Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Vintage Records Review Desk 6: Frank D'Rone, Patti Page, Frankie Laine & Buck Clayton, Lucy Reed

For this new installment of the Vintage Records Review Desk, we are taking a trip back to the 1950s and early 1960s and looking at four outstanding vocal jazz albums among the many remarkable ones that were produced in that time period. Two are by male singers (Frank D'Rone and Frankie Laine) and two are by female vocalists (Patti Page and Lucy Reed) and the four records in the lot are linked by their swinging, jazzy atmosphere, as well as by their undeniable musical quality.

When singer/guitarist Frank D'Rone passed away in 2013 at age 81, his obituary in the Chicago Tribune noted that on the day that he gave his last concert, he "didn't know whether he should go to the emergency room or the concert hall." Such was indeed D'Rone's devotion to music. Born in Massachusetts in 1932 but raised in Rhode Island, D'Rone developed an early interest in the guitar, and by the 1950s, he was making a name for himself in jazz clubs around Chicago, both as a singer and as a guitarist. Nat King Cole was particularly impressed by D'Rone's musicianship, to such an extent that he took the younger singer under his wing and helped him get a record contract with Mercury.

Frank D'Rone
In his book Jazz Singing, Will Friedwald observes that "D'Rone has a forties-type voice . . . in a fifties Capitol F[rank] S[inatra] setting . . . and generates genuine warmth" (331). This Sinatra connection is particularly evident in his album After the Ball, recorded in 1960, partly because the vivacious arrangements are by Billy May. The twelve songs on the LP are loosely tied by the concept of an imaginary conversation between two lovers who have just attended a dance. Perhaps not enough to speak strictly of a concept album, but the set works well because both the songs and the arrangements are top notch, and the tracks range from a high-octane swinging reading of an old chestnut like Charles K. Harris's "After the Ball" to versions of well-known standards such as "My Melancholy Baby" and "You'd Be So Nice to Come Home to" and even more contemporary tunes such as Bart Howard's "Let Me Love You" and Matt Dennis's "Will You Still Be Mine." Whether it is an all-out swinger or a longing ballad, the warmth of D'Rone's voice shines through as he, according to the anonymous liner notes, "re-lives the whole early-morning romance vocally."

Also from the Mercury Records catalog comes the next album. Though known primarily for her pop versions of country hits like "Tennessee Waltz" and for bland novelty tunes such as "Doggie in the Window," as well as for her tendency to harmonize with herself through overdubbing, Oklahoma-born Patti Page was a credible jazz singer whenever she set her mind to it. Too bad that she did not record in that type of setting more often. One such session took place in Hollywood in May 1956, when she cut the album In the Land of Hi-Fi, arranged by Pete Rugolo, who surrounded her with a band that was full of West Coast jazz luminaries such as Pete Candoli, J.J. Johnson, Kai Winding, Bud Shank, and Georgie Auld, to name but a few. The whole LP has a brassy feel about it, and the band swings easily even on slower numbers like "The Thrill Is Gone" and "A Foggy Day." Rugolo's clever, modern-sounding arrangements are a welcome change from Page's fifties hit singles, and she tackles every song in a joyful, effortless manner, proving that she can hold her own in a jazz setting. Her nonchalant reading of "Mountain Greenery" is magnificent, and so are her percussion-laden versions of "Love for Sale" and "Nevertheless." With perfect sound and a bonus track, the CD reissue of this set (Verve, 1999) should make everyone wish that Page had made many more records in this vein.

Another singer who was known for novelties and pop adaptations of country material is Frankie Laine. But his album Jazz Spectacular (Columbia, 1956), which pairs him up with trumpeter Buck Clayton and an orchestra featuring, once again, Johnson and Winding, along with Urbie Green, Dickie Wells, Sir Charles Thompson, and Jo Jones, shows that jazz was clearly Laine's first love. Many of Laine's Mercury recordings, as well as his late-forties series of Standard transcriptions, already have a jazzy feel to them, but it is particularly this mid-fifties Columbia LP that best illustrates his abilities as a jazz singer. Loosely structured as a sort of jam session, with plenty of room for hot and cool solos from the musicians in the band, the album often reminds us of Billie Holiday's 1930s sessions with the likes of Teddy Wilson and Lester Young, because Laine's vocals are usually brief and underscore the fact that he should be seen merely as another soloist in the combo. In fact, Buck and the guys do "My Old Flame" as an instrumental, without the participation of Laine, who felt that this "was more of a girl's song." If the album lives up to its title, it is both because of the fantastic contributions from all these great jazzmen and because of Laine's sprightly vocals, which prove that he is perfectly at ease in this small-group context. Though there is not a single forgettable song here, high points of the set are "You Can Depend on Me," "That Old Feeling," "Stars Fell on Alabama," and "Baby, Baby All the Time." The 1999 Columbia/Legacy reissue is splendid and includes new liner notes, photos, personnel information, and a bonus track from the sessions—an instrumental version of Cole Porter's "You'd Be So Nice to Come Home to." As in Patti Page's case, it is really a pity that Frankie Laine did not make more records in this mold.

Like Frank D'Rone, Midwesterner Lucy Reed did not record extensively and never became a household name, which is unfortunate judging by the quality of the recordings she did make. Born in Wisconsin in 1921, Reed sang briefly with orchestras led by Woody Herman and Charlie Ventura in the early stages of her career, and the 1950s found her in Chicago, where she began to make the rounds of the clubs. She cut two albums for Fantasy in 1957, both of them excellent and fortunately available on CD at the time of this writing. Recorded between New York and Chicago in January of that year, This Is Lucy Reed, with its strangely somber cover, is the second of these and showcases her beautiful voice, at times powerful and at times delicate, in a small-group setting. The New York sessions have a collective personnel that features Gil Evans on piano, George Russell on drums, Art Farmer on trumpet, Milt Hinton on bass, and Barry Galbraith on guitar.  Some of the arrangements include a flute, a bassoon, a tenor violin, and an English horn, which add warmth and intimacy to ballads such as "There He Goes" and "In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning." At the session held in Chicago, Reed is backed by a quintet led by pianist Eddie Higgins, and the repertoire is split between extremely slow ballads ("You Don't Know What Love Is," "Easy Come, Easy Go") and more uptempo numbers ("Lucky to Be Me," "St. Louis Blues"). Finally, Reed's moving readings of "Love for Sale" and "No Moon at All" are undoubtedly among the highlights of a remarkable album that should have marked the beginning of a long, successful career for a vocalist that, in the words of critic Nat Hentoff, was "a fine-grained, intelligent, and sensitive (without a capital S) singer."

Pianist Gil Evans provided some sensitive arrangements for Lucy Reed's second album


Hal Lownde said...

Regarding Patti Page and Tennessee Waltz, it's worth mentioning, and I wish someone with the skill to do so would comment on it from a musical point of view, the haunting Buck Clayton solo. Buck's trumpet work has always been my favorite part of the recording, and without it, the song would just be another Patti Page cut.

Anton and Erin Garcia-Fernandez said...

Dear Mr. Lownde,

Thanks for your message. I've always loved the trumpet style of the great Buck Clayton, and I own quite a few of his albums. I am familiar with Patti Page's smash hit version of Pee Wee King and Redd Stewart's "Tennessee Waltz," and I agree that the trumpet on that track has a haunting quality that is extremely beautiful. I wasn't aware, however, that it was Clayton playing trumpet on that recording, so I appreciate the information. Now that I know the identity of the man behind that beautiful introducton I like that reading of "Tennessee Waltz" even better!

Anton G.-F.