Erroll Garner: Summertime

Erroll Garner's Columbia version of "Summertime" sounds like a playful romp, but there is a lot of musical substance beneath the surface. Garner's introduction is in straight eighth notes. While doubtlessly shortened for recording time considerations, it still makes an effective contrast to the sinuous Garner strut tempo that follows. In the theme statement and his ensuing solo, Garner uses triplet patterns both as further contrast to the introduction and to add a sassy quality to his interpretation. Garner's mastery of dynamics is on full display with the pianist bringing the group's volume up and down through his touch at the keyboard. And as a balance to the introduction, the closing chorus uses a simple quarter-note pattern (in more or less straight time) as a shout chorus, which replaces the restatement of the original theme. At the end, all that is left of Gershwin's original is the opening phrase, which Garner plays over the final held chord.

July 30, 2008 · 0 comments

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Charlie Parker: Summertime

Although Charlie Parker was proud of playing with a string section, this version of "Summertime" shows why the venture was an artistic failure. Using an adaptation of the original orchestral score as background, Parker does little more than ornament the Gershwin melody. The only compelling part of this recording is Parker's acidic tone, which is quite different from the polished sound of opera divas who use the same basic arrangement on "classical pop" albums or in staged versions of Porgy and Bess. Even then, Parker barely holds our interest through this recording. If Parker had used more improvisation on this side (as on his classic version of "Just Friends" also recorded at this session), his version of "Summertime" might rank as one of the greatest. As is, it's just a disappointment.

July 30, 2008 · 0 comments

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Billie Holiday: Summertime

Billie Holiday was not the first jazz artist to record "Summertime" (Bob Crosby recorded a transcription version five months earlier) but hers was the first recorded for 78s and probably did more than any other version to establish the song as a potential jazz standard. For any listener of the time who had heard "Summertime" in its operatic version, Holiday's rendition was a shockóraw and dirty with the rasp of Bunny Berigan's trumpet echoed in Holiday's voice. Holiday jettisons nearly the entire melody, flattening out the melodic contour to fit her voice and her artistic sense, and behind her, Berigan and Artie Shaw jam away, sensing even then that this new Gershwin song with its easy harmonic sequence would be a natural for the jazz repertoire.

July 29, 2008 · 1 comment

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Shelly Manne: Summertime

In 1959 producer Lester Koenig had the good sense to record Shelly Manne & His Men for four nights at San Francisco's Blackhawk. It was an audacious move: none of the sidemen was particularly well known, and the band was in transition, using Feldman as a temporary substitute for Russ Freeman. The resulting four LPs (later expanded to five CDs) are beloved in the jazz community because the musicians played in peak form throughout and the arrangements were fresh takes on familiar material. "Summertime" opens the first album and sets the stage for the 5+ hours of remarkable music to follow. Starting with Budwig's double stops and Manne's light cymbal touches, Gordon intones the theme while the rhythm section creates a mood rather than states the beat. Gordon, in Harmon mute, uses a pure straight tone and his ideas are pointed and direct, with no extraneous notes or terminal vibrato to soften the edge. Kamuca's warm tone and flowery ideas contrast Gordon's, and Feldman builds and releases tension in his solo without sacrificing the overall mood.

July 29, 2008 · 0 comments

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Sidney Bechet: Summertime

Sidney Bechet's version of "Summertime" is one of the great recordings in jazz history. Bechet takes the Gershwin song's 16-bar form and simple harmonic structure and treats it like an extension of the 12-bar blues. With Teddy Bunn providing single-string commentary on his guitar behind Bechet's soprano, it is as if Bechet and Bunn were playing the parts of Bessie Smith and Louis Armstrong from a classic blues recording. Bechet solos throughout the 4-minute recording (certainly one of the longest jazz solos recorded to that time), utilizing much of his unique musical vocabulary, including rasps, growls and various speeds of vibrato. Bunn's responses are almost all from the blues vernacular, except in one spot where he quotes the familiar countermelody from the original opera score.

