Tag Archives: jazz singing

“TWO BINGS, PLEASE!”

Given the collective memory loss, I am sure that few people under fifty automatically know who Bing Crosby is, which is a pity.  Their loss.  I fell in love with the sound of his voice when I was a child (I even came to appreciate the distorted renditions of WHITE CHRISTMAS played through loudspeakers throughout December) and my reverence for his work has only grown with time.  Add to that his delight in working with jazz players, his insouciant yet hilariously erudite film persona, and you have an Icon.  By the way, the second volume of Gary Giddins’ Bing tome is supposed to be published before the end of 2019: something to read while the days grow short.

Incidentally, the question of “Is X a jazz singer?” is not terribly interesting to me.  “Does it sound good? Does it move the listener?  Is it artfully done?” are the questions that do.

Here’s what he sounded like three days before his death: lovely, apparently casual, full of feeling:

and some forty years later, a recording that the fine singer Dawn Lambeth told me about, very loose, with the guitarist Perry Botkin the only accompaniment — a splendid song, taken in a light-hearted,  jovial way:

You may prefer other singers, but he remains inimitable.

May your happiness increase!

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NANCY ERICKSON’S SPLENDID STOCK COMPANY: “HERE & NOW”

Nancy Erickson is a superb singer.  If you haven’t heard her because she is nicely tucked away in the Pacific Northwest, you will be rewarded once you do.

Nancy’s new CD, recorded live, is HERE & NOW, which is an accurate title.  You can hear sound samples and purchase one (or several) here.  I’ve liked her work since I heard her own composition “New Year’s Eve” and wrote about it here in December 2015, and then I was delighted by her then new CD,WHILE STROLLING THROUGH THE PARK, which you can read about here.

As an antidote to the profusion of hyperlinks above, some words.  A few years ago, I would have been embarrassed to quote from myself, but we are now so deeply in the “selfie” age that I trust readers will forgive me: “With this CD, I think Nancy Erickson deserves our very close attention as a fully-formed artist, one of our best contemporary singers — full of feeling, wit, affection, reverence for tradition and a thoroughly winning originality.”

I believe those words even more, listening to HERE & NOW. I should first say that it is a live session before a clearly attentive (even reverent) audience, but that recording “live” is a testament to courage and candor.  No Autotune, no punches, inserts, or other recording-studio dark magics.  Beautiful, satisfying singing, with very fine instrumental accompaniment from the 200 Trio — Cole Schuster, guitar; Greg Feingold, string bass; Max Holmberg, drums, and Alex Dugdale, saxophone.  Nancy has a splendid vocal range, although it never seems she is doing tricks to impress us; her voice pleases in all registers without strain; her diction is flawless; her swing likewise, and her scat-singing is quite delightful.  And when she’s tender, or sharp-edged, or playful, she always swings.

Now, what do I mean by Nancy’s “stock company”?  I don’t mean that she is an expert jazz impersonator — she isn’t Rich Little, and she doesn’t do the police in different voices.  But to me, a stock company is a small collection of highly trained versatile actors: one night, an actress is Ophelia, tender, doomed, fragile; the next night, Goneril or Regan, furious, dangerous, scheming; later on in the week, the angry middle-aged wife in an Albee play, or, hat cocked to one side, the lead in SUMMER STOCK.

Nancy is not an “actress” in the banal sense, and she doesn’t suffer from multiple-personality disorder, but she does morph from song to song so that we hear her beauty, dramatic power, and precision from different angles.

So the tender welcome she offers us in GENTLE RAIN, “There’s a hand for your hand,” which just about made me stop typing so that I could reach out one or both of mine to the speaker, is no longer there on the second track, IF I TELL YOU I LOVE YOU — the rest of the title being “I’m lying.”  This singer is darker-voiced; she is sharpening her scimitar as she sings, each cadence matched to the blade getting more lethal.  She is, as a friend of mine once said, not someone you’d argue with over whose chicken wings those are in the refrigerator.  The darkness lifts a bit — or at least its sunset-shade changes — with a film noir BLACK COFFEE, a period piece whose lyrics might need a dusting.  (No wonder the singer is gloomy and jittery: nicotine, caffeine, and her “oven” don’t add up to a healthy diet.)

