On the heels of one of the best music docs ever (Miles Davis: Birth Of The Cool), Eagle Rock Entertainment storms right back with the incredible Ella Fitzgerald: Just One Of Those Things. Ella is one of those giants who is—despite 13 Grammy Awards and 40+ million records sold in a 60-year career—is easily taken for granted. Sure, we all know she took scat-singing to new unparalleled heights after Louis Armstrong accidently invented it, but there’s just so much more—shockingly—to know!
Directed by the esteemed British director Leslie Woodhead, between the never-before-seen Ella footage and new interviews with Smokey Robinson, Tony Bennett, Johnny Mathis and—most endearingly—Ella’s son, Ray Brown, Jr., a portrait of strength emerges. How could this woman, homeless in 1934 Harlem when she timidly stepped up onto that legendary and intimidating Apollo Theater stage to dance...yet changed her mind at the last minute to sing instead, become arguably America’s Greatest Voice. Battling racism, extreme poverty and sexism, hired by a Baltimore dwarf to sing for his big-band (Chick Webb), leading that same band when Webb died at 34, she became a magnet for artists like Sinatra, Dizzy, Pops and Benny Goodman who all collaborated with her.
The three distinct stages of her voluminous career are lovingly portrayed from the ingenue singing "A Tisket A Tasket" in a little-girl voice to the pioneering progressive bebop scat singer whose voice was akin to a horn and, finally, to the (still) greatest purveyor of “The Great American Songbook,” never to be equaled. One comes away from this doc almost in awe of Ella’s incendiary talent yet is reminded of her human frailties, which included her lifelong suffering and mental anguish over body image criticism in a society that values the thin.
In this doc, one gets to really know Ella Fitzgerald.
Then: Jazz Standards Volume #1 (Nefertiti Records) by the Henry Robinett Quartet is a 20-year old recording that Robinett, for some reason, refused to release until now. He’s a guitarist, composer, bandleader and recording engineer who built his own studio and is five albums into a solid career. When he was a kid in Sacramento, it was Hendrix all the way until he studied and performed Bach and Peganini on his acoustic. He actually lived with his cousin Charles Mingus in New York City for three months, meeting Joni Mitchell who gave him some of her odd tunings that he carried around with him for years. Moving to San Francisco after living in Germany for a year, he got his quartet together—pianist Joe Gilman, bassist Chris Symer and drummer Michael Stephans—to record these impeccable, entertaining, groove-laden, swinging interpretations of Wayne Shorter’s “Pinocchio,” Mal Waldron’s “Soul Eyes,” Henry Mancini’s “The Days Of Wine And Roses” and seven other gems. This is the type of record that makes one want to go back and discover the rest of the artist’s catalog. Wholeheartedly Recommended.
Trumpeter John Lake’s Seven Angels debut (Outside In Music) has the Brooklyn composer/arranger/trumpeter/producer soloing like mad, buoyed by the contributions of his mighty sextet of Paul Jones’ tenor sax, Michael Thomas’ alto sax, Steven Feifke’s piano, Marcos Varela’s bass and Jeff Davis’ drums. It’s easily one of the best debuts of the year: alternately funky, swinging and bebopping, like “Pearls Of The Tartar,” dedicated to pianist Horace Silver [1928-2014]. Joe Henderson’s 1966 “A Shade Of Jade” sounds so great that I couldn’t help listening to it again, only this time picturing in my mind’s eye what Henderson himself would think. I know he’d smile. Lake wrote opener “The Bet” in quarantine, as he thought of the 1889 short story by Anton Chekhov of the same name about self-imprisonment. In 6:30, it goes through athletic changes, intellectual mathematics, sublime rhythms and the kind of harmonies you’ll find yourself wanting to go back to time and time again. My personal favorite, though, has to be Lake’s Afro-Latin “Signal Changes” because of its kinetic nature.
Alto sax man Rudresh Mahanthappa is one brave dude. He performs a high-wire act with no net to catch him if he falls on Hero Trio (Whirlwind Recordings). Not one chord was used in the making of this album. To do so, you need unerring performances, arrangement and production and he has all three—with double bassist Francois Moutin and drummer Rudy Royston—as he takes his career-long fascination with Charlie “Bird” Parker to new heights on opener “Red Cross” and closer “Dewey Square.” (His Bird Calls was one of the best jazz albums of 2015.) In between is another Bird invention, “Barbados,” which he puts together with John Coltrane’s “26-2” to create a whole ‘nother animal. Stevie Wonder’s 1985 “Overjoyed” gets the arrangement that Danilo Perez used in 2003 on his sublime ‘Til Then album. Ornette Coleman’s 1962 “Sadness” and Keith Jarrett’s 1974 “The Windup” are stand-outs. Even the 1937 Bunny Berigan overdone chestnut, “I Can’t Get Started,” gets positively jump-started to rescue it from the dust-bin of songs we tired of long ago. Sonny Rollins did “I’ll Remember April” in 1957. Lee Konitz did it in 1961. But here, Mahanthappa’s alto brought me to a total and complete swoon.
Mood Walk (Creative Spirit Records), the fourth album by bassist Fred Randolph, is an all-original romp incorporating influences like Dick Dale, George Benson, T-Bone Walker and Todd Rundgren. Fred grew up in Hawaii playing Hendrix on ukulele, moved to San Diego to surf, learned to play sax, spent two years in a symphony orchestra, logged many hours as a bassist in bands that played rock, salsa, samba and jazz, became a teacher, and formed this band—Erik Jekabson, trumpet; Dan Zemelman, piano; Sheldon Brown, tenor sax and flute; Greg Wyser, drums. To this quintet, he’s added guests on keyboards, percolating percussion and vibraphone.
Bop-fest opener “On The Upside” precedes the Chick Corea-styled “Unaware” before “T-Bone Slide” and “Strange Game” (which he wrote after an extended listen to the music of David Crosby) sail by unflinchingly until highlight “Knowing” (where that Latin flair is absolutely delicious). “Mr. Now” has a faint Coltrane echo. “Todd’s Idea” is fusion. “Nouveau Monde” sounds African.” “Meadows” is a waltz and it all ends with “Funky N.O. Thing” like a stroll down Rampart Street in the French Quarter.