Tag Archives: Bing Crosby

“JUST LIKE THAT!” DAN MORGENSTERN TELLS A TALE (June 8, 2018)

Perry Como, 1944:

You didn’t expect to see him on JAZZ LIVES, but he deserves the attention.  People of my generation will remember him as a completely relaxed television presence, wearing a sweater before Fred Rogers, comfortable and warm.  As a young singer, he did his own very convincing version of Bing, which is not something I would chastise him for.  Here’s an early vocal on a Ted Weems record — to complete the Bing-ness, there’s whistling by Elmo Tanner:

But this blogpost isn’t a return to the fairly sweet sounds of yesteryear.  When I visited Dan Morgenstern last June, I think we’d planned to talk about a variety of jazz notables . . . but I’ve learned to start the camera and trust the teller.

What Dan recalled is, to me, memorable: it says, “There ARE righteous people”:

One of the righteous is Dan himself.  But you knew that.

May your happiness increase!

Advertisements

LOVE NOTES FROM RAY SKJELBRED (San Diego Jazz Fest, November 27, 2016)

First, Ray makes friends with the piano, then says quietly, “Well, I’m not going anywhere, so I’ll play something I like,” or words to that effect.

He does and we do.

THE ONE I LOVE is not only a memorably catchy Isham Jones tune, but it’s famous in jazz history as the first song Louis Armstrong and Earl Hines improvised on together, at their first meeting at the musicians’ union.  I hear their approving phantasmal selves in Ray’s version:

Like AIN’T MISBEHAVIN’, PENNIES FROM HEAVEN has become victim to people who race through it and make its lovely contours mechanical.  Knowing, as I do, the memorable versions by Bing Crosby (1936) and Louis (1947), who treated it as a rhythm ballad, I’ve come to dread it in performance.  But Ray’s tender version, starting with the verse, is what the song is all about: gently swinging optimism, a view of the world where wonderful surprises are still possible:

Here’s James P. Johnson’s hymn of praise to the gentle loving ways that we all might recall and even enact, OLD FASHIONED LOVE:

Finally, a reminder that even when love affairs implode, the subject is still good for beautiful music: I COVER THE WATERFRONT (“We like it!  We like it!”):

Ray Skjelbred doesn’t cater to his audiences; he doesn’t woo us.  But he continues to delight, to amaze, with his love for the piano, the songs, and the great traditions.

This post is for my faraway and well-remembered friend Donna Courtney.

May your happiness increase!

HOLLYWOOD’S FIRST SWING CONCERT: A TRIBUTE TO JOE SULLIVAN (1937)

Before anyone gets too excited, I do not have acetates or videos of this event to share with you.  All I can offer is the souvenir program, which was on sale a month ago on eBay here for $300.  This item does not seem to have sold, but the seller ended the sale.  If someone were interested, I’d suggest contacting the seller and opening negotiations again.

This program was from a benefit for Joe, ill with tuberculosis, from which he recovered.  I had never seen this paper treasure before; I thought you, too, would be intrigued.  And I’ve inserted some contemporaneous recordings by Joe to keep the display from being silent.  Since I’ve never seen or heard evidence that this concert was broadcast or that airshots or transcription discs exist, this paper chronicle is all we have.  It must have been a lovely evening of music and feeling.

and this, from 1945 (Archie Rosati, clarinet; Ulysses Livingston, guitar; Artie Shapiro, string bass; Zutty Singleton, drums — on the SUNSET label):

and

and SUMMERTIME, 1941, Commodore:

and

another Decca solo from 1935:

and (Larry and Everett were Crosby brothers; Bing had a large role in this):

and Joe’s Cafe Society Orchestra, with Ed Anderson, Big Joe Turner, Benny Morton, Ed Hall:

and

and the Cafe Society Orchestra with Helen Ward:

and what an assortment of stars and bands!

and LADY BE GOOD from the same band, in a performance I’d bet stretched out longer when live (Danny Polo takes the tenor solo):

and

and I CAN’T GIVE YOU ANYTHING BUT LOVE by the same band, with Ed Anderson building on Louis and Big Joe Turner making it a blues:

and

and

and

and

and

and

Joe recovered and lived on until October 1971, which to me shows the sustaining power of community in times of stress and despair.

