Jane Monheit: Over the Rainbow

Coincidentally, two months after Jane Monheit recorded it, "Over the Rainbow" was voted the 20th century's favorite song in the Recording Industry of America Association's survey of hundreds of music lovers from all walks of life across the U.S. Whether or not the 23-year-old Monheit's cover will become as iconic to our new century as 16-year-old Judy Garland's original was to the last, only time will tell. As the emotional centerpiece of Hollywood's most beloved family film, Judy's track has enjoyed a promotional advantage, not to mention a 62-year head start. But don't sell Jane short. A stirring, uplifting, charismatic performance.

December 10, 2007 · 0 comments


Dave Brubeck: Over the Rainbow

Twenty years after this performance was recorded at Boston's Storyville nightclub, a host of musicians (most of them associated with the ECM label) began playing jazz without relying on syncopation -- that essential rhythmic device that had propelled jazz performances since the birth of the art form. But Brubeck showed how to do it back in 1952. In this pioneering performance, Brubeck weaves a hypnotic web without relying on a single jazz cliché or any of the familiar devices of swing or bop. It was almost as if he were trying to construct an entirely new way of improvising at the keyboard. Brubeck pulls it off through the sheer brilliance of his reharmonization, and the shifting chiaroscuro textures of his reconfiguration of the Arlen standard. Paul Desmond joins in at the end -- almost as if he couldn't resist the allure of Brubeck's spell. But for all intents and purposes, this is a solo piano performance, and a telling reminder of why Brubeck caused such a stir with his early recordings.

December 01, 2007 · 1 comment


Susannah McCorkle: I Don't Think I'll End It All Today

After Billie Holliday pondered joining a dead lover in "Gloomy Sunday" (1941), an urban legend spread about melancholic listeners offing themselves. Since then, whenever other jazz singers have musically contemplated suicide, they've been more optimistic, as in this upbeat calypso first sung by Lena Horne in Broadway's Jamaica (1957), which cites "the world and its wonders" as reasons enough to stay alive. Susannah McCorkle's performance is thoroughly convincing. When she sings, "So many sweet dreams still to unfold," you hear hope in her voice. Seven years later, that hope was gone. A depressed McCorkle killed herself at 55. So many sweet dreams still to unfold.

November 30, 2007 · 0 comments


Ethel Waters: Stormy Weather

No other Jazz Age singer rivaled her versatility. Combining the tony diction of London's posh Mayfair salons (although she actually grew up in Philadelphia poverty) with gospel sincerity and an ever-lurking earthy inflection, Ethel Waters exercised an unmatched artistic range. With the savvy dramaturgy of a seasoned stage actress, Miss Waters didn't simply sing a song, she enacted a minidrama replete with theatrical flourishes. Here, as she concludes, we want to rush the stage crying "Brava!" and strew bouquets at her feet. In 2003, when the Grammy folks enshrined this track in their Hall of Fame, they got it right.

November 24, 2007 · 1 comment


Charles Mingus: Stormy Weather (1954)

Until the late 1940s, John LaPorta coulda been a contender. That's when he hooked up with Lennie Tristano. Talk about a one-way ticket to Palookaville! In 1954, LaPorta emerged from Tristano's training camp to spar with heavyweight Charles Mingus, then championing jazz Abstract Expressionism. LaPorta's modernistic arrangement of "Stormy Weather," featuring Thad Jones with eerie reverb and a lugubrious cello, undermines our expectations, using bitonality to create an illusion of suspended gravitation. This scheme, particularly applied to a familiar standard instead of an original composition, demonstrates how experimental New York jazzmen were half a decade before Ornette Coleman blew into town. Incidentally, the album title's "Jazzical" connoted jazz + classical two years before Gunther Schuller coined the artier Third Stream.

November 22, 2007 · 0 comments


Wes Montgomery: One For My Baby (And One More For the Road)

Harold Arlen's composition may be the ultimate late-night, brokenhearted, drown-your-sorrows-in-booze song. Sinatra owned this territory -- his last commercial session found him rerecording it (with Kenny G!), and a short while later the same piece was performed at the crooner's funeral. But others have also put their stamp on this tearjerker. Bette Midler sang it to Johnny Carson on one of the last episodes of his talk-fest, and even brought tears to the eyes of that seasoned host (and snagged an Emmy for the Divine Miss M). Astaire danced to it, and Cab Calloway sang it behind a cloud of cigarette smoke. But Wes Montgomery stakes out his claim to the standard on this memorable performance from 1961. His guitar lines are very soulful and he puts his personal stamp on every phrase. No guitarist ever played with a better sense of timing and swing than Wes, and he shows here that he can keep the music grooving at a slow-to-medium tempo that often puts seasoned rhythm sections into a rut. A gem of a performance from a giant of the six strings.

