Her Music on My Brain

Denise Donatelli

Say what you will, it’s fun to have friends who are nominated for Grammys.

Vocalist (and friend) Denise Donatelli’s album “When Lights Are Low” is up for Best Jazz Vocal Album this year and a well deserved nod it is.

She sent me the album, I put it in, I listened… and then played it three or four more times back to back.  And I continue to play it.  Often.  One or another tracks is usually dancing around in my head.  Today I woke up with “Don’t Explain,” on the brain, complete with Denise’s nuanced vocals, the cello lines and Ingrid Jensen’s mournful flugelhorn solo.  (The album’s pianist, producer and arranger, Geoffrey Keezer is nominated for Best Instrumental Arrangement Accompanying a Vocalist for “Don’t Explain,” so is in part responsible for its being firmly embedded in my consciousness.)

The album works for me on all levels:  selection, arrangements, pacing, impeccable musicianship and emotional content.  Among its offerings:  several well known standards delivered with a fresh approach, a very cool version of Sting’s “Big Lie, Small World,” a new one to me – “The Bed I Made,” previously only recorded by Bonnie Raitt, a lovely original called “Forward, Like So,” written and arranged by Julia Dollison who, with husband Kerry Marsh, provides lush background vocals on several tracks.  All in all, a superb, well-paced mix of material.

Geoffrey Keezer

Geoffrey Keezer’s arrangements are breathtaking, ranging from the exuberant “It’s You or No One,” to the poignant and simple “Why Did I Chose You.”  (I choke up every time);  from the sassy bossa feel of “Big Lie,” which culminates in a charming musical cacophony, evoking both the story and setting… to the delicious “Kisses.”

There is much more to say.  The players on this album are, without exception, exceptional; the solo work, inspired.  The amazing Geoff Keezer; Peter Sprague on guitar; Hamilton Price, bass; Jon Wikan drums and percussion; Susan Wulff, double bass; Ron Blake, sax; the aforementioned Ms. Jensen and gifted vocalists, Julia Dollison and Kerry Marsh.

Now, back to where it all began: Denise Donatelli.  I’ll start with the obvious.  She has a rich, textured voice and spot-on intonation.  Her interpretations combine an ease of expression, a natural feel for the idiom and great technique.  Her inflections, her dynamics reflect the specific tune, her voice changing colors to fit the meaning.

Kudos, and congratulations.  We’re rooting for you.

The 53rd Grammy Awards, tonight at 8:00 on CBS.


Click here to listen to Don’t Explain.

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Gerald Clayton Hits the Grammys

It’s that time of year again – the Grammys are coming up this Sunday.  The star-studded evening tends to put the spotlight on the pop artists – Jay-Z, Lady Gaga, Katy Perry, and Justin Bieber (who, by the way, is up for Best New Artist alongside Esperanza Spalding… you can guess where my loyalties lie) – but there are, in fact, a host of categories devoted to the best of jazz from the past year.  And as my mother mentioned in a previous post, she recently had the pleasure of being able to interview one of this year’s esteemed nominees – Cee Lo Green!

…Just kidding.  Although I am rooting for “F*** You” to win Song of the Year.

Gerald Clayton

Actually, she got the chance to interview the extraordinary 26-year-old jazz pianist Gerald Clayton at the Iridium in New York.  Dare I say… cooler than Cee Lo?

A jazz legacy with a childhood steeped in music, Gerald’s mother is a classical pianist and his father is renowned double bassist John Clayton.  After beginning his studies in classical piano at age 7, Gerald went on to study jazz piano in his teens with such greats as Billy Childs, Shelly Berg and Kenny Barron, and has since staked his claim as one of the most accomplished and dynamic young pianists around today.

At the beginning of this highly entertaining interview, he explained how his own personality and thoughts on life affect his music: “I have always been somewhat of an independent thinker, not really subscribing to any particular beliefs, whether it be boundaries, politics, religion.  I think life just sort of is. I like that type of mindset.  That’s one thing about me.  It helps me try to find the peaceful nature in everything, so I can be on a moment-to-moment basis with my life… That’s really the most important thing that I’m trying to convey in my music, I think, is just peace.”

