John Coltrane Quartet, Crescent

Album of the Week, February 24, 2024

After a European tour, the blistering Live at Birdland recording, and a little downtime, Trane and his quartet entered Rudy Van Gelder’s studio in Englewood Cliffs for a new recording session on April 27, 1964, with a subsequent one following on June 1. Unlike the prior session with Johnny Hartman, and the two studio albums preceding it, these sessions contained nothing but Coltrane originals. But, perhaps unlike the earlier sessions featuring Trane’s writing such as Giant Steps, these new sessions were infused with a deep sense of melody and a searching new tone.

The core inside these recordings arguably stretches back to Trane’s prior album, the misleadingly named Live at Birdland. Three of the tracks came from a live session recorded October 8, 1963 at the Birdland Club, but two were recorded on November 18 in the Van Gelder studio, and one of those tracks was “Alabama.” Trane’s memorial for the victims of the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing, which had happened just 63 days prior, has a darkness and intensity to it that repays repeated listening. Like his arrangements of “My Favorite Things” and “Greensleeves,” there is a modal core to the performance, but unlike those there is a depth of melodic line and searching that calls back to the ballad albums before. Suddenly the elements of the quartet — Elvin Jones’ explosive energy, Jimmy Garrison’s ascetic, precise, suspended bass lines, and McCoy Tyner’s block chords — gel around Trane’s sound to make something deeper and more … well, spiritual.

The phrase “spiritual jazz” was coined to describe the sound coming from Trane’s quartet at this time, and while it may smack uncomfortably of marketing, it’s not wrong. Trane is searching in these recordings for something that seems just out of reach, but when found brings a sense of deep joy.

Crescent”’s opening seems to encapsulate that search, as Trane conjures the melody out of a storm of clouds and a string of chords. While the chords of the tune come slowly, they are placed precisely, as though Trane and the band are carving them from stone. The solo has blistering runs, but also short passages of melodic variation so intense that Tyner drops out for a bit to give him more space. In some of the passages you hear Trane overblowing the horn, reaching beyond the normal tones of the saxophone into squeaks and smears and shouts of sound. Just as the tenor seems to have found a new shore, the band re-enters for a restatement of the opening, and where the first statement felt emergent, the reprise feels deliberate, a statement of affirmation, of discovery.

Wise One” is a ballad in a minor mode, opened by Trane with a reflective solo taken out of time. McCoy Tyner picks up the tempo as the verse begins; his solo vamps in and out of the mode while Garrison plays suspensions on the fifth and octave and Elvin Jones provides a running pattern of regular eighth notes on the cymbals and syncopated hits on the tom. Trane picks up Tyner’s modulation when he picks up the tune from the middle eight, and then returns to the minor mode to close. It’s a stunningly reflective and lovely performance.

It’s ironic that “Bessie’s Blues” is the brightest, most uptempo work on the record, while maintaining the blues form. It’s also by far the shortest and happiest-sounding. Trane explores a set of different modes as he improvises, moving in and out of the chord structure so that Tyner lays out during the solo to give him the harmonic freedom to explore. The whole thing is loose and fun and has the feeling of something that emerged spontaneously in the studio, but in fact it is the second take of the tune, coming from the June sessions; the first take from April 27 wouldn’t appear until the 1998 Complete Impulse Recordings.

Lonnie’s Lament” feels like a continuation of “Crescent,” which is more to say that Trane and his group were in a consistent mood for this album than to say anything about the melodies per se. The actual melody is nothing like “Crescent, “ but both open with a slow moving minor-key melodic line. Interestingly, “Lonnie’s Lament” came first, originating in shows that the Quartet played in late 1963, and its melody most closely shows the influence of the process that led to “Alabama.” The band follows Trane’s mood, staying subdued throughout the tune, pausing on the suspension that leads into the last corner of the melody, then charging ahead with a melodic bass solo from Jimmy Garrison, who seamlessly interchanges ideas with McCoy Tyner, soloing primarily in the right hand, then punctuating with big block chords in the left. Tyner’s solo takes off into a more rhythmic exploration of Trane’s melody, seamlessly passing to Garrison for an extended solo in triplets alternating with syncopated, loping steps, then transitioning into a freer rhythmic exploration of the tune. His solo here establishes him firmly as an equally contributing member of the quartet, with his distinctive contribution being the sense of space that he introduces throughout the solo. Trane takes no solo, returning to restate the melody at the end over rolls of thunder from Elvin Jones.

Jones, appropriately enough, opens the last track on the album, “The Drum Thing,” with a pulsing rhythm on the toms and bass drum, punctuated by a repeated bass pattern from Jimmy Garrison, an eighth-note upbeat on the fifth of the scale followed by a quarter on the upper tonic, repeating with the last upper tonic held as a dotted quarter. It’s hard to write it out, but you might vocalize it as “da-dum-da-dumm.” (You might also think it presages another famous bass melody in Trane’s work, and you’d be right, but that’s a story for another time.) Here it stays in the background as Trane enters, improvising a melody around the inverted fifth as Jones steps forward, playing a truly thunderous, explosive melody against the bass ground and exploring different timbres in the kit. He returns to his original pattern as Trane re-enters on a major key inspired version of the opening melody that modulates back to a recapitulation. The heartbeat carries throughout until the end, and it draws to a sudden close as if the only way to stop it was simply to stop.

There are multiple threads that come together in an ingenious, absorbing way on Crescent: the dark, mournful balladic melodies previously heard in “Alabama,” a new sense of space in Trane’s performance, a greater sense of independent voice from the other quartet members combined with some truly telepathic moments. It’s a brilliant record that deserves to be better known. Only the even greater brilliance of its successor stands in the way of that broader recognition, and we’ll hear why in due time. Next week, though, we’ll hear a little of what Trane and his group got up to in mid-1964.

You can listen to this week’s album here:

John Coltrane, John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman

Album of the Week, February 17, 2024

When I was in high school, I knew that I wanted to have a tenor voice. My dad had a beautiful tenor voice that could ring the room. I listened to a lot of Sting, whose tenor voice seemed to dwell perpetually in a higher octave (and whose songs garnered me some much welcomed attention when I performed them). … And then l went to college and picked up John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman at Plan 9 Records, and decided maybe being a baritone was more desirable after all.

Coltrane and Hartman had both played in Dizzy Gillespie’s band in the late 1940s, but their time didn’t overlap; they shared a stage once in Harlem at the Apollo Theatre in 1950; but it’s still not known exactly how the singer came to Coltrane’s attention. But Trane has told us why he recorded with him. The Paris Review recounts a 1966 interview with the saxophonist, who told the interviewer, Frank Kofksky: “Johnny Hartman—a man that I’d had stuck up in my mind somewhere—I just felt something about him, you know, I don’t know what it was. And I liked his sound, I thought there was something there I had to hear, you know, so I looked him up and did that other one, see.”

That sound, incidentally, might be better thought of as crooning than jazz vocals. Colgate University professor Michael Coyle places Hartman in the crooning tradition, as a follower of Bing Crosby and Rudy Vallée, and points out his innovation was the ability to stretch the melodic line, introducing space and drama into the melodies. I dispute the point a bit—Hartman’s tone is solid and his control is completely impeccable—but there’s no doubt he’s a much more subtle singer than the performers who came before him.

That point is brought home in “They Say It’s Wonderful,” the first track on the album. After a brief introduction from McCoy Tyner, Hartman sings “They say that falling in love is wonderful.” But that quote is insufficient to convey the subtlety of his phrasing, as he leans on “say,” ever so briefly pauses after “that,” elongates “love,” and diminuendos ever so slightly on “wonderful” while still holding the note, creating a suspension on the seventh of the chord and making you hang on his words to hear what comes next. It’s a masterclass in vocal control, and it’s just the first phrase. Trane stays under Hartman’s line, providing accents at the end of lines but otherwise staying out of the way. When he takes a solo, he picks up some of the vocal inflections and phrasing of the singer, elaborating them a little with some of his characteristic flourishes but mostly staying in the pocket. While there are traces of the technically brilliant sheets of sound, they’re constrained within the boundaries of the melody, serving as accents rather than the main thrust of the sound. Hartman returns for a tag of the bridge and takes a breathtaking break in the rhythm, seeming to soar weightless over the band for a moment.

