Monday, December 21, 2015

The Louis Armstrong / Mills Brothers Decca Sessions, 1937-40

By the time Louis Armstrong and the Mills Brothers first entered a studio to record a few sides together in 1937, they were both successful and popular artists in the jazz and pop fields, the brothers perhaps slightly more so than Satchmo. They had recorded with the likes of the Boswell Sisters and Bing Crosby, and the time seemed right to pair them with Armstrong, who at the time was being pushed by producer Jack Kapp to diversify his material and record in different settings, in an attempt to appeal to both black and white audiences and to score pop hits. Though Armstrong's gravelly voice seemingly stood in stark contrast with the smooth harmonies of the brothers, it actually blended extremely well on the finished recordings, most likely because both Armstrong and the Mills Brothers came out of the same musical tradition and understood each other's language perfectly well. While the Millses had become famous for their ability to mimic the sound of instruments (the guitar was the only instrument that they actually played) this was more than just a gimmick, and in fact, Satchmo's trumpet, which had exerted its influence on the music of the quartet, is superbly supported by the brothers' mimicry.

The Mills Brothers in the 1920s (Photo owned by Daniel R. Clemson)

All in all, Armstrong and the brothers recorded eleven songs together over a three-year period that goes from April 1937 to April 1940. The material chosen for these sessions is rather eclectic, from novelty numbers like "Boog It," "The Flat Foot Floogie," and Irving Berlin's "My Walking Stick" to updates of minstrel material like "In the Shade of the Old Apple Tree" to pop songs of the day such as "Marie" and "The Song Is Ended," both of them written by Berlin as well. The atmosphere of all the sessions—there were six in all—is extremely relaxed, with the brothers harmonizing and Armstrong offering hip vocals and some excellent trumpet solos to complement the Millses' signature sound effects. Most of the songs feature brief guitar introductions, and as in the case of Don Redman's "Cherry," one of the standouts from these sessions, the interactions between Armstrong and the brothers are seamless. All the songs are tightly arranged and clearly intended as both jazz and pop records that could be appealing to different audiences.

At least one of the singles that came out of these dates was extremely popular—the one that paired "Carry Me Back to Old Virginny" and "Darling Nellie Gray," which ended a brief hit drought for the Millses. By the late 1930s it had become common practice in the recording industry to use nineteenth-century songs, mostly because they had fallen into the public domain, but this particular disc is unique in that Amstrong and the brothers not only swing and modernize these two songs about slavery and the old plantation but they also turn them into subtle calls for freedom. As Gary Giddins has written in Visions of Jazz, this record is "a politically astute response to the pastoralism that became rife in the recording industry of the '30s and continued into the early '60s" (24). In the hands of Armstrong and the brothers, "Old Virginny" no longer expresses a yearning to go back to working "day after day in the fields of yellow corn" but becomes a shout for political and social freedom, which is underscored by the choice of the abolitionist song, "Darling Nellie Gray," for the flip side. It seems appropriate to quote Giddins more at length on this subject:

Perhaps Armstrong's most able signifying comes at the end of the first eight bars of his thirty-two-bar solo, an unmistakable trumpet call—to freedom in life. If the flip side had been a similar piece or an ordinary ballad, the record would—despite Armstrong's saves—have limited meaning. But "Darling Nellie Gray" was one of the most powerful abolitionist songs of the 1850s; published only four years after Uncle Tom's Cabin, it is widely credited with changing people's minds on both sides of the Mason-Dixon Line. (26)

The Mills Brothers (Photo owned by D.R. Clemson)
The choice of material, then, could not have been accidental, particularly if we bear in mind that a similar change of meaning also operates on their version of Stephen Foster's "The Old Folks at Home," which, in the rendition by Armstrong and the Millses, is as far away from a song of longing for the old plantation as "Old Virginny." As Giddins has also rightly pointed out, Armstrong mocks the original meaning of this Foster ballad, taking it at a rather brisk pace and eschewing any kind of nostalgia for an idealized past on the plantation: when he ends his rendition by saying "we are far away from home," there is no trace of sentimentality in his voice. This is a record that shuns a painful past and prefers to look toward a brighter future ahead. Shortly after these sessions, the Mills Brothers would score a smash hit with "Paper Doll," and Louis Armstrong would go on to become one of the major icons of the twentieth century. Sadly, these recordings have long been neglected both by a vast majority of critics and by the record label that originally released them. As a matter of fact, CD reissues of these songs are scarce: European imports such as Jazz Archives # 47: Louis Armstrong and The Mills Brothers Greatest Hits and The Mills Brothers Featuring Louis Armstrong Vol. 4: 1937-1940 are, to our knowledge, the only reissues currently available, and they are not always easy to find. Yet the uniqueness, historical significance, and artistic value of the collaboration between Satchmo and the Millses calls for a serious reissue and a subsequent critical reappraisal.

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Bandstand Christmas Essentials 4 : Al Martino's A Merry Christmas

With the holiday season quickly approaching, it is time to offer a new installment of our Bandstand Christmas Essential series, which we publish every December. This time we take a look at a Christmas album that usually slips through the cracks whenever Yuletide records are discussed—Al Martino's A Merry Christmas, cut for Capitol in 1964.

