THE DOZENS: MY FUNNY VALENTINE by Thomas Cunniffe

“My

            My Funny Valentine, artwork by Suzanne Cerny

“My Funny Valentine” was composed by Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart for the 1937 Broadway show Babes In Arms. Although Hart’s final line links the song to February 14, it was originally sung by the female lead to a male character named Valentine. The song was slow to catch on with the public: the first hit version didn’t appear until 1945, and jazz musicians didn’t start recording it in earnest until the mid-’50s. After it was recorded by Chet Baker, Frank Sinatra and Miles Davis, recordings by pop singers flooded the market, and a (probably apocryphal) story claims that a certain nightclub owner, tired of the song’s overexposure, banned female vocalists from singing it on stage.

As with my previous “Summertime” Dozens, the present collection started with a homemade CD compilation. Collecting several versions of the same song is not a new idea. Jazz educators have done so for years, and my first compilation of this sort gathered 17 versions of “Autumn Leaves” for a jazz improvisation college course. Since then, I’ve compiled several such collections with the goal of disguising the fact that the same song has been played several times in a row. For example, “Come Rain or Come Shine” was an excellent fit, as Frank Sinatra and Ray Charles, respectively, bookended remarkable performances by Clifford Brown, Anita Wardell, Oscar Peterson and Woody Herman. “Body & Soul,” which seemed a natural choice, completely failed, as most of the performances were in ballad tempo and in the same key (D-flat).

All of this leads to my confession that I almost didn’t make a “My Funny Valentine” compilation because I thought that most of the performances would sound alike. To my relief, that was not the case, and I’ve found that “Valentine” is perhaps the most flexible of all jazz standards, subject to a wide variety of interpretations. As Bill Evans once said, the problem with the question “What is jazz?” is that it’s the wrong question: creating jazz is a “how,” not a “what,” and it is how musicians approach a song such as “My Funny Valentine” that makes jazz the unique art that it is.


Miles Davis: My Funny Valentine (1956)

Track

My Funny Valentine (1956)

Artist

Miles Davis (trumpet)

CD

Cookin' with the Miles Davis Quintet (Prestige/OJC 128)

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Musicians:

Miles Davis (trumpet), Red Garland (piano), Paul Chambers (bass), Philly Joe Jones (drums).

Composed by Richard Rodgers & Lorenz Hart

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Recorded: Hackensack, NJ, October 26, 1956

Albumcovermilesdavis-cookinwiththemilesdavisquintet

Rating: 100/100 (learn more)

Miles's first recording of "My Funny Valentine" was made at the end of a marathon session designed to complete his contract with Prestige Records. All the music on the Cookin' / Relaxin' / Workin' / Steamin' sessions was part of his quintet's working repertoire, and every issued recording from the sessions was a first take. Despite this casual approach to posterity, Miles's quintet turned out one masterpiece after another, capped by this version of the Rodgers & Hart standard. With the benefit of hindsight, we know how Miles eventually transformed "Valentine," but the Prestige version was not simply a reference point. Indeed, had Miles never performed the song again, the Prestige version would still be one of the great jazz classics.

Miles's fragile muted trumpet invokes the unheard lyrics even as he moves away from the melody. Paul Chambers's bass dances along in obbligato, offsetting Miles's melancholy. And as Red Garland's joyful piano solo takes the spotlight, Philly Joe Jones lifts the performance with a subtle move to double-time. As with Miles's later versions, what amazes is what's not there: while John Coltrane might have provided a remarkable contrast to Miles's statement here, Miles must have felt that the performance was better balanced without him, and consequently this track is the only one on the first session where Coltrane sits out.

Reviewer: Thomas Cunniffe


Charlie Parker with Stan Kenton: My Funny Valentine

Track

My Funny Valentine

Artist

Charlie Parker (alto sax)

CD

Live with the Big Bands (Jazz Factory 22883)

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Musicians:

Charlie Parker (alto sax), Stan Kenton (piano, leader),

Sam Noto, Vince Minichelli, Buddy Childers, Don Smith, Stu Williamson (trumpets), Milt Gold, Joe Ciavardone, Frank Rosolino, George Roberts (trombones), Charlie Mariano, Dave Schildkraut, Mike Cicchetti, Bill Perkins, Tony Ferina (reeds), Bob Lesher (guitar), Don Bagley (bass), Stan Levey (drums)

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Composed by Richard Rodgers & Lorenz Hart; arranged by Bill Holman

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Recorded: live at the Civic Auditorium, Portland, Oregon, February 25, 1954

Albumcovercharlieparker-livewiththebigbands

Rating: 100/100 (learn more)