Hartman opens “Dedicated to You” with a simple declaration of the first quatrain of the melody, and Trane picks it up, playing the rest of the verse as a straight melody. At almost exactly the halfway point, Hartman picks it up seamlessly, singing it straight until the coda when he repeats the words “dedicated to you” as an out-of-time riff. It’s a sincere and simple, but not simple-minded performance. “My One and Only Love” is flipped around, with Trane taking the first verse with the quartet, taking a rubato measure to close the melody out, then inserting two bars in which the band seems to hover over a suspended fifth in the bass. Hartman enters after that moment of suspension and seems to restart all the clocks, taking the verse in time and stretching the meter in the final chorus just ever so slightly. The band returns to the suspended chords for a final two measures before resolving the tune.

Lush Life” was reportedly a late addition to the track list; apparently Trane and Hartman were on their way to Rudy Van Gelder’s studio in a car when Nat King Cole’s version of the tune came on the radio, and Hartman decided on the spot to perform it. Trane of course had performed the tune years before, but you can definitely hear traces of Cole’s version in Hartman’s brisk introduction, which moves unsentimentally through the verse, accompanied only by Tyner, until he sings “washed away/by too many through the day” and holds “too” for an extra beat or two, accentuating the melancholy under the surface joys of the lush life. When the chorus begins, the rest of the quartet joins but stays in the background. Garrison’s bass spells out the roots of the chords and accentuates the changes with subtle arpeggios, and follows Hartman’s chromatic ascending scale on “those whose lives are lonely too”; Tyner continues the ascending scale after Hartman stops and Trane picks up the solo seamlessly, playing a breathless double-time through the melody until he gets to the final chorus, when Hartman rejoins to close it out. It’s a briefer version of the tune than Trane’s 1958 magnum opus but seems to hit all the high points.

Famously, Hartman claimed that the whole album was recorded in a single take, except “You Are Too Beautiful,” which had to be restarted when Elvin Jones dropped a brush. It’s a great story, if untrue (alternate takes are available for each track). The Rodgers and Hart tune gallops all over the octave, but Hartman makes it seem easy. Tyner gets the solo, playing through the tune as a syncopated stretto against Jones’ shuffle until the final four bars when he matches velocity with the main tune once again. In the reprise, Hartman’s careful use of legato is apparent in the first phrase, where he enters from above and uses a little melisma around the edges of the tune; his final phrase holds the supertonic just long enough for you to notice before he resolves.

The final track is, as far as I know, the only rumba that the classic Coltrane quartet ever recorded, so of course Trane deconstructs it in his solo. “Autumn Serenade” opens with the bass doubling Tyner, playing a rumba rhythm under Hartman. When Trane joins he turns the melody into a series of cascading sixteenth notes in groups of three, pausing between each and playing with the modal melody. This is the one place on the album where you can hear some of Trane’s searching runs, and the end of his solo feels as though it could keep going on that search forever, but he pulls back just enough. At the end, Hartman sings “serenade” and holds the top note while Trane plays a few more of the trios of sixteenth notes, as though turning away from the resolution to continue the search.

John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman was the third of Trane’s great ballads albums of the early 1960s, following Duke Ellington and John Coltrane and Ballads. Whatever the great saxophonist felt he had to prove to his critics or to himself, he appears to have done it with this album; the following recordings would return to some of the wilder searching we heard on Evenings at the Village Gate, but with a new sense of melodic core. We’ll hear one of the first outings of this next phase of Trane’s career next time.

You can listen to today’s album here:

McCoy Tyner, Nights of Ballads & Blues

Album of the Week, February 10, 2024

On March 4, 1963, McCoy Tyner was in Rudy Van Gelder’s studio at Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey with Steve Davis on bass and Lex Humphries on drums. Unlike his prior session for Impulse!, this was going to be a session entirely of ballads. Who knows why—perhaps because Bob Thiele liked the results of the sessions, finished the previous year, that led to John Coltrane’s Ballads album; perhaps because Thiele wanted to balance Trane’s avant garde tendencies with more albums for more conservative jazz listeners. For whatever reason, two weeks before Herbie Hancock entered Van Gelder’s domain to record My Point of View, this single session of ballads yielded one of the most approachable records of Tyner’s early career.

The Ellington/Strayhorn/Johnny Mercer classic “Satin Doll” was by this point something of a chestnut, having been recorded by dozens of musicians despite having been written only in 1953. Tyner’s approach to the chords of the tune and his use of unusual rhythms in his solo helps keep the song fresh here. Steve Davis’ walking bass and Lex Humphries’ brush-forward drumming both keep the piano in the foreground, though Humphries has some inventive patterns for the drums throughout.

We’ll Be Together Again,” written by Carl Fischer with lyrics by Frankie Laine, is far less well known, and the band takes advantage of the comparative freshness of the tune to create a sound that is more distinctive. The descending chords of the melody here create an effect not unlike a Bill Evans composition, with more than a hint of melancholy peeking out from behind the sunny melody. It’s a striking tune, and Tyner eschews the use of his customary block chords to let the melody speak more directly; he deploys unusual arpeggios that draw out darker shadows in the chords as accents to the melody on the head, but stays closer to the chords in the solos. It’s a good illustration of Coltrane’s observation, quoted in the liner notes: “He gets a personal sound from his instrument; and because of the clusters he uses and the way he voices them, that sound is brighter than what would normally be expected from most of the chord patterns he plays.”

If anything should belie the perception that Tyner was simply a conservative musician, it might be the presence of two Thelonious Monk compositions on the album. “Round Midnight” was of course a famous part of the jazz canon by now, following covers by Miles and others. His version of the standard opens with a solo verse on the theme that demonstrates some of those “personal clusters” as well as Tyner’s renowned sensitive touch. When the rest of the trio comes in, it’s with a rhythmic approach that pivots between major and modal, bringing a new feeling to the standard rather than echoing Miles’ arrangement.

For Heaven’s Sake” is a little-known ballad by Sherman Edwards, Elise Bretton and Donald Meyer. Tyner gives it a straight reading that, in the last verse, opens some space between the chords, letting the tune breathe. It’s a striking moment, particularly as his final chords veer into a different tonality.

Gene DePaul and Don Raye’s “Star Eyes,” first given a jazz reading by Charlie Parker, here opens with a set of modal chords that seem likely to take us in a different direction, before the main tune comes in. Here Tyner displays a virtuoso flourish by taking the solo in double time, then layering dizzying arpeggios over the chords. It’s far from a laid back ballad reading, and the combination of his flourishes and Humphries’ occasional jab on the drums causes one to sit up a little straighter and listen.

Blue Monk” is the second Monk composition on the album, and Tyner gives it a straight-ahead blues reading that features more of the pianist’s unusual chord voicings. Davis is a little more foregrounded here with a forthright walking bass that ventures into some unusual chords in the last four bars of the tune, as well as his only solo on the album. Tyner explores some unusual modal corners in his solo, and Humphries plays with the meter, joining the pianist on some of the triplets in the tune and dropping the occasional bomb. But it’s still a fundamentally conservative approach to the tune, albeit a pleasant one.

Tyner’s “Groove Waltz” is the only original on the album, and it’s a doozy, a modal waltz that follows twelve-bar blues form. The band sits up a little straighter for this one, with Humphries coming a little more to the fore with some inventive explosions and Davis keeping things pinned to the straight-ahead rhythmic heartbeat. Tyner’s melody wouldn’t be out of place on a Herbie Hancock record, but his densely voiced clusters—and that waltz—create a sound that’s distinctively his. It’s by far the highlight of the album for me, and producer Bob Thiele’s fadeout makes me want to listen to the original session tapes to hear how the band brought this one to a close.

The Mancini/Mercer standard “Days of Wine and Roses” closes out the album in a more familiar place with a gentle arrangement of the ballad. Tyner’s trick of introducing brief passages in a different mode surfaces here toward the end of the first and last verse, briefly lifting the tune into a different sound world. His use of a different rhythmic direction in the final chorus likewise sets this apart from a routine reading, as does the conclusion, in which Davis anchors the key with a bowed tonic note while the band concludes the tune.

Tyner wasn’t done with exploring the traditional ballad repertoire, and neither was Coltrane. Next week’s record is perhaps the most spectacular example of the journey through the discovery of melody that Trane’s quartet took in 1962 and 1963, on which they’re joined by an unlikely collaborator.

