Monthly Archives: March 2012

Charlie Haden – The Complete Remastered Recordings on Black Saint & Soul Note

The five discs that comprise this singular boxed set speak not only to Charlie Haden’s brilliance as a bassist, composer, bandleader, and collaborator, but also to the vital position that the Black Saint and Soul Note record labels hold in the jazz cannon.

In the mid-1970’s, as many American jazz musicians struggled to find a stateside record label to record and release their work, Italian jazz lover Giacomo Pelliciotti stepped in to fill the void. His Black Saint label would be an independent haven for perennially under-recorded American artists like Billy Harper, Frank Lowe, and Old and New Dreams, the egalitarian quartet of Don Cherry, Dewey Redman, Charlie Haden, and Ed Blackwell.

The self-titled 1977 release by the quartet of former Ornette Coleman collaborators that opens this boxed set was Black Saint’s thirteenth release, and marked the beginning of Charlie Haden’s recording relationship with the label and its soon-to-be-formed sister company, Soul Note. It also unofficially marked the end of Pelliciotti’s ownership of the fledgling company. In late 1977, Giovanni Bonandrini purchased Black Saint, and within two years he created Soul Note, a label that would present more mainstream American jazz artists, along with a growing number of first-rate Italian improvisers.

On both their debut album and 1987 reunion concert A Tribute to Blackwell — both recorded for Black Saint — Old and New Dreams focus on delivering melodically-driven, open ended improvisations with a focus on group interplay that hearkens to their shared work with Coleman. The later album, a live concert taped at The Ed Blackwell Festival in Atlanta more than a decade after the former, revisits classic pieces like the Redman original “Dewey’s Tune,” along with several Coleman originals like “Happy House” and “Street Woman,” and finds Haden and Blackwell cutting a deep, swinging pocket below the flights of Redman and an ebullient Don Cherry.

Haden’s comfort among avant-garde and more mainstream camps made him a perfect fit for both the fledgling Black Saint and Soul Note labels. “Haden’s musical life is a varied one,” annotator Gary Giddens points out in the notes to Silence, the incredible Soul Note quartet date from 1987 that joins Haden with longtime collaborator Billy Higgins, the Italian pianist Enrico Pieranunzi and an inspired Chet Baker, “and it is a fact that there is no style of jazz in which he is not at home.”

Listening to the mix of standards, bop anthems, and originals that comprise Silence, it’s easy to hear why Giddens felt the need to explain Haden’s diverse musical proclivities to listeners only familiar with his groundbreaking work with Ornette Coleman. The feel of the album’s opener “Visa” — the Charlie Parker blues head — is breezy, uncomplicated swing, but seconds into Chet Baker’s lilting, masterful solo, it’s clear that the album is more summit meeting than mere blowing session. Haden’s light but insistent quarter notes fall easily in to the pocket of Higgins’ sizzling ride cymbal while managing to push ever so slightly as Baker and Pieranunzi deliver effortless, harmonically sophisticated improvisations.

The quartet’s performance throughout the album is uniformly excellent — a special highlight is Baker’s creative and poignant vocal and trumpet work on “My Funny Valentine — but their ensemble work on the title track — Haden’s original — is a high point. Against solemn chords and supple brushed percussion, Baker, Pieranunzi, and Haden deliver solos of unalloyed beauty.

Two-and-a-half years later — following the tragic death of Baker in 1988 — Haden, Pieranunzi, and Higgins once again gathered in Italy to record for Soul Note. The resulting album, First Song, closes the boxed set, representing Handen’s final recording for the record label, and stands as a remarkable document of the trio’s sublime rapport. As in the Silence session with Baker, the repertoire is heady mix of tin pan alley, bop standards, and singular originals by Haden and Pieranunzi, and once again, the band is on fire. Haden and Higgins’ connection is of course one of the most celebrated in jazz — beginning at the Hillcrest Club in Los Angeles with Ornette Coleman in the late 1950s — but Pieranunzi plays with the pair like he’s been there all along, delivering snaking right hand lines on Lennie Tristano’s “Lennie’s Pennies,” graceful waltz phrases on his origianal “Je Ne Sais Quoi,” and the perfect mix of pathos and uplift in the album’s namesake, Haden’s wonderful composition “First Song.”

Haden’s mastery as a trio performer and other-worldly ability to become one with the right drummer are immediately apparent on “Lonely Woman,” the iconic Ornette tune that opens Etudes, another late ‘80s Soul Note date. The bassist is joined here by another long-time collaborator Paul Motian on drums, and the young, daring pianist Geri Allen who follow Haden’s hypnotic strummed bass intro with ten minutes of gorgeous group interplay.

