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.