You can listen to this week’s album here:

John Coltrane, Ballads

Album of the Week, February 3, 2024

John Coltrane appears to have taken the criticism of his avant-garde work in the early 1960s to heart. In fairness, being called “anti-jazz” cannot have been good for the tenor’s ego. But Trane was self-aware enough about his work, and conscious enough about his progression as a performer, to have taken a more deliberate step into a different sonic world on this album. Or, as he told critic Gene Lees (as told in the liner notes to this album) when he asked why the change in sound, “‘Variety.’ Meaning a change of pace. And perhaps he wanted to apprise [sic] those who haven’t discovered it [sic] that he can be lyrical.”

Whatever the reason, Ballads is about as lovely and straightforward a reading from the Great American Song Book as you’re likely to find. Recorded in three sessions beginning December 21, 1961, about six weeks after the final recordings at the Village Vanguard that yielded Live at the Village Vanguard and Impressions and still featuring Reggie Workman on bass, and continuing into late 1962 (with the classic quartet featuring Jimmy Garrison, McCoy Tyner and Elvin Jones), the sessions interleaved with recordings for other projects, including Coltrane, Duke Ellington & John Coltrane, and some of the studio recordings for Impressions. Legendarily, the quartet walked into the sessions with a pile of music-store sheet music for the songs, never having played any of them before. Overwhelmingly, the impression is of Coltrane treating his saxophone like a voice and his solos like song.

Say It (Over & Over Again),” a Jimmy McHugh classic, sounds superficially in arrangement like the ballads we’ve just heard on McCoy Tyner’s solo albums, but listen closely and there are cues that Trane is still at the wheel. The suspensions in the pedal bass through the verse, the restraint of the group’s sound overall even as Tyner brings a gentle glissando through the middle of his solo, the opening feels tentative and even a little melancholy. But then comes the key change in the bridge and suddenly there are echoes of some of the soloistic choices on Coltrane’s Sound. The saxophonist’s solo trails off, as if in a reverie, and Tyner follows.

You Don’t Know What Love Is,” by contrast, brings some of the energy in the reading of the head that Trane used in My Favorite Things. But while the vocal sound of the track is full and warm, he keeps the pyrotechnics hidden away in favor of a straightforward reading of the tune. Not to say it’s boring. The syncopation he brings in the major-key middle eight of the tune, the explosions from Elvin Jones’ kit, and most of all the modal rocking in the piano as the group transitions out of the head and into the first solo all place this in the lineage of “My Favorite Things” and “Greensleeves.” Trane’s solo gets more impassioned, bringing bursts of sound from Jones, but then he reels it back in on the final statement of the head, with only (only!) one final octave jump and descending arpeggio to hint at the pathos of the tune. By comparison, “Too Young to Go Steady” is a cheery, straightforward reading of the Jimmy McHugh tune made famous by Nat “King” Cole. Only Jones’ slightly wide-eyed double-time snare work hints at anything more than the tune itself. You’d never know the tune was written (by Gene DePaul, lyrics by Don Raye) for an Abbott and Costello film.

Jones kicks off “All or Nothing At All” with a full kit workout that leads into a modal bass line and comping piano chords. Lees’ liner notes indicate that Trane was trying for an Arabic feeling in this cover of the Arthur Altman tune, and there’s certainly more development in the solo, with hints of the “sheets of sound” glissandos at phrase ends and in the minute-long outro. But where earlier recordings might have had those glissandos climbing for the stars, here they seem to turn inward as the track gradually fades out. It’s another one where you get a sense of the Coltrane of “My Favorite Things” waiting in the wings, but he never quite steps into the spotlight.

Harry Warren’s “I Wish I Knew” gets a quiet and contemplative treatment. Both Jones and Jimmy Garrison are relatively restrained in their accompaniment, while Tyner shows his well-earned reputation for elegance in his brief solo. Trane plays a little with the time in the return of the head, but otherwise plays it absolutely straight. The finest moment of the arrangement might be the two arrivals of a new key in the coda, hinting that the band might just explore the tune forever if you let them.

Bob Haggart’s “What’s New” is given a full verse intro by Tyner playing solo, before Coltrane joins on the melody. While the overall tempo is subdued, Jones keeps just enough pots boiling on the kit that things continue moving into the solo, where Coltrane picks up the energy as well. The band ramps things down almost as quickly as they start. “It’s Easy to Remember (But So Hard to Forget),” a Rodgers and Hart classic, follows closely behind. The only track from that 1961 session on the record, and the only one featuring Reggie Workman, the sound is remarkably of a piece with the rest of the album. Trane perhaps incorporates a little more flourish into some of his playing in the middle chorus, but it’s otherwise a concise statement of the tune, given presence by an Elvin Jones roll of thunder at the end.

Jimmy Van Heusen’s “Nancy (With the Laughing Face)” was originally recorded by Frank Sinatra in 1944 and is named after his daughter, but there are no boots, made for walking or otherwise, in Trane’s treatment of the tune. Trane’s saxophone seems to breathe like a singer, achieving an almost vocal tone. Garrison’s bass is a subtle accompaniment throughout. The band picks up the energy a little in the second bridge, but ultimately closes the tune, and the album, as gently as it started.

Ballads accomplishes its goal of showing a different side of Coltrane. He trades flashy technique for constrained intensity and achieves a different kind of mastery of his instrument in moments like “You Don’t Know What Love Is” and “All or Nothing at All.” Compare the performance to some of Trane’s earlier ballad work, for instance on Lush Life—there’s many fewer notes here, saying just as much if not more. By subtracting some of the complexity of the earlier performances, Trane seems to gain depth and intensity in each of the notes he does play. We’ll continue in this vein with another album from his band next week.

You can listen to today’s album here:

McCoy Tyner, Reaching Fourth

Album of the Week, January 27, 2024

The repercussions of John Coltrane’s reach into avant-garde jazz, and subsequent backlash from some critics, can be traced in his early career in the 1960s, as albums after Africa/Brass took a different approach and recordings from the 1961 residencies went unpublished for several years. It’s tempting to read McCoy Tyner’s Impulse! recordings through the same lens, imagining that his substantial talents in forcefully modal jazz were suppressed by the label. Some critics have read the early Tyner recordings as evidence that he was insufficiently innovative for Coltrane’s group, foresaging his eventual departure.

The truth of the matter appears to have been mundanely commercial. Creed Taylor had left Impulse! in the summer of 1961, and his successor, Bob Thiele, asked Tyner to record more straightforward jazz albums. —I should note something about the classic Impulse! recordings before I go any further. Like Blue Note before it and CTI after, Impulse! under Taylor and his successors created a distinctive graphic identity through the use of photography, typography, design, and the overall excellence of the physical package, and Reaching Fourth is no exception. Released in a gatefold cover with striking photography and text against a black background, and the orange, black and white “house style” design on the back, it’s a gorgeous package, and the design holds up even in my 1974 reissued copy.

Whatever the impetus of the album, Reaching Fourth is a mix of standards and intriguing Tyner originals, recorded as a trio with bassist Henry Grimes and drummer Roy Haynes. Grimes, who would go on to build an important career in free jazz as a member of groups led by Pharaoh Sanders, Steve Lacy, Cecil Taylor, Don Cherry, and others had come to fame at the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival and its accompanying documentary, Jazz on a Summer’s Day. Word spread about his amazing playing and he ended up playing with six different groups throughout the festival. Haynes, who had been playing since his debut in his native Boston in 1942, had recorded with Charlie Parker, Lester Young, Bud Powell, and Sarah Vaughan. (He is still going strong; his 95th birthday party in 2020 was cancelled due to COVID-19. I saw him play in that same 1993 jazz festival at UVA, where he clearly could outplay all the young musicians in his band.)

The title track is a Tyner composition that seems designed to showcase the more imaginative side of his writing and performance. It bears some of his early hallmarks—unusual modal voicings, a brisk tempo, high velocity runs. But it also benefits from the excellence of his collaborators. Haynes’ drumming stays on the off beat and punctuates Tyner’s solo with brisk snare rolls, while Grimes’ fiercely percussive plucked accompaniment turns into a fiery bowed solo. Haynes trades eights with both Grimes and Tyner, exploring the full tonal color of his kit in the process.

