I'm going to begin with a caveat: I love jazz and I love blues. I love R&B. I even love good, honest rock 'n' roll. But when I'm sent a jazz album, I want to hear good, honest jazz, played and sung by artists who are willing to fly without a net.
Jacqui Naylor is a talented, beautiful and obviously marketable singer. She can approximate a reasonable facsimile of blues affectation and has a cadre of solid, competent studio musicians on this effort. She has received a goodly amount of media buzz thanks to a combination of the aforementioned factors. But, in this cloying rehash of classic rock 'n' roll, blues and disco, I find little evidence of deep understanding or sensitivity towards the art of jazz.
Case in point: her hybrid arrangement of "Summertime," crammed into a rather lackluster shell of the Allmans' breakthrough 11/8 rocker, "Whipping Post
." Cute idea, nice execution. Still, I would rather hear Duane Allman's tortured riffs and brother Greg's heartfelt growling instead of this lukewarm, contrived effort. And Gershwin deserves much better.
Recorded during a summer in New York City, Jane Ira Bloom's version of "Summertime" is quite evocative of the season, and a brilliant example of the saxophonist's approach to standards. The recording opens with Jane's angular composition "Nearly Summertime" played in unison by saxophone and trumpet. Next the rhythm section enters with drum color, a bass solo and a piano vamp in dotted quarter notes (2 notes over 3 beats) that presages what will come later. Gradually, Werner, Priester and Bloom join into the ensemble before Bloom launches an ascending scale to introduce the Gershwin melody, set in 6/4 time. Behind the melody, the horns play long, hypnotic chords at half the speed of the piano vamp, and when Bloom takes over for her solo she leads with another ascending scale based on the same rhythmic pattern. Her sound grows more impassioned as she climbs higher in register, and as the performance grows in intensity you can almost feel the heat generating from the ground. The intensity doesn't let up until the end of the theme, when the horns suddenly dissipate and Hersch plays a rippling triplet figure that might signal a much-needed summer rainstorm.
The recording dates above are rather misleading, as it is the premiere performance of an arrangement written by Gunther Schuller in 1949. It was written for the Miles Davis Nonet but never recorded or broadcast by that group. Gil Evans famously described the Claude Thornhill sound (which he helped originate) as hanging "like a cloud," and Schuller's arrangement opens with hypnotic seesawing chords that create the same effect. An ominous countermelody in the tuba and baritone sax leads to the theme statement with cup-muted trumpet fronting a dance-band style background that maintains the chords from the opening for awhile, then gradually moves into more complex counterpoint. Then the mood breaks with a double-time chorus (with another double-time passage placed on top!). While the harmony remains Thornhill-esque, the overall style turns into straight-ahead bebop. And this passage, which seems completely unnecessary, probably did more to take this chart out of contention for recording by Miles than anything else. Still, for all it achieves, it is an amazing effort from the very talented Mr. Schuller.
In the mid-'70s, Eddie Jefferson was starting to get overdue recognition as "the Godfather of Vocalese," and his fame continued to rise until he was murdered outside a Detroit nightclub in 1979. The Main Man
was one of Jefferson's finest albums, featuring definitive versions of classics like "Jeannine" and "Moody's Mood For Love." "Summertime" is unusual in Jefferson's repertoire in that it does not appear to stem from an instrumental solo; rather, it is Jefferson's loose interpretation of the Gershwin standard. Interestingly, it is sung in the same key as John Coltrane's groundbreaking version
- D minor - and like Coltrane, Jefferson seems interested in stripping away all the sentimentality of the original song. The tempo is medium fast and the performance is quite aggressive. On the second time through the song, Jefferson takes great liberties with the lyric (for example, "Fish are jumpin' about on the lake, flop, flop, flop, tryin' to give the fishermen a break") and strongly accents the asides (the "flops" above). However, the recording does not entirely break with the past, as Slide Hampton lifts Gil Evans's famous background riff
and uses it to back Jefferson.
Chris Connor and Maynard Ferguson worked together while in Stan Kenton's band, and when they both became jazz stars a few years later, they recorded two separate albums together, one for Ferguson's label, Roulette, and the other for Connor's label, Atlantic. Their version of "Summertime," which kicks off the Atlantic LP, starts with a highly rhythmic duet between the nearly slapped bass of Sanders and the tight snare of Jones, and things just build and build from there. Connor's opening theme statement sounds defiant and rhythmically sure, holding back just slightly in the opening chorus and building as the trombones, trumpets and saxes all join in with riffs that add to the growing intensity. Ferguson's trumpet solo continues the upward climb until the climax of the arrangement where trumpet and band exchange improvised ideas and written shout chorus passages. Then suddenly the volume comes back down for Connor's return. The gradual decrescendo from there to the end doesn't work nearly as well as the crescendo that came before, but the fadeout (usually the bane of jazz fans and critics) actually gives this arrangement a needed balance.
From the first note of this recording, you can tell that Coltrane's version of "Summertime" will be unique. Without any introduction, Coltrane kicks off the tune in D minor. While jazz versions of "Summertime" are played in a variety of keys, D minor sounds
higher than the keys we usually hear for this song. When the rhythm section enters two beats later, the effect is complete, with Elvin Jones's slashing rhythms and McCoy Tyner's syncopated quartal harmonies. As on the album's title tune, Coltrane and Tyner reduce "Summertime" to a minimal modal harmonic base and focus on building emotional intensity. Dating from early in the Quartet's existence, this performance is not as intense as later recordings, but it shows that the group already knew which direction it would travel.
Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong recorded two relaxed, swinging albums for Verve before Norman Granz had the inspiration to use them in a deluxe 2-LP set featuring 16 songs from Porgy and Bess
. While not the first Porgy and Bess
concept album, Ella & Louis's version is one of the best. Both were in top vocal form at the time of the recording, and while Louis's trumpet chops were not as strong as they had been in years past, he could still perform stunning solos. On "Summertime," Russ Garcia's arrangement adds a few subtle touches to the original orchestration. Armstrong plays a majestic first chorus on trumpet, followed by Ella's smooth and creamy vocal. After a subtle key change, Louis takes a solo vocal chorus. When Ella returns, she spins a beautifully conceived variation on the melody while Louis supports her with some of the tenderest scatting he ever recorded.
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.
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.
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 shock—raw 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
is a collection of six of Bill Evans (sax) jazz-rock original compositions and five jazz standards. Among the latter is "Summertime." In another Jazz.com review
of Evans (sax), I suggested that the best fusion jazz players have the ability, knowledge and reverence to play from the jazz standard repertoire. Another trait should be added. They desire to play this music. In this case, we have four accomplished fusion players tackling "Summertime" and some other jazz classics. They do it because they want to. It doesn't matter to them if they drop a Golden Oldie in the middle of a fusion stew or that a less than familiar audience may applaud more quietly. The standards are part of their heritage. This gorgeous interpretation of the sad ballad is as valid as any produced by the contemporary jazz stars you would most expect to perform it.
"Summertime" is a showcase for Evans (sax). He reaches deep down to cajole every ounce of emotion from his horn as Goldstein, Loeb, Gottlieb and Johnson provide solid support. At one point, that support comes in the form of them playing changes reminiscent of those from "Red Clay." This is not quite the way we are used to hearing this song. But isn't that why we listen to jazz – to hear unexpected interpretations? And yes, surprises occur in the playing of standards all the time. There is no such thing as a standard deviation. The categorization of musicians or music is a necessary evil to help describe the state of things. But players like these and music like this would fit into any era and always will.
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