Monday, December 8, 2014

Bandstand Christmas Essentials 3: Jo Stafford's Christmas Recordings

It is that time of year again, and as usual in the month of December, The Vintage Bandstand features a few articles about Christmas music. This third installment of the Bandstand Christmas Essentials concentrates on two very enjoyable albums by Jo Stafford—the compilation of 1950s recordings Happy Holidays: I Love the Winter Weather and her Capitol album The Joyful Season, originally released in 1964. Just like pretty much anything ever sung by Stafford, these are two worthwhile additions to any Christmas music collection.

Known for her perfect pitch and for being one of the favorite singers of servicemen during World War II, Jo Stafford is also one of the most interesting postwar pop vocalists, undoubtedly because of a singing style that mixed sweetness and sentiment with jazzy nuances. This is already apparent in her early 1940s recordings with Tommy Dorsey, both as a featured "girl singer" and as a member of the hugely popular vocal group The Pied Pipers. And for anyone who still may doubt her stature as a jazz vocalist, there is also Jo + Jazz, her outstanding jazz-inflected LP cut in 1960. But the objective of today's post is not to make a case for Stafford as a jazz singer, but rather to take a look at the exceptional Yuletide recordings that she made in the 1950s and '60s, which are readily available on two CDs that any serious classic pop aficionado should own.

The first of them is Happy Holidays (Corinthian Records, 1999), a collection of twenty-two songs that are loosely linked by their wintry theme. While some of them ("June in January," "Hanover Winter Song," "Let It Snow") explicitly mention the winter season, others simply evoke a setting that suggests the need to stay cozily indoors enjoying the warmth of a crackling fireplace (like Jo herself on the cover of this release), as is the case with "By the Fireside," "The Nearness of You," "I've Got My Love to Keep Me Warm," and "Moonlight in Vermont." This is possibly the main reason for the subtitle of the CD, I Love the Winter Weather, which is also a reference to Stafford's outstanding version of the tune "Winter Weather," which is also included. And then, of course, there are also plenty of Christmas songs, both traditional and more modern, such as "Sleigh Ride," "The Christmas Song," "Oh Little Town of Bethlehem," and "Silent Night," to name but four. One of the gems in the collection is the old traditional hymn "I Wonder as I Wander," which Stafford sings in a highly melancholy way that befits the song perfectly. Most of the tracks were recorded in the mid 1950s, and the arrangements by Paul Weston, Stafford's husband and lifelong musical partner, are as classy and thoughtful as usual. Weston's studio orchestra includes fine musicians such as Ted Nash, Babe Russin, and Ziggy Elman, and both The Starlighters and the Norman Luboff Choir lend choral support to the proceedings.

Almost a decade later, in 1964, when Stafford was slowly retiring from the music business, she entered the Capitol studios to cut The Joyful Season (DRG Records, 2005), a delightful classic that would become one of the last albums of her career. This time the idea was that Stafford would overdub her own voice several times, in the manner of the Les Paul and Mary Ford hit records of the 1950s, in order to create the illusion that she was singing as part of a vocal group. And, as Will Friedwald observes in the liner notes to the CD reissue, the idea was successful:

The overall result is a unique sound that combines the passion and the power of the sacred with the excitement and the energy of the secular—and a mighty welcome stocking-stuffer indeed.

Weston is again handling the arrangements, which are rather subdued so that Stafford's multi-tracked voice shines brightly on absolutely every song, and the tunes cover a wide range of Christmas music, from sacred hymns to modern Christmas pop songs to two songs newly written by Weston with Alan and Marilyn Bergman—the lovely "Merry Christmas" and "Christmas Is the Season." The CD release includes two tracks not on the original album ("Gesu Bambino" and "Ave Maria"), as well as two marvelous Christmas medleys on which Stafford teams up with Gordon MacRae. The disc closes with "Toys for Tots," which Stafford recorded for the Marine Corps, and the whole collection stands as G.I. Jo's most enduring contribution to the Christmas pop canon.

Jo Stafford and her husband, arranger Paul Weston, in the early 1950s

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Bing Crosby: An American Master Rediscovered in a New Documentary

American Masters: Bing Crosby Rediscovered, the new documentary on Bing Crosby's life and career that aired last night on PBS (and which my wife and I watched on their northwest Tennessee affiliate, WLJT) has a clearly revisionist agenda. And that, in the case of Crosby, is not just fine but absolutely necessary, for two main reasons. First of all, because of the infamous books published in the 1980s that consistently slandered his name and negatively affected his invaluable legacy, one of which was written by one of his own sons, Gary Crosby. And then, and just as importantly, because Crosby's importance as a cultural icon and musical innovator is often downplayed, the public at large regarding him merely as a singer of seasonal songs come the month of December. And this is precisely why the title of this documentary, embraced by the Crosby estate (wife Kathryn Crosby and their sons, Harry and Nathaniel, and daughter, Mary, have participated actively in the project), is so appropriate. Crosby is, indeed, an indisputable American master, and his legacy needs to be rediscovered and presented to younger generations that may never be exposed to him otherwise.

Rosemary Clooney and Crosby recording a radio show
All in all, the documentary succeeds in casting a different light on Crosby's legacy, and it is at once informative and entertaining, fast-paced and thoughtful in the way that it portrays Crosby's larger-than-life career and achievements. It benefits not only from the input of the Crosby family but also from interviews conducted with jazz critic and Crosby biographer Gary Giddins, singer and Crosby devotee Michael Feinstein, British producer Ken Barnes (who worked with Bing extensively in the 1970s), and also Tony Bennett, who throws in some interesting comments and memories of how much of an early influence Crosby was on his own singing style. Moreover, there are audio and video clips of old interviews with son Gary, early musical partner Al Rinker, bandleading brother Bob Crosby, and friend and duet partner Rosemary Clooney, among others. And then, of course, there is also a multitude of snippets showing the man himself in action, taken from movies, radio and television appearances, and interviews, as well as dozens of pictures, some interesting home movies, and Dictabelt tape reels that contain recordings of Crosby dictating personal letters. All of this contributes to painting a well-rounded picture of Crosby as a man and as an artist, two facets of his personality that have been long intertwined and difficult to untangle.

Bing and Kathryn Crosby in the 1970s
And this is precisely one of the positive aspects of the documentary: its insistence on underscoring the fact that there was a difference between Crosby's public persona—that is, the way that the public perceived him through his work—and his private self, and its claim that Bing should not be chastised for it. Indeed, that is the way it is with most artists and most people in general, but in the case of Crosby, his difficult relationship with his sons from his marriage to his first wife, Dixie Lee, as well as the gossip-column attitude of many who chronicled said marriage, has resulted in an unfair, slandering treatment of the man. Bing Crosby Rediscovered is determined to set the record straight, offering a portrait of Crosby as a complex yet loving and caring family man who made pretty much the same choices, both right and wrong, when it came to raising his kids as most of the parents of his generation. Throughout the interviews shown in the documentary, his sons, daughter, and second wife, Kathryn, provide new approaches to Crosby the family man, trying to understand the kind of values he upheld and thereby completing and attenuating the grossly one-sided picture that one gets from books such as Gary's Going My Own Way and Donald Shepherd and Robert Slatzer's Bing Crosby: The Hollow Man.

