Tag Archives: Johnny Mercer

GOLD IN THOSE GROOVES (Los Angeles, 1938)

Truman “Pinky” Tomlin, singer, composer, bandleader, film star

Everyone reading JAZZ LIVES could, with not much effort, compile a list of a dozen well-known and rewarding jazz recordings.  Your list might be entirely different, but I feel that we would recognize the names of most, if not all, of the entries. But what continues to delight me is the wonderful music to be found on recordings that don’t get any attention, those beneath the surface of the collective attention.

One such record is a recent purchase from eBay, and it’s repaid its original price (perhaps $2.99?) a dozen times over, even though its star, Oklahoma-born “Pinky” Tomlin, would not be at the top of many people’s lists.

The record isn’t listed in Tom Lord’s or Brian Rust’s discography, although the records Pinky made with (among others) Joe Sullivan and Joe Haymes are. Make of this what you will, but two sides made at the same session — SMILES and THE OLD OAKEN BUCKET — are listed (and thus certified as Official Jazz Records) although they are less memorable: I bought that disc also from eBay.

The orchestra is directed by Harry Sosnik, and features Pinky with Mannie Klein, trumpet; Andy Secrest, cornet; Abe Lincoln, trombone; Jack Mayhew, clarinet; Claude Kennedy, piano; Perry Botkin, guitar; Slim Jim Taft, string bass; Spike Jones, drums.  It was recorded in Los Angeles, April 23, 1938.

Those are illustrious names; some readers will notice that the band is close to the group that accompanied Mr. Crosby and Mr. Mercer on their version of the Gallagher-and-Shean vaudeville routine in July of that year: the evidence here. I suspect that more than a few worked in radio and were known as the best “studio” musicians on the West Coast.  The one unknown in this band, pianist Kennedy, I found out through reading Pinky’s autobiography, THE OBJECT OF MY AFFECTION (his best-known composition) was a friend and musical colleague of Pinky’s from Oklahoma.  (Just because you might be wondering, Truman Tomlin got his nickname early on because of his complexion.)

I wonder if this session was another of Jack Kapp’s crossover ideas, joining hot jazz, swing, and Western swing, to support Pinky, already well-known on radio and films.  Had Kapp noticed the success of Maxine Sullivan’s LOCH LOMOND, a swing version of a traditional song, or Ella Logan’s efforts (in all those cases, no composers to pay)?

But enough words.  Feast your ears (and, yes, there is authentic surface noise, because the original owner of this record played it often).

RED WING:

RED RIVER VALLEY:

These sides are fun, and that comes from their ease, the sweet balance between Pinky’s sincere Oklahoma voice, not trying to “get hot” except for the one upwards Bing-meets-Louis scat phrase on RED WING.  He’s telling us stories, and he’s completely earnest but never stiff.  Sosnik wasn’t always so swinging on other Deccas that bear his name, but the arranged passages are right on target, and it’s especially pleasant that the endings on both sides aren’t histrionic, but wind down gently.  Secrest plays beautifully, but it’s the band that charms me — its unsung heroes being Perry Botkin and Spike Jones, who certainly swung.

“It’s not in the discography, so it can’t be jazz.”  But it’s rewarding music.

I find myself charmed by Pinky: he seems guileless, someone who is being rather than acting.  Two more examples: one, from a 1937 film, where he, like Bing, seems to say to a viewer, “I’m on the screen, singing, and putting clothing into a trunk.  But you could do this, too.”:

Two decades later, Pinky faces Groucho, his essential sweetness intact:

A few words about THE OBJECT OF MY AFFECTION.  I read in Pinky’s autobiography how the song was a spur-of-the-moment creation that grew from the casual phrase that was its title.  But it has deep jazz credentials: Ella sang it early, and later in life, when she and Pinky were together at some public function, went out of her way to express her gratitude.

Three versions, each showing the song’s durability and emotional appeal.  First, Carl Switzer:

Helvetia, Connie, and Martha:

Garnet Clark, Bill Coleman (“from brown to rosy red”), June Cole, George Johnson, Django:

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.

HARMONY AND HIJINKS: DUCHESS, “LAUGHING AT LIFE”

duchess-portrait

DUCHESS: Amy Cervini, Hilary Gardner, Melissa Stylianou

The superb vocal harmony group DUCHESS has released their second CD, LAUGHING AT LIFE, and it’s a wonder.

duchess-laughing-at-life

Here’s a sample of their originality, energy, and fun: EVERYBODY LOVES MY BABY, at the Jazz Standard, accompanied by Michael Cabe, piano; Matt Aronoff, string bass; Jared Schonig, drums.

