THE DOZENS: SUMMERTIME by Thomas Cunniffe



                                         Sidney Bechet, by Ray Avery

“Summertime” is a rarity among jazz standards in that it was taken directly from an opera and suffered no changes in melody and form in moving from the classical idiom to the popular. Of course, the major reasons for these easy transitions are that “Summertime” was written by the premier song composer of the day, George Gershwin, and that the opera from which it was taken, Porgy and Bess, was conceived by Gershwin as an American “folk opera” rather than European grand opera. (Fans are encouraged to check out the recent Dozens celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Miles Davis / Gil Evans version of this opera.)

To be sure, grand opera has plenty of catchy melodies, but Gershwin’s music for Porgy and Bess translates to jazz and popular music so well because the composer’s roots were firmly in those styles throughout his career. While many of the songs from the score have been recorded by jazz artists, “Summertime” is the most widely recorded, with nearly 1500 different recordings listed in Tom Lord’s The Jazz Discography.

Jazz.com has reviewed numerous versions of this standard. Below are twelve of the finest.


Billie Holiday: Summertime

Track

Summertime

Artist

Billie Holiday (vocals)

CD

The Quintessential Billie Holiday, Volume 2 (Columbia)

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Musicians:

Billie Holiday (vocals), Bunny Berigan (trumpet), Artie Shaw (clarinet),

Joe Bushkin (piano), Dick McDonough (guitar), Pete Peterson (bass), Cozy Cole (drums)

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Composed by George Gershwin & DuBose Heyward

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Recorded: New York, July 10, 1936

Albumcoverthequintessentialbillieholiday-volume2

Rating: 95/100 (learn more)

Billie Holiday was not the first jazz artist to record "Summertime" (Bob Crosby recorded a transcription version five months earlier) but hers was the first recorded for 78s and probably did more than any other version to establish the song as a potential jazz standard. For any listener of the time who had heard "Summertime" in its operatic version, Holiday's rendition was a shockóraw and dirty with the rasp of Bunny Berigan's trumpet echoed in Holiday's voice. Holiday jettisons nearly the entire melody, flattening out the melodic contour to fit her voice and her artistic sense, and behind her, Berigan and Artie Shaw jam away, sensing even then that this new Gershwin song with its easy harmonic sequence would be a natural for the jazz repertoire.

Reviewer: Thomas Cunniffe


Sidney Bechet: Summertime

Track

Summertime

Artist

Sidney Bechet (soprano sax)

CD

The Best Of Sidney Bechet (Blue Note B2-28891)

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Musicians:

Sidney Bechet (soprano sax), Meade Lux Lewis (piano), Teddy Bunn (guitar), Johnny Williams (bass), Sid Catlett (drums).

Composed by George Gershwin & DuBose Heyward

.

Recorded: New York, June 8, 1939

Albumcoversidneybechetbnbest

Rating: 97/100 (learn more)

Sidney Bechet's version of "Summertime" is one of the great recordings in jazz history. Bechet takes the Gershwin song's 16-bar form and simple harmonic structure and treats it like an extension of the 12-bar blues. With Teddy Bunn providing single-string commentary on his guitar behind Bechet's soprano, it is as if Bechet and Bunn were playing the parts of Bessie Smith and Louis Armstrong from a classic blues recording. Bechet solos throughout the 4-minute recording (certainly one of the longest jazz solos recorded to that time), utilizing much of his unique musical vocabulary, including rasps, growls and various speeds of vibrato. Bunn's responses are almost all from the blues vernacular, except in one spot where he quotes the familiar countermelody from the original opera score.

Reviewer: Thomas Cunniffe


Charlie Parker: Summertime

Track

Summertime

Artist

Charlie Parker (alto sax)

CD

Charlie Parker with Strings: The Master Takes (Verve 2354)

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Musicians:

Charlie Parker (alto sax), Ray Brown (bass), Buddy Rich (drums),

Mitch Miller (oboe, English horn), Stan Freeman (piano), Bronislaw Gimple, Max Hollander, Milt Lomask (violins), Frank Brieff (viola), Frank Miller (cello), Meyer Rosen (harp)

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Composed by George Gershwin & DuBose Heyward. Arranged and conducted by Jimmy Carroll

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Recorded: New York, November 30, 1949

Albumcovercharlieparkerwithstrings

Rating: 70/100 (learn more)

Although Charlie Parker was proud of playing with a string section, this version of "Summertime" shows why the venture was an artistic failure. Using an adaptation of the original orchestral score as background, Parker does little more than ornament the Gershwin melody. The only compelling part of this recording is Parker's acidic tone, which is quite different from the polished sound of opera divas who use the same basic arrangement on "classical pop" albums or in staged versions of Porgy and Bess. Even then, Parker barely holds our interest through this recording. If Parker had used more improvisation on this side (as on his classic version of "Just Friends" also recorded at this session), his version of "Summertime" might rank as one of the greatest. As is, it's just a disappointment.

