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2005-02-23

BLUE NOTES By Buddy Blue

When I was a teen-ager, "Guitar Player" magazine was de rigueur reading among wannabe pickers. In those days before single-minded Satriani-veneration commandeered the once-esteemed publication, landmark axemen of every genre and generation were featured in its pages; several even wrote columns for the mag. It was here, as a tender lad, that I first discovered masters from Django Reinhardt to Andres Segovia, Les Paul to Mickey Baker, guitar greats I might otherwise never have encountered.

Bucky Pizzarelli, already a veteran jazzbo by this time, also used to write for "Guitar Player," tossing off technical terminology and advice with the insouciance of Bill O'Reilly mutilating political statistics; he seemed for all the world to believe that playing elaborate Charlie Christian solos was a matter routine as clipping one's toenails.

When I finally heard Bucky plucky, his nonchalant 'tude made sense: Pizz-picking is elegant as a Faberge egg, slick as a drum o' silicone, tasty as a sack fulla hot Krispy Kremes and always - always -- flawlessly musical, each note performed in perfect service of the melody, even in the context of outré bop improv. To top it off, his phrasing was so effortless you could envision him casually glancing about the room or harboring lurid fantasies of Julie London wrapped in gauze as he performed these sweet licks, as if it all were all demanding as putting on his socks.

It was quite a surprise when Bucky-sprog John Pizzarelli surfaced in the early '80s playing jazz guitar in a style anathema to dear old Dad's, with an aggressive attack that owed as much to rock 'n' roll as Bucky's highbrow control and restraint. Since then, of course, John has become a star in own right.

Although both Pizzarellis play oddball seven-string guitars and Bucky must surely have had an influence on his son, that sway isn't as significant as one might imagine. John was an independent- minded music lover, admittedly enamored of Peter Frampton (?!?) in particular. John-Boy journeyed wherever his ears took him, even if Pops might wince at times. You see, unlike the fruit of his loins, Pizz the elder scorned most rock & pop, even though his early studio adventures found him sitting in on many such a session - that's Bucky playing on Brian Hyland's "Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini." HAW! No wonder the guy hated pop music!

Fear not though, elite jazz lovers, for Bucky will ducky any such yucky upchucky when he plays the San Diego Jazz Party, also featuring Houston Person, Jr., Ken Peplowski, Mundell Lowe, Joe Wilder and much more, Friday through Sunday nights at the Del Mar Hilton.

When Judy Henske first surfaced in the early '60s, she became known as "Queen Of The Beatniks." That's because, aside from having a skull-rattlingly powerful voice, her performances encompassed everything from beat poetry and stand-up comedy to method acting and performance art. Her influence on acts ranging from Janis Joplin to Tom Waits to Bette Midler is incalculable.

Well, then Judy got pregnant, got married and retired from music for almost 30 years. Her fans were greatly displeased. Sam Cooke biographer Daniel Wolfe opined that Henske had "put the whorehouse back into the blues." Dave Marsh said she was "beyond all categories except "legendary" and "great." She became a recurring character in the novels of creepy old Andrew Vachs. A cult of frustrated Henske- mania took root. And so, five years ago, Judy The Cootie belatedly un-retired.

This is when, with all the presumptuousness I could muster, I contacted Judy Henske, whom I had never met, to demand that she come to San Diego and record a duet with me. To my shock and delight, she graciously consented. That's the kinda gal Judy is. We became close friends. Judy even invited me to play on her new album, "She Sang California." Sometimes, I sit in with her and superb keyboardist husband Craig Doerge when they play live, and I will be doing just that when Henske and Doerge play Friday night at Dizzy's.

Yes, I realize it's unseemly to preview a show I'll be directly participating in but I'm doing it anyway, so there. That's because no one else is writing about this concert that I'm aware of, and people deserve to

know about Judy Henske, whose music can be life-altering. I've worked with dozens of singers and musicians in my life, and I assert without reservation that this woman is the single most uniquely talented performer I've ever encountered. I guarantee that you'll walk away from Henske's show uplifted if not downright awed by the experience - even as you mutter that she certainly could have hired a more proficient guitarist to accompany her.