 

For those of you who, like me, didn’t catch every rapid-fire turn of the new “original” lyrics, here they are in slow-motion print:

How did the Bozzie’s do their rapid-fire scatting
When they yes-siggle-dirred when they double dogged their Latin
There were so many words just a flyin’ and a rat-n-tatting how?

Vet, Martha, Connie gave us all the Heebie Jeebies
Said Duchess ought to try it but you know it isn’t easy
So we gotta tip our hat to the Bozzie’s oh, they really dazzle, wow!

Harmony and hijinks are the currency we deal in
Though we love the Bozzie’s honey, no we ain’t a-stealin’
Got a style that’s all our own and we know it’s so appealing here and now!

There’s only one problem with that gloriously expert and exuberant video.  A casual viewer might assume, “Oh, that’s a Boswell Sisters cover band,” in the odd parlance of this century, drop this versatile trio into a convenient classification, and be completely wrong. Someone else might misread the group because of their “vintage” twentieth-century repertoire.

But DUCHESS is not a tour of the local museum of past greatness, and no one pretends to be anyone else.

The glory of this group is their quirky sweet transforming energy, which enables them to do so many things so beautifully and with such deep emotions. LAUGHING AT LIFE is a wonderful showcase for their swinging versatilities.

The CD’s delights begin early, with a modern-Basie version of SWING, BROTHER, SWING — where one can delight in the three piquant voices and their distinctive blend (as well as a solo by postmodern intergalactic rhythm ‘n’ blues tenorist Jeff Lederer).

Then they move into familiar (and possibly dangerous) territory . . . the 1930 SUNNY SIDE OF THE STREET, a song that I would guess no one has ever called “dangerous.”  But as a song, it has become over-familiar and thus open to formulaic run-throughs in the same way as PENNIES FROM HEAVEN.  But halfway through this track, after a pleasing rhythm-section interlude, something magical happens.  Whitney Balliett called a similar instrumental passage “slow-motion leapfrog,” and on this track, the three voices slide over one another, each singer starting a phrase in a different place, creating a kind of three-dimensional cathedral of sounds.

There’s the rubato voices-plus-Michael Cabe’s sensitive piano reading of the verse of LAUGHING AT LIFE.  Then, Amy Cervini’s quite definite reading of GIVE HIM THE OO LA LA, with a fine solo from guitarist Jesse Lewis, a wooing WHERE WOULD YOU BE WITHOUT ME? featuring Melissa Stylianou, and a down-home frolic by Hilary Gardner on HALLELUJAH, I LOVE HIM SO!

The tender ache of EV’RY TIME WE SAY GOOD-BYE is followed by the hilarity of STRIP POLKA (thank you, Mister Mercer!).  And the bonus track, DAWN, a song known to only a few, is immensely touching — its author is someone we honor for other reasons.

Buy the CD and find out all.  I didn’t linger over every track for its delights: you can find the little bowers of bliss for yourself.

DUCHESS fans already know this, but it bears repeating: each of the three singers is a very distinctive soloist, but their blending is impeccable: their intonation and diction are splendid.  The clever and witty arrangements are complex, but only truly attentive listeners will understand just how beautifully layered they are — a key change here, an almost unnoticed shift from a lead voice with support to a unison ensemble, and more.  Incidentally, there are guest appearances by clarinetist Anat Cohen and trombonist / vocalist Wycliffe Gordon to add to the mix.

Learn all the secrets here, and follow Duchess on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook if you while away the hours in such revelries.  But most important, here you can purchase / download the CD through Bandcamp. Amazon, or iTunes.  You’ll find it extremely rewarding.

May your happiness increase!

 

THE REAL SWING: “TOO HOT FOR SOCKS,” by the JONATHAN DOYLE SWINGTET

Young Mister Doyle and his noble colleagues are the real item, as I celebrated a few days ago here.  And Jon has just issued a new CD, TOO HOT FOR SOCKS, a beauty from first to last.

DOYLE Too Hot

Some enlightened souls who have enjoyed the live videos they saw in that earlier blogpost will want to purchase the CD right away: that can be done here.  The more cautious can also visit this page to listen to samples from the CD.)