Goodbye”, written by Gordon Jenkins after the death of his first wife, changes the pace to a meditative rumination. The tune and chords swing from minor in the verse to major in the chorus and back, as though discovering different facets of grief in each new bar. Tyner’s playing has a sensitive touch even as he traces the contours and changes of the tune, and Haynes and Grimes are quietly supportive. It’s a deep sigh of a tune.

Theme for Ernie,” written by guitarist Fred Lacey for saxophonist Ernie Henry, is a bubbly tune that’s given a bouncy reading. Tyner’s playing pulls at the corners of the melody with brisk runs, accompanied by Grimes at his most buoyant. Grimes’ solo is melodically indebted to Scott LaFaro; indeed, this track brings to mind some of the telepathic interchange between LaFaro and Bill Evans on their trio recordings.

Tyner’s other original, “Blues Back,” is a straight blues, and Grimes especially plays it straight, sounding each note as though tolling a bell. Tyner, by contrast, shows how this blues swings into different modes almost with every measure, even creating a Mixolydian counter-melody in the fourth chorus of his solo. Grimes takes a two-chorus solo that explores some of Tyner’s melodic ideas before the trio returns to the theme once more.

Old Devil Moon” (which the track listing tells us is from the 1947 Broadway show Finian’s Rainbow) is more commonly remembered as a tune in Frank Sinatra’s catalog; before Sinatra, Miles recorded it in 1953 on his Prestige Records release The Miles Davis Quartet. Tyner takes the tune in a completely different direction, opening with a modal progression between bass and piano, before returning to the main melody. Grimes’ bass line remains constant between the more traditional sections and the modal interludes, providing a pedal point against which Tyner stretches the melody. Haynes helps the forward motion, keeping a steady rhythm with a little trip against the snare in the fourth beat of each measure. Together, the group seems to lean from the straight and narrow into more exciting territory, then to settle back into the straight paths as though with a grin.

Have You Met Miss Jones” closes out the album; Tyner takes the Rodgers and Hart classic from 1937’s I’d Rather Be Right and dispatches it at breakneck speed. In the coda, Grimes plays octaves around which Tyner improvises a modal melody, wrapping up the whole thing in less than four minutes. It’s a remarkable exercise in economy and a lot of fun too.

After listening to Tyner’s early work with Coltrane, listening to his early trio recordings for Impulse! can initially feel like a step back to an earlier, simpler conception of jazz. Reaching Fourth repays careful listening, showing off his innovative ear and unique compositional gifts; we’ll hear more of both as we listen to more of the recordings in the catalog. Next week we’ll pick up Coltrane’s story where we left off, finding him in a very different territory than the New York clubs that hosted his last explorations.

You can listen to this week’s album here:

John Coltrane with Eric Dolphy, Evenings at the Village Gate

Album of the Week, January 20, 2024

In the early 1960s, John Coltrane’s studio recordings were expressive and harmonically innovative, but still followed a recognizable jazz form: statement of the melody, or head; solos that were structured around the chords of the melody; a recapitulation of the head. But other musicians were starting to innovate on that form, moving away from the structure of playing over the chord changes. Miles moved to improvisation over modal scales, as we’ve seen. And other musicians went even further, rejecting consistent chords in favor of more unlimited explorations. Ornette Coleman’s 1960 album Free Jazz gave the movement a name, and others explored its ideas. One of the most promising of them was saxophonist and flautist Eric Dolphy. And when Dolphy met Trane, it changed the older composer’s trajectory.

Trane and Dolphy had met years previously in Los Angeles, and when Trane began performing in New York in the summer of 1961, he invited Dolphy to join his group. Additionally, his group included two bassists; Trane liked the freedom the second bass offered to have both a constant “ground” or repeated fundamental note in the chord, while the other bassist was free to be a more melodic voice. So the group included Dolphy, Reggie Workman (who had replaced Steve Davis), Art Davis, and Elvin Jones and McCoy Tyner from Trane’s quartet, last heard on Coltrane’s Sound.

Until recently, the main documentation for Trane’s New York sessions with Dolphy consisted of recordings from his residencies at the Village Vanguard in the fall of 1961, including 1962’s Live! At the Village Vanguard and half the tracks on 1963’s Impressions; both recordings have Jimmy Garrison replacing Art Davis. But last year a recording was found at the New York Public Library of an earlier residency, from July 1961, at the Village Gate. The recording shows off Trane’s emerging free concept at a transitional moment. Much of the repertoire is familiar from his 1961 releases, but the performances are very different.

Where the studio version of “My Favorite Things” begins with a modal progression and a clear statement of the theme, this live version jumps right in with an extended Eric Dolphy flute solo. It’s actually not clear from the recording whether the song begins here or if the recording started after the statement of the theme, but he improvises for an extended period over the minor chords of theme, eventually coming into a statement of the second eight bars of the melody (ending in “these are a few of my favorite things”) before entering another extended improvisation. He finally brings this solo to a close some six minutes in, and Trane steps up on soprano sax, stating the theme before signalling the beginning of his improvisation with a sustained blast on the tonic. His solo hugs the high end of the range, stretching out the ideas in his solos on the studio version. A phrase that might have occupied a measure or two on My Favorite Things here gets extended to 16 or 32 bars, with Trane continually extending and searching forward. Beneath the solos, Elvin Jones continually propels the beat forward. On this archival recording live recording, the bass is less audible than if Rudy Van Gelder were taping, but you can hear both the constant ground and the melodic improvisation of the two players.

When Lights are Low” has both a straight version of the melody and a keening dervish-like improvisation from Trane’s soprano sax. Dolphy anchors the low end of the line with his bass clarinet, underpinning the dizzying improvisation of Trane’s soprano sax with an earthier tone. Tyner gets a solo that sounds more conventionally structural than anything else in the 80 minute long set, but which is almost as equally searching within the limits of chromatic tonality as some of Trane’s Pentecostal honks. Throughout, Jones continues to drop explosions. I once saw the Elvin Jones Jazz Machine in Old Cabell Hall at the University of Virginia, in 1993; at the age of 66, he was easily the most muscular and dramatic player I saw that weekend, and you can hear his work throughout this set.

Impressions” is a track that Trane never released on a studio album; the only two studio recordings extant weren’t released until 2018—but the many live performances he did often featured the track, including its appearance on the 1963 half-live album that is its namesake. Here the track has all its hallmark features—the use of the “So What” chords, especially the uptempo live version that Miles preferred and that features on the Live in Copenhagen recording. Trane takes a shorter solo here and lets Dolphy and Tyner explore the sounds before stepping back up to close out the tune. It feels more formal and less wild than the version from Impressions, recorded just four months later, but the seeds of the approach were clearly already planted.

Trane finished the set with “Greensleeves” and “Africa,” both of which featured on his Africa/Brass album, which was still about six weeks from release at the time of these sessions. “Greensleeves” feels a lot like the “My Favorite Things” arrangement, anchored in a modal two-chord pivot that Tyner keeps going throughout the arrangement, but made wild and new by Trane’s explorations. Dolphy is mostly in the background on bass clarinet for these cuts as Trane explores the sound being created by the group. When the horns drop away, leaving a Tyner-anchored piano trio, it’s almost a shock, even as Tyner’s powerful clustered chords keep the momentum of the full band track going. “Africa” is a wilder, looser tune, less anchored in chords and more a free modal exploration. It also features the one part of the set where you can clearly hear what Reggie Workman and Art Davis were up to, in an eight minute long duet. Workman’s melodic playing explored the upper end of the instrument’s register before finding a rhythmic dance against percussive string slaps and a grounding thrum from Davis. Jones takes center stage as well, dislodging the pulse in space and time, before Dolphy and Trane return for a final hurrah—and applause from what sounds like a small audience in the club.

Trane’s group with Dolphy would last almost through the end of the year. Ultimately Dolphy moved on to play with Charles Mingus, where he could play a more central role in the sound of the group; Reggie Workman would move on as well following a European tour. Ultimately Trane found a mixed reception for his experiments with Dolphy, with some critics calling the sound “anti-jazz.” He would regroup in the following year and take his sound in another very different direction. Before we check in on the outcomes of those explorations, though, we’ll listen a little more closely to what some of his sidemen were bringing to the table.

