Woody Herman: Lady McGowan's Dream


Lady McGowan's Dream


Woody Herman (alto sax)


Blowin' Up a Storm: The Columbia Years, 1945-1947 (Columbia/Legacy C2K 65646)

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Woody Herman (alto sax), Flip Phillips (tenor sax),

Sonny Berman, Cappy Lewis, Conrad Gozzo, Pete Candoli, Shorty Rogers (trumpets), Bill Harris, Ed Kiefer, Ralph Pfeffner, Neil Reid (trombones), Sam Marowitz, John LaPorta (alto saxes), Mickey Folus (tenor sax), Sam Rubinwitch (baritone sax), Ralph Burns (piano), Red Norvo (vibes), Chuck Wayne (guitar), Joe Mondragon (bass), Don Lamond (drums)


Composed by Ralph Burns


Recorded: Los Angeles, September 18, 1946


Rating: 99/100 (learn more)

This has to be the only composition named after a nymphomaniacal woman who held orgies in her hotel room for members of the Herman band, and later disappeared without paying her bill. As it turns out, this is one of Ralph Burns's masterpieces, as well as an important long work for jazz orchestra. Yet despite its length (split into "Part 1" and "Part 2" as originally released, occupying both sides of a 78), it tended to be overshadowed by another Burns masterpiece, the 4-movement "Summer Sequence," particularly after Herman recorded Burns's rearranged fourth movement for Capitol Records as "Early Autumn," with a stunning, influential solo by Stan Getz. "Lady McGowan's Dream," however, is important on its own.

After an intro by baritone sax and a rhythmic figure by the trombones, Herman's sensual alto introduces the melody. Throughout the piece, the listener becomes aware that Burns is exploring the orchestrational aspects of the jazz band, not only by voicing the ensemble in unusual ways, but using striking colors as accompaniment figures. (One moment I love is when the brass is playing the melody in harmony and the piano and vibraharp play a fast-moving figure behind them, creating a shimmering effect.) Herman's alto is also the main voice when the band breaks into swing, and this transitional figure introduces the next section of the piece, tied together by the trombone rhythmic figure heard at the beginning. I admit I am a sucker for harmonized saxophone soli, but this one based on the blues is particularly gorgeous, and we also are reminded of the dynamics Burns asks for and gets from the Herman band. The entire orchestra goes full out now, also playing a harmonized blues. Flip Phillips has a short improvised statement after a transition. Herman returns with his alto, and the piece ends as it began, except that in the final seconds, the trombone plays a figure in another key, creating a musical question mark.

Burns should have become a major composer, but alcoholism and other problems caught up with him in the early 1960s, and even though he never lacked for work, he never got the kinds of album composition projects that such composers as Manny Albam and Shorty Rogers did. (An LP on Decca from 1959 called New York's a Song was ambitious, made up of settings of songs dealing with New York. One hopes it will be reissued on CD at some time). Burns was busy on Broadway and in Hollywood, winning an Academy Award for his musical direction for Cabaret.

He left a handful of major works, of which this is one of the most important. It is a treasure, and is one of my favorite recordings of all time.

Reviewer: Jeff Sultanof

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