November 21, 2007 · 0 comments


Billie Holiday: Stormy Weather

Possessing neither the theatricality of Ethel Waters nor the stateliness of Lena Horne, Billie Holiday eschews "Stormy Weather" as a torch song, and instead makes it a saloon song. You might fear that Billie's quarter-to-three, no-one-in-the-place-except-you-and-me barstool confidential would detract from the lyrics; with such a distinctive artist, a mere song risks becoming more about her than about its intended subject. Think again. Nobody ever served "Stormy Weather" better than Lady Day, who affords a whole new appreciation of Ted Koehler's words. Songs are a form of storytelling. And jazz never had a wiser, more believable storyteller than Billie Holiday.

November 21, 2007 · 0 comments


Denny Zeitlin: My Shining Hour

The Denny Zeitlin trio was one of the most important jazz combos from the 1960s -- but the execs at the Columbia label (now part of Sony) seem intent on keeping most of this vibrant music out-of-print and unavailable. Zeitlin had assimilated the breakthroughs of the previous decade, from the impressionism of Bill Evans to the free-fall explorations of Ornette Coleman, and blended them into a personal style that anticipated the next fifteen years of keyboard advances. He stood out from the crowd for the unbridled creativity of his work, the richness of his harmonic palette, and the sheer beauty of his piano tone. I finally replaced my scratchy LP of Live at the Trident with an expensive CD import from Japan. But the music has never been made available on CD in the U.S. The same is true of Zeitlin's exceptional Zeitgeist release from 1966. Will somebody open up the vault and let the music out? Fans who seek out these rarities will be rewarded with piano trio music of the highest level.

November 21, 2007 · 1 comment


Lena Horne: Stormy Weather

Eight days after Pearl Harbor, the breathtaking Lena Horne correctly forecasts long-term war clouds. The following year, in Hollywood's Stormy Weather (1943), an all-black musical biopic of dancer Bill "Bojangles" Robinson, Horne co-starred and reprised the title song. Lip-synching at her apartment window opposite an El Train station, Lena misses her man so much she's oblivious to a virtual hurricane battering Harlem. The role made her a star, and "Stormy Weather" became her signature. Here, Ned Freeman's Harlem- Meets-Hollywood arrangement is a washout, discordantly mixing Ellington-style jungle growls with Vine Street violins. Still, Lena's star shines undimmed through the clouds.

November 21, 2007 · 0 comments


Jack Teagarden: I Gotta Right to Sing the Blues

Swing Era and Big Band Era are not necessarily synonymous. Medium-sized groups produced much of the Swing Era's finest music. Here's a case in point. Benny Goodman was nominal leader, but the star is Jack Teagarden. As surely as Louis Armstrong redefined the jazz trumpet's role, Teagarden revolutionized jazz trombone. With trumpet promoted to bravura centerpiece, Teagarden subdued his instrument's traditional tailgate bluster in favor of understatement. Yet while playing half as loudly, Teagarden played twice as skillfully, developing unprecedented technical control. Add to that his laid-back singing, and the Texan's soft-spoken eloquence is more persuasive than the noisiest rant.

November 12, 2007 · 1 comment


Gerry Mulligan (featuring Zoot Sims): Come Rain or Come Shine

Tenor sax ballads typically feature the lineup most conducive to intimacy, a single horn with rhythm section. Yet here the inveterate swinger Zoot Sims simmers down for a big band ballad as exposed and personal as any quartet. Gerry Mulligan's arrangement reminds us how even the finest gems are enhanced by an exquisite setting. And make no mistake, this is among the finest gems of Zoot's 45-year career. True to the song's title, Sims is alternately cloudy and clear, downcast and uplifting, delicate and robust. Whether it rained or shined, Zoot Sims invariably did the latter.

November 07, 2007 · 0 comments


Sarah Vaughan: Come Rain or Come Shine

By 1950, the finest singer of the bebop era had done her best to put bop behind her. Since bop was primarily instrumental music dominated by male eccentrics, there wasn't much room for female vocalists, no matter how skillful. After her mid-1940s record sessions with Diz, Bird, Bud, et al., Sarah Vaughan shunned such company and avoided their material. During the 1950s, Sarah's singles were often on the pop charts, but her relationship with jazz was skittish. So it's good that we catch her early in the decade for "Come Rain or Come Shine." Sarah, mannerisms at a minimum, shines.

November 06, 2007 · 0 comments


Ray Charles: Come Rain or Come Shine

In addition to being an iconic rhythm ‘n’ blues vocalist, Ray Charles played jazz piano and alto saxophone. But it was his soulful singing that was held in such high esteem by the jazz community. His heart-wrenching rendering of “Come Rain Or Come Shine,” over a lush Ralph Burns arrangement for an orchestra that included strings, a choir, and Bob Brookmeyer’s earthy valve trombone, may be the most moving version of the song ever recorded.

October 31, 2007 · 0 comments


Al Jarreau: Ac-cent-tchu-ate The Positive

Al Jarreau makes this Harold Arlen-Johnny Mercer standard his own with his ebullient delivery and quirky phrasing. The song’s got an irresistible, finger-snappable groove, and saxophonist Keith Anderson serves as a soul-jazzy counterpart to Jarreau’s vocal. The high spirit is palpable and infectious; after hearing this, you will indeed, as the song says, “eliminate the negative.”

October 29, 2007 · 0 comments


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