You can listen to this week’s album here:

John Coltrane, Coltrane’s Sound

Album of the Week, January 13, 2024

John Coltrane’s stay on Atlantic Records, which started with a bang with Giant Steps, was ultimately brief. Signed in 1959, he recorded Steps, an excellent follow-up (Coltrane Jazz), and then a blockbuster (My Favorite Things) in the span of about 15 months… while also touring with Miles’s quintet (the tour which yielded the Copenhagen performance we’ve looked at recently). My Favorite Things was a hit, yielding the enduringly popular modal version of the Rodgers and Hammerstein title track, which recasts Julie Andrews’ “whiskers on kittens” into a modal exercise in musical ecstasy that calls to mind nothing so much as qawwali chants (about which, more later).

Several things happened as a result of Trane’s rising popularity. First, even before the release of Things in March 1961, Trane’s previous label Prestige Records realized they had hours of recordings by Trane in the can. They began packaging those sessions for re-release, and issued a series of records under Trane’s name but without his approval. (The series began with Lush Life, released shortly before Things in February or early March 1961.) The second thing was that Trane came to the attention of a young Creed Taylor, who had established the Impulse! Records label the year before. Impulse bought out Trane’s contract in May 1961 and he began a historic association with that label after recording one more session for Atlantic, which yielded Olé Coltrane.

Not to be outdone by Prestige, Atlantic followed their playbook and issued their own set of unauthorized Trane albums, assembling them from unused recordings from the sessions for the earlier albums. Coltrane Plays the Blues was the first to be released, in 1962. The second was Coltrane’s Sound, released in the summer of 1964. The album, recorded during the My Favorite Things sessions in October 1960, featured the earliest stable incarnation of the classic John Coltrane Quartet, with McCoy Tyner on piano, Elvin Jones on drums, and Steve Davis on bass. Jones had come to Trane’s band earlier in 1960, following time in Sonny Rollins’ quartet. Tyner had been friends with Coltrane for years, both hailing from Philadelphia, and also joined in 1960. Davis was Tyner’s brother-in-law and had joined the band for the My Favorite Things session. The checkered history of this album aside, it plays like a coherent concept from start to finish, wrapped in an unusual painted cover by Marvin Israel, Atlantic’s art director at the time (who must have liked the technique he used for the cover; he used it again for albums by Sonny Stitt, Charles Mingus, and Milt Jackson).

The Night Has a Thousand Eyes,” composed by Jerry Brainin, opens the album with a bold, major key statement. Trane blows the head melody over a percolating accompaniment from Tyner and Jones; Davis keeps the tune rooted, alternating between a walking bassline on the B section and a suspended D (a fourth down from the tonic) on the A section. Trane’s solo is classic “sheets of sound,” but with a greater emphasis on melodic development. Tyner’s, by contrast, leans into the chords percussively, sounding a distinctly different approach to the melody. Where Tommy Flanagan sometimes kept himself elegantly in the background on Giant Steps, Tyner’s melodic development and forthright chords announce him as an equal partner in Trane’s overall sound. Throughout it all, Jones matches Tyner’s percussive power, delivering bursts of sound on off beats and generally throwing gasoline on the collective fire. And yet, despite all the collective propulsion, the track also reads as a happy melody. It’s a neat trick that Wayne Shorter would nick years later for “Yes and No” on his album Juju.

In the liner notes to the album, jazz critic Ralph Gleason notes that Cannonball Adderley recounted a conversation between Trane and Miles in which Miles asked him “Why you play so long, man?” and Trane responded, “It took that long to get it all in.” As if to refute that earlier conception of jazz, as well as Gleason’s note that there are “those who claim that he will not play ballads,” “Central Park West” is a laconic ballad of Trane’s own composition, featuring an unhurried melody over a meditative set of chord changes. In addition to featuring Tyner’s most outstanding moment on the record in the introduction to his solo, the work also features some truly gorgeous, delicate playing from Trane on soprano sax, as well as the rest of the quartet.

The mood shifts as the quartet plays the opening notes of “Liberia” over a thunderous roll of Jones’ drums. The tune, another Trane composition, is in the same mode as Dizzy Gillespie’s “Night in Tunisia,” and bears other similarities — right up until the point where Trane enters the B part of the head, transforms the tonality into a different mode, and starts stretching up. The rest of his solo is played as a series of attempts to take flight and scale beyond the limits of the tune. It’s a scorcher, and it points the way forward to where Trane would be going in just a few short years.

The second side opens with the other cover on the album. Tyner opens Johnny Green and Edward Heyman’s “Body and Soul” with a modal chord progression that seems to hang Trane’s melody in the storm tossed air, a ray of light through the clouds. Here Coltrane’s ballad playing is a little more loquacious than on “Central Park West,” but still has that note of yearning. McCoy Tyner’s solo is sketched out in block chords in both hands for the first chorus, then shifts to a more melodic approach in the right hand. In the bridge he shifts to playing triplets for a few bars, responding to some of the rhythms introduced by Elvin Jones underneath. Jones’ playing deserves its own paragraph. No mere dusting with brushes here! He provides a counter-rhythm to Tyner’s strong rhythm in the block chords, complete with small explosions of sound as the tune shifts from chorus to bridge. At the end the entire rhythm section is in rhythmic unison under Trane’s unexpectedly tender closing.

The opening of “Equinox” features more of the rhythmic interplay between Tyner and Jones. The pianist’s four-square chords, doubled by Davis, are filled in by Jones’ counterpoint in an eight-bar intro. The band then shifts into eight bars of a syncopated blues rhythm on the tonic chord before Trane enters, blowing the blues. As with “Central Park West,” the opening statement is almost terse, but Trane’s first solo opens up the top end of the scale and begins to hang sheets of sound across the chords. In the fourth chorus we begin to get more of Jones’ rolling thunder, but it’s drawn back as Tyner hits gentle notes under Trane’s final bars. Tyner’s solo opens again with block chords, here less pounding and more tender. He plays with the rhythm of the blues as well as with the melodic center, introducing countermelodies centered on the sixth and seventh degrees of the scale, then launches runs of triplets that seem to take flight like birds. His final chorus is almost entirely on the tonic chord, a neat trick that refocuses the tune into the ominous storm clouds.

Trane returns to the pianoless trio form for only the second time (after “Lush Life”) on “Satellite.” The sax and bass sketch out the melody in a square quarter note rhythm, but Trane is quickly in flight over the walking — running, really — bass line and the rollicking cannon fire laid down by Jones on the drums. While the changes bring “Giant Steps” to life, the overall impression is more playful as the trio springs from melody into shimmering exploration and back. Even without Tyner, there’s no mistaking Trane’s approach here, a sort of joyous exploration of the possibilities of the sound of his new small group.

The group with Davis was short lived, and there will be a different bassist in the chair (or two!) when we listen to the next Trane album. But the sessions recorded by this formation stand as high points in Trane’s early output, even as he was already restlessly moving beyond this sound. We’ll be in a very different place next week.

You can listen to today’s album here:

John Coltrane, Giant Steps

Album of the Week, January 6, 2024

When we last saw John Coltrane, the tenor saxophonist was taking extended solos and testing his freedom from the bandstand while ostensibly on a tour of Europe with Miles Davis. That session was recorded on March 24, 1960, and it came just weeks after the release of today’s album, Trane’s first for Atlantic Records. But the sessions for Giant Steps started years earlier — just a month after the last session for Kind of Blue. The recordings here demonstrate a jazz composer and performer just beginning to stretch out and realize that his span was far greater than previously demonstrated.

In 1959, Trane signed a contract as a leader with Atlantic Records. The label, founded by Turkish-American businessman and music fan Ahmet Ertegun with record executive Herb Abrahamson, had its roots in the R&B music that Ertegun loved; among its first hits was a re-recording of a hit song from his prior label Harlem Records, the McGhee Brothers “Drinking Wine, Spo-Dee-O-Dee.” But jazz was always one of Ertegun’s favored genres, and when he brought his older brother Nesuhi into the label as head of A&R in January 1955, the label expanded its focus on jazz artists, bringing in Shorty Rogers, Jimmy Giuffre, Herbie Mann, Les McCann, Charles Mingus, and, in 1959, Coltrane.

