Happy Birthday Week, Pops! Let's Celebrate with Some Herb (and Buddy and Binney, Too)
A clutch of jazz artists celebrate milestone birthdays this week — from Louis Armstrong (120) to Herb Ellis and Buddy Collette (100) to David Binney (60). So this edition of Take Five is a party sampler: one track apiece, for a total of eight. But who's counting?
Louis Armstrong and His All-Stars, "When It's Sleepy Time Down South"
As long as he lived, Louis Armstrong maintained that he was born on the Fourth of July — note how Ed Sullivan wishes him a happy birthday at the top of this television appearance, from July 2, 1961. What follows is a truncated version of Armstrong's theme song, with a customary sign-off: "Good evening, everybody!" The exuberant goodwill is no less welcome on Armstrong's actual birthday, Aug. 4. This year is his 120th, and Mosaic Records marked the occasion with another essential boxed set.
Buddy Collette Quintet, "Soft Touch"
It was a concert by Louis Armstrong, which he attended with his parents, that set young Buddy Collette on his course as a jazz musician. His centennial falls on Aug. 6, and if you know anything about his career, you're likely to know that he went on to play in the Chico Hamilton Quintet, and with Charles Mingus, Benny Carter and others. "Soft Touch," a tune whose title could apply to much of Collette's output, appears a few times in his discography; this version led off the 1958 album Buddy's Best. Opening in a Third Stream mode — with chamber counterpoint and a pair of finger cymbals played by drummer Earl Palmer — it leads into a coolly swinging mode. Collette takes a soulful flute solo, followed in turn by Gerald Wilson on trumpet and Al Viola on guitar.
Herb Ellis, "It Could Happen to You"
For a substantial portion of his celebrated career, guitarist Herb Ellis was best known for his role in the Oscar Peterson Trio, with Peterson on piano and Ray Brown on bass. Ellis played with many other jazz legends, and made dozens of albums — but it's no surprise that his 1956 debut album, Ellis in Wonderland, features Peterson and Brown in the rhythm section (along with drummer Alvin Stoller). Listen to this gorgeous interpretation of the standard "It Could Happen to You," and you'll hear why Ellis is still held in such high regard. (The clarinet obbligato behind him is courtesy of Jimmy Giuffre.) Ellis's centennial falls on Aug. 4; he died in 2010.
Lenny Breau, "Bluesette"
Speaking of impeccable guitar players: Lenny Breau was born on Aug. 5, 1941, which means he would have turned 80 this week. (He died prematurely, in 1984.) Breau grew up playing country-and-western music before gravitating to jazz — a convergence that brought him into the good graces of Chet Atkins, who got him signed to RCA. The Velvet Touch of Lenny Breau – Live! was released on the label in 1969, and this version of "Bluesette," the Toots Thielemans waltz, captures some of Breau's best attributes. (Catch the metric modulation that he initiates just after 1:40, shifting the song from an easygoing 3/4 to a brisk 4/4.) Ronnie Halldorson is on bass; Reg Kelln is on drums.
Airto Moreira, "Wake Up Song (Baiao Do Acordar)"
Airto Moreira, who shares a birthday with Lenny Breau, has been a brilliant percussive wellspring for more than half a century, since his teenage recordings with Hermeto Pascoal in Brazil. His solo album Identity, released on Arista in 1975, came on the heels of historically significant work with Miles Davis, Wayne Shorter and Chick Corea. The album was produced by Herbie Hancock, whose ARP Odyssey synthesizer can be heard on portions of "Wake Up Song (Baiao Do Acordar)," based on a rhythm from northeastern Brazil. (Shorter's soprano saxophone solo begins at 4:20.)
Howard Johnson & Gravity, "Tell Me a Bedtime Story"
Howard Johnson, who died early this year, is justly known for his authoritative presence on the low end — either on tuba or baritone saxophone, in bands led by the likes of Gil Evans or Carla Bley. Here's a track that showcases his prowess in the treble clef. It's a version of Herbie Hancock's "Tell Me a Bedtime Story," as performed by Johnson's ensemble Gravity — a sort of tuba choir, designed to highlight the beauty and agility of an instrument often seen as lumbering. Playing tuba on the track are Dave Bargerone, Joe Daley, Earl Mcintyre, Carl Kleinsteuber and Bob Stewart. As for Johnson, who would have turned 80 this week? He's the one on pennywhistle, diving like a swallow.
David Binney, "Modern Courtesy" (feat. Mark Guiliana & Tim Lefebvre)
Finally, this edition of Take Five drops on the 60th birthday of David Binney, an alto saxophonist and composer who has been at the heart of progressive improvised music in New York for the last three decades. Binney made his mark as a bandleader with an instinct for dynamic combustion — but he's also adept as a studio wizard, and has put that side front and center on a pair of new albums titled Aerial. Binney plays keyboards and electronics as well as saxophone on these albums, and welcomes the occasional guest — like bassist Tim Lefebvre and drummer Mark Guiliana, who join him on a track called "Modern Courtesy," from Aerial 2. Happy birthday, David!