Gerald Clayton Trio

I’ve now seen him play three times (not to brag or anything… okay, maybe a little) – once at the Newport Jazz Fest with Gretchen Parlato, once at the Kuumbwa Club in Santa Cruz with his trio, and then again with his trio, mere weeks ago, at Scullers – apparently my new home-away-from-home.  Accompanied by Justin Brown on drums and Joe Sanders on bass in this, his first Scullers appearance, the trio was as on fire as ever.  In his interview, he mentioned that some other inspirations of his were “just being honest about everything in life, and trying to convey that honesty in music as well… And then the rest is really just, I like to have fun, I like to laugh.”  And while Gerald’s talent is undoubtedly prodigious, that passion and the sheer enjoyment he brings to the performance are also what make him incredible to watch – the big grin plastered to his face for the entire set, he and his trio laughing at their own musical repartee, and the distinct classical influence that weaves whimsically throughout the jazz rhythms in a number of tunes all establish the atmosphere as one of energy, humor, honesty and creativity.

I highly recommend giving him a listen.

The Clayton Brothers

So back to this Grammy nomination of his.  It’s actually not with his trio, but rather with The Clayton Brothers, in which he plays with father John on bass, his uncle Jeff Clayton on sax, Obed Calvaire on drums and Terell Stafford on trumpet.  Their latest album, The New Song and Dance, is up for Best Jazz Instrumental Album, Individual or Group, and Gerald’s composition Battle Circle is in the running for Best Instrumental Composition.

Be sure to check out the Grammys this Sunday at 8:00 PM on CBS.  Fun times will be had.  Unless, of course, Justin Bieber beats out Esperanza for Best New Artist.  In which case you will find me crying in the corner over a pint of Ben and Jerry’s.


Click here to listen to Battle Circle, off The New Song and Dance!

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Christian McBride: Used ‘Ta Could… and Still Can

Christian McBride, bass

Another day, another favorite artist.   I know, I’m so fickle.   But not to worry… I’m not abandoning old favorites – just adding to the list.  Today’s addition (and I know I’m a little late in the game on this one) is the virtuosic bassist and one of the past decade’s most influential jazz musicians, Christian McBride.

My mom has been telling me about him for months.  He’s played with everyone – one of the most recorded bassists of the last 20 years – performing and recording with jazz, pop, soul, hip-hop and classical musicians.  To name just a few: Diana Krall, Herbie Hancock, James Brown, Wynton Marsalis, Pat Metheny, Roy Haynes, John Clayton, Carly Simon, The Roots, and Chick Corea.  Oh and by the way, Mr. McBride isn’t even 40.  Yeah.  No big deal or anything.  When I learned he was going to be at Scullers in Boston… well, it was clearly an opportunity not to be missed.

Carl Allen, drums

So my Saturday night was spent grooving to Christian McBride and Inside Straight, with Warren Wolf on vibes, Peter Martin on piano, Carl Allen on drums, Steve Wilson on alto and soprano sax, and of course Christian on the bass.

It really goes without saying that their sound was incredible. Big fat DUH on that one.  But what struck me was – well, two things.  First, though Christian is the headliner, the leader and has the name, that by no means meant that he dominated the show.  The interplay between the musicians was continuous – a well-balanced, democratic conversation with plenty of room for each musician to have their say.  Other than Christian, my personal favorite to watch was Warren Wolf on vibes (first time I’ve ever seen vibes performed live).

Warren Wolf, vibes

His hands and mallets were a literal blur during his solos… his intensity was such that Christian called him, “my own personal weapon of mass destruction.”

As I’ve mentioned I am somewhat new to jazz, and a vocalist myself, so when I first really began to listen to jazz seriously it was, I have to admit, mostly to vocalists.  Instrumental jazz was challenging and hard to follow and an untrained ear like mine would occasionally drift off if there wasn’t a melody or any lyrics to keep me engaged.  But the other thing I noticed about Christian and Inside Straight was that, though obviously extremely innovative and inventive, they didn’t lose me.  When I bought the album on iTunes, the album review called their pieces “melodically tuneful and harmonically focused.”  That pretty much sums is up.  There were playful and intriguing melodies backed by great harmonics and fed by cool solos.  I was pretty much riveted.