The first sessions for Giant Steps actually took place in between sessions for Kind of Blue, on April 1, 1959, in Atlantic Studios in New York City. The band included Cedar Walton on piano, Lex Humphries on drums, and Trane’s bandmate from Miles’ group Paul Chambers on bass. The session yielded recordings of three tracks, but Trane didn’t like the results and they weren’t heard until they began surfacing as alternate takes on CD reissues of the albums years later.

Trane returned to the studio two weeks after the last Kind of Blue sessions, on May 4 and 5, 1959, with Tommy Flanagan on piano and Art Taylor on drums alongside Chambers. This configuration was more successful, recording “Spiral,” “Cousin Mary,” “Countdown,” “Syeeda’s Song Flute,” “Mr. P.C.”, and “Giant Steps.” To complete the album, Trane re-entered the studio on December 2, 1959 to record “Naima,” this time with Miles’ entire rhythm section—Wynton Kelly, Jimmy Cobb and Chambers.

You can read a lot about the music theory behind “Giant Steps.” Trane’s innovative series of chord changes, moving through changes of thirds and fifths, and the bass line which descended in larger intervals than normal, would be the foundation for much of his early sound. Listening to the track without one’s music theory ears on, two things stand out: the tune is remarkably catchy, with the rising cadence that brings it back to the tonic suggesting a sprightly, upbeat dance; and the tempo is fearsome, particularly as Coltrane’s solo takes flight. Alternate recordings for the session reveal that Trane worked out the melodic patterns that he would play over the chords in advance; by contrast, Tommy Flanagan’s solo in the master take sounds unrehearsed, with hesitant right hand runs over each of the chords separated by gaps at each chord change. At least Flanagan attempted a solo: it is speculated that one of the reasons Trane didn’t use the sessions with Walton and Humphries was that Walton refused to solo on “Giant Steps,” despite having been given the chords in advance.

Cousin Mary,” by contrast, plays like a more straight ahead modal blues, largely staying in the same tonality throughout, and accompanied by a killer walking bass line by Chambers and brisk snare and bass drum work by Taylor. Flanagan provides elegant stabs at the chords under the horn section and takes a solo that digs into the minor second transition in the last measures of the tune. Chambers’ solo starts as a straightforward “walk” of the blues but soon broadens as he leans into the blue note. Listen for the way the rhythm section leaves space at the end of each phrase in the final chorus, as though they are breathing with Trane.

Taylor’s drums open “Countdown” with a fierce solo; he steps back to cymbals and snare as Trane enters, seemingly playing a headlong free stream of notes outside of a melodic structure. When Flanagan and Chambers enter, it becomes apparent that the whole thing is an improvisation off a set of chords that are strongly influenced by the “Giant Steps” chords. Finally Trane blows the melody, and the song is out in less than two minutes and 30 seconds. It’s a mind blower.

By contrast, “Spiral” is more measured, but no less innovative. Trane’s melody is built around a descending chromatic scale, with ornamentation at each step that implies the spiral of the title. The chords descend as well, but the bass stays on a suspended fourth below the tonic. Trane’s “sheets of sound” solo stays pretty close to the chords in the first go round, but by the third chorus he’s regularly ascending up to a minor third above the tonic, then back down. Flanagan’s solo is surer here, leaning into the minor mode. The pianist steps back to just sketching out the chords as Chambers plays a counter-melody around the changes.

Syeeda’s Song Flute,” opening Side 2, is the longest composition on the album and the most unusual. The tune (named after Coltrane’s adopted daughter) is deceptively simple, beginning with the rhythm section playing only on the second (later second and fourth) beat of each measure, and Trane playing a melody primarily consisting of even 8th notes. As the tune comes into the last four measures it changes key, moving from G down to E, before returning to the tonic. Tommy Flanagan’s solo moves nimbly around the changes, sounding at home in this setting; it’s the best work he does on the record. Paul Chambers gets a lengthy solo here as well, elaborating the gnomic wisdom in those chord changes, and bringing not only a more elaborate meter but also strategically timed moments of breath throughout the solo. When Trane returns, he plays the changes as a single note, on the downbeat of each measure, before leaning into the chorus.

Naima” is named after and dedicated to Coltrane’s first wife. It’s a ballad, played slowly and sensitively (no sheets of sound here) above an E♭pedal tone that moves to a B♭ in the middle bars. The performance here, the only one from that December 2 session with Miles’ band, is one of those moments in Trane’s discography where you can hear him subtracting elements from the song to get to the core of what he had to say. It feels centered and quiet from beginning to end, including in Wynton Kelly’s piano solo after the first chorus.

Mr. P.C.” wraps the album as a fast blues. Named after Chambers, it’s a straight ahead tune that hides tricky changes and fast exchanges in its solos. It also bears a strong familial resemblance in its first four bars to Robert MacGimsey’s 1931 song “Shadrack,” especially as performed by Sonny Rollins on his 1951 Sonny Rollins Quartet album. But Trane’s tune takes those four bars, transposes them and lands the tune someplace entirely different; his solo ends up exploring more of the outer reaches of the cosmos than the inside of Nebuchadnezzar’s furnace. Flanagan’s piano takes over the exploration, elegantly exploring the edges of the chords and slipping in a passing Bach reference at one point. Trane returns and trades fours with Taylor for an entire chorus. Throughout, Chambers provides a consistently elevated, but even, pulse; he does not take a solo on the tune named for him.

Trane’s first Atlantic album, and the first solo recording of his post-Miles career, hints at some of the wide open vistas ahead of him. With one foot in the modal statements of Miles’ band at the time and the other foot embarking on a long search for unique expression, Giant Steps promises many moments of exploration ahead. We’ll dig into another moment in those early explorations next time.

You can listen to today’s album here:

Ramsey Lewis, Sound of Christmas

Album of the Week, December 16, 2023

There are some jazz performers who make a career out of breaking boundaries, who record staggering works of genius that don’t connect with the public in their lifetimes but who are celebrated only by a marginally small audience. Ramsey Lewis is not among those performers. A classically trained pianist with populist instincts, he made a career over more than sixty years of recording popular, crowd pleasing jazz influenced by blues, soul, and pop. That’s not to say they weren’t also staggering works of genius in their own right. Case in point: his 1961 holiday album Sound of Christmas, which combines all those influences with the Christmas songbook, in both piano trio and orchestral arrangements.

Ramsey Lewis was born in 1935, half a generation younger than many of the 1960s jazz luminaries we’ve explored in this column, in Chicago to parents who had both migrated from the South. His father was a church choir director, and young Ramsey wanted to follow in his footsteps; when piano lessons were offered to his older sister but not to him, Lewis threw a fit until he was able to take lessons as well. He studied classical piano performance, played in a number of ensembles, and eventually formed his own trio. In October 1961, the trio entered the studio to record their ninth album, and first holiday-themed record. In addition to Lewis, the players included Issac “Red” Holt on drums and Eldee Young on bass, as they had since 1958. In addition to the trio, there was also a string section arranged by Riley Hampton, who was the house bandleader at Chess Records. Hampton had just provided Etta James with the string arrangements behind her career-making smash hit “At Last,” and his skills are on full display on this album… or at least on the second half; the first half is just the trio.

Merry Christmas, Baby” is a low-key opener. A blues written by Charles Brown and Lou Baxter and recorded by Brown when Baxter needed money for medical care, the lyrics of the song (“Merry Christmas, baby/You sure did treat me nice”) are what distinguish it from any other mid-tempo blues, and they’re not evident in this recording. But the performance here is sprightly and the interaction between Lewis, Holt and Young is electric.

Winter Wonderland” was written in 1934 by Felix Bernard, with lyrics by Richard Bernhard Smith; originally about a couple’s romance, later lyrics added in 1947 remade the song into a children’s winter fable. Lewis’s version rollicks all over, with help from “Red” Holt’s drumming.

We’ve written about the origins of “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” before, when Bill Evans featured it on Trio 64. Unlike Evans’ brisk romp, Lewis takes the song as a bluesy ballad, lending a late-night feel to the classic Christmas tune.

The Christmas Blues” should not be confused with the other “Christmas Blues,” written by Sammy Cahn and David Jack Holt. This version is written by the pianist and composer Skitch Henderson, and is a straightforward major blues, introduced by a mean Eldee Young bass solo with jingle bells added for flavor.

Here Comes Santa Claus” was written by Gene Autry, to a tune composed by Oakley Haldeman. Autry was no stranger to Christmas music, having written “Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer” in 1939—and he would go on to debut “Frosty the Snowman” in 1950, making him the single most Christmassy cowboy in America. Lewis’s rendition adds a little boogie-woogie and stride to the performance.