A forcefully rollicking MY SHINING HOUR is exultant (and expertly navigated), including Nancy’s scatted exchanges with the drums.  I played this track for a friend, without comment, and the reaction was “Who is that?  She’s got mega-chops,” which I second.  NIGHT IN TUNISIA is easily swinging, and Nancy’s reading is the first where the lyrics have seemed meaningful, and her handling of the instrumental interlude is equally satisfying.  IT’S YOU I LIKE — yes, Mister Rogers’ heartfelt paean to complete uncritical acceptance — begins as a rubato duet for voice and guitar.  Extremely touching, I assure you, and not just for children.  If there was such a thing as radio airplay anymore, this would be a hit, and not just because we need its message.

Nancy’s own LET LOVE BEGIN — a dark yet hopeful invitation to romance — follows, and both singer and song seem fully engaged in the honest appeal, without guile of subtext.  Guile is, however, what WHATEVER LOLA WANTS is all about: the love song of the praying mantis on the honeymoon, perhaps, if I have my insects correct here.  (I grew up with the score of DAMN YANKEES, so listening to LOLA for the first time, when it was over, I thought wistfully of hearing Nancy sing YOU’VE GOTTA HAVE HEART as a ballad.  I don’t know if it’s a good idea, but if anyone could do it, she can.)

Sting’s FRAGILE was new to me (I don’t always take up residence in the modern world) but Nancy’s reading of “How fragile we are” haunted me for days after my first listening.  HOT HOUSE begins with a light-hearted, almost girlish scat reading of the melodic line, which becomes a virtuoso wordless exploration, worthy of a fine bebop instrumentalist.  HONEYSUCKLE ROSE, initially scored for voice and walking bass, feels new — not ninety years old.  Hear Nancy essay “touch my cup” and shift the syllabic emphasis ever so slightly — to great effect.  What she does with “You’re confection, goodness knows!” is hilarious and expert.  And as a gentle embracing coda, there is a two-minute LA VIE EN ROSE: it begins as a duet for voice and bass, and then becomes a sing-along, with Nancy leading the room in the melodic line reduced to “la-la” syllables.  Rather than being a gimmick, it succeeds completely: we hear the room following her, obediently and with affection.  Magic!

Twelve songs, fifty minutes.  A singer you might not have heard of.  But I assure you, the experience of this CD is rather like the most subtle compelling one-woman show you could imagine.  Again, I urge you to visit here for samples: you will not be disappointed.

May your happiness increase!

BOTH “FINE” AND “DANDY”: PETRA VAN NUIS, JOHN DI MARTINO, NICKI PARROTT, HAL SMITH at the Cleveland Classic Jazz Party (September 17, 2017)

Photograph by Bill Klewitz

One of the many pleasures of the recent Cleveland Classic Jazz Party was the opportunity to hear the wonderful singer Petra van Nuis, someone who has been pleasing Chicago audiences for the past decade and more.  She can sing is the simplest way to put it.  Although she has a fine sense of humor — catch her introductions to songs in this set — it bubbles out of her rather than being a rehearsed routine.  She has her own sound and phrasing — conversational, occasionally surprising, but it always honors the lyrics and comes out of her deep respect for words as well as melodies.  She improvises but does not obliterate the composers’ intent, and I came away from this quietly glowing set feeling that I had heard the songs in emotionally satisfying ways.  This delicious interlude is the result of Petra’s sensibility: her nice mix of delicate yet intense feeling and buoyant swing.  I could delineate the pleasures of each chorus she sings, but I’d rather leave those sweet surprises to you as you watch and listen.

Petra’s instrumental colleagues have the same spirit: a sweet focused attentiveness that delights in small details without losing sight of the songs themselves.  Nicki and Hal are long-time friends, people I admire for many reasons: their generous spirits, their melodic inventiveness.  John Di Martino was new to me, and he’s a wonder: his beautiful touch, his wise harmonies, and his willingness to put himself in the service of the music: he is secure enough in his self to do just those things that make his colleagues shine so brightly.  It’s only after you get accustomed to his selfless creativity that you realize just how wonderful his playing is.

If it seems as if I admire this group and the music they make, that impression would be correct.  Here, “without further ado,” is a glorious Sunday-afternoon interlude.  And, as Hal said to me afterwards, “You could see a lot of smiles and laughs, and none of them were forced!”  I’m still grinning.

