Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Jazz in Catalan: Núria Feliu, Lou Bennett, and Their Friends, 1966

A largely forgotten figure in jazz history now, and too often compared with Jimmy Smith when mentioned at all, Lou Bennett was one of the best organists of the 1960s and '70s, even though he spent most of his professional life in Europe and only returned briefly to the United States in 1964 to appear at the Newport Jazz Festival. Born in Philadelphia in 1926, Bennett first took up the piano before switching to organ in the mid 1950s. After touring the country for a few years, in 1960 he moved to France, where he found a vibrant jazz scene and a much more eager audience for his boppish music. In Europe Bennett recorded steadily, although many of his albums are not easy to find on CD these days. One of his little-known masterpieces, as Marc Myers rightly argues in this article, is Enfin!, which he cut for the French branch of RCA in 1963. Even more obscure than that is an album he made three years later in Barcelona, Spain, with the Spanish vocalist Núria Feliu, entitled Núria Feliu, Lou Bennett I Els Seus Amics (Núria Feliu, Lou Bennett, and Their Friends).

According to José María García Martínez in his book Del Fox-Trot al Jazz Flamenco (From Fox-Trot to Flamenco Jazz), a history of jazz in Spain between 1919 and 1996, by the mid 1960s Bennett was living in Cambrils, a town not too far from Barcelona, and appearing with guitarist René Thomas in clubs in and around Barcelona, where "he was known throughout the country as a messenger of jazz" (190). Though he had settled in Paris, where he would eventually pass away in 1997, it is very possible that Bennett spent part of his time in Spain, at this time still under the dictatorial regime of Francisco Franco and not as receptive to jazz—and foreign music in general—as other European countries. Whatever the case, sometime in 1966, Bennett, along with Philip Catherine on guitar and other unknown musicians, backed Feliu on this excellent album released by the Spanish Edigsa label. Apparently, the masterminds behind the project were producer Albert Mallofré and Spanish piano ace Tete Montoliu, who wrote some of the arrangements and, though uncredited, even plays piano on some of the tracks. The album is essentially a collection of well-known standards sung in Catalan, not Spanish, by Feliu, with lyrics translated and adapted by Jaume Picas, and the overall result, with Bennett's groovy contributions on organ, is extremely enjoyable.

Though celebrated as both a pop singer, well known as a master interpreter of the Catalan cuplé song form, Feliu was a jazz vocalist at heart, as evidenced in this 1974 television appearance, where her set list is rife with jazzy interpretations of standards. In fact, Feliu had already recorded an album with Montoliu prior to this session with Bennett and had even sung in New York accompanied by the Spanish pianist. This album with Bennett can be considered, in many ways, a follow-up to her collaboration with Montoliu, who participates actively in the project. Like Sweden's Monica Zetterlund, Feliu has a very agreeable voice and an unerring sense of time that allows her to swing in an effortless manner. Her voice, albeit not always as melodious as Zetterlund, blends perfectly with the organ accompaniment, and her readings of the Catalan lyrics of all these very familiar tunes are never less than convincing. The LP starts off with "Geòrgia, Geòrgia," a slow-paced, rather bluesy version of Hoagy Carmichael's "Georgia on My Mind" that sets the pace for what we will find in the rest of the album. "Encara No" is a mid-tempo reading of "Speak Low" with Montoliu on piano delivering a lovely solo, and with some fine guitar work from Catherine. "D'Aqui a L'Eternitat" is not really a standard, but the theme song of the movie From Here to Eternity set to a semi-Latin beat that works perfectly for Catherine to offer us a beautiful, subdued guitar solo. Bennett sets a groovy mood on "T'He Mirat," a particularly swinging version of "I Only Have Eyes for You," and the first side of the LP concludes with one of the highlights—a very laid-back arrangement of Duke Ellington's "Satin Doll," entitled "Nina de Seda," which features some great interplay between Bennett and Catherine.