Also recommended this week: shake that thang with New Orleans' horny heroes Rebirth Brass Band, Wednesday night at Winston's; make yer feets happy with Little Charlie & the Nightcats, jumpin' west coast blues at its very best, Saturday at Humphrey's Backstage Lounge.

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By Buddy Blue In this, the 21st Century (that still doesn't sound right to me), veteran vocal harmony group Manhattan

Transfer comes off as more archaic than ever, for better and for worse. Emphasizing such embarrassingly antiquated values as technical virtuosity, appreciation of music history and the recognition of jazz as America's most significant resident artform, the quartet seems about as phat as the Olson Twins' ankles.

This is not necessarily a bad thing of course, as contemporary domestic pop culture becomes increasingly pitiable each year. And there's no denying that when at its best, Manhattan Transfer can positively dazzle with exciting, precision harmony that recalls the halcyon days of Lambert, Hendricks & Ross - widely acknowledged as the Rosetta Stone of jazz vocals.

On the other hand, the Transfer at low ebb can sound so scrubbed-up and sterile you'd swear you're enduring a 1955 jingle for Wonder Bread. Some jazz critics have dismissed the group -- Alan Paul, Janis Siegel, Tim Hauser and Cheryl Bentyne -- for being technical wizards whose taste in material has been questionable, and for sacrificing soul and feeling at the expense of homogenized perfection.

I once discussed this perception with Paul, and while he was well aware of the rap laid on the Transfer, he vowed that the group would never change its stripes to placate its critics.

"You know what? Tough -- too bad," Paul spat. "We've been confronted a lot with that. You know, when we put this group together, we decided to be eclectic. Instead of censoring what we liked, which was in a lot of different areas, we said, 'Let's just do what we feel is good.' There's always those people, the jazz snobs, who are purists and will only be into jazz. They said, 'You should only do this music, you shouldn't do 'Boy From New York City.' We look at them and say, 'Why not? Don't you see the joy and validity in that music?' To us, what's most important is the spirit of the music."

Paul failed to recognize part of the critique, though. Aside from issues of genre, the rub remains that Manhattan Transfer's performances themselves have been perceived in some quarters as erratic. For example, the group laid down perhaps the most gorgeous, heartfelt version of the old doo wop chestnut "Gloria" known to mankind, yet their hit cover of the Ad Libs' "Boy From New York City" was stripped of all the original's raucous attitude, sounding like a suburban high school glee club.

Yet at the end of the day, Manhattan Transfer is indeed a jazz group at its core, and a superb one when the mood strikes. Even their lesser releases boast a golden nugget or two, and such albums as "Vocalese" and "Swing" have been universally praised, even by the snoot-in-the-air jazz elitists Paul resents.

The group's new album, "Vibrate," is a more typically hit-and-miss affair. There's sweet, subdued pop to please the most diehard Perry Como fan, but then the fireworks fly to stunning effect -- particularly from the throat of Bentyne; for my money, the most gifted Manhattanite -- on a thrilling rendition of "Tutu," the Miles Davis-associated tune.

This formula - red-hot stunt vocals existing side-by-side with antiseptic bluehair euphony - has resulted in Manhattan Transfer's most commercially successful efforts, albums such as "Extensions" and "Mecca For Moderns," which sold in huge numbers to the unwashed masses even as they put off more discriminating listeners. One might liken the Transfer's career trajectory to Eric Clapton eternally going through his "Lay Down Sally" period: okay, that's a real cute little ditty and all, but we know what you're really capable of laying down so don't cop out on us, dude!

Whatever they endeavor, Manhattan Transfer has always been keenly influenced by and aware of the great vocalists who preceded them, from vocalese architects such as King Pleasure and Eddie Jefferson to scat masters like Ella Fitzgerald and Mel Torme down to such R&B pioneers as Jackie Wilson and Sam Cooke. Paul is particularly disheartened by America's lack of interest in and regard for its own musical legacy, and the ever-increasing move towards music as pure commerce as opposed to art.

"There seems to be a real disregard for musical history, for artistic history," he said. "Sometimes it really irks my ass. There's a lack of discipline. We live in such a fast-paced, technologically-advanced society now. All the record companies now are corporate, run by lawyers and accountants. A lot of

younger people really are growing up with a whole different sensibility -- which is fine -- but I also think it's important to understand the roots of American music. Jazz is American-born. It's so much a part of our culture that even rap music comes out of it in a sense, the whole idea of poetry against rhythm."

