Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Vintage Records Review Desk 8: Roy Eldridge; Louis Smith; Tal Farlow; Sammy Davis, Jr.

My wife, Erin, and I recently spent a few days in Nashville with our two-year-old daughter, Libby, because we were participating in the annual conference of the South Central Modern Language Association. As usual when I am in the Music City, I had the chance to visit two very recommendable used record stores and add a few new titles to my jazz collection. In this installment of the Vintage Records Review Desk, I briefly review four of my findings.

We begin with two trumpeters. Pittsburgh native Roy Eldridge is one of the greatest swing trumpeters of all time, having graced countless records by McKinney's Cotton Pickers, Teddy Hill, Fletcher Henderson, and Gene Krupa, among many others. The Dutch import, Live at the Three Deuces Club (Archives of Jazz), captures Eldridge at his peak in the winter and spring of 1937 via some fairly good-sounding material taken from transcriptions and airchecks cut at New York's Three Deuces Club. Eldridge sounds as exciting and swinging as ever in an octet setting alongside saxophonists Dave Young, Joe Eldridge, and Scoops Carey (who doubles on clarinet), pianist Teddy Cole, guitarist John Collins, bassist Truck Parham, and drummer Zutty Singleton. The song selection, as would be expected from performances of this period, leans heavily on uptempo numbers and includes standards such as "After You've Gone," "Basin Street Blues," "I Never Knew," "Exactly Like You," and "Chinatown, My Chinatown," as well as such Eldridge-associated tunes as "Little Jazz" and "Minor Jive." One of the tracks, presented as "Deuces Medley," pieces together several incomplete airchecks that are notable both for their rarity and for their musical quality, although the sound inevitably falters here and there. This is a very interesting find, a collection of energetic live cuts that deserve a listen.

Born in Memphis, Tennessee, about six years before the Eldridge recordings were made, Louis Smith may not be as well known as Eldridge, but he is definitely a very exciting trumpeter as well. He only cut two sessions as a leader in the 1950s, both of them for Blue Note, and although he recorded sporadically in the 1970s, he spent most of his life as a public school teacher, not taking his career as a recording artist too seriously until the 1990s. Here Comes Louis Smith (Blue Note) is his marvelous debut album, cut in two sessions held in February 1958 in New York City. On these sessions he was accompanied by Tommy Flanagan or Duke Jordan on piano (they sit in on three tracks each), Doug Watkins on bass, and Art Taylor on drums. Cannonball Adderley appears on some of the tracks, adding a little bluesy flavor to the tunes, which are mostly compositions by Smith, who is amply showcased throughout. "Brill's Blues" is a very engaging blues tune that makes reference to the Brill Building, where the sessions were cut, and Smith proves himself at a breakneck tempo as a worthy Dizzy Gillespie-influenced trumpeter on "Ande." The album opens with Duke Pearson's "Tribute to Brownie," which alludes to another one of Smith's models, Clifford Brown, and the only standard included, Hoagy Carmichael's "Star Dust," is a perfect vehicle to illustrate Smith's highly lyrical approach to ballads. In the liner notes, written by Leonard Feather, Smith cites Fats Navarro and Charlie Parker as major influences, and on the strength of this album alone, it is really too bad that he did not get to lead many more dates in the '50s and '60s. The public school system's gain was, in this particular case, the jazz world's loss!

Guitarist Tal Farlow was another jazzman who, like Smith, followed some outstanding recordings with long periods of silence, during which he refused to cut any sessions at all. Born in Greensboro, North Carolina, in 1921, Farlow apparently did not begin to play guitar until he was in his early twenties and first became famous through his collaborations with vibist Red Norvo in the 1950s, which led to some fine sessions as a leader for Norgran and Verve, namely Tal (1956) and The Swinging Guitar of Tal Farlow (1957). In spite of the success of these and other albums, he spent most of the 1960s out of the recording studio, which is why a session that he recorded on September 23, 1969, in New York City was released as The Return of Tal Farlow/1969 (Original Jazz Classics). The date was produced by Don Schlitten and finds Farlow leading a quartet alongside John Scully on piano, Jack Six on bass, and Alan Dawson on drums. This proves to be the perfect setting for Farlow, as the band goes through seven standards—some better known than others—that spur the guitarist on to attempt the kind of imaginative, speedy improvisation for which he was known. The album kicks off with a swinging reading of Thelonious Monk's "Straight, No Chaser," followed by a lovely ballad version of "Darn That Dream." Ably supported by Scully's piano, Farlow takes George Gershwin's "Summertime" at a quick pace, which does not waver on "I'll Remember April" either. The ballad treatment of Rodgers and Hart's "My Romance," introduced by Farlow's solo guitar, is one of the highlights of an album that also provides some Latin flavor on "Sometime Ago" and closes on a high note with "Crazy, She Calls Me." Despite his long '60s recording hiatus, Farlow was clearly still in top form in 1969.

The fact that his name was often spoken in the same breath with that of his Rat Pack buddies, Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin, both helped and hurt the career of Sammy Davis, Jr. His association with Dino and Ol' Blue Eyes definitely helped him on his way to stardom, but at the same time, it affected his legacy negatively because it is always too tempting to establish comparisons between the three. And this is rather unfair, because in essence the three were quite different artists, and Davis's enormous talent should not be downplayed when compared to that of his confrères. As good as many of Davis's studio albums are, he was at his best when captured live on stage and backed by a solid band that puts the main emphasis on rhythm. This is the case on The Sounds of '66 (Reprise), which is arguably one of the best records of his career. It includes a 1966 live show recorded at the Copa Room of the Sands Hotel in Las Vegas in the wee small hours of the morning and finds Davis accompanied by the Buddy Rich Orchestra.

The album starts with Davis inviting the audience, comprised mostly of other performers that have come to see him, to "relax, sit down, and swing with us, if you will" and emphasizes that the noises coming from the audience "are not canned; they are live." Davis clearly thrives in such a context and, inspired by Rich's relentless tempo, does make his audience swing throughout ten well-chosen numbers that reminds us of what an exhilarating performer he was. The repertoire ranges from standards like "If It's the Last Thing I Do" and "Please Don't Talk About Me When I'm Gone" to surprising choices like "Ding-Dong! The Witch Is Dead" to more contemporary songs like "I Know a Place," "What the World Needs Now Is Love," "What Now My Love," and "What Kind of Fool Am I?" Davis taps the Alan Jay Lerner songbook with "Come Back to Me" and "What Did I Have That I Don't Have?" and does a fantastic swinging version of Frank Loesser's "Once in Love with Amy." There is no doubt that Sammy Davis, Jr. and Buddy Rich are a match made in heaven, and they definitely do not disappoint on this record, to such an extent that one wishes that this had been planned as a double-album set.

Ace drummer Buddy Rich

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