Bill Evans Trio, How My Heart Sings!

Album of the Week, January 28, 2023

Producer Orrin Keepnews said in the liner notes to Bill Evans’ How My Heart Sings, “This project was the first time I had set out to record two albums by the same group at the same time,” referring to the album of ballads that came from these same sessions, Moon Beams. The theory behind this album was a set of more up-tempo songs to accompany the unusual all-ballads format of the accompanying recording. As Evans himself noted, “the selections presented here are primarily of the ‘moving’ kind, though there is in the trio’s approach to all material the desire to present a singing sound.”

Whatever you call it, this second recording from the May 1962 sessions, not issued until January 1964, is unusually buoyant. But it’s not extroverted; it rings with a quieter joy. You can hear it from the beginning, where Evans opens Earl Zindars’ “How My Heart Sings” with a gentle swing that leans against the syncopation of Chuck Israels’ bass. Drummer Paul Motian is a little more present here than on Moon Beams, underscoring the shift from 3/4 to 4/4 in the second chorus, but he still stays mostly in the background, setting the stage for the dialog between Evans and Israels.

I Should Care” leans into the rhythm harder, with Motian swinging against Evans through several choruses before falling back behind Israels’ solo. Here the bassist underscores Evans’ point about really singing the line, as the solo is lyrical and all melody. Evans plays with the beat throughout this one, shifting emphasis to the second and fourth beats, especially in the last chorus.

We’ve heard Dave Brubeck’s great standard “In Your Own Sweet Waybefore, but here Evans puts his own stamp on the tune, taking it faster and playing with the beat in the bridge, then briefly departing from the gentle swing of the original into a racing second melody, as though bursting into a second song in the middle of a first. Chuck Israels’ solo takes the melody down into the bass depths and fragments it further; when Evans steps alongside him he tosses the fragments back and forth with the bassist as they go.

Walking Up” is an Evans original, with more than a little of the feel of John Coltrane’s “Countdown,” from Giant Steps. But when he turns the corner (or maybe reaches the landing?) we’re suddenly in a different environment. Perhaps we’ve walked to the top of a bridge and that’s a ray of sun peeking through the fog? At any rate, we’re playing with meter again, moving from straight four into a syncopated off-beat, and it’s fascinating.

If you’re going to play “Summertime” and make it your own, you’d better have some good ideas to share. The version on this record, again, shares some DNA with a Coltrane recording, in this case the version of the great Gershwin tune on My Favorite Things. Both recordings feature a rhythmic motif around the modal suspension underpinning the verse, but where Trane’s version has the beat in McCoy Tyner’s piano, here it’s given to Chuck Israels, who opens the track with the motif and never puts it down. Evans’ version swings more than Trane’s, due in large part to Motian’s skillful fills. This is probably the one track where Motian steps out of the background and you can really hear all of the things he’s got bubbling away under the others.

34 Skidoo” is the second of three Evans originals on the album, and the jauntiest by far. Sliding in and out of different meters, Evans and Israels take turns syncopating the tune and perform some incredible handoffs between their turns at the wheel. The momentum continues through Cole Porter’s “Ev’rything I Love”; the tune leans closer toward ballad status than most of the numbers in this set, but when Evans comes out of the first chorus he takes lyrical flight.

Show-Type Tune” brings us out with another Evans composition. A wistful opening on the piano is followed by a metaphorical “squaring of the shoulders” and a more forthright, lyrical verse. The most extroverted performance on the album, the track features Evans pulling out trick after trick in his solo, shifting chromatic scales at the end, and seemingly taking flight at the end. It is a heck of a closing number from such a deeply introverted performer.

The two albums recorded during the May 1962 sessions re-established Evans as a force to be reckoned with, and put a capstone on his time with Orrin Keepnews’ Riverside Records. The following year saw him move to Verve and producer Creed Taylor, where he would make some deeply original recordings — as well as a fair amount of dreck. We’ll hear some of the more original and less drecky work next time.

You can listen to the album here:

The Bill Evans Trio, Moon Beams

Album of the Week, January 21, 2023

Jazz musicians are often inspired by playing with particular colleagues. Arguably neither Dave Brubeck nor Paul Desmond ever excelled individually the records that they made together. And Miles’ great quintets were defined by the partnership the trumpeter made with saxophonists John Coltrane, then Wayne Shorter. But Bill Evans was inspired by his bassists—first and most famously Scott LaFaro, then following his death with Chuck Israels. It is that collaboration that brings this, the first proper record of the new trio with Israels and drummer Paul Motian, to life.

Evans and his trio entered the Sound Makers Studio in New York on Thursday, May 17, 1962, three days after his second and final session with Jim Hall for Undercurrent was recorded in the same studio. They cut four tunes that day, of which “If You Could See Me Now” appeared on this record. They returned on May 29, June 2, and June 5. The bulk of today’s record was recorded in the June 2 session, along with the more balladic material recorded across the other three dates.

Re: Person I Knew” is an opening statement that is shrouded in modal mystery. Displaying several Evans hallmarks off the bat, including the out of time entrance, the yearning of the modal pivot between the G minor and D minor, and even the cryptic title (an anagram of the name of the producer who had spurred him to reform his trio, Riverside Records founder Orrin Keepnews). And then there’s the playing of the trio. After the solo statement in the first eight bars by Evans, Israels makes his presence known with a bass line that keeps time while sketching out the space around the open fifth and octaves. Motian’s understated but complex drum fills keep the whole thing moving forward as Evans and Israels breathe, listen to each other, make statements. It’s a powerful performance.

Polka Dots and Moonbeams,” which lends the album its title, returns to a more normal and less modal tonality, but Evans and Israels continue their duet. Following the first statement of the chorus, Israels begins a complex countermelody that underpins the entire remainder of the song. The conclusion has him bring the tune to an unusually irresolute finish, descending to a relative minor.

I Fall In Love Too Easily,” the great dark Sammy Cahn/Jule Styne ballad, here drives headlong into the darkness and comes out blinking into the light of a major key. The transition is so gradual that you hardly notice it’s happened until the end, where the pianist underscores the major with a few bars that seem almost like a dance before resolving to the final major chord.

Stairway to the Stars” is lights down, swaying to the music after midnight, with only Motian’s insistent drum pattern nudging things on away from slumber. Thus roused, Evans plays a rhapsodic variation on the theme over a high obligato in Israels’ bass. The coda, which returns to the feeling of out of time, brings the first side to a close.

Tadd Dameron’s “If You Could See Me Now” opens the second side, with Evans treating the tune as a more straightforward ballad for the initial chorus, then gently swinging into a syncopated restatement of the theme. The interplay between Israels and Evans here is striking and almost telepathic, with the pianist taking a breath as the bassist enters with a chord change or plays the first note of the next verse.

It Might As Well Be Spring” begins as a yearning statement then seems to take flight, as Evans brings the melody through two choruses and then into a third that almost seems like it’s in double time. Throughout Israels maintains a sort of running commentary that turns outright sly at the end, where after the final chord he seems as though he is playing the beginning of “The Christmas Song” (“Chestnuts roasting on an open fire”) before continuing the downward run one more note.

Jerome Kern’s “In Love In Vain” carries the melancholy burden of being from the last show he worked on before his 1946 death, the musical film Centennial Summer, which also featured “Up with the Lark,” another perennial Evans favorite. Again the dialog between Israels and Evans borders on the telepathic, with the heroic final chorus in particular a stunning example of their collaboration.

The last track, “Very Early,” is the second Evans original on the album, and one that was destined to appear in his setlists for the rest of his life. The tune is in playful Evans mode, as it circles the tone center while keeping things major throughout. Israels’ solo is worth a second listen, as he does some harmonic things that lend an unexpected depth to the musical structure while keeping up a dancing rhythm throughout.

