Tag Archives: Bing Crosby

“TELL ME YOUR TROUBLES: SONGS BY JOE BUSHKIN,” BOB MERRILL and FRIENDS

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 Garry, 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, but 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!

“AND APPRECIATE THE RHYTHM THAT YOU HEAR”: A 1938 PRIMER IN SWING

Mister Crosby on the air

and his fellow perpetrator:

Mister Mercer, likewise

Late in the previous century, I had my fascination with the recordings of Bing Crosby intensified by the opportunity to listen to two decades of his records in chronological order.  And although some see his career as an inevitable descent into “popular music,” I could always hear the glowing beauty of his voice, his wonderful phrasing, his direct appeal to the listener.  He never seemed detached when he sang, even if the song was at first an odd choice for those who, like myself, grew up on his recordings of YOU TOOK ADVANTAGE OF ME, DANCING IN THE DARK, PLEASE, and dozens of other masterpieces.  I think of Michael Brooks reminding us of the splendor of Crosby’s HOME ON THE RANGE, for one glorious example.

Although Johnny Mercer deserves his fame as songwriter and lyricist, I also encountered him early as a charmingly eccentric singer — the SIZZLING ONE-STEP MEDLEY with Trumbauer, THE BATHTUB RAN OVER AGAIN, and LORD, I GIVE YOU MY CHILDREN.  Later Mercer vocals — for instance, MOON RIVER — have the sadness of a mature artist, but the ones I came to love first had a delicious impish puckishness to them, as if he was about to burst into helpless laughter at any point — which he didn’t, being an expert jester in complete control.

This 1938 recording, pairing the two, is an absolute favorite of mine: it exists at the crossroads of Swing, Vaudeville, and Jive: Bing and Johnny playing around with an ancient (even then) musical-vaudeville routine, MISTER GALLAGHER AND MISTER SHEAN, updated to be satirically hip, with new lyrics by Mercer.

Although everything here is scripted (unless perhaps a few of the ad-libs were invented in rehearsal) the whole performance has a goofy splendor, with Mercer’s lyrics both hilarious and intentionally vaudevillian; the splendid expertise of this hot band, evident even when they don’t have as much to do as jazz fans would have wished: Sullivan’s written phrase at the start, Secrest’s quiet obbligati; Spike’s rollicking old-time drumming; Lincoln’s slides.  And the obvious joy Bing and Johnny exude, the sheer fun they are having.
I could close my eyes and see them nattily attired in updated 1922 vaudeville garb (straw boaters and striped jackets) pretending to teach us all about Swing — notice, it’s a lesson that “Johnny” doesn’t want at all, which is perhaps the best joke of all, for 1938-and-onwards listeners expecting this to be the triumph of “Modern” over “Old-Time,” which turns on itself when “Sorta Lombardo, Mister C!” is delivered in a completely authentic bluesy drawl.  Those who suggest that Bing never broke out of old-timey rhythmic patterns, never got in the groove in true (let us say Basie) fashion should listen closely: yes, he and Johnny imitate New Orleans rhythmic patterns in their asides, but everyone is swinging.  Oh, there are levels and levels of art here, even though Jack Kapp would have imagined this as one of this all-star productions, sure to win a mass audience, sure to sell well.  It continues to delight me, and I hope it does the same for you.
Bing and Johnny are perfectly accompanied by Victor Young’s Small Fryers : Andy Secrest, cornet; Abe Lincoln, trombone; Jack Mayhew, clarinet; John Cascales, tenor saxophone;  Joe Sullivan, piano; Perry Botkin, guitar; Jim “Slim” Taft, string bass; Spike Jones, drums.  Los Angeles, July 1, 1938.

RHAPSODIES BY BING and HAWK, 1933

Yesterday, May 3, would have been Bing Crosby’s birthday.  He doesn’t need to be defended, re-assessed, or re-evaluated, but it’s always a pleasure to remember his singing: his passionate ease, his swing, his beautiful dramatic sense.  I first fell in love with his voice in my childhood and it continues to thrill me.  Here are two (really, three) examples of how wonderfully he sang in the Thirties — and the lovely songs he was given, the first by Sam Coslow and Arthur Johnston, the second by Al Dubin and Harry Warren.