Bing Crosby and Louis Armstrong
Even more importantly, the documentary concentrates on the many avenues of showbusiness and American culture on which Crosby made an indelible mark (records, films, radio, television) and emphasizes his perhaps lesser-known roles in funding the research into audio and videotape, as a philanthropist, as a morale-booster during World War II, and as a Civil Rights supporter. One aspect of Crosby's contribution to popular music that is illustrated very effectively is the new approach to phrasing that he introduced, aided by the invention of the microphone, when his career began in the late 1920s and early '30s. This is shown by comparing three different versions of the Depression-era classic "Brother, Can You Spare a Dime," sung by Rudy Vallee, Al Jolson, and Crosby. The comparison of snippets of the three records clearly demonstrates Bing's new, coolly relaxed approach to phrasing, proving that, as Michael Feinstein rightly argues, he was several decades ahead of his time even this early in his career. While there is basically very little in the documentary that a well-informed Crosby fan does not already know, the project is notable for its entertainment value and for the wealth of information on Crosby that it offers to a potential new generation of admirers. There is simply a great deal still to discover about the story of Bing Crosby, and this documentary is a fine place to start for anyone interested in his work or in popular music and jazz of the highest order.

Audio and Video Releases

The documentary American Masters: Bing Crosby Rediscovered is available on DVD, and so is its companion soundtrack CD. Further recent CD reissues from Bing Crosby Enterprises include the compilation Bing Crosby Sings the Irving Berlin Songbook and the expanded editions of Some Fine Old Chestnuts and Songs I Wish I Had Sung... the First Time Around.

Bing conversing with David Bowie during the taping of Bing's last Christmas special in 1977

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Monica Zetterlund, the First Lady of Swedish Jazz

My friend Guy Jones, who lives with his family in Stockholm, Sweden, and is the president of the fan club of pianist Jan Lundgren (check out the fan club's excellent website here), recently sent me a copy of Monica Zetterlund's Waltz for Debby, a masterpiece that the Swedish songstress cut in 1964 with the Bill Evans  Trio. And Guy's generosity has prompted me to write a brief piece about Ms. Zetterlund, a classy vocalist who, despite her legendary status in Sweden, unfortunately remains a rather obscure figure in the United States.

Pianist Bill Evans did not record with too many singers throughout his career. Of course, there are the two wonderful albums he cut with Tony Bennett in the 1970s—The Tony Bennett/Bill Evans Album and Together Again—which are classics and must be counted among the best work in the discographies of both men. But in August of 1964, more than ten years before he stepped into the studio with Bennett, Evans and his Trio teamed up with Swedish vocalist Monica Zetterlund for an album entitled Waltz for Debby, which was recorded in Stockholm during one of Evans's European sojourns. By this time, Zetterlund was already a star in Sweden and had already performed in the United States, and as we can hear in Waltz for Debby, her soft, at times almost ethereal voice was tailor-made for the pensive atmosphere that Evans and the Trio created at these sessions.

Zetterlund in 1959
Zetterlund had been born Eva Monica Nilsson in the town of Hagfors on September 20, 1937, and soon fell in love with the American jazz and pop that she heard on the radio, attempting to learn the lyrics to some of the songs phonetically, since at first she did not speak English. By the late 1950s, she started to perform and record with some important Swedish jazz musicians, including Arne Domnérus, and although she also sang Swedish folk songs and even classical music, her repertoire leaned heavily toward jazz. Over the years she would work with some of the most notable names on the Scandinavian jazz scene (Domnérus, Jan Johansson, Svend Asmussen, Georg Riedel, Niels-Henning Ørsted Pedersen) as well as with great American names such as Thad Jones, Stan Getz, Louis Armstrong, and Zoot Sims. She often adapted jazz standards into the Swedish language, and in fact, the song with which she will be forever associated, "Sakta Vi Gå Genom Stan," is a cover of the evergreen "Walkin' My Baby Back Home." Her version in Swedish, though, is a beautiful paean to the city of Stockholm and remains one of the most popular songs about the Swedish capital ever recorded, to such an extent that many Swedish listeners may have forgotten that it is actually an American tune originally written by Tin Pan Alley composers Roy Turk and Fred Ahlert in 1930. Of course, Zetterlund often recorded in English, but her popularity in Sweden rested on her Swedish renditions of hits such as "Hit the Road, Jack," "Little Green Apples," "Waltz for Debby," and even Sting's "Moon over Bourbon Street," adapted into Swedish as "Måne över Stureplan."

Bill Evans and Monica Zetterlund

Zetterlund's popularity was such that in 1963 she was chosen as the Swedish entry for the Eurovision Song Contest, singing the ballad "En gång i Stockholm," yet another song about her beloved capital city. Unfortunately, jazz ballads were not the kind of fare that went over well at such a commercial songfest, and so Zetterlund came out last and without any votes, which in view of the quality of the song, is really a shame. Starting in the 1960s, Zetterlund diversified her activities and began to appear on television and in movies, even earning a Guldbagge Award for her work in Jan Troell's 1971 film The Emigrants (Utvandrama, originally distributed in the U.S. by Warner Bros.), in which she was cast alongside Liv Ullmann and Max von Sydow. Unfortunately, Zetterlund suffered from scoliosis, a degenerative disease that affected her spine and made it difficult for her to move and tour regularly, so that by the end of her life she was forced to sit down during her performances. When she died at age 67 in 2005, following a fire that broke out in her apartment in Stockholm, the New York Times ran a brief obituary that recognized her as "a jazz singer and actress who was one of Sweden's best-known performers." Quite an understatement for someone who, like Zetterlund, epitomizes Swedish jazz singing.