Flipping the record over puts us in a different soundscape, with Lewis’ composition “The Sound of Christmas” introduced by Riley Hampton’s string section and the sound of Lewis on the Celeste. But “Red” Holt’s syncopated beat links it with the first side, and the composition is a jaunty little holiday bop, mingling the flavors of traditional Christmas pop music with Lewis’s blues-flavored piano.

We wrote a bit about the origins of “The Christmas Song” a few weeks ago, and this is a more traditional rendition than Guaraldi’s, with the melody played first in the Celeste, then in the violin before Lewis’s piano takes over with some octave-spanning soulful flavor. The Celeste returns at the end to gently play us out.

God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen” is introduced on tubular bells, and then a hard cut into Lewis’s piano and the strings (so hard a cut that it sounds like it might have been an edit rather than part of the original arrangement). Lewis plays a set of blues variations on the ancient melody, bringing in snippets of “My Favorite Things” and a few other standards along the way. The arrangement swings hard, with the strings sounding like they had just come off a Wes Montgomery record.

Lewis’s version of “Sleigh Ride,” by contrast, is pretty straightforward, with the strings doing much of the heavy lifting in recreating the Leroy Anderson composition. Lewis blues some of the chords around the edges a little in his solo but otherwise plays it straight—appropriate since the original number swings pretty hard already.

The record closes with Frank Loesser’s “What Are You Doing New Years’ Eve?,” surely the most lovesick of the traditional holiday songs. As Loesser’s daughter Susan explained, her father intended that the narrator was asking for a commitment many months in advance: “It always annoyed my father when the song was sung during the holidays.” Lewis’s version incorporates jazz ballad style alongside a snippet of “Für Elise” to close out this bluesy, soulful romp through the Christmas songbook.

Lewis would go on to have a long and varied career in jazz, performing with both jazz trio and extended fusion ensembles (which we’ll hear later). Along the way he recorded a sequel to Sounds of Christmas, which we’ll hear another time. Next week we’ll veer back into the traditional lane for a personal favorite of mine.

You can listen to this week’s album here:

Vince Guaraldi, A Charlie Brown Christmas

Album of the Week, December 2, 2023

It seems to have come from nowhere and to always have been here. For my lifetime, there has always been A Charlie Brown Christmas, and there has always been a jazz piano trio in the background playing to underscore Schulz’s scenes of comedy and pathos, as Charlie Brown and Linus (and Schroeder, Shermy, Violet, Pig-Pen, Frieda, Sally, Lucy and Snoopy) grapple with finding deeper meaning in a holiday designed to stay flashy and shallow at every turn. But it was by no means a destined work, and it was only through the happiest of accidents that Vince Guaraldi was signed up to write the soundtrack that made him famous, and brought jazz into the hearts of countless kids.

Charles Schulz started Peanuts in 1950, after several failed starts in comics (of which the single-panel strip “Li’l Folks” is probably the most worth seeking out). By the early 1960s, the strip was a complete phenomenon, having originated collections of books and merchandise as well as reaching broad nationwide syndication. But television had mostly eluded Schulz. Animated segments featuring the characters were produced for the Tennessee Ernie Ford TV show, but a documentary special, A Boy Named Charlie Brown, was produced in 1963 but never picked up.

It was in the construction of that special that producer Lee Mendelson happened to be listening to the radio and heard Vince Guaraldi’s “Cast Your Fate to the Wind” (from the album Jazz Impressions of Black Orpheus and never intended as a single— it was released in 1962 as the b-side to the bossa nova “Samba de Orpheus”) and hired him to record cues for the documentary. Guaraldi, excited, called Mendelson one night and played him “Linus and Lucy,” which apparently came to him fully formed. While the documentary was never released, Guaraldi released the album Jazz Impressions of A Boy Named Charlie Brown, and this association set him up to continue working with Mendelson when the Coca-Cola Company agreed to sponsor A Charlie Brown Christmas.

Guaraldi convened a few different recording sessions between September 17 and October 28, 1965; the players were not noted on the session reels, but it appears Jerry Granelli and Fred Marshall played drums and bass on most of the session, with Colin Bailey and Monty Budwig appearing on a few tracks. Listening to the full sessions, which were released in a super deluxe edition last year, it’s apparent that Guaraldi brought most of the arrangements with him to the group, only working out a few in the studio.

O Tannenbaum” captures the vibe of the sessions from the beginning. Played solo by Guaraldi on the piano in free time during the first chorus, the drums and bass enter behind him at the beginning to the second and the piece clicks into a jazz shuffle. The sound is kept mellow; the drummer sticks to brushes throughout and the bassist stays to a simple walked line for the next few choruses. When the bass gets a solo chorus, the drummer adds some hits on the hi-hat and snare, but is still kept back in the mix, keeping the overall feeling mellow and contemplative.

What Child is This” appears late in the recording sessions. The traditional English carol, based on the tune “Greensleeves,” is opened with a rippling arpeggio that introduces the tune and repeats between verses; the tune is otherwise played straight by the combo, and the minor key reinforces the wistful feeling of the album. It’s a quick performance, over in only a few verses.

My Little Drum” sees the appearance of a lighter tone, with a children’s chorus (the children’s choir of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in San Rafael, California) providing a vocalise over the trio. Credited to Guaraldi, the tune is a re-working of Katherine Davis’s “Carol of the Drum” aka “The Little Drummer Boy,” with the drummer adding some subtle salsa flavor behind the bass and piano, who mostly play the melody straight.

The more upbeat feeling continues with the soundtrack’s most famous song (and the first real Guaraldi composition), “Linus and Lucy.” The famous walking bass arpeggio is doubled in the left hand of the piano and the acoustic bass, while the drummer mostly keeps time with hits on 2 and 4 and a shaker. The first bridge veers over into samba territory, with the ensemble relaxing into the tune; the second bridge does a more straightforward blues with a walking bass line. It is more complicated to describe than it is to listen to; aurally it’s like a straight shot of dopamine to my Gen-X cortex.

Christmas Time is Here (instrumental)” appears twice on the album. The first rendition is kept simple by the trio, with the bass taking the second verse as a walking solo. The drum sticks to brushwork throughout; the final verse has a tremolo effect in both the piano and the arco bass. It’s delicate and wonderful, and more than a little wistful in the chord progression. The vocal version follows as the lead track of Side 2, and features the children’s choir singing lyrics that Lee Mendelson claims to have written on the back of an envelope in “about ten minutes.” The song has become a standard, having been covered by David Benoit, Ron Escheté, Patti Austin, Debby Boone, Mel Tormé, Rosemary Clooney, R.E.M., Stone Temple Pilots, Khruangbin, Sarah McLachlan, Diana Krall, and El Vez, among others. Jerry Granelli once commented, “Vince always wanted to write a standard. So he made it.”

Skating,” another Guaraldi original, is less widely covered but no less delightful. A study in the use of arpeggios in melody, it’s a relaxed, jaunty melody that soundtracks one of the best physical comedy moments in the special, as Snoopy lures the kids out to skate on the ice only to play “crack the whip” and send them flying.

Hark the Herald Angels Sing,” the number that closes the actual television special, here appears partway through side 2, with a children’s choir in full “loo loo loo” mode and Guaraldi on the Wurlitzer organ. It’s charming and you can hear the late night of the recording session in the kids’ voices; they were apparently taken for ice cream after the session concluded to compensate.

Christmas is Coming” is the last of the Guaraldi originals, and it’s a bop. The drummer is let off the leash as the band leans into the tune, bouncing between straight ahead jazz and the samba-inflected bridge. It would have been interesting to hear some of Guaraldi’s later bands, like the one on A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving, tackle this tune with a horn section.

Für Elise” signals one of the few appearances of Schroder as anything other than a background character, as he plays the Beethoven melody while Lucy tries vainly to get his attention. Robert Wells and Mel Tormé’s classic “The Christmas Song” follows, with a solo rendition by Guaraldi for the first verse and chorus; the bass and drums join quietly behind him for the second verse and chorus. Tormé and Wells’ classic has received many cover performances, definitively by Nat King Cole; this version plays it straight and it’s completely unaffected.