July 29, 2008 · 0 comments

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Miles Davis: Summertime

One of the many wonders in the Miles Davis/Gil Evans album of Porgy and Bess is how Evans was able to remain faithful to the spirit of Gershwin's opera without using the original orchestrations. There is no better example than "Summertime." As originally presented in the opera, "Summertime" is a lullaby (a fact seemingly forgotten in the full-voiced performances of certain divas). Gil uses a gently swinging riff that easily adapts to the harmonic changes of the song, while in front Miles plays a solo that strays off the melody more than you think, but always stays connected with the contour of the original tune. And it's all so quiet! Even when Miles builds the intensity of his solo, he never loses sight of the overall context.

July 29, 2008 · 0 comments

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Teddi King: How Long Has This Been Going On?

"How Long Has This Been Going On" was recorded 4 weeks before Teddi King's death, yet despite her suffering from Lupus, her voice sounds young and strong. King's rhythmic variations are sublime, especially on the words "what a dunce I was before," where it sounds like she's shaking her head in disbelief. Dave McKenna's accompaniment sparkles as usual, and after King's death, he completed this tribute to Ira Gershwin with solo versions of the songs King was planning to record. Now reissued on CD, this is highly recommended.

July 21, 2008 · 1 comment

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Miles Davis: There's a Boat That's Leaving Soon for New York

Although this song is actually sung in the opera's penultimate scene, it makes a fine ending for the album. Clearly in a celebratory mood, Gil Evans begins with a quasi-New Orleans small band sound which breaks out to a roaring ensemble as Miles improvises away. Evans even ties things up by musically referencing "Gone," perhaps a sly joke since Bess has left Catfish Row by the end of the opera. Stereo allows us to hear trumpets and trombones on the right side of the listening stage, reeds and French horns on the left. On a note of excitement and triumph, both song and album end.

It should be mentioned that by the late 1950s, Gil Evans clearly had no use for the standard five-man sax section, and the only saxophonist on both this album and the previous year's Miles Ahead is an altoist, either Lee Konitz or Cannonball Adderley. The remaining reeds are three in number, mostly two flutes or clarinets and bass clarinet, but there are passages of three alto flutes, Danny Bank being lead.

It is well known that the Davis/Evans projects went over budget because of the difficulty of the music, hence the splicing mentioned in other reviews of tracks on this album. However, it is also true that all four of their albums (Miles Ahead, Porgy and Bess, Sketches of Spain, Quiet Nights) have never gone out of print. Great art sometimes pays off well!

July 08, 2008 · 0 comments

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Miles Davis: I Loves You, Porgy

One of the most beautiful songs in Porgy and Bess, the music during the entire first part of this track seems to float, as alto flutes and brass play shimmering figures against Miles's muted trumpet in steady tempo, but sounding rubato thanks to the background figures Gil has written. Evans reharmonizes the song's bridge with horns and alto flutes prominent, with part writing that stresses counterpoint over chord changes. While it is too bad that this song fades and might be unsatisfying for some, Evans is clearly using it to set up the album's final song.

If one hears this casually, it almost sounds like mood music. But repeated listening reveals many layers of sound under Miles's improvisational singing. In the history of music, few composers could weave such a web of sound as Gil Evans, and few soloists could be so inspired by it as Miles Davis.

July 08, 2008 · 0 comments

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Miles Davis: Prayer (Oh Doctor Jesus)

This section of Porgy and Bess was never well known by the general public. In the opera, Bess goes with other residents of Catfish Row to a picnic on a small island, where she meets up with her former lover Crown. By the time she returns to Porgy, she is quite ill (the implication being that she has overdosed on drugs). The character Serena sings a prayer for her recovery, with Porgy and Lily singing responsively. In the world of Miles and Gil, Miles prays for Bess's soul as if he were a preacher, and the congregation responds. These responses build to a powerful climax before everything dies down. Listen closely for the subtle orchestral colorings, such as the tremolo in the string bass and bass clarinet, exemplifying how the Davis/Evans collaborations reveal many layers the more one listens to them.

July 05, 2008 · 0 comments

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Miles Davis: Summertime

This is a straightforward rendition of the Gershwin classic, with Miles playing the melody, then improvising against a simple background. The background repeats and is heard in different instrumental groups upon each repeat. Gil Evans was a master of orchestral color, and even these simple instrumental groupings are interesting because he shifts them unobtrusively. While the casual listener may not hear anything very different from chorus to chorus orchestrally, the attentive listener will appreciate the subtle changes in sonic tone. This same basic setting was later reused for one of the last dates Evans recorded, 1987's Collaboration with singer Helen Merrill.