May your happiness increase!

GENTLY, THERE: TWO RHYTHM BALLADS BY MAX KEENLYSIDE (Scott Joplin International Ragtime Festival, May 31-June 2, 2018)

I don’t know what you were doing in 1991, but the young man pictured above — Canadian pianist / composer Max Keenlyside — was busy being born, which makes his remarkable talent even more remarkable.  I had the good fortune and immense pleasure of meeting and hearing Max for the first time at the Scott Joplin International Ragtime Festival in Sedalia, Missouri, just a few days ago, and you’ll hear why I am impressed.  Here you can learn more about Max.

What struck me immediately about Max was his gracious balance of technique and taste.  He can play with incredible dexterity and skill — as fast as you could want, never faltering — but he has something much rarer, which is the understanding that quiet music, sweet sounds usually reach far deeper into our souls than do pyrotechnics.  So I bring Max to you as a subtle wooer, a creator of inviting worlds of sound — specifically, his performances of two “rhythm ballads.” That’s an archaic term, and I don’t know who coined it, but it comes from the Thirties, where musicians played a tender song and made sure to send the emotions to the listeners, but kept a danceable pulse going all the time.

A few words about the music.  IT’S ONLY A PAPER MOON, by Harold Arlen and E.Y. Harburg, is one of my favorite songs, and I wrote about it here.  I invite you to read that post — skip my prose if you’re in a hurry — but listen to Cliff Edwards and Dick McDonough, performing not only the chorus but the verse. But for now, Max, gently proceeding through the song, with a few nods to T. Waller, honoring the melody with delight and amusement:

I’LL FOLLOW YOU, by Roy Turk and Fred Ahlert, might be known to piano scholars and Commodore Records devotees through the 1939 recording by Willie “the Lion” Smith, but I first fell in love with the song through Bing Crosby’s version when it was a new pop hit.

Here’s Max. What could be nicer than the affectionate words about his mother?

The artist Aubrey Beardsley is supposed to have told the young W.B. Yeats, “Beauty is so very difficult,” and we must imagine all the possible tones of voice those words could have been said in — but young Max already knows a great deal about making beauty alive and accessible to anyone with ears and emotions.

May your happiness increase!

PERFECTION OF THE ART: “CLASSIC BRUNSWICK AND COLUMBIA TEDDY WILSON SESSIONS 1934-1942” (Mosaic Records)

Teddy Wilson was soft-spoken and reticent, so this is a rare interlude, a 1950 radio interview (from WNYC) by Ralph Berton, a good prelude to the recent banquet of Teddy’s recordings on Mosaic Records:

I’ve been waiting for this set every since I heard rumors of it, and it has not disappointed me in the slightest.

But I must start with a small odd anecdote.  Like many, I have a mildly unhealthy attachment to Facebook, and when this set entered the emotionally-charged world of FB dialogue, one jazz fan said that he was waiting to read the reviews before purchasing it.  It was as if he had said, “I hear about this writer Toni Morrison.  I want to read some reviews before buying one of her books.”  Substitute “Brahms” or “Modigliani” or “Connee Boswell” and you get the idea.  Cue rueful laughter.

Readers of this blog know how fervently I support Mosaic Records (and I don’t get copies for free) so I offer correctives to misperceptions of Wilson and, by  extension, the recordings in this box set.

Wilson gets less praise than he deserves, because of unavoidable events in his life and the lives of his contemporaries.  One is the looming dramatic presence of Billie Holiday, without debate one of the finest artists in the music but also someone (like Charlie Parker) wrapped in a mythology that blots out those associated with her.  The recordings in this set do not have Miss Holiday, so some listeners might perceive them as second-string.  True, so far there has been no coffee-table book chronicling a week in the life of, say, Boots Castle.  But the singers here are never inept, and some of them — Helen Ward and Nan Wynn, with brief appearances by Ella and Lena (!) — are memorable.  Removing Lady Day from the equation makes it possible to actually savor the instrumental performances, and they are consistently remarkable.