These days, Italian-American crooner Al Martino is mostly remembered for his role as Johnny Fontane in the 1972 Francis Ford Coppola movie, The Godfather. That role went a long way toward revitalizing his career in the early 1970s, but by that time he had been in the music business for already two decades, which were admittedly full of ups and downs. Born into a working class family in Philadelphia in 1927, his real name was Alfred Cini, and he was inspired by his childhood friend, Mario Lanza, to pursue a career in music. With that goal in mind he changed his name to Al Martino and moved to New York City, where he signed a record contract with a small label. His recording of the ballad "Here in My Heart" in 1952 became a sizable hit on both sides of the Atlantic, and this led to a contract with Capitol. Unfortunately, it somehow also got him in trouble with the Mob—or at least so the story goes—and Martino was forced to settle down in England for a few years, where his career advanced slowly.

By the time he returned to the United States in the late 1950s, rock and roll had changed the music business forever, and the careers of smooth-voiced crooners like Martino were suffering greatly from this change in popular taste. But then Nashville came to the rescue: in 1963 Martino recorded the Leon Payne country ballad, "I Love You Because," and all of a sudden he was back on the charts, and for a few years he continued recording pop versions of country tunes with great success. His biggest hit, though, was not a country song, but a vocal version of Bert Kaempfert's "Spanish Eyes," which he cut in 1966, and which remains the song most closely associated with him. His 1972 appearance in The Godfather also resulted in a record hit, "Speak Softly Love," that classic film's theme song. From then on, he seldom returned to the charts, and by the 1980s he was concentrating mostly on live appearances. Martino, whose elegant vocal style owed much more to Perry Como than to Al Jolson—his two foremost influences—passed away in Springfield, Pennsylvania, in 2009, just a few days after his 82nd birthday.

Martino cut his holiday album, A Merry Christmas, for Capitol in 1964, about a year after recording "I Love You Because." The brief liner notes remind us that there are two kinds of Yuletide melodies: "the gay new tunes from the popularity parades of seasons recently passed, reflecting the high spirits that make Christmas truly merry" and "the traditional carols, beautiful and reverent, that remind us of the deeper meanings the Christmas season holds for all humanity." The point here, of course, is that Martino sings both types of songs, and in fact, the album is extremely well balanced, featuring the former kind of tunes on the first side and the latter kind on the second side. The sensitive arrangements by Peter DeAngelis are also shaped by a sense of balance. On more modern Christmas songs like "You're All I Want for Christmas," "White Christmas," and "I'll Be Home for Christmas," they are beautifully restrained, full of pleasant strings and harps and complete with unobtrusive choirs. We can hear this restraint even on children's tunes like "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer." But then, when it comes to approaching the older carols, such as "The Little Drummer Boy," "Silent Night," "O Holy Night" and "O Come All Ye Faithful," DeAngelis accordingly becomes more serious and his arrangements sometimes border on the grandiose. Martino's singing is never less than superb throughout, and although one finds no surprises here, this is a lovely Christmas album that is awaiting rediscovery—and does deserve it.

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Guest Reviewer: Patti Page's New Box Set Featuring Her Lang-Worth Transcriptions, by Robert Nickora

The British label Jasmine Records has undertaken the reissue of an important part of the recorded catalog of singer Patti Page in the last few years. After releasing two four-CD box sets of studio recordings—Near to You in 2011 and Another Place, Another Time in 2013—they have just made available a third set, which, besides more of Page's studio work, includes for the first time ever the complete library of transcription recordings that she made for the Lang-Worth company in the early 1950s. Known for their rarity, these are very interesting sides because they often find Page at her jazziest and accompanied by a small group of excellent musicians. Robert Nickora, who is responsible for compiling and annotating all three Patti Page sets, has kindly agreed to write a review of the latest one in the series, entitled There Is No Greater Love. We appreciate Mr. Nickora's willingness to share his insights into these recordings with the readers of The Vintage Bandstand.

Jasmine Records JASCD 34-4

Producing the Patti Page collection, THERE IS NO GREATER LOVE, was very challenging and time consuming, but exceptionally enjoyable.  I worked with these recordings for more than a year prior to the release of the set.  As a result of the sales and strong reception of Jasmine’s earlier Page box sets – NEAR TO YOU: Celebrating a Career…Defining Class (JASBOX 24-4) and ANOTHER TIME, ANOTHER PLACE (JASBOX 30-4) – I had already completed a third volume that combined Mercury and Columbia material, and was planning to pitch it to Jasmine Records for release consideration when an opportunity arose to compile and program the Lang-Worth Transcriptions.  These rare gems were offered to me on loan by Robert Bowling, Patti’s friend and founder of “The Patti Page Appreciation Society.”  I reworked the large set, omitting half of the material and replacing it with the Lang-Worth songs and intros.

Countless hours were involved in listening to all the material (three choices per track in some instances) and determining the very best disc transfer to submit for re-mastering.  The brief introductions Patti recorded were pressed on two separate discs with no labeling to indicate which intro would correspond with an appropriate track. These intros were very slightly edited in the final Jasmine project, creating a fine complement to the set.

The Lang-Worth Transcriptions were initially issued to select radio stations for local programming, and were never intended to be made available for sale in music stores. Some department stores, however, were later given access to these recordings, and they were utilized as background music (similar to what is sometimes referred to as elevator music).  I worked directly from the unique 8” discs that resembled the later EPs (popular with the record-buying public in the mid-‘50s).  These recordings were also available to radio stations in a 16” disc format. 