Pianist Tete Montoliu
The second side of the disc begins with Feliu at her most seductive, reciting the opening lines of "No Saps la Feresa d'Amor," which is actually "You Don't Know What Love Is," the slowest number on the set, in equal parts dramatic and restrained, featuring some extremely sympathetic playing by Montoliu, who could be romantic and smooth without ever overdoing it. "Ningú No Ho Podrà Saber Com Jo" (George and Ira Gershwin's classic "They Can't Take That Away from Me") picks up the pace and gives Bennett a chance to show off his dazzling skills on the organ and prove why European audiences were attracted to his very personal style. "Aquell Infant" is "Nature Boy" given the full Montoliu treatment; his marvelous piano solo seems to inspire Feliu to play with the rhythm and the melody throughout the whole performance. Bennett is back for "Cèntims del Ciel," an uptempo arrangement of "Pennies from Heaven" that finds the organist sounding quite a bit like Jimmy Smith, and Feliu proving that she really knew how to swing and sing slightly behind the beat whenever she felt it was necessary. Again accompanied by Montoliu's piano, Feliu reaches quite far back for "Te'n Vas Anar," an interesting reading of "After You've Gone" that begins in a bluesy mood for about a chorus and then picks up the tempo and closes the album with a bang. Though the rest of Feliu's recorded output has its interesting moments (particularly the aforementioned session with Montoliu that also includes Booker Ervin and which is highly recommended) this obscure album is definitely one of its highlights and proves that jazz and the Great American Songbook, when done properly, can sound engaging in any language. For anyone who is interested, Núria Feliu, Lou Bennett I Els Seus Amics, reissued on CD by the Picap label a few years ago, can be found as a CD-R in the United States at the time of this writing. It is an unusual, yet thoroughly satisfying record that is sure to appeal to any jazz aficionado in search of something off the beaten path and with a swinging beat.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Cool Grooves: A Musical Appreciation of Dean Martin's Capitol Studio Albums, 1953-1962

This year marks the twentieth anniversary of the passing of Dean Martin, and his musical legacy keeps going strong. Widely celebrated as the epitome of cool, Martin cut a series of consistently excellent studio albums for Capitol Records in a span of nine years, between 1953 and 1962. Though they did not make as much of an impact on the charts as his later, more commercial work for Reprise, these albums are among the many high points in his career. In this article, I will briefly discuss these eight LPs, which can all be found on CD and should be in the collection of any serious Dino fan.

By 1953, about three years before they dissolved their partnership, Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis were one of the top acts in the country, a constant presence in nightclubs, movies, and television. As far as records were concerned, Martin had signed with Capitol in 1948 and had concentrated mostly on cutting singles, some of which (particularly "Powder Your Face with Sunshine") were quite successful. It was now time to release a ten-inch LP, called simply Dean Martin Sings (1953), which contained eight songs, all of them from the then-current Martin and Lewis movie, The Stooge. The album was recorded in two sessions held on the same day, November 20, 1953, and it consists of a well-balanced mixture of brassy fast numbers and slow string charts. The latter were recorded first, with Ted Nash's saxophone providing beautiful fills that complement Dino's smooth crooning perfectly on songs such as "I'm Yours," "With My Eyes Wide Open I'm Dreaming," and "A Girl Named Mary and a Boy Named Bill." Martin also plays tribute to his boyhood idol, Bing Crosby, with a version of "Just One More Chance" that does not stray too far from the original. The uptempo numbers were cut at the second session, including "Who's Your Little Who-Zis," "I Feel a Song Comin' On," "I Feel Like a Feather in the Breeze," and "Louise," which Lewis actually sings in the film. Two years after the release of Dean Martin Sings, the record industry had adopted the twelve-inch LP as its primary long-playing medium, and so the album was reissued with the addition of four more songs: a lovely ballad treatment of "When You're Smiling," the number-two hit "That's Amore," and two Italian-flavored songs, "Oh Marie" and "Come Back to Sorrento," the latter sung entirely in Italian.

