Thursday, July 24, 2014

New Reissues: Gene Austin, Barbara Dane & Earl Hines, Nancy Harrow, Laurindo Almeida & Bud Shank

We discuss today four of the latest CD reissues of which we have had notice. We begin with a recent two-fer that includes two Gene Austin albums from late in his career. Then, there is an outstanding album that the always exciting Barbara Dane cut with Earl Hines in the 1950s and that has been re-released in a Hines 4-CD set, although it was already previously available on a better release. Also, he Spanish label Fresh Sounds has recently put two albums by the vastly underrated vocalist Nancy Harrow together on one CD, and finally, Jasmine Records has made available Laurindo Almeida and Bud Shank's pioneering collaborations from the 1950s on an essential single CD. Let us look at these reissues a little more in depth!

Helped enormously by the introduction of the microphone, sweet-voiced crooner Gene Austin enjoyed spectacular success in the twenties and thirties with his sentimental ballads sung in a rather high-pitched voice, which turned him into a star on records and radio. Born in Gainesville, Texas, in 1900, Austin was steeped in jazz, blues, and cowboy music, and he was also an adept songwriter and later in his life would publish a very interesting autobiography, Gene Austin's Ol' Buddy. Although his recording output is rather meager throughout the forties and fifties, in 1957 NBC broadcast The Gene Austin Story, a TV movie based on his life, and this briefly revived interest in his music. Thus, Austin went into the RCA studios to cut a new album, Restless Heart, made out of both old songs, such as "Memories of You," "Where the Shy Little Violets Grow," and "Sharecroppin' Blues," and new tunes, such as Rodgers and Hart's "I Could Write a Book." The disc also aimed to showcase Austin's songwriting, and many of the tracks are self-penned"My Restless Heart," "The More I See of Somebody Else," "Take Your Shoes Off Baby," and "There's a New Blue Heaven in the Sky," among others. He also attempts some pseudo-blues ("Wise Guys") and purposefully does not overlook his country side, and the result is a very pleasant album that finds Austin's voice sounding much lower and mellow that on his records from the twenties.

A younger Gene Austin
Austin's recording career was not over with this RCA album, though, and three years later he cut yet another one, this time for Dot Records. Entitled Gene Austin's Great Hits in Stereo, it delivers on its title's promise, offering new readings of twelve of his old classics in stereo with backing from an orchestra conducted by Billy Vaughn. The only song written by Austin here is "Lonesome Road," the focus not being on his songwriting but on his vintage hits, such as "Ramona," "Girl of My Dreams," "How Am I to Know," and of course, his career-defining "My Blue Heaven." The British label Sepia Records has joined these two albums on a single CD that is up to Sepia's usual high standards of sound and packaging, although we would have liked some background information on the recordings rather than just an excerpt from the liner notes of the Dot set. The CD also offers four medleys made in 1954 for RCA that, according to Michael Pitts and Frank Hoffman in the book The Rise of the Crooners, feature Austin himself on piano backed by George Barnes on guitar and Frank Carroll on bass. These include such classics as "She's Funny That Way," "How Come You Do Me Like You Do," "One Sweet Letter from You," and "The Sweetheart of Sigma Chi," among others, and find Austin exploring his jazzier side aided by Barnes's stellar guitar playing, and proving that he could also swing when he wanted to. The medleys are definitely the gems of the set, and while this Sepia CD does not replace collections of Austin's twenties and thirties recordings such as Take Two's A Time to Relax, it does work well as a companion release.

When Leonard Feather said that Barbara Dane was "Bessie Smith in stereo," he was not exaggerating in the least; if anything, such an assessment of Dane's artistry sounds rather reductionist, considering that Dane is comfortable singing not only the blues, but also jazz and folk music. Her family roots lay in Arkansas, but Dane was raised in Detroit and by the late forties had moved to San Francisco, where she sang with Turk Murphy and Kid Ory, among many others. Throughout her long career, Dane has performed with some of the greatest names in jazz and blues, including Willie Dixon, Memphis Slim, Lightnin' Hopkins, Jack Teagarden, Art Hodes, and Louis Armstrong, to name but a few. Though all her recordings are worth a listen, the best of them all may well be Livin' with the Blues, the album she cut with Earl Hines in 1959 for Dot Records. It showcases her gift for singing jazz on well-known tunes such as "If I Could Be with You," "Why Don't You Do Right," and "Bye Bye Blackbird," and even attempts ballads like the Jack Teagarden-associated "A Hundred Years from Today" and Gershwin's "I Loves You Porgy." But most of all, she offers masterful interpretations of blues-inflected jazz classics such as the title track, "How Long, How Long Blues," and "In the Evenin'," ably supported by an orchestra led by the Fatha. This Dane-Hines collaboration ranks as one of the best vocal jazz albums of the 1950s and has been reissued by the European budget label Real Gone Jazz on a 4-CD set of Seven Classic Albums by Earl Hines that is very recommendable. However, it had already been made available last year on a much better Fresh Sounds release that pairs up Dane's Livin' with the Blues and On My Way, a 1962 effort for Capitol that is a more eclectic mix of folk, blues, and even gospel, but that includes some jazzier tracks such as "Crazy Blues" and "Good Old Wagon," with Kenny Whitson on cornet. Though the rest of the albums by the Fatha on the Real Gone set are also very interesting, the sound and packaging of the Fresh Sounds CD are superior. For more information on Barbara Dane, we refer you to her extremely interesting homepage.

