Jackie Allen: Stardust

"Stardust" is among the most recorded songs in history. The Guinness Book of World Records lists it as the most-recorded song ever, and Tom Lord's "Jazz Discography" lists it as the eleventh-most recorded song by jazz musicians. The various legends surrounding the song's origins have it inspired either by the music of Bix Beiderbecke or the memory of a former girlfriend (and since it was written by Hoagy Carmichael, we might expect that it was a little of both). When the melody was composed in 1927, it was conceived as a medium-tempo instrumental, but by the time Mitchell Parish's lyric was added in 1931, it had been recorded at least twice as a ballad.

"Stardust" is a song ("Lush Life" is another) where the verse is as beloved as the chorus. Frank Sinatra's most famous recording of the song included only the verse, and the recording reviewed here, by Jackie Allen with the Muncie Symphony Orchestra, includes two renditions of the verse, with a single performance of the chorus in the middle. Arranger Frank Proto scores each version of the verse differently. The opening features a solo French horn, soon paired with Allen. Little by little, other wind and string instruments come in, building subtly to the chorus. Proto's writing for the strings is glassy and other-worldly, reflecting the dream-like state of the lyric. Allen maintains the atmosphere with a cool reading of the lyric, and by staying close to the melody. When the verse returns, the strings predominate the scoring at first, but then they yield to the woodwinds. The horn call comes back at the halfway point, and leads the ensemble nearly to the end, tying the arrangement together. The coda is remarkably understated, but very effective.

October 09, 2009 · 0 comments

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Stacey Kent: I Get Along Without You Very Well

The full title of this song is "I Get Along Without You Very Well (Except Sometimes)". Ay, there's the rub. It is not a song of triumph about surviving a breakup, but a song of intense loneliness and false bravado. It is one of the few songs where Hoagy Carmichael wrote both the music and lyrics, and the lyrics reflect a feeling we've all had when we've realized that it's just not possible to always make it on your own.

In her duet recording with guitarist Colin Oxley, Stacey Kent brings out the loneliness of this song even more than its better-known interpreters, Frank Sinatra and Chet Baker. She starts by singing the title line alone, and Oxley comes in only when she sings the line Of course, I have which is when the narrator starts to realize the futility of that statement. Throughout the recording, she expresses great vulnerability and adds intensity only as the lyric dictates. She never deviates from the melody and her slight bits of expression--a slide here, or a sigh there--don't detract from the message of the lyric.

The recording comes from an album where Kent pays tribute to her male singing role models. But in this case, she may have made the definitive recording herself.

October 09, 2009 · 0 comments

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Ann Hampton Callaway: Skylark

As a bird, the skylark is indigenous to Europe, Asia and Africa. Yet, the bird is well known to the rest of the world due to the many poems that praise its song. A skylark's song can be heard on the ground even when the bird is flying 2 or 3 miles high. I don't know whether Hoagy Carmichael or Johnny Mercer ever heard a skylark in person, but their song "Skylark" is one of the masterpieces of American music. The melody seems to float over the time, so much so that even the most convoluted section of the bridge doesn't bring the melody back to the ground. The wistful lyric, in which a lover asks a bird for advice of the heart, is one of Mercer's finest creations.

Ann Hampton Callaway's stunning recording brings all of the elements of this standard to life. Bill Charlap's exquisite introduction brings on Callaway, and the two work as a duo for the first 16 bars of the opening chorus. In rubato time, Charlap ripples below as Callaway soars above on the melody. Callaway's rich, velvety voice envelops the melody, and her interpretation of the lyric starts conversationally and seamlessly moves into longer phrases. When the rest of the band enters on the bridge, Andy Farber provides a lovely accompaniment on tenor sax. Charlap plays a delicate solo in single lines with fine interaction from Peter Washington on bass. When Callaway returns, she makes a few well-chosen deviations from the melody, but we never lose the sense of the original line. At the coda, Callaway and Charlap are together again, and she brings her rendition full-circle by returning to the conversational interpretation where she started.