DAY IN, DAY OUT:

On MY OLD FLAME, hear how Petra delicately yet meaningfully offers the first two phrases — the mark of very great exposition of lyrics and melody:

MY HEART BELONGS TO DADDY has lent itself (in lesser hands) to caricature, but not here:

Let us honor Irving Berlin once again.  How beautiful I GOT LOST IN HIS ARMS is — its apparently plain melody allied to simple words, the whole being so moving when Petra explores it:

Both FINE AND DANDY here!  And blessings on the rhythm team for a fine 1944 Johnny Guarnieri groove to start:

I’M JUST A LUCKY SO-AND-SO:

After this set, we all felt just as fortunate.  And grateful.

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!

A PRIVATE RECITAL: DARYL SHERMAN’S BLUE HEAVEN

Daryl-at-piano-green-web

Singers who perform in public — as they must — have singular obstacles to face in performance.  Even though the ringing cash register is now a museum piece, there are so many extraneous sounds to surmount even when the audience is properly quiet and (imagine this!) everyone’s smartphone is shut off.  Dishes and glasses clink; the waitstaff murmurs details of the specials, offers a dessert menu, presents the bill.  The presumed answer to this is amplification, which can make a quiet sound audible at the back of the room, but in the process coarsens every nuance.

A CD session recorded in a studio has its own set of obstacles: the creative artist may be restricted to one small space, may be burdened with headphones and be banished into a booth . . . but we don’t see these travails, and the sound we hear through our speakers is a kinder representation of the human voice.

Hence, this delightful surprise (recorded by Malcolm Addey, so you can imagine the clear, accurate sound) in 2015:

My-Blue-Heaven-CD-cover-768x319

In case you can’t read the back cover, the songs are I Walk a Little Faster / Wouldn’t It Be Loverly / Feel Like Makin’ Love / Lets Go Live In a Lighthouse / Cycling Along With You / Inside a Silent Tear / My Blue Heaven / A O Zora / You Turned the Tables On Me / Fly Me To The Moon / You Wanna Bet / The Brooklyn Bridge / The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress.

And the Orchestra with Vocal Refrain is Daryl, piano and vocals, with Harvie S, string bass, on tracks 2 and 10.  It’s a delightfully old-fashioned CD: twelve tracks, fifty minutes, but no need to turn it over.

From the start, it’s a wonderful chance to hear Daryl — “her ownself” — as we might say in the Middle West a century ago.  She is of course her own splendid accompanist, and her two selves never get in each other’s way.  And I would direct some pianists who revere Tatum as their model to her spare, pointed accompaniment.

Her voice is the true delight here.  Daryl sounds so much like herself, and is I think instantly recognizable, although one may call to mind Mildred Bailey, Blossom Dearie, and Dave Frishberg as musical colleagues and inspirations.  I think she’s been undervalued because of what sounds (to the casual listener) like girlish charm, a high sweet voice with a conversational, sometimes wry delivery. But once the listener is into this CD for more than a chorus, the absence of other instrumentalists allows us to hear emotional depth beneath the apparent light-heartedness.  This isn’t to say that the disc veers towards the dark or maudlin, but there is a true adult sensibility that makes even the most familiar material shine as if beautifully polished and lit.  And even if you think you know how Daryl sings and plays, I submit that this CD is her masterpiece to date, sending us gentle immediacy of the most rare kind.

It’s a wonderful one-woman show, with nothing to excess, and a CD I’d like to send to many singers to show ’em how it can be done.

Matters of finance!  If you send Daryl an email here, and say the magic words, “I’d like to buy MY BLUE HEAVEN,” her staff will help you do just that.  You can also ask for an autographed copy.  For now, checks only: $20 plus $ for shipping.  You can also browse around her site to learn about upcoming gigs, to read her biography, see pictures, and more.  I’m amused and pleased that four of the five videos are mine.

 May your happiness increase!

NANCY ERICKSON’S “NEW YEAR’S EVE”: IN PRAISE OF DEVOTED MONOGAMY

Nancy Erickson

A friend told me about singer-songwriter Nancy Erickson’s new single, NEW YEAR’S EVE, and I’ve watched and listened to it half a dozen times.  Try it for yourself:

Doesn’t she sound beautiful?  Her focused, husky yet natural voice is a delight. And the song is hers, which is even nicer.  Nicest yet — for me, a true romantic — is that the song celebrates something more lasting than the first flush of what we often call love, something warming that goes on for decades.  Although much of the music of the last century-plus is about love, how much of it is about love that sustains itself?  I don’t hear this song as a gimmicky one to be tossed about between December 26 and 31, but as a real expression of feeling, something that can be hard to find these days.  Not glitter but substance.