His greatest public exposure was as a sideman with Benny Goodman, and the Trio and Quartet records are splendid.  But being typecast as the hero’s friend in the movies is not the same as being the hero.  I am sure that Wilson could claim a better salary from 1935 on, but it took some time for him to be understood for his own virtues.  And there was always Fats Waller and Art Tatum — talk about looming presences.

Wilson’s consistency has, perversely, made him a quiet figure in jazz hagiography.  From his introduction to Louis’ 1933 WORLD ON A STRING to his last recordings in 1985, he was recorded so often that there is a feeling of abundance and perhaps over-abundance.  There is no single monumental recording — no WEST END BLUES, no BODY AND SOUL, no SHOE SHINE BOY — to bow down to. (Something of the same fate — almost a punishment for excellence — has befallen Benny Carter, for one.)  Some have reduced Wilson to caricature: a medium-to-uptempo sliding right-hand piano arpeggio; true, that some of his late performances were beautifully-done but cast in bronze, with few surprises.  I wish his detractors might spend an afternoon with a transcribed solo and see how easy it is to reproduce even four bars of it.

He was always himself — balancing elegance and passion — and the recordings in this set are so consistently rewarding that they tend to overwhelm the listener who sits down to ingest them in large gulps.  Not for the first time in reviewing a Mosaic box, I have wanted to compel listeners to take the contents as they were offered in 1936: two sides at a time, no more than once a week.  In this way, even an “average” side — say, SING, BABY, SING — emerges as marvelously multi-layered.  I will point out that these sessions were intended to be “popular” and thus ephemeral: records to be listened to on jukeboxes at a nickel a side: current tunes, music to dance to.  I suspect the musicians were paid scale and went home with the idea that they had made some extra money, not that they had made Great Art.  They’ve been proven wrong, but in the nicest ways.

The music impresses and moves me on several levels.  One is that it is operating at a high level of excellence, hugely professional and still charmingly individualistic.  Everyone’s voice is heard: Buster Bailey, Mouse Randolph, Cozy Cole.  There are no dull solos; the swing is wondrous, never mechanical.  The ensemble playing is the easy mastery of people who play in sections night after night and thus know all there is about ensemble dynamics and blending — but who are also feeling the pleasure of loose improvising amidst respected colleagues.  The three-minute concertos are dense with musical information but are easy to listen to, apparently simple until one tries to mimic any part.  The soloists are a cross-section of worthies, a list of them too long to type.  Check the Mosaic discography.

In addition, the singers — who range from merely excellent on up — are charming reminders of a time when “jazz” and “pop music” were comfortable with one another.  Imagine a time when young and old could hear a new recording of a song from a new Bing Crosby movie (let’s say LAUGH AND CALL IT LOVE) and appreciate it, appreciate a Jonah Jones solo — all on the same aesthetic plane.  The most creative improvising was accepted as wonderful dance music, an exalted period where highbrow and lowbrow met, where snobberies were not so deeply ingrained, and certainly the audience was not fragmented and sectarian.

The result is an amiable perfection: I never want to edit a passage on a Wilson record.  Perhaps paradoxically, I also understand why Bird, Dizzy, and Monk — who admired Wilson and his colleagues deeply — felt the need to go in different directions.  What more could one create within this form?  How could one’s swing and improvisation of this type be more perfect?

Eight decades later, these records still sound so buoyant, so hopeful. The news from Europe was grim, and became more so.  But in the face of apocalypse, these musicians swung, sang tenderly, and gave us reason to go on.

I first heard Wilson early in my jazz apprenticeship; he was one of the first musicians, after Louis, to catch my ear.  Blessedly, I saw him in person several times in 1971-4, and I bought the records I could find — the French “Aimez-vous le jazz?” of his 1935-7 solos, the later Columbia two-lp sets of the small groups issued here and in Japan, Jerry Valburn’s Meritt Record Society discs.  When compact discs took over, I bought the Classics and Neatwork, the Masters of Jazz compilations.  However, I can write what I have written before: this Mosaic box offers music that I’ve never heard before, in splendid sound.