Here is a clip from the film.  Bing’s acting is broad, reminiscent of his Mack Sennett days, but it could also be the way he was directed: listen to the voice:

and the issued recording, its subtleties showing that he knew how to improvise:

Here’s I’VE GOT TO SING A TORCH SONG, where Bing’s passionate delivery might make you forget the simple scalar quality of the melody line:

The question of “influence” is always slippery, unless A has written a letter that she is listening to the newest record by B and is impressed by it.  Those two songs were in the air, on sheet music, on the radio — this was popular music — so although I feel that Bing had a powerful influence on instrumentalists, I can’t prove it.  However, I offer these two instrumental versions — each a beautiful creation — to suggest that perhaps the most famous jazz players were listening deeply to Bing.  (We know Louis did.)  It gives me an excuse to share, without ideology, glorious rhapsodies.

That’s Hawk with a small group from the Fletcher Henderson band (Red Allen, J. C. Higginbotham, Hilton Jefferson, Horace  Henderson, Bernard Addison, John Kirby, Walter Johnson); here he is as star soloist with the full orchestra, with brother Horace on piano, who may have done the arrangement:

Gorgeous music.  Sweet, hot, White, Black — who cares?  Just gorgeous.

May your happiness increase!

SETTING THE WORLD ON FIRE IN WHISPERS: “BON BON,” JOE THOMAS, EDDIE DURHAM, and BUSTER SMITH, 1941

Sometimes great art flourishes in corners where it is not at all expected even to survive.

George “Bon Bon” Tunnell (1912-1975) was an engaging singer — yet not well-remembered.  He was first a member of The Three Keys, and from 1937-42, he was the first African-American male singer to appear with a Caucasian band: Jan Savitt and his Top Hatters.  Incidentally, he was heavily featured with the band — and — one of the trombonists there was Cutty Cutshall (1939-40) something that would interest Condon scholars like myself.

The two sides below come from Bon Bon’s early solo career — four sides from this date, two the next year (where Decca seems to have wanted him to be an African-American Bing, or at least a Chick Bullock or Dick Robertson) and then some solo features with Steve Gibson’s Red Caps.  But with no disrespect to Bon Bon’s very nice singing, the two sides offer a rare combination — two musicians who, at this point in the Swing Era, did not receive all the opportunities to record their talents warranted.

They are guitarist / trombonist / arranger Eddie Durham, whose guitar sound is instantly recognizable — swinging but with sharp corners — and trumpeter Joe Thomas, also instantly recognizable and inimitable.  The second song, I DON’T WANT TO SET THE WORLD ON FIRE, is also Durham’s — although there are three other names on the label.  And, on clarinet, the”Prof” of deep Kansas City jazz, Buster Smith.   New York City, July 23, 1941: Tunnell, Joe Thomas, Eddie Durham, Buster Smith, Jackie Fields, alto saxophone; Jimmy Phipps, piano; Al Hall, string bass; Jack Parker, drums.  The other two sides — which you’d have to track down on your own (they are on the THREE KEYS CD on the Chronological Classics label) are BLOW, GABRIEL, BLOW, and Fats Waller’s ALL THAT MEAT AND NO POTATOES.

SWEET MAMA  (from 1920, I believe, and recorded by the ODJB) has lyrics that suggest domestic abuse and a real need for anger management, but the band is splendid.  But first we hear Durham’s spiky arpeggios, a very dark and threatening orchestral passage featuring growl from Thomas (not his usual approach) and leafy clarinet from Smith — a passage reminiscent of Durham’s approach to GOOD MORNING BLUES for Basie.  I find Bon Bon hilariously sweetly unconvincing in his gentle singing: this man couldn’t do damage to a sandwich, but we will let that pass.  (When he returns for his second vocal, he wants to convince us: “Papa’s really gone mad,” but his heart isn’t in it.  Too kind to make anyone cower.)

The half-chorus Thomas solo that follows is quietly magnificent: even through his mute, the steady glow of his tone comes through, as does his fondness for repeated notes, his love of 1927 Louis; his stately glide.  Where other trumpeters shout, Thomas caresses, and his solo winds down rather than moving out of the middle register.  It is equally affecting for what he doesn’t care to do — remember, 1941 was the age of great brass virtuosity — as for what he does. Thomas whispers sweet epigrams to us, and their impact is only felt on the third or fourth hearing.  I’d also call your attention to the strong but not overdone rhythm that Hall and Durham offer, as well as Smith’s sweet commentaries.  Bon Bon returns to assure us of his menace, but no one would be all that scared of “the fine undertaker,” which seems like a Waller touch.