Ironically, Manhattan Transfer was in some respects years ahead of the game on a couple of recent musical trends -- the group had been performing swing since it's 1972 inception, decades before zoot suit posers hijacked the music, and they also helped set the stage for such bland but wildly popular modern jazz vocalists as Norah Jones and Jane Monheit.

That the Transfer's "Swing" album or Siegel and Bentyne's respective solo albums failed to sell in numbers anywhere near those of Jones or any Big Daddy bands' is a cruel example of just how unfair the music business can be, but no matter: Manhattan Transfer will keep on singin' and swingin.'

Manhattan Transfer, February 25th at East County Performing Arts Center, 210 E. Main St. in El Cajon, 7:30 p.m., $39 - $49, 619-440-2277.

Sidebar: IF YOU LIKE MANHATTAN TRANSFER, CHECK OUT THESE OTHER ARTISTS

KING PLEASURE Smoothest and sexiest of all the vocalese performers - a style in which lyrics are written and sung to the solos of jazz instrumental passages and solos - Pleasure recorded what went on to become the standard of the genre in 1952's "Moody's Mood For Love" (based on San Diego jazz legend James Moody's 1949 sax improv on "I'm In The Mood For Love"). With a voice like oiled velvet, an elegant, handsome countenance and charismatic presence, it's a mystery why the King didn't enjoy a longer reign; he faded into obscurity by the mid-'60s and died a forgotten man in 1982. IMPORTANT NOTE: a homely, corpulent, talentless Englishman brazenly took the name "King Pleasure" as his own during the neo-swing movement of the '90s; accept no substitutes and beware at all costs of this contemptible imposter's feeble intonating.

LAMBERT, HENDRICKS AND ROSS This group - universally lauded as jazz history's finest vocal act - was the template for Manhattan Transfer, but no one ever accused the trio of laying down safe, sanitized music. Parlaying stunning vocal acrobatics featuring difficult bop harmonies and scatting with sly lyrics, beatnik style and oodles of sex appeal in the person of Annie Ross, LH&R stood as the singing counterparts to a Charlie Parker-Dizzy Gillespie-Bud Powell jam session. All three singers also pursued solo careers (Ross, in particular, cut some amazing sides) but their greatest magic was created as a team. John Lambert was killed in a 1966 car crash; Annie Ross and Jon Hendricks remain semi-active to this day.

EDDIE JEFFERSON The architect of if not the first recorded exemplar of vocalese, Jefferson had a rough, hoarse timbre and limited range as compared to the above performers. Still, he created the style and wrote the oddball lyrics to the classic "Moody's Mood," plus such other landmark vocalese selections as Bird's "Parker's Mood," Coleman Hawkins' "Body And Soul" and Miles Davis' "So What." Jefferson's recordings are all fascinating and enjoyable even if his vocal prowess doesn't match that of his contemporaries. The longtime Moody collaborator was shot dead outside a Detroit nightclub in 1979.

THE MODERNAIRES Swing-era quartet perhaps best recalled for their work with Glenn Miller (check them out on such hits as "Chattanooga Choo Choo," "Kalamazoo" and "Jukebox Saturday Night"), the Modernaires also worked with Paul Whiteman, Ozzie Nelson and Frank Sinatra as well as recording dozens of sides under their own name. Terrifyingly whitebread, the group nonetheless created walls of lush harmony and influenced everyone from the Hi-Los in the '50s to the Swingle Singles in the '60s to Manhattan Transfer in the '70s - the Transfer even recorded a near note-for-note cover of the Modernaires' version of the standard, "Candy."

THE SKYLINERS If you prefer your doo wop on the meticulous/graceful side (as opposed to the raw 'n' greasy offerings of pioneering black acts like the Cadillacs and the Crows), this is the group for you. Lead singer Jimmy Beaumont had a magnificent set of pipes featuring a tormented falsetto which soared all over the 1959 hit "Since I Don't Have You;" the follow-up, "This I Swear," was perhaps even more dramatic. The Skyliners recorded a host of standards as well as doo wop fare; Beaumont still fronts a group comprised of ringers calling itself the Skyliners, which remains active on the oldies circuit.