Yes, Charlie Parker actually recorded with Stan Kenton! And unlike the electronically created collaborations that are released today, the only "electronic miracle" in this case is that someone had the good sense to record the concert. In 1954, Kenton presented a package tour with Bird, Dizzy Gillespie, Candido and Lee Konitz as featured soloists with his orchestra. While Konitz's performances from the tour have not surfaced, a week after this concert, he recorded the same Bill Holman arrangement of "Valentine" in the studio that Bird had performed live with the band. Konitz's cool, detached performance pales in comparison to Bird's white-hot intensity. Set to an aggressive Latin beat that later gives way to a powerful 4/4 swing, Parker stays close to the melody at first, using his searing tone and flawless melodic sense to accent the important notes. When he starts to improvise, things really heat up as he builds to an astounding climax, where a stutter-tongued figure tied to a descending idea moves up in pitch and intensity until he's wailing over the Kenton brass section. One of Bird's best.

Reviewer: Thomas Cunniffe


Fred Hersch: My Funny Valentine

Track

My Funny Valentine

Artist

Fred Hersch (piano)

CD

The Fred Hersch Trio Plays (Chesky 90)

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Musicians:

Fred Hersch (piano),

Drew Gress (bass), Tom Rainey (drums)

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Composed by Richard Rodgers & Lorenz Hart

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Recorded: New York, December 1992

Albumcoverthefredherschtrioplays

Rating: 95/100 (learn more)

Put simply, Fred Hersch is one of the world's finest jazz pianists, and every day that he can share his musical vision with us is a blessing. This version of "My Funny Valentine" shows how he and his trio bring fresh light to a familiar standard. Hersch shifts from the song's usual key of C minor down to A minor, giving the entire performance a different feel. Gress and Rainey provide an unusual and subtle beat that lightly pulsates rather than swings. Hersch's ultra-lyrical lines float above the time through most of the performance until near the end, when he picks up an insistent rhythmic motive hinted at earlier in his solo and builds it to a peak. Gress contributes a lovely solo based on a single melodic idea, and Rainey's brushwork is tasty throughout.

Reviewer: Thomas Cunniffe


Gerry Mulligan: My Funny Valentine (1953)

Track

My Funny Valentine (1953)

Group

Chet Baker (with the Gerry Mulligan Quartet)

CD

Original Quartet With Chet Baker (Blue Note/Pacific Jazz 94407)

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Musicians:

Gerry Mulligan (baritone sax), Chet Baker (trumpet), Carson Smith (bass), Larry Bunker (drums).

Composed by Richard Rodgers & Lorenz Hart

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Recorded: live at The Haig, Los Angeles, CA, May 20, 1953

Albumcovergerrymulligan-originalquartetwithchetbaker

Rating: 90/100 (learn more)

While Chet Baker was widely known for his vocal versions of "My Funny Valentine," he first recorded the song as a trumpet feature with the original Gerry Mulligan Quartet. Both the Fantasy and Pacific Jazz versions were recorded live, but the Pacific Jazz is the longer and better take. Bunker's opening tom-tom roll announces a dramatic start, and suddenly it is only Baker with Smith's spare bass backing. But listen again, and faintly in the background are the unison singing voices of Mulligan, Smith and Bunker! Baker's plaintive solo displays his natural sense of melody and phrasing. He says so much with the simplicity of his ideas and the burnished sound of his horn. Mulligan was a superb ballad player as well, and his more complex solo acts as a fine counterpoint to Baker's statement. And this time, Baker leads the vocal background, which in keeping with Mulligan's multi-noted solo is more intricate than the backgrounds for the trumpet solo.

Reviewer: Thomas Cunniffe


Paul Desmond: My Funny Valentine

Track

My Funny Valentine

Artist

Paul Desmond (alto sax)

CD

The Paul Desmond Quartet Live (Verve 314 543 501)

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Musicians:

Paul Desmond (alto sax), Ed Bickert (guitar), Don Thompson (bass), Jerry Fuller (drums).

Composed by Richard Rodgers & Lorenz Hart

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Recorded: live at Bourbon Street, Toronto, Canada, October-November 1975

Albumcoverpauldesmondlive

Rating: 100/100 (learn more)

Sometimes I'm amazed at the good music I found in my high school days when I was just starting to learn about jazz. I bought this double-LP set when it first came out, and instantly fell in love with this version of "My Funny Valentine." Thirty-four years later, it still makes my heart flutter. Not even the Miles Davis versions (1956 and 1964) eclipse this one for establishing and maintaining mood. Desmond's tender reading of the melody and impassioned solo, Bickert's understated comping, Thompson's active (but always nuanced) counterpoint and Fuller's glorious brushwork are all part of the mix, but there's more than the ingredients at play. These were musicians who understood each other and instinctively knew what to play in order to make this performance greater than the sum of its parts. And as is true with much of Desmond's solo work, it's all so quiet and understated that you could just lose yourself in the music and miss all that happened.