Peter Martin, piano

My friend and longtime musical partner in crime Allison assured me that her “mind was blown.”  Beyond the group’s obvious jazz prowess, she also commented on Christian as a band leader: “I really thought he did a great job of running the show between pieces.  I for one appreciated knowing what tunes had been played – especially because his originals were so fabulous.  And of course it didn’t hurt to show off a great sense of humor, pride for his seriously talented bandmates, and some Boston sports knowledge.”

Now for the best part – here’s a video of the band playing one of the songs they played at Sculler’s, called “Used ‘Ta Could.”  As Christian said, “This song is about those things that you were once able to do, but can no longer.  Some of you know what I’m talking about.  Some of you don’t.  And those of you that don’t – you will.”


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Happy 90th Birthday to Mr. Dave Brubeck!

Dave Brubeck, 1956

We would like to wish a very happy birthday to one of our all-time favorites, the one and only Dave Brubeck.  Yesterday, December 6, marked this legend’s 90th birthday – and what an astounding 90 years it has been.  After decades of composing, performing, and releasing dozens upon dozens of albums, he continues to dazzle audiences with that unique Brubeck sound.  (I was lucky enough to see him at the Newport Jazz Festival in August.  Yeah.  I win.)

Dave Brubeck... several years later.

Below is a 1972 performance of “Take Five,” because personally, I could listen to this all day.  So happy birthday, Mr. Brubeck – legendary artist, jazz educator, and one of the coolest guys ever – and THANK YOU for all of your swinging years!


PS –  On a personal note, my mother and I can’t thank Mr. Brubeck enough for the fabulous material he generously contributed to our project.  Great stuff.

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Confessions of a Neophyte Interviewer

I have always been good about drawing people out.  Really.  For the most part, I engage easily and have little trouble getting people to talk about themselves.  The knack emanates from the fact that:  1.  I’m genuinely interested in what makes people tick, and  2.  I am not always comfortable talking about myself.  Which is not to say I’m not talkative, but is to say that when the spotlight is on me, I often deflect.

So when I embarked on this project, a project that entails one-on-one interviews as well as roundtables with articulate, talented artists, my assumption was that I’d be a natural.

How hard could this be?


Bill Douglass, bass

Bassist, Bill Douglass – also a prodigious bamboo flute player.  The go-to guy for Mose Allison, Bobby McFerrin and Marian McPartland with whom he’s recorded numerous albums.  Bill lives in the Sierra foothills and came down off the mountain with his bass to my house to talk, to play, to drink a little red wine.  He is passionate about jazz, an energetic communicator, and has a low tolerance for bullshit.

I knew Bill personally, had rehearsed with him, seen him perform and our session was more like hanging out than a formal interview.  We swapped stories, exchanged histories, talked politics. We laughed.  And I also got a lot of great material.


This was a casual situation, but still I inserted myself too often.  This I realize flies directly in the face of my assertion that I’m not comfortable talking about myself.  (Consistency: the hobgoblin of little minds.)


Rebecca Martin with husband, bassist Larry Grenadier

Rebecca Martin, Larry Grenadier, Gretchen Parlato, and Taylor Eigsti the morning after their gig at the venerable Club Passim in Boston – the first time all four shared a stage.

And it was incredible.

I’d done my homework, read the bios, listened to their music and that morning at the restaurant of the Tria Hotel in Cambridge I was ready, though concerned about the setting.  It was a lively session.  Each brought something unique to the discussion – all were engaging, enthusiastic, intelligent and opinionated.

Gretchen Parlato, vocals

Back at home, I began to transcribe the recording, but it was taking me forever so I passed it along to a professional.

It took her forever, too.  The ambient restaurant sounds – silverware, piped in muzak, people laughing and talking at nearby tables, and an intermittent triple beep that sounded like a truck backing up a New York street – were incessant and grew louder over the course of the interview.