The administration at Lang-Worth recognized the rising popularity of Patti Page when her first million-seller, “With My Eyes Wide Open I’m Dreaming,” began climbing the charts.  There was mention of this new association in the December 1949 issue of Billboard, with the first recording date occurring in January 1950 and the final twelve tracks completed in March 1952.  Ensemble musicians included Lou Stein (piano), Joe Sinacore (guitar), and Stanley Kay (percussion), and accompaniments were occasionally augmented with full orchestra.  The repertoire chosen was a collaborative effort by Patti Page; her personal manager, Jack Rael, who supervised all sessions; and Lang-Worth; the scripted intros were provided by Lang-Worth writers.

Many of the Lang-Worth songs were later recorded for Mercury employing fuller and more sophisticated orchestrations.  Patti’s style began to evolve after Lang-Worth, and it appeared she felt secure in taking a few liberties with the melody lines in such later tracks as “East of the Sun,” “Do Nothin’ Till You Hear From Me,” “Where Are You,” “I’ll Never Smile Again,” and others. A few of the lesser-known songs such as “There’s Something in the Wind,” “Accent on Youth,” and “Tormented” have become my personal favorites.  Her rendition of “The Prisoner’s Song” (with simple guitar accompaniment) might very well be the most sensitive and impressive interpretation of this classic country song.

It was a pleasure to select the fifty-five tracks from Patti Page’s vast Mercury library (many of which come from “The Great American Songbook”) for the first two discs.  A few, such as “Basin Street Blues,” “Paradise,” “Did I Remember,” “Every Day,” and “Nobody’s Darlin’ But Mine,” were new discoveries.  The exemplary re-mastering of the entire set by Tall Order Mastering is especially noteworthy.  The crisp fidelity of “The Tennessee Waltz” LP on Disc Two is particularly impressive.
Very special words of appreciation go to Timothy Akers, Patti Page’s great-nephew and devoted fan, for providing details regarding all information related to the Lang-Worth Transcriptions and the names of specific musicians involved in these historic recordings.

Robert Nickora
Thanksgiving Day 2015

Monday, November 16, 2015

Interview with Singer Nancy Harrow on New CD Reissue: "The Beatles' songs should be considered part of the standard jazz songbook."

Though, of course, whole albums of compositions by the Beatles had been recorded before by the likes of Count Basie (Basie's Beatle Bag, 1966) and Sarah Vaughan (Songs of the Beatles, 1981), to name but two, Nancy Harrow's The Beatles and Other Standards is one of the few records that offer a mixture of songs by the Liverpool lads along with standards written by some of the foremost tunesmiths who created what we now know as the Great American Songbook. This is, perhaps, the only album that includes both Paul McCartney's "Yesterday" and Otto Harbach and Jerome Kern's "Yesterdays," in an attempt to show that the jazz world can benefit as much from Tin Pan Alley as from the British Invasion. And, in a way, Harrow also helps prove something of which there is really very little doubt: that the songs the Beatles wrote and made popular in the 1960s are as timeless as those that Ned Washington, Victor Young, Johnny Mercer, and Vincent Youmans composed just a few decades before.

Harrow's collection of Songbook and Beatles standards was recorded in New York City in 1989 and originally released in Japan the following year. On the two sessions that were needed to complete the album, the vocalist was accompanied by a group of fine musicians led by pianist Sir Roland Hanna and including Bill Easley (saxophone, flute, and clarinet), George Mraz (bass), Grady Tate (drums), and Turkish-American percussionist Arto Tunçboyaciyan. Produced by John Snyder, this project evolved out of a close collaboration between Harrow and Hanna, who encouraged the singer every step of the way and acted as musical director. Harrow is obviously on her home turf with the standards, some of which ("My Foolish Heart," "More Than You Know") are beautiful vocal-piano duets with Hanna. The usually haunting "Nature Boy" benefits from a great flute introduction by Easley, and Harrow's cabaret-like approach to "When the World Was Young" is very appropriate and turns that track into one of the most memorable on the set.

Drummer Grady Tate
Adapting tunes by the Beatles to the jazz idiom is always a challenge, but Harrow more than rises to it throughout the album. Her version of "Drive My Car" is infectiously swinging (Easley and Hanna shine on saxophone and piano, respectively), and "Got to Get You Into My Life" is stripped of all its Motown overtones and turned into a ballad. Harrow reinvents "Yesterday" and "Something," emphasizing their torch-like qualities. They are both punctuated by Tate's drumming, and Tunçboyaciyan's persussion stands out on the former. "Blackbird" and "Because" are two of the most intimate performances on the album, and "Here Comes the Sun" is given a very appealing smooth-jazz treatment. Overall, this is a very artistically successful album that proves that a good song is good no matter who wrote it or when, as well as showing that a good jazz treatment of a Beatles song can be as satisfying as any tried-and-true jazz standard.

As soon as I heard of the reissue of The Beatles and Other Standards, I dropped Nancy Harrow a line, and she promptly and graciously responded, agreeing to an interview for The Vintage Bandstand. The following interview originated as part of our correspondence, and in it Harrow offers some interesting insights into the concept and the recording of this album.

Anton Garcia-Fernandez (for The Vintage Bandstand): How did you come up with the concept of a jazz album of Beatles songs and classic standards? What does the music of the Beatles have in common with the music of Johnny Mercer, Jerome Kern, and Vincent Youmans?