October 09, 2009 · 0 comments

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Irene Kral: Memphis In June

"Memphis In June" was written by Hoagy Carmichael and Paul Francis Webster, but the lyric veers close to Johnny Mercer's territory. The words set a scene of pastoral southern America with cousin Amanda makin' a rhubarb pie and Grandma sitting in a rocking chair on the front porch. In this recording, Irene Kral captures the exact mood of the song with a vocal tinged with sweet nostalgia and home-spun warmth. Al Cohn's arrangement offers excellent support for Kral. In fact, everything is going just fine until the band comes in for its interlude. Jimmy Zitano plays a dramatic roll and suddenly all of the trumpets are playing in the stratosphere. All that Kral and Cohn have done to set a mood are completely wiped out within 8 bars. And then the band stops and we go right back to the pastoral mood of the opening chorus.

It's hard to puzzle out just how that odd 8-bar passage got into the middle of this arrangement, but here's a theory or two: First, Kral and Pomeroy were not well-known at the time, so the record company may have commissioned Cohn to write an "anonymous" arrangement that could be sung and played by just about anyone. Whether Cohn actually wrote the trumpets in the high register is questionable; the trumpet section might have decided to take it up an octave at the session. However, the high trumpets and a key part of Kral's resumé offer a clue to the second theory: that Cohn wrote this arrangement for Kral during the nine months when she sang with Maynard Ferguson's band, and Kral brought the chart to the Pomeroy session. Neither theory is air-tight (the other band parts seem to support the high trumpets during the passage, and Maynard carried only 6 brass players with his band, not the 8 heard with Pomeroy), but the shame is that the passage just doesn't work and it ruins the entire track. Irene Kral didn't record many albums (especially with big bands), so it's too bad that a momentary lapse in taste marred this otherwise exemplary recording.

October 09, 2009 · 0 comments

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Fred Hersch: The Nearness Of You

Ned Washington's lyric to the Hoagy Carmichael song "The Nearness Of You" has always been a special favorite of mine. The thought of a person whose mere presence can be an inspiration speaks to the romantic artist in me. I suspect that Fred Hersch loves these words as much as I do. For even in his solo piano version of this song, the lyric's message comes through.

Hersch opens with an original introduction (not the original verse) and then he moves into the song with great tenderness, using a spare arpeggiated style in his left hand. While the left hand ideas grow in intensity as Hersch becomes more rhapsodic, they are never overwhelming, but are simply there to support the melody in the right hand. Hersch stays in a free rubato throughout the performance, but there seems to some underlying tempo as Hersch's ideas seem to ebb and flow in a rhythmic pattern. Early in his improvisation, he finds a wonderful little idea that he sequences through a number of keys before moving to another thought, which he also develops. He returns to the tune at the bridge and he emphasizes the end of that eight-bar section with held notes at either end of the piano followed by a dramatic pause, which reverts the mood back to that of the beginning.

So, how does all of this relate to the lyric? It's not easy to explain, but I get a tangible feeling that the passion found in this recording has extra-musical roots. The romantic intensity of the lyric is transformed into a spiritual feeling that breathes through every second of this music. Creative musicians live for moments like this, where all of the elements come together and the music is elevated to a higher level. Inspiration and complete mental focus are a big part of the equation, and it's nearly impossible to reach those heights by just going through the motions. Whatever Hersch's inspiration was, he created a very special musical moment on that October night at Jordan Hall. We are fortunate enough to share it.