But TOO HOT FOR SOCKS can be what a dear friend of mine calls “a life-changing experience,” which is not all hyperbolic.

I have many gifted young musical friends born after Benny Goodman died (that would be 1986).  So they have grown up with recordings, Spotify, iTunes, YouTube — and often with third-generation evocations of the original mystical arts.  I write this not to diminish their efforts or to mock them. But often their connection to the original impetus and spiritual energy that is swing is mediated through famous recordings, which they copy for appreciative audiences.  Now, I’ve made enemies by preferring improvisation over recreation, so let me be clear: if I lived next door to a pianist who could play Teddy Wilson’s LIZA note-for-note, I would ask her to do it often.  The same is true for a quartet of brilliant neighbors who could “do” The Delta Four.

But I’m awed and delighted by musicians and groups who completely understand the intense easy glide of the great recordings and can write and play their own distinctive variations on the forms.  Such a group is or are the Jonathan Doyle Swingtet.

The personnel is David Jellema, cornet; Jonathan Doyle, tenor saxophone; Mark Gonzales, trombone; J.D. Pendley, amplified guitar; Brooks Prumo, rhythm guitar; Ryan Gould, string bass; Jason Baczynski, drums. The disc was produced by Jonathan Doyle and Laura Glaess.  Jonathan wrote all the songs except KEEPIN’ TIME and GOOD NEWS, BAD NEWS, which are Laura Glaess compositions, and COMFORT ZONE, which is by Mark Gonzales. The disc is very recent — recorded on March 24, 2016 in Austin, Texas.  The very evocative cover art is by Amado Pena III.

All the songs are “originals,” but even I, who shrink from a CD completely made up of the leader’s compositions, am thoroughly comfortable with these songs. For Jon’s secret is that many of them are “contrafacts,” new melody lines built over familiar harmonies.  Think of MOTEN SWING (YOU’RE DRIVING ME CRAZY), the six thousand lines built over I GOT RHYTHM, and almost all of the repertoire of the Goodman Sextet.  If it was good enough for Charlie Christian, it should be good enough for us.  Sometimes the harmonies are immediately recognizable — rather like seeing your favorite actress in deep makeup and knowing who’s under there — and sometimes not.  I had to ask Jon about the title tune, which was driving me crazy — not in a Walter Donaldson way — and he generously unlocked the door by telling me it was built on JAPANESE SANDMAN.  I found myself so happily distracted and cheered by the ensemble’s new lines that I often didn’t recognize the familiar harmonic underpinnings, which is tribute to the compositions and the authentic warm way they are played.

I so admire this group’s sound. The ensemble voicings, whether unison lines or harmonized figures, are always pleasing. Some “modern / swing” groups are made up of musicians eager to get to the solos, so that there’s one chorus of ensemble, and then a long period of time — often thrilling — when each soloist plays, backed by the rhythm section and now and again some impromptu accompaniment from the other horns.

The Swingtet is in its own way old-fashioned: they understand how lovely an ensemble can sound.  (And I don’t mean “jam session” ensembles, but more often written lines that build energetic momentum — although the middle “layered” part of PRINCE HARLES happily fits the description.)  So the Swingtet pleases my ears: the opening of the title track, YOU CAN’T TAKE THOSE KISSES WITH YOU (what would Johnny Mercer have made of that?) is the simplest possible combination of single-note hits, arpeggiated chords, and other streamlined delights.  Yet it sounds magical, as if it were a Basie piano chorus scored for band.

The mention of Basie (to quote Jake Hanna, “You get too far from Basie and you’re just kidding yourself”) brings up two other notions.  One, there’s no piano on this disc.  That isn’t a problem, because the Swingtet exists in that sphere where the electric guitar has taken the piano’s place — it happens every Sunday night with the beloved EarRegulars in New York City — and the space is more than filled by a reassuringly swinging four-piece rhythm section, ticking away warmly rather than mechanically.  But the overall ambiance — think of Keynote Records sessions in 1944-46 or Basie small groups — is a wonderful balance between four individualistic soloists, each with a beautifully recognizable sound, and a lovely rhythm section.  Hear the glide this band creates within the first minute of KEEPIN’ TIME.

Did I mention dynamics, shadings, split choruses, background hums behind soloists, eloquent eight-bar passages, propulsive riffs, the wise use of mutes for the brass, wire brushes, acoustic string bass, open-and-closed hi-hat, and variety? You’ll hear all those and more.