Though she made several highly recommended records, some of which are not hard to find in the United States (Swedish Sensation, Lost Tapes, and It Only Happens Every Time are but three good examples), Waltz for Debby is the album that anyone willing to discover Zetterlund's music should own first. As already noted, her softly melancholic voice blends perfectly with Bill Evans's lyrical piano style, and the support from bassist Chuck Israels and drummer Larry Bunker is superb. Among the ten songs that make up the LP we can find excellent readings of such standards as "Come Rain or Come Shine," "Once Upon a Summertime," "It Could Happen to You," and "Some Other Time," along with lesser-known tunes from the Harold Arlen ("So Long, Big Time") and Betty Comden - Adolph Green songbooks ("Lucky to Be Me"). Then the album also contains three Swedish gems: the traditional songs "Jag Vet En Dejlig Rosa" and "Vindarna Sucka Uti Skogarna," and Olle Adolphson's "Om Natten," all three sung with a delicacy that is Zetterlund's trademark. Finally, the Swedish-language version of the title track as "Monicas Vals" is one of the most memorable renditions ever recorded of Evans's beautiful waltz and offers clear proof of Zetterlund's uncanny ability to sing jazz in her mother tongue. Reissued on CD by Universal in 2001 (in a superbly sounding edition that includes the lyrics and reprints the original liner notes in Swedish) and then again by Verve in 2006, this album is a perfect introduction to Zetterlund's music, and it will undoubtedly have any first-timers looking for more of her wonderful stuff.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Unsung Vocalists of the Past 5: Elmer Feldkamp

One of our readers recently left a comment on a post about vocalist Dick Robertson that we published a couple of years ago, requesting a similar article about Elmer Feldkamp, a singing reedman who recorded quite often with some name bands in the 1920s and '30s but about whom not much is known. In fact, not even a single promotional picture of Feldkamp seems to have survived. I accepted the challenge and set about piecing together as much information as I could find about Feldkamp, with some invaluable help from a handful of fellow vintage jazz enthusiasts from the British Dance Bands Yahoo Group, to whom I am extremely grateful. Here is, then, a brief sketch about the largely unknown life of Elmer Feldkamp.

From the 1920s on it became common practice to feature brief vocal refrains on many dance band records, which proved so successful with the public that by the 1930s there were several singers, such as Dick Robertson and Chick Bullock, to name but two, who restricted their work to the recording studio and did not see the need to tour or appear live on stage. This was, however, not the case with Elmer Feldkamp, who besides providing vocals for recordings by the bands of Bert Lown, Roger Wolfe Kahn, and Freddy Martin, was also highly regarded as a saxophone and clarinet player with those orchestras and even got to front his own outfit for a time and star on radio. Despite his popularity in the late 1920s and all through the '30s, his career was tragically cut short by his death in 1938, and today he remains an extremely obscure figure whose recordings have not been reissued on CD, except for a few of the sides he cut as a sideman and band vocalist. As a matter of fact, before setting out to write this post, all I knew about Feldkamp was that he was the featured singer on some of the tracks included in a Bert Lown CD compilation released by the Old Masters label a few years back.

Bandleader Bert Lown
Born into a musical family in New Jersey on April 8, 1902, to German parents, Elmer Feldkamp quickly showed an interest in music. as did his brother Walter, a successful pianist with whom Elmer would team up at various times throughout his rather brief career, at one point in 1932 even duetting with him on piano on radio. Another one of his brothers, Fred, became popular as a journalist and author and was founding editor of For Men Only, a famous men's magazine first published in the late 1930s. Elmer learned to play clarinet and saxophone at college, and by 1927 he had formed his own band, Elmer Feldkamp and His Churchill Downs Orchestra, which took the name from the hotel in Kentucky where the band was headquartered and from where it broadcast regularly. The gig did not last long, though, because by the end of the decade, Feldkamp had joined the popular orchestra led by Bert Lown at New York's Biltmore Hotel, playing the clarinet and providing vocal refrains for several of the band's Columbia and Victor recordings. Besides cutting records with Lown, in 1930 Feldkamp was also featured on his own radio show, Morning Melody, which aired on station WEAF, in New York. Throughout 1930 and 1931, he recorded with several studio-only orchestras on ARC/Brunswick and also joined Fred Rich, with whom he made a few sides, as well as some regular broadcasting.

The Freddy Martin Orchestra in the 1930s. Elmer Feldkamp is said to be on the front row, far right

Then in early 1932 Feldkamp made a major career move by joining the Freddy Martin orchestra, where he would remain for the rest of his career playing the alto sax and the clarinet, as well as contributing vocals. He did not seem to have an exclusive contract with Martin, though, since during this time he also recorded with his brother Walter and with Roger Wolfe Kahn, and he also cut some discs for Crown Records in 1932 and 1933 under his own name as the leader of a studio group that was made out of a few of Martin' sidemen. An ad for a Vicks-sponsored radio series starring Freddy Martin called Vicks' Open House, inserted in the Philadelphia Enquirer in October 1934, attests to Feldkamp's popularity within the ranks of the Martin orchestra, as his name appears right under the bandleader's, and he is billed as a "popular baritone." Also in 1934, Feldkamp appeared on the air as the regular vocalist with Merle Johnston, and after that, besides his work with Freddy Martin, we begin to lose track of his activities. That is, of course, until his untimely death from heart failure on September 27, 1938. A quick look at Feldkamp's death certificate shows that he suffered from several illnesses, including appendicitis, peritonitis, and a heart condition, any of which could have caused his sudden death. Yet, surprisingly, an obituary note published in the New York Evenibg Star on October 5, 1938, seems to suggest that there may have been a darker side to Feldkamp's personality. The news report reads as follows:

Elmer Feldkamp was the vocalist for Freddie Martin's orchestra. His brother, Walter Feldkamp, conducts his own orchestra and furnished the music at the Stork Club last year. Another brother, Fred Feldkamp, edits the magazine for men [For Men Only]. And so Elmer felt himself overshadowed by his brother's [sic] accomplishments, but vowed that some day he'd be a national figure. The current issue of Collier's, the national magazine, has a swing-music story called "Cats Love Music." One of the leading characters in the story is Elmer Feldkamp. But the youngster never read the story. He died in San Francisco last Tuesday.

Whether Feldkamp's inferiority complex regarding his brothers Walter and Fred was a figment of the anonymous writer of this piece or not, the truth is that Feldkamp did not really have a reason to feel overshadowed by his siblings. A fine musician and vocalist, he recorded with some of the top bands of the '20s and '30s, and his music, though sadly neglected by CD reissue companies, deserves to be rediscovered. Some sides featuring Feldkamp, under his own name and as a provider of vocal refrains, are available at the Internet Archive, and the CD Bert Lown's Biltmore Hotel Orchestra Featuring Adrian Rollini & Tommy Felline (The Old Masters MB 105) offers a good sample of tracks that include Feldkamp, recorded for Columbia and Victor between 1930 and 1931. Feldkamp sounds self-assured and shows a good sense of timing on all his solo sides with Lown, as is the case on "I'll Be Blue, Just Thinking of You," "The Penalty of Love," "Lonesome Lover," "They Satisfy," and especially on "Please Don't Talk About Me When I'm Gone," "You Call It Madness," "Sweet Summer Breeze," "I Can't Get Mississippi Off My Mind," and "Blues in My Heart." Realizing that Feldkamp's melodious baritone was perfect for harmonizing in a vocal trio, Lown used him often in such as setting with wonderful results, first as part of the Biltmore Rhythm Boys, with Paul Mason and Tommy Felline ("Under the Moon It's You," "Bye Bye Blues," "Here Comes the Sun," "Loving You the Way I Do") and later as the Biltmore Trio, with Mason and Mac Ceppos ("You're Simply Delish," "Crying Myself to Sleep," "To Whom It May Concern," "Heartaches," "When I Take My Sugar to Tea"). By 1933, Feldkamp had moved on to the Freddy Martin orchestra and had been replaced by Ted Holt, yet he made some of his best recordings during his tenure with Lown, blending perfectly into a band that included such fine musicians as Adrian Rollini, Tommy Felline, and Chauncy Gray, and playing arrangements that occasionally left space for some hot solos.


