Two particularly endearing compact discs have arrived, and I haven’t stopped playing them. They’re on the Swedish Kenneth label, the jazz-child of the jazz scholar and producer Gosta Hagglof, who also happens to be one of the world’s most fervent Louis Armstrong fans and specialists. (His site, “Classic Jazz Productions,” is on the blogroll to the right.)
For forty years now, Gosta has been producing records and CDs of heartwarming jazz, featuring Maxine Sullivan, Benny Waters, Kenny Davern, Doc Cheatham, and others, alongside Swedish jazz stars, including the quite spectacular cornetist-trumpeter Bent Persson, reedman Claes Brodda, and others. These sessions have an inimitable looseness, somewhere between live performances (think of the St. Regis jam sessions without Alistair Cooke) or the slightly more formal Teddy Wilson Brunswicks, lyrical and propulsive. Here’s a much younger Gosta greeting Louis at the airport in 1965: the warm feeling passing back and forth is immediately evident.
Now, Gosta has issued Dick Cary: The Wonderful World of Hoagy Carmichael (Kenneth CKS 3410), and A Tribute to Billie Holiday: Doc Cheatham and his Swedish Jazz All Stars featuring Henri Chaix (CKS 3407). You might initially think that there have already been more than enough tributes to Hoagy and Billie, but these discs are stirringly good.
Dick Cary was one of those musicians who didn’t get recognized for his talents, perhaps because he had so many of them. He was the pianist at Louis’s Town Hall Concert: his replacement was Earl Hines, which is an honor in itself. He also was a beautifully-focused trumpeter, the only soloist I know on the Eb alto horn (the “peckhorn”), a fine composer and arranger. Cary valued variety and tone color: his piano playing encompassed Teddy Wilson and Willie “the Lion” Smith to create a seamless mainstream idiom. His trumpet playing reminds me of a cross between Harry Edison and Bobby Hackett, with touches of Joe Thomas, and no one sounded like him on the alto horn.
So the listener gets good value, to say the least, with any Cary performance — and the Hoagy performances show him off wonderfully. The arrangements are subtly varied, sometimes transforming the material: “What Kind O’Man Is You,” memorable only because Mildred Bailey sang it on a 1929 record, becomes a slow, swaying drag here, as does “Snowball.” (Most Carmichael tributes stick to his half-dozen most famous songs: this one doesn’t, without becoming esoteric.) And Cary loved the momentum that a rocking jazz band could create: his “Harvey” (a loose sketch on “Dinah,” for the most part) and “Riverboat Shuffle” build up a fine head of steam. The ballads are winsome, especially the never-perfromed “Kinda Lonesome.” It’s also a tribute to the man who did so much to bring Hoagy into the jazz consciousness, in “Ev’ntide,” “Lyin’ to Myself,” “Rockin’ Chair,” heart-on-sleeve evocations of the great Armstrong recordings, with Bent Persson in full flower. It’s one of those CDs that I have been playing from start to finish without getting bored, and there’s a percussion break in the middle of “Riverboat Shuffle” that makes me laugh out loud. What more could anyone want? How about three bonus tracks: two evoking the Ellington Brunswicks, “Kissing My Baby Goodnight” and “Love Is Like A Cigarette,” which summon up the moody sound of that band. And the CD ends with a bit of brilliant French Quarter jive in Cary’s “Swing Down in New Orleans,” which features the imperishable Doc Cheatham on trumpet and vocal, rolling his R’s extravagantly when he sings “Clar-r-r-r-inet Mar-r-r-r-malade.” Delicious!
Cheatham is in rare form on the Billie tribute, which summons up the atmosphere surrounding her more than being a direct copy of her vocals, which is all to the good. (Billie herself would have been displeased by the many feline types yowling their way through “Fine and Mellow”: better they should have stayed in the litter box.)
On this CD, the band is led by the brilliant swing / stride master Henri Chaix, whose accompaniments are a joy on their own. There is a wonderful two-tempoed rendition of “I Wish I Had You,” which Billie fanatics will remember as a title where she sings “I whoosh I had you,” always a sweetly weird moment. Doc’s climbing trumpet style is beautifully captured — no drum solos, no racetrack solos — and we get to hear him sing “The Gal I Love”:
Someday she’ll come along, the gal I love. And she’ll be big and strong, the gal I love.
Wouldn’t miss that for the world! And Doc seems to be having the time of his life, vocally. He sings at the top of his range, as he always did, lending his vocalizing a definitely feminine sound without going into falsetto; he speaks lyrics when the mood was right, and here he even indulges in touches of Fats Waller’s raillery. Even for Doc, these vocals are remarkable. And the instrumental playing on both these discs is wonderful — great rhythm section work and solos. Hagglof’s Swedish marvels come out of the great tradition, fully realized and comfortable within it, but they don’t copy the obvious models or the most recognizable sounds. You’ll hear echoes of Louis and Teddy on these discs, but also small heartfelt homages to Herschel Evans and Sandy Williams.
These are irreplaceable sessions. Gosta has two more CDs with Doc in store for us, which is splendid news. For now, I’m going to keep playing these discs, moving them from the car to the computer to the CD player, so as not to miss any notes.