Most of the fifteen compositions are medium and medium-uptempo, as you’d expect from a swing group that plays for dancers, and the Swingtet makes the most out of the subtle variations of that tempo range that the Ancestors did.  But several exceptions show that the band is much more than an instrumental unit producing originals with the right number of beats per minute.  A few of the songs appear to be simple riff-based creations, but each one has a surprise within.  Some of them take left and right turns, and I found myself saying, “Wait a minute.  That’s a new theme.”  At first, JUST A LITTLE RIGHT has the dreamy warming-up sweetness of a band in the studio, experimenting without knowing that the engineer has started to record (think of WAITIN’ FOR BENNY).

Perhaps my favorite piece (at this writing) is also the most distinctive — IF THE RIVER OVERFLOWS — a minor-key lament that still swings, beginning with a sideways nod to some Russians on the river.  Just when you think you’ve understood what will come next, the harmonies twist and turn.  I imagine Frank Newton smiling on this music.  And if I tried to describe STRANGE MACHINATIONS, I would need another page, but it’s as satisfying as a wonderfully-seasoned dish of homemade ethnic cooking.  As Stan Zenkoff pointed out to me, it has some relation to QUEER NOTIONS.  Thank you, Stan!

Although the Swingtet could wow an audience on Fifty-Second Street, they aren’t copying the classic recordings.  No one quotes anything, and what a blissful space that creates!  They aren’t a shirt-pocket full of repeater pencils. Rather, they sound like people who have so thoroughly internalized the great swing individualists that they can be themselves within — and beyond — the tradition.

I’ll stop here, but if my words have done their job, you will be listening to TOO HOT FOR SOCKS here — and buying a copy or copies.  I think this CD is a small but fiercely effective panacea for many modern ills.  (And, lest you think that this long blogpost is because of some odd secret indebtedness I have to Jon, the reverse is the truth: I’ve been bothering him for months now, “When will I get to listen to the new CD?”  And now, gleefully, it’s here.)

Thanks go to Hal Smith — who knows all one would want about swing — for telling me about Jon Doyle as far back as late 2011 (I checked my emails and it’s true) . . . thanks and blessings to the wondrous people who made the music on this disc and made the disc a reality.  And here is Jon’s website, where you can purchase his other musical efforts.

May your happiness increase!

PLENTY RHYTHM! ERIN MORRIS, JAMES DAPOGNY, CHRISTOPHER SMITH, ALEX BELHAJ, ROD McDONALD, BONNIE SMITH, CHRIS TABACZYNSKI, LAURA WYMAN: YPSILANTI, MICHIGAN (June 2016)

No, I didn’t hear any shouts in the night, “The British are coming!” (Or, for that matter, “The British are going!”)

paul-revere-statue

But if Paul Revere had been well and truly hip, he might have shouted, “Hot jazz in Ypsilanti!  Thursday nights!  Cultivate!” and that would have gotten me out of bed for sure.

Here are three truly entrancing performances recorded on June 16 and 23, 2016, by Laura Wyman of Wyman Video — yes, she deserves her own place in the personnel roster).  The leader of this morphing band of creators is Erin Morris, tuba.  Yes, I know you know Erin as a unique dancer and choreographer, but she is also a wonderful low-brass player, able to entrance us when she’s just sitting still.

I’VE GOT THE WORLD ON A STRING with Erin; James Dapogny, keyboard (“He makes that new piano sound exactly like old,” to paraphrase Johnny Mercer); Rod McDonald, guitar; Chris Tabaczynski, C-melody saxophone. Where?  Cultivate Coffee & Tap House, Ypsilanti, Michigan:

That’s the very definition of Mellow to me, what I think of as the music the great artists make for themselves when the lights aren’t shining in their faces.  Not morose nor a let’s-show-the-people-this-is-jazz romp, but pretty and moving.  And Erin plays the tuba with gentleness; at times in the ensemble it sounds like a sweet bass saxophone heard from far away.  And Chris Tabaczynski is my new Youngblood Hero.  Dapogny and McDonald have been Heroes of mine for years.

Now, let’s add a little Americana to the mix, as Bonnie Smith sings CARELESS LOVE in an unaffected, heartfelt way, with her father, Christopher, on trombone; Alex Belhaj, guitar; Erin and Jim:

Finally, what my dear friend Mike Burgevin used to call a “Bingie” — one of those songs that we hear through a sacred veil of Crosby — WRAP YOUR TROUBLES IN DREAMS, performed by Christopher, Alex, Jim, and Erin:

All I can say about this scene is that it does my heart good to know that a small group of secular saints is bringing lyricism into the world.  Cultivate Joy.  And for my part, I’ve got my plane ticket to Ann Arbor.