Barely a year after Barbara Dane's collaboration with Earl Hines, Nancy Harrow went into the recording studio at Nat Hentoff's behest to cut an album for Candid Records. She was backed by Buck Clayton's Jazz Stars, a studio group that featured Clayton on trumpet, Dickie Wells on trombone, Tom Gwaltney on clarinet and alto sax, Buddy Tate on tenor sax, Danny Bank on baritone sax, Dick Wellstood on piano, Kenny Burrell on guitar, Milt Hinton on bass, and Oliver Jackson on drums. With such an array of talent, it is no surprise that the band is offered plenty of room to shine, and Harrow is inspired by the company she keeps to offer her best blues-inflected jazz singing with more than a touch of Mildred Bailey. The eight tracks recorded by Harrow and the Clayton group resulted in her debut album, the excellent Wild Women Don't Have the Blues, which appropriately mixes blues numbers such as the title track, "Take Me Back Baby," "I Don't Know What Kind of Blues I've Got," and "Blues for Yesterday" with bluesy ballads ("All Too Soon") and more straight-ahead jazz tunes like "Can't We Be Friends," "On the Sunny Side of the Street," and "I've Got the World on a String." Fresh Sounds Records has recently paired this masterpiece that every jazz aficionado should own with Harrow's second album, cut for Atlantic in 1962, You Never Know. Though quite different from her debut, this is an equally outstanding LP that grows more interesting the more one listens to it. Most of the tracks were thoughtfully arranged by pianist John Lewis, who plays piano on all of them, along with Jim Hall on guitar, Richard Davis on bass, and Connie Kay on drums, with the occasional addition of Phil Woods on alto and a string orchestra. Of course, blues material is still at the heart of the album ("Confessin' the Blues," "Tain't Nobody's Bizness If I Do") but Lewis's beautifully sparse arangements ensure that the focus is entirely on Harrow's unaffected, expressive voice. Overall, this is yet another of the many outstanding reissues, complete with excellent sound and notes, to which the people at Fresh Sounds have accustomed us—and hopefully they will keep them coming! For more information about Nancy Harrow, it is a good idea to visit her homepage.

The fusion of jazz and bossa nova is usually credited to Stan Getz and João Gilberto's albums from the early 1960s, which introduced these new, exciting Brazilian rhythms to American audiences at large. However, in 1953 and 1954, alto saxophonist Bud Shank and Brazilian guitarist and composer Laurindo Almeida recorded a series of tracks in a quartet setting (with Harry Babasin on bass and Roy Harte on drums) that already foreshadow the innovations that would come in full force some seven years later. Almeida had arrived in Los Angeles from his native Rio de Janeiro in 1947, instantly finding a place within the Stan Kenton orchestra. The results of his collaboration with Shank were released by World Pacific on a ten-inch album entitled Brazilliance—and brazilliant it was indeed, a very appealing mixture of Brazilian folk rhythms and jazz improvisation, mostly on original tunes by Almeida and other Brazilian composers, but also on Latin American songs such as "Acércate Más" and standards, as in the case of "Speak Low" and "Stairway to the Stars." Shank himself does not consider these recordings as strictly bossa nova, yet what Getz, Gilberto, and others would develop in the sixties is somehow already present here, albeit in embryonic form. This music is not important merely for historical reasons; rather, it is the very enjoyable product of a group of musicians mixing all sorts of influences in a search for an innovative sound, and the occasional doubts and insecurities only add to the undeniable charm of what the rolling tape captured at these sessions.