Taylor Eigsti, piano

She does the best she can, but when I get back Judy’s pages, my heart sinks:  too many sentences are rife with “unintelligible.”  During certain back-and-forths she reverts to MALE and FEMALE, unable to recognize the speaker.  So I plod through the pages filling in the blanks where I can.  And I wince at how many “you knows” and “uhs” are peppered throughout my speech.  Get to the point, Marty!


Interviewing in a crowded restaurant – though there was no alternative – and  my own Valley Girl delivery.  Gag me.

(video: Gretchen Parlato on vocals, Taylor Eigsti on piano)


Kevin Kanner, drums

Kevin Kanner, Dan Schnelle, Nick Mancini, and Ham Price at the Blue Whale.  A vibrant group:  funny, open and willing to say anything.  Since it was laced with obscenities (my own included), I decided to hand the recording over to Marika (see her transcription-blues entry, Sep 27th), rather than to Judy – a lovely, gracious woman whom I didn’t want to offend.

Dan Schnelle, drums

We met in the club before opening, Joon Lee, the club owner had turned off the sound system, the staff tip-toed around us, but despite all the consideration, Marika encountered many of the same problems as Judy.

Hamilton Price, bass

But noise wasn’t the over-riding problem on this one.  Yet again I’m chagrined to discover that I talk more than I think I do.  Marika IMs me with questions about who said what AND tells me that often I’d ask a question and then answer it myself.

She found this quite amusing.  Me… not so much.  Clearly I was trying to prove myself to these young dudes, demonstrate my hipness.


My showing off.

(video: Nick Mancini on vibes)


Gerald Clayton, piano

Pianist Gerald Clayton in the green room of the Iridium.  Gerald was on the gig with the legendary drummer, Al Foster, sax great Chris Potter and the wonderful Doug Weiss on bass.  Gerald and I were to meet an hour before down beat.  When I got the club (drenched), I was taken aback by the fact that a big private party was in full swing – young waiters in 50s costumes, hitting the mic to belt out one golden oldie after another.
Gerald arrives and leads me to the green room where we settle in as an off-key rendering of “I Will Survive” blasts through the closed door.  Soon the rest of the band files in, unclear why there’s an interview going on in their space.  This won’t do.  The manager of the club guides us to an empty hallway behind the kitchen, finds us two folding chairs and we happily continue the interview in relative peace.

The one-on-one is much easier, particularly with such an amiable, thoughtful, hugely talented subject.


Instead of hailing I cab, I trudge – in heels – 35 blocks to the Iridium in steamy 80 degree weather and a light but insistent drizzle.  The rest of the obstacles – singing waiters, slightly put upon band members – were overcome.

(video: the Gerald Clayton trio)


Bill Cunliffe, piano

Grammy winning pianist, Bill Cunliffe, Luther Hughes, official bassist for Star Trek’s “Deep Space 9” and Paul Kreibich, a very in-demand LA drummer who has toured with  Ray Charles, Carmen McRae and other giants.

We met after their concert CSUF at the very conveniently located Marriott.

Paul had suggested we chat at the Marriot bar, but I decided to ask the concierge to schlep two more chairs up to my room – no ambient noise this time.  We talked until 1:00 AM.

Paul Kreibich, drums


Four hours of sleep the night before and eight hours on the road the day of – arriving depleted and running on fumes.  And because I talked too much at other sessions, perhaps I inserted myself not enough this time, overcompensated with too little.  But they were great!

So…will it get easier?  Yes, I have a learning curve.  I’m meeting with Shirley Biagi, an expert on the interview process, and I’m reading her book.  And I know that my innate knack for drawing people out (ask anybody!) coupled with my passion for jazz and its practitioners will win out.

I know it.


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Marian McPartland: The Idea Was Simple

I have a confession.

Marian McPartland

I’d probably heard her name before, but I didn’t really realize that Marian McPartland is – and has been for years – one of the most significant names in jazz and jazz advancement.  Perhaps it’s because I’m 23 and the generation gap is to thank for my cluelessness, but that’s really no excuse.  So… I’m going to go ahead and blame my mom for not making me aware sooner.  Yep.  You heard me.  I’m gonna blame the mother.

