jackie Richardson and I have seen first hand the incredible ways in which they house and support folks in the Toronto area who would otherwise slip  between the cracks of the health care system. From older people with mental disabilities to young folks with addiction issues and all kinds of "at risk" and vulnerable people,  LOFT is dedicated to making sure their programs give people a sense of dignity and respect and a place to call home. For more information about what they do have a peek here http://www.loftcs.org 

This year "Home for the Holidays" will be held on Monday, December 5, 2016 at the beautiful St. James Cathedral in downtown Toronto and I've been lining up some top notch talent including Musical Theatre star Thom Allison http://www.thomallison.com, the delicious Jazz harmonies of The Ault Sisters http://www.aultsisters.com and the incredible Hogtown Brass Quintet http://www.hogtownbrass.com among many more.  We hope you will join us for this beautiful holiday concert to kick off the season and enter the real spirit of giving back!  

Tickets are only $40 for the general public!  Home for the Holidays 26th Annual Christmas Concert Monday, December 5, 2016 St. James Cathedral (downtown Toronto)  Ticket purchase and more info here: http://www.loftcs.org/support-loft/events/christmas-concert-2016

A Jazz Singer-Songwriter Pays tribute to Bob Dylan  

 


"Songwriter Bob Dylan wins the Nobel prize for Literature"

The thing is that Dylan's powerful determination to find "new ways to tell the old stories" began long before we ever heard of him. First he worked inside the tradition then he began to find his own voice inside of the tradition, then stretch and bend and push on the walls until he had created the kind of freedom that all songwriters who followed were able to work with! 

 In that sense our  Mister Zimmerman is the best template for any artist seeking to find their own voice.     First we imitate, then, if we are serious about finding our own voice we experiment and try and find a way to make the traditions our own.  Then if we truly seek personal expression we dig in to find the way to communicate our most authentic selves through the music.  Thats the gig of being an artist. It doesn't come easy. It doesn't come fast.  Have a read of his masterful autobiography "Chronicles Vol 1" for the whole story. 



I remember sitting down with Bob Dylan's "Greatest Hits" LP when I was just a kid and studying what it was that made him the voice of a generation of counter culture grownups. I hated the scratchy voice that I would later come to dig, (have you heard Dylan's recent recordings of standards? They are a revelation!), but understood that somewhere in his beatnik ramblings there was a kind of patchwork map that was helping lead a generation to their own sense of self hood. 

And as a budding songwriter I remember trying to find a way into Dylan's complex songwriting which explored older forms of folk and blues and a kind of rule breaking literary poetry of the street. It made me want to find a new way of expressing myself through Jazz and Blues using the traditions to communicate my contemporary experience (hence "New York Stories" etc) 

 What is it that makes a young artist determined to find one's own voice to add to the culture?
We may never know but Dylan's Nobel Prize for Literature answers the questions once and for all whether what we do it simply entertainment.

The Festival Experience  

 Music fans crave discovery. 
Thats why we love the festival experience. And of course Music Festivals are all about discovery. The music lover may be there to see a favorite artist but along the way will have the opportunity to stumble on a whole bunch of other acts! Thats why artists love to play festivals too, we get to introduce ourselves to a whole army of potential fans we would never have reached otherwise!  

Coming together in a community around a shared interest is even more important to us in the digital age. Just witness the communal experience Canadians felt as the Tragically Hip played it's last shows together this summer. At a music festival everyone can feel a part of the atmosphere of the bigger event.  Its not about attending one concert,  it's about our shared love of the music which is why everybody is there in the first place!   

 Jazz festivals are no different. From the big international festivals like Montreaux to the local festival such as the Beaches Jazz Festival there are all kinds of arguments for hearing Jazz in a festival setting rather than only in a small local venue.  There are many challenges to putting on a great festival and one of them is how to attract an audience in a busy marketplace, which is why mainstream music festivals tend to invite international artists that we rarely get to see.     