Reviewer: Thomas Cunniffe


Erroll Garner: Summertime

Track

Summertime

Artist

Erroll Garner (piano)

CD

Body & Soul (Columbia 47035)

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Musicians:

Erroll Garner (piano),

John Simmons (bass), Shadow Wilson (drums)

.

Composed by George Gershwin & DuBose Heyward

.

Recorded: New York, January 3, 1952

Albumcovererrollgarner-bodyandsoul

Rating: 90/100 (learn more)

Erroll Garner's Columbia version of "Summertime" sounds like a playful romp, but there is a lot of musical substance beneath the surface. Garner's introduction is in straight eighth notes. While doubtlessly shortened for recording time considerations, it still makes an effective contrast to the sinuous Garner strut tempo that follows. In the theme statement and his ensuing solo, Garner uses triplet patterns both as further contrast to the introduction and to add a sassy quality to his interpretation. Garner's mastery of dynamics is on full display with the pianist bringing the group's volume up and down through his touch at the keyboard. And as a balance to the introduction, the closing chorus uses a simple quarter-note pattern (in more or less straight time) as a shout chorus, which replaces the restatement of the original theme. At the end, all that is left of Gershwin's original is the opening phrase, which Garner plays over the final held chord.

Reviewer: Thomas Cunniffe


Ella Fitzgerald & Louis Armstrong: Summertime

Track

Summertime

Artist

Ella Fitzgerald (vocals) and Louis Armstrong (trumpet, vocals)

CD

Porgy & Bess (Verve 9790)

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Musicians:

Ella Fitzgerald (vocals), Louis Armstrong (trumpet, vocals),

with large studio orchestra conducted by Russell Garcia

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Composed by George Gershwin & DuBose Heyward. Arranged by Russell Garcia

.

Recorded: Los Angeles, August 18, 1957

Albumcoverellafitzgerald-louisarmstrong-porgyandbess

Rating: 94/100 (learn more)

Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong recorded two relaxed, swinging albums for Verve before Norman Granz had the inspiration to use them in a deluxe 2-LP set featuring 16 songs from Porgy and Bess. While not the first Porgy and Bess concept album, Ella & Louis's version is one of the best. Both were in top vocal form at the time of the recording, and while Louis's trumpet chops were not as strong as they had been in years past, he could still perform stunning solos. On "Summertime," Russ Garcia's arrangement adds a few subtle touches to the original orchestration. Armstrong plays a majestic first chorus on trumpet, followed by Ella's smooth and creamy vocal. After a subtle key change, Louis takes a solo vocal chorus. When Ella returns, she spins a beautifully conceived variation on the melody while Louis supports her with some of the tenderest scatting he ever recorded.

Reviewer: Thomas Cunniffe


Miles Davis: Summertime

Track

Summertime

Artist

Miles Davis (trumpet)

CD

Porgy and Bess (Columbia/Legacy 712764)

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Musicians:

Miles Davis (trumpet), Paul Chambers (bass), Jimmy Cobb (drums),

Johnny Coles, Bernie Glow, Ernie Royal, Louis Mucci (trumpets), Joe Bennett, Frank Rehak, Jimmy Cleveland Dick Hixson (trombones), Willie Ruff, Julius Watkins, Gunther Schuller (French horns), Bill Barber (tuba), Cannonball Adderley (alto sax), Jerome Richardson, Romeo Penque (flutes), Danny Bank (bass clarinet)

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Composed by George Gershwin & DuBose Heyward. Arranged by Gil Evans

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Recorded: New York, August 18, 1958

Albumcovermilesdavis-porgyandbess

Rating: 95/100 (learn more)

One of the many wonders in the Miles Davis/Gil Evans album of Porgy and Bess is how Evans was able to remain faithful to the spirit of Gershwin's opera without using the original orchestrations. There is no better example than "Summertime." As originally presented in the opera, "Summertime" is a lullaby (a fact seemingly forgotten in the full-voiced performances of certain divas). Gil uses a gently swinging riff that easily adapts to the harmonic changes of the song, while in front Miles plays a solo that strays off the melody more than you think, but always stays connected with the contour of the original tune. And it's all so quiet! Even when Miles builds the intensity of his solo, he never loses sight of the overall context.

Reviewer: Thomas Cunniffe


Shelly Manne: Summertime

Track

Summertime

Group

Shelly Manne & His Men

CD

Shelly Manne & His Men at the Black Hawk, Vol. 1 (Contemporary OJCCD-656-2)

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Musicians:

Shelly Manne (drums), Richie Kamuca (tenor sax), Victor Feldman (piano), Monty Budwig (bass), Joe Gordon (trumpet).