The more famous song, justly, begins with an orchestral introduction that borrows quietly from THE MOOCHE, and we then move to a love song — where Bon Bon sounds more comfortable.  Durham’s arpeggios threaten to take our attention away: he’s not aiming to copy Charlie Christian’s smoothness, but he makes a deep impression.  Eddie is much more prominent here — it was his song and I wonder if he’d brought a small-band chart to the session. Then, less than half a minute of Thomas, but his sound, even muted, is like sunshine coming through the windows in late afternoon.  His gentle intensity; his love of the melody — and that upwards arpeggio in the middle is purest Joe (and purest Louis, if you need to find an ancestor) — quite touching.  When the band and Bon Bon return, the blending is completely polished and fetching.

(Joe gets three more extroverted outings on BLOW, GABRIEL, BLOW, which he executes nicely, and Bon Bon scats in the best almost-Leo-Watson manner.  ALL THAT MEAT AND NO POTATOES bounces along pleasantly, but once again Bon Bon must pretend to menace — “I’m fit to fight” — which is sweetly unconvincing.  Durham is delightfully in evidence and the other horns show their individual voices — but the two sides here are, to me, the standouts. Tunnell’s final side for Decca, before the recording ban, SLEEPY OLD TOWN, could pass for Bing, and it is delightful — with Russ Solomon doing a commendable Bobby Hackett.  But it’s no longer on YouTube.)

And just because it exists on eBay, a little more Bon Bon memorabilia — a signed contract, with amendments.

and the reverse:

I haven’t analyzed the contract.  Perhaps Laura Windley, our swing star and lawyer, might have something to say about it.  Until then, I will cherish those two Decca sides, full of instrumental surprises and engaging singing.

May your happiness increase!

“FOX TROT, VOCAL CHORUS”: JIM FRYER, EVAN ARNTZEN, BRIAN NALEPKA with TERRY WALDO, JAY LEPLEY, JOHN GILL, JON-ERIK KELLSO at FAT CAT (Jan. 29, 2017)

Even if they don’t have trained voices, the instrumental soloists I know tend to be really convincing singers, often with a loose, sleeves-rolled up approach to the song, which, by its casualness, conceals a real understanding of melody, rhythm, and how to “sell a song.”  (And sometimes the most under-documented singers are the most affecting: Basie, muttering his way through HARVARD BLUES, Hawkins emoting on LOVE CRIES, Carter wooing us with SYNTHETIC LOVE.)

Musicians know that bursting into song delights an audience (if it’s not offered on every performance) and it rests tired lips and hands. Here are three wonderful examples from a Sunday afternoon session by Terry Waldo, Jon-Erik Kellso, Jim Fryer, Evan Arntzen, Brian Nalepka, John Gill, and Jay Lepley — January 29, 2017).  I will point out that everyone in this band has been known to warble a chorus, but today I am concentrating on Messrs. Fryer, Arntzen, and Nalepka — all of whom have sung in performance and the recording studio.

And since so much of American pop music of the last century and more takes romance as its subject, here are three very different love songs: the first a chronicle of deprivation (“I’d love to join the fun but they bar me.”) the second a narrative of how serendipity made for great love (“I kept buying china / Until the crowd got wise.”) and the last a happy description of mutual adoration (“My baby don’t care who knows it.”)

Jim Fryer chronicles romantic woes, Lombardo / Louis style on SWEETHEARTS ON PARADE:

Evan Arntzen reminds us of Bing, 1931, incidentally, with I FOUND A MILLION DOLLAR BABY (IN A FIVE-AND-TEN CENT STORE):

and Brian Nalepka tells the truth (ask Mary Shaughnessy), MY BABY JUST CARES FOR ME:

These frolics happen most Sunday afternoons at Fat Cat, 75 Christopher Street, Greenwich Village, New York City (take the #1 train to Christopher Street / Sheridan Square).

May your happiness increase!

FEBRUARY 14: A LOVE SONG BY JIMMY ROWLES and RED MITCHELL

it-must-be-true-chords

A few minutes of love in jazz or vice versa: a sweet ancient Harry Barris / Gordon Clifford / Gus Arnheim song, IT MUST BE TRUE, here performed by Jimmy Rowles and Red Mitchell, piano / voice, and string bass, respectively: July 1978 in Paris.

Rowles was the most subtly surprising pianist and devilishly intuitive accompanist, but he is not celebrated enough as a singer: what he and Red Mitchell get up to here would warm the most chilly heart.  (The song was first popularized by a young fellow named Crosby, but this version makes its own tender impression.)

May your happiness increase!