 

Toronto loves it's festivals.
From the big ones like Tiff and Hot Docs to the local neighbourhood food festivals like Taste of The Danforth  there is hardly a week without a festival happening somewhere in the greater GTA.  
Our newest entry to the Festival calendar is The  Kensington Market Jazz Festival (in my old stomping ground) which has been conceived  of by musicians (our first lady of culture Ms. Molly Johnson) as a neighbourhood-oriented weekend for Toronto to discover and celebrate it's own jazz artists.  

Its happening in a batch of unusual local venues which are just waiting for discovery.   I'm particularly excited to be reunited with Sophie Milman when we share The Round stage Sept 17th. Our Ottawa gig with the National Arts Centre Orchestra singing Cole Porter duets was a pleasure indeed! 

 There is already an amazing street vibe in Kensington Market, and the weekend of Sept 16th, 17th and 18th the air will be filled with Jazz of every kind!  Come and hang out for the weekend. You'll see thrilled to see old favourites and make a few new discoveries I promise! 

 Kensington Market Jazz Video!


 

Whats Your New York Story Canada? 

 

When I brought the songs that would become New York Stories back from the Big Apple it took a lot of polishing and crafting before the material was ready to record. First I played the material for audiences across Canada and they told me which songs were landing deepest with them. Then my trio and I worked up the arrangements and tested them out on Toronto audiences during our residency at The Jazz Bistro. By the time we hit the studio we knew exactly which tunes and which arrangements were telling the stories the best! 

So it is in fact the audiences that helped create this CD from the very get go! 

When creative producer Leonardo came to me with the Indie Go Go campaign idea I scoffed and told him I would never ask for money from fans. By the time we had our campaign in full swing I was feeling the support and engagement and the sense of community that was building around this music.
Truly an incredible experience for an artist let me tell you! 

So, when Leo and I decided to use the CD launch at CBC's Glenn Gould Studio to film the audience and fans telling their own New York Stories it just made so much sense! After all the audience has been a huge part of this project from the very beginning. We enlisted filmmaker Diana Piruzevska to create a little studio set up in the lobby and filmed folks one at a time telling their favourite NYC adventures. You can hear an edited version of those stories in the new video of "Don't Take My Baby (New York New York)" (Big Thanks to all of those who came to support the music and  leant their stories to this video!)

                                                                                

AND as a way to say THANK YOU, as part of the national tour dates we're extending the conversation and inviting folks to post their favourite New York Stories on this page Facebook Fan Page  using the hashtag #WhatsYourNewYorkStory in exchange for a free digital download of the New York Stories album!  

…..Let the New York conversation continue! :)

Tour Life 


I am not one of those artists that resents going out on the road. In fact I embrace it with a passion.  

Touring is a fantastic way to see and hear the big wide world.  

When I started my career I never imagined that music would become a way to experience new places, new people and have new adventures.  

Keeping in mind that my introduction to full time touring was with the already established Nylons (flying to shows rather than touring in a van, staying in nice hotels, performing in beautiful theatres etc) so the beginning of my road life was supported in every way possible. 

 However even during my early career, which included tuff rock n roll bars and seedier lounges across Canada I was already caught up in the romance of collecting crazy stories and adventures.  

In fact the road became so romantic for me that for many years I made it a practice of driving back and forth from the east coast out to California, stopping to see friends along the way, but relishing the alone time away from the crowded cities where my head and heart could expand and explore. 

Perhaps thats the gift of being a songwriter, I see all of that road experience (or most of it) as grist for the creative mill.  Even at the start of my career I loved taking time to wander in each city  finding an old pier or a run down factory, or back alley's near downtown, looking for the lonely old guy to have a chat with etc. Writing notes in an ongoing journal through my wanderings (often turning up in lyrics for songs) I made a kind of loose map of North America in my head.   

Being able to travel and make music for audiences has almost always felt like a gift, an opportunity, a blessing. These busy days I find solace in a hotel room, a good book, a newspaper and a cafe and so often plan to arrive a day early and leave a day later than I need to.  

The road is a kind of home to me where my artist self feels most alive.