Despite being a relative newcomer in 1988, Allen plays like a seasoned veteran throughout the disc, notably on her original “Dolphy’s Dance,” a piece that finds her channeling Andrew Hill, Paul Bley, and Herbie Nichols while sounding utterly original. The fact that the trio had been gigging extensively in the lead-up to the recording session is evident in the driving, endlessly creative swing of Haden’s “Blues in Motion” and the sheer exuberance of Herbie Nichols’ “Shuffle Montgomery,” but the two takes of Motian’s original “Etude” catch the trio in highest flight, exploring an unadorned melody with passion, open ears and hearts.

This article will appear in print in the April 2012 edition of The New York City Jazz Record.

Mrs. Griffin’s Barbecue Sauce: A Middle Georgia Tradition

This article will appear in the April/May 2012 edition of Macon Magazine.

By Matt Miller

Aside from a slight, tangy aroma in the air, there is nothing about the nondescript building on Roff Avenue that hints at the culinary alchemy taking place within.

Entering through a side door into a production room abuzz with humming machinery and men working busily at a bottling machine, the scent envelopes — a vinegar punch amid the abiding warmth of mustard — and for any dyed-in-the-wool Middle Georgian, sets off an inevitable cascade of equally warm associations: spring picnics, long, languid summer days, and 4th of July fireworks.

For over 75 years, Mrs. Griffin’s has been in the business of spicing up smokey entrees in backyards, kitchens, and restaurants in Macon, and throughout the country, with a singular sauce that has garnered a devoted following. “We’re in the good-time business,” owner Roland Neel remarked on his product’s ability to lubricate any southern shindig. “Every one of these bottles is probably going to a good time somewhere.”

As the story goes, the company got its start in the early-1930s when Macon resident Mangham Edward Griffin decided to bottle some of his popular homemade barbecue sauce to sell at his brother’s grocery store in Warner Robins. Customers quickly cleared the shelves, and by 1935, Griffin decided to make the sauce his full-time vocation. Figuring that a woman’s name on the bottle would increase sales, Griffin named the sauce for his wife, Etta Busby Griffin, and Mrs. Griffin’s Barbecue Sauce was officially born.

Over the ensuing decades — as the company was passed on to Griffin’s daughters upon his retirement, then sold to Macon-resident Jim Wilcox in the 1990s, who in turn sold it to the current owner Roland Neel in 2010– the sauce and business model have stayed remarkably true to Mr. Griffin’s original intent. Indeed, since taking over the company two years ago, Neel has removed a number of ingredients that found their way into the sauce over the years, in order to make it as natural possible, in keeping with M.E. Griffin’s original kitchen recipe.

“It had some artificial dyes and colorations that I didn’t feel were necessary,” Neel explained recently as he placed plastic seals on the tops of 32 ounce bottles of the original sauce as they slid down the production line. “Now, it’s a very organic product,” he continued, “maybe thirty years ago that wasn’t as important in the market place, but today it is.”

Flanking him on his left and right side are Levi Crafton and Eddie Coulter, the two employees who oversee the production of every batch of Mrs. Griffin’s Barbecue Sauce from receiving the voluminous drums of powdered mustard, tomato paste, and garlic powder, to blending the ingredients in a series of stainless steel vats, all the way to packaging them for delivery to Walmart, Kroger, Ingles, Piggly Wiggly, and a host of other retailers. “These two guys are the heart of the operation,” Neel intoned over the din of the mixer and the hydraulic hiss of the bottling machine. “Levi has been here for a year and is really good at overseeing things, and Eddie has all of the history and the knowledge.”

Watching them expertly bottle and package the marigold-colored sauce, it’s easy to see why Neel insists the pair could do their jobs blindfolded. Eddie Coulter has worked at Mrs. Griffins for sixteen years — he was originally hired by Mr. Griffin’s daughters Jeanette Griffin Stevenson and Betty Griffin Barfield — and works from memory as he blends spices, programs machinery, and monitors PH. As he and Crafton methodically bottle and seal the sauce at a speedy clip, they trade recipes and reminisce about a visit to the factory by country star and Macon native Jason Aldean.

“The way it works,” Neel explains, turning from the bottling line to a trio of progressively larger stainless steel vats, “is the first tank has a really high performance engine, and we throw our solids in there, and it just purees them.” From there, the mix is transferred to a 300 gallon tank where it is heated slightly, and, finally, it is pumped into a massive 800 gallon tank where it is stirred vigorously. “It may take up to a week to go from start to finished batch,” he continued. Mrs. Griffin’s regulary produces 1000 gallons of sauce each week, and offer Original, Hickory Smoked, and Hot varieties that appeal to a wide range of palates.

Books have been written on the subject of barbecue sauces, their historic roots, and regional variants, and the staff of Mrs. Griffin’s have no shortage of opinions on where their sauce fits into the pantheon. The prominence of mustard in the recipe distances the sauce from its many counterparts in Macon that favor “tomatoey” tang, and firmly link it to the South Carolina school of mustard-based sauce that is invariably paired with pieces of smoked whole hog. The style is traced to German immigrants who brought centuries of success pairing all manner of pork products with mustard in Europe to their new homes in South Carolina in the 18th and 19th centuries.