Nancy Harrow: I had recorded one Beatles tune before this album was done. It was on my Street of Dreams album that I did with Bob Brookmeyer, and the tune was "Fixing A Hole." It came out very well, and in fact that tune became part of my working repertoire.  So I began to listen to more of the Beatles tunes which I knew from my sons' record collection.  I liked their lyrics and the humor in a lot of the songs, and it occurred to me to pair the tunes with known standards to show that they should be considered part of the standard songbook that jazz musicians draw on.  At that time many jazz musicians were openly hostile to the Beatles' music, I think because they were putting them out of business. In any case, it was difficult to persuade musicians I knew to do an album like the one I envisioned.  But Roland Hanna was not judgmental about anything in music, and he agreed to do the album with me.

TVB: How did you select the songs for the album? Was it a difficult process?

Ms. Harrow: I selected the songs in the same way I always select songs.  I look for lyrics that are meaningful to me and for melodies that linger in the mind.

TVB: What aspects did you find challenging as you adapted these songs by Lennon, McCartney, and Harrison? Did you approach the standards and the Beatles tunes differently?

Ms. Harrow: The standards came more naturally to me, but the Beatles tunes were a challenge to sing in my own style rather than in theirs.  And this was made much easier for me because Roland was playing them.  The way we did them evolved during our rehearsal sessions.

Pianist Sir Roland Hanna
TVB: The album was cut in New York City in two sessions in May 1989. Jazz greats such as pianist Sir Roland Hanna, bassist George Mraz, and drummer Grady Tate were on hand for the date. What memories do you have of those sessions?

Ms. Harrow: I remember our rehearsal sessions even more than the recording session.  Roland was in a Broadway musical at the time, and we were rehearsing somewhere near the theatre because his time was limited.  I particularly remember his influence when we were rehearsing "Drive My Car," because we were both amused by the humor of this tune, and Roland suggested I say "and maybe I'll luhve you" -- not sure you can get this from my spelling, but you can hear it on the CD.  At the session, I remember Grady's suggestions about improvising on the lyric, which were helpful to me.  This was the first of many albums I did with both Roland and Grady together.  I also worked with Bill Easley and George Mraz on other projects, and did a club date with Arto Tunçboyacian afterwards. They are all great musicians, and I'm so glad this CD is now reaching audiences outside of Japan.

Bassist George Mraz
TVB: The album was originally released in 1990 by Emarcy for the Japanese market, where your work has always been very well received...

Ms. Harrow: John Snyder was the producer of this album, but it proved to be a difficult sell to record companies in the U.S.  I sent it to a record company in Japan who had released other CDs of mine, and they took it right away.  It turned out to be quite successful in Japan, and actually has had two releases there.  But no one until now has reissued it and distributed it worldwide.  I am so glad that Jordi Pujol [owner of Fresh Sound Records] has done that, because there are several songs on the CD that are among my favorite recordings.  I like the duets with Roland on "My Foolish Heart" and "More Than You Know" (Roland has a great solo on that tune), and I like "Drive My Car" and "When the World Was Young."  Roland's arrangement of "Yesterday" I think is terrific.  So I am very pleased it is finding a wider audience at last.

TVB: In your opinion, what is appealing to Japanese audiences about jazz? What is special to you about performing in Japan?

Ms. Harrow: The Japanese audiences are amazing.  I didn't actually perform there when this CD came out.  But in 2006, 2007, and 2008 I had club dates and a concert in Japan, and they did a Japanese version of my puppet show, Maya the Bee, which toured for two years in Japan.  The audiences there are so warm and welcoming -- it was a unique and wonderful experience to be there.

TVB: The European label Fresh Sound Records, of Barcelona, Spain, has shown interest in reissuing your work. A few years ago they released two of your 1960s albums, the excellent Wild Women Don't Have the Blues and You Never Know. Are there any plans for further releases in the near future?

Ms. Harrow: It was a surprise when Fresh Sound in Barcelona reissued my first two albums in one CD.  I didn't realize that in Europe the CDs become public domain after fifty years.  But it was such a pleasant surprise, because they did such a beautiful job on the CDs.  I just met Jordi Pujol a few weeks ago when I was in Barcelona.  We had only corresponded before that.  I am so happy to have found a new home for my early CDs, and now this Beatles album.  The next one they will release is The John Lewis Album for Nancy Harrow, which will be done very soon.  And there are plans ahead to do my Street of Dreams album as well, which has gone out of print.  So this is a very happy new relationship.

Further information

To read more about the reissue of The Beatles and Other Standards, you can go here. If you would like to purchase the CD, you will find it here. Fresh Sound Records also released two of Nancy Harrow's 1960s albums not long ago, and you can access my review of that reissue here. Finally, more information about Nancy Harrow is available on her homepage.

Nancy Harrow in the studio in the 1960s with John Lewis amd Jim Hall (photo originally published in JazzWax)

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

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Crazy Rhythm: Mark Murphy's Early Decca Recordings 1956-57

Barely a week ago, on October 22, the great singer Mark Murphy passed away in New Jersey at 83. Throughout his long career, which was characterized by a tireless effort to promote jazz and educate listeners about it, Murphy never got the kind of recognition that the high quality of his work should have warranted. Noted critic Will Friedwald states in his Biographical Guide to the Great Jazz and Pop Singers that Murphy and Betty Carter were "major influences on virtually all the well-regarded singers of the current generation" (348). Friedwald is not exaggerating in the least, for Murphy was an outstanding singer who was deeply dedicated to his craft and who was often more appreciated by other singers and musicians than by the public at large. And that is too bad, because pretty much everything he recorded—including singles and albums for major labels like Capitol and Decca—is worth a listen. His very personal style was rooted on his unique sense of rhythm, as well as on his knack for experimenting with melodies and lyrics, often singing as though he were playing an instrument. There is always an element of surprise and excitement to Murphy's recorded work, as he is constantly willing to improvise and to take the listener to unexpected places in the process.