Where some of Evans’ earlier work could be so delicate as to seem tentative, there is joy that rings from these sessions, a feeling of surety and confidence. The album seems to announce that Evans is back, and better than ever; the partnership with Israels was off to a good start.

One interesting side note: another memorable album cover here, with a beautiful model in a provocatively romantic pose. The model is none other than Nico, some five years before her Andy Warhol inspired turn as chanteuse on the Velvet Underground’s debut. Like Evans, there’s more than a hint of sadness behind her smile here.

You can listen to the album here:

Bill Evans and Jim Hall, Undercurrent

Album of the Week, January 14, 2023

In April 1962, Bill Evans was still digging out from under the emotional burden of Scott LaFaro’s death, but at least he was recording. After Orrin Keepnews persuaded him to return to the studio with Herbie Mann in late 1961, he was intermittently in and out of the studio in various contexts — a brief session with the new trio that wouldn’t see the light of day until 2007, a recording with Todd Dameron’s orchestra, a solo session. And on April 24, he entered the Sound Makers Studio in New York City to record with a new collaborator, guitarist Jim Hall.

Hall had built a reputation in the late 1950s in the Jimmy Giuffre Trio, and went on to collaborate with a number of musicians in the following years, including Dave Brubeck’s long-time collaborator Paul Desmond, and Sonny Rollins (that’s Hall on Rollins’ The Bridge). Along the way he had appeared opposite Evans when the latter was in Tony Scott’s quartet, and with the Giuffre Trio opposite Evans in Miles’ band in a run of dates at Café Bohemia in 1958. (Hall recalls, “Miles would tease that our silly little trio would get more applause than his group.”)

The two men got together to toss around some ideas in Evans’ New York apartment, and then headed into the studio, recording the album on April 24 and May 14, bracketing the final recording session for Nirvana with Herbie Mann and the Evans trio. What happened in the studio is an example of jazz alchemy. The two players throughout listen to each other intently, trading melodic ideas and completing each others’ harmonic sentences.

The version of “My Funny Valentine” that opens the album shows off the duo’s musical imagination. Far removed from the meditative flavor of Miles’ various interpretations of the tune, the two take the tune at a breakneck speed that shows off the interplay between the two. In the first chorus, Evans takes the lead, but Hall’s accompaniment anticipates the chord changes up the scale, practically pulling Evans up after him! After the first chorus, things start to breathe a little more, with both Evans and Hall leaving rests in their solos between ideas, as though punctuating a conversation.

The second track, “I Hear a Rhapsody,” likewise flips around the convention established by John Coltrane and others who had covered this unlikely jazz standard. Where Coltrane’s recording takes a brisk pace, Hall and Evans meditate on the tune, with Hall’s guitar setting the pace via an out of tempo introduction that settles into a 60bpm reverie. Again, Evans and Hall exchange ideas in a way that seems psychic.

Dream Gypsy” continues the trance, this time in a waltz. There is more than a hint of “Blue in Green” in the introduction, but rather than heading into modal bliss, this first performance of the lovely Judith Veevers tune settles into a dark mode with flavors of Spanish guitar.

The opening of the second side, Jim Hall’s “Romain” sounds as though it should be “Ev’ry Time We Say Goodbye” before it turns a corner, and changes key. There’s still a tinge of the Cole Porter number in the song, but the melody circles around G minor, as though reluctant to leave, before returning to C major, not quite performing the “major to minor” transition from the earlier song. It’s bewitching, and the duo keeps the tempo moving so that the end effect is bluesy rather than lugubrious.

John Lewis’ “Skating in Central Park” likewise has a touch of the familiar about it, but the genial waltz sweeps you along too ingratiatingly to worry about where you might have heard a bit of it before, circling the proverbial pond until it reaches a final climactic chord.

Darn That Dream” continues in much the same key as “Central Park,” but freely, with a short introduction by Evans yielding to an unaccompanied solo by Hall. The performance has the feel of the best of Bill Evans, that quiet moment where the chords give way into a moment of transfiguration. He was to find that transcendent quality in the next recording project he did, which would see him return to the studio with his new trio; we’ll hear from them next week.

A note on the cover: that’s a photograph from a 1947 Harper’s Bazaar shoot by fashion photographer Toni Frissell at Weeki Wachee Springs in Florida. The tourist attraction, known for its live “mermaids,” is still in operation today.

You can listen to the album here:

Herbie Mann and the Bill Evans Trio, Nirvana

Album of the Week, January 7, 2023

Bill Evans—whom we last saw providing compositions and historic accompaniment for Miles on Kind of Blue—was putting things back together. On June 25, 1961, he and his trio—Paul Motian on drums and Scott LaFaro on bass—performed a legendary set at the Village Vanguard club in New York City, from which the famed albums Live at the Village Vanguard and Waltz for Debby were drawn. The trio was making a name for Evans’ innovative, dreamy compositions and for the unusual equality of voice among the three players in the trio, particularly with Scott LaFaro’s bass playing. Then, on July 6, 1961, LaFaro was killed in a car crash on US 20 in Seneca, New York. Evans was bereft, playing nothing but his and LaFaro’s version of “I Loves You, Porgy” for days and pausing all performances.

By December 1961 Evans was recording again. Spurred by his producer and Riverside Records founder, Orrin Keepnews, he put his trio back together, this time bringing in the bassist Chuck Israels. Before the trio recorded any sessions for Riverside, though, they found themselves in the Atlantic Records New York studios December 8, 1961 with producer Nesuhi Ertegun and flautist Herbie Mann.

If you have been on the Internet for any length of time you’ve seen the listicles of bad 1970s album covers. One, Push Push, is especially memorable, showing a balding, shirtless man in a hairy-chested slouch with a flute over his shoulder. That’s Herbie Mann. But before he was recording (pretty good!) jazz-funk albums with eye-bleach-worthy covers, he was a straight ahead post bop jazz soloist and composer. So while the pairing of the two might sound odd on paper, on vinyl it makes a lot more sense.

The opening track, “Nirvana,” is a Mann original, but it opens up sounding a lot like a Bill Evans composition, as the trio introduces the chordal progression almost at a whisper, Evans exploring modes around the chords as Israels’ bass quietly marks the fifths. When Mann’s flute enters it’s as though he was whispering too, and his melody provides Chuck Israels with the moment to start exploring the tune independently. The dialog among the players is sensitive and you can almost see them listening to each other and nodding quietly as each introduces new ideas. The tune unfolds like breathing.

The mood continues with “Gymnopédie,” one of the rare jazz covers of the second of the Erik Satie compositions, instead of the more commonly encountered first. The trio introduces the theme and Evans and Mann take turns essaying the melody of the composition. It’s a gentle meditation and true to the original composition, which depending on your inclination is either refreshing or slightly stultifying. Interestingly, though it sounds like a continuation of the first track, “Gymnopédie” and the final tune “Cashmere” were actually recorded at a different session in May of 1962.

I Love You” changes things up, with the players digging into the faster tempo of the Cole Porter song and Mann’s flute ringing in a higher register. On the second chorus, Evans drops out and we hear just Mann, Motian and Israels, which seems to spur Mann’s improvisatory muscles. By the time the players reach the end of the tune, all are fully engaged, with Israels’ stretto in the accompaniment no less exciting than his solo passage, one of only two on the record.

Willow Weep for Me” is back in ballad territory, and here the weakness of the record reveals itself: Herbie Mann is not that compelling a ballad player. He largely sticks to the melody or to very close improvisation around it, and while he tries to find the bluesier corners in Ann Ronell’s legendary tune, it’s ultimately not a compelling exercise. Evans finds more interesting things in the melody but ultimately this track is a little flat. “Lover Man” is better. The tempo is up just a touch, but more importantly Mann is more engaged, his improvisation and statement of the melody more compelling.