On paper, a collection of songs about the American South sung by an Italian American from Ohio may sound like an unlikely choice for Martin's second Capitol LP. But that is precisely what Swingin' Down Yonder (1955) is, and it works because the Dixieland idiom perfectly suits Dino's devil-may-care approach to swing. This time no marathon one-day session was needed; Martin's first true concept album took shape over the course of three sessions held between September 1954 and February 1955. Like on the previous record, Dick Stabile is at the helm, but the arrangements are now all bouncy and jazzy, though a little gimmicky at times. The studio band sounds tight and includes fine musicians like trombonist Milt Bernhardt and trumpeters Charlie Teagarden, Conrad Gozzo, and Mannie Klein. Dino is obviously at ease crooning Southern-themed standards such as "Carolina Moon," "When It's Sleepy Time Down South," and "Georgia on My Mind," and he gets the chance to pay homage not only to Crosby ("Mississippi Mud," "Dinah," "Basin Street Blues") but also to Al Jolson ("Carolina in the Morning"). One of the lesser-known tracks on the album is the Gene Krupa-associated "Just a Little Bit South of North Carolina," and this musical journey into a fairly recent past, as revivalist as it clearly sounds, makes it evident that Martin's easy-swinging style would not be out of place on any Mississippi river steamboat.

Martin turned to ballads for his next project, entitled Pretty Baby (1957) and recorded over the course of two sessions held at the end of January 1957. Although the concept is not as evident here as on the previous album, Dino's nonchalant performances are always more enjoyable than the often annoying Pied Pipers-like vocal accompaniment with which the arrangements are saddled. Martin's happy-go-lucky persona is underscored by the cover, which has our man looking knowingly at the camera as he passes by a beautiful blonde who openly smiles at him. A similar motif would reappear two years later on the jacket of A Winter Romance. The charts, provided by Gus Levene on this occasion, make the ballads swing in a comfortable manner, and the studio orchestra, whose size is much more reduced than before, features notable names such as drummer Nick Fatool, pianist Buddy Cole, trombonist Elmer Schneider, and guitarist Alvino Rey. Martin keeps tapping into the Crosby songbook ("Only Forever" and "It's Easy to Remember"), and besides the title track, he turns in some solid performances on songs like "I Can't Give You Anything but Love," "Sleepy Time Gal," "The Object of My Affection," and "Nevertheless (I'm in Love with You."

If Martin seems to be very relaxed on Pretty Baby, he is even more so on Sleep Warm (1959), where relaxation actually becomes the concept. Recorded over three sessions in October 1958, the album boasts appropriately dreamy arrangements by Pete King and has Dino's favorite pal, Frank Sinatra, conducting the orchestra. This was not the first time that Sinatra took up the baton: he had already conducted a series of Alec Wilder tone poems in 1956 and Peggy Lee's LP The Man I Love in 1957. It seems clear that Martin was attempting to create a concept album in the manner of Sinatra's classic Capitol concepts here, since even the title track was specifically written for this project. The rest of the tunes are mostly standards that make reference to the acts of sleeping or dreaming, such as "Hit the Road to Dreamland," "Dream," "All I Do Is Dream of You," and "Dream a Little Dream of Me." Once again, Martin finds room for songs associated with Crosby ("Goodnight Sweetheart," "Let's Put Out the Lights (and Go to Sleep)," and "Wrap Your Troubles in Dreams") as well as quoting the classics ("Brahms' Lullaby") and unearthing the rather obscure gem "Cuddle Up a Little Closer, Lovey Mine." Another woman appears on the cover, but this time she is comfortably sleeping in a bed of clouds and not looking at Dino (and perhaps not wearing any clothes under those nebulous sheets), who would further this concept five years later when he cut the album Dream with Dean for Reprise.

Rather than a full-fledged Christmas package (he would not release one such record until 1966), Martin's next project, A Winter Romance (1959), is a concept album built around the theme of winter, with a couple of Yuletide songs thrown in because in at least half the globe the Christmas holidays happen to take place during the winter. I have already published a more in-depth article about this lovely LP—one of my personal favorites in Martin's discography—in The Vintage Bandstand, so if the reader is interested, the piece may be accessed here. Then, for his first record of the new decade, Martin would have his first opportunity to collaborate with Nelson Riddle, who had been working closely with Sinatra for about seven years. For their first album together, This Time I'm Swingin'! (1960), Riddle and Martin selected a repertoire made up of older and newer songs, to which they gave an irresistible, laid-back swinging treatment, with arrangements that are not very different from the ones Riddle would write for the LP Sinatra's Swingin' Session about one year later. In fact, one of the songs, "I Can't Believe That You're in Love with Me," would also be selected by Sinatra for that album, and "Imagination" had been recorded by Young Blue Eyes back during his tenure with Tommy Dorsey and was a song that he often featured in his live performances. Two songs, "I've Grown Accustomed to Her Face" and "On the Street Where You Live" are culled from Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe's My Fair Lady, and Dino shines on "You're Nobody 'Til Somebody Loves You," "Mean to Me," and "Just in Time." It seems that by now it had become almost necessary for Martin to tip his hat to Bing Crosby at least once on every record, so here he includes one of Der Bingle's latest hits, "True Love," done as a mid-tempo swinging ballad. The studio orchestra is full of West Coast luminaries (Buddy Collette, Don Fagerquist, Pete Candoli, and Shorty Sherock are just a few examples) and in this kind of company Martin delivers on the title's promise—he is definitely swinging this time!