Although it is always a good idea to check out Murphy's albums such as Meet Mark Murphy (Decca), This Could Be the Start of Something (Capitol), and the essential Rah! (Riverside), listening to his mid-'50s sides for Decca is quite a revealing experience. A good sample of his Decca work is available on Crazy Rhythm: His Debut Recordings (GRP Records, 1999), a collection of twenty tracks cut in 1956 and 1957, all of them masterfully arranged by Ralph Burns, who proves to be a worthy associate, understanding and complementing Murphy perfectly. Even at this early stage of his career, it seems obvious that there is something special to Murphy's voice, and all the defining features of his style—daring improvisation, unique sense of rhythm and timing, eclecticism—are already apparent, and not precisely in embryonic form, as one would expect. As Doug Ramsey rightly observes in the liner notes, by the mid-'50s, Murphy "had polished his gifts in harmony, shaped his vocal line and assumed command of phrasing and time to a degree that few singers attain." Ramsey is also correct in his description of Murphy's agenda as a youthful jazz singer: "He was a vocal artist in the service of a song, not a pop singer driven by visions of the Top 40." And, sadly for his pocketbook but happily for jazz fans, this may well be one of the reasons why his records were never as commercially successful as they should have been.

Murphy in the 1970s
This attitude of being in the service of a song somewhat likens him to Frank Sinatra, who, around the same time that Murphy was recording for Decca, was in the midst of creating the most artistically valuable albums of his career for Capitol, often reviving songs that had been long forgotten. Murphy's work for Decca reveals two clearly defined sides to his artistry: the fearless rhythm improviser and the sensitive ballad singer. The former is well represented in Crazy Rhythm by the title track, as well as "Fascinating Rhythm," "I Got Rhythm," and "Ridin' High," among others. There is such a feeling of enjoyment in Murphy's singing that it is no wonder that so many songs have the word rhythm in their titles! The latter is best appreciated on "Takin' a Chance on Love" (which includes the verse), "A Nightingale Sang on Berkeley Square," and, particularly, on Murphy's masterful rendition of "I Guess I'll Hang My Tears Out to Dry." But that is not all: Murphy can also be soulful and bluesy when he feels like it, as on "If I Could Be with You (One Hour Tonight)." He gives "Limehouse Blues" a very appropriate Asian flavor, and he already shows a penchant for choosing unusual and lesser-known songs, such as "Elmer's Tune," "The Lady in Red," and "Little Jazz Bird." Murphy will be greatly missed by vocal jazz aficionados, but luckily we still have his wonderful albums. These early recordings are definitely a good place to start listening to Mark Murphy, and they are essential to a proper understanding of his later work.

Other Albums by Mark Murphy

Fortunately, a good number of Murphy's albums are back in print on CD thanks to the European label Fresh Sound Records, who has recently reissued quite a bit of his work. His complete Decca recordings are available on The Singing M: The Complete Decca Recordings, and two double CDs entitled Mark Murphy Sings and Orchestra Conducted by Bill Holman feature albums he cut for Capitol and Riverside. A further CD from Fresh Sound includes the Riverside album Rah! and the Capitol outing Mark Murphy's Hip Parade. Other CDs by Mark Murphy that are well worth seeking out, although they may not always be easy to find are A Swingin' Singin' Affair (Fontana), Midnight Mood (MPS Records), Sings Mostly Dorothy Fields and Cy Coleman (Audiophile), and Stolen Moments (Muse Records).

Murphy's complete Decca recordings on one Fresh Sound CD

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Lesser-Known Bandleaders in Brief: Willie Bryant

Once known as "the Unofficial Mayor of Harlem," in the mid-1930s Willie Bryant led a fantastic band whose recorded output was unfortunately too small—a mere 26 sides for Victor, Brunswick, and Decca (you can find a complete discography of the band's 1930s recordings here). Critic George T. Simon does not tell us much about Bryant in his book The Big Bands, simply characterizing him as "a sleek, suave gent who . . . led a swinging band at the Savoy, featuring some great young musicians" (504). The lineup of his orchestra included, at one time or another, Teddy Wilson, Ben Webster, Eddie Durham, Benny Carter, Taft Jordan, and Cozy Cole, to name but a few, and the recordings they made together still sound swinging and exciting about eighty years later. However, Bryant was not much of a musician himself, having attempted unsuccessfully to learn to play the trumpet, but his knack for business and for surrounding himself with talented sidemen should not be overlooked. True, he may have just been waving the baton in front of the band and singing occasionally, but he definitely had an ear for recognizing talent, and if the records he made with his orchestra are still worth listening to today, it is because of the very inspired contributions of his soloists.