Cashmere,” closing the album, is another Mann original and the trio digs into it, finding a slightly off-kilter syncopation in the accompanying line under Mann’s first statement of the melody. Mann’s subsequent improvisation picks up the syncopation and makes it central to his interpretation of the tune, and when he hands it back to Evans the latter’s chorus is sprightly and sly, zigging from corner to corner. Israels’ solo (here’s the other one!) digs into the silence between the melody lines and also into the syncopation, trying a one-note variation of the syncopation pattern over three bars as though leaning into the groove. His solo is supported by Motian’s unshowy but brilliant drumming, which quietly anchors each pulse of the entire album. The band’s returning statement brings the tune through several modes before closing on a final suspension.

Mann and Evans wouldn’t record again, but Evans would go on to make some essential records with his trio. We’ll hear some of them soon, but first we’ll hear another unusual record in his discography that he began recording between the December and May dates for Nirvana. Come back next week for more on that record.

You can listen to this week’s album here:

Ella Fitzgerald, Ella Wishes You a Swinging Christmas

Album of the Week, December 31, 2022

Every family has their holiday musical traditions. Many play the Vince Guaraldi A Charlie Brown Christmas album (we do, a lot). Some might play the Partridge Family Christmas album (we don’t, at all). But a tradition that Lisa and I discovered in the late 1990s, when it was reissued on CD, was Ella Fitzgerald’s first Christmas album.

I was thinking the other day about why jazz Christmas albums work so well. My conclusion: there’s a whole lot of Christmas songs that are really just Great American Songbook numbers, most of them from the same writers as those august luminaries. “Santa Claus is Coming to Town”? Fred Coots and Haven Gillespie, who also gave us “You Go to My Head.” “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”? Hugh Martin and Ralph Blane, of “The Trolley Song” (both from the musical Meet Me in St. Louis). “What Are You Doing New Years’ Eve?” is a Frank Loesser song, who also wrote “Slow Boat to China,” “Spring Will Be a Little Late This Year,” and the songs for the Hans Christian Anderson musical, among many others. And that’s just picking three tracks from the first side of this album…

The 1960 recording session for Ella Wishes You a Swinging Christmas came at a propitious time in Ella’s career. As we noted in reviewing Ella and Duke at the Côte D’Azur, she was in the middle of recording her Song Book series, each release of which celebrated a particular composer of the Great American Songbook. In 1960, she had just released the George and Ira Gershwin volume the year before, which followed the Irving Berlin volume from 1958, the Duke Ellington volume in 1957, and both the Rodgers and Hart and Cole Porter volumes in 1956. Accordingly, the selection here features six numbers from Song Book composers (side 1 ends with “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” by Bob Wells with Mel Tormé; on side 2, there’s also Sammy Cahn and Jule Styne’s “Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!” and Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas”). But there are also numbers from other sources, including Leroy Anderson’s great “Sleigh Ride,” Johnny Marks’ “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer” (surely the most durable 20th century song based on a Montgomery Wards advertising mascot!), “Frosty the Snowman,” Felix Bernard and Richard B. Smith’s “Winter Wonderland,” and even Count Basie’s “Good Morning Blues,” which here receives its definitive 20th century performance. (The 21st century crown for this number might go to Cécile McLorin Salvant with the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra.)

And then there’s “Jingle Bells.” It may be the oldest tune on the album, but Ella and arranger/conductor Frank DeVol give J. S. Pierpont’s most famous contribution a mighty workout. This is the one tune on the recording where Ella really lets fly with the jazz swing vocals she is most famous for, culminating with the absolutely bonkers declaration at the end, “I’m just crazy ‘bout horses!” Us too, Ella.

The arrangements throughout veer between relaxed and exuberant, swinging hard throughout, a characteristic shared by Ella’s songbook recordings. In fact, it’s not too much of a stretch to dub this a “missing” songbook recording, as it fits right in. It’s an absolute joy and one worth adding to your record collection.

Listen…

Robert Shaw Chorale, Joy to the World

Album of the Week, December 24, 2022

Last time we wrote about the Album of the Week, a little more than a week ago (so sue me!), we wrote about Fred Waring and the Pennsylvanians. There’s more than an indirect connection to this week’s Album of the Week from that recording; as I noted then, Waring gave Robert Shaw his first job, asking the newly minted graduate of Pomona College to assemble and train a glee club for him.

That was the first of a series of groups led by the young, charismatic musician, culminating in the 1990s in the Robert Shaw Festival Chorus, an invitational choir that assembled each summer for workshops with Shaw in France (and in which many choral musicians in my life, including John Liepold, Bruce Tammen, and Christine Goerke participated). But probably the best known of Shaw’s groups was the Robert Shaw Chorale, the artists behind today’s recording.

Shaw became legendary for his ability to take ordinary—especially amateur— musicians and get extraordinary performances from them. I recall him telling the Cathedral Choral Society when we sang under his direction, either in 1995 or 1999, that “choral music is like sex. Both are far too important to be left solely to professionals.” He meant that it was important to perform with skill but maybe more important to perform with sheer love of music.

That sheer love of music comes through in this recording. There aren’t elaborate arrangements or unusual repertoire on the album. Most of the tracks consist of a few verses of familiar hymns or carols; there are 25 different carols in just over 33 minutes represented here. And, while I don’t often commend albums for just listening, this is one that I wholeheartedly recommend putting on and just listening. Enjoy…

Side one, part 1:

Side 1, Part 2:

Side 2, Part 1:

Side 2, Part 2:

Fred Waring and the Pennsylvanians, The Sounds of Christmas

Album of the Week, December 17, 2022

I knew of Fred Waring before I heard his music. Popular radio (and later television) show. First employer of Robert Shaw, who put together and trained Waring’s Glee Club as a kid fresh out of Pomona College in 1938. Even, improbably, major contributor to 20th century cocktail culture, via the invention of the Waring Blendor, and indirectly to the development of the polio vaccine as Waring Blendors were used in the lab in the production of Jonas Salk’s vaccines.

But I had never heard Fred Waring. Then, somehow, I came across this album, a 1959 session for Capitol Records . Friend, I was not prepared. It comes on gangbusters, with a sound effects track of a train passing, bells ringing, carols singing, and probably barnyard animals too. There’s an immediate segue into a jolly rendition of “Ring Those Christmas Bells,” which I first sang with the Boston Pops years ago, not knowing its connection to this record.

And then? By all that’s holy, the carolers break into Alfred Burt’s “Caroling, Caroling.” I sang Alfred Burt’s carols as a high schooler in the church choir at Denbigh Presbyterian Church, but had never really heard them on record. This album gives a full Robert Shaw Chorale-style performance to the carol, and makes you believe that the carolers are just standing outside the window, thanks to some interesting studio magic.

An aside about that: If you insist on the purity of live recording without recording trickery, this is not the album for you. Here choirs of children are doused with reverb to simulate outdoor performance down an echoing street — or maybe at the other end of a church? Tracks are stitched together without a break, giving the impression of a television variety show that is being sped up for rebroadcast. And those bells and trains return from time to time to remind you of the artificiality of the whole thing. This is a record that revels in audio montages, recapitulations, and other reminders that you should really go out and get that television set like the Joneses down the street.

I don’t mean to sound Grinchy. There are some truly magnificent choral performances on this album; in addition to “Caroling, Caroling,” other Alfred Burt compositions include “O Hearken Ye,” “The Star Carol,” “Jesu Parvule,” and “Bright, Bright the Holly Berries.” There’s a spine-tingling alto solo on “I Wonder as I Wander” and a gospel rave-up on “Go Where I Send Thee” that has me shouting along. Unfortunately the latter is preceded by one of the rare missteps on the album, an otherwise vocally impeccable performance of “Rise Up, Shepherd, and Follow” that is performed in dialect.

But overall the album wraps you in a kind of woozy mid-century cocoon woven of equal parts sincerity, joy, and made-for-radio sonic joy. And isn’t that what some kinds of Christmas music are all about, Charlie Brown?