Just why it took Martin and Capitol so long to think of cutting a whole album of Italian and Italian-influenced songs is anyone's guess. To be fair, three out of the four tunes added to the twelve-inch version of Dean Martin Sings have an Italian origin, so in that respect they foreshadow Dino: Italian Love Songs (1962), which was completed in three sessions held in September 1961. Unlike Sinatra, Martin had always openly celebrated his Italian-American heritage by performing Italian-flavored songs (sometimes even in Italian) and producing a collection of some of his favorite tracks of this kind was a stroke of genius. In fact, Dino: Italian Love Songs, was the only one of his Capitol albums that actually charted, and many of the songs it includes ("Return to Me," "On an Evening in Roma") have become closely associated with Martin, who featured them prominently in nightclub appearances. The arrangements are by Gus Levene, who also conducts the orchestra, and although some of the charts sound grandiloquent at times, they usually complement Dino's laid-back crooning beautifully. Though not all the tunes are genuinely Italian ("I Have But One Heart" is an example of this), they all have an Italian feel, and many of them do indeed hail from Italy. For instance, "Take Me in Your Arms" is "Torna a Surriento" (also included in Dean Martin Sings) with a different set of lyrics, and "There's No Tomorrow" is "O Sole Mio" with the same English lyrics sung by Tony Martin on his RCA recording of this classic Neapolitan song. Other standout tracks from the album are "Just Say I Love Her" and "Arrivederci Roma," and Dino sounds so much at ease warbling these Italian ditties that it is fairly surprising that he never recorded a follow-up to this marvelous LP.

By the time Martin's last project for Capitol, Cha Cha de Amor (1962), was released, the singer had switched labels and signed with the Frank Sinatra-owned Reprise Records, for which he had already cut an album, French Style. Recorded in three sessions in December 1961, Martin's last Capitol LP is one of his strangest: as the title suggests, here we have a set of twelve songs, most of which did not originate in Latin America, set to a cha cha beat. The concept is even more unlikely if we bear in mind that by 1961-62, the brief cha cha craze of a few years earlier had practically waned. But, oddly, the concept works because Nelson Riddle handles the arrangements, which are anything but pretentious and which suit Dino's relaxed delivery much better than one would expect. It is difficult to pick standout tracks on this album, both because all the performances are strong and because, as annotator James Ritz points out in his notes for a 2005 CD reissue, "although [it is] delightful and easy to listen to, there's an inherent sameness about the album that left room for very few surprises." Yet this sameness should be attributed neither to Martin, who always sings with gusto, nor to Riddle, whose arrangements are highly inventive, but perhaps to the repetitive nature of the cha cha rhythm itself. In any case, if pressed to choose favorites, I would name the title song, "Somebody Loves You," "Love (Your Spell Is Everywhere)," "I Wish You Love," and "A Hundred Years from Today." Dino clearly enjoyed the format of this album, for one of his first LPs for Reprise, Dino Latino, would follow a similar Latin American theme. After completing the sessions for Cha Cha de Amor, Martin began to record in earnest for Reprise, entering a highly successful phase in his career that, at least as far as charted hits were concerned, would surpass his Capitol era. But that is, as they say, an entirely different story to be told at a different time.

