Fats Waller: Two Sleepy People

"Two Sleepy People" may the most charming song Hoagy Carmichael and Frank Loesser ever wrote. Even today, its simple story of young lovers can delight listeners. It even softened the heart of Fats Waller, who would mercilessly parody any song, even his own. Waller's was the first jazz recording of the song, preceding the composer's recording by exactly one day. Waller grasps the song's message instantly and he and his Rhythm perform a simple two-chorus arrangement. In the first chorus, Herman Autrey plays the melody on muted trumpet while Waller offers light commentary on the highest register of the piano. Waller's vocal takes up the second chorus, and somehow it seems that we can hear a twinkle in his eye as he sings. There is great tenderness lying below the exterior gruffness of his voice, and his only spoken retort is when he disagrees with the narrator's father about the merits of his girl. Perhaps he could relate to being part of a couple who were short of money and who usually stayed up too late talking. There was a lot of that going on during the Depression...

October 08, 2009 · 0 comments

Tags:


Mildred Bailey: Rockin' Chair (1937)

Mildred Bailey was one of the first white female vocalists to incorporate the sound and feeling of black singers into her own style. She was instrumental in starting Bing Crosby’s career with the Paul Whiteman Orchestra and began recording as a solo artist in the late 1920s. By the mid 1930s, she had perfected a light swing approach and was a favorite among musicians.

“Rockin’ Chair” was written by Hoagy Carmichael as a pseudo-minstrel song. Bailey’s version overcomes all of the lyric’s obstacles, so much so that we think of it as a beautifully sung ballad, and not an embarrassing reminder of past racial attitudes. Bailey uses rhythm for expressiveness and subtle slides throughout (Slides were an integral part of Bailey's early style, but she overused them and her older recordings have not aged well). While she takes chances with the melody through the entire performance, her second chorus builds on what she sang before and contributes to an exquisitely developed interpretation. Bailey was so associated with this song that recorded it for 4 different labels and was affectionately known as "The Rockin' Chair Lady."

October 08, 2009 · 0 comments

Tags:


Louis Armstrong: Lazy River

I don't know how "Up A Lazy River" ever made it past a music publishing editor. The melody line is dominated by awkward leaps and a very wide range. Trained voices have a hard time negotiating the tune (especially the younger singers who don't know the song from recordings), and it must be nearly impossible for a layman to sing or whistle the song accurately. Yet somehow this song became one of Hoagy Carmichael's biggest hits. I suspect Louis Armstrong deserves some of the credit. On this recording (which was a big hit for Louis), he uses the ultimate economy by reducing Carmichael's melody to a single (and oh-so-right) pitch. His opening trumpet solo hints at the melodic reduction to come, and when the saxes play the original melody, they sound terribly old-fashioned, and only Louis' vocal retorts make the passage listenable. In addition to reducing the melody's scope, Louis also changes the phrasing by omitting some words and barely stating others: Up...lazy river...where...th'old mill runs. We get a second vocal chorus on this one, which Louis starts with an arpeggiated line (just in case anyone thought that he couldn't sing the original melody) and melds into a scat solo. He seems pleasantly surprised by his vocal creation and he breaks out of a scat line with the spoken "Oh, you dog! Ha Ha. Boy, am I riffin' this evenin'? I hope somethin'." He scats a little more, references the song's title and then introduces pianist Charlie Alexander, whose break allows Louis to pick up his trumpet. The final solo isn't quite as majestic as others from this period, but it is powerful enough to bring the track to a satisfying close.

October 08, 2009 · 0 comments

Tags:


Jelly Roll Morton: High Society

Although Jelly Roll Morton is the leader of this recording, it is a rare instance where the pianist/composer is not the center of attention. We barely hear a note from his piano and the arrangement sounds nothing like the Red Hot Pepper charts of the previous decade. Indeed, on this version of "High Society" it sounds as if half the band is improvising their parts (or playing from memory). The sound is like a New Orleans street parade, but in this recording, both Sidney Bechet and Albert Nicholas play the famous clarinet obbligato. Bechet goes first, playing the serpentine line on soprano sax. He has some issues with breath control and the phrasing is quite choppy. NIcholas (who probably played this obbligato more than Bechet) sails in on clarinet, and he plays flawlessly until he realizes that he's showing up Bechet. Then the nerves hit and he fumbles one of the lines. Other than the double clarinet obbligato and a minor strain used to change keys, the rendition is quite faithful to the original march.