May your happiness increase!

“MY HEART IS RIDING ON YOUR WINGS”: NICKI PARROTT, MENNO DAAMS, PAOLO ALDERIGHI (Westoverledingen, Germany, April 9, 2016)

JAZZ IM RATHAUS April 2016 Photograph by Elke Grunwald

JAZZ IM RATHAUS April 2016 Photograph by Elke Grunwald

People who don’t make music professionally have, I think, only a small awareness of how much work — beyond “the ten thousand hours of practice” it takes to make a beautiful melody come alive.  Beauty is rarely, if ever, casually tossed off by someone who has no experience in the hard work of creativity.  In the performance that follows, deep but gentle subtleties of light and dark caress our sensibilities.  Memorably.

This trio interlude was created by three masters of loveliness: Nicki Parrott, vocal and string bass; Menno Daams, cornet; Paolo Alderighi, piano.  Of course their text is the gorgeous creation of Hoagy Carmichael and Johnny Mercer, SKYLARK.  And standing behind them in the shadows is Bix Beiderbecke, for Hoagy originally called this song BIX LICKS.

This marvel took place at a concert in Germany on April 9, 2016 — the gift to us of the very gracious and indefatigable Manfred Selchow, who has been doing this for thirty years.  Details of Mannie’s most recent offering here.

And the music itself.

I encourage listeners and viewers to visit this performance several times: for Nicki’s beautiful singing, her stalwart but never obtrusive bass playing, for Menno’s nighttime traceries, and for Paolo’s loving support.  He is the fellow one might not notice on the first viewing, but it takes a lifetime of listening and study and practice to be so generous, so right, in such quietly heartfelt orchestral playing.

May your happiness increase!

DUCHESS IS TWO (AND WE ARE GLAD)

Happy Birthday, Duchess! That's Amy, Hilary, and Melissa.

Happy Birthday, Duchess! That’s Amy, Hilary, and Melissa.

DUCHESS is two.  If you know them, that is cause for celebration: they are a witty, swinging, tender, hilarious vocal trio: Amy Cervini, Hilary Gardner, Melissa Stylianou.  Their repertoire is inspired by the Sisters Boswell and Andrews, but they are far from a repertory company of old-records-brought-to-life, and they have singular energy and snap.  If DUCHESS is new to you, prepare to be cheered and elated.

At their October 16 concert at the Rubin Museum of Art in New York City (a most congenial place to wander in as well as a comfortable venue for music) they were supported by Jeff Lederer, reeds; Michael Cabe, piano; Elias Bailey, string bass;  Jesse Lewis, guitar.  The show was billed as DUCHESS UNPLUGGED, so (with regrets) they left their percussionist at home and performed with very little electrical or electronic assistance.  I was thrilled to be invited to the Rubin concert and brought back for the JAZZ LIVES audience four new videos of DUCHESS doing what they do best — enthusiastic, expert harmony and solo singing, beautifully and warmly accomplished.

Remembering the Rhythm Boys, Bix and  Bing, THERE AIN’T NO SWEET MAN (THAT’S WORTH THE SALT OF MY TEARS):

For those three Greek women who went before, THREE LITTLE SISTERS:

And those harmony masters from New Orleans, EVERYBODY LOVES MY BABY:

Finally, by special request (mine) the very tender P.S., I LOVE YOU:

And since you’ll now want to learn more about DUCHESS, follow them to other gigs, and buy their wonderful CD, some cyber-data.

Here is their YouTube channel; here is their website; here is their Facebook page; here is my enthusiastic review of their debut CD.

Two other thoughts.  I am always moderately proud of my videos as one kind of representation of an experience, but DUCHESS is a more vivid experience than even the best cameras could capture.  They do that rare thing — sometimes lost in this century — of providing inventive music while entertaining us.  And I don’t think “entertainment” is a negative word.  So you could take someone to hear DUCHESS even if that person steadfastly says, “I don’t like jazz.  I don’t understand it,” and there would be a sweet (subversive) conversion experience before the night was through.  If this sounds like a not-terribly subtle encouragement to see DUCHESS live, it is.  We wish them many more birthdays.

May your happiness increase!