Composed by George Gershwin & DuBose Heyward

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Recorded: San Francisco, September 22, 1959

Albumcovershellymanne-attheblackhawk-volume1l

Rating: 95/100 (learn more)

In 1959 producer Lester Koenig had the good sense to record Shelly Manne & His Men for four nights at San Francisco's Blackhawk. It was an audacious move: none of the sidemen was particularly well known, and the band was in transition, using Feldman as a temporary substitute for Russ Freeman. The resulting four LPs (later expanded to five CDs) are beloved in the jazz community because the musicians played in peak form throughout and the arrangements were fresh takes on familiar material. "Summertime" opens the first album and sets the stage for the 5+ hours of remarkable music to follow. Starting with Budwig's double stops and Manne's light cymbal touches, Gordon intones the theme while the rhythm section creates a mood rather than states the beat. Gordon, in Harmon mute, uses a pure straight tone and his ideas are pointed and direct, with no extraneous notes or terminal vibrato to soften the edge. Kamuca's warm tone and flowery ideas contrast Gordon's, and Feldman builds and releases tension in his solo without sacrificing the overall mood.

Reviewer: Thomas Cunniffe


John Coltrane: Summertime

Track

Summertime

Artist

John Coltrane (tenor sax)

CD

My Favorite Things (Atlantic 1361)

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Musicians:

John Coltrane (tenor sax), McCoy Tyner (piano), Steve Davis (bass), Elvin Jones (drums).

Composed by George Gershwin & DuBose Heyward

.

Recorded: New York, October 24, 1960

Albumcovermyfavoritethings

Rating: 90/100 (learn more)

From the first note of this recording, you can tell that Coltrane's version of "Summertime" will be unique. Without any introduction, Coltrane kicks off the tune in D minor. While jazz versions of "Summertime" are played in a variety of keys, D minor sounds higher than the keys we usually hear for this song. When the rhythm section enters two beats later, the effect is complete, with Elvin Jones's slashing rhythms and McCoy Tyner's syncopated quartal harmonies. As on the album's title tune, Coltrane and Tyner reduce "Summertime" to a minimal modal harmonic base and focus on building emotional intensity. Dating from early in the Quartet's existence, this performance is not as intense as later recordings, but it shows that the group already knew which direction it would travel.

Reviewer: Thomas Cunniffe


Chris Connor & Maynard Ferguson: Summertime

Track

Summertime

Artist

Chris Connor (vocals) and Maynard Ferguson (trumpet)

CD

Double Exposure (Collector's Choice 319)

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Musicians:

Chris Connor (vocals), Maynard Ferguson (trumpet),

Chet Ferretti, Rolf Ericson, Bill Berry (trumpets), Ray Winslow, Kenny Rupp (trombones), Joe Farrell, Willie Maiden, Frank Hittner, Lanny Morgan (reeds), Jaki Byard (piano), Charlie Sanders (bass), Rufus Jones (drums)

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Composed by George Gershwin & DuBose Heyward

.

Recorded: New York, January 23, 1961

Albumcoverchrisconnor-maynardferguson-doubleexposure

Rating: 90/100 (learn more)

Chris Connor and Maynard Ferguson worked together while in Stan Kenton's band, and when they both became jazz stars a few years later, they recorded two separate albums together, one for Ferguson's label, Roulette, and the other for Connor's label, Atlantic. Their version of "Summertime," which kicks off the Atlantic LP, starts with a highly rhythmic duet between the nearly slapped bass of Sanders and the tight snare of Jones, and things just build and build from there. Connor's opening theme statement sounds defiant and rhythmically sure, holding back just slightly in the opening chorus and building as the trombones, trumpets and saxes all join in with riffs that add to the growing intensity. Ferguson's trumpet solo continues the upward climb until the climax of the arrangement where trumpet and band exchange improvised ideas and written shout chorus passages. Then suddenly the volume comes back down for Connor's return. The gradual decrescendo from there to the end doesn't work nearly as well as the crescendo that came before, but the fadeout (usually the bane of jazz fans and critics) actually gives this arrangement a needed balance.

Reviewer: Thomas Cunniffe


Eddie Jefferson: Summertime

Track

Summertime

Artist

Eddie Jefferson (vocals)

CD

The Main Man (Inner City 1033)

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Musicians:

Eddie Jefferson (vocals),

Charles Sullivan (trumpet), Slide Hampton (trombone), Richie Cole, Junior Cook, Hamiet Bluiett (reeds), Harold Mabern (piano), George Duvivier (bass), Billy Hart (drums)

.

Composed by George Gershwin & DuBose Heyward. Arranged by Slide Hampton

.

