"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.
Lester’s alcoholism had caught up with him by the early ‘50s, robbing him of his prowess on the saxophone. “Stardust” finds his hold on the notes wavering, his gait is stiff and heavy, and he’s audibly blowing much harder to get a sound from his reed. Indeed, there are only glimpses of the recognizable Prez, such as in the first four bars of his second chorus. Nevertheless, Young captures the wistful, dreamy romance of Hoagy Carmichael’s melody, even if it’s a little bit sadder than the nostalgia Carmichael wrote about. The accompaniment is appropriately subtle, too—Oscar Peterson unusually subtle, while Kessel, Brown and Heard spend much of the record in imperceptibility. Like Parker’s “Lover Man,” Young’s “Stardust” is a portrait of an artist at his most tortured, managing to wring fine work out of his own sudden ineptitude.
The album Clifford Brown With Strings
has an interesting ‘behind the scenes’ tale, if we look to his widow LaRue Brown-Watson for the storyline. EmArcy Record’s producer Bobby Shad suggested the project, recognizing Clifford’s beautiful touch with a ballad, and primed Brownie for the session. Clifford didn’t want to do it, but LaRue, who also appreciated when he performed ballads and classical works, encouraged him to do the date. According to LaRue, Clifford began urging her early on in their marriage to have a child—LaRue wouldn’t budge, expressing that she was much too young to take on the responsibility of a child. He would not relinquish his constant requests, and finally, with a little prodding from her own mother as well, agreed to the idea of carrying a child. LaRue fondly remembers that the strings date was his personal gift to her for that blessing bestowed upon him. In December 1955, Clifford Brown, Jr. (she insisted on the namesake) was born to the couple and Clifford enjoyed the company of his little boy for six months, playing for him, talking philosophy to him and teaching him all he knew about music.
Neal Hefti, who was given undue criticism for his lush, sweet and sentimental arrangements for the date, recalls that Brown only hit three ‘clams’ in the entire three-day recording session. Hefti’s string frameworks complement Brown’s glorious tone, which simply needs to be heard to be truly appreciated. No words can do it justice—if something can be perfect in this world, this would come awfully close. Brown is a bona fide singer of songs and his artistry is evident on every track of this album. The reason I chose this particular tune is for the 20-second phrase that is exactly two minutes into the cut. It is a delightful and timeless phrase that brings utter satisfaction with every repeated listening.
Though the album was panned critically at the time, the general listener gleaned its meaning. It opened up a new appreciative audience for Brown. Shad said it was a best seller at the time—one of EmArcy’s biggest money makers. With the passing of time, musicians have gotten the message as well. Wynton Marsalis informs that he learned all of the album’s solos as a young apprentice.
In his book Early Jazz
, Gunther Schuller writes that the second and third measures of "Stardust" contain exactly the same notes and chord as two bars of Louis Armstrong's ad lib solo in "Potato Head Blues
," recorded before "Stardust" was published. Others have likened the unusual intervallic leaps in Hoagy Carmichael's melody to his pal Bix Beiderbecke's cornet phrasing. Here, then, we have the unusual situation of Louis Armstrong, who possibly originated part of the melody, performing a song that also evokes his ill-fated contemporary Bix, who died three months before this track was recorded. And as if that weren't convoluted enough, Armstrong's "Stardust" veers so far from Carmichael's original that it might as well be a new song, without sacrificing the music's emotional essence.
Years ago, I tended to dismiss Armstrong's early-1930s work as a letdown after his trailblazing recordings of the 1920s. Not that I was alone. In the mainstream of received opinions, most critics show little patience with Depression-era Armstrong. But my editor at Oxford University Press, Sheldon Meyer (1926-2006), argued with me on this. A brilliant man who regrettably never wrote books himself, Sheldon was a big fan of those early 1930s Louis Armstrong sides. On his prodding, I spent considerable time with this music, and emerged convinced that he was right.