You can hear the album here:

Boston Camerata, A Renaissance Christmas (1974)

Album of the Week, December 10, 2022

The Boston Camerata was founded in 1954, but they didn’t enter my consciousness until the late 1970s, when my mother brought home a copy of Sing We Noel. The record, an unexpected combination of medieval and Renaissance English carols and 19th century American hymns for Christmas, was a hit in our house, sparking my love of Middle English (I can still sing “Nova, nova: aue fitt ex Eva” in the original from memory, and brought “Nowell, Out of Your Slepe” to the Suspicious Cheese Lords), early American hymnody (“Sherburne,” anyone?), and the Boston Camerata. Our household bought both the follow-up records on Nonesuch: A Renaissance Christmas and A Medieval Christmas, and I followed the group to their recordings for Erato and other labels. I’ve taken my kids to see them here in Boston. (I’ve also developed working relationships with at least one musician on that original series of recordings; the Virginia Glee Club’s director Frank Albinder sang as a graduate student on A Renaissance Christmas.)

So it was with a certain thrill that I found a Camerata record that predates all of the above, and hits some of the same repertoire from Sing We Noel and A Renaissance Christmas. Also called A Renaissance Christmas, this 1974 recording on the small Turnabout Records label proved to be an unexpected addition to our Christmas listening.

The biggest unexpected thing, perhaps, is the quality of the sound on the recording. The Nonesuch records featured impeccable balance and clarity of sound; this record, not so much. In several numbers, the wind instruments overpower the women’s voices, and there are moments of impaired pitch in some of the men’s singing, particularly in the Obrecht “Magnificat” when the men enter unaccompanied.

There are also, though, delightful moments, including the pairing of “Nova, Nova,” here sung in modern English, with the 15th century Czech carol “Salve, lux fidelium.” Here the voices are clear and strong, and full of personality. Indeed, this is one of the hallmarks that sets this recording apart from the Deller Consort record we heard last week, where the balance was delicate, sometimes overly so.

Most distinctively, the program for the recording covers an immense amount of ground inside the theme of “Renaissance Christmas,” from anonymous English carols to motets by Mouton, Victoria, Praetorius, Clemens Non Papa, Francesco Guerrero and others. And the repertoire is creatively sequenced, too, with all the Spanish motets and carols coming together to tell the birth of Jesus. This should come as no surprise, as even at this early date, about five years after he took leadership of the Camerata, music director Joel Cohen was already demonstrating his flair for creative programming.

The strongest performances, to my ears, come in the repertoire that Cohen would return to in Sing We Noel and in the 1986 version of A Renaissance Christmas, namely “Marvel Not, Joseph,” which except for its modern English text could be mistaken for the version that the group would perform four years later; the Victoria “O Magnum Mysterium,” which would return on the 1986 Renaissance; and of course “Riu, Riu, Chiu,” which swaggers appropriately just as it did on the later recording. (Unfortunately, there is only a single album-length version of this record available on YouTube; you’ll have to listen to the whole thing to get the samples from this 1974 version.)

But the vocal performances get stronger as the album goes on, including the “Virgen Santa” and “Sweet Was the Song the Virgin Sung,” featuring a countertenor solo that’s as lovely as anything I’ve heard from this group. All told, it’s a fun collection that is just familiar enough to trigger nostalgia for some of the Camerata’s later recordings, and just distinctive enough to be worth a listen on its own.

You can listen to the album here:

Alfred Deller, Carols & Motets for the Nativity of Medieval and Tudor England

Album of the Week, December 3, 2022

We shift gears this week to start a short series on Christmas records. This’ll go some different places, but if you’re just with me for jazz, hang in there—we’ll get to some holiday jazz recordings during the series. Today, though, takes us to a very different place—almost to a beginning.

Living in the Boston area in the early 21st century, it’s hard to believe that there was a time when no one was really performing early music. But that was exactly the situation as recently as 80 years ago. It took the work of today’s featured artist, alongside other like-minded English musicians, to change that. Alfred Deller’s and the Deller Consort not only brought countertenor performance out of the English choral tradition and back onto concert stages, he also brought about a serious revival of early music repertoire and helped launch the careers of other like-minded singers and musicians, including Rogers Covey-Crump and David Elliott of the Hilliard Ensemble, and singers Mark Deller (his son), Robert Tear and Maurice Bevan; the latter three appear on this album.

Deller’s countertenor voice doesn’t sound exceptional today, if you’re familiar with the work of the Hilliard Ensemble or other early music ensembles, but it must have been shocking at the time. I like the anecdote quoted in his Wikipedia article:

Michael Chance tells the story that once, a French woman, upon hearing Deller sing, exclaimed “Monsieur, vous êtes eunuque”—to which Deller replied, “I think you mean ‘unique’, Madam.”

But how is the record? I think it’s fair to say that the performance is an acquired taste. The instrumentation of Musica Antiqua—here under the direction of the great René Clemencic—is heavy on period instruments, with plenty of crumhorn, recorder, positive organ and bells, and maybe even a sackbut or two lurking around the edges. The instrumental numbers are accordingly unusual in timbre to modern ears; both the “Carol with Burden” and the “Angelus ad Virginem” had me checking my watch a few times.

The vocal music is why one listens to this record. And while some of the performance practices are unusual by current “early music” standards—there’s nary a straight tone to be found, and most of the works are sung in modern English rather than the Middle English that would be more authentic—the quality of the singing is still uniformly high. The “Nova, Nova” which can be heard in Middle English on the Boston Camerata’s Sing We Noel is performed in modern English here but with fully appropriate enthusiasm. Fifteenth century composer Richard Pygott’s ten-minute-long “Quid Petis O Fili” engages the listener throughout.

And a number of the songs approach definitive performances. “Hail, Mary, Full of Grace” and the medieval carol “Edi Beo Thu Hevene Quene” (here sung in modern English as “Blessed, Be Thou Heavenly Queen”) are both tenderly and sensitively performed. The “In Die Nativitas” is sung with more vigor, but comes across with a little less balance. Of the more sturdy numbers, “Nowell, Nowell: Out of Your Sleep” is perhaps more successful. But the standout is “There is no Rose of Such Virtue,” sung with a great amount of rubato and delicacy. It single-handedly vaults this record to my annual Christmas list, and I hope you’ll find it on yours as well.

You can listen to the record here:

Ella Fitzgerald and Duke Ellington, Ella & Duke at the Côte d’Azur

Album of the Week, November 26, 2022

Duke Ellington, in 1967, was in the prime of his post-peak creative years. Having spent some time between labels building his reputation as an elder statesman, as we saw last week with Duke Ellington & John Coltrane, he was shortlisted for a Pulitzer Prize in Music in 1965 (though ironically no award was given that year; he is said to have joked “Fate doesn’t want me to be famous too young”). He was still recording major works, including the Far East Suite in 1966. And he was touring and performing with dozens of other musicians. I’ve reviewed a record from that period, when he performed with the Boston Pops; see my write up of The Duke at Tanglewood, which I found ultimately dissatisfying due to the lack of simpatico between Ellington and his competent, yet square, stage-mates.

No such problem exists between the performers in today’s recording. Ella & Duke at the Côte d’Azur feels as though it ought to have been a bootleg due to the electricity of the crowd energy that’s captured and that clearly infects the performers. It is, in a word, jumpin’.

Ella and Duke had recorded several times together by the time this recording was made in 1966, starting in 1957 when she collaborated with Ellington on Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Duke Ellington Song Book. Part of her great Song Book series in which she elevated the work of American songwriters from Tin Pan Alley to canon, this was the only record in which she performed with the songwriter himself. She had also recorded Ella at Duke’s Place in the studio in 1965, and The Stockholm Concert, 1966 was cut earlier the same summer that the two met at the International Festival of Jazz for a series of concerts. The double LP here is apparently only a taste of the combined performances; together they recorded some 80-plus tracks, which eventually saw release in an 8 CD Verve set in 1998 as the Côte d’Azur Concerts.