But moving on… a brief background on Marian (though “brief” won’t do her justice):  born in Britain in 1918, Marian – deemed a musical prodigy at three – grew up studying first the violin, then piano and continued with classical music into her late teens, attending the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London.  By the time she was 20, however, she had defected to American jazz, irritating her parents to no end.  Eventually, she settled in Manhattan with her husband, cornetist Jimmy McPartland, whom she’d met while touring with the USO during WWII.

Marian & husband Jimmy McPartland

In New York, she started her own jazz trio, which performed throughout the 50’s.  The trio enjoyed an 8-year residency at the legendary Hickory House, where jazz giants – Duke Ellington, Thelonious Monk, Benny Goodman, Oscar Peterson among others – would convene to hear each other play and egg each other on.  She was a much admired jazz pianist, her style, “flexible and complex,” an innovative improviser and an accomplished composer.

In 1964, she began a weekly program on WBAI-FM in New York which lead, in 1978, to Marian McPartland’s Piano Jazz on National Public Radio.  In her own words, “The idea was simple: to sit down at the piano with the best jazz artists in the world and record the conversation and music.”  Over 30 years later, after more than 700 shows with Marian playing host to everyone who’s anyone in jazz, the show is still on and still relevant.

Marian at the piano with Piano Jazz's very first guest, Mary Lou Williams

I’m afraid that even the pared down list of her guests will be too long but… eh, whatever:  Dave Brubeck, Tony Bennett, Mel Tormé, Chick Corea, Herbie Hancock, Christian McBride, Esperanza Spalding, Taylor Eigsti, Tierney Sutton, Diana Krall, Steven Sondheim, Eartha Kitt, Julian Lage, Bucky and John Pizzarelli, Willie Nelson, John Proulx, Ray Charles, Dizzy Gillespie, Sarah Vaughan… okay, I’ll stop.  But seriously, that doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface.

PLEASE go check this out: a tribute to 30 years of Marian McPartland’s Piano Jazz, with 30 of the greatest moments from the show.  You can listen to just the clips or go on to hear the full sessions, but it’s all incredibly entertaining.

Marian interviewing Ramsey Lewis

And just for fun, here’s a short interview with Marian, featuring some clips of her on piano, bits of Piano Jazz, and some fabulous old pictures.

Hats off to the incredible Marian McPartland!


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Guest Blogger Merrilee Trost on Chick Corea

Mother, Are You Insane???

Merrilee Trost and I “met” on Facebook during a heated political discussion which had developed as a result of something quite reasonable that Kellye Gray posted.  Someone took umbrage, and was nasty about it, Merrilee weighed in to stand up for Kellye… and I thought, “Hey I like this woman!”

So a dialogue ensued and after a couple of months she invited me to come down to Alameda, go to Yoshi’s and spend the night since the train schedule precluded a late night trip home.  When she picked me up at the platform, she told me her daughters – she has seven – were none too happy about her inviting a perfect stranger to stay overnight in the guest room: “Mother, are you insane???”

We both lived to tell about it and have been happily attending jazz performances ever since: Bob Dorough at Yoshi’s; also at Yoshi’s, the Tierney Sutton Band; Cheryl Bentyne and Mark Winkler at the Razz Room; Taylor Eigsti, Becca Stevens at Stanford.

A Bit About Our Guest Blogger

She suggests I describe her as: “Jazz enthusiast, friend to and supporter of jazz musicians and venues.”  (And by the way, as such, she’s been endlessly supportive of our project and we can’t thank her enough).

But the above does not suffice.

During the 70s, as a wife and mother in Detroit with an itch to do something good, Merrilee produced an impressive series of Big Band concerts.  She called it the “start of my whole new life,” and with determination, tenacity and chutzpah, she pretty much singlehandedly brought to town George Shearing, Buddy Rich, Harry James, Count Basie, Maynard Ferguson, Woody Herman, Stan Kenton, The Duke Ellington Orchestra with Mercer, Dave Brubeck and Sons, the original Dave Brubeck Quartet for their 25th anniversary concert and more.

She became friends with some of these legends and that’s how her jazz career started.  When the family moved to the Bay Area in ‘76, Dave Brubeck introduced her to the owner of his record label, Concord.  She went to work for them in 1980, starting with a rented typewriter on a TV table in the only space available – the warehouse.  She was there twelve years, having attained the position of Vice President of Promotions and Publicity by the time she left.

And there’s more:  On staff at the Monterey Jazz Festival for the past 27 years handling communications and public relations; on the road with noted stride pianist Judy Carmichael; worked for Etta James’ agent/manager, for Etta herself, for Cedar Walton, Charles Brown and others; hired by Monarch Record in ‘95 as their sole employee to grow the fledgling label – she did everything except record and manufacture the CDs; publicist for the Jazzschool in Berkeley in the mid-nineties; and in 2002, began producing concerts at Woodside’s gorgeous Filoli Gardens.

What we have in Merrilee is a passionate, indefatigable devotee, supporter and promoter of jazz.

So when I was unable to use a coveted ticket to see Chick Corea in Oakland, who do I call?  Merrilee, of course.  She was totally up for it and I told her that if she felt like it, she could take notes for me.  And so she did!


So, From Merrilee…

Chick’s Hands

Chick Corea, Christian McBride and Brian Blade walked quietly onto Yoshi’s stage with no fanfare.  The sound man, taken by surprise, quickly introduced them and the sold-out room burst into wild applause.  They looked cool: Chick sported a corduroy poet’s jacket, black turtleneck and slacks, Christian opted for a black tee-shirt with a picture of Mohammed Ali, a heavy silver chain with a peace sign, and jeans, and Brian looked collegiate in a tan sweater over a dark plaid shirt and black pants.

The guys opened with Chick’s own composition, “This is New.”  I had a great seat, over on the side where I could watch Chick’s hands.  They flew over the keys like wildly dancing butterflies.  Brian, grinning from ear to ear (à la Billy Higgins), added his deft touch on drums and Christian joined in with mellow bass tones.  It was seamless: Chick would start a phrase, then the bass and drum finished the thought.  Musical teamwork at its best.

After the first few tunes, Chick stood up behind the piano bench and thanked the audience.  When the audience thanked him back, he responded with a little tap dance before sitting down to Monk’s “Work.”

“Now He Sings, Now He Sobs,” a Corea original which he’s been playing since the late ’60s, was next.  (In 1999, the single of this tune was awarded the Grammy Hall of Fame Award.)  Building to a galloping crescendo, descending to a quiet bass solo (which elicited ‘yips’ from the audience), it ended with a high voltage drum solo.

A standing ovation brought them back to encore with Joe Henderson’s “Isotope,” a perfect ending to a perfect set.

Back Stage

I wanted to go back stage to get an autograph for a musician friend in South Africa who worships Chick but… no one was allowed back.  I met up with a saxman I know, Pete Yellin (who plays with the Bob Enos Big Band on Wednesdays in Alameda), and it turns out he used to play with Chick in the early days and was waiting to see him too.  He thought Chick would be coming out, but I found out he wasn’t.  Well you know me, Marty – I took the bull by the horns and asked the manager to tell Chick that his old pal Pete Yellin wanted to come back and say hello.  She came right back with the message to “come on in” and I scooted in on Pete’s coattails.

I spent the next hour delightedly eavesdropping.  They talked about their families and the years back in New York when they were part of the crowd of musicians who wandered in and out of the Sixth Avenue apartment/studio made famous in the book, “The Jazz Loft Project.”  It was the place to meet and jam for hundreds of musicians and artists like Monk, Miles, Mingus, Evans, and Coltrane.  Chick recalled that Pete had always revered Coltrane.  They talked about Facebook and Twitter.  Chick and Christian said they really weren’t into the social network thing.  No time.

We remarked on how great Chick looked.  He told us he and his wife had been looking at pictures of themselves taken in the ‘60s and decided they wanted to look like that again; he’d lost about 70 pounds in the last 7 months.  Chick joked, “In the beginning, there was the Word… and it was Fat.”  He’s eating healthy now and dug being able to go to one of his favorite vegetarian restaurants in Berkeley, Cafe Gratitude.

It was so much fun being privy to the chat, both musical and personal.  I was in heaven.

Oh yes… and Chick obliged me with an autograph, making one South African musician a very happy man.


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