Brazilian guitarist Laurindo Almeida
Some years later, in 1958 and 1959, Almeida and Shank got together again to cut a few more tracks, accompanied this time by Gary Peacock on bass and Chuck Flores on percussion, which were subsequently released by World Pacific as Holiday in Brazil or Brazilliance, vol. 2. The concept for these sessions was not substantially different from those held in 1953-54, though the group concentrates more on Almeida and Shank compositions, and the latter's solos (on alto and flute) are noticeably longer and jazzier. "Little Girl Blue" and "I Didn't Know What Time It Was" provide the more familiar tracks on here, but the true gems are originals such as "Nocturno," "Mood Antigua," and "Lonely." Jasmine Records has reissued both volumes of Brazilliance on a single CD, and though the sound is fantastic, there is almost no background information on the recordings, and the booklet only includes a brief adaptation of the original liner notes, which is not very comprehensive. The same material is also available on a single disc on the Poll Winners label released in 2012 with considerably more attractive packaging. Back in 2008, Bud Shank spoke to jazz writer Marc Myers about these groundbreaking, evocative recordings and the close relationship between jazz and bossa nova in a fascinating three-part interview that was published in Myers's JazzWax website. For anyone interested, here are the links to Part One, Part Two, and Part Three.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Conversations with Donald Clarke (I) - Clarke's Biography of Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby's Influence on Sinatra

Author Donald Clarke
As I already mentioned in a previous article, Donald Clarke's All or Nothing at All: A Life of Frank Sinatra has always been one of my favorite biographies ever written on Ol' Blue Eyes, not only because of its very direct, dynamic style, but also because Mr. Clarke attempts to reconcile Sinatra the man and Sinatra the musician. Although I have read other Sinatra biographies and studies (some excellent, some good, and some plainly trashy) I often come back to Mr. Clarke's book (and to Will Friedwald's Sinatra! The Song Is You as well) and reread passages or whole chapters that invariably offer new perspectives on Sinatra's life and work. Some months ago I contacted Mr. Clarke asking him for an interview for The Vintage Bandstand, and he kindly agreed. But each question that I asked him promptly elicited many more, and so we have been corresponding via e-mail intermittently for the past several months, and I have so much interesting material that I have decided to begin a series of articles culled from our e-mail exchanges. As long as Mr. Clarke finds our correspondence stimulating enough, these Conversations with Donald Clarke will be an ongoing series, and I hope the readers consider his perspectives on Sinatra and jazz in general as enlightening as I do. In this first installment of the series, Mr. Clarke and I discuss his book on Frank Sinatra, as well as the influence that Bing Crosby exerted on The Voice in the formative period when he was still Young Blue Eyes.

Donald Clarke, who has also published a biography of Billie Holiday and the study The Rise and Fall of Popular Music, has edited the Penguin Encyclopedia of Popular Music, and runs the very recommendable website Donald Clarke's Music Box (where you can find the Encyclopedia in its entirety for free), was born in 1940 and grew up in Kenosha, Wisconsin, a place "where there is no there," as he himself puts it. After working in a car factory for ten years and then attending college, he decided to travel to Great Britain to teach in a primary school. At first it was going to be just ten weeks, but he wound up staying in Britain for twenty-five years! He returned to the United States in 1998 and now lives in Allentown, Pennsylvania, with his wife of 34 years, "a very successful magazine editor-in-chief" who works for Organic Garden magazine. He has three children, four grandchildren, and five great-grandchildren and considers himself now "the luckiest man in the world." Music has always been his great passion, which is something that we both share, and so without further ado, let us turn now to the beginning of our first conversation, made out of excerpts of our recent electronic correspondence.

Anton Garcia-Fernandez (for The Vintage Bandstand): When I first saw your book on Sinatra, All or Nothing at All, on the shelves of the bookstore Shakespeare & Co., in Paris, France, I was struck by its subtitle, "A Life of Frank Sinatra." This seemed to imply that this was a fresh, personal take on Sinatra's life, about which so much had been written over the years. It was, so to speak, your life of Frank Sinatra. Was that your intention as you sat down to write the book? In other words, with so much in print about Sinatra, what new perspective on his life were you hoping to bring to the fore with your book?