What’s striking is how much fun Ella, in particular, seems to be having. She gets a full two choruses into “Mack the Knife” before she starts scatting and improvising over the band. According to the liner notes, there was no arrangement for the tune—they just started playing, and it’s audible in the music as it goes through multiple key changes. At one point, Ella sings “We’re making a record of the same old song… we swung old Mackie down for you people here at the Jazz Festival! We’re going to sing, we’re going to swing, we’re going to add one more chorus!” And she adds another two choruses, then a third, going up a half step in between each one. You can hear the socks of the crowd being blown off.

While Ella and Duke play together on the first track, many of the remaining numbers are played only by one group or the other, starting with Ellington’s usual group—Paul Gonsalves, Cat Anderson, Harry Carney, Ray Nance, Johnny Hodges, Mercer Ellington, Buster Cooper, Sam Woodyard, etc.— on “The Old Circus Train Turn-Around Blues.” The liner notes call out the tune’s similarity to “Night Train,” but it’s a fun enough romp nonetheless.

Ella’s group takes the stage next. She’s backed by the Jimmy Jones piano trio featuring Jim Hughart on bass and the mighty Grady Tate on drums. Her “Lullaby of Birdland” is not very lullaby-like, but it’s delightful nonetheless. This is followed by Ellington’s group, with Ellington announcing, “Buster Cooper will be the virtuosoist in ‘Trombonio-Bustiosso-Issimo.’” Cooper is hot indeed in the solo, with the band lighting a fire underneath him.

Ella’s group switches things up a bit with “Goin’ Out of My Head,” the newest composition on the record and a reminder of her late-sixties pop work on albums like her 1969 Ella. But if the tune sounds a little dated to modern ears, she gives it her all here. Ella never really belts on her records, but she certainly comes close on this one. Grady Tate provides a slightly samba-inflected beat behind the tune, swinging back into a rock beat in the chorus and keeping things lively throughout. She continues with “How Long Has This Been Going On?,” singing the Gershwin standard with nuance and subtlety and taking us into a different world for an all too brief moment.

Ellington’s band returns for a medley of “Diminuendo in Blue/Blow by Blow,” with Ellington growling and shouting encouragement to his players above the fray. Paul Gonsalves reprises an abbreviated version of his infinite solo from the famed Newport 1956 concerts. Next the band begins a performance of “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing” that has the crowd applauding from the first chords of the tune, and Ella joins them in, breaking up as Ellington shouts inaudible encouragement from the piano. After a few verses and some spectacular scatting from Ella, another from Ellington’s band steps up and trades scat bars with her. But Ella cannot be imitated or brushed off, and she carries the rest of the song, dropping in a reference to “A Hard Day’s Night” before driving the song to closure. The Ellington band concludes this set with “All Too Soon,” providing Ray Nance an opportunity to show off his violin playing together with Ben Webster and Buster Cooper. There’s no showboating here, just solid solos from all three protagonists.

Ella’s band returns with settings of “Misty” and “So Danço Samba,” called “Jazz Samba” on the original label but corrected on my copy. “Misty” is played straight and sensitively, with a closing straight out of the Sarah Vaughan playbook, but “So Danço Samba” is something else again. Combining a sensitive approach to the Brazilian original with interspersed scatting, a touch of “The Girl from Ipanema,” and ending with a whispered beat-box of a vocal solo that has her trading percussive licks with Grady Tate before she takes a resurgent and triumphant sung conclusion, she cracks up the band and takes the crowd by storm.

The Ellington band returns with a request, a “totally unprepared, unrehearsed, no arrangement” version of “Rose of the Rio Grande.” Buster Cooper takes the solo on his trombone, duetting with Sam Woodyard’s bass in a brief interlude and closing the whole work out in a roaring crescendo. Ella’s band then takes over with an achingly tender “The More I See You” before yielding again to Ellington for “The Matador (El Viti).” Ella rejoins Duke for a final performance of “Just Squeeze Me (But Please Don’t Tease Me),” where she trades scat syllables and bluesy growls with the great pianist and trades verses with Ben Webster, and finally addresses the audience, “You’ve made us sentimental, the way you received our show/We’d love to squeeze you, really don’t want to tease you.” The audience returns the expressed affection with a roar of applause, bringing the set to an end.

This brings our series on Duke Ellington to a fitting close, as I’ve run out of vinyl with his compositions. We’ve heard many different sides of the man: the innovative composer, the bandleader who played the orchestra like a piano, the sensitive, intuitive collaborator, and finally the master showman. There’s a lot more Ellington to explore, but the calendar is turning. Next week we’ll be exploring something very different.

You can listen to the album here:

Duke Ellington & John Coltrane

Album of the Week, November 19, 2022

Duke Ellington’s run of albums for Columbia Records in the mid to late 1950s was spectacular. In addition to Masterpieces by EllingtonEllington at NewportBlack, Brown and Beige, and Ellington Indigos, the run also included such classics as Ellington UptownA Drum is a WomanSuch Sweet ThunderJazz Party (featuring the debut of the Billy Strayhorn tune “U.M.M.G.”), and the soundtrack to Anatomy of a Murder

However, by 1962 his contract with Columbia had come to an end, and in a way this ushered in an even more significant period in Ellington’s development, as he began to record sessions for other labels with an array of artists. From this period came his great collaboration with Max Roach and Charles Mingus, Money Jungle, and two collaboration albums on Impulse! Records, Duke Ellington Meets Coleman Hawkins and Duke Ellington & John Coltrane

It’s worth pausing for a second to acknowledge that we have stepped into the timeline of Impulse! Records. One of the undisputedly great jazz labels alongside Blue Note and Verve (and later, CTI), Impulse! was established in 1960 by producer Creed Taylor, who may be the most significant contribution to jazz music to have come from Pearlsburg, Virginia. At Bethlehem Records, his first recording, a session backing vocalist Chris Connors with Ellis Larkins’ piano trio, earned him the position of head of A&R for the label. He parlayed this brief but successful stint into a role at ABC-Paramount, where he created Impulse! as a subsidiary label with the tagline “The New Wave in Jazz.” Creating immediate success with records by Gil Evans, Kai Winding, Ray Charles, Oliver Nelson and others, Taylor’s lasting accomplishment was to sign John Coltrane to the label in 1960. Due to Coltrane’s long association with the label, it became known as “The House That Trane Built.” Taylor left Impulse! for Verve in 1961, leaving the session Coltrane recorded with Ellington to Trane’s long-time producer Bob Thiele and engineer Rudy Van Gelder. (We’ll see Creed Taylor again.)

Ellington did not bring along his orchestra, or even his usual horn players, to the session. Without a regular record contract, he could not keep the band together indefinitely. Instead, bringing drummer Sam Woodyard and bassist Aaron Bell, he met Coltrane on more or less equal footing.

This recording found Coltrane at an interesting point in his development. While still performing with the Miles Davis Sextet, he had recorded music with an increasingly avant-garde flavor, perhaps culminating in the residency at the Village Vanguard with Eric Dolphy, Reggie Workman, Elvin Jones and McCoy Tyner that saw a release as Impressions. Critics were bitterly divided over the work, misunderstanding Trane’s searching approach, and 1962 apparently brought some retrenchment, with a greater focus on ballads, but no lack of innovation in the playing. Trane had just stabilized the membership in his own Great Quartet, with Jimmy Garrison replacing Workman on bass; Garrison and Jones join Coltrane on this session, and indeed support Ellington on all but two of the numbers.