Cozy Cole played drums in Bryant's band in the mid '30s
Born in New Orleans in August 1908, Bryant kicked off his career as a dancer in the vaudeville circuits with an act called the Whitman Sisters and at some point even performed with Bessie Smith. His days as a bandleader began in earnest in 1934, when he put together his first orchestra, entering the studio for the first time one year later. The band made the bulk of their recorded work for Victor and Bluebird, and in 1938 also cut some sides for Decca which are rather hard to find. Drummer Panama Francis, who played in the Bryant outfit for about nine months in the '30s, observes in his autobiography that, albeit charismatic, Bryant did not become a bandleader strictly for musical reasons:

Willie Bryant was all right, a lot of fun, but he was no band leader. He didn't even know who was the conductor, they put him out front 'cause he looked like a white man. Basically they took a light skinned character and put a band around him. Bill Dogget was the straw boy for Willie. (50)

Bryant with singer Gladys Bentley
Whatever the case, Bryant must have been aware of his limitations, because even though he sings on many of the band's records, in a style heavily influenced by Fats Waller though never a match for Waller's inimitable charisma, he always made sure to leave plenty of room for his musicians to solo. When his orchestra disbanded, Bryant became a popular disc jockey and even hosted a television show for a while in the late 1940s. In 1945 he tried his hand at rhythm and blues, cutting only two songs for the Apollo label, "Blues Around the Clock" and "Amateur Night in Harlem," which are available on the Delmark CD Blues Around the Clock. The latter track finds him mimicking what he did best throughout the 1950s: emceeing shows at the Apollo Theater in Harlem, where he remained popular until his death from a heart attack in February 1964 in Los Angeles. The February 27, 1964 issue of Jet magazine reports that "his body was discovered by veteran entertainer Leonard Reed, who called at Bryant's apartment when the latter failed to keep an appointment. Although no one answered the door, Reed became suspicious that Bryant was inside because his car was parked outside and summoned the apartment manager to gain entrance. Bryant's age was placed at 56 by a long-time associate, Max Acosta" (61).

About eight decades after they were made, Willie Bryant's records are not easy to come by and are available on CD only on European imports that usually command rather hefty prices. Willie Bryant and His Orchestra 1935-36 (Classics, 1994) and Jazz Archives # 53: Willie Bryant & His Orchestra (Auvidis, 1992) feature exactly the same twenty-two tracks—the five dates for Victor and Bluebird that the band cut in New York City in the mid 1930s, but the Decca session from 1938 is unfortunately not included. These are wonderful recordings full of zest and Bryant's contagious sense of excitement, which is evident on cuts such as "Throwin' Stones at the Sun," "A Viper's Moan," "Rigamarole," "Steak and Potatoes," and "Long Gone (from Bowling Green)," among others. The band's theme song, the haunting ballad "It's Over Because We're Through" (co-written by Bryant himself), is also here, and most of the tracks are interesting and highly listenable because of their engaging solos. That is the case of the growling trombone on Ted Snyder's "The Sheik" and of "The Right Somebody to Love," the latter featuring a flute played by Charles Frazier. Trumpeter Taft Jordan delivers a fine vocal on "All My Life," a danceable ballad that shows that these great musicians were very adept at performing more mainstream pop material as well. The consistently high quality of all these recordings definitely calls for a domestic reissue—perhaps including the 1938 Decca session, too—that would make these great sides more readily available, thus enabling listeners to rediscover them.

Willie Bryant and his orchestra in the 1930s

Thursday, October 15, 2015

"Y'a de la Joie": Charles Trenet, or The Singing Madman

A few days ago I was talking to my father about the great French singer-songwriter, Georges Brassens, whom we both admire, and that conversation brought to mind the undeniable influence of Charles Trenet on the songwriting style of Brassens. Therefore, I decided to dust off my Trenet records, which in turn led to writing this brief overview of his amazing career.

Few French singers enjoyed a career as long and productive as Charles Trenet, who, in a span of about sixty years, wrote and recorded countless songs, toured tirelessly, and even published several novels and books of poetry. Some of the best songs he introduced achieved international popularity through English versions performed by the likes of Bobby Darin and Frank Sinatra. That is the case of "La Mer," which became a big hit for Darin as "Beyond the Sea," and the beautiful ballad "Que Reste-t-Il de Nos Amours?" which was covered in English by many artists under the title of "I Wish You Love." Trenet's ebullient stage persona, his theatrics, and his jazz-tinged singing style influenced a whole generation of French singers, including Jean Sablon, Yves Montand, Georges Brassens, Léo Ferré, and Jacques Brel, so his importance in the universe of the French chanson should not be underestimated.

Maurice Chevalier, Trenet's early singing influence
Born in Narbonne in May 1913, as a young man Trenet was inspired by the music and stage demeanor of Maurice Chevalier, one of the most popular French all-around entertainers of all time. Due to the divorce of his parents, his childhood was not the happiest, and not being a very good student, Trenet found solace in art, particularly in painting and music. By the 1930s he was working as part of a duo with panist Johnny Hess, and the Chevalier influence was already clearly showing, not only in his explosive singing style, but also in his penchant for launching into actual impersonations of Chevalier himself. The influence of jazz is also evident in the early recordings that the duo of Charles and Johnny made in the mid-30s and that include mostly songs that they wrote themselves, together with French versions of American tunes by Cole Porter. Despite their popularity in Paris music halls, Charles and Johnny broke up their act in 1936 because of mandatory military service, and it was around this time that Trenet's solo career began in earnest, both as a songwriter and as a vocalist. In the former capacity, he penned songs for Jean Sablon ("Vous Qui Passez Sans Me Voir"), his idol Chevalier ("Y'a de la Joie") and Yves Montand ("C'est la Vie Qui Va"), and his first hit as a singer was the catchy tune, "Boum," which he cut in 1939, and whose lyric mentions the Bing Crosby tune, "Love in Bloom."

