As a long-time jazz listener, I find myself mentally editing and revising many recordings (silently, without moving my lips). “Tempo’s too fast for that song, “”That side would have been even better if the tempo had stayed steady,” or “Why couldn’t he have taken just one more chorus?” Since the musicians can’t hear my silent amending and since the recordings remain their essential character, I think I am permitted this fussy but harmless pastime. Fruitless, of course, but amusing exercises in alternate-universe construction that serious readers of fiction know well: every close reader is by definition an unpaid and unheard editor.
But there are some jazz recordings no one could improve on. Here are two flawless sides.
This music was issued on a non-commercial V-Disc (“V” stands for Victory) recorded during the Second World War especially for the men and women in the armed forces. The musicians gave their services for free; the sessions were supervised by (among others) George T. Simon; the discs were 12″ rather than the usual 10″, allowing for blessedly longer performances. And many sessions took place after midnight, when the musicians had finished their gigs, lending them a certain looseness; as well, the recording companies gave up their usual restrictions, so that musicians under contract to one label were free to cross over from the land of, say, Victor, into Decca.
This October 1943 session was led by Teddy Wilson (itself a near-guarantee of success); it is a quartet taken from his working sextet, which would have also included Benny Morton (trombone) and Johnny Williams or Al Hall (bass). Perhaps those men were tired after a night’s work; perhaps they didn’t want to record without getting paid. But as much as I revere Morton and Williams or Hall, the men who remained made irreplaceable music.
What follows is a series of impressionistic notes on the music: keen listeners will hear much more as they immerse themselves in the music, as I’ve been doing for thirty-five years.
The four voices are powerful ones — Wilson, Sidney Catlett, Ed Hall, and Joe Thomas — but this quartet is not a display of clashing ego. Of the four, Thomas is least known, but his work here is deeply moving.
After the little end-of-tune flourish that brings on Wilson’s (scripted) introduction, his harmonically-deep, crystalline lines and embellishments float over Sidney’s steady brush tread (forceful but not loud. I think of the padding of a large animal in slippers). Wilson’s second chorus is pushed forward by a Catlett accent early on; the two men dance above and around the chords and rhythm.
In the third chorus, Hall joins them: as much as I admire the Goodman Trio, how unfortunate that this group never was asked to record — Hall’s tonal variations are beyond notating, in their own world.
Thomas’s entry, clipped but mobile, provokes Catlett into tap-dance figures. No one’s ever matched Joe’s tone, velvet with strength beneath it, the slight quavers and variations making it a human voice. The annunciatory figure midway through his chorus is a trademark, those repeated notes looking backwards to 1927 Louis and forward to a yet-unrecorded Ruby Braff. (Thomas was Frank Newton’s favorite trumpet player, a fact I can’t over-emphasize.) He seems to stay close to the melody, but the little slurs and hesitations, the dancing emphases of particular notes are masterful, the result of a lifetime spent quietly embellishing the written music, making it entirely personal.
And then Sidney comes on. The sound of his brushwork is slightly muffled and muddied by the 78 surface, but his figures are joyous, especially his double-timing, the closing cymbal splashes. Try to listen to his solo and remain absolutely still: hard, if not impossible!
Then the ensemble plays (with everyone facing in the same direction, not breathing hard) a variation on the melody — something taken for granted well before the official birth of bop — with a jammed bridge in the middle. Notice how Catlett and Wilson ornament and encourage the line that the two horns share. And the side concludes with a little jam session finish (Sidney urging everyone on) with Thomas recalling the “Shoot the likker to me, John boy,” that was already a familiar convention perhaps eight years before.
Incidentally, the swing players had discovered HOW HIGH THE MOON as early as 1940: Roy Eldridge and Benny Carter, guest stars on a Fred Rich Vocalion session in that year, improvise on it.
As delightful as I find HOW HIGH THE MOON, the masterpiece –subtler, sorrowing — is RUSSIAN LULLABY. Berlin’s melody was already familiar, and I wonder what thoughts of the Russian Front might have been going through the heads of these four players, what political or global subtext.
Often LULLABY is taken briskly, but this version is true to its title. After Wilson’s introduction, Joe essays the melody: if he had recorded nothing else than this statement, I’d hail his unique trumpet voice: his tone, his vibrato, his use of space, his pacing. Hall sings quietly behind him — but that soaring, melancholy bridge is a creation that is both of the trumpet and transcending it. I hear the passion of an aria in those eight bars, with little self-dramatization.
Wilson, following him, is serious, his lines restating and reshaping. (Some listeners find Wilson’s arpeggios and runs so distracting that they miss out on his melodic invention: he was a superb composer-at-the-keyboard, and his solo lines, transcribed for a horn, would seem even more stunning. Not accidentally, he learned a great deal about melodic embellishment and solo construction from his stint in Louis Armstrong’s 1933 band.)
Keeping Wilson’s mood, Catlett plays very quietly, although you know he’s there. Hall’s approach is more forceful and Catlett follows suit.
Then . . . a drum solo? At this tempo? Most drummers would have found it hard to be as relaxed, as restrained. He quietly paddles along in between the horns’ staccato reduction of the melody, making it clear that he is a serious servant of the rhythm, the time, devoted to the sound of the band — until he moves to double-time figures and two cymbal accents. Music like this is deceptively simple: a casual listener might think it is easy to play in this manner, but how wrong that mild condescension would be! Wilson and Catlett join forces for a momentary interlude before the horns return — Joe, sorrowing deep inside himself, Hall soaring.
How marvelous that we have these two sides!
Thanks to vdiscdaddy for posting them on YouTube; his channel is full of music worth hearing that has been hidden from us. Thanks of a larger sort to Wilson, Thomas, Hall, and Catlett — brilliant creators who knew how to bring their individual selves together to create something brilliant, immortal. And I don’t use the word “immortal” casually.
P.S. I first heard these sides thanks to the late Ed Beach, and then savored them on an Italian bootleg lp on the Ariston label, THE V-DISC. In 1990, they came out on CD — with an incomplete alternate take of RUSSIAN LULLABY — on the Vintage Jazz Classics label (TEDDY WILSON: CENTRAL AVENUE BLUES, VJC 1013-2), a production that brought together, although not face to face, John Fell, Doug Pomeroy, and Lloyd Rauch. I don’t think a copy of that CD would be easy to find today, though.