October 08, 2009 · 0 comments

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Dave Brubeck: Georgia On My Mind

Recorded about a year before Ray Charles changed everyone's approach to the song, Dave Brubeck's recording of "Georgia On My Mind" is a quiet, reflective take on the Hoagy Carmichael standard, featuring some of Brubeck's most sensitive playing from this period. Brubeck has the opening and closing choruses of the arrangement to himself, with only light accompaniment from Gene Wright's bass and Joe Morello's drums. Brubeck makes occasional minor changes to the harmony, but for the most part, he simply enjoys interpreting the song as is. While Brubeck favored a strong attack in many of his performances, he could always play with a light touch, caressing the melody instead of hammering it. Paul Desmond glides in with his wispy tone and spins one beautiful phrase after another. Later, he makes a dramatic pause before improvising on the bridge. Brubeck's ensuing solo stays in single lines for the first half, then builds slightly into chords before Brubeck eases back into the tune. There is a slight crescendo as Brubeck goes into an unaccompanied solo which brings the performance to an end with a simple collection of repeated ideas.

October 08, 2009 · 0 comments

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Carmen McRae: Baltimore Oriole

I think that Carmen McRae was born to sing "Baltimore Oriole". For one thing, she was one of the few singers that could make sense of the song. With its myriad obscure references (no, the Tangipahoa river does not run through Baltimore; it's runs through Mississippi, where she is bound for) and oddly shifting narrative focus, the tune flusters vocalists by the score. But because McRae's style combines cynicism and tenderness, and she could change from one to the other at an instant, she creates a definitive reading of the song simply by embracing all of its idiosyncrasies. McRae word-paints (drrrrragggin' her feathers around in the snow), depicts loneliness (leaving her mate, she flew straight to the Tangipahoa) then immediately moves to disdain (where a two-timin' blackbird met the divine Miss O. I'd like to ruffle his plumage). Throughout it all, Ralph Burn's misterioso arrangement provides the perfect atmosphere, and Ben Webster's tenor solo takes on the role of a frustrated and pleading lover, and his last notes sound like a bird trying to shake the water off its back. Easily overlooked in the structure of the arrangement is the work of the under-rated pianist Don Abney, who provides tasty obbligatos in both vocal choruses.

October 08, 2009 · 0 comments

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Jeri Southern (with Marty Paich's Dek-tette): Lazy Bones

I suppose it was inevitable that the two most "homespun" of song composers, Hoagy Carmichael and Johnny Mercer, would eventually collaborate. The two worked together for several years and while the partnership created the masterpiece "Skylark", they also produced material like "Lazy Bones" where the folksiness gets laid on pretty thick (for example, the song talks about making corn meal!).

Jeri Southern included the song on her first Roulette album, Southern Breeze, and she captures the humor of the lyric perfectly, assisted by a splendid arrangement by Marty Paich. Paich's ever-flexible dek-tette, in its first recording without co-founder Mel Tormé, plays in a light and subtle manner, offering only the necessary support for Southern as she off-handedly berates the song's title character. Southern's cool, understated approach keeps the humor low-key, and her superb diction makes every word crystal-clear. The slow, relaxed tempo only allows for a chorus-and-a-half (even though Roulette was a jazz label, they still marketed singles, so all of the tunes on this album range from 2 1/2 to 4 minutes each). When Southern finishes the first chorus about two minutes in, she yields to the laconic tuba of John Kitzmiller, who moseys through the melody, set off by exaggerated accents from the dek-tette at the end of each phrase. After Southern finishes the last chorus and Kitzmiller returns for the tag, Paich tries to nudge him into action with a series of sharply accented punches from the brass. No luck, though as "Lazy Bones" rolls over and goes back to sleep.

October 08, 2009 · 0 comments

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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

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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

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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

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Frankie Trumbauer & His Orchestra (featuring Bix Beiderbecke): Riverboat Shuffle

When Bix Beiderbecke and the Wolverines recorded 'Riverboat Shuffle" in 1924, it was Hoagy Carmichael's first recorded song. The present version is a superior remake from three years later. While the Wolverine version boasted a fine solo by Beiderbecke, the Trumbauer recording features improved sound (capturing the cornetist especially well) and a sprightly arrangement by Bill Challis. The tempo is faster and more urgent than the Wolverines, and in the opening and closing ensembles, Challis offers short breaks to all of the musicians. Bix takes the last break of the first chorus to launch his solo, a beautifully-sculpted chorus where the phrases are perfectly balanced even though they are of different lengths. His melodic line exudes confidence and a little brashness, and his rhythmic sense and swing are fine-tuned and far advanced from any of his bandmates. Don Murray's clarinet solo is melodically facile, but locked in the herky-jerky dotted eighth/sixteenth note patterns of the time. None of the other musicians can make the best of their breaks, and uncharacteristically, Eddie Lang rushes the time when his solo break comes around. Bix was often criticized for playing music with his friends instead of his musical peers, but considering that Hoagy Carmichael was one of Bix's best friends, Bix's musical favoritism had some merit, as it yielded the launch of a great songwriter.

October 08, 2009 · 0 comments

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Bob Dorough: Baltimore Oriole

No one has ever sung "Baltimore Oriole" better than Bob Dorough. He recorded it on his debut session as leader in 1956, and then again for his second album a too-long 10 years later. Coincidentally, Hoagy Carmichael, its composer (along with lyricist Paul Francis Webster), also sang it in 1956 on his own Hoagy Sings Carmichael. Carmichael's laconic vocal recalls Jack Teagarden, but since Dorough has cited Teagarden as an influence, surely he was at least indirectly influenced by Carmichael's singing as well, although Dorough usually mentions Nat Cole, Satchmo, Louis Jordan, Trummy Young, Joe Mooney and Blossom Dearie as among his other inspirations. The fact that Dorough has participated in recorded tributes to Carmichael, such as Hoagy's Children and Stardust Melody, indicates his profound love and respect for Hoagy's songs.

Dorough's 1966 version of "Baltimore Oriole" is very similar to his original 1956 interpretation in both arrangement and impact. What makes Dorough's delivery of this tune so enduring is that it plays to his strengths on ballads – a soft, delicately endearing timbre, a pliable voice that clearly articulates every word and phrase of a memorable lyric such as this, and in so doing tells a story with sincere emotion and understanding. His "chirping" piano figure to both open and close the piece provides perfectly evocative bookends. He sings the verse unaccompanied before Tucker and Brice join him for the chorus. From "No time for a lady to be dragging her feathers around in the snow" to the concluding "Come down from that bough, fly to your daddy, fly to your daddy now," Dorough has you in his grasp. (Mischievously, in this rendition, Dorough interjects as an aside that the "Tangipahoa" is "a big river near Baltimore, you know," when in fact it runs between Mississippi and Louisiana.)

November 12, 2008 · 0 comments

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Mildred Bailey: Rockin' Chair (1932)

Hoagy Carmichael first heard Mildred Bailey with Paul Whiteman's orchestra in 1929 and later taught her this song, which he felt suited her voice and style. "Rockin' Chair" was a huge hit and soon became Bailey's signature song. It also earned her the epithet, "Rockin' Chair Lady." Bailey's voice and manner were well suited to Carmichael's laconic style. This is her first recording with future husband Red Norvo.

September 13, 2008 · 1 comment

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Louis Armstrong: Rockin' Chair

The costliest part of Jazz on a Summer's Day (1960), Bert Stern's $115,000 documentary of the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival, was Louis Armstrong's lofty $25,000 fee. Stern rationalized thus expending 20% of his budget because Louis was (a) the biggest star on hand and (b) the most important artist in jazz history. It's hard to quarrel with Stern's rationale. But as with Ken Burns's epic documentary Jazz (2001), devoting so much of one's resources to an overarching colossus necessarily meant skimping in other areas. (There is another, equally telling parallel between Bert Stern and Ken Burns. Each was a non-jazz fan who relied on musical advice from a single source—for Stern, it was Columbia Records executive George Avakian, and for Burns, Wynton Marsalis. At the mercy of one sage apiece, the filmmakers virtually guaranteed errors of omission.)

Still, it would take a heart of granite to deny the timeless and universal appeal of "Rockin' Chair" as rocked and chaired (no doubt for the umpteenth time) by Louis Armstrong and Jack Teagarden. At $25,000, this was a bargain.

April 12, 2008 · 0 comments

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