Admittedly, the band arrangements were inferior. Which is why these sides are usually forgotten, and why I'm surprised that the Recording Academy has honored this track as a 2009 inductee to its Grammy Hall of Fame. Yet Armstrong's trumpet work is so good that it's worthwhile blocking out the band and focusing on the horn. With evidence such as this, one could make a persuasive case that Armstrong reached his peak as an instrumentalist during the 1929-31 period. Not surprising, since a lot of trumpeters reach the height of their powers in their late 20s. But I would call particular attention to his range, his fluidity and his endless supply of swinging phrases. Armstrong's recordings from this period, also including "Shine
," "Sweethearts on Parade
," "Body and Soul
," and "Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea
" are neglected gems that almost no one listens to these days. Heck, I'm going to pull out the CDs and listen to them again myself.
: On November 4, 1931, Louis Armstrong recorded "Stardust" twice, singing the words "Oh, memory" three times to conclude his vocal chorus on the slightly longer take
but not on version 2
. Over the decades, many collectors (reputedly including Hoagy Carmichael) have expressed a preference for the longer take. The Recording Academy, however, has not specified which take is being inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame.
This Hoagy Carmichael song may be a venerable jazz standard, but country star Willie Nelson has recorded a version that has probably outsold all the covers by living jazz artists put together. Yet Wynton Marsalis is no stranger to this territory, having put his own mark on this song in previous studio and live dates. (Check out a memorable version here
.) But can these two visions of "Stardust" coexist in the same galaxy? I am happy to report that no destructive supernova resulted, although the gravitational pull in contrary directions must have been palpable on the stage when these two stars crossed paths. I'm not sure whether a 20-something Wynton would have known how to match up with Willie Nelson to such good effect, but it is a sign of his maturity as an artist that he fits so comfortably into this setting, supporting his illustrious guest visitor to Jazz at Lincoln Center, while also making such a strong statement of his own musical principles. This is a fun and fanciful performance proving that country cousins and city slickers can, at least for a brief interlude, make beautiful music together.
This much beloved jazz standard has its own deeply ingrained personality, and you tinker with it at your own risk. The verse is as interesting as the main theme, and the whole melody is so well written, it could stand comparison with the finer classical art songs. In other words, you just can't blow on these changes like they were "Blue Moon." Marsalis understands this implicitly, and he lets the mood of the piece inform his solo. His tempo is just a tad faster than your typical ballad, the pace of a lazy stroll. Wynton plays sly cat-and-mouse games with Hoagy Carmichael's melody, hinting at it at some moments, while elsewhere coming up with something novel that still reminds us of the distinctive intervallic leaps of the original. Even when the trumpeter tosses off some high notes that swing triumphantly like the man on the flying trapeze, they still flow naturally from the emotional temperament of the song. This is a very mature performance by the artist, who was 33 at the time of this Village Vanguard session, but played like a seasoned veteran.
In Ken Burns's documentary Jazz
(2001), Artie Shaw puts down erstwhile rival bandleader Glenn Miller as a mere "businessman." Talk about a pot defaming the kettle! Their only difference is that Miller was pleased to be commercial, whereas Shaw shamelessly posed as an aesthete caught in the vile clutches of industry. To illustrate, "Stardust" offsets standout solos from Butterfield, Shaw and Jenney with strings sawing away as contentedly as if just signed to a lifetime contract with Mantovani
. By expressing contempt for show business, Shaw was like the cagey used-car dealer who will ever-so-reluctantly sell you the best buy on his lot but only if you swear on your mother's Blue Book
not to tell anyone where you bought it.
Due in part to its innovative use of classical techniques, the Dave Brubeck Quartet became phenomenally popular in the 1950s. Another factor in its success, however, was the brilliant playing of its alto saxophonist, Paul Desmond. In this performance recorded at Oberlin College, one of many such campus venues the quartet was among the first to utilize, Desmond displays his signature beautiful tone, his ability to swing with ease, and his proclivity for extemporizing highly melodic, unclichéd phrases.
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