September 15, 2009 · 0 comments

Tags:


Louis Armstrong: High Society

Louis Armstrong's 1933 big band recording of "High Society" is not only vastly different from his recording with King Oliver 11 years earlier, but different from just about any other version. The arrangement by Carl Russell includes complete strains that I've never heard in any other recording of the song. Louis offers a verbal introduction and promises a re-creation of a New Orleans street parade. Lawson starts a parade drum pattern on his snare and Louis plays the "horns up" motive, but when the band comes in, the modern chords don't sound anything like a New Orleans street band. The saxes fumble through a difficult passage and Louis covers them up with an upward slide, and then Keg Johnson offers the familiar first strain on trombone, with the band swinging the background riffs. Louis takes over from Keg to conclude the strain, but the next minute or so of the arrangement consists of original big band riff choruses that were never part of "High Society". When we finally arrive at the trio, Randolph or Whitlock plays the theme while the saxes have a go at the famous clarinet obbligato. The minor "dog-fight" interlude from the original march leads into a variation on the trio that provides a backdrop for Armstrong's high-register trumpet fireworks. While the arrangement is an interesting attempt to transform a New Orleans band standard into a solo vehicle, the effort isn't entirely successful, and it certainly falls short of the expectations we had from the introduction.

September 15, 2009 · 0 comments

Tags:


Quintette du Hot Club de France: Limehouse Blues

The Quintet of the Hot Club of France played a lot of songs about places they had never visited ("Chicago", "Charleston", etc.), but "Limehouse Blues" was about London and presumably all of the members had been there and knew that neighborhood. The Quintet recorded "Limehouse" twice in just under 8 months (both versions appear on the above CD) and the differences between them are quite astonishing. The first version was made for Decca in October 1935 and it moves along at a staid medium tempo and the solos are well-played but not too exciting. Something must have happened in the 8 months before the Quintet recorded the song again for HMV, for this time the tempo is considerably faster and the feeling is much rougher. Django's guitar murmurs a few dissenting thoughts during the relatively calm first chorus, but as the solos approach, Django and Stephane seem to momentarily fight over who will get the first solo. Stephane plays the solo while Django pushes the intensity with the guitars. To my ears, Stephane seems hemmed in by the simple chord sequence and his phrases, while of varied length, seem to all sound the same. Django has no such problem with the chords and he fires off a brilliant solo, using octaves and chorded passages to set off his ideas. As the solo progresses, his technique seems less polished as his octaves have a rough edge to them. In the ensemble chorus that follows, Django fills with reckless abandon. When Stephane takes back the solo spotlight, he's found his inspiration again, and in the course of his solo, he presages the descending ensemble part recorded by the Benny Goodman Quartet on "Avalon" in the following year. Was Benny listening to the Hot Club records in his off-hours?

September 15, 2009 · 0 comments

Tags:


Duke Ellington: Limehouse Blues

"Limehouse Blues" is not a blues, but it was inspired by the London neighborhood. When Duke Ellington recorded the song in 1931, the song was ten years old and Ellington was just two years away from his first trip to London. The introduction, with an odd clip-clop rhythm from Sonny Greer, sounds more like the Old West than the East End. Ellington must have liked the relaxed loping feel of this song, for he keeps the two-beat going throughout the arrangement. Ellington's setting is a feature for his three saxophonists, but all of the solo segments are in 8-bar pieces. After the theme chorus, a trumpet variation alternates with Johnny Hodges' alto sax. Hodges' early style is in full bloom here, but he (like Harry Carney later on) has problems trying to swing against the two-beat rhythm. Bigard is up next with a wild clarinet tremolo and complete rhythmic security. Carney decorates the melody and briefly tries his own kind of tremolo. Bigard starts his next eight with the same tremolo as if to show Carney how it's meant to be played, and Carney takes the hint and goes back to paraphrasing the tune. The brass have an easier time swinging the phrases in the final ensemble chorus, and Hodges and Bigard each get brief solo spots between the brass figures. At the end, Ellington makes a minor mis-step in bringing back his odd introduction, but not even the trumpet fills by Cootie Williams can make that music make sense.

September 15, 2009 · 0 comments

Tags:


Jimmie Lunceford (featuring Trummy Young): Margie

Although he is best-known for his work with Louis Armstrong in the 1950s and 1960s, trombonist Trummy Young made his name with Jimmie Lunceford in the 1930s. “Margie”was his most prominent feature as well as one of the band's biggest hits. Young both sings and plays on this swinging arrangement by Sy Oliver. Young's singing style is breathy and joking, his high-pitched tenor a perfect match for the light, jaunty feel of the piece. However, what really stands out is his trombone work. Young plays with unrivaled control of his instrument, staying mostly in the upper register, where he produces a smooth, bright tone. His breaks feature large leaps in pitch, which are very difficult to execute. To top it off, he ends the tune on a high F#, near the absolute top of the instrument's range. The overall effect is one of infectious, danceable swing as well as musical virtuosity. Young was a perfect fit with the Lunceford band and his exposure there helped him launch a long and successful career in jazz.