Reviewer: Thomas Cunniffe


Sarah Vaughan: My Funny Valentine

Track

My Funny Valentine

Artist

Sarah Vaughan (vocals)

CD

Live In Japan, Volume 1 (Mainstream 701)

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Musicians:

Sarah Vaughan (vocals),

Carl Schroeder (piano)

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Composed by Richard Rodgers & Lorenz Hart

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Recorded: live at Sun Plaza Hall, Tokyo, September 24, 1973

Albumcoversarahvaughan-liveinjapan-volume1

Rating: 100/100 (learn more)

As her voice became deeper and richer, Sarah Vaughan's interpretive powers grew even more profound. As Gunther Schuller has noted, she had "an arsenal of vibratos, ranging from none to a rich throbbing, almost at times excessive one, all varying as to speed … size and intensity at will." Further, she could move freely from one part of her voice to another, performing leaps that would shred a lesser voice. This remarkable version of "My Funny Valentine" was recorded live, and there is a concentrated intensity by both performer and audience as Vaughan completely reconstructs the classic song. Her interpretation goes far beyond basic variations and represents an aesthetic towards her material that was different from any other singer now or then. While it's possible to point out specific harmonic and melodic risks she takes (and there are many), it is more important to hear Vaughan's statement as a whole. Almost more Vaughan than Rodgers & Hart, it is unparalleled in the history of vocal jazz.

Reviewer: Thomas Cunniffe


Ruby Braff & Ellis Larkins: My Funny Valentine

Track

My Funny Valentine

Artist

Ruby Braff (cornet) and Ellis Larkins (piano)

CD

Duets, Volume 2 (Vanguard 79611)

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Musicians:

Ruby Braff (cornet), Ellis Larkins (piano).

Composed by Richard Rodgers & Lorenz Hart

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Recorded: New York, October 14, 1955

Albumcoverrubybraff-ellislarkins-duetsvolume2

Rating: 90/100 (learn more)

Because the lyric is gender-specific and character-driven, the verse to "My Funny Valentine" is rarely performed. Yet Ellis Larkins plays it as an introduction to this austere duet version. (Aside from a couple of instrumental recordings featuring Tubby Hayes, I've never heard another recording of the verse.) On this track, Larkins's rubato reading of the verse leads to Ruby Braff's glowing reading of the melody, which is also out of tempo. Braff might have been labeled as a traditionalist, but few musicians could sing through their instrument as he could. When Larkins takes the solo spotlight, he establishes a walking tempo with his beautifully flowing version of stride piano. When Braff comes back, the tempo recedes and disappears, and the cornetist shows his rhapsodic side to close the recording.

Reviewer: Thomas Cunniffe


Shirley Horn: My Funny Valentine

Track

My Funny Valentine

Artist

Shirley Horn (vocals, piano)

CD

I Remember Miles (Verve 314 557 199)

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Musicians:

Shirley Horn (vocals, piano),

Charles Ables (electric bass), Steve Williams (drums)

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Composed by Richard Rodgers & Lorenz Hart

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Recorded: New York, December 1997

Albumcovershirleyhorn-iremembermiles

Rating: 95/100 (learn more)

While Miles Davis tribute albums are legion, none is more heartfelt than Shirley Horn's I Remember Miles. Horn got one of her first big breaks from Davis in 1961, when the trumpeter insisted that the then-unknown singer open for him at the Village Vanguard. A Davis sketch of the two adorns the cover, and a vintage photo (presumably taken at the Vanguard) appears inside the package. One imagines that those images were in her mind, if not in the studio, as she made this album. Throughout, it's as if Horn is singing directly to her late friend and supporter. Her version of "My Funny Valentine" starts with a stark reading of the bridge before settling into her patented slow groove. As the performance grows in intensity, Horn makes us think about every word, and each melodic variation seems to emphasize the lyric. And when she reaches the word "stay," everything stops so she can make the most out of the last line, repeating it several times to bolster the final point. Perhaps that final word ("stay") was Shirley's wish that Miles— who'd passed away six years before—would never truly leave us.

Reviewer: Thomas Cunniffe


Bill Evans & Jim Hall: My Funny Valentine

Track

My Funny Valentine

Artist

Bill Evans (piano) and Jim Hall (guitar)

CD

Undercurrent (Blue Note 38228)

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Musicians:

Bill Evans (piano), Jim Hall (guitar).

