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

Tags:


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

Tags:


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

Tags:


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

Tags:


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

Tags:


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

Tags:


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

Tags:


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

Tags:


Roberta Gambarini: Medley from Cinema Paradiso

Roberta Gambarini hits all the right notes, but I have sometimes felt that she misses the psychological riches of the songs she sings. I give her credit: she always surrounds herself with the finest musicians, and her own musicianship is never in question; yet I have expected more from this prepossessing woman. She is one of the most polished vocalists of our day, but if a polished sheen is not what you are looking for in your music, you might be better off checking out Patricia Barber or Cassandra Wilson, artists who grapple with songs from the inside.

Or at least that was my opinion before I heard this recording. Gambarini impresses on this track, recorded a few days after the 9/11 attacks, an event that left her shaken yet determined to immerse herself in her craft. Did the surrounding circumstances inspire the star singer to dig more deeply into her material? I can't answer that question, but I do know that the two tracks on So in Love that were recorded on September 22, 2001 are standout performances, and have forced me to reevaluate this artist, who shows here that she is capable of greatness. And there isn't a single oop-bop-uh-bam-boom tossed out glibly to spoil the mood. I am still cautious, but for the time being I am joining the fan club.

September 23, 2009 · 0 comments

Tags:


Gretchen Parlato: Come To Me

Vocalist Gretchen Parlato has made quite a splash since she won first place in the Thelonious Monk Institute’s International Jazz Vocals Competition in 2004. In 2005, she released her first album as a leader, a self-titled disc featuring the talents of West African guitarist Lionel Loueke and pianist Aaron Parks, with repertoire ranging from Jobim to Shorter to Bjork. The bouncy “Come to Me,” a dance number from Bjork’s breakout album, Debut, becomes a samba with Parlato at the helm, and Loueke on nylon string guitar. The leader’s buttery vocals and horn-like scatting blend well with her ensemble and, by the time the tune has ended, it’s hard to imagine that “Come to Me” belongs to anyone but Parlato.

September 21, 2009 · 0 comments

Tags:


Ann Hampton Callaway: Come Rain Or Come Shine

Unlike many vocal albums, Ann Hampton Callaway's Easy Living was recorded live in the studio, with Callaway and the instrumentalists all performing together in the same room, rather than laying down individual tracks in isolation booths. The result is one of Callaway's finest recordings, with superb performances from all parties. She approaches "Come Rain Or Come Shine" as a song of seduction, but rather than taking it in a slow torch tempo, she finds an absolutely perfect medium tempo that maintains a light rhythmic feel against the intense lyric. She purrs through the melody at an intimate volume, raising the level only to emphasize particular words. Urged on by the alto saxophone of Nelson Rangell, she raises the intensity bit by bit so that Rangell's solo becomes a natural outgrowth of the theme statement. Rangell is best known for his smooth jazz recordings, and his vibrato seems out of place in this straight-ahead context, but his melodic ideas work just fine in the setting. Benny Green provides a funky piano solo before Callaway returns for a full-voiced and soulful melodic variation, and she and Rangell wail together before the sudden coda.

September 17, 2009 · 0 comments

Tags:


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

Tags:


Carmen McRae: Bye Bye Blackbird

While the album's concept is a little hokey, Birds Of A Feather remains one of Carmen McRae's finest albums. Paired with Ralph Burns, who leads a splendid group featuring Marky Markowitz on trumpet and Ben Webster on tenor (listed as "A Tenorman" due to contract restrictions), Carmen sings songs about a dozen of our feathered friends. For many years, the original LP was a rara avis itself, as copies were hard to find, and the ones that could be bought were badly worn. A limited edition CD reissue came out a few years back; it's now out of print, but the entire album is still available for download.

"Bye Bye, Blackbird"'s popularity was boosted by Miles Davis' 1955 recording, and here Carmen, Marky and Ben all get a chance to solo on its changes. Burns gets a rich sound mixing the french horns with Marky's trumpet and Ben's tenor before Carmen comes in with the melody, mixing sassiness and wistfulness. Marky plays in a Harmon mute which emphasizes his exquisite lines, and then Ben saunters in with a lazy statement played way behind the beat and with a little growl at the end. Carmen comes in scatting, but then goes back to the words for a brilliant variation on the melody. She takes great chances with the rhythm, and when she gets to the last line, she quotes what Miles played at the same spot in his recording. Carmen scats over the band vamp as the track fades out.

September 16, 2009 · 0 comments

Tags:


Pamela Luss: Nice And Easy

The lovely Pamela Luss has teamed with the iconic Houston Person to offer a mixed bag of favorites from the Great American Songbook, along with some not-so-great tunes from the pop-rock bins. “Nice and Easy” is firmly lodged in the former column and there’s no denying the appeal of Luss’ pristine, sweet, and velvety timbre.

It’s a daunting task to tackle a classic that has been recorded by the likes of Frank Sinatra, Natalie Cole, and Michael Buble and still bring something fresh to the table — and that’s the rub. On this outing the arrangement is tasteful, the playing is assured and workmanlike, the mix is balanced and Pamela Luss has a rare, hypnotic quality in her voice. But there’s little in the delivery to suggest the playful mood of Marilyn Bergman’s composition or cynical seductiveness of Alan Bergman’s lyrics. One begins to wonder: why is she holding back?

Listening to this cut, it’s hard to escape the impression that you’ve just wandered into a bar at closing time, to find the wait staff in the process of stacking chairs on the tables while the band chugs through its last number. That’s a pity, because this tune is one of the great old charmers and it deserves a bit more fresh air, especially from the sidemen. Houston Person seems to be the only player who is not phoning it in — his solo comes from the gut and his embellishments to the vocal head add depth without intruding. A bit more fire from the rhythm section and a little more sass from Miss Luss would have elevated this track way above the ordinary. Adding that extra, intangible something is never easy, but it would have been nice.

September 14, 2009 · 0 comments

Tags:


Ian Shaw: Alone Again, Naturally

Yes, that "Alone Again, Naturally," namely the one that Gilbert O'Sullivan, its singer and composer, made into a Top 40 hit in 1972. With syrupy string backing, and his unwavering, monotonous, and nearly cheerful delivery, who would have thought that O'Sullivan was singing about contemplating suicide after being jilted and also trying to cope with his parents' deaths? Irishman O'Sullivan claimed the lyrics were not of an autobiographical nature, and yet Welshman Ian Shaw--who was just 10 years old in 1972--is able to transform them into a convincingly personal testament three decades later. Since Shaw sings everything with an emotional commitment and understanding, his riveting performance of this unlikely tune should come as no surprise.

Shaw's own refined piano accompaniment only serves to enhance his interpretation. He is intimately conversational, free-flowing in his phrasing, and rhythmically unfettered. His pliant, restrained voice is moving, nuanced, and sophisticated,. nuanced, the difference if you will, between a jazz as opposed to pop approach--note his fleeting and tasteful scat-piano unison aside, for example. The clincher is his reading of the concluding words: "And when she passed away / I cried and cried all day / Alone again...alone again / Alone again, naturally." Shaw's two delicate chords cap a track that is unashamedly heartfelt and down-to-earth. It's a mystery why this fine, infinitely versatile vocalist doesn't get to record more often.

September 08, 2009 · 0 comments

Tags:


Previous Page | Next Page