Don Byas: Laura

Don Byas's decision to remain permanently in Europe in 1946 at the height of his popularity in the U.S. was a curious one. While he became nearly as revered among expatriate American jazzmen as Sidney Bechet (especially in France), he was gradually forgotten in his native land. Considered by many a key bridge between swing and bop, Byas had a style on tenor that he himself said was influenced by Coleman Hawkins's sound, Lester Young's ideas, and Art Tatum's harmonic sophistication.

Byas was a truly masterful ballad player, and was perhaps best known in that regard for his interpretations of the 1944 movie theme "Laura." He had a minor hit with it before he left the States, and recorded it in Paris in 1948 and again in 1952, the latter version as heard here. Two interconnected foghorn-like held notes initiate Byas's silky smooth treatment of the romantic melody. Byas early on exhibits a bit of Ben Webster's breathiness in tandem with a broader and harder tonal thrust more reminiscent of Hawkins. When Byas embarks on his solo, the Hawkins influence becomes more dominant, but Byas's lush harmonic embellishments and dramatically swelling increases in dynamics are still more readily identifiable as his alone. Byas playing "Laura" is of a kind with Hawkins performing "Body and Soul" or Young articulating "Ghost of a Chance." In a word, definitive, right down to Byas's sweetly succinct coda.

March 17, 2009 · 0 comments


Woody Herman: Laura

This track was the first recording made for the first session in Herman's contract for Columbia Records. Herman had led a pretty good band for several years that played major venues and made some good recordings on Decca, but by 1943 he was beginning to shift direction to music that was more modern and exciting. With the hiring of Chubby Jackson, Herman had a new bassist who recommended excellent other young musicians; from Charlie Barnet's band alone came pianist/arranger Ralph Burns, vocalist Frances Wayne and trumpeter/arranger Neal Hefti. Herman found Bill Harris, who'd been fired by Benny Goodman for poor music reading. Dave Tough was also a Herman choice. Older than the other musicians and active since the '20s, he proved the biggest surprise with his modern, subtle style, which the musicians loved. A regular radio program for Old Gold cigarettes in 1944 was good exposure for Herman's new direction, and by the time his Columbia contract began, the musicians were roaring.

However, they also played Ralph Burns-styled ballads. This theme from the movie of the same name was a major hit for Herman, and the recording has everything: a great song, wonderful vocal by the leader (who also introduces the theme on alto sax), an excellent, romantic arrangement by Burns, gorgeous playing by the individual sections and the entire band, a pretty transition by vibist Marjorie Hyams, and then a kicking solo by Harris based on the melody. Also note baritone saxophonist Skippy DeSair's anchoring of the entire band: his sound rings through the entire ensemble at some points in the recording.

This track is a sensational beginning to a distinguished series of recordings by one of the most popular big bands of all time.

January 12, 2009 · 0 comments


Branford Marsalis & Ellis Marsalis: Laura

I'm not sure what it would be like to record a duet album with Dad. Sometimes the father and son relationship is a wee bit complicated, ne c'est pas? But there can't be much inter-generational baggage weighing down the Marsalis household, at least judging by the music they make together. When the pater familias sits down for a session with the next-gen, the proceedings come across as relaxed and comfy, positively Huxtable-ish in every way. Here father and son linger lovingly over every nook and cranny in David Raksin's bittersweet melody. There is some nice give-and-take between the two players: Ellis goes for the young and modern approach, while Branford takes the mature and stately role. Or is it the other way around? In any event, no one is trying to put Ornette and Cecil out of business here. All in all, this is a fine track and a reminder of how the baton should be passed from generation to generation.

May 24, 2008 · 0 comments


Patricia Barber: Laura

Patricia Barber always puts a few surprises into her songs -- odd poetic phrases, unusual cultural references, layers of irony or ambiguity, or strange musical bric-a-brac. But the big surprise on this track is that she sings it absolutely straight. Yes, Barber the traditional chanteuse comes to the fore here, and contents herself with tapping into the inherent beauty of Raksin's melody and the smart Mercer lyric. And she does it very, very well. If Barber ever decides to abandon her role as the postmodern philosopher of jazz vocals, she could always find a second career as a singer of standards.

December 10, 2007 · 0 comments


Erroll Garner: Laura

The hardboiled jazzman went to the dead girl's apartment to work, not fall in love. Her friends were staging a wake and required mood music. But that portrait over the mantle got to him. Slouched at the baby grand, caressing the popular theme from a mystery film, he sensed those delicately drawn eyes gazing into him. She was more mysterious than any movie, lovelier than anything coaxed from a baby grand. But suddenly, cruelly, the mood was shattered as a radio across the airshaft began blaring Spike Jones's send-up of the song. When the hardboiled jazzman left that night, he had $15 in his pocket and a hole in his heart.

December 04, 2007 · 0 comments


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