I would like to thank British Dance Bands Yahoo Group members Mr. John Welch and Mr. Terry Brown for all their help with the research for this piece on Elmer Feldkamp. In particular, without the assistance of Mr. Brown, who provided me with biographical data and photographic and journalistic material, this article could never have been written, so I remain eternally grateful.

Though currently out of print, this ASV/Living Era Freddy Martin CD features some sides with Feldkamp on vocals

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

All What Blues 1: Earl Hines & Jimmy Rushing, Count Basie & Joe Williams

Author and critic Philip Larkin
In the articles that he wrote about jazz for the Daily Telegraph in the 1960s and that were gathered in the book All What Jazz: A Record Diary, British poet and writer Philip Larkin always made sure he devoted some space to reviewing blues records, thus acknowledging both the historical and musical relationship between both genres. Like any critic, Larkin had his fixations, his likes and dislikes, and while he was partial to traditional jazz from the 1920s and 1930s, more modern jazz did not sit well with him. Therefore, he remains a controversial figure in jazz criticism, despised by many who regard his jazz articles as musically conservative and excessively opinionated. Yet I have always had a soft spot for Larkin's jazz reviews, which I find highly original and often very poetic. I admit that his writing on jazz was informed by his rejection of bebop and free jazz, and I mostly disagree with him on those points, but I still find his contribution to jazz criticism valuable. I also admit that he was strongly opinionated, but then who wants to read critics who are not opinionated? I find myself going back periodically to All What Jazz and rediscovering there many records that I had long forgotten, and many of them are blues records. So today, and in Larkin's memory, we begin a new section where we will review blues and blues-influenced records. This first installment of All What Blues spotlights a rather unknown album by Earl Hines and Jimmy Rushing, as well as the first collaboration between Count Basie and Joe Williams.

In memoriam Philip Larkin 

We begin this new blues section of The Vintage Bandstand with a CD that features what, to my knowledge, is the only session that Earl Hines and Jimmy Rushing recorded together. Titled Blues & Things (New World Records, 1996), the album captures the Fatha and Mr. Five-by-Five in the studio in 1967 in the company of a Hines-led quartet comprising Budd Johnson on tenor and soprano saxophones, Bill Pemberton on bass, and Oliver Jackson on drums. This may well be one of the most obscure records of Jimmy Rushing's career, and that is perhaps because he is not actually the leader on this date, appearing mostly as a guest vocalist, and then not even on all tracks. But no matter, because this is a delightful album that finds all the participants in a very bluesy mood from start to finish. As Rushing takes his first "vocal chorus" (as the CD refers to his vocal contributions) on McHugh and Fields's "Exactly Like You," it becomes apparent that by the late 1960s his voice had not lost any of its energy, as he also demonstrates on "Am I Blue" and the closing track, a soulful rendition of W.C. Handy's "St. Louis Blues." One of the highlights of the album, though, is "Save It Pretty Mama," a good example of Rushing at his best on a slower number, aided by Hines's piano and some very beautiful sax playing from Johnson. The instrumental tracks showcase the tight sound of the best of the latter-day Hines quartets, a group of musicians that gigged together regularly and understood each other to perfection, as we can hear on standards such as "Summertime" and "Please Don't Talk About Me When I'm Gone," and particularly on "Changing of the Blues," a very bluesy Hines original. This is definitely a record that is well worth rediscovering.

Though Jimmy Rushing was perhaps the most popular blues shouter to ever work with the Count Basie orchestra (after brief stints singing with bands led by Bennie Moten and Walter Page in the late 1920s), the Count also employed other blues-influenced vocalists, notably the great Joe Williams. His style possibly lacked the sheer power of Rushing (though at times he did come close) but it was certainly more polished, as evidenced on the twelve sides that make up Count Basie Swings, Joe Williams Sings (Verve / Polygram, 1993), one of the best-selling albums in the careers of both men. When Basie and Williams first met, in Chicago in the early 1950s, the pianist/bandleader had recently hit one of the periodic low points that plagued his remarkable career. For economic reasons, he had been forced to downsize his big band and was leading a septet at the Brass Rail in the Windy City. Of course, this was not necessarily a low point in artistic terms, although it seems clear that the small-group setting was not as satisfactory to Basie as his classic swing band had been. Williams, who had sung with the likes of Jimmie Noone and Lionel Hampton, was sitting in with various combos in Chicago clubs and honing his own kind of blues singing, which definitely impressed Basie because he insisted in offering the singer a spot with his band.

Joe Williams in the 1970s
For this excellent album, Basie directed arrangers Ernie Wilkins and Frank Foster to put the accent on bluesy tunes, which is obvious in classics such as "Every Day I Have the Blues," "In the Evening (When the Sun Goes Down)," and "All Right, OK, You Win," perhaps the most memorable tracks on the LP. But Williams also shows his gift for singing to a boogie woogie beat on Pete Johnson and Joe Turner's "Roll 'Em Pete," and his mastery of slow ballads on Gene DePaul and Sammy Cahn's "Teach Me Tonight" and Percy Mayfield's marvelous "Please Send Me Someone to Love." The 1993 CD reissue, with new liner notes written by John Litweiler, includes three bonus tracks, featuring a swinging rendition of "Too Close for Comfort" that proves that Williams could swing with the best of them. In many ways, this landmark album revived Basie's career and single-handedly launched Williams's, and it should definitely be on the shelf of any serious jazz aficionado.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Hugh Shannon, the Epitome of the Saloon Singer

In his live shows, Frank Sinatra always liked to present himself as a saloon singer, a performer of what is known as saloon songs—that is, tunes about love found and then lost or perhaps never found at all in the first place. These are sad, melancholy songs of self-pity to be sung to the accompaniment of a lone piano, usually set in a bar or a tavern, in those wee small hours of the morning, and often presented in the form of monologue, with the vocalist bending the ear of an imaginary bartender. Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer's "One for My Baby (And One More for the Road)" and Matt Dennis and Earl Brent's "Angel Eyes" were Sinatra's saloon songs of choice, and he counted Tony Bennett and Dean Martin ("drunky Dean," as the Chairman would have it) as fellow saloon singers, and even though he never recorded a full album of classic saloon songs—Reprise's She Shot Me Down, from 1981, was the closest he ever got—this remained one of his favorite types of songs to sing throughout his career. Yet Sinatra's tally of saloon singers is grossly incomplete because he failed to mention Bobby Short and the man whose career we are discussing today—Hugh Shannon.

Billie Holiday encouraged Shannon to become a singer
Listening to Shannon, born in DeSoto, Missouri, into an Irish American family in 1921, one wonders just how much Tony Bennett was influenced by the smoky tone of his voice. Raised by his grandparents, Shannon became interested in the piano at an early age but did not become a professional singer until after World War II, when he supposedly decided to follow Billie Holiday's advice and began singing in clubs and bars around New York City, catering to the smart set and befriending the rich and famous. In a piece about him published in The New York Times in 1981, just a few months before his death, Shannon described the type of audiences for whom he played throughout his long career: 

We [he and Bobby Short] both deal with ladies and gentlemen. They're established. They have manners. They're attractive. And, for the most part, they're rich. They have good impulses for living and like living well. And the songs we sing are about people who like living well, not about the depraved or the deprived.

These words may go a long way to explain Shannon's reputation for being a snob (which, according to many friends and fans, he most definitely was not), yet they do accurately describe the crowds that flocked to his shows at New York nightspots such as Le Perroquet, the Cafe Carlyle, and the 22 Club, and bearing in mind his fondness for the songbooks of Cole Porter, Rodgers and Hart, Noël Coward, and Jerome Kern, among many others, they offer a truthful description of his repertoire as well. In that same New York Times article, Shannon also discusses his approach to performing: "I treat the room as a drawing room where I'm giving a party. It never occurs to me that I'm not the host. I watch the tables. I watch the drinks. I have to restrain myself not to seat people." And this intimacy was definitely an important part of Shannon's appeal, together with his penchant for witty humor, his sense of devil-may-care detachment when singing these songs, and the fact that he proved to be a walking encyclopedia of the Great American Songbook every time he sat at the piano. In this regard, he was to the Songbook what Leadbelly was to American folk music, and his art was appreciated by audiences both at home and overseas, where he occasionally performed at exclusive venues in places like France and Italy.

Regrettably, Shannon left us a rather meager recorded legacy, perhaps because he was best experienced live, and his art, like that of Noël Coward, did not translate so well to the medium of recordings. However, there are two Audiophile Records releases that anyone interested in Shannon's saloon singing should own. The most complete is a two-CD set entitled simply Saloon Singer that features Bobby Hackett on cornet on some of the tracks and that includes classics like "Everything Happens to Me," "Let's Do It (Let's Fall in Love)," "Down in the Depths of the 90th Floor," and the Jeri Southern-associated "You Better Go Now." Alongside this, the single CD True Blue Hugh offers sixteen tracks recorded in Lexington, South Carolina, in December of 1977, with Shannon alone at the piano, except for two tracks on which he is accompanied by Terry Lassiter on bass and Jim Lackey on drums. This album contains two songs closely associated with Shannon, "True Blue Lou" and "It's a Big, Wide, Wonderful World" (a minor hit for crooner Buddy Clark in the late '40s), along with other gems such as "A Hundred Years from Today," "Baltimore Oriole," "It Never Entered My Mind," "As Time Goes By," and a medley of "Just a Gigolo" and Cole Porter's "I'm a Gigolo." Shannon's passing in New York City in 1982, at age 61, deprived the world of one of the best saloon singers who ever lived, a man who not only defined that difficult art, but who lived and breathed it as well.

Sketch of Hugh Shannon that appears on the cover of the CD Saloon Singer

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Harry James's Direct-to-Disc Recordings for Sheffield Lab, 1976 & 1979

About a year ago, Sheffield Lab Recordings reissued on CD a series of direct-to-disc sessions that Harry James and his band cut in 1976 and 1979, thus making available some recordings that had been difficult to find in digital form for a while. The 2-CD set, entitled The Harry James Sessions 1976 & 1979, provides an excellent excuse to discuss James's often-overlooked work of the 1970s. Not that we really needed one, though!

By the 1970s, the number of Swing Era big bands that were still touring and recording on a regular basis was comparatively small. The orchestra led by trumpeter Harry James was one of them. An excellent musician with a keen ear for quality music with commercial potential, Harry was there at the very inception of swing, playing trumpet with Benny Goodman at the landmark Carnegie Hall concert of 1938, and when he struck out on his own and began leading his own band, he successfully mixed hard-rocking flagwavers with the sweet ballad sounds of vocalists Frank Sinatra and Dick Haymes, both of whom had their start singing with James, and Helen Forrest, who had a huge hit with the band in 1942 with "I Don't Want to Walk Without You." Three decades later, James had not changed much. In an undated piece that draws at length from interviews with James probably carried out in the '70s and included in his book The Big Bands, George T. Simon quotes the bandleader as counting himself among the earliest enthusiasts of the rock group Blood, Sweat and Tears: "I got them into Las Vegas. I loved the fact that they were all such good musicians" (537). In that same interview, James also states that public interest in the sound of the big bands had increased by the seventies:

You can see it in the bigger bands the kids are using and listening to. But there's more to it than that. There are the adults, too. They're coming out more again. It seems like they're saying, 'To hell with the kids having all the fun. Let's us have some too!' And they are—thank goodness! (537)

Harry James in the 1970s
With such an optimistic outlook on the popularity of big bands so late in his career, it is no wonder that James took every opportunity to get up on the bandstand and sought to keep his orchestra working throughout the decade. But what about recordings? Of course, James's recording output was rather meager in the 1970s, and some of his albums (1972's Mr. Trumpet, for instance) were mere attempts to recreate the sound of swing and dixieland jazz. However, in 1976 and 1979, James and the band cut three LPs for Sheffield Lab, all of them using the company's direct-to-disc recording technique, thereby producing a slew of superb-sounding tracks that give us a clear idea of the sound of the James orchestra in this late period. All the sessions were recorded at the Wylie Chapel of the First Presbyterian Church in Hollywood, and the band featured fine musicians such as Chuck Anderson on trombone, Bob Lawson on saxophone, and Les DeMerle on drums. Critics have often claimed that the sidemen sound rather anonymous on these recordings, and that might well be because the emphasis is here on James's trumpet, which dominates on all three albums, with James proving that he was still in great form less than a decade before his death.

Thad Jones provided some arrangements for these sessions
Rather than the sound of the band, the main objection of many listeners to these LPs has been some of the song choices, as well as some of the arrangements, which were provided by names as diverse as Thad Jones, Ernie Wilkins, and Ray Conniff. While perhaps we do not really need to hear James's versions of tunes such as "Sanford and Son" or "Dance," his big-band readings of country ballads like Hank Cochran's "Make the World Go Away" and Kris Kristofferson's "Help Me Make It Through the Night" are among the highlights of the Sheffield Lab sessions, which also include an appealing approach to "Lara's Theme," from Doctor Zhivago. By reworking music by younger songwriters like Kristofferson, who have nothing to do with jazz, James shows that he indeed has an unbiased ear for music and is willing to keep up with the times and try something new, even if his experiments in this sense sometimes work better than others. Of course, James also revisits classics from the Swing Era and before: "Cherokee," "Don't Be That Way," "Sweet Georgia Brown," "Moten Swing," "Caravan," "Satin Doll," and "Take the A Train," among others, get an updated treatment, and so does "You'll Never Know," offered as an instrumental ballad here. "Blues Stay Away from Me" is a bluesy jazz version of an old country hit by the Delmore Brothers, and Thad Jones provides the band with a very appropriate easy-swinging vehicle in "More Splutie, Please," which features an extended solo by bassist Dave Stone.