Recorded: New York, May 14, 1962

Albumcoverbillevans-jimhall-undercurrent

Rating: 95/100 (learn more)

Stripped of any sentimentality, this fast aggressive version of the Rodgers & Hart classic shows Bill Evans and Jim Hall—two of the best-matched musicians in the history of jazz—engaged in a sprightly give and take. As they intensely listen to one another, there seems little either can play without the other finding a pithy and entirely appropriate answer. To cite just one example, near the end of the solos, Evans plays a fiercely rhythmic three-against-four pattern and Hall picks it up instantly; it turns out to be the climax of the recording. On the alternate take included on this CD, Evans merely hints at the pattern and not much happens. We don't know how many unissued and undocumented takes may have transpired between those we have, but there's little doubt that the two musicians had intensified their listening by the time the master was made.

Reviewer: Thomas Cunniffe


Jimmy Giuffre: My Funny Valentine

Track

My Funny Valentine

Artist

Jimmy Giuffre (clarinet)

CD

The Jimmy Giuffre Clarinet (Collectables 6162)

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Musicians:

Jimmy Giuffre (clarinet),

Bob Cooper (oboe), Dave Pell (English horn), Marty Berman (bassoon), Ralph Peña (bass)

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Composed by Richard Rodgers & Lorenz Hart

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Recorded: Los Angeles, CA, March 21, 1956

Albumcoverthejimmygiuffreclarinet

Rating: 80/100 (learn more)

A quick look at the instrumentation will explain why this is one of the more unusual versions of "My Funny Valentine." It's an odd mix of a classical woodwind quartet with a very jazzy and soulful ostinato bass part. Giuffre had studied composition with Dr. Wesley La Violette, and one wonders if this arrangement began as a homework assignment. Although none of the woodwinds plays in true classical style, the mix of jazz and classical doesn't quite work. Giuffre's subtone clarinet clashes with the strident sound of the double reeds, and while the performance has some level of emotion, it is all so reserved that one wonders about the point of the entire experiment. Giuffre's work deserves to be reexamined, as he created an amazing body of recordings. Unfortunately, this is not the most interesting example.

Reviewer: Thomas Cunniffe


Jim Hall: My Funny Valentine

Track

My Funny Valentine

Artist

Jim Hall (guitar)

CD

These Rooms (Denon/Columbia 53536)

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Musicians:

Jim Hall (guitar),

Steve La Spina (bass), Joey Baron (drums)

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Composed by Richard Rodgers & Lorenz Hart

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Recorded: New York, February 1988

Albumcoverjimhall-theserooms

Rating: 90/100 (learn more)

This is an astounding attempt to use the duo concept from the Bill Evans/Jim Hall 1962 recording of "My Funny Valentine" and translate it into a trio version. If it doesn't quite match up to the earlier version, that is no criticism of the musicians involved, who are listening and responding as intently as Evans and Hall did 26 years earlier. Indeed, there is an incredible amount of interplay in this recording, and intriguing harmonic avenues are explored. But the medium tempo, while quicker than most versions of "Valentine," doesn't quite jell the way Evans/Hall's quick tempo did, and the necessary spark needed to re-create such a masterpiece is missing. Still, this is a solid performance that works well on its own terms.

Reviewer: Thomas Cunniffe


Miles Davis: My Funny Valentine (1964)

Track

My Funny Valentine (1964)

Artist

Miles Davis (trumpet)

CD

The Complete Concert 1964 - My Funny Valentine + Four & More (Legacy/Columbia)

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Musicians:

Miles Davis (trumpet), George Coleman (tenor sax), Herbie Hancock (piano), Ron Carter (bass), Tony Williams (drums).

Composed by Richard Rodgers & Lorenz Hart

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Recorded: live at Philharmonic Hall, New York, February 12, 1964

Albumcovermilesdavis-completeconcert1964-myfunnyvalentine-plusfourandmore

Rating: 100/100 (learn more)

Without a doubt, this is an essential Miles Davis recording. Full essays have been written about this performance, and there's no way to do it justice in a couple hundred words. So, assuming you already know that Miles and his second quintet perform one of the most amazing transformations of a popular song, let's focus on a pair of important highlights. First, there's Miles and his sound. Unlike the tightly controlled Harmon-muted sound of his Prestige recording, here he plays through open horn with a tone that seems … bruised. If the earlier version sounded like the nervous anticipation of a new love affair, the later version is the pained sound of a messy aftermath. It is well documented that Miles was having a tough time in his personal life during this period, and it's not much of a stretch to feel that pain reflected here. The other important highlight is the sensitive work of Tony Williams. He was 18 years old in 1964. Now think of every 18-year-old drummer you've ever heard (are you cringing?), and then listen to Tony on this recording. Not only did he play with extreme taste and restraint, he knew when not to play! In fact, during about 5 minutes of this 15-minute recording, he doesn't play at all. Would there be more musicians with that amount of good sense.

Reviewer: Thomas Cunniffe


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