Liner Notes from “The Jitterbug Waltz” (1995)

Thanks for getting past the cellophane. Playing in a trio is one of the most fulfilling things a jazz pianist can do: you get to be the main solo voice, and you also get the satisfaction of collaborating with your peers. It’s doubly satisfying when that collaboration can involve old friends. Thus, it was one of my few regrets upon leaving New York for Chicago in 1993, that in my 12 years in NYC, I had never gotten around to doing a real trio project with my friends Tim Horner and Boots Maleson. So, when in 1995, the Manhattan Rhythm Kings were kind enough to fly me to New York to play with them at the Rainbow and Stars, I took the opportunity to book some studio time so that Boots and Tim and I could record.

External forces threatened the project almost immediately. I had brought my family to New York with me: my wife Mariana, and sons Charlie (then four) and Luke (almost two). On our first night in NYC, Charlie and I got food poisoning from a Greenwich Village barbecue emporium. Charlie suffered no lasting ill effects, but I felt pretty green for a few days. Meanwhile, Luke had come down with a nasty ear infection that left him alternately howling and whimpering in Mariana’s arms for the rest of the trip. By this point, I was pretty frazzled and even wondered briefly if it would be worth it to record with Boots and Tim. We hadn’t seen each other in a couple of years and I could only recall one actual trio gig that we had ever played together. As I said, I wondered–for about two seconds. Then I decided to trust that things would turn out okay; after all, the three of us had known each other for almost twenty years.

When I arrived in Boston in 1977 to attend New England Conservatory (and to study with Jaki Byard), Tim and Boots were already well-established on the local scene. Boots was one one of the two or three top guys in town and gigged constantly, although he (thankfully) still had the time, energy and desire to do even more playing at various jam sessions, which is how I first got to know him. Later, he moved to New York and joined Ron Carter’s group (in which Carter plays piccolo bass). That Boots plays bass in a band led by one of the most important bass players in the history of jazz should tell you something about his prowess. He offers constant musical support, “big ears”, and a beautifully lyrical melodic sense. His easygoing nature and sly sense of humor are always welcome in the studio, and I’m grateful that he was available. Thanks, Boots–you played your ass off.

Tim, like myself, was going to school in Boston in the late ’70’s: at Berklee, right around the corner from the Conservatory. Naturally, there was a certain amount of commingling between the two institutions. I remember playing in a big band at Berklee that featured some of Boston’s finest players; that was one of my first encounters with Tim. Our friendship grew during countless jam sessions, senior recitals (including my own), gigs and general hangs. In 1984 we played a memorable gig in Singapore with baritone sax legend Pepper Adams (along with bassist Ed Howard). Tim currently plays in Maria Schneider’s wonderful big band and can be heard on many, many recordings. Of all the drummers I have played with, he is my favorite.

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My idea for choosing material was to sample the work of some of my favorite composers, ranging from those strictly in the jazz idiom to composers from the Tin Pan Alley tradition.

There’s A Boat That’s Leaving Soon For New York (Gershwin) We began with this song from Porgy and Bess.¬†Originally sung by John Bubbles (love that name), this relaxed medium-tempo tune is often overlooked by jazz musicians and rarely recorded.

Yesterdays (Kern) This tune has received a variety of treatments, and I thought I’d add this Latinized version to the list. I lifted the intro from Bill Evans (So What); the piano figure heard with the drum solo was liberated from Eddie Palmieri. To paraphrase Stravinsky, steal from the best.

Memories of You (Blake) This 1930 Eubie Blake ballad has always been one of my favorites. I discovered the verse only recently, and I think that it compliments the chorus beautifully. Some other versions of the tune worth listening to are by Louis Armstrong (when it was still new), Jaki Byard (my old prof) with Rahsaan Roland Kirk, and by Charles Mingus (on piano!)

The Jitterbug Waltz (Waller) In addition to being one of the great pianists and entertainers in the annals of jazz, Fats was also an incredibly prolific composer. Despite the “waltz” in the title, we messed around with the time feel a little bit on this one.

Orange Was The Color of Her Dress (Mingus) Like Fats Waller, Mingus is another example of someone whose larger-than-life persona made people tend to overlook his prowess as an instrumentalist and composer. If you’re into numbers, this is kind of cool: while thousands of 32-bar tunes have been written as either four 8-bar sections or 2 16-bar sections, Orange must be the only one written in THREE sections. It has an AAB form (11, 11 and 10 bars)¬†.

In a Mist–In the Dark (Beiderbecke) Best known as a legendary cornetist and tragic figure, Bix Beiderbecke (1903-1931) first picked up the horn at 14, but he had been playing the piano since the age of three. Here are two selections of suite for solo piano that he wrote and recorded in 1927. As a composer, Bix shows a sensibility more strongly influenced by Debussy and Ravel than by the jazz idiom of his day. I wonder how his composing would have evolved had he lived longer.

Edda (Shorter) Wayne Shorter’s tunes helped to change the language of jazz in the 1960s and he could not be omitted from my list of favorite composers. I included this tune (along with the title cut) to add a little 3/4 balance to a jazz world dominated by 4/4 time.

The Single Petal of a Rose (Ellington) Duke Ellington was surely one of the greatest figures in 20th Century music. This infrequently-heard little gem comes from The Queen’s Suite. I thought I had “discovered” it, until I saw an excerpt from it, in Duke’s handwriting, framed and hanging on the wall of Tim’s apartment! There’s no improvisation on this one, just the statement of the melody.

Trinkle, Tinkle (Monk) Blessed with a unique sound and style, Monk was a bebop pioneer as well as a seminal jazz composer. This quirky tune with the finger-busting melody is one of my favorites from the voluminous Monk catalogue.

Lost In The Stars/Surabaya Johnny (Weill) And finally, a pair of show tunes from the German composer Kurt Weill. I think they work well as a medley because they contrast with each other so strongly–the first tune lyrical and hopeful, the second dark and cynical. In fact, Surabaya Johnny, employing harmonies reminiscent of Wayne Shorter, translated especially well into the jazz idiom once we deconstructed the rhythm a little bit.

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See how many of these musical quotes (of varying degrees of taste) you can identify on this recording: Bessie’s Blues, Birdlike, Chloe, Exactly Like You, Theme From “Gilligan’s Island”, I’m Getting Sentimental Over You, Manhattan, Mysterioso, Petroushka, Remember Rockefeller at Attica, Seven Come Eleven, Theme From “The Twilight Zone”.

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