It’s unclear what effect all of this history had on M.E. Griffin when he was mixing his first batch of barbecue sauce on a sweltering July day, but the initial and enduring success of Mrs. Griffin’s undoubtedly owes a debt to a centuries-old culinary tradition.

Of course, the nomenclature has evolved.

“You know what Mrs. Griffin’s truly is?” Neel asked rhetorically after a rousing discussion with his employees on glazing ability, marinade times, and meat parings: “It’s a mop sauce. It’s a real southern thing; you use it like ketchup. You put it on something after it’s cooked, or dip it in.” Eddie Coulter backed up this assertion, adding that one of his favorite uses of the sauce is as a dip for his homemade burritos.

As Roland Neel has stuck close to the classic recipe for Mrs. Griffin’s sauce, he has also been working hard to expand the company, by introducing his product into new marketplaces and diversifying the brand. “When we bought Mrs. Griffins’s, we were in one Sam’s Club in Macon,” he recalled. “Now we’re in four, and in thirty days, we’ll be in fourteen.” Neel spends much of his time on the road, hitting trade shows, and meeting with executives from national grocery chains.

In addition, he has introduced a private labeling division of the company that offers custom labels for businesses who want to sell Mrs. Griffin’s classic sauce under their own name. It is a marketing technique Neel has used successfully in his other business, a line of personal care products that are manufactured next door on Roff Avenue.

Mrs. Griffin’s private label products have sold as far away from Macon as California, Hawaii, and Alaska. Last month, the Allman Brothers Band ordered a run of Mrs. Griffin’s Original barbecue sauce with a custom “Eat A Peach” label that was handed out to VIPs at their annual run of shows at the Beacon Theater in New York City. “Bert Holman is a manager of the Allman Brothers, and he’s a barbecue freak,” Neel explained. “He loves Mrs. Griffins, and said that we have to get this for the Beacon show.”

The support of the Allman Brothers band is just the latest in a string of successes for Mrs. Griffin’s. Production and sales are up despite the economy, or as Neel surmises, because of it. When families cut back on vacations and restaurant trips, barbecue sales tend to spike, and that, along with Mrs. Griffin’s beloved status throughout the south and beyond, have led to a banner year for the company.

“The only reason we’re the oldest barbecue sauce in the southeast is because people love us,” Neel said with a smile.

Saxophonist Bill McHenry’s “Ghosts of the Sun”

Saxophonist Bill McHenry has spent a career quietly distinguishing himself as a warm and inventive saxophonist, a composer of carefully crafted, yet intuitive sounding originals, and a democratic bandleader. “Ghosts of the Sun” captures his celebrated quartet, with guitarist Ben Monder, bassist Reid Anderson, and the late, great drummer Paul Motian, at the height of their creative powers in late 2006 — blurring the lines where composition and improvisation meet with an unassuming and effortless intensity that few groups achieve.

McHenry’s vibratoless tenor introduces the plaintive theme to Ms. Polley, the album’s ethereally beautiful opener, with unadorned simplicity. Motian is right there with him, delivering light ride cymbal taps while marking a fluxing time feel with a swishing hi-hat and a quietly accented snare commentary that bobs and weaves around Anderson’s earthy bass tones, and Monder’s dreamy chord colors. The performance transitions almost imperceptibly from one composed or improvised idea to another with a stop-and-start feel that manages to enhance the uninterrupted fluid motion that the band strives for. During the opening and closing melody statements, McHenry, Monder and Anderson pause frequently in mid-flight — letting a sustained note decay — before Motian restlessly sets the ball in motion with a quietly propulsive phrase.

McHenry has the estimable distinction of being known as much for what he doesn’t play as for what he does, and the nine originals on “Ghosts of the Sun” reveal him at his restrained best. A focus on tonal purity and emotional precision mark his work on the delicate title track, along with the atmospherically melancholic Lost Song, standing in, seemingly, for the superfluous runs and technical displays that would be all too easy for McHenry to employ. Even on tour de force pieces like La Fuerza and Roses II that feature athletic runs and fiery growls, it’s hard not to get the sense that McHenry is parceling out his doses of gutteral catharsis — parsing and editing his improvised phrases, and waiting for just the right moment to unleash a torrent.

His partners share his quick wits and knack for episodic invention, along with a devotion to unadorned melody. On Little One, McHenry delivers the straight eighth note melody in a deliberately rigid manner, contrasting with Monder, whose initial unison line grows into a series of sweeping arcs as the leader continues playing variations on the melodic theme underneath. Even at its most free-associative, this emphasis on melodic invention is ever present. A little more than a minute into William III, McHenry banishes all semblance traditional harmony and static rhythm with a blistering pentatonic line that is followed by a probing, emotive solo that owes more than a little debt to harmolodics, and sets the stage for Monder’s blistering, distorted guitar.

A print version of this article appeared in the March 2012 edition of The New York City Jazz Record.