I’ve written elsewhere on JAZZ LIVES of my strong feeling that Mosaic Records is a noble enterprise.  Supporting their efforts is that rare double reward: a moral act that offers deep rewards.  So I won’t belabor that point here.  If you insist that everything should be for free online, that view that troubles me, especially if you expect a salary for the work you do.  But I will leave that to others to argue.

I confess that I am writing this review early, rather than waiting until I’ve arrived at the last track of the seventh disc — I have been savoring the earliest sides over and over.  And I have been appreciating Loren Schoenberg’s especially fine liner notes — over and above his unusually high standard! — for their subtleties and research.  And the photographs.  And the splendid transfers.  I haven’t even gotten to the unissued sides at the end of the package: 2018 is still young.

For more information, go here — either to purchase this limited edition while it is still available.  Or, so the people who say, “Well, how many unissued sides are there in this box?  Is it a good value?  I already have a lot of this material already,” can make up their own minds.  Those unaware of the beauty of this music can be amazed.

And those who, like me, look at this music as a series of aesthetic embraces, can prepare themselves for seven compact discs of joy and surprise, music both polished and warm.

May your happiness increase!

JAMES BIRKETT AND EMMA FISK PLAY VENUTI AND LANG, WITH GREAT AFFECTION AND EXPERTISE

The back covers of the long-playing records of my youth often were adorned with thumbnail photographs of other record covers, and this solicitation, “If you’ve enjoyed this LONG PLAY record, you’ll be sure to enjoy . . . .”

If you savor beautifully recorded chamber jazz, swinging yet leisurely, you’ll be sure to enjoy the new CD by guitarist James Birkett and violinist Emma Fisk, devoted to the music of Joe Venuti and Eddie Lang.

Since Eddie’s death in 1933, there have been many attempts to recreate the magic the two Italian boys from Philadelphia created: Venuti himself always looked for guitarists who could come close to Eddie’s splendors: Dick McDonough, Frank Victor, Tony Romano, Bucky Pizzarelli, Carl Kress, Perry Botkin, Bobby Sherwood, George Barnes, Tony Gottuso, Danny Perri, Barney Kessel, Lino Patruno attempted to fill that role on record dates and more.

As I write this, Nick Rossi, Kris Tokarski, and Glenn Crytzer are involved in similar small group projects, and I know I am leaving someone out.  Matt Munisteri does a peerless Lang behind John Gill’s Bing.  Martin Wheatley and Spats Langham both understand him deeply.

Venuti was a hard act to follow — I am leaving aside the sometimes cruel practical jokes — but he was often in love with speed and execution, and many violinists have tried to out-Joe Joe, playing his intricate originals faster and faster.  (Performance speeds have been inching up for decades: consider the Django-phenomenon.)  And for most instrumentalists, not just string players, tone gets sacrificed to speed.

Emma Fisk, a romantic at heart, doesn’t turn Joe into unicorns-and-rainbows on this CD, but she does remind us of Joe’s affectionate side, the part of his character that would linger over long tones and leisurely phrases.  She doesn’t slow everything down, but she does change the mood from headlong briskness to a kinder, easier embrace.  In this she is partnered splendidly by the elegant guitarist James Birkett, who is lyrical beyond everything else.  He is new to me, but he is kind to the ears at every turn, without being overly sentimental.  So even the faster numbers on this disc — RAGGIN’ and MY HONEY’S — are sweet saunters instead of being mad sprints.  The music breathes comfortably and well.

Here you can witness Emma and James making music — video and audio — through the media of Vimeo, Soundcloud, and YouTube.  And here you can celebrate the Spring, reward yourself for good behavior, or warm someone’s heart — by buying one or more of these life-enhancing discs.

A delightfully mournful sample, James’ EDDIE’S LAMENT:

May your happiness increase!

WONDER-FULL: THE NEW WONDERS’ NEW CD

There are many ways to honor the tradition, in jazz as well as the other arts.  Let us say you are a young musician who falls in love with an artifact — the OKeh record of TIGHT LIKE THIS by Louis Armstrong and his Hot Five in 1928.  You can use the recorded music as an inspiration to go your own way, to play something that honors Louis but is your own creation.  Or, equally honorable, you can transcribe the recorded evidence, and offer to a new audience a live performance that comes as close to the original as possible, or one that allows for individual variation within the hallowed architecture of the original.