You can subscribe to Nancy’s YouTube channel here, but you will learn more about her here.  And even here.

It takes a good deal to entrance me, but Nancy Erickson is well on her way.  I look forward to her new CD and more . . .

May your happiness increase!

“REJECTED TAKES,” DECEMBER 17, 1937

Teddy Wilson, 1937, New York, LIFE magazine

Teddy Wilson, 1937, New York, LIFE magazine

Most jazz aficionados, if asked what pianist / bandleader Teddy Wilson was doing in the recording studio in 1937, would reply that he was a member of the Benny Goodman Trio and Quartet — recording for Victor — and creating brilliant small-group sessions with Billie Holiday for Brunswick.  Some might check the discography and report that Teddy had also recorded, under John Hammond’s direction, with singers Helen Ward, Boots Castle, and Frances Hunt.

But few people know about one session, recorded on December 17, 1937, with an unusually rewarding personnel: Teddy; Hot Lips Page; Chu Berry; Pee Wee Russell; possibly Al Hall; Allan Reuss; Johnny Blowers.  The singer is the little-known Sally Gooding.  (All of this material has been released on Mosaic Records’ Chu Berry box set, and two sides appeared on a Columbia/Sony compilation devoted to Lips Page, JUMP FOR JOY, with nice notes by Dan Morgenstern.  My source is the French Masters of Jazz label, two Wilson CDs in their wonderful yet out-of-print series.)

Teddy Wilson And His Orchestra : Hot Lips Page (trumpet); Pee Wee Russell (clarinet); Chu Berry (tenor sax); Teddy Wilson (piano); Allen Reuss (guitar); possibly Al Hall (string bass); Johnny Blowers (drums); Sally Gooding (vocal on the first three sides only)
New York, December 17, 1937
B22192-2 MY FIRST IMPRESSION OF YOU
B22193-1 WITH A SMILE AND A SONG
B22193-2 WITH A SMILE AND A SONG
B22194-2 WHEN YOU’RE SMILING
B22195-2 I CAN’T BELIEVE THAT YOU’RE IN LOVE WITH ME

All of the instrumentalists on this session are well-known.  One can imagine Hammond selecting Chu from the Calloway band, Pee Wee and Blowers from Nick’s, Reuss from Goodman.  Lips and Al Hall were presumably free-lancing, although Lips may have been on the way to his own big band.

Sally Gooding is now obscure, although she was famous for a few years, making records with the Three Peppers and appearing at the 1939 World’s Fair. Here, thanks to www.vocalgroupharmony.com, you can see and hear more of Sally.  And this 1933 Vitaphone short allows us to see her with the Mills Blue Rhythm Band:

with-a-smile-and-a-song

WITH A SMILE AND A SONG (by Frank Churchill and Larry Morey) comes from SNOW WHITE AND THE SEVEN DWARFS, which had not even been released in theatres when this session was made:

with a smile and a song two

The singer whose voice you hear is Adriana Caselotti.  Nearly sixty years later, our own Rebecca Kilgore recorded the finest version of this song for an Arbors Records session led by Dan Barrett:

MOON SONG Becky Barrett

The obvious question for some readers is “Where’s Billie?” Although Miss Holiday recorded several sessions with Wilson in 1937, I presume she was on the road with Count Basie — which also explains the absence of Lester, Buck, Walter Page, Freddie Green, and Jo Jones.  Hammond and Billie didn’t always get along, and he was trying out other singers when he could.  Someone else has hypothesized that Billie would have been opposed to recording a song associated with SNOW WHITE, but this seems less plausible.  When she and Wilson reunited in the recording studio in 1938, they did IMPRESSION, SMILING, and BELIEVE, which may add credence to the theory.

Here are “the rejected takes” — each one mislabeled on YouTube:

MY FIRST IMPRESSION OF YOU (from another 1937 film, HAVING A WONDERFUL TIME, also known as HAVING WONDERFUL TIME, with Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. and Ginger Rogers — and Lucille Ball, Eve Arden, and Red Skelton, early on):

This version — for those who know Billie’s — is taken at a jaunty tempo, which makes the melodic contours seem to bounce.

