Over the Transom


The first time I met John Hammond he regaled me by playing reel-to-reel tapes of unissued Artie Shaw and Joe Turner. This was back in 1969, and much of his desk, the top of the radiator, and just about every other flat surface in his office were stacked with white reel-to-reel boxes. Did they all contain such gems? Oh, God, no, he explained with a shudder; they were mostly over-the-transom or under-the-table offerings from unknown musicians and managers hoping to grab the attention of American music’s most fabled talent scout. He claimed he listened to them all and he probably did (Springsteen and Stevie Ray were in his future), but he seemed perfectly content if not transported as Joe Turner rumbled through “Roll Em, Pete” for the millionth rip-roaring time.

I am reminded of those stacks whenever someone slips me, as though it were contraband, a homegrown cassette or CD. A certain amount of mutual embarrassment invariably colors the transaction, which is instigated with a remark like “I’m sure you get these all the time, but…” or “Do you mind if…” or the increasingly popular “A friend asked me to…” Critics are not talent scouts, nor do they wish to be; we come later in the process, evaluating professionals, not amateurs looking for help or a kind word. I never know what to do with these gifts, though my silent response is usually, “Damn, now I’ve got to carry this around all night,” because I am too cowardly to throw it out. An angel sits on my right shoulder, warning, “It could be the next Bird,” while the devil on my left mocks, “Don’t be a chump.” The devil’s been around.

The hypocrisy is palpable. After all, one is delighted to discover talent attending a concert or auditioning a record on the smallest of vanity labels or even encountering an artist on a street corner. Maybe it’s the difference between asking someone out and being asked out: an outmoded male thing. Yet the material inconvenience is also real. One will blithely attend 20 concerts in search of the next Bird; but a stack of 20 cassettes and discs by guys with day jobs is onerous. Cassettes, of course, can be erased — waste not, want not. CDs are hairier. Someone actually went through the trouble not only to set up a microphone, but to hire a liner note writer — and an art director to make the liner notes unreadable, just like the pros. So I do give them a once-over; occasionally, I am rewarded, never more than on a recent book tour that focused on the Northwest.

In Spokane, someone handed me, on behalf of “a friend,” I’m Still Swingin’ by Arnie Carruthers, a 1999 disc on MNOP — a label, I subsequently learned, that no longer exists. I looked at the picture of the older fellow on the jacket, noted the tunes (“Satin Doll,” “Body and Soul”), and gloomily said, “Thank you.” By now, I was toting several discs from city to city, but the hotel clock radios played CDs and I began spinning them, thinking I could leave a few to keep company with the Gideons. Carruthers, a pianist, begins his disc with “Dearly Beloved.” Right off I was struck by his trio’s zest, a sparkling arpeggio leading into the second part of the tune, passing chords, and a rhythmic acuity that had him lean one way and then another without faltering. His technique is full-bodied, alternating block chords and steely 16th-note passages; he renovates a familiar theme like “Lush Life” with a thumbed bassline and romps with Peterson-Newborn dispatch. I listened to the album half a dozen times.

Then I looked at the liner notes and discovered the guy has one arm. His left side has been paralyzed since a stroke in 1974. I didn’t want to make too much of this, because the music is not gimmicky, and besides, I figured he overdubbed some of the basslines and chords, though I needed to make sure. Unable to find listings for the label, producer, or his usual jazz club venue (also defunct as of last year), I located him through a booker for Montana’s Glacier Jazz Stampede and got an emphatic “no” to the dubbing question. That might incline anyone toward a close listening for the wrong reason: not what he does, but how he does it.

As best I can tell, he’s developed a variety of voicings and tremendous speed in his right hand, allowing him a mobility that gives the illusion of a broad-range attack and makes possible his engaging interaction between single notes and chords, which would be no less engaging if accomplished with two hands. Consider the lovely substitute chords on “S’Wonderful.” He uses the pedals to keep tones in one register ringing while his hand shoots off to another octave. How he pilots the concurrent basslines or the rolling entrance into his solo on “Satin Doll” is something I would like to see, but probably won’t.