Harry James performing in Frankfurt, Germany, in 1970

The Sheffield Lab sessions have been hard to find on CD for a very long time, but fortunately, the company has made them available again on the 2-CD digipack set The Harry James Sessions 1976 & 1979 (Sheffield Lab Recordings, 2013). The set includes the three original albums (The King James Version, Comin' from a Good Place, and Still Harry After All These Years) in their entirety, with informative liner notes, some photos, and the excellent sound that one has come to expect from Sheffield Lab. While not necessarily essential, this is highly recommendable for listeners wishing to complete their Harry James collection or simply for those interested in hearing the trumpeter at the twilight of his career. And many of these tracks clearly show that in the mid-to-late 1970s James was far from his twilight in artistic terms.

'The King James Version' (1976), one of the original albums James cut for Sheffield Lab

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Mitchum Goes Calypso: Robert Mitchum's Curious 1957 Album Calypso—Is Like So...

My sister-in-law, Laura Spinka, of Durham, NC, recently reminded me of the existence of an album that I had long forgotten. Entitled Calypso—Is Like So..., and released in 1957 on Capitol, it is actor Robert Mitchum's at once homage to and perhaps spoof of the calypso sound that became briefly popular in the U.S. in the late 1950s. Like me, Laura is an admirer of Mitchum as an actor (and who isn't, really?), and I am very grateful to her for bringing this LP to my attention. Upon hearing it for the first time—or again, as in my case—one is left with more questions than answers about the possible reasons why this project came to be. The fact remains that it is not totally clear why Mitchum decided to record a whole album of calypso music. Although some critics have insinuated that perhaps Mitchum's taste for drinking rum may have had something to do with it, the truth is that at the time he was spending some weeks in Trinidad and Tobago filming Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison, and while on the islands, he must have come into contact with the local music scene, which must have made quite an impression on him. That does not, however, explain what possessed Mitchum to affect the West Indian accent and slang of some of the original calypso performers throughout the album. It is a practice that, while perhaps authentic to the genre, certainly sounds inappropriate and disrespectful to the listener of today, and which may well be the main reason why the twelve songs contained herein have had a hard time standing the test of time despite their status as cult classics. Mitchum biographer Lee Server, in his detailed book Robert Mitchum: Baby I Don't Care (New York: St. Martin's Press, 2001), offers some background information regarding the inception of the album:

Not long after he returned from the Caribbean, Mitchum ran into Johnny Mercer in Beverly Hills and told him about the great music he had heard in Trinidad and Tobago and perhaps even sang him a tune or two. Mercer sent him over to Capitol Records in Hollywood. Capitol had been talking to Robert about an album for some time, but no one had ever come up with a game plan. The calypso thing appealed to everybody. . . . Now Robert Mitchum was going to be calypso's great white hope. He went into the studio for a couple of weeks in March 1957 with a crew of cocktail jazz and rock 'n' roll pros and some backup singers. . . . The resulting album . . . was an enticing romp, equal parts Belafonte, Martin Denny, and karaoke bar. . . . As Caucasian calypso albums went, it was a masterpiece. (317-18)

Johnny Mercer urged Mitchum to go calypso
Though calling it a masterpiece may be a little bit of a stretch, if we make the effort to go beyond its decidedly kitschy atmosphere—and Mitchum's often annoying accent, which is sometimes hard to understand—Calypso is actually a fun album that can also be enjoyed for musical reasons. The band sounds tight, and both Mitchum and the musicians seem to be having plenty of fun as they go through humorous, though sometimes predictable, tunes such as "Coconut Water," "Take Me Down to Lover's Row," "Matilda, Matilda," and "From a Logical Point of View," which was later reworked and popularized by Jimmy Soul as "If You Wanna Be Happy." Some of the songs, like "What Is This Generation Coming to?" include the inevitable then-topical references to rock and roll and celebrities such as Elvis Presley, Liberace, and Harry Belafonte, yet it seems clear that Mitchum is doing all of this in good fun and not with an eye to criticism of the new musical trends or of the younger generations. The 2003 reissue on the appropriately named Scamp Records is currently out of print and also includes two extra tracks: Mitchum's self-penned "Ballad of Thunder Road" (his biggest pop hit) and a pseudo-rockabilly version of Bing Crosby's classic "My Honey's Lovin' Arms." All in all, Calypso stands not only as a fine aural example of camp (which it definitely is) but also as a good reminder that Mitchum was a man of many talents who often sang in his own movies and who would even record some worthwhile country music in the 1960s. Thanks, Laura!

Further Listening

Dr. Slinger Francisco, The Mighty Sparrow
The album Calypso—Is Like So... is also included in its entirety in the compilation That Man (Bear Family, 1995), which also features a few other more pop and country-oriented tracks. Less interesting than this is another import, Tall Dark Stranger (Bear Family, 1997), which offers some of Mitchum's movie songs, along with a series of demos of pop standards.

If listening to Mitchum's calypso LP whets your appetite for real calypso music, then the next step would be to delve into the catalog of the original calypso performers who must have inspired Mitchum,  such as Lord Invader and Mighty Sparrow. Calypso in New York (Smithsonian Folkways, 2000) is a fine introduction to the recorded legacy of Lord Invader, while Soca Anthology (VP Records, 2011) is an indispensable compilation of Mighty Sparrow's best work, and First Flight (Smithsonian Folkways, 2005) includes his always interesting early recordings.

Mitchum first heard real calypso music while shooting Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Unsung Vocalists of the Past 4: Skinnay Ennis

The story of vocalist and bandleader Skinnay Ennis is that of an artist who attained nationwide popularity during a large part of a career that spanned more than three decades but who is nowadays sadly forgotten, to such an extent that most of the recordings that he made as a leader have not been reissued on CD at the time of this writing. Ennis, who also had quite a flair for comedy, developed his own unique singing style and played an important role in the success of the Hal Kemp Orchestra, one of the most celebrated sweet bands of the 1930s, before striking out on his own as a bandleader and being featured prominently on radio, both before and after World War II. His radio appearances would in time lead to some sporadic movie roles, but for the most part, in the 1940s and 1950s Ennis was content to tour the Western states with his band, which was based out of Los Angeles.

