Art Tatum: Sweet Georgia Brown

Jerry Newman was a student at Columbia University with a passion for jazz and—even more important!—a portable disk-cutting recording machine that he brought to some of the most exciting jazz events of the early 1940s. His archive of amateur recordings is a treasure trove of historically important material, but his documentation of pianist Art Tatum's work in casual after hours sessions is a revelation. André Hodeir and other critics have accused this pianist of playing elaborate set pieces rather than improvising, and true many of Tatum's recordings reveal the rote delivery of set arrangements. Yet the artist captured here is a different one entirely. After hearing this music for the first time, New Yorker critic Whitney Balliett concluded that there must have been "two Tatums": "one was the virtuoso who moved with consummate ease through a world owned and run by whites, and the other was the secret genius who went uptown after his regular hours and played unbelievable music for his own pleasure in black clubs for black audiences."

Balliett thought that Tatum might have been parodying the beboppers in the opening passages of "Sweet Georgia Brown," yet it is just as likely that Tatum was simply showing that he knew more tricks than the new cats on the scene. Based on the amused laughter from the audience, I assume that some bop player had been playing the piano shortly before Tatum took over the keys. But even more ear-shattering is a passage at the 2:10 mark that can be only described as a taste of Free Jazz, circa 1941. Trumpeter Frankie Newton tries vainly to follow Tatum's solo, but Art doesn't make it easy. He throws out substitute harmonies from another dimension, sometimes four to a bar, and even reprises his avant-garde bag in the background. There is plenty more here worth hearing—indeed, a whole alternative piano vocabulary that you won't encounter on the better known Norman Granz recordings of this artist. At more than seven minutes, "Sweet Georgia Brown" ranks as one of Tatum's longest recorded performances, but it still seems all too brief.

October 10, 2009 · 0 comments


Anders Widmark: Sweet Georgia Brown

Anders Widmark usually likes to lock into a happy groove and milk it for everything it's worth. Hence "Sweet Georgia Brown" is a great choice for him, and even before hearing his performance I could almost see the basketball bouncing back and forth among the members of his hot Swedish trio. Flashy passes, slam dunks, the whole works. But Widmark surprised me by dismissing the rest of his trio and settling into a thoughtful solo piano reworking of the standard, with only a smattering of blues licks thrown into the mix. But the total effect is quite impressive. Widmark's reharmonization is especially clever, and shows a powerful musical mind at work.

December 23, 2007 · 0 comments


Bud Shank & Bob Cooper: Sweet Georgia Brown

A longtime jazz favorite, "Sweet Georgia Brown" (1925) became beloved by millions after the Harlem Globetrotters made it their theme in 1952. Amazed crowds worldwide, watching the Globetrotters' comic basketball wizardry, whistled along with "Sweet Georgia Brown." Likewise bouncing with skill and surprise is this quintessential 1950s West Coast jazz track. Although classical composers had long paired flute and oboe, Shank & Cooper here demonstrate the tandem's superior jazz IQ. With Cooper's call-&-response arrangement coyly teasing the melody, "Sweet Georgia Brown" tips off tiptop players at the top of their game.

November 20, 2007 · 0 comments


Bud Powell: Sweet Georgia Brown

Twenty-five years old when this recording was made, Bud Powell was already a tragic figure, marked by his institutionalization and electroshock therapy at Creedmore, his unstable psyche, and incipient alcoholism. But his piano playing was still at top form, and the young Powell was rightly lionized as a paragon of the bebop idiom. In the hands of other musicians, Sweet Georgia Brown is a lighthearted gal, amiable and jaunty. But this Georgia Brown has lost her sweetness, and is trying to elude a relentless demon in pursuit. Powell rushes toward the finish line, and the headlong passion of this performance is almost frightening in its intensity.

October 28, 2007 · 0 comments


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