As with Money Jungle, Ellington paired with the new players brings a sense of fresh spontaneity and depth to the album, many of the selections on which are familiar Ellington standards. The opener, “In a Sentimental Mood,” could not be performed more delicately by the band, with Jones’ muscular but nuanced hand at the drums joining Aaron Bell on bass. Trane’s melodic playing seems to search through the key changes of the tune, but never goes “out” in the way some of his earlier work stretches beyond space and time. Instead, he seems anchored to our world through the combination of Ellington’s gentle arpeggiated introduction and Jones and Bell’s steady, subtle pulse.

Take the Coltrane” is one in a series of Ellington compositions devoted to musicians with whom he collaborated, and it’s a remarkable achievement, highlighting both Trane’s arpeggiated “sheets of sound” and a slyly modal melody. Elvin Jones does unnaturally wonderful things on the hi-hat throughout, and Trane’s solo is of a piece with the work he was recording on his own Impulse! recordings. This recording features both Bell and Garrison on bass, and both plus Jones support Trane under his solo while Ellington steps aside. When Duke returns, he slyly drops in a little “Ooh Pa Pa Da” as though in reference to the bop origins of the tune. It’s genuinely fun.

Big Nick,” the sole Coltrane original on the record, is a fun, loping melody that takes the harmonic ideas of “Giant Steps” and swings them, creating a slow blues that rides on Jimmy Garrison’s loping bass line. Coltrane’s solo takes off for something like the outer stratosphere but never loses the blues progression, so that when he yields the floor to Duke his more straightforward take on the blues feels like a continuation of the conversation, rather than a rebuke. But it really all comes back to the melody, one of the quirkiest and most fun that Coltrane authored.

Stevie” carries on the swing but in a more Ellingtonian harmonic language, swerving from a minor blues into a major key. His introductory choruses veer through at least three different modes before returning to the original minor. Trane mostly stays within the first minor mode for his solo, which carries flavors of “Impressions” in its blistering runs but never goes too far outside. Ellington’s initial take on the melody stays cool in contrast to Coltrane’s heat, finishing with a low tolling note to close out the first side.

My Little Brown Book” is one of the most gorgeous ballads on the record. The Ellington introduction, with Woodyard and Bell backing, revisits the feeling of “In a Sentimental Mood,” but when Coltrane enters on the melody of this Strayhorn composition, we’re suddenly swaying to a half heard melody on an empty dance floor somewhere near midnight. This is Trane at his most romantic, with echoes of his performance of “I’ll Wait and Pray” from Coltrane Jazz, and the rest of the band is there for him, with only small ripples from Ellington disturbing the serenity of the track.

Angelica” is, for me, the standout track here. Just listen to that opening beat from Elvin Jones, and the bounce that carries over to Ellington’s opening choruses, backed up by a jubilant Garrison. Coltrane’s entry keeps the swing going, and he plays it pretty safe for the first few choruses. Then on that fourth, after Ellington drops out and it’s just him and the rhythm, he cuts loose, with sheets of sound swirling around the beat, never losing the swing but somehow taking a step left through a door into, well, a John Coltrane record. After that chorus, he brings it back to the melody, and you can hear Ellington recalibrating his approach before he re-enters. It sums up so much about the connection between Coltrane’s approach and the harmonic and rhythmic innovations that had come before him, and is a complete blast to listen to. And maybe even dance: I want Elvin Jones playing that beat for my entry music as I stroll, sashay and jitterbug into heaven.

The Feeling of Jazz” brings us back to a slow blues to close out the album. True to its title, it bridges both Trane’s searching quality and Ellington’s formalism to give us something that feels like a little of both worlds. Trane’s solo continues throughout most of the song; we are reminded of the time he told Miles, the latter having asked why he played such a long solo, that “it took that long to get it all in.” At the end, Trane finally steps back from the microphone and Ellington and his rhythm section play through the fade-out, the elder titan getting the last word.

In the liner notes to the album, Trane famously remarked, “I would have liked to have worked over all those numbers again, but then I guess the performances wouldn’t have had the same spontaneity.” The whole session was recorded in a single day on September 26, 1962 at Rudy Van Gelder’s studio, just eight days after the recording of “Up ’Gainst the Wall” that rounds out Impressions. But the album speaks for itself, the meeting of two giants and of two sympathetic musicians who bring their separate conceptions of the music into a unified whole. It remains as spontaneous and fresh for me today as when I first heard it almost thirty years ago.

You can listen to the album here:

Duke Ellington, Ellington Indigos

Album of the Week, November 12, 2022

I may have given the impression that, following Duke Ellington’s career resuscitation at the Newport Jazz Festival in 1956, he recorded nothing but works aimed at solidifying his artistic credentials. Certainly Black, Brown and Beige fits that description. But he—and Columbia Records—were not averse to recording more commercial music, either. Today’s record has eight* ballads, only three closely associated with Duke Ellington and his band, played in dance-friendly format. There are no sixteen minute suites here; exotic key changes are held to a minimum. For the most part this is just Ellington’s band playing it straight. And that’s the appeal of the record, because this band could play it straight and still zigzag your socks right off.

The opening is one of the great performances of Ellington’s signature “Solitude,” with the composer himself at the piano. He takes it freely for the first minute or so, until the arrival of Jimmy Woode on bass and Sam Woodyard on drums clicks things into tempo, followed by an entrance by the horns en masse. (It’s hard to resist the idea that they all came in from the subway at the same time, and snuck into the studio where Ellington was already hard at work.) The arrival of the trumpets about three minutes in is appropriately fanfare like, but the whole arrangement is remarkable. I’d really like to hear a version of this that’s just Ellington’s piano; he does some astonishing things behind the band, and brings the tune back into focus in a solo conclusion. It’s a four minute long symphony.

Richard Rodgers’ “Where or When” features a breathy Paul Gonsalves on tenor sax, with interjections from the other horns providing punctuation throughout. This tune has always struck me as feeling like a single sentence, and here the sentence builds to a joyous rhapsody for solo saxophone. It’s a quiet showstopper.

Mood Indigo” begins with a statement of purpose from Ellington on the piano, but quickly yields the floor to Shorty Baker’s trumpet. Following his verse, the entire band takes up the chorus, spotlighting the amazing unity and singleness of purpose of this ensemble. Baker’s trumpet returns over the horns, who pause to let him speak before everyone comes back together.

Autumn Leaves” is one of the tunes that is considerably different depending on which version of the record you hear. My CD copy* had a lengthy rendition with verses sung in both French and English by Ozzie Bailey, while the LP omits the French verse entirely. Both versions feature a poignant violin solo by Ray Nance both opening and closing the track. The longest performance on the album, it carries a deep melancholy.

Prelude to a Kiss” has some of the same energy of the A-side’s opening “Solitude,” with the horns hinting at some of the energy of that number, but ultimately proves to be a more intimate number, with Johnny Hodges’ alto romancing the listener all the way through.

The next number on the vinyl release, “Willow Weep for Me,” brings back Shorty Baker on trumpet, but effectively functions as a solo for the entire band, with the saxophones providing an introduction that slides down the scale into the key. The pianist states the theme, followed by Baker’s forthright trumpet response, and they continue to trade bars of the melody throughout, with the rest of the horns serving as a Greek chorus commenting on the solos.

Tenderly” is conceived as a duet for Ellington and Jimmy Hamilton on clarinet, and the first two chorus is taken out of time. The following calls the dancers to the floor, with Woode and Woodyard underpinning their steps. Finally, when the band comes in, Hamilton takes flight, his obligato entwining the final chorus, which ends on a moment of seeming finality—until Hamilton and Ellington return to tag the final eight bars again in free time, as a sort of final signature.

The last track on the stereo vinyl release, Arthur Schwartz’s “Dancing in the Dark,” is nominally a solo for Harry Carney on baritone saxophone, but also features some fine trumpet playing in the second verse, and closes out the album as a swooning dance number. The album itself repays listening closely to see how Ellington put his orchestra together, as well as how he and Strayhorn got the maximum emotional impact from each tune. Highly recommended for late night listening.

