It’s always a generous idea, karmically, to honor the Ancestors. If you’re trumpeter, singer, and composer Bob Merrill it’s not only easy but gratifying, because the Ancestor in question is his late father-in-law Joe Bushkin, pianist, trumpeter, singer, and composer.
The formulaic way to pay tribute to Joe would have been to assemble a band and have them play transcriptions of his famous recordings — from Berigan, Condon, Spanier, to his own performances. But that approach might have run into obstacles early. Joe was a singular pianist, whether he was musing his way through RELAXIN’ AT THE TOURO or dazzling us on HALLELUJAH! And fifteen minutes with YouTube shows Joe at his best as player and singer.
But Joe’s talents as a writer of songs have been overshadowed by his brilliance at the keyboard. He was fortunate in that Sinatra and Lee Wiley recorded OH, LOOK AT ME NOW; Bing sang HOT TIME IN THE TOWN OF BERLIN; Louis gave Joe and his new bride the wedding present of recording LOVELY WEATHER WE’RE HAVING.
Bob Merrill’s new CD, “TELL ME YOUR TROUBLES,” devoted to Joe’s songs — and it’s the first volume of several planned — is rather like Joe himself: melodic, light-hearted even when the lyrical thread is slightly somber. It’s a wonderfully varied offering, and rather than describe it first, I offer samples here (scroll down to the lower half of the page).
Not a simple presentation of songs with the same approach and instrumentation, the CD could have been called THE MANY FACES OF JOE BUSHKIN’S MUSIC, with each track a little dramatic presentation in itself. Some of the tracks so wittily and cleverly develop the theme that they sound like display numbers for a yet-to-be produced Broadway show. Consider HOT TIME IN THE TOWN OF BERLIN, which begins as if it were an unissued 78, with Bing’s wife Kathryn singing over a hot band, then morphs into the twenty-first century embodiment of the Andrews Sisters — Kathryn, Bob, Shannon Day, and Lisa Gary, over a modern arrangement for hip vocals over a shouting band. Nicki Parrott convincingly masquerades as a diner waitress for several minutes on BOOGIE WOOGIE BLUE PLATE.
MAN HERE PLAYS FINE PIANO has not one, but three pianists soloing and trading phrases: Rossano Sportiello, Laurence Hobgood, and John Colianni. Other pleasures here are the wildly virtuosic trombone of Wycliffe Gordon, who turns in a fine vocal — seriously evoking Hot Lips Page — on GOIN’ BACK TO STORYVILLE. Eric Comstock is responsible for a number of smooth, winning vocals: I especially admire his reading of WISE TO MYSELF, a song well worth performing in this century, and Bob himself sings splendidly (with a touch of New York wryness) as well. In case you don’t know his trumpet playing, it’s expert and swinging: he’s never at a loss for notes, and his brass battle with Wycliffe, who could overwhelm lesser players, is truly a draw. Bob has the best musical friends, as you will have noticed, in Nicki Parrott, Howard Alden, Bucky Pizzarelli, Harry Allen, Steve Johns, and Adrian Cunningham. Yes, the CD is a loving evocation of Joe’s many talents, but son-in-law Bob is operating at the same level of swinging joy.
If this sounds like an exuberant, vivid musical package — full to the rim and never monotonous — you have a good idea of what TELL ME YOUR TROUBLES offers. And the music is framed by two wonderful anecdotes about Joe, told by his remarkable friends. At the close of the CD, Red Buttons delivers a sweet, naughty elegy which ends with a story about Joe, Bing, and some sleeping potions delivered in an unusual way. And the CD starts with Frank Sinatra, Joe’s long-time friend, telling a story about Joe and illicit stimulants. That tale is worth the price of admission in itself. And, for once, the CD itself comes in a splendid package with notes, stories, and photographs — much better than any download. You can buy this generous offering here.
May your happiness increase!