Mr. Clarke: Yes, the title was chosen carefully. Somebody once wrote that "There is no such thing as an autobiography, not even an autobiography," meaning, I take it, that in order to tell you my life story, I would also have to tell you the life stories of all of my ancestors, everybody I have ever known, etc. Similarly, there will be as many biographies of Sinatra as people willing to write them. The last one I looked at had the author pretending to be a fly inside the limousine quoting Frank and Barbara having a squabble, as though he had been there with a notebook. I didn't have a new perspective, but I've read enough lousy biographies so that what I wanted to write was the book that I would want to read if I were looking for a book about Sinatra, covering both the life and the music. I think I have a knack for telling the reader what he or she wants to know without patronizing anybody. So, yes, it is my life of Sinatra, and I wasn't afraid to put myself in it.

Another aspect is that if Sinatra hadn't been a singer, as I wrote in the book, he might have been a New Jersey plumbing contractor, and we never would have heard of him unless he got arrested. In other words, at some level he must have been an ordinary guy. This was after I had written the Billie Holiday book and I realized that what I was really writing about was the problem of being an American in the twentieth century.

Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby
TVB: At some point in the book, you mention that Sinatra became an incredibly popular, if often controversial, public figure, when all he had originally set out to do was to follow in the footsteps of his idol, Bing Crosby. Bing was certainly an innovator in many ways, not only as a vocalist but also as a businessman. In what ways do you think Sinatra was an innovator as well, both in music and in business? Or, in other words, in what ways did he improve upon Crosby's foundation?

Mr. Clarke: I enjoyed Crosby's work, but I was never that big a fan. I heard him in the late 1940s and onward, and was surprised many years later to hear some of his earlier records, when he wasn't so relaxed, or maybe the white pop music style was different in the 1930s. I believe that whites were learning from blacks in the jazz era, but that they didn't really master the idiom until after WWII. There are more of Crosby's recordings I would like to hear -- there's a big compilation of radio broadcasts on Mosaic that he made in the 1950s with a small jazz group. But for me his innovation was not so much interpreting songs as the fact that he was influenced by jazz, and also knew how to use a microphone, so that he became the first modern recording vocalist, with Louis Armstrong. So Crosby was good for Sinatra to learn from, but there was an immediate difference: Crosby wanted to be your boyfriend; Sinatra wanted to be your lover.

Frank Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald
TVB: What was it exactly about Sinatra's sound that attracted you upon first hearing? I have been trying to define what it was for me for years now, and every time I try, for some reason, I can't quite put my finger on it... As a matter of fact, his biggest hits as Young Blue Eyes on Columbia were ballads, weren't they? What do you think about that? To what extent can we say that Sinatra was a jazz singer?

Mr. Clarke: A combination of things. First of all, the sound of his voice was attractive. Then there was the honesty he bragged about. When he was singing, there was no artifice. Also, he sang ballads or uptempo, and it doesn't matter if he was a jazz singer. I think I said in the book that he was not, but I would say now that we can call him a jazz singer, "if the essence of jazz singing is to make the familiar sound fresh, and to make a lyric come alive with personal meaning," which is something I wrote about Billie Holiday. The other day I happened to hear Ella Fitzgerald singing "This Year's Kisses," and it wasn't a patch on Holiday's version. Then I recalled that Ella had said that singing a song was like telling a beautiful story that happened to somebody else. Much as I admire Ella, when you heard Holiday or Sinatra singing a song, you knew they were telling you something about themselves. And that's what a great jazz musician does.

TVB: And to finish with Crosby's influence on Sinatra, there is a passage of your book where you say that at some point Crosby allegedly advised Sinatra not to rely too heavily on just one arranger, a piece of advice that, from your point of view, was a mistake. However, couldn't we say that if Sinatra were to rely on one arranger alone, that would inevitably lend an air of sameness to his recordings? For example, I feel that George Siravo's arrangements for Sinatra toward the end of his tenure with Columbia are a breath of fresh air after several years of Axel Stordahl's string arrangements, as beautifully lyrical as Stordahl's work is. What do you think about that?

Mr. Clarke: If I disagreed with Crosby, I was wrong. I was probably wishing that Sinatra had made all his records after 1953 with Nelson Riddle. The Siravo records were a welcome change from Stordahl, but I find them studio-bound. This question has partly to do with the playing of white bands as opposed to the black masters of jazz. The white studio arrangers and musicians had improved immeasurably by the mid-1950s, in my opinion. Also, bands which were on the road, like Tommy Dorsey's around 1940, learned how to breathe and think together, as opposed to ad hoc studio groups, which also improved post WWII.

And that is it for the first installment. I would like to thank Mr. Clarke for his kindness in addressing all these questions, as well as for his giving freely of his time. More installments in this series of Conversations with Donald Clarke will be forthcoming!

'Swing and Dance with Frank Sinatra,' a Columbia LP arranged by George Siravo