Fletcher Henderson: Fidgety Feet

Fletcher Henderson's pioneering jazz band relied heavily on the talents of his sidemen, and his arrangement of “Fidgety Feet” calls for many of the vast solo resources of the band. While several other band members solo, the star of this track is trombonist Jimmy Harrison, whose aggressive breaks and virtuosic solo set the stage for the band's trademark swing feeling.

The arrangement uses Harrison as the spark plug to jump-start the first strain's driving two-feel. He has a solo break early in the chart which showcases his enormous, round sound and overpowering swing feeling. Later, other instruments get a chance at the breaks, but none convey the power of Harrison's trombone. Harrison gets his full solo about halfway through the tune. Here, he shows why he was considered -- alongside Coleman Hawkins and Louis Armstrong -- to be the most sophisticated improvisers of his day. Rhythmically, his ideas fit right into the pocket, and melodically he incorporates wide leaps, expressive rips and even some chromaticism -- a difficult feat on his awkward instrument. The range he employs is also impressive; he pops out high notes as cleanly as he executes in the lower register.

Even during the cacophonous ending, Harrison's resonant sound rumbles underneath the rest of the band and supports the final hit, ending the song with the same booming exuberance with which he started it off.

October 04, 2009 · 0 comments


Duke Ellington: Never No Lament

I wonder how Duke Ellington reacted when he was asked to turn his instrumental "Never No Lament" into the pop song "Don't Get Around Much Anymore". While the opening phrase was catchy enough, his recording was not set up like a pop-song-in-waiting. There was a main section and a bridge, all right, but the bridge only appeared twice amongst 9 appearances of the A section. And the bridge, as it is was originally written, had a snappy motive of a descending minor second that did not translate to the vocal version.

Ellington loved to play formal games during this period, and it's fascinating to listen to the 1940-42 Victor sides just to hear how Duke changed the standard patterns. The recording starts with the trumpets playing the melody over the saxes' retorts. In the next eight, Ellington plays a variation with Lawrence Brown filling in the gaps. So, 2 eight-bar A sections, so it's time for B, right? Not for Ellington. He goes right back to the top of the form, giving two more A sections to Johnny Hodges before heading to the bridge. (This is risky, because the B section of most songs are in a different key, and the modulation prevents listener fatigue. If you've ever heard Jim Croce's song "I'll Have To Say I Love You In A Song" and wondered what was odd about it--other than the grammatically incorrect title--it's that the song doesn't have a bridge, so it goes on and on in the same key ad infinitum). Ellington's ensemble plays the bridge and Hodges plays another A section. As Cootie Williams takes over, the song starts to behave like a normal pop song with Lawrence Brown taking the bridge after 2 A sections. The trumpets play the final A, but that's not the end of the record. Ellington closes the side by going back almost to the beginning of the arrangement, combining his piano variation from the second eight with the sax retorts from the first eight, thus tying up the recording with a elegant variation.

September 16, 2009 · 0 comments


Duke Ellington (featuring Al Hibbler): Don't Get Around Much Anymore

As most Ellington fans know, "Don't Get Around Much Anymore" was the pop song version of Duke's 1940 instrumental "Never No Lament". What is lesser known is that there are quite a few differences between the two versions.The song was in the standard AABA form, but the instrumental didn't adhere to that form, with as many as 4 A sections in a row before the bridge. The bridge of the song maintains only the first phrase of the instrumental bridge (which is a little surprising since the song's bridge seems like such a natural creation). In keeping with the title, the 1940 recording of "Never No Lament" is jaunty and laid-back; the definitive 1947 vocal version of "Don't Get Around Much Anymore" is aggressive and menacing. Johnny Hodges' wailing saxophone and Ray Nance's growling trumpet lead the way for Al Hibbler's stunning vocal. In Hibbler's voice, we can hear all kinds of emotions at the same time: frustration at his inability to enjoy a night out and loneliness for his lost love. Hibbler's emotionally direct vocal style made him a big hit on the R&B scene, but jazz fans loved him for his fine rhythmic approach. After Hibbler, Hodges and Harry Carney exchange thoughts for a half-chorus with Nance jumping in for the bridge. Hodges comes back for a few bars, but Hibbler returns for the exuberant coda, "Do-on't Gey Hay Round Much Hen-ty Mo-ah".

September 16, 2009 · 0 comments


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


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