Recorded: New York, October 9, 1977

Albumcovereddiejefferson-themainman

Rating: 86/100 (learn more)

In the mid-'70s, Eddie Jefferson was starting to get overdue recognition as "the Godfather of Vocalese," and his fame continued to rise until he was murdered outside a Detroit nightclub in 1979. The Main Man was one of Jefferson's finest albums, featuring definitive versions of classics like "Jeannine" and "Moody's Mood For Love." "Summertime" is unusual in Jefferson's repertoire in that it does not appear to stem from an instrumental solo; rather, it is Jefferson's loose interpretation of the Gershwin standard. Interestingly, it is sung in the same key as John Coltrane's groundbreaking version - D minor - and like Coltrane, Jefferson seems interested in stripping away all the sentimentality of the original song. The tempo is medium fast and the performance is quite aggressive. On the second time through the song, Jefferson takes great liberties with the lyric (for example, "Fish are jumpin' about on the lake, flop, flop, flop, tryin' to give the fishermen a break") and strongly accents the asides (the "flops" above). However, the recording does not entirely break with the past, as Slide Hampton lifts Gil Evans's famous background riff and uses it to back Jefferson.

Reviewer: Thomas Cunniffe


Gunther Schuller: Summertime

Track

Summertime

Group

Orange Then Blue

CD

Jumpin' In The Future (GM 3010)

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Musicians:

Gunther Schuller (conductor),

Ken Cervenka (trumpet), Peter Cirelli (trombone), Krista Smith, Mark Taylor (French horns), Robert Carriker (tuba), Matt Darriau, Adam Kolker, Dave Finucane (reeds), Bevan Manson (piano), Dave Clark (bass), George Schuller (drums)

.

Composed by George Gershwin & DuBose Heyward. Arranged by Gunther Schuller

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Recorded: Boston, MA, March 26, March 28 or May 1, 1988

Albumcoverguntherschuller-orangethenblue-jumpininthefuture

Rating: 85/100 (learn more)

The recording dates above are rather misleading, as it is the premiere performance of an arrangement written by Gunther Schuller in 1949. It was written for the Miles Davis Nonet but never recorded or broadcast by that group. Gil Evans famously described the Claude Thornhill sound (which he helped originate) as hanging "like a cloud," and Schuller's arrangement opens with hypnotic seesawing chords that create the same effect. An ominous countermelody in the tuba and baritone sax leads to the theme statement with cup-muted trumpet fronting a dance-band style background that maintains the chords from the opening for awhile, then gradually moves into more complex counterpoint. Then the mood breaks with a double-time chorus (with another double-time passage placed on top!). While the harmony remains Thornhill-esque, the overall style turns into straight-ahead bebop. And this passage, which seems completely unnecessary, probably did more to take this chart out of contention for recording by Miles than anything else. Still, for all it achieves, it is an amazing effort from the very talented Mr. Schuller.

Reviewer: Thomas Cunniffe


Jane Ira Bloom: Nearly Summertime/Summertime

Track

Nearly Summertime/Summertime

Artist

Jane Ira Bloom (soprano sax)

CD

The Nearness (Arabesque 120)

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Musicians:

Jane Ira Bloom (soprano sax),

Kenny Wheeler (trumpet & flugelhorn), Julian Priester (trombone), Fred Hersch (piano), Rufus Reid (bass), Bobby Previte (drums)

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“Nearly Summertime” composed by Jane Ira Bloom; “Summertime” composed by George Gershwin & DuBose Heyward, and arranged by Jane Ira Bloom

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Recorded: New York, July 12-14, 1995

Albumcoverjaneirabloom-thenearness

Rating: 95/100 (learn more)

Recorded during a summer in New York City, Jane Ira Bloom's version of "Summertime" is quite evocative of the season, and a brilliant example of the saxophonist's approach to standards. The recording opens with Jane's angular composition "Nearly Summertime" played in unison by saxophone and trumpet. Next the rhythm section enters with drum color, a bass solo and a piano vamp in dotted quarter notes (2 notes over 3 beats) that presages what will come later. Gradually, Werner, Priester and Bloom join into the ensemble before Bloom launches an ascending scale to introduce the Gershwin melody, set in 6/4 time. Behind the melody, the horns play long, hypnotic chords at half the speed of the piano vamp, and when Bloom takes over for her solo she leads with another ascending scale based on the same rhythmic pattern. Her sound grows more impassioned as she climbs higher in register, and as the performance grows in intensity you can almost feel the heat generating from the ground. The intensity doesn't let up until the end of the theme, when the horns suddenly dissipate and Hersch plays a rippling triplet figure that might signal a much-needed summer rainstorm.

Reviewer: Thomas Cunniffe


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