Vince Giordano and the Nighthawks — the great progenitor — and the newer groups such as the Original Cornell Syncopators and the New Wonders follow the latter path gloriously, sometimes recreating and re-enacting, sometimes honoring the original architecture while painting the interior windowsills periwinkle.

From left, Jared Engel, banjo; Joe McDonough, trombone; Jay Lepley, drums; Ricky Alexander, reeds; Mike Davis, cornet, leader; Jay Rattman, bass saxophone; Dalton Ridenhour, piano. Photograph by Jane Kratochvil

There are many ways in which the New Wonders are special.  For one thing, they offer repertoire that has not been overdone — no SINGIN’ THE BLUES, no STRUTTIN’ WITH SOME BARBECUE.  They draw from recordings made by the California Ramblers, the Chicago Loopers, Tiny Parham, Red Nichols, the Goofus Five, and others — wonderful pop tunes that haven’t been played in ages. And they are a great paradox, for their approach is exact (reproducing pieces of arrangements, both instrumental and vocal, that are not easy to do) but loose.  They are not museum curators, but they are not only playing the songs and moving on . . . and there is a spirit of great fun and ebullience without the least mockery or condescension.  A performance or a recording by the New Wonders is a convincing bit of theatre: as if this group of beautifully-dressed young men had come to your house with the sweet notion of bringing 1927 back for a few hours.  And they do it with love: the music can be precise and tender, or hot and bumptious — all in the space of a few songs.

I saw them create such wonders last August in Brice Moss’ pastoralia, and it was memorable, as you can observe here.  But there were limitations to the sound my microphone could capture, and this was the pianoless New Wonders.  So I am delighted to announce their debut CD, titled THE NEW WONDERS, so that no one can mistake it for anything else.  It’s a delightful banquet of sounds from Messrs. Davis, McDonough, Alexander, Rattman, Engel, Lepley, and Ridenhour, as they playfully work their way through FLAMIN’ MAMIE; REACHING FOR SOMEONE; I’M MORE THAN SATISFIED; BONEYARD SHUFFLE; POOR PAPA; I GET THE BLUES WHEN IT RAINS; I’D RATHER CRY OVER YOU; PERSIAN RUG; CLORINDA; I NEED LOVIN’; SMILE, DARN YA, SMILE; JUNGLE CRAWL; I’M WALKING BETWEEN THE RAINDROPS; SHE’S FUNNY THAT WAY; THE BALTIMORE.

I may be accused of ageism, but there is something particularly pleasing to hear these reasonably young (at least to me) musicians immerse themselves in music made by young musicians — an enthusiastic freshness.  And there’s another delightful oddity in the New Wonders’ presentation: the vocal choruses.  In my youth, we made fun of Wes Vaughan, we lifted the needle over Irving Kaufman (unless there was a hot obbligato) and in general, we waited for Bing to come along and make everything all right.  Four members of The New Wonders sing (Lepley, Rattman, Alexander, and leader Davis) and they do it splendidly, not only in solo — verse as well as chorus — but in reproducing the intricate vocal parts from the Chicago Loopers date, CLORINDA and I’M MORE THAN SATISFIED — with great style, earnest without being stiff.  Replaying this disc, I found myself looking forward to those beautifully-executed vocal outpourings, and I think you might share my pleasure.

Al fresco, August 2017

Here you can find out more about Mike and the band, and here is the band’s Facebook page.  And . . . . here is the CDBaby page for the new CD.

But the best way to buy a band CD is at the gig — maybe you’ll get it signed, and you have the direct economic transfer of giving money to the musicians who have just played for you, so here is the event page for the New Wonders’ CD release party — Tuesday, March 13, 2018, from 8-10 PM at Norwood, 241 W 14th St, New York, New York 10011.  Mike points out, “Norwood is a members-only club. In order to attend this event all tickets must be purchased in advance. NO tickets will be sold on the premises.”  And I won’t be able to make this gig, so those of you who are waiting for more videos might have to be in attendance, if possible.  It will be Wonderful.

May your happiness increase!