Trenet's bombastic stage persona earned him the nickname of "Le Fou Chantant," or "The Singing Madman," but he was as adept at doing jazzy uptempo numbers as he was at singing more serious sentimental ballads like "Ménilmontant," "Retour à Paris," "Douce France," and "Que Reste-t-Il de Nos Amours." Sometimes he even sang texts by famous poets set to music, as in the case of the lovely "Verlaine," which he recorded with Alix Combelle's Jazz de Paris combo in 1941. This recording brought about criticism from collaborationist journalists who believed that jazz (a style of music which, we must not forget, was labeled "undesirable music" by the Nazis) should not be mixed with the work of a serious poet like Paul Verlaine, whose "Chanson d'Automne" is the basis for this song. Trenet's star rose particularly after the war, and by the 1950s he was an internationally known artist who was touring widely and whose songs were recorded by singers in several languages other than French, and in 1951 he even appeared on television in the United States for the first time. Throughout his career, he got to visit the U.S. and Canada several times, and in fact, his popularity in Canada was one of the main reasons that persuaded him not to retire from recording and performing live in the 1970s.

The arrival of rock'n'roll and changing musical tastes in the 1960s inevitably hurt Trenet's career; as a result, he made very few personal appearances  and released hardly any albums at all in that decade. He kept writing songs and fiction, though, and by the late '70s and early '80s, renewed interest in the music of his era brought him back to French and Canadian stages. Some of these live appearances were recorded, and by the 1990s, Trenet was still making new albums (1995's Fais Ta Vie, with several new songs, is a good example) and different record labels were reissuing his old recordings on CD. Charles Trenet passed away in Créteil in February 2001, about two years after cutting a live album at the Salle Pleyel in Paris. He was one of several singers who contributed to bringing jazz into the French chanson, thereby enriching it and making it more complex and more engaging. He will always be remembered for his dapper stage persona and for the many wonderful songs that he wrote and that could be at the same time joyful, nostalgic, and downright funny.

For those who may wish to get acquainted with his vast recorded legacy, there are many compilations currently available in the U.S., but a proper place to start is Swing Troubadour 1937-1947 (Saga Records, 2008) because it features most of his best-known numbers, including "Boum," "La Mer," "Je Chante," "Verlaine," "Ménilmontant," and "Que Reste-t-Il de Nos Amours," among several others. The musicianship of the backing bands is outstanding here, as Trénet joins forces with Alix Combelle, Wal-Berg, Bernard Hilda, and even dazzling swing guitarist Django Reinhardt on "La Cigale et La Fourmi." A more comprehensive collection is the two-CD import Chanson 1937-1960 (BD Music, 2011), which contains 48 tracks, very detailed liner notes in French, and even an account of parts of Trenet's life in the form of a full-color comic book. Another interesting French import is 100 Chansons (EMI France, 2007), a five-disc set that offers, well, one hundred tracks by Trenet, and finally, Definitive Collection (Not Now Records, 2010) is a fairly inexpensive way to get introduced to seventy-five of his best songs, with good sound quality but, alas, no notes or personnel information.

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

New (Re)Issues: Tony Bennett & Bill Charlap; Erroll Garner; Jan Lundgren

Besides having just been released, the three CDs that we are reviewing today are linked by the fact that they feature three outstanding pianists. First of all, we take a look at Tony Bennett's recent collaboration with Bill Charlap in the manner of dates that the singer has cut in the past alongside Bill Evans and Ralph Sharon. Then, there is the fantastic reissue of Erroll Garner's Concert by the Sea, one of the best-selling jazz albums of all time, offering now the complete concert in a deluxe package and with several unreleased performances. Finally, we discuss a career-long compilation of Swedish pianist Jan Lundgren's work for the European label Fresh Sounds, which is an excellent introduction to the man and his music.

Few singers have thrived at the intersection between jazz and pop, between Birdland and Tin Pan Alley, the way that Tony Bennett has. Frank Sinatra famously ranked him high among the small group of great saloon singers, and although Ol' Blue Eyes should know, what Bennett has always been is a jazz singer who imbues even the tritest pop material with an unequivocal jazz feeling. At 89, and after cutting some commercially successful albums of duets and a collaboration with current pop star and personal friend, Lady Gaga, Bennett has just released a new album that brings to mind former LPs of his such as The Tony Bennett / Bill Evans Album or his work with Ralph Sharon on, for instance, Tony Sings for Two. Entitled The Silver Lining: The Songs of Jerome Kern (Columbia, 2015), this new CD finds Bennett in fine voice and still tirelessly championing the music from the Great American Songbook, in this case the works of Jerome Kern. In his well-written liner notes, critic Will Friedwald eloquently describes Kern as a transition figure in the world of musical theater, "a direct connection between Brahms and Charlie Parker." Similarly, Bennett is a direct link between jazz and pop, and so a collection of Kern's timeless songs—which seems to have been his idea—is definitely right up the vocalist's alley.