September 14, 2009 · 0 comments

Tags:


Benny Goodman Quartet: I Got Rhythm

If you just heard the record, you might think this performance was taped surreptitiously at some back room jam session. But, yes, this is Carnegie Hall, and a transgressive moment when swing music—unapologetic and racially integrated—was allowed on to its venerable stage. Goodman was so unfamiliar with the setting that, when asked how long he wanted for an intermission, he replied 'I dunno. How much does Toscanini get?"

But if these four musicians are intimidated by the house Andrew Carnegie built, they don't show it here. The tempo, a blistering 320 beats per minute, is fast even by the standards of the Swing Era. This is one of Krupa's finest moments, and he clearly relishes the "go for broke" attitude of the moment. Bebop didn't exist when this concert took place, but you can tell how performances of this sort—loose, fast, aggressive—made its arrival inevitable. There is only a tiny distance between Teddy Wilson's solo here and what Bud Powell would be doing a few years later. Goodman, for his part, also seems to need only a nudge here to become a bopper; if he would only add a bit more chromaticism and float more over the ground beat, he would be ready to shake things up at Minton's Playhouse, which would be opening its doors in a few days.

The marvel is that a performance that starts out with such fire can actually build to something bigger. But the last ninety seconds here get about as bacchanalian as anything you will have ever heard at Carnegie Hall. And judging by the roar of the crowd—so loud that, finally, you know this isn't some backroom jam—they realize they've just heard something special.

September 12, 2009 · 0 comments

Tags:


Benny Goodman: Blue Skies

The star of this performance is Fletcher Henderson's chart. The intro starts with an Ellingtonian growl that morphs into a fanfare. From the opening A theme statement, Henderson coyly plays with Irving Berlin's melody, adding syncopation and fills that could serve as a classroom model for "jazzing" a melody. Before long he is constructing a fresh variations, new ways of looking at those blue skies. The section work is excellent, and the rhythm section wisely underplays to let the horns stand out all the more. All in all, it's a great moment in swing, and one that deserved its moment on the stage of Carnegie Hall.

September 12, 2009 · 0 comments

Tags:


Benny Goodman: One O'Clock Jump

While his inter-personal skills left much to be desired, Benny Goodman cared about his band and was always interested in making his musicians sound good. When it came to programming the 1938 Carnegie Hall jazz concert, he must have realized that he and the band would be nervous, so Goodman programmed the opening set to get everyone comfortable as they got used to their new surroundings. First up was "Don't Be That Way", a song that swings well in almost any tempo, then a familiar Fletcher Henderson arrangement on "Sometimes I'm Happy", which the band had probably played every night of its existence. If that wasn't enough to calm everyone onstage down, there was a big band blues, namely "One O'Clock Jump". Picking this piece was a no-brainer: it was the theme song of the Count Basie Band, which was gaining popularity by the week, and Basie himself was at Carnegie that night to play in the jam session. Further, "One O'Clock Jump" was a good framework for a big band blues--the riffs were engaging and the key change from F to D-flat was a reliable way to raise the energy in the band. Jess Stacy's opening solo is an obvious homage to Basie, but Stacy wisely knew Basie's roots, and there is more stride in Stacy's tribute than Basie might have played himself. Babe Russin was no Herschel Evans or Lester Young, but he had listened to both tenormen and his solo has the tone of Evans and the light rhythm of Young. Vernon Brown plays a swaggering trombone solo followed by Goodman. The clarinetist gets the most solo room, but he makes great use of it, especially when he gets the rhythm section to bring the volume down behind him. Pulling off a simple but spontaneous musical gesture like that can change the course of a concert and inspire the musicians. It also showed any non-believers in Carnegie that jazz was not always loud and brash. After Goodman, Stacy gets another spot before Harry James steps up for a short but warm-toned solo. Krupa boosts the band up as they play through the final band riffs.

September 04, 2009 · 0 comments

Tags:


Count Basie & His Orchestra: Exactly Like You

“Exactly Like You” has been a jam session staple for years, but when Count Basie recorded it on his second Decca session, it was still fairly new territory. Despite recordings by Louis Armstrong, the Casa Loma Orchestra and the Benny Goodman Trio, the song had failed to catch on with jazz musicians. However in 1937, the floodgates opened as several jazz groups recorded versions of the song. Basie’s was the first version made that year, and its joyful nature made it a classic. The arrangement is probably by Fletcher Henderson or Don Redman, but Basie’s band was not filled with talented readers and some of the section work is rather sloppy. But one didn’t listen to Basie for skillfully played arrangements; Basie’s was a soloist’s band, and many of the band’s stars play excellent solos on this track. After the band introduction, Basie plays the melody for a few bars before moving into a solo featuring his minimalist stride style. On the bridge, Jack Washington gets his first recorded baritone sax solo and we can hear that he could play as lightly as Lester Young, even on the bigger horn. The band plays the written parts for the next chorus and leads into Jimmy Rushing’s vocal chorus, and just as Washington had learned from Young, Rushing had learned from the band’s new female vocalist, Billie Holiday. This may the most Billie-esque chorus Rushing ever recorded. Like Billie, Rushing flattens out much of the melody to a single note, and then he rides that note in a great display of rhythmic vitality. Buck Clayton offers a running commentary along with the saxes, and by the time the chorus ends, the band is swinging mightily. And that’s when Lester Young enters with a dancing half-chorus that just adds to the excitement. Lester’s sound was still quite novel at this time—his first recording was made only 5 months earlier—but it is the placement of the notes rather than the notes themselves that make it such a catalyst for increasing the band’s swing. And while Bobby Moore’s brief trumpet solo is well-played, it sounds like he struggles to maintain the energy that Lester created. Nonetheless, there's plenty of energy left for the band to play a spirited coda.

September 04, 2009 · 0 comments

Tags:


Fats Waller: The Sheik Of Araby

Fats Waller led a big band for a short period in the late 30s. Like Ray Charles would do years later, he built the band around his existing small group. Usually, Waller’s arrangements were run-of-the-mill, but “The Sheik Of Araby” was a noteworthy exception. It begins with just Waller and Jones (Wallace might be playing too, but it’s hard to tell from the recording) and the mood is like an after-hours club in Harlem. Then, in an effortless segue, trombonist John Haughton solos on the melody with the saxes providing backup. Waller’s vocal starts out straight, but when he gets to “into your tent, I’ll creep”, he just can’t resist making fun of the song and the rest of the vocal chorus is a burlesque. Herman Autrey is the next soloist, but good luck if you want to focus on the trumpet, as Fats comments throughout, including a series of jokes about riding camels. As Fats exhorts the band on, the full brass section finally appears for the last chorus. Had Waller hired a staff of top-shelf arrangers, his band might have been one of the top draws in the nation. Of course, he did just fine with only his Rhythm.

September 02, 2009 · 0 comments

Tags:


Django Reinhardt: I'll See You In My Dreams

Recorded just two months before the outbreak of a war that would change his life and career forever, Django Reinhardt’s trio version of “I’ll See You In My Dreams” is a brilliant summation of his late-30s solo style with intriguing notions for future developments. The solo is almost entirely in single lines, and as we listen to Django create this two-and-a-half minute masterpiece, it is like we are inside his head as he discovers and develops his ideas. The precise musical logic that had always been present in Django’s playing is found here in extremely sharp focus as he takes motive after motive and turns them every which way until each turns into a new phrase that he can manipulate. In one case, that motive is one note, and as he plays that note a couple dozen times, he subtly changes the sound by changing the way he attacks the string. If his harmonic experiments are limited to a short passage early on, he finds a new challenge in offsetting rhythms and near the end of the side, there is a marvelous sequence with quarter-note triplet figures against the steady four-beat of Ferret and Soudieux. Reinhardt would have another 14 years on the planet, but even if his career would have ended with World War II, recordings like this one would have ensured his immortality.

August 29, 2009 · 0 comments

Tags:


Quintette du Hot Club de France: Tea For Two (take 2)

“Tea For Two” must have been one of Django Reinhardt’s favorite songs at this period, as he recorded it five times between 1937-1939. Three of those versions were made by the QHCF in 1939 for the same label (All 3 of the 1939 versions can be heard on the above CD.) This version stands out from the others for its beautiful relaxed tempo and for Django’s amazing solo. The cut opens with Django and Stephane in duet on the verse. Grappelli is as elegant as ever, but Django is feeling rhapsodic and as he begins his solo on the tune, he goes into a breathtaking run, astounding not only for its length, but also for its asymmetrical architecture. Maintaining his penchant for single line solos, his second eight features a brilliant development of the song’s primary motive. In the next eight, he develops one of his own lines, but then returns to examining the original tune to finish his chorus. All of this is done so artfully that the casual listener can barely tell what’s going on. Django’s accompaniment style has also made a new development: there is a wonderful moment during Grappelli’s solo where Reinhardt hits a roll at full strength, but then immediately brings the volume down. In classical music, that’s known as a forte-piano, but it is rarely used in jazz. Here, it is a perfect way to balance the QHCF’s usual rough-and-ready style with the tender reading of a timeless standard.

August 29, 2009 · 0 comments

Tags:


Previous Page | Next Page