Tag Archives: Michael Carr

IMPROVISATION FOR TWO, PLEASE, JAMES

This melancholy 1935 song is rarely performed, perhaps because it’s difficult to sing the lyrics with a straight face, but the melody has its own morose charm.  (I know that both Al Bowlly and Nat Cole did their best — as did Putney Dandridge and, in our time, Marty Grosz — but the song has some of the melodramatic flavor of a late-eighteenth-century novel.)

The singer — butler to a wealthy man for a half-century (the verse) and the aristocrat himself (the chorus) are people seemingly untouched by the Depression.  And the lyrics tell of “Master’s tragedy,” a marriage broken apart by a vile lie.  The verse, as always, tells the story:

James has been butler to Mister B. for fifty years,

Come August three.  

And he still remembers the night

Of his master’s tragedy.

Master’s best friend was a Mister J.,

James didn’t like him from the first day,

He knew his type

And the game they play.

That night James laid dinner as usual for two

And the air felt heavy as lead,

The master came down, there were tears in his eyes,

And he tried hard to smile as he said:

CHORUS:

Dinner for one, please James,

Madam will not be dining,

Yes, you may bring the wine in,

Love plays such funny games.

Dinner for one, please James,

Close madam’s room, we’ve parted,

Please don’t look so downhearted,

Love plays such funny games.

Seems mybest friend told her of another,

I had no chance to deny,

You know there has never been another,

Some day she’ll find out the lie.

Maybe she’s not to blame,

Leave me with silent hours,

No, don’t move her fav’rite flowers,

Dinner for one, please James.

Love plays such funny games, but great jazz improvisers create much more.  Here are trombonist Mike Pittsley and pianist John Sheridan, swing alchemists, making something timeless of Michael Carr’s melody:

What a beautiful performance! — subtle but never coy, honoring the melody but not entombed in it.  “Tonation and phrasing,” indeed — in the way that Sheridan keeps the rhythm moving while creating beautiful translucent harmonies, making a clear path for Pittsley to sing out the melody and his variations on the theme.

I had the opportunity to visit with John Sheridan at Chautauqua (a great pleasure) and I look forward to meeting Mike Pittsley for the first time at San Diego . . . they are, separately and together, masters of quietly affecting melodic embellishment.

May your happiness increase.