NAOMI AND HER HANDSOME DEVILS: “THE DEVILS’ MUSIC”

naomi-cd-2016

This is an irresistible CD.  The first time I put it in the player, after about a half-chorus, I leaned forward and raised the volume.  When I had heard Naomi sing ISN’T IT ROMANTIC? for the first time, I played it again.  And then again.  And several times over.  And (I know this might seem monotonous) I played the disc again from the start.  That should serve as the JAZZ LIVES Seal of Approval, shouldn’t it?  (Note: the apostrophe in the title is also a hilarious gift to us.)

naomi-portrait

If you visit YouTube and type in “Naomi Uyama,” you will find many videos showing her as a championship swing dancer.  But I first encountered Naomi as a singer, and a fine one — singing a chorus from a Boswell Sisters recording alongside Tamar Korn and Mimi Terris — on a cold night in 2009 outside Banjo Jim’s.  Naomi and her expert friends resurfaced with their first CD, which I reviewed here with great pleasure in August 2014.

Here are several tracks from that CD — to show you that Naomi and her Devils know and knew how to do it.  Lil Johnson’s TAKE IT EASY, GREASY:

Something more polite, the Basie GEORGIANNA:

I know I’m getting carried away here — a wonderfully sweet / swinging performance of IF I COULD BE WITH YOU:

The band on THE DEVILS’ MUSIC is of course, Naomi Uyama, vocals; Jake Sanders, guitar; Jonathan Doyle, tenor sax / clarinet; Jeremy Noller, drums;
Matt Musselman, trombone; Jared Engel, string bass; Dalton Ridenhour, piano;
Mike Davis, trumpet, and the sessions took place in Chicago in August 2016.

Naomi and the Devils write, “Our hope was to show the growth we’ve had as a unit since our debut album was released 2 years prior. Our focus: having original arrangements of swinging tunes – some well loved by the dance community and other hidden gems. We also added to our line-up, and over half the songs on this album feature Mike Davis on trumpet, expanding our hot horn harmonies and giving us a new sound. Lastly Naomi wrote the band’s first original composition, track 1 “Little Girl Blues,” putting something out there that you can’t hear from any other swing band. With a vintage ear and expertise from recording engineer Alex Hall we’ve mixed and mastered the whole shebang and can’t wait for the world to hear it. We hope you enjoy “The Devils’ Music”.

Now, some comments from me.  Naomi, as I hope you’ve already heard, is not just someone who sings: she is a singer, with a voice that’s attractive in itself, which she uses to great effect, depending on the material.  She can handle complicated lyrics at a fast tempo; she swings; she has a sure sense of dynamics. She doesn’t copy old records; she doesn’t overdramatize; she understands the songs; she can be rueful, tender, brassy, and she’s always lively.  Her phrasing is playful, and she’s no swing robot — by which I mean she’s loose, not repeating a set of gestures.  And a witty lyricist on LITTLE GIRL BLUES.

I also think that it is so much harder to sing ISN’T IT ROMANTIC than a swing number, and on this delicate love song Naomi captivates me.  The same for IF WE NEVER MEET AGAIN, even when Gerlach’s lyrics defy logic.  Her I’M LIVIN’ IN A GREAT BIG WAY made my living room rock, and I nearly hurt my neck bobbing my head to SHOO SHOO BABY.  Having heard Louis, Bing, and Billie make imperishable versions of PENNIES FROM HEAVEN, I’ve come to dread contemporary versions, but hers is special, with a hilarious scat break.

That band!  I’ve met and admired six of the players in person (to me, their names are an assurance of swing).  I bow to them.  I’ve not met Jeremy Noller, but he is another Worthy — a rocking Worthy at that. Catch his tom-tom work on ROSE OF THE RIO GRANDE.  And although the Devils sit so comfortably in a Basie / Lunceford / small-group Ellington groove, there’s a delicious c. 1929 A GOOD MAN IS HARD TO FIND, completely convincing.  (The band likes to riff, with about half of the tracks arranged by Naomi or Jake: nice uncluttered charts, expertly rehearsed but never stiff.)  Naomi lays out on PERDIDO (a good thing, considering the thin lyrics), BLUES WITH A BEAT (a Forties-sounding romp), DELTA BOUND (a pleasure at any tempo), and a grooving THESE FOOLISH THINGS.

This is a long expression of praise, but you will notice I haven’t listed all the delightful moments on the CD; were I to do so, the post would be three times longer.

You can download the CD here ($13) or see how to buy a physical disc on the same page . . . AND . . . you can hear all the tracks on the disc.  “If that don’t get it, well,  forget it right now,” to quote Jack Teagarden, more or less, on the 1947 SAY IT SIMPLE.  For more first-hand information, here is the band’s Facebook page, and here is Naomi’s page.

It’s all quite devilishly wonderful.

May your happiness increase!