All I can say is that both Chu and Lips Page leap in — not at high volume or extremely quickly — with swing and conviction.  (I love Lips’ flourish at the end of the bridge.)  Sally Gooding’s singing is not easy to love for those who know Billie’s version by heart, but she is — in a tart Jerry Kruger mode — doing well, with quiet distractions from Pee Wee and the bassist.  Wilson is energized and surprising, as is Pee Wee, and there is a moment of uncertainty when one might imagine Chu and Lips wondering whether they should join in, as they do, yet the record ends with a solid ensemble and a tag.

The first take of WITH A SMILE AND A SONG:

I love Chu’s introduction, and Teddy sounds typically luminous as the horns — almost inaudibly — hum harmonies behind him.  (When was the last time you heard a front line play so beautifully behind a piano solo?)  Then, Pee Wee at his most identifiable, lyrically sticking close to the bridge but with two of his familiar turns of phrase leading into a Lips Page interlude — sweetly restrained, as if modeling himself after Buck Clayton.  Sally Gooding, who may have seen the sheet music for the first time only a few minutes ago, sounds slightly off-pitch and seems to sing, “With a life and a song,” rather than the title.  But she gains confidence as she continues, and her bridge is positively impassioned (although her reading of the song is less optimistic than the lyrics).  No one should have to sing in front of a very on-form Pee Wee, whose obbligati are delightfully distracting.  When the band comes back for the closing sixteen bars, they are in third gear, ready to make the most of the seconds allotted them, although it is far from a triumphant ride-out (think of the closing seconds of WHAT A LITTLE MOONLIGHT CAN DO, in contrast). The rhythm section is quite restrained, but the bassist, Al Hall or not, adds a great deal.

The second take of WITH A SMILE AND A SONG has, alas, eluded me on YouTube (thus I cannot post it here).  It is similar in its outline to the first take, although everyone seems more comfortable with the song.  I wonder if Gooding had had real trouble avoiding her singing “life” on the first take, so each time she sings — correctly — “smile” on this version, there is the slightest hesitation, as if she wanted to make sure she wouldn’t make the mistake again.  You’ll have to imagine it.

WHEN YOU’RE SMILING:

The conception of how one could play this simple tune had changed since Louis’ majestic 1929 performance, and with four star soloists wanting to have some space within a 78 rpm record, the tempo is much quicker and the band much looser (hear Lips growl early on).  The ambiance is of a well-behaved Commodore session or three minutes on Fifty-Second Street, the three horns tumbling good-naturedly over one another.  In fact, the first chorus of this record — lasting forty-five seconds — would stand quite happily as the heated rideout chorus of another performance.   Behind Wilson, the rhythm section is enthusiastically supporting him, Blowers’ brushes and Hall’s bass fervent. When Chu enters, rolling along, he has a simple riff from the other two horns as enthusiastic assent and congregational agreement; his full chorus balances a behind-the-beat relaxation characteristic of Thirties Louis as well as his characteristic bubbling phrases.  Behind Pee Wee, the guitar is happily more prominent (did someone think of the lovely support Eddie Condon gave?) and Lips’ phrases at the end are — without overstatement — priceless.

I CAN’T BELIEVE THAT YOU’RE IN LOVE WITH ME:

Like SMILING, this 1930 song was already a classic. Wilson is sublimely confident, chiming and ascending, followed by a tender, perhaps tentative Lips (had Hammond asked him to play softly to emulate Buck?): the eight bar interludes by Chu and Lips that follow are small masterpieces of ornamented melody.  Wilson’s half-chorus has the rhythm section fully audible and propulsive beneath him.  Pee Wee, who had been inaudible to this point, emerges as sage, storyteller, and character actor, transforming the expected contours of the bridge into his own song, with hints of the opening phrase of GOOFUS, then Wilson returns.  (What a pity Milt Gabler didn’t record those two with bass and drums for Commodore.) Chu glides on, his rhythmic motion irresistible, then the guitarist (audibly and plausibly Reuss) takes a densely beautiful bridge before the too-short — twelve seconds? — rideout, where Blowers can be heard, guiding everyone home.

“Rejected” might mean a number of things when applied to these records.  Did Sally Gooding’s vocal error at the start of SONG convince Hammond or someone at  Brunswick (Bernie Hanighen?) that the session was not a success? Was Hammond so entranced by the combination of Billie and the Basie-ites that these records sounded drab by comparison?  Were there technical problems? I can’t say, and the participants have been gone for decades.  The single copies of these recordings are all that remain.  I am thankful they exist.  This band and this singer are musical blessings, music to be cherished, not discarded.

May your happiness increase!