Greensleeves” was added to the definitive running order of the album with the first CD recording in 1988. An alternate version of “What Child Is This,” it was recorded late in the sessions, along with “The Christmas Song,” when the team realized they needed some additional songs to fill out the album. “Greensleeves” returns to the sound world of the second track with a slightly different arpeggiated interlude used in place of the triplets from the earlier track. Listening to the alternate tracks, it’s clear that Guaraldi and Mendelson were looking for a particular mood, trying and discarding arrangements that owed debts to Coltrane and to bossa nova. The band is allowed to stretch out more in this final track, adding a depth of exploratory sound to the album’s final four minutes and playing into different tonalities before concluding.

So we’ve wandered through Vince Guaraldi’s music, forwards and backwards, until we arrived at his most spectacular and most humble production. A Charlie Brown Christmas feels like a standard that has always existed because it captures the peaceful, meditative nature of the holiday alongside the frantic, mysterious, and joyful. Three of the tunes—“Skating,” “Christmas Time is Here,” and “Linus and Lucy”—can be said to have ascended to the realm of jazz and holiday standards. Not bad for 30 minutes of television anchored by a simple jazz piano trio. We’ll come back to Guaraldi once more at some point in the future as we wander through my collection; next week, though, we’ll touch a different Christmas tradition.

You can listen to today’s album here:

Vince Guaraldi, A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving

Album of the Week, November 25, 2023

Growing up, there were three Charlie Brown holiday specials that stood atop the podium of my favorite TV shows. At the top, A Charlie Brown Christmas. In the silver medal position, It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown. There were plenty other contenders for that last place on the podium, including It’s the Easter Beagle, Charlie Brown (that hi-fi set in Woodstock’s birdhouse!) and It’s Christmastime Again, Charlie Brown (“Slouching towards Bethlehem, sir?”). But the third place on the podium (or maybe the second, depending on my mood) is A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving.

At this point in the specials, they were still collections of bits from the strips (Lucy pulling away the football makes an appearance at the beginning), combined with more well developed stories. So we get Snoopy and Woodstock (in his first animated appearance) as pilgrims, but we also get Linus inventing the first Friendsgiving, an early animated appearance of Franklin, the first animated appearance of Marcie, and more toast and jelly beans than you can shake a stick at.

You also get some superb Vince Guaraldi jazz. At this point, Guaraldi had been scoring Peanuts animated specials for nine years, and what started out as a trio had increasingly expanded in scope and sound. The joy was still there, as was the cool; what showed up on this record was horns! And vocals! And Fender Rhodes!

But it’s the mellow that shows up first, and this fully acoustic rendition of the “Charlie Brown Blues” is relaxed and maybe just a little bit funky, and appetizingly brief. It’s followed by the “Thanksgiving Theme,” in its first incarnation a ten-second tag played by Guaraldi on the acoustic piano—a series of inverted arpeggios that in lesser hands would be a finger exercise but here play out like a noble fanfare in 6/8 time. The theme is immediately reprised, with the first appearance of that Fender electric piano with the full trio (Seward McCain on bass, Mike Clark on drums), in which we hear the full theme including the bridge, played on Fender with a pretty heavy echoplex effect. It sounds like bells and is gorgeous.

Speaking of first appearances, at least in holiday-themed specials, we have Peppermint Patty, who gets her own theme. Her theme is more foursquare than the Thanksgiving theme, and just as with the character, soon spirals into hijinx, here courtesy of a flute solo over a funky obligato signaling the overhead flight of Woodstock.

Which brings us to “Little Birdie.” I first became aware of this song as a composition in its own right (rather than a bit of soundtrack behind the funniest series of sight gags in the special as Snoopy and Woodstock fight with the ping-pong table and chairs) courtesy of Wynton Marsalis’s Joe Cool’s Blues, in which the Ellis Marsalis Trio augmented by a full horn section and vocalist Germaine Bazzle turned in a funky performance of the tune. But the original version heard on this soundtrack is plenty funky in its own right, thanks to the horn section (trumpeter Tom Harrell arranged the brass, of whom Chuck Bennett is the only other credited player) and the vocals. I had long assumed a jazz singer (Lou Rawls, say) had popped up on the track; imagine my delight when it turns out that Guaraldi himself sang the tune! The song captures the interplay between Snoopy and Woodstock perfectly.

The “Thanksgiving Interlude” follows, followed by “Is it James or Charlie?,” featuring an uncredited but tasty guitar solo over a series of vamping chords that does nothing so much as continue the mood of the earlier pieces as Charlie Brown’s friends arrive. Linus’s arrival to help cook the popcorn and toast is signaled by the only appearance in the special of the classic “Linus and Lucy” theme, here augmented by brass.

The only composition by orchestrator John Scott Trotter (who did some of the instrumental bits in It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown), the “Fife and Drums Theme” is what it says on the tin, albeit augmented by electric bass and funky keyboards.

The rest of the special is soundtracked by reprises of the themes we’ve already heard: “Charlie Brown Blues,” the “Thanksgiving Interlude” and two reprises of the “Thanksgiving Theme” follow in pretty rapid succession. The rest of the record is rounded out by alternate takes of the different tunes, some of which (“Is It James or Charlie? (Bonus Mix with Whistling)”, “Thanksgiving Interlude (Alt Take 14)”) are noteworthy all by themselves; others (“Clark and Guaraldi”) are tantalizing glimpses into the process of putting the record together in the studio.

A note about the record: issued this year, this soundtrack recording of A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving almost wasn’t; it was never issued as a standalone album before now, and some of the tunes were included on compilations with the special effects tracks over them, as that was the only way they survived. When Peanuts producer Lee Mendelson passed away in December 2019, his children began looking through his house for material related to the Peanuts specials, uncovering the original session tapes for this album as well as It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown. It’s a miraculous discovery; without the effects track, the tunes stand out as warm and friendly, yet deeply funky. One wonders what Guaraldi would have gone on to do had he not passed away unexpectedly three years later from a sudden heart attack. Next time we’ll hear where Guaraldi’s journey with Charles Schulz’s characters really hit its stride.

You can listen to today’s album here:

Nina Simone, Pastel Blues

Album of the Week, November 18, 2023

Today’s album features a singer who was born in the mid-Atlantic South, moved to New York, and got her claim to fame after playing shows on small stages. But that’s where the similarity with Pearl Bailey or Ella Fitzgerald ends. Nina Simone fused completely different traditions of classical and blues together with activism and created a completely different, and unforgettable, American sound.

Eunice Kathleen Waymon was born in Tryon, North Carolina, a small town in Polk County on the southwestern border of the state, in what was once Cherokee country. Born to a father who was a barber and dry cleaner as well as an entertainer, and a mother who was a Methodist preacher, she began playing the piano at a young age and gave her first concert at the age of 12. During the concert, her parents were forced to give up their seats for white patrons and move to the back of the hall; Eunice stopped playing until they were moved back to the front. She attended the Allen High School for Girls in Asheville with the help of a scholarship set up for her by her music teacher. She studied at Juilliard in the summer of 1950 to prepare to audition for the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, but her application was denied. She began playing shows at the Midtown Bar and Grill in Atlantic City, New Jersey to fund her private piano lessons, taking the performing name Nina Simone to keep her family from finding out that she was playing the Devil’s music.

Her recording career commenced in 1958 with a recording of “I Loves You, Porgy” which cracked the Billboard Top 20; her debut album Little Girl Blue followed. She recorded a series of albums on Bethlehem and Colpix Records, and moved to Philips in 1964. The new label’s European ownership gave her greater topical freedom, and she responded with a broader range of songs that addressed racial injustice, including “Mississippi Goddam,” which protested the murder of Medgar Evers in June 1963 and the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama in September. She recorded seven albums for Philips with producer Hal Mooney; Pastel Blues was her third. True to its name, it blended her classical training with blues, jazz and other influences for a powerful mixture.

Take “Be My Husband.” Performed by Simone as a solo song accompanied only by the hi-hat of the drummer and her own handclaps, the album opens with a stark landscape of a marriage proposal as a desperate prison chant. It’s harrowing, especially given that it was written by Andy Stroud, her husband and manager, who was accused of beating her. (The singer Jeff Buckley chose to cover this song, in a gender reversal, to open his sets at the cafe Sin-É, as well as covering another Nina tune, “Lