Jazz On The Web: All Things Considered

This past week, I've taken a vacation from the strict jazz canon in order to consider roots, influences, variations and the graftings of musical limbs. When I get these notions, I have a few reliable starting points, then I follow, like the music, wherever the trail leads.

Last week, quite by habit, I was browsing http://www.npr.org, one of my favorite sites, it being, of course, the home of National Public Radio in the U.S. A former journalist, I'm also a fan of its various news programs, and many are the occasions when I've been behind the wheel of my car, listening to "All Things Considered," or "Fresh Air" or "Morning Edition," and have been struck by the "bumper" music that fills in the spots between news segments. Sometimes the bumpers are directly related to the upcoming report, but, just as often, they are not, and as a motoring consumer, I've frequently arrived at my destination with the strains of an unidentified melody or arrangement dogging my memory. The effect can last for days, sometimes months.

Last week, my prospecting unearthed this nugget: http://www.npr.org/programs/asc/ . Bookmark it and visit it often, for it is sure to provide you with hours of instructive listening. "All Songs Considered" is a fillip from the NPR organization, and a welcome one it is. Recognizing the value of what had been the radio equivalent of packing material, the NPR folks have made available an archive to assist listeners who are not only eager for information, but sharp of ear.

The feature has a bit of an odd arrangement, but that's fine with me, because it's all the more eclectic for its eccentricity.

Briefly stated, the music is gathered into episodes, each of which might include as wide a range as that represented by Stan Getz, Bob Dylan, Johann Sebastian Bach and an unknown group of head-bangers from the middle of the continent.

The site also provides an artist directory, if one wants to explore in specifics or browse the names of the unknowns. There are other dividends, including the choice of listening only to audio or of viewing a slide show of images relevant to the takes.

A caveat: Some of the links I encountered were broken, or not yet constructed. Yet the experience was instructive and filled my need for research. Additionally, it underscored my original premise about the different paths of jazz and the confluences of musical genres that have enriched all our lives. At the very least, if you hear a strain that won't leave you, the site can at least provide the title of the piece and the name of the artist.

Here's some of what I learned in a series of desultory lucky dips from this musical cornucopia:

-- Bix Beiderbecke's "Singin' The Blues 'Til My Daddy Comes Home" exists in a much clearer format than my cassette-taped analog version. The three-and-a-half-minute cut is a gentle cakewalk of a tune that offers a wonderful glimpse at the first generation of recorded jazz heroes.

-- The Blue Man Group's "TV Song," featured in the group's unusual television commercials for Intel Pentium processors, is not exactly jazz, but their habit of using custom-made instruments pulls the selection right into the arena where one can imagine Miles Davis having a go at it during his late period.

-- Richard Bone gives us a slice of almost-soul jazz with a bluesy, electronic-driven "Amorita Drive," a cut that really grabbed my attention. And as a natural-born skeptic about the marriage of electronica and ambient music with jazz, this is no small admission for me.

-- Corky Siegel, harmonica-playing bluesman from Chicago, has continued his experiments in melding classical elements with the folkier elements of the blues by recording "Complementary Colors" with his current group, Corkey Siegel's Chamber Blues. This was a refreshing cut for me. Years ago I owned a vinyl LP on the prestigious Deutsche Grammophon label that featured Siegel and his partner, Jim Schwall, in a performance of "Three Pieces For Blues Band And Symphony Orchestra" by William Russo, with Seiji Ozawa conducting the San Francisco Symphony. This piece unites Siegel and his current partners with the West End String Quartet, a group unknown to me, but perfectly suited to the task demanded by this outing.

-- Italian guitarist Giovanni de Chiaro has transcribed the 52 piano rags of Scott Joplin for the guitar and offers us one on "Solace: A Mexican Serenade." It is delightful, especially to those of us who pick up the guitar every now and then.

-- Stan Getz recorded a live version of Billy Strayhorn's "Blood Count." It is gorgeous. And it is the only rival to my longtime favorite rendition of this composition, done by Stan's fellow tenor man and my longtime hero, Joe Henderson, on his "Lush Life: The Music Of Billy Strayhorn" recording. The Getz recording equals the reverence of Henderson's. With such a lovely melody, it's hard to understand how "Blood Count" has been so overlooked.

-- Norah Jones is a singer-songwriter who grew up in Texas with an unusual pedigree: she is a daughter of master Indian sitarist Ravi Shankar, one of the most revered musicians in the world. But Jones' "Don't Know Why" gives us a whiff of the jazz-torch song-folk-country-pop influence with which her father is not identified. This gal bears watching. It would be nice to have, say, pianist Bill Evans alive and well and ready to take a run at this composition.

-- The late Israel Kamakawiwo'ole was a native Hawaiian who took a couple of standards -- the Judy Garland evergreen, "Somewhere Over The Rainbow," and the spirit of jazz saint Louis Armstrong's take on "What A Wonderful World," put them together with a ukelele and brought a different ethnic sensibility into their service. Pleasant listening.

-- Wynton Marsalis surprises with a quirky arrangement to match the quirks of composer Thelonious Monk on Monk's "We See."

-- Clarinetist Artie Shaw's "Dr. Livingston, I Presume" is just what you'd expect from a master reed man.

-- Ali Farka Toure, guitarist, gives us "Hawa Dolo," which, as host Bob Boylan quite cannily points out, demonstrates "how his country, Mali, shaped the blues and how the blues shaped his music." Toure also offers some vocals here, and the experience is a deep, deep plunge into the musical ancestor of jazz.

-- Los Zafiros (The Sapphires), a 1960s group that, paradoxically, made a success in Cuba with American star trappings, offer up "Cubana Bossa," a tune that reminds jazz fans of the influence, however peripheral, of the Latin and South American genres during that strange musical era. Remember Sergio Mendes and his various "Brasil" groups? I know a good many today's jazz fans who were attracted beyond pop by our friends south of the border.

"All Songs Considered" also offers guidelines for the submission of independently produced music, some of which has made it into this very fertile archive. It's a grand run of fun to spend a week looking into the "bumper" crop of interesting music. I intend to visit the site often. I hope you do, too.