During our brief phone conversation, Carruthers said, “I feel like after 40 years in Spokane I finally have a connection with the outside world.” Actually, he is well known to musicians in the Northwest, and those from the outside world who have used him when passing through include Dizzy Gillespie, Joe Venuti, and Barney Kessel. Spokane did produce Jimmy Rowles, Don Sickler, and a couple of singers. But Carruthers is nearing 70, and I don’t see any impresario bringing him east in the near future. He is, however, sitting on the last hundred copies of the 1000 CDs pressed in 1999, and you can buy one by writing him at 10321 East Maine, #105, Spokane, WA 99206.

If Arnie Carruthers is unknown here, Larry Vuckovich, a big-cheese pianist and bandleader in San Francisco, is fondly remembered by many from his brief relocation here in the ’80s, when he entered the piano bar rotation for a time before heading home. Vuckovich, who was Vince Guaraldi’s protégé in the 1950s when the latter was getting started, records infrequently and never treads the same ground twice. City Sounds, Village Voices (1983) brought the lineaments of modern jazz to the traditional music of Yugoslavia; Tres Palabras (1990) did as much for Brazil. Young at Heart (Robbins-Tetrachord; try does the same for Lester Young. Except for the superb drummer Harold Jones, the members of the sextet are unknown to me, but the twin tenors of Noel Jewkes and Jules Broussard give the album the urbane flush of an abbreviated Basie reed section.

Broussard has the heavier attack and persuasively captures Herschel Evans on “Blue and Sentimental,” though he’s a little rhapsodic playing Young’s famous Keynote solo on “Sometimes I’m Happy.” Jewkes is a genuine find, a fluent Youngian on tenor and clarinet whose solos are long, sure, twisty phrases with surprising turns and knowing resolutions — dig his get-off and chorus on “Jumpin’ at the Woodside.” The album hits the doldrums with an uneventful — except for Jewkes — “She’s Just My Size” and an unnecessary vocal (by the bassist) on “Sweet Lorraine,” but is otherwise dapper, smart, and swinging, with Vuckovich displaying nearly selfless regard for the economy of Basie piano. He has arranged “Young at Heart” as a lyrical three-note riff with the tenors spreading like butter on the release.

Two more undercover discs I admire are Nicholas Hoffman’s Jazzy’s Dance (Jazz Friends, Bellingham, WA) and Nu Soul Zodiac by Gold Sparkle Band (Squealer, Blacksburg, VA). Hoffman may be an unknown guitarist, but his sidemen include the alternating organs of Dave Mathews and Joey DeFrancesco and long-time-no-see tenor saxophonist Hadley Caliman, who himself led a couple of obscure sessions in the ’80s. The quartet is occasionally cluttered, though the leader is shrewd enough to take his time and build orderly solos; the backbeat cuts — Willie Dixon’s “My Babe,” Larry Young’s “Backup” — are most effective. “This Can’t Be Love” has steady guitar, but could have used a second take to lose the corny tag ending, which undermines Caliman’s hip reference, just prior, to “Chasin’ the Trane.”

The four members of Gold Sparkle Band — altoist-clarinetist Charles Waters, trumpeter Roger V. Ruzow, bassist Adam Roberts, and drummer Andrew D. Barker — also know their Coltrane and their Ayler and Hill and Shepp and Zorn. And all those avant shadows tend to mitigate the overwhelming influence of Ornette Coleman, giving the ensemble a sound of its own, with centered pitch and buoyant rhythms (they know Eddie Blackwell, too) and a touch of klezmer. Only five of 11 selections are over four minutes, and all the pieces are focused, some to produce a single effect — the kinetic drum riff of “Double Bump,” the planned chaos of “Splintered Synapse” — while others are rendered dirgelike with arco bass and the addition of cellist Kim Lemonde. Ruzow growls and whinnies, but has a fat broad sound when he wants, and the musicianship is high all around.

The big question about outatown jazz is, How would it stand up in cities with heavyweight jazz populations, which presently appear to be New York, Boston, Chicago, and Los Angeles. When you are starved for good jazz on the road, you listen less for individuality than competence, and even fair players can sound great lording it over their own villages. Then when you get home, the thrill is gone. These discs sounded good on the road and they still sound good.