July 05, 2008 · 0 comments

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Miles Davis: Buzzard Song

Miles's and Gil's Porgy and Bess opens with a loud chord, proceeding to Miles's take on a song cut from the opera's original New York production in 1935; Evans no doubt learned it from Columbia Records' near-complete recording, released in 1951. But the track takes a left turn as it continues with a written bebop solo played by Barber and Chambers in unison, with brass as background. Only Gil Evans would have written such a solo to open an album of songs from a major theatre score, and the pairing of bass and tuba, not a very safe thing to do because of possible intonation problems, is near flawless here because of the virtuosity of the musicians themselves. This track also reminds us of the many musicians and arrangers who often said that Evans could notate excellent solos as if they were being improvised on the spot. The track is over before the listener realizes.

July 05, 2008 · 0 comments

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Miles Davis: Gone, Gone, Gone

Act I, Scene 2 of Gershwin's opera Porgy and Bess (1935) finds a roomful of destitute Negroes attending the sheet-covered body of a lately murdered man, their fellow Catfish Row denizen Robbins. Upon his chest, a large blue saucer beckons donations. Robbins, an unlucky gambler with no life insurance, left a widow and baby penniless. By custom in such cases, mourners must sing lamentations to attract neighborhood condolences in the form of coins to defray burial costs. Otherwise, the Board of Health will cart away the remains for deposit into the hands of white medical students. And that, it was agreed by one and all, would be a fate worse than death.

In a mere 30 seconds, with nary a word sung or spoken, Gershwin's stark orchestral music chillingly evokes the majesty and mystery of death. Similarly, Miles Davis and Gil Evans require scarcely more than two minutes to lift Gershwin's delicate dirge from funerary to phantasmagoric realms as spectral as souls raised from the dead. Abrupt tape splices badly mar this track, obviously a patchwork composite and not a continuous performance. But even so, Gil's arrangement and Miles's flugelhorn here are the stuff from which goose bumps are made. Spine tingling.

June 14, 2008 · 0 comments

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Miles Davis: My Man's Gone Now

British critic Max Harrison felt that the full potential of Gil Evans's charts for Miles Davis's Porgy and Bess was not realized in the recording. He based this belief largely on a letter he received from a musician on the date who claimed that the rehearsals were rushed, Evans was not a great conductor, and that as excellent as the end result turned out, it should have been even better. Harrison did not disclose the musician's identity, but Larry Hicock's biography Castles Made of Sound: The Story of Gil Evans (2002) quotes session participant Gunther Schuller by name and at length to the same effect.

Listening to a piece like "My Man's Gone Now," one could hardly imagine how it could be significantly or even noticeably improved. Serena's lamentation for her slain husband Robbins, "My Man's Gone Now" as reworked by Davis and Evans is mesmerizing from beginning to end. Miles plaintively caresses the melody with the support of Paul Chambers's resonant bass figures and an insinuating orchestral vamp, soon to be replaced by pungent brass punctuations. The tempo doubles as Miles solos thematically over the urgent pulse of Chambers and Philly Joe Jones. The orchestra's voicings display a resigned mournfulness in contrast to Miles's grieving flugelhorn cries, and the wailing brass exclamations in the closing section culminate in a dirge-like interlude by the full ensemble.

June 10, 2008 · 0 comments

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Miles Davis: It Ain't Necessarily So

The wistful, longing intro by Davis, cleverly utilizing the opening melodic line from "I Got Plenty of Nothin'," could just as easily have been attached to the end of the previous melancholy track, "My Man's Gone Now." It builds to a gradual crescendo before a blast from the brass that initiates Miles's improvisation on "It Ain't Necessarily So," underscored by Jimmy Cobb's kicking drumbeat. Miles then plays the theme, only to quickly enter phase two of his solo. His attack is aggressive and deadly serious, not at all jocular or lighthearted, a far cry from the tone of Sportin' Life's skeptical assessment of religion, the basis of this selection in Gershwin's opera. Miles seems to be affirming that life is, after all, very hard in Catfish Row. Evans's arrangement here is one of his sparsest, allowing Miles the spotlight except for occasional short, assertive interjections from the trumpet section. Miles ends the piece with one kissed, insolent little note, his only real acknowledgment of the cocky Sportin' Life.

June 10, 2008 · 0 comments

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