You can listen to the album here:

*I first came across this recording a year or so after graduating from UVA, in the 1987 CD reissue, which has ten tracks and a different running order. And apparently the mono release has different performances than the stereo release. So the point is, if you see a copy in a different format, it’s worth picking it up and listening to see what’s different.

Duke Ellington, Black, Brown and Beige

Black, Brown and Beige (1958) by Duke Ellington and His Orchestra Featuring Mahalia Jackson.

Album of the Week, November 5, 2022

We rejoin Duke Ellington in 1958, and much has changed from the 1951 release of Masterpieces by Ellington. Following the long-form recording breakthroughs of that album, Duke dove into avant garde compositional forms (Uptown), re-recordings of his own music as solo piano arrangements (The Duke Plays Ellington, later reissued as Piano Reflections), and relative obscurity. At this point in his career, his main income was compositional royalties, and he didn’t have a record deal. He is said to have booked his band into ice skating rinks so that he could keep them busy enough to pay them.

Then came the band’s 1956 performance at the Newport Jazz Festival, captured in the famous Ellington at Newport recording, and suddenly Ellington was hot again. I won’t be writing about that album at length (at least not right now), as I don’t have a vinyl copy, but it utterly jump-started his career, leading to a recording contract with Columbia Records. Columbia lost no time in capitalizing on his new popularity, and a series of recordings followed that mark some of the high points of the Duke’s output. One of them was Black, Brown and Beige, which revisited a work that Ellington had composed in 1943 for his first-ever appearance at Carnegie Hall.

Leonard Feather’s notes for the original suite describe a hugely ambitious work: “Black, the first movement, is divided into three parts: the Work Song; the spiritual Come Sunday; and LightBrown also has three parts: West Indian Influence (or West Indian Dance); Emancipation Celebration (reworked as Lighter Attitude); and The BluesBeige depicts ‘the Afro-American of the 1920s, 30s and World War II’.” The original performance received a lukewarm reaction, with critics objecting to the attempt to blend jazz and classical music. But when Ellington revised the suite in 1958, these objections were largely by the wayside, as the growing “third stream” movement had opened the door for jazz to cross over into other genres.

Still, Ellington did simplify the concept of the suite even as he expanded it. The 1958 revision essentially stripped the suite back to focus primarily on the themes from Black, “Work Song” and “Come Sunday.” In doing so, the suite becomes a meditation on the contrast of the African-American slave experience and the the Church, a point underscored by the groundbreaking inclusion of Mahalia Jackson as the vocalist.

It’s tempting to skip directly to “Come Sunday” in reviewing the album, but the degree to which “Work Song” shapes the suite and lays out Duke’s narrative intention should not be overlooked. The opening pounding drums of Part I are all that remain of the original narrative opening of the suite, and a peek at the score here is revelatory. The opening notes state:

A message is shot through the jungle by drums.
BOOM! BOOM! BOOM! BOOM!
Like a tom-tom in steady precision.
Like the slapping of bare black feet across the desert wastes.
Like hunger pains.
Like lash after lash as they crash and they curl and they cut. DEEP!

Ellington, opening notes to Black, Brown and Beige

Ellington was firmly grounding “Work Song” in the context of dislocation and enslaved labor, and returns to this theme over and over to emphasize this opening fact of African-American history.

In this context, “Come Sunday” comes as an almost revolutionary statement of hope. In the first statement, in Part II of the suite, the theme is played by the band, with an interpolation of “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” by the trombones making explicit the connection to African-American spirituals. And it is visited by all the members of the orchestra in turn going into Part III, alternating with “Work Song,” as the first half of the album ends.

Part IV”, opening the second side of the record, begins with just Ellington and Mahalia Jackson. At this point we should acknowledge how groundbreaking this moment was. Gospel singers didn’t cross over to other musical forms, at least not still remaining gospel singers. There were plenty who left the form, Sam Cooke and some of the other early soul singers among them, but for Mahalia Jackson, at this point indisputably the greatest living gospel artist, to collaborate with Ellington on this record was unprecedented. One suspects that producer Irving Townshend, who also had produced Jackson since her Columbia debut in 1955, had something to do with it.

Whatever the origin, this recording, and “Part IV,” mark the debut of Ellington’s lyrics for “Come Sunday.” And some lyrics they are. They are essentially a gospel statement of faith in the face of racial oppression:

Lord, dear Lord I've loved, God almighty
God of love, please look down and see my people through

I believe that sun and moon up in the sky
When the day is gray
I know it, clouds passing by

He'll give peace and comfort
To every troubled mind
Come Sunday, oh come Sunday
That's the day

Often we feel weary
But he knows our every care
Go to him in secret
He will hear your every prayer

After a reprise of the “Come Sunday” theme by Ray Nance’s violin (Part V), the suite concludes with Jackson’s improvised rendition of Psalm 23 in Part VI. The liner notes claim “on the last afternoon, Duke asked Mahalia to bring her Bible with her. He opened it to the Twenty-Third Psalm, played a chord, and asked her to sing.” The presence of orchestra accompaniment on this track suggest that the degree of improvisation in the final movement may be overstated here; still it’s a stunning vocal performance.

Ellington recorded the work on four days from February 4 to February 12, 1958. Six months before, the Little Rock Nine had entered Little Rock Central High School for the first time, and five months later, the first sit-ins were held at Dockum Drug Store in Wichita, Kansas. It’s tempting to just hear this iteration of Black, Brown and Beige as a gospel meets jazz performance, but the full story places it solidly as a statement of solidarity with the Civil Rights movement and an important precursor to more explicit Civil Rights themed jazz suites like Sonny Rollins’ “Freedom Suite” (June 1958) and Max Roach’s “We Insist! Freedom Now” (1960).

You can listen to the album here:

Duke Ellington, Masterpieces by Ellington

Album of the Week, October 29, 2022

I’ve written a little about Duke Ellington before, but not yet in this series. But he’s been at the back of much of what we’ve listened to, however distantly. When the pianist and composer Marcus Roberts (of whom we’ll hear more later) chose three composers to pay tribute to in his first solo jazz album, he chose Jelly Roll Morton, Thelonious Monk, and Ellington, and it’s that foundational compositional genius that’s on display in this record.

Ellington’s music grew to fit the recording space allotted. Much of the earliest Ellington recordings, on 78 RPM records, were dance songs, constrained by the space available in the technology format but also by the genre. My late father-in-law used to talk about going dancing when Ellington’s band was playing (though he preferred Tommy Dorsey). But as the technology for recorded sound changed, Ellington shifted to longer forms: suites, expanded arrangements, and more orchestral-sounding performances. This record, released in 1951, was one of the first 12” LPs offering an unprecedented twenty-plus minutes per side. Ellington and his longtime arranger Billy Strayhorn, together with his standing band including (among others) Harry Carney, Johnny Hodges, Jimmy Hamilton, Paul Gonzales, Ray Nance, and Mercer Ellington, took full advantage of the space provided. (I’m reviewing a 2017 reissue of the album on 12” 45RPM heavyweight vinyl, released by Analogue Productions. It sounds incredible.)

Mood Indigo” opens the album, and is one of the dance numbers that Ellington is best known for. Here it is revelatory, with the horns introducing the theme and yielding to a lugubrious solo reading of the theme by Harry Carney on the baritone sax, with Ellington’s piano gently accompanying. And then it gets interesting. The next chorus sees the horns return, but in a higher harmonization. Hodges takes the next two choruses, with the second one breaking the general legatissimo as Ellington stabs the chords beneath him. Another horn chorus seems to break free of time and tonality, but stays anchored in B♭. Ellington’s next solo tugs again at the key and finally pivots it upwards to E♭, where it stays as the vocalist Eve Duke (here credited as Yvonne Lanauze) takes a chorus and a verse, the horns underneath helping her shift into E♭minor and then back to the major, and finally back down to B♭. And so the arrangement goes for nearly 16 minutes, with additional surprises ahead including two choruses of growler muted trumpet, another free exploration that seems to break free of key, an excursion into waltz time, a trombone solo, and even more.