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Gigi Gryce as Seen by Noal Cohen

I recently received an e-mail from one of our readers inquiring about an article I wrote a few weeks ago about French pianist Jack Diéval. The message came from Noal Cohen, who, along with his friend and fellow jazz enthusiast, Michael Fitzgerald, has written and published the only biography of alto saxophonist Gigi Gryce currently available—Rat Race Blues: The Musical Life of Gigi Gryce (Rockville, MD: Current Research in Jazz, 2014, Second edition). I asked Mr. Cohen if he would be interested in writing a brief portrait of Gryce for The Vintage Bandstand that also featured some information about his highly recommendable book. I was extremely pleased and grateful when he agreed, and it is an honor to publish his excellent piece here. It is followed by some further information about Cohen and Fitzgerald, some indispensable online resources on Gryce's work, and four recommended albums by Gryce that any serious jazz fan should own.

A Portrait of Gigi Gryce, by Noal Cohen

When alto saxophonist Gigi Gryce died in 1983, his legacy was but a distant memory. While regrettable, this is not terribly surprising in view of the fact that some twenty years earlier, he had changed his name and abandoned his career as a performing musician, arranger, composer, and music publisher. Yet during the decade that he was part of the vibrant 1950s New York City scene, his many contributions were highly regarded. Evidence of his status among the jazz elite can be seen in Art Kane’s iconic 1958 photograph A Great Day In Harlem, where Gryce is found at the extreme left in suit, tie, hat, and perhaps most characteristically, with a folio under his arm, no doubt containing music. There he stands among jazz giants like Count Basie, Sonny Rollins, and his friend Thelonious Monk, whom he had shepherded to the photo shoot that memorable summer day.

Although eventually overshadowed by his longer-tenured contemporaries, Gryce participated in many recording sessions between 1953 and 1961, often as leader, and he composed prolifically, with his body of work including such frequently performed pieces as “Minority” and “Social Call.” His talents and interests, however, extended beyond the boundaries of those usually associated with jazz artists. He was a pioneer in music publishing and served as a mentor to younger aspiring musicians who needed assistance with problems both musical and professional. Serious, dedicated, clean-living, conservatory-trained, and always willing to pass on his extensive musical knowledge to others, Gryce was far from the stereotype of the jazz musician of his time.

Throughout his career, he collaborated with a number of noted trumpet players including Clifford Brown, Art Farmer, Donald Byrd and Richard Williams. With Byrd, he co-led an ensemble known as the “Jazz Lab” which made a number of highly regarded recordings in 1957 but disbanded soon thereafter. Along with the Max Roach-Clifford Brown Quintet, Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers and the Horace Silver Quintet, the “Jazz Lab,” with its structured but strongly swinging approach, set the tone for the sub-genre known as “hard bop” that had taken hold during this period. Gryce’s last ensemble was called the “Orch-Tette” and added vibraphone to the saxophone-trumpet front line.

As a music publisher, his pioneering efforts to protect composers’ rights were courageous but ill fated and led to serious professional and personal difficulties. In 1963, he left music and became a teacher in the New York City school system using his Muslim name, Basheer Qusim. For twenty years, he taught at several schools, most notably C.E.S. 53 in the South Bronx, renamed “The Basheer Qusim / G.G. Gryce School” in his honor after his death.

In many ways, the story of Gigi Gryce is an uplifting one. He overcame the institutionalized racism of the Deep South, poverty, the ravages of the Great Depression, and the untimely loss of his father. He was able to secure a college education (Boston Conservatory), which provided him with tools that he would exploit effectively in ascending to prominence on the New York jazz scene. But while leaving a substantial legacy of recordings and compositions, his goals and aspirations were never truly fulfilled. Certainly his musical career ended prematurely in the early 1960s when his dreams were shattered in the wake of personal and professional turmoil. There was so much more he could have achieved if circumstances had been different. Yet even with these disappointments he was able to reinvent himself as a superb public-school teacher who commanded the respect and admiration of students, teachers, and parents alike.

Gryce may not have cut the widest swath among the many musicians of his era, but his is a story worth telling. It presents an individual who existed in a strange environment that stood in contradiction to many of his fundamental beliefs. Despite this, he was able to work with the absolute cream of the crop in the exceedingly competitive jazz world. He recorded for major labels as well as small independents, and those records as well as the compositions on them continue to hold interest more than a half-century later.

The Book - Rat Race Blues: The Musical Life of Gigi Gryce

The seeds of Rat Race Blues: The Musical Life of Gigi Gryce were sown in the 1950s when as a teenage jazz aficionado and aspiring musician, I discovered Gryce’s recordings. I found the music original, intriguing and memorable and was always surprised and disappointed that it never seemed to receive the exposure and acclaim I thought it deserved.

Fast forward to 1997 when I met a kindred spirit in intrepid jazz scholar Michael Fitzgerald. After some discussions, a partnership was established regarding research on Gryce who, by that time, had been dead for fourteen years. It soon became apparent that what was known about Gryce was often inaccurate and represented only a fraction of an oeuvre that was as fascinating as it was unexpected. These studies led to a journal article and a presentation at the Institute of Jazz Studies at Rutgers University in Newark, New Jersey in 2000. The first edition of the book was published by Berkeley Hills Books in 2002 whereupon it received uniformly good reviews and a 2003 award for “Excellence in Recorded Sound Research” from the Association for Recorded Sound Collections. The second edition was published in 2014, this time under the Current Research in Jazz imprint, with updates from another decade’s worth of research.

Noal Cohen, June 2015 

About the Authors

Noal Cohen is a Montclair, NJ-based jazz researcher and discographer whose main interests involve artists he considers worthy of greater recognition. He has published online (see his outstanding Jazz History Website here) detailed discographies of Teddy Charles, Herb Geller, Johnny Hartman, Elmo Hope, Tiny Kahn, Joe Locke, Bob Mover, Carl Perkins, Benny Powell, Frank Strozier and Lucky Thompson. He also writes and edits liner notes and has contributed articles to Coda Magazine, Names & Numbers, and Current Research in Jazz Online.

Michael Fitzgerald is electronic services librarian at the University of the District of Columbia, home of the Felix E. Grant Jazz Archives. He is founding editor of the open access online journal Current Research in Jazz and is jazz research director of the website www.jazzdiscography.com.

Musician, researcher, and author Noal Cohen

Other Gigi Gryce Resources

Recommended Recordings of Gigi Gryce

When Farmer Met Gryce, Prestige OJCCD-072-2 (CD; 1994 reissue of 1954 and 1955 material)
Nica’s Tempo, Savoy (Jpn.) SV 0126 (CD; 1991 reissue of 1955 material)
Jazz Lab/Modern Jazz Perspective, Collectables COL 5674 (CD; 1995 issue of 1957 material)
Doin’ the Gigi, Uptown Records, UPCD 27.64 (CD; 2011 release of previously unissued material, some live, from 1957, 1960 and 1961) 

©2015 Noal Cohen

Gigi Gryce was one of many jazz musicians who showed up for this legendary shot by Art Kane

Friday, June 5, 2015

Scottish Trombonist, Arranger, and Composer Johnny Keating Dies at 87

My friend Richard Baker, from the U.K. and a member of the International Club Crosby, alerted me today to the sad news of the passing of Johnny Keating a few days ago. Here is a brief portrait of a remarkable trombonist, arranger, and composer who is largely unknown in the United States.

Though he is probably better remembered today for his television and movie work, Edinburgh-born Johnny Keating was an accomplished trombonist who left us a meritorious legacy as an arranger and composer as well. Staunch Everton soccer fans know him as the writer of the main theme for the British TV show Z Cars, which is still played before every game at Goodison Park. Though Keating began his career as a big band trombonist and cut some worthwhile jazz records, particularly in the 1950s, he also worked as a pop producer (Adam Faith, Petula Clark, Tony Bennett, Caterina Valente, and Sammy Davis, Jr. were just some of the stars with whom he worked in the '60s) and made a series of expertly produced and recorded albums under the title of Johnny Keating's Space Experience. He even had time to publish a mammoth four-volume book on the profession of songwriting that took him about twenty years to complete. Though he is far from being a household name in the United States, where basically only a few film buffs know who he was, British music lost one of its foremost innovators when Keating passed away on May 28.

Keating started out as a big band trombonist
Born in a poor area of Edinburgh in September 1927 to an Irish father and a Scottish mother, Keating learned to play the accordion as a child and then switched to trombone. After finishing his military service, he joined the ranks of the lesser-known Tommy Sampson band, and in 1952 he entered the big time when he was hired by Ted Heath for the trombone section of his orchestra before graduating to the role of arranger. At that time, Heath's was one of the most popular big bands in the British Isles, and when Heath toured the United States in 1956, Keating was still a member. After leaving Heath in the late '50s, Keating established his own school of music in his hometown and then spent most of the 1960s as an arranger and producer, as well as writing movie scores (for Hotel and Robbery, both in 1967) and working on his series of technically advanced Space Experience records, which are not his most memorable works from a jazz standpoint. For a time he also tried his hand at classical music, composing pieces such as the Hebridean Impressions and the Overture 100 Pipers. And as Richard Baker reminded me today, Keating participated in a Bing Crosby recording session, in which Crosby cut "How Green Was My Valley" and "Far from Home," which are quite charming but certainly not two of Der Bingle's best-known titles.

From the point of view of jazz, the two most interesting albums that Johnny Keating made in his career are English Jazz and Swinging Scots, both conveniently reissued on one CD by Vocalion in 2008. English Jazz was released in 1956 by the Bally label, which was apparently part of the company of the same name that made pinball and slot machines. Heavily influenced by West Coast cool jazz, this is a very enjoyable record that finds Keating leading a studio band made out of some of the finest British jazz musicians of the period, such as saxophonists Tommy Whittle and Danny Moss, trombonist George Chisholm, trumpeter Eddie Blair, pianist Bill Le Sage, and drummer Ronnie Verrell, with Dizzy Reece playing bongos on some of the tracks. Most of the tunes are taken at a medium or fast tempo, and among the highlights are "Strictly for KYX," "Gibraltar Rocks," "Good Life," "Eddie Blair's Picnic," and "Piccadilly Jumps." The title of Swinging Scots, released by the Dot label in 1958, is somewhat misleading: despite titles such as "Hampden Roars," "Loch Ness," "Tam O'Shanter," and "Clachnacudan Canal," these are not jazzed-up versions of Scottish songs. The "swinging Scots" here is Keating himself, who once again leads an all-star band full of highly accomplished musicians like Whittle, Blair, and Chisholm, along with trumpeters Jimmy Deuchar and Tommy McQuater, saxophonist Ronnie Ross, and guitarist Alan Metcalfe. The West Coast influence is still evident, but this time we find a fuller big band sound with echoes of cool school arrangers such as Marty Paich and Pete Rugolo. The two albums are lively and swinging and represent the pinnacle of Keating's career as a jazz arranger, constituting the perfect starting point for anyone interested in getting acquainted with the work of this most swinging of Scots.

More information on Johnny Keating

For further information on Keating, please visit his Official Website here, where you will find ample information about his life and career, as well as a collection of interesting pictures.

Keating (center) during a recording session with Tony Bennett (right)

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Songwriter Spotlight: Pinky Tomlin

A recent post in the blog Jazz Lives brought to my attention the work of the singer and songwriter Pinky Tomlin, one of the lesser-known names in Tin Pan Alley history, in spite of the fact that he wrote songs as popular as "The Object of My Affection." Today's article takes a look at his brief career, discussing some of the few songs he cowrote before quitting songwriting and concentrating his professional activities on the oil business.

"Pinky who?" would probably be the first question that comes to mind when one hears the name of Pinky Tomlin, which is usually not spoken in the same breath with those of Cole Porter, George Gershwin, and Irving Berlin. And yet, Pinky Tomlin collaborated in the creation of one of the most popular songs of the 1930s, "The Object of My Affection," which he recorded himself for Brunswick in 1934 with the Jimmie Grier orchestra, Grier being a cowriter of the tune along with Coy Poe. The recording was so sucessful that the Boswell Sisters, Glen Gray, and Jan Garber did not waste much time in covering it, and over the years it would be cut by artists as different as Bert Ambrose, Dean Martin, and Faron Young. Although he wrote a few other interesting songs, Tomlin was never able to recapture the success of "The Object of My Affection," which stands as his greatest contribution to American popular music.

Born Truman Tomlin in Arkansas in 1907, he grew up mostly in Oklahoma, and according to Don Tyler in his book Hit Songs 1900-1955: American Popular Music of the Pre-Rock Era, he "got the nickname 'Pinky' because of his pale hair and [because] he sunburned easily because of his fair complexion" (482). As a kid, Tomlin learned to play guitar and banjo and was so proficient on the latter that in his teens he got to play with none other than Louis Armstrong in a riverboat band. It was while attending the University of Oklahoma that he wrote "The Object of My Affection," apparently dedicated to his soon-to-be wife Joanne. Tomlin was rather active musically while in college, which led to his being discovered by Jimmie Grier, who at that time held an engagement at the prestigious Cocoanut Grove in Los Angeles but was also touring around the country. Grier was so impressed by Tomlin's songwriting that he encouraged him to travel west and record some of his songs with his band. The standout of these sessions was, of course, "The Object of My Affection," featuring a vocal refrain by Pinky himself. In their book Sentimental Journey: Intimate Portraits of America's Great Popular Songs, Marvin Paymer and Don Post accurately describe "Object" as a "happy-go-lucky tune that lends itself well to 'rippling rhythm'" (279), an allusion the staccato style popularized by bandleaders such as Hal Kemp and Shep Fields. The authors go on to analyze the technical reasons that possibly contributed to the widespread popularity of the tune:

Few songs have as many repeated notes as this one, which is also remarkable for its many eighth-note triplets and dotted quarters and eighths. A climax of sorts is reached at the end of the release, with the repeated triplets on the note b-flat at the words: "go where she wants to go, do what she wants to do." (280)

Whatever the strictly musical reasons may be, the truth is the witty yet simple lyrics must also have helped make the song successful because they blend perfectly well with that happy-go-lucky melody: "The object of my affection / Can change my complexion / From white to rosy-red / Oh, any time she holds my hand / And tells me that she's mine." The popularity of the song (of which bawdy versions with unprintable lyrics not written by its author actually exist) opened the doors of Hollywood to Tomlin, who would star in four low-budget musicals that did not really get anywhere, although in some scenes his southern charm shows through in his vocals, even if the songs are nothing special. Here is an example of Tomlin on the big screen, singing "Old-Fashioned Melody" and looking somewhat like Kay Kyser:

Bandleader Jimmie Grier
Tomlin must have felt that his future did not lie in movies, and so he decided to concentrate on songwriting and occasional radio work (most famously with Eddie Cantor on the Texaco Town show) and with the arrival of the Swing Era, he even led his own big band beginning in 1938. Despite the success of the band, not many recorded examples of its work exist, and the pressure caused by constant touring took its toll on Tomlin, who disbanded after merely two years. Some of the songs he wrote during his brief career, such as "What's the Reason (I'm Not Pleasing You?)" and "The Love Bug Will Bite You" (performed here by Fats Waller) are attractive and enjoyable, which makes us wish that he had composed more. Such a wish is expressed by Groucho Marx during a 1958 episode of the television show You Bet Your Life on which Tomlin guested and where he performed a very charming version of "The Object of My Affection." Here is the clip, and if you would like to hear Tomlin sing, you simply have to move the bar to around 5 minutes and 30 seconds:

Bing Crosby and Pinky Tomlin
Yet by this time, Tomlin's years as a singer and songwriter were far behind him, as he had turned to the much more profitable oil business, at which he seems to have been rather successful, even if Groucho jokingly notes that he has moved from one crooked business to another. Until his passing in North Hollywood in 1987 (he survived his wife, Joanne, by about a year), Tomlin does not seem to have composed any further songs, but he did perform occasionally at charity events, and in 1963 he went into the studio to record an album with Nelson Riddle for the small Arvee label, in which he revisits some of his old hits, as well as songs written by others. At the time of this writing, this is the only collection by Tomlin available in a digital format (as a CD-R, as a matter of fact) and a very respectable effort it is. Then in 1981, Tomlin even had time to publish an autobiography—entitled, as one would expect, The Object of My Affection—which is a pleasure to read. The name of Pinky Tomlin is conspicuously absent from most books that discuss Tin Pan Alley and the Great American Songbook, and although he will always be inevitably relegated to the status of a minor figure, he did write a major hit in the 1930s. On the strength of that song alone, even if we overlook the rest of his small output as a songwriter, Tomlin definitely deserves to be better remembered.

The Boswell Sisters were among the first to cover "The Object of My Affection"