Willie Nelson: Blue Skies

So many famous artists have performed this song—Frank Sinatra, Louis Armstrong Count Basie, Judy Garland, Ella Fitzgerald, Al Jolson, Art Tatum, and Bing Crosby, among others—yet a quick check of the Amazon charts shows that one version out-sells the rest. I can't imagine many people at Columbia got excited when Willie Nelson decided to record an album of old pop tunes, all but one composed before World War II. Yet the execs clearly celebrated the results: a triple platinum album that spent more than two years on the charts.

There are no frills here. Strings are kept in the background, and if they were mixed in any softer you wouldn't even notice them. When the guitar takes a solo, it simply states Irving Berlin's melody. There's nothing to hold your interest . . . except one big thing. Yes, it's hard to pay attention to anything here except Nelson's raw and compelling voice. I have heard critics tell me that there is no such thing as authenticity in music, and that recordings and performances are all deeply coded cultural constructs, a process in which authenticity can play no part. But I can only surmise that they never heard this particular record, or they wouldn't be saying that. This is the real deal, sung by a veteran of many gigs who puts his heart and soul into the words and melody. A more calculated album would never have had the impact of this one, and Mr. Nelson's success is proportional to his indifference to those same deeply coded constructs.

Shortly after the guitar solo, we get a key change and, toward the end, the tempo is cut in half, which is usually a bad move when recording a pop tune, but by then Nelson has the audience at his beck and call, and wherever he takes them—to F# or the moons of Jupiter—they will come along willingly. Even smug jazz artists, who think they have a special relationship with these old songs, one that outsiders can never match, might learn a thing or two from listening to this milestone performance by the man from Fort Worth.

September 12, 2009 · 0 comments


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


Art Tatum: Blue Skies

Art Tatum’s solo sides for Capitol were recorded on three dates in July-September 1949. Except for a few old favorites like “Sweet Lorraine”, the tunes he recorded were new to his repertoire. Surprisingly, “Blue Skies” was one of the pieces he had never recorded before, and save for a 20-second live snippet on a Storyville CD, his only other recording was part of the marathon solo sessions recorded for Norman Granz. On the Granz recording, Tatum creates a wonderful re-harmonization of the song, but he is plagued with fingering problems throughout. The Capitol version is breezy and confident, but not as daring. While Berlin’s lyric is as carefree as one can imagine, his melody is in minor. Tatum brings out the minor tonality in his slightly menacing introduction, but lightens the mood as soon as he starts playing the melody. In the first 24 bars, he presents the melody interspersed with minor filigrees and subtle reharmonizations. But in the final 8 bars of the first chorus, the melody is obscured amidst Tatum’s dazzling runs. Tatum wants to keep his listeners with him, so in the next 2 choruses, he refers back to the melody in the first 2 A sections, moves away from it in the bridge and barely touches it in the final A. Throughout the performance, Tatum keeps everything in balance, with lighter textures in the first A of each chorus, long runs in the second A, call-and-response set figures in the bridges and more aggressive improvising in the final A. In the final half-chorus, the bridge he offers a fine variation on the tune, and the final eight includes a quote from the children’s song “In & Out The Window”, which also appeared in the Granz recording. Not an undiscovered masterpiece, but a lovely reading of a great American standard.

September 04, 2009 · 0 comments


Ella Fitzgerald: Blue Skies

“Blue Skies” was originally recorded for (and eventually omitted from) The Irving Berlin Song Book, and it was first issued as part of an all-star jazz compilation album created by Playboy magazine, and later appeared on a Verve compilation of assorted bits and pieces from Ella’s many sessions for the label. The recording is still not well-known, but it features one of her finest extended scat solos. Like her famous “Oh, Lady Be Good” recording 9 years earlier, the big band arrangement exists only to support Ella, and she’s never asked to interrupt her improvisation for ensemble figures. Ella opens with 4 virtuosic cadenzas, and then jumps to a medium tempo for the opening chorus. Harry Edison provides pithy commentary during the melody statement, and then Ella launches into a two-and-a-half chorus scat solo. She starts out by adapting the saxophone riff playing behind her, and as the solo continues, she repeats and develops ideas with uncanny fluency. Encouraged on by the magnificent accompanying group, Ella builds her solo in a natural and unforced manner. There are plenty of quotes (“Here Comes The Bride” near the beginning, “Rhapsody In Blue” as the solo peaks), but mostly this is Ella, joyously creating music on the spot and spreading that joy to her audience.

July 05, 2009 · 0 comments


Junko Onishi: Blue Skies

Japan's Junko Onishi was one of the most promising jazz pianists to emerge in the '90s, her series of five Blue Note releases, plus one led by Jackie McLean, showcasing her already formidable pianistics, as well as hinting at her potential as a composer and arranger. Then she virtually disappeared, and apparently hasn't recorded in the new millennium.

Onishi's two Village Vanguard CDs were both recorded on the same three nights in May 1994, with Wynton Marsalis's rhythm team of Reginald Veal and Herlin Riley offering impeccable support. These are absorbing live sessions, whether the trio is interpreting Ornette Coleman, Mingus, Monk, or standards like "Blue Skies." On the Irving Berlin tune, Onishi clearly reveals her refined precision, relentless drive, firmly swinging pulse, and ability to expand on a well-known melody through the use of fresh vamps and other creative elaborations. Onishi begins with a pianissimo tolling intro that gradually evolves into the theme. One is struck by her thoughtful clarity of vision and classically trained and nuanced touch, both remindful of John Lewis, and when she goes into overdrive you are swept along as she goes from one inventive peak to another. She alters her rhythmic attack frequently, and wisps of Horace Silver and Oscar Peterson pass by, the latter especially in her very effective alterations of the dynamic level. Not a note wasted here, nor a note not enjoyed. We await her return.

February 10, 2009 · 0 comments


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