Ennis was born in Salisbury, North Carolina, and some sources list his name as Robert, while others claim that it was Edgar Clyde. This indeterminacy about his given name, by the way, was apparently encouraged by Ennis himself and was often cause for comedy on many of his radio shows. What is definitely sure is that he came into contact with Hal Kemp as a student at the University of North Carolina - Chapel Hill, where he began to play drums and sing with Kemp's band. In his book, The Big Bands, jazz writer and big band expert George T. Simon describes Ennis as sounding "as if he never had enough breath in him to sustain his alarmingly slim body, let alone more than two successive notes" (488). Of course, aural evidence from Kemp's thirties recordings supports such a description, but Ennis was able to turn what might otherwise seem like a weakness into a stylistic trademark, and he was featured on many of Kemp's classic sides, such as "Ah! But I've Learned," "Shuffle Off to Buffalo," "Forty-Second Street," "Moonlight Saving Time," and the tune that would forever be associated with Ennis—"Got a Date with an Angel." In hindsight, it seems that Ennis's approach to the vocal art may have, at least initially, influenced by the style of Whispering Jack Smith, a 1920s crooner who was very popular around the time that Ennis began to step up to the microphone.

Bandleader Hal Kemp
Known for its staccato rhythm and highly accomplished musicianship, the Kemp band benefited from arrangements by a young John Scott Trotter, who was soon to begin a long-lasting relationship with Bing Crosby as musical director. The orchestra was very much in demand throughout the 1930s, touring the high-class dance spots all over the country and even getting to take occasional trips overseas. Skinnay Ennis was one of its main attractions and remained so until 1938, when he decided to take up the baton and form his own band, which would soon join the Bob Hope radio show, where Ennis got yet another chance to develop his talent for comedy. Listening to the recordings that he made in these years, it becomes quite obvious that Ennis is trying to emphasize his breathless singing style even more than he had with Kemp, and his breathlessness is now more prominent than ever before. Inevitably, the sound of his orchestra is heavily influenced by Kemp's staccato lines, which is made more obvious by the fact that he even chose his big hit tune with his old boss, "Got a Date with an Angel," as his theme song. These are among the most glorious years of Ennis's career, with the band scoring some minor hits ("Garden of the Moon," "Deep in a Dream") and a young Gil Evans writing some of the charts. Ennis also appeared in the 1943 movie Follow the Band, along with other stars of the day, such as Frances Langford, Ray Eberle, and Alvino Rey, and appeared with his orchestra in at least one Warner Brothers short directed by Jean Negulesco.

During World War II, Ennis briefly led his own military orchestra, and in 1946, upon re-entering civilian life, he put his band back together and rejoined Bob Hope on the radio, appearing also on the Abbott & Costello show. In his Big Band Almanac, Leo Walker notes that the postwar years were considerably less hectic for Ennis: "During the next several years [following WWII] he toured the nation, playing the leading hotels but maintaining his home in the Hollywood area, where he had substantial real estate holdings" (122). It was precisely at a Hollywood restaurant that Ennis ended his days, in a way that was as tragic as it was absurd, when he choked to death on his food. The only compilation of his work as a singing bandleader that is currently available on CD is 1956-57 Live in Stereo (Jazz Hour, 1992). Subtitled Hal Kemp Remembered, it includes an appearance by Ennis on a broadcast from the NBC Bandstand show on October 26, 1956, as well as eleven studio tracks from the album Skinnay Ennis Salutes Hal Kemp, which Ennis cut for the Phillips label, according to Walker's Almanac, "using some of the musicians who had been in the original Kemp band" (123). Other than on this album, we can hear Ennis's vocals on several Hal Kemp compilations, such as Hot Sides 1926-1931 (Retrieval Records), Remember Me? (Jasmine Records), Best of Big Bands (Sony / Columbia; this one is currently out of print), and Hal Kemp and His Orchestra 1934 & 1936 (Circle Records). Though the music on the Jazz Hour release is pleasant enough, and the NBC broadcast shows that Ennis was a consummate entertainer, that album does not take the place of his late-'30s and early '40s recordings, which are unfortunately unreleased on CD as of yet.

Saturday, August 2, 2014

Interview with Swedish Jazz Pianist Jan Lundgren: "There's a certain sort of melancholia in Swedish folk music that can work well as jazz or blues"

One of the best and most sought-after jazz musicians in Europe today, Swedish pianist Jan Lundgren has an incomparable sense of swing and an irresistible flair for improvisation. Throughout his career he has played alongside some great names such as Arne Domnerus, Benny Golson, and Johnny Griffin, and his impressive recording output includes solo albums, many projects as a leader, and even an outstanding collaboration with Bengt Hallberg, one of the greats of Swedish piano jazz—the very recommendable 2011 CD Back to Back. He has also successfully infused Swedish folk music with jazz rhythms on his album Swedish Standards, and this year he has released two new discs: Flowers of Sendai, a new trio project on the Beejazz label, with Mattias Svensson on bass and Zoltan Csorsz, Jr., on drums, and All By Myself, a piano solo outing on the Spanish Fresh Sound label, the latter just out a few days ago. Lundgren is also one of the co-founders of the Ystad Jazz Festival, held every year in Ystad, a city in the region of Skane, in the south of Sweden.

Lundgren with legendary pianist Bengt Hallberg
Born in the southern Swedish town of Kristianstad in 1966, Lundgren is a classically trained pianist whose mother and father encouraged his early interest in music. In fact, his father used to sing and accompany himself on the piano, and it was his mother's idea to arrange piano lessons for the five-year-old Jan. His formal training continued at the local music school in Ronneby from the time he was eight, and several years later, when his piano teacher and mentor took a year off to raise her newborn child, an older piano teacher introduced him to jazz. In a recent interview, Lundgren eloquently recalls the life-changing experience of listening for the first time to Oscar Peterson's Night Train album, which this new teacher had almost ordered him to purchase:

"How could this music be kept from me for fifteen years? I'd never heard anything like it, and was happy and angry at the same time. It was like falling in love. A bit like going on a school trip to somewhere like Turkey and meeting a Turkish girl who can't speak English. You don't understand a word she says; you just know you have to learn Turkish. . . . I was fifteen and had played the piano for ten years, but this was a whole new language for me. When I listened to Oscar Peterson for the first time I got the urge to learn this new language. It was then I realized that improvisation was a language—it gave my fingers wings."

And improvisation is definitely one of the most important parts of Lundgren's approach to making music, an aspect which is instantly apparent in my favorite among his many CDs, a tribute to pianist, singer, and songwriter Matt Dennis entitled Celebrating the Music of Matt Dennis: Will You Still Be Mine (Fresh Sound Records, 2003). Produced by Dick Bank, the album finds Lundgren in the company of bassist Tom Warrington and drummer Joe LaBarbera, and together they celebrate Dennis's impressive songbook by recreating and reinventing some of his most enduring melodies, from the bigger hits ("Let's Get Away from It All," "The Night We Called It a Day," "Everything Happens to Me," "Angel Eyes") to the lesser-known gems such as the track that closes the disc, "Spring Isn't Spring Anymore," a wistful melody that in Lundgren's hands sounds more like a Chopin etude than a jazz number. These are all tunes that were originally written to go along with lyrics (most of them penned by Tom Adair, arguably one of the most underrated lyricists of the twentieth century) and thus they present quite a challenge for Lundgren as he turns them into instrumentals. Yet faced with such a difficult task he comes through brilliantly because of his mastery of improvisation, which makes all the tunes sound as fresh as though we were listening to them for the first time. In the same interview mentioned above, Lundgren elaborates on his personal view regarding improvisation in jazz:

"Improvisation is like us sitting here talking. It's impulsive without reflection. We just let it spin. It's like speaking straight from the heart. But to improvise you need to know the language. . . . You have to have a language that you master. If you don't, then you can't improvise all the way. It's about nuances and their shifts. A word can have so many different meanings."