Besides the repertoire, the other one aspect that makes this project successful is the choice of accompaniment: pianist Bill Charlap is a sensitive accompanist who understands singers very well and who is consistently able to provide the kind of setting that Bennett's husky, rhythmic voice needs. Three selections ("All the Things You Are," "The Way You Look Tonight," and "Make Believe") hark back to Bennett's 1970s encounters with Bill Evans, as they are voice-piano duos between the vocalist and Charlap. These are, of course, among the most intimate tracks in the album, only rivaled by the four tunes ("The Last Time I Saw Paris," "Long Ago and Far Away," "The Song Is You," and "Look for the Silver Lining") on which Charlap is joined on piano by his wife, Renee Rosnes. Both pianos are perfectly intertwined here, and the overall result benefits from their mutual understanding and from the delicately lyrical way in which they accompany Bennett. The rest of selections ("Pick Yourself Up," "I Won't Dance," "Dearly Beloved," "They Didn't Believe Me," "I'm Old Fashioned," "Yesterdays," and "Nobody Else But Me") feature Charlap's trio, with the unrelated Peter Washington on bass and Kenny Washington on drums. As always, Bennett feels extremely comfortable in this trio setting, and there is usually room for well-constructed solos by Charlap here and there. Tony Bennett is quite possibly the greatest jazz and pop singer currently still working, and albums like this new one show off his love for great music, as well as his willingness to improve his already vast and invaluable recorded legacy.

On September 19, 1955, pianist Erroll Garner cut a live album in Carmel, California, that, after it was released under the title of Concert by the Sea, was destined to become one of jazz's best-selling records ever. The original LP amply showcased Garner's dazzling pianistics in a trio setting, with Eddie Calhoun on bass and Denzil Best on drums, but it did not feature the complete concert. Now, sixty years after the event, Columbia-Legacy has finally made available the entire gig in a deluxe digipack three-CD set that includes eleven previously unreleased tracks, new essays by Dan Morgenstern, Geri Allen, and Robin Kelley, and a fourteen-minute interview with Garner and his trio taped right after the concert. In his new liner notes, Morgenstern observes that "Garner conceived of the keyboard as a combination of a band's horn and rhythm sections, rolled into a single voice. And his uncanny sense of time, his marvelous touch, and wide-open ears made that conception come alive."

The Complete Concert by the Sea (Sony / Columbia-Legacy, 2015) is one of the best examples of this, a magic night when all planets seemed to be aligned for the creation of unforgettable jazz. From the opening version of Cole Porter's "Night and Day," it seems clear that there is a special rapport between Garner and the rest of the rhythm section, and the audience is always appreciative of the band's efforts. Whether it is an uptempo number like "It's All Right with Me," a semiclassical treatment of a ballad such as "Spring Is Here," or a Latin-flavored tune "Mambo Carmel," Garner always feels at ease to experiment with the melodies, the harmonies, and the tempi, and throughout the concert there is a sense of excitement that is simply infectious. His readings of standard ballads such as "Autumn Leaves" and "Laura" are as lush and emotive as the uptempo numbers like "Red Top" and "Caravan" are surprising and exciting, showing what a master Garner was at the keyboard. This is a milestone jazz concert whose complete reissue was long overdue—too long, as a matter of fact—and it would be great news if it marked the beginning of a series of necessary Garner reissues.

And last, but definitely not least, we welcome the recent release of Jan Lundgren: A Retrospective (Fresh Sounds Records, 2015), a twelve-track compilation of Jan Lundgren's work for the Barcelona-based label, an association which goes way back to the very beginning of the Swedish pianist's recording career in the mid-1990s. On this retrospective album, we find the very talented Lundgren playing both as a session leader and as a sideman. In the former capacity, Lundgren always seems to feel most comfortable in a trio setting, driving the band forward with his characteristically classy swinging approach. As a leader, Lundgren is showcased here to great advantage via one track from his excellent album Cooking! At the Jazz Bakery (cut in Los Angeles in 1996), as well as two tunes from his tribute CD to songwriter Matt Dennis, which we have already reviewed in The Vintage Bandstand (you may find the review, along with our interview with Lundgren here). Lundgren has devoted several CDs to honoring the work of lesser-known composers from the Great American Songbook, whose compositions he reinvents from his own jazzy perspective, as in the case of Dennis's "Angel Eyes" and "Spring Isn't Spring Anymore." Retreating into the early stages of his recording career, this compilation also includes a track from his 1996 album, California Connection, a trio reading of Barney Kessel's "Swedish Pastry" with bassist Dave Carpenter and drummer Paul Kreibich.

As a sideman, Lundgren has participated in countless sessions alongside well-known musicians who made a name for themselves mostly within the confines of West Coast jazz and who are caught here at the tail end of their careers but still sounding just as good as ever. That is the case of Herb Geller, Bill Perkins, and Conte Candoli. Trumpeter Candoli appears on two cuts, "On Green Dolphin Street" and "Rockin' Chair," which are among the best on this retrospective compilation. The track with Geller is a beautiful saxophone-piano duo on the little-known Sam Coslow number "Restless," which shows what an inspired accompanist Lundgren can be. In the early years of his career, Lundgren counted on the support and mentorship of the venerable Arne Domnérus, and the two of them do a clarinet-piano duo on "Barney Goin' Easy," a mid-tempo vehicle that Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn originally fashioned for Barney Bigard. Two tracks come from a 2001 album that Lundgren made with pianist Pete Jolly: "I've Never Been in Love Before" and "You Stepped Out of a Dream" prove that Jolly and Lundgren are a perfect match and a sheer joy to listen to. In short, anyone who appreciates jazz piano needs to know Jan Lundgren, and this is undoubtedly the perfect starting point for those who wish to get introduced to his music.