I’ve been thinking about the saxophonist Chuck Wilson, who left us on October 16 (my post about him is here). Chuck came from a tradition where the saxophone made beautiful melodic sounds and blended with other reeds — he was a consummate section leader. It’s a tradition sometimes overlooked today, where it occasionally feels that everyone wants to be a soloist, at length.
But the tradition has been splendidly recalled and embodied by our friend, the brilliantly imaginative multi-instrumentalist, Michael McQuaid in his recent musical gift to us: four musical cameos inspired by the Merle Johnston Saxophone Quartet of 1929-30. The arrangements by Michael — lovely translucencies, swinging and tender — were recorded “with minimal rehearsal” (I emphasize this to hail the professionalism of the players) in the UK on July 27, 2018.
I think of these performances as modern reworkings of classical string quartets, but with a particular harmonic delicacy applied to popular songs of the day, with hot solos implied, delightful counterpoint, and a compositional sense: each arrangement and performance has a wonderful logical shape, a light-hearted emotional resonance. Each performance rewards repeated listening. (I cannot play MY SIN just once.)
The remarkable players are Michael McQuaid (first alto); David Horniblow (second alto); Simon Marsh (tenor); Tom Law (baritone).
IT WAS ONLY A SUN SHOWER, which I associate with Annette Hanshaw, Barbara Rosene, and Tamar Korn:
OUT OF THE DAWN, by Walter Donaldson, from 1928, recorded by the Dorsey Brothers Orchestra:
WASHBOARD BLUES, whose arrangement is inspired by the 1926 recording by Hitch’s Happy Harmonists, with composer Hoagy Carmichael at the piano:
MY SIN, by DeSylva, Brown, and Henderson, also associated with Annette Hanshaw:
I wasn’t the only one astonished by the arrangements and the playing, and I wrote to Michael to ask, “When’s the CD coming out? When’s the concert tour?” No one else is making music like this anywhere.
Michael responded on Facebook:
Once again, this video features great playing from some of London’s best saxophone players. Their musicality is all the more remarkable when one considers this is closer to sight-reading than a fully-rehearsed ensemble.
A few of you have asked whether I’m going to release these recordings. Well, yes – they’re on YouTube anytime you want! But properly producing a full album of this material would require significant rehearsal followed by hours in the studio, and hence probably a wealthy philanthropic benefactor (please message me if that might be you!).
In the meantime, I’ll keep writing saxophone quartet arrangements until I have a whole concert’s/album’s worth. It’s been great reading your positive words on these videos, and I’m glad if I’ve been able to draw attention to the Merle Johnston Saxophone Quartet and their beautiful 1929 records. Our musical heritage is filled with many such neglected treasures, ready to leap into the present (and the future) with only a little of our time and attention.
Since some readers might not have heard the originals, here (courtesy of generous Enrico Borsetti) is the Merle Johnston Saxophone Quartet playing BABY, OH WHERE CAN YOU BE?:
I haven’t found out much about Merle, except that he played clarinet, alto, and tenor, was born in upstate New York, and lived from 1897 to 1978, and was a renowned saxophone teacher. Michael told me that Merle’s students included Larry Teal and Joe Allard (each became a highly influential saxophone teacher in his own right), as well as famous players such as Buddy Collette and Frank Morgan. His legacy is probably more lasting as a teacher than as a player or bandleader!
Merle’s recording career — according to Tom Lord — ran from 1923 to 1930, with Sam Lanin (alongside Red Nichols), Isham Jones, Seger Ellis, the Ipana Troubadours, Jack Miller, a young fellow named Crosby. He was friends with Leo McConville, and he led his own band called the Ceco Couriers, which alludes to a radio program supported by a product: in this case, CeCo radio tubes, advertised in the October 1928 POPULAR SCIENCE (the tubes “cost no more but last longer”).
Did Merle leave the New York City studio scene after the stock market crash for the security of a teaching career? Can it be that no one interviewed him or one of his pupils? Incidentally, when I do online research on someone obscure and find that one of the resources is this — a JAZZ LIVES post I wrote in 2011 — I am both amused and dismayed.
“Research!” to quote Lennie Kunstadt. Calling David Fletcher!
And here’s another gorgeous quartet record, this one of DO SOMETHING:
I post the two Merle Johnston “originals” not to show their superiority to the modern evocations, but to celebrate Michael’s arranging and the playing of the Quartet: to my ears, fully the equal of the antecedents.
Listen once again, and be delighted. I am sure that Chuck is pleased by these sounds also.
May your happiness increase!