Lundgren at the piano
Through the kind mediation of Mr. Guy Jones, the secretary of Lundgren's fan club, Friends of Jan Lundgren, The Vintage Bandstand has recently had the chance to converse with Jan Lundgren about his Matt Dennis tribute album, as well as about his life, career, and views on jazz and music in general.

Anton Garcia-Fernandez (for The Vintage Bandstand): You are a classically trained pianist, which is apparent on some of your recordings. Did this help you as a jazz performer or was it ever an obstacle in your development as a jazz pianist?

Mr. Jan Lundgren: It helped enormously. You have to know your instrument and develop a good technique early, and that's exactly what a classical training provides.

Arne Domnerus
TVB: At the beginning of your career in jazz, you played with Arne Domnerus, one of the foremost figures of Swedish jazz. What was Mr. Domnerus like as a person and as a musician? What was it like to play with him?

Mr. Lundgren: Arne was one of the finest musicians I worked with and was extremely supportive. As a man, he had a big personality, strong opinions and a lot of emotion. These attributes came through not just in his personal life, but also in his music. To play with him was wonderful. He gave me space and room, and he trusted me: he gave me a lot of responsibility in our work together, which was very developing for a young guy in his twenties.

TVB: Among the great names in jazz with whom you have performed are Johnny Griffin and Benny Golson. How and when did this come about? What memories do you have of working with Griffin and Golson?

Mr. Lundgren: I have great memories of both of them. I first met Griffin in the early ‘90s, having just graduated from the Malmö Academy of Music. The meeting came about because the local jazz society called me up and asked whether I’d like to perform with Griffin as part of a local rhythm section. It was an unbelievable question… did I want to play with one of the legendary figures of jazz?!

I arranged a rehearsal in a room at the Academy the day before the gig. I’ll never forget it: Griffin walks in, takes his sax out of the case, and looks very seriously at me and my fellow Trio members [Lars Lundström on bass and Anders Lagerlöf on drums]. "Can you guys play fast?" he asks sternly. "Er, yes," I nervously reply. Then he counts off an extremely fast-tempo "All Through the Night," by Cole Porter, and when we’ve finished, he laughs and says, "We’re gonna have a great time together!" A while afterwards, someone – I forget who – told me, "Griffin calls you the greatest blues pianist in Europe." What?!

Meeting Golson came later. He was probably the first really big jazz star to perform at the Ystad Sweden Jazz Festival, of which I’m the co-founder, when we started it in 2010. Getting him there was a fantastic coup for us.

Johnny Griffin

TVB: In some of your albums, particularly Swedish Standards, you play a very interesting mixture of Swedish folk music and jazz. This is something that other Scandinavian musicians (Domnerus, for instance) have tried before. In your opinion, what do Swedish folk music and jazz have in common?

Mr. Lundgren: The tones and melodies help, and there’s a certain sort of melancholia in Swedish folk music that can work well as jazz or blues, too. The minor mood of some of these songs is also connected to jazz. But my personal view is that you can adapt and transform any kind of music, from any place in the world. Whether that transformation becomes jazz depends on the individual artist.

TVB: Let's talk a little about your Matt Dennis tribute album. Although Dennis wrote songs that were performed by all-time greats such as Frank Sinatra, Bud Powell, and Charlie Parker, to name but three, he is not as well known as some of his contemporaries. What attracted you to his work?

Mr. Lundgren: The Matt Dennis CD was my idea. I’d been digging around into the music of various songwriters, like Jule Styne and Victor Young, looking for material that hadn’t been widely exposed to a jazz audience. Then I realized that hardly anyone had recorded whole albums dedicated to their work – something that also applied to Matt Dennis. So I contacted Matt and we had a long talk on the phone. He died before the recording took place, but he was kind enough after we spoke to send me dozens of his compositions – songs that practically no-one was aware of. We then included a couple of these tunes on the album.

TVB: Besides this project, if you had to single out one of your own albums as your favorite, which one would it be and why?

Mr. Lundgren: An impossible question… Most artists will tell you that their latest album is the one they’re most proud of because, as musicians, they’re developing all the time. That’s also my answer to this question!

Bassist Tom Warrington
TVB: Scandinavian countries have always had an extremely active jazz scene, and American jazz musicians have always felt very much at home in Sweden. Why do you think that is?

Mr. Lundgren: Sweden had a very strong jazz scene in the 1950s, with a dominant position in youth culture. So it was easy for Americans to come here: people knew about them and their music, they gave them a lot of respect, and they treated them like real stars. Who wouldn’t love that?! They probably got paid pretty well too.

TVB: Could you recommend another Swedish jazz musician that you particularly enjoy to our readers in the United States?

Mr. Lundgren: If your readers aren't already familiar with his work, I’d recommend they listen to Bengt Hallberg. Start with this pianist’s early recordings from the ‘50s, and then see how he develops over the following decades. [Hallberg died, aged 79, in 2013.]

Drummer Joe LaBarbera
TVB: Finally, you will be appearing at the Ystad Jazz Festival in August this year. Could you tell us a little about your future projects?

Mr. Lundgren: In terms of post-Ystad projects, I’ve got a new solo album coming out very soon. It’s called All By Myself, it’s produced by Dick Bank, and it’s on the Fresh Sound label. I recorded it in Los Angeles in January this year. Just last week, I was recording in Copenhagen for another new album due to be released in November. It’s a collection of Johnny Mandel songs, performed with American tenor saxophonist Harry Allen, Hans Backenroth [Sweden] on bass, and Kristian Leth [Denmark] on drums. It’s on Stunt Records, who also released the 2013 album I did with Scott Hamilton – another great sax player from the United States! – called Swedish Ballads… & More.

I’m working right now on a series of concerts with the veteran Swedish trumpeter, Bengt-Arne Wallin. The lineup also includes the other members of my Trio [Mattias Svensson and Sweden-based, Hungary-born drummer Zoltan Csörsz], as well as the Bohuslän Big Band. The project’s called Swedish Folklore NOW! Aged 88, Bengt-Arne is arguably the most innovative and important jazz interpreter of Sweden’s folk music that we’ve ever had.


For more information on Jan Lundgren, please visit his homepage and the website of his fan club, Friends of Jan Lundgren, the latter coordinated by Mr. Guy Jones, for whose help with  this interview we are extremely grateful.

Jan Lundgren's tribute to Matt Dennis, as well as many of his other albums, is available from the U.S. Amazon website here.