WBGO Blog
  • Guitarist John Pizzarelli with Michael Bourne

    January 22, 2013. Posted by Tim Wilkins.

    Guitarist John Pizzarelli talks with WBGO's Michael Bourne about his new memoir, World on a String, and participation in a concert to benefit the LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts on January 28. The concert will honor Justin DiCioccio, who helped create LaGuardia's jazz performance program more than thirty years ago. Enjoy!

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  • Bourne's Favorite George Gruntz Recordings

    January 15, 2013. Posted by Michael Bourne.

    I traveled with George Gruntz in the fall of 2000. He performed his project "Turkish Night" first with the WDR Big Band in Cologne, then with the George Gruntz Concert Jazz Band (GG-CJB) in Lausanne, Bern, and Zug, Switzerland.

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    George loved to spotlight "The Lucifers" -- what he called the GG-CJB trombone section. Here's a piece I especially enjoyed, composed by trombonist Dave Bargeron and arranged by GG, "Valencia," featuring some of his favorite soloists. Chris Hunter, alto sax, was the band's concertmaster and played even fragments of music in the rehearsals with astonishing intensity.

    Larry Schneider, tenor saxist, was the band's loose cannon and in the concerts sometimes his solos twisted the band into suspensefully unexpected directions. Soloing also were Sasha Sipiagin, trumpet, Danny Gotlieb, drums, and the climax of every performance was an often fierce battle of the bones between Dave Bargeron and Luis Bonilla.

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    Here's a highlight from "Turkish Night" performed at the Stadtgarten in Cologne with the WDR Big Band in 2000. Soloing were pianist Frank Chastenier, tenor saxist Rolf Romer, alto saxist Heiner Wilberny, and drummer Adam Nussbaum.

    During rehearsals, as the first tunes were being played, the band kept breaking down trying to swing together in the difficult (for Western chops) traditional rhythms. After one of the breakdowns, Adam Nussbaum looked at me and, laughing, said "This ain't 'Satin Doll!'" They all eventually swung wildly.

    Habib was the singer, discovered by Turkish master musician Burhan Ocal in Izmir, where he'd sing when his fellow tobacco workers gathered at a teashop. He was traveling for the first time away from his town and his country. He was a large fellow, wearing an ill-fitting woolen suit. He was sweetly shy singing an ancient love song. He shook the building.

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    GG first performed his "Chicago Cantata" in Chicago with local gospel singers, the great tenor saxist Von Freeman, blues pianist Sunnyland Slim, and The Sons of Blues. Sterling Plump wrote the lyrics, sung by Billy Branch, blues harmonica, and Carl Weathersby, blues guitar. "All Day, All Night" was recorded by the WDR Big Band, with Billy, Carl, and John Marshall soloing on trumpet.

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    George also toured China, and one reason he was able to tour China was that, though most of the band were Americans, was that George himself was Swiss.

    During the tour, a German TV unit made a documentary. One of the reporters asked some school children if they liked jazz. They all nodded enthusiastically. "Who's your favorite jazz artist?" asked the reporter. "Michael Jackson!" shouted one of the kids. George was amazed that most of his audience was totally unaware of jazz, all the more amazed by the tumultuous cheering for the music.

    Here's how one of the concerts opened, with a piece called "Literary Lizard," composed by Ray Anderson and arranged by GG, with solos from tenor saxist Sal Georgianni, trumpeter John D'Earth, trumpeter Lew Soloff, and bassist Mike Richmond, introduced (in Chinese and in English) by Li Quiang. I came up with the album's title, Beyond Another Wall. I was in Berlin for the Jazzfest when the Wall was falling, and George Gruntz was breaking down another Great Wall.

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  • Michael Bourne Remembers George Gruntz

    January 14, 2013. Posted by Michael Bourne.

    George Gruntz passed on January 10th, 2013, after a battle with illness.  He was 80.  He was ageless.  He was lively to the end.  He'd only a month before recorded a new big band album in New York.  When he wasn't playing music, he was composing music.  And whatever he was doing, GG was living music.

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    George Gruntz was one of the most extraordinary musicians I've ever known.  He was born and lived in Basel, Switzerland.  He first came to America and played Newport 1958 as pianist in the International Youth Band.  He first became known in the jazz world as pianist in the European Rhythm Machine.  Henri Texier played bass, Daniel Humair played drums, and together in the 60's they traveled around Europe as the rhythm section for countless jazz greats,  including Dexter Gordon and Rahsaan Roland Kirk.  Phil Woods  loved playing with them so much, he commandeered the trio into his working quartet of the latter 60's.

    GG created, in 1972, a band of his own, the George Gruntz Concert Jazz Band, and many of the jazz greats he'd played with came to play in the CJB sections through the years, including Dexter Gordon, Joe Henderson, Lee Konitz, Larry Schneider, Chris Hunter, Kenny Wheeler, Franco Ambrosetti, Enrico Rava, Woody Shaw, Howard Johnson, Steve Turre, Ray Anderson, John Scofield, Elvin Jones … a flabbergasting who's who of jazz who all loved to play with George.

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    I became friends with GG in 1987 when he invited me to Jazzfest Berlin.  George was the festival's artistic director from 1972 through 1994 and often presented some of the most artistically visionary programs of all the jazzfests.

    One year he celebrated "Serious Fun" and gathered some of the world's greatest accordion players.  Other years  featured improvising orchestras, a variety of jazz violinists, the Hammond B-3, and even singers.  I say "even" because the Berlin audience infamously boo'd singers off the stage, but not that year of Jazzfest Berlin.  Dianne Reeves, Greetje Bijma, Michel Legrand, the New York Voices, and Dave Frishberg (I remember him getting an ovation for his song that is only names of old-time baseball players) were among the Berlin hits that year.

    GG also was composer-in-residence for the State Theatre in Zurich and often involved jazz musicians in his scores, including a production of  Hamlet scored only for a jazz drummer.  He also composed jazz operas, including a variation of  The Magic Flute re-located to New Orleans, Cosmopolitan Greetings  (with a libretto co-authored by Allen Ginsburg) about Bessie Smith and ecology, and Money (with a libretto by Amiri Baraka) about a jazz musician.

    Singers in his operas included Sheila Jordan, Dee Dee Bridgewater, Renee Manning, Ian Shaw, and Mark Murphy.  GG composed an amazing cornucopia of music: movie scores, ballets, concertos, and chamber pieces.  For one of his musical triumphs, he composed for hundreds of traditional drummers in his hometown Basel.

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    George loved best composing, arranging, and playing jazz.  And he could play anything, surprising anyone who thought a Swiss couldn't swing.  I remember a JVC New York tribute to Ellington when the pianist didn't show.  George sat in and was wonderful.  I remember a Jazzfest Berlin tribute to Kansas City when the pianist couldn't play.  George sat in and was wonderful.

    He delighted especially in traveling the world and being creative with musicians of other cultures.  He recorded with Bedouins in North Africa.  He was one of the first "mainstream" jazz artists to record with hip-hop artists, with a rapper and a scratcher on his album Blues 'N Dues Et Cetera.   He gathered some of the best  jazz, blues, and gospel artists  for his Chicago Cantata at the 1991 Chicago Jazz Festival.  George and the Concert Jazz Band became the orchestra playing the classic arrangements of Gil Evans when Quincy Jones conducted a Miles & Gil celebration at the 1991 Montreux Jazz Festival -- with Miles himself playing one of his last gigs.

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    I traveled with George when he created a Turkish project with Burhan Ocal, first with the WDR Big Band, then with his own GG-CJB.  George somehow got everyone to swing some of the most complex rhythms I've ever heard, and the highlight of every concert featured GG's setting of traditional Turkish love songs sung by a fellow from Izmir who earned his living hauling tobacco sacks but who sang — in microtones — so profoundly that the concert halls trembled.

    Of all his triumphs, the greatest happened in 1992 when George was the first jazz bandleader to tour modern-day China.    He insisted that the concerts not be only for consular officials, that the concerts be open to ordinary Chinese people.  He brought along Chicago blues players Billy Branch and Carl Weathersby with the GG-CJB, and when you hear the audience reacting to  jazz and blues , they were passionately cheering music most of them were hearing for the first time.

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    On the cover of the album from the China trip, George is dressed like a Chinese emperor and laughing.  And it's the laughing I'll always remember best.  George Gruntz was one of the most joyous people I've ever known.  He loved life, and you can hear happiness resounding in all of his marvelous music.

    - Michael Bourne