Sophisticated Lady” is another Ellington dance number that becomes a suite in this reading. A brisk piano introduction yields to the bass clarinet of Harry Carney and back to Ellington’s phantasmagorical chords. When Ray Nance’s trumpet steps in, it’s a clarion call, like the sun coming through the clouds. Eve Duke’s returning vocals shift the key from A♭up to D♭. Ellington takes a free solo that is capped with the horns entering in a fanfare that becomes a recapitulation, and the band takes it to a climactic resolution.

The Tattooed Bride” is the most recent of Ellington’s compositions on this record. Written in 1948, it becomes a showcase here for Jimmy Hamilton’s clarinet, which opens the first statement of the chorus. The band embraces the brisker tempo, with the horns throwing bits of the melody to each other, and then shifting into a minor key as the bride, apparently, begins swing dancing. Hamilton’s clarinet returns in a meditation on the theme that’s punctuated by a blast from the horns, and finishes the tune on a high, sustained F as the horns anchor the tune.

The record closes with “Solitude,” another blue Ellington ballad. Here Ellington introduces the melody almost at a trot, and then the band arrives and settles the tempo down to a more meditative stroll for the first chorus. When they drop out entirely, the piano solo stops time for an eternity before Johnny Hodges returns to take us back into chronology. The trumpet underscores the intensity of the moment before the band shifts once more, this time bringing forward the clarinet and trombone, who picks up the tempo for the final chorus before swooning to the finish.

Listening to this album, it’s easy to hear the truth of the old saying about Ellington: that he played the orchestra like a piano, and played the piano like an orchestra. The album captures Ellington in true high fidelity, as the transition to the LP and to recording on magnetic tape offered himsonic palette of seemingly unlimited color, with which to paint his masterpiece. But this would not be the last time Ellington adjusted his approach to recording. When we hear him next week, he will be in very different surroundings.

You can listen to the album here:

The Best of the Phenomenal Dukes of Dixieland

Album of the Week, October 22, 2022.

The hazard of going alphabetically through a large collection of music is that sometimes you can’t see when you are about to step on a land mine. That’s what Dixieland, and the Dukes of Dixieland, represents in a collection of jazz music: to put your foot down here is to step around three or four land mines all at once, or risk them blowing up on you.

Let’s start with the facts: The Dukes of Dixieland were founded as an old time jazz revival band in 1947 by brothers Frank (trumpet) and Fred (trombone) Assunto with their father Papa Jac on trombone and banjo. Originally called the Basin Street 4, then 5, 6, and so on, they changed their name after going on tour with Horace Heidt and his Musical Knights, a big band radio and vaudeville circuit performer, in tribute to their home city and its tradition of jazz royalty—thus becoming the first Dixieland revival band. They recorded the first ever stereo record, released in 1957 on the Audio Fidelity label. They recorded several albums on which they backed Louis Armstrong. The Assunto brothers died in 1966 (Fred) and 1973 (Frank), and the name (if not the remaining performers) was picked up by producer John Shoup under disputed circumstances, with the new group, called the DUKES of Dixieland, apparently under the belief that the law is case sensitive, continuing to perform to this day.

So, the land mines: old-time jazz revival; Italian immigration in New Orleans; white appropriation of black culture; and of course disputed legacy band history (fair warning: I’m not getting into the arguments about the name). Let’s, for the moment, take those as stepped around (though we may find ourselves treading on one or more of them again soon). The question is: could they play? And the answer is: yes, but with considerably less swing and more self-consciousness than the men whose music they were preserving.

The sound overall of the record is precise, cleanly recorded, and well articulated. It’s all a little too careful, a little too on the nose. But there’s also a pleasure of a particular kind in hearing this music played carefully and well; what it loses in spontaneity and passion it gains in clarity. Tunes like “South” are played competently in their slow tempo, without ever risking taking off.

“Down By the Riverside” fares better, with the clarinetist keeping some heat under the the group as they move briskly through the arrangement. (One challenge with this recording: there isn’t a good sessionography, so I’m forced to guess at the identity of players who weren’t the Assunto family.) Indeed, the rule of thumb for quality on this record seems to be “the faster the tempo, the better the music,” as the opening number, “South Rampart Street Parade,” demonstrates.

So, about that appropriation thing. Generally, I don’t lean too hard against musicians who play in a tradition that isn’t their own, but as a white Protestant who sometimes sings gospel or South African music in church, I’ve learned to be careful about how I perform. There aren’t a lot of rules other than “be sensitive.” I’m therefore forced to look askance at a few numbers on this recording, including the interpolations of 32 bars or more of “The Flight of the Bumblebee,” “There’s a Place in France…” and “Dixie” in “When the Saints Go Marching In,” and the presence of the song “Dixie,” at all.

There’s a great story that Nat Hentoff tells about watching the Dukes record one of their sessions with Louis Armstrong:

“Dixie” was proposed as the next tune. Louis began to read the lyrics, but stopped, chuckling. “No, I can’t sing that. The colored cats would put me down.

Nat Hentoff,

Nevertheless, that session did feature an instrumental version of “Dixie,” and Hentoff has written, “Hearing ‘Dixie’ with Louis leading the way, I was reminded of Louis’ uncompromising statement about Little Rock and also of the student sit-in leader I had met a few weeks before this session. I also remembered a white Southern historian who was proud of the sit-ins and said, ‘These students are also Southerners, and they are being true to the best Southern traditions of self-assertion and courage.’ ‘Dixie’ will never be the same again.”

Unfortunately that isn’t the version of “Dixie” on this record, which doesn’t feature any of the collaborations with Louis Armstrong. So we’re left with a group of white Southerners playing the song that begins “Oh, I wish I was in the land of cotton…”

Which brings me to the point about appropriation and immigration. What’s really interesting about the music of the Assuntos and the band they assembled is that it recapitulates the journey of Italian Americans to New Orleans. That there were Assuntos in the Big Easy at all was a direct consequence of the American Civil War, and the resulting collapse of the labor “market” in the South — if you’ve been an enslaved laborer all your life, when freedom comes along you’re unlikely to want to work in the places that enslaved you, even for pay — as well as of the Italian Risorgimento and the destabilization of the Southern Italian economy that followed.

While Northern Italy had factories and could offer good paying jobs, southern Italy (including Campania, from which my in-laws immigrated) and Sicily, home to the Assuntos and thousands of others, was left in poverty due to the continuation of the peasant labor system under absentee landlords. So planters in New Orleans ended up advertising in Sicily for workers, and many emigrated, leading to such a concentration of Italian Americans in New Orleans that at the turn of the century the joke went that the French Quarter ought to be renamed. And the immigrants picked up the culture of the place, including its music.

And ironically, the place picked up their music as well. Among the musicians in the Original Dixieland Jass Band, credited with releasing the first commercial jazz record in 1917, was Nick LaRocca, a Sicilian cornetist. So it appears that Dixieland was even more of a New Orleans melting pot than is normally known. But the all-white Dukes were not a good representation of that melting pot, by any stretch. There were other revival groups that managed to achieve a better blending of the streams of immigration and culture in the city, and eventually in this column we will get to one of them.

Where does this leave us? The common thread between LaRocca and the Assuntos lends resonance to the Dukes’ revival of the sound in the 1940s. And there’s no denying the craftsmanship of the bands featured in this best-of. In the back of my mind, though, every time I listen to a Dixieland record is the knowledge that this was throwback music made in deliberate rejection of the bebop jazz emerging from the black jazz musicians of the time, and that is why this admittedly well-made record doesn’t get much play in my house.

You can listen to the record here: