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.