September/ October Column – Part 2

A. Appreciations

1. Roy Hargrove

Trumpeter and bandleader Roy Hargrove brought an individual brilliance and sparkling personality to his music, traits that allowed him to excel in any and all situations. They also enabled him to avoid the in-fighting and concerns over idiomatic purity that have bothered many of his contemporaries. Hargrove was beloved inside and outside the improvisational world, and his loss at 49 earlier this month was a huge blow.

His death, at Mount Sinai Hospital, was caused by cardiac arrest brought on by kidney disease according to his manager, Larry Clothier. He said Hargrove had been on dialysis for 13 years. His early musicial associates weren’t hardcore jazz musicians, but such artists as Questlove, Erykah Badu, Common and D’Angelo. Hargrove’s overdubs can be heard on seminal numbers records like “Voodoo,” by D’Angelo and “Mama’s Gun” by Badu.

But he never ignored, abandoned or forget jazz. His 1997 LP “Habana” was a masterpiece that magnificently combined American and Cuban musicians under the band name Crisol. It was an imaginative mix of Hargrove originals and compositions by jazz musicians past and present, and won the first of two Grammy Awards. The second came for the 2002 release “Directions in Music,” a live recording where he teamed with pianist Herbie Hancock and  tenor saxophonist Michael Brecker. Later came three LPs with RH Factor, a large group once again combining elements from different genres, though heavily influenced by ’70s sounds.

Over the course of his career, Hargrove led other small and large groups, and often hearkened back to the sounds he’d heard growing up in Texas. Sadly, the word had gotten out in recent months that his health was failing, even though he was still participating whenever able in jam sessions in Greenwich Village. But those problems eventually overtook him. Thankfully, so much of his music remains in print, especially one of his final triumphs, “Earfood,” another inspired blend of updated jazz canon tunes and originals infused with everything from touches of the blues to hip-hop inflections.

2. Sonny Fortune

Sonny Fortune had a swirling, forceful sound and distinctive approach on soprano, tenor and baritone saxes, as well as clarinet and flute. He’s a prime example of why the notion of approaching jazz from the standpoint of a handful of innovators and everyone else is the absolutely worse way to either understand or enjoy it. Fortune was never a star in that sense of the term, but he was a marvelous player, always in demand, and was involved in several memorable and important sessions throughout his extensive career.

Fortune, who died earlier this month in New York City at the age of 79, had been in ill health since suffering multiple strokes in September. His agent, Reggie Marshall, said the cause of death was complications from yet another stroke. Fortune had been at Mount Sinai Hospital since suffering a series of strokes in September.  But though he became a superb instrumentalist, Sonny Fortune began his musical career as a singer before he switched to saxophone in his late teens. He studied at the Granoff School of Music. He relocated to New York from Philadelphia in 1967, and one of his first major gigs came with legendary drummer Elvin Jones. Later he worked with Mongo Santamaría and vocalist Leon Thomas, as well as brief periods with trumpeter Nat Adderley and drummer Buddy Rich’s big band.

He had some exceptional contributions as a sideman to epic releases, particularly McCoy Tyner’s “Sahara,” and several early ’70s Miles Davis releases. His first album as a leader was a 1974 Strata-East session”Long Before Our Mothers Cried”  with trumpeter Charles Sullivan and pianist Stanley Cowell Then came two Horizon albums,  “Awakening” in 1975, and “Waves of Dreams” in 1976. Later he’d record for Atlantic, but those releases were less challenging. It wasn’t until the ’90s that Fortune would truly make the kind of albums his earlier prowess suggested were possible. These included a series of acclaimed Blue Note releases. Among them were “Four in One” in 1994, a Thelonious Monk tribute featuring Kirk Lightsey on piano. “From Now On”  was a 1996 date with pianist John Hicks, bassist Santi Debriano and drummer Jeff “Tain” Watts, plus special guests Eddie Henderson on trumpet and Joe Lovano on tenor saxophone.

In later years he played in a tribute band called 4 Generations of Miles, featuring guitarist Mike Stern, bassist Buster Williams and drummer Jimmy Cobb. Fortune also had a fine 2005 album “In the Spirit of John Coltrane.” His most recent release was a live album, Last Night at Sweet Rhythm,  a tribute to a Greenwich Village club, previously known as Sweet Basil.

3. Hamiett Blueitt

Hamiet Bluiett was arguably the most accomplished and versatile baritone saxophonist of the modern era. He passed Oct. 4 at St. Louis University Hospital in St. Louis, Mo at 78. His death  was confirmed on Facebook by two daughters, Anaya Bluiett and Bridgett Vasquez. Bluiett—who had worked since the 1970s as a leader and as a core member of the World Saxophone Quartet—had been battling severe health problems for years, having experienced numerous strokes and seizures.

Bluiett studied piano, trumpet, and clarinet as a child. He began his professional career playing clarinet, then embraced the baritone sax while attending Southern Illinois University. He played in the U.S. Navy Band and, upon his discharge, co-founded the Black Artists Group (BAG) in St. Louis, which was that region’s version of the AACM in Chicago,. Their performances mixed free jazz, dance, poetry, and experimental theater. He led the BAG big band for two years.

Bluiett moved to New York City in 1969, joining bands led by Charles Mingus and Sam Rivers. He periodically toured with Mingus into the mid-’70s. Blueitt was a co-founder of the majestic World Saxophone Quartet with Oliver Lake, David Murray, and the late Julius Hemphill (who has been succeeded by numerous saxophonists over the past 20 years). Their 1977 debut album “Point of No Return,” signaled that a new and formidable unit had arrived. Bluiett ultimately appeared on more than 20 WSQ releases, stretching into the current decade.

His debut album as a leader was “Endangered Species” in 1976.  Blueitt would record more than 20 albums for labels including Black Saint, India Navigation, Justin Time, and Soul Note. He also appeared as a sideman on recordings by Gil Evans, Abdullah Ibrahim, Anthony Braxton, James Carter, and others. Blueitt formed the Clarinet Family, a eight clarinet combo in the 80s, and the Bluiett Baritone Nation, consisting entirely of baritone saxophones and drums, in the ’90s.. In the 2000s he worked with a group of Connecticut music students, billed as Hamiet Bluiett and the Improvisational Youth Orchestra.

Bluiett returned to live in the St. Louis area in 2002. He moved back to New York 10 years later, but as his health failed, he made the final return to St. Louis.

B. Jazz Conversations: Christina Watson

Christina Watson is one of Music City’s most respected and in demand vocalists, both as a performer and instructor. She’s currently Jazz Voice Professor at Vanderbilt University’s Blair School of Music, as well as being on the faculty at the Nashville Jazz Workshop, where she directs the a cappella women’s choir The Nashville Belles. At Blair she also directs their Jazz Choir. In addition, she teaches privately at her home studio, and previously taught at Belmont University, Trevecca University, and Hume-Fogg.

Watson’s academic accomplishments include a BS in French from Centre College, an MS in French Literature from UT Knoxville, and a Professional Diploma in Vocal Performance (Magna Cum Laude distinction) from Berklee College of Music. She’s been the featured soprano in the vocal quartet 3rd Coast, and frequently performs with the Nashville Jazz Orchestra and NJO sextet. Her newest CD “So This Is Love” (Right Turn) will be spotlighted in the feature review section, and she does double duty this month as the latest subject of Jazz Conversations.

What got you interested in music and singing?
“I started singing  before I knew what it was. I sang along with the radio and people on TV and when “The Sound of Music” was broadcast on TV. I realize now how influential Mr. Rogers was with so much jazz on his show. When I was seven or eight, I was with my mom in a drug store and I was singing along with the song, “Xanadu,” which was playing over the speakers. Some lady from the next aisle came over to comment on how good I was. I do remember being embarrassed that someone had heard me. I have always noticed that singing makes me feel good. In seventh grade, I began taking piano lessons and was really excelling until I had to move away from my piano to go to high school, and that’s when I started singing in choirs.”

Why were you drawn to jazz, and what is it about the jazz tradition that most attracts you? 
“I watched the variety shows that used to be on TV back in the 70s, and I loved that sound. When the movie “When Harry Met Sally” came out, I was in high school, and I loved the music they used for the film. In the movie, I think they played a lot of Ella and some Louis, and then the actual soundtrack consisted of all jazz performed by Harry Connick, Jr. I wore that cassette out! A few years later came the soundtrack to “The Bridges of Madison County,” which was also a favorite of mine, and it introduced me to artists such as Johnny Hartman, Dinah Washington, and Irene Kral. Jazz felt like freedom to me, after studying classical music. I was in awe of how one song could be interpreted in so many different ways and how the meaning of the same lyric could actually change depending on the tempo, instrumentation, and phrasing.”

Who were some of the artists you either listened to or consider influences? 
“Ella Fitzgerald has been a huge influence from the beginning. Her effortless delivery of a huge range was something that really spoke to me. Later on, I became a big fan of Carmen McRae, not so much because of her tone, but because of her phrasing. She delivers a lyric like no one else. Anita O’Day has interesting rhythmic interpretation. Nancy Wilson’s attitude, Peggy Lee’s playfulness, Rosemary Clooney’s attention to melody and warm tone, Billie Holiday’s vulnerability, Mel Torme’s incredible improvisation, Chet Baker’s soft and simple vocal delivery, and Nat King Cole’s consistently gorgeous timbre and vowels have all influenced me. Contemporary vocalists that I love include Kurt Elling and Dianne Reeves. The list goes on and on.”

Do you also write songs and/or play an instrument? 
“I have written a little bit, both on my own and in collaboration with other people. Perhaps I will do more of that in the future, but it isn’t calling me right now. I play some piano, mainly to accompany students during lessons. I’ve never performed jazz on piano.”

Do you enjoy other idioms?
“I love all good music. I started out classically trained and have performed Puccini in China (with the MTSU Wind Ensemble) and the soprano solo in Mozart’s Requiem (as a student at Centre College) and Coronation Mass (while in France, finishing my Masters in French, but before going to Berklee the following year). While at Berklee, I studied all the genres I could, and I performed in ensembles centered around pop, R&B, country, and jazz. I love all music that is done well.”

What are some of your favorite albums? 
“I admit to skipping around while listening now, as opposed to sitting down and listening intently to an album, start to finish, with the songs carefully placed in an order that was designed artistically and purposefully, the way it used to be done. However, I think the “Nancy Wilson/Cannonball Adderly” album was pointed out to me early on. The “Carmen  Sings Monk” album is truly wonderful. “Chet Baker Sings” is one I listened to a lot starting out. I found the “Johnny Hartman/John Coltrane” album in Paris one day and absolutely fell in love. I used to have CDs and collections done by Ella et al, but I can’t remember them specifically.”

How would you assess the Nashville jazz scene over your time in it?  Have things gotten better, worse or stayed the same in regards to opportunities for jazz artists?
“I have seen several jazz clubs come and go in Nashville since my arrival in 2001. The Nashville Jazz Workshop’s venue, The Jazz Cave, has stayed the course. It is a real listening room, which, as an artist, I appreciate very much. I’ve done the background music gigs, but I don’t enjoy or seek those as much as those situations where it’s a concert and the audience is actually there to hear and connect with the musicians. Most everyone I know in Nashville who is doing music is performing and teaching, to some degree, in order to make ends meet and to have that balance that I, for one, enjoy. As far as opportunities for jazz artists go, I don’t think that it has gotten better or worse, per se, at least since 2001. I can’t really weigh in on what it was like before that. I think it might be unrealistic to expect a raging jazz scene in today’s Music City, but it’s certainly interesting to watch the evolution of the audience as well as that of the venues. Jazz is America’s only original art form, so I’m confident that it will always have a place here.”

How important has the Nashville Jazz Workshop been in the evolution of your career? 
Very. I arrived in Nashville in the Fall of 2001, having just graduated from Berklee the previous Spring. I went to a few coffee shop jazz performances, and everyone I met there said I should check out the NJW. I took the Cole Porter repertoire class that October and was hooked. As I mentioned, I studied a variety of styles at Berklee, so going through the classes at the NJW was what I would like to call my “Graduate Degree” work in jazz, specifically. I began teaching classes there around 2006.”

How would you characterize your new album in terms of differences between it and past projects?
“I consider this new album a true representation of me as a jazz artist. Of all the solo projects I’ve done, this one best reflects the music that I perform and teach on a regular basis. “So This is Love” is comprised of mostly straight-ahead arrangements of tunes from the Great American Songbook. I chose the songs based on material that I’ve been singing for years, and I threw in some new-to-me repertoire that fundamentally mirrors the journey through life that I’ve had so far. I’ve lived through some real heartache now. I think you can hear it. I’m less of a people-pleaser these days, which seems to enhance my performances, both live and recorded. The title track is a song from Disney’s “Cinderella” and is a nod to Dave Brubeck’s swinging take on the original waltz. I sing it, not necessarily to praise romantic love, but as a recognition of love and knowledge of one’s true self that so often comes after overcoming difficult circumstances.”

Do you plan to tour/promote it?
“As a single mom, touring is not really an option. I would love to do some radio promotion if finances will allow. I’ve received some delightful and enthusiastic praise from satellite jazz radio listeners in the past. I would like to get this project out there.”

What are some future things you’d like to do professionally?
“I have always wanted to go back and sing with a trio/quartet in France. I sang jazz for the first time ever with a community big band in Coulommiers when I was there in 1997-1998 while teaching English at the end of my French Masters work (just before starting at Berklee). I want to go back and sing shows comprised of bilingual material (Edith Piaf, Charles Trenet, etc.), for French audiences. I miss speaking the beautiful language and connecting with the people.”

Do you plan to permanently reside in Nashville or do you anticipate moving elsewhere down the line?
“I can see myself being based in Nashville for the long haul. It’s a great city, getting bigger every day, and my son is enjoying growing up here. I have truly wonderful friends here, and I’m excited to be on the faculty at Vanderbilt’s Blair School of Music, where I’m the Director of the Blair Jazz Choir, and I teach private jazz voice lessons. Of course, I still love teaching at the NJW. For ten years, I’ve directed a female community choir called The Nashville Belles. I have reached that point where I have put down some solid roots, and I really can’t imagine living anywhere else.”

C. Feature Review

Christina Watson
(So This Is Love)
Right Turn Records

In a city filled with outstanding jazz vocalists, Christina Watson puts her name in the upper echelon with an early candidate for 2019 LP of the Year. “So This Is Love,” while far from a throwback LP, is a welcome reminder of an era when the primary goal of any jazz based singer was putting a personal stamp on anything from the canon they addressed. Watson does that with flair and authority on 12 classics, bringing to each one something special that retains the original’s signature flavor, yet is far more than clever or mere replication of past efforts.

Watson’s an able melodic interpreter, and her diction and delivery are resonant and appealing. While personal favorites include the title track, “Devil May Care,” and “They Say It’s Wonderful,” a special nod goes out to the rendition of “My Favorite Things,” a number that’s now so identified as the trademark Coltrane instrumental it’s allure as a vocal number is often forgotten. Watson’s rendition is an elegant and enjoyable reminder that the tune’s original playful qualities was part of the classic “Mary Poppins” film. There’s plenty of sensuality and edge in Watson’s forays throughout “So In Love,” whether it’s the inviting edges in “What A Little Moonlight Can Do,” the expressive sensibility of “They Say It’s Wonderful,” or the declarative feel displayed in a triumphant version of “All Of Me.”

She’s also assembled a superb team of Music City stalwarts, Earlier this year during a three-way interview with Eric Dilts, the new executive of the Jazz Workshop, plus the husband/wife duo of bassist Roger Spencer and pianist Lori Mechem, they both told me one of the main reasons they were turning over the NJW’s day-to-day administrative reins was because they wanted to spend more time playing again. They sound refreshed and revitalized on every number, with Spencer’s bass beautifully recorded and adeptly anchoring things alongside Mechem’s delightful accompaniment. The great swing drummer Duffy Jackson is also on board, and the multi-instrumentalist Jeff Coffin offers a host of splendid solos. He’s especially invigorated on the intense soprano sax solo he provides for “My Favorite Things,” and equally impressive on multiple tenor solos interspersed throughout the rest of the session.

This is topflight material, delivered without any unnecessary embellishment or exaggerated tendencies on anyone’s part. Christina Watson’s a marvelous vocalist who takes a host of anthemic compositions and makes them fresh and engaging, backed by a quartet that sounds far more like a veteran unit that’s worked together for many years (they actually should think about making their own instrumental record). I’m confident “So This Is Love” will stand next to anything issued in any idiom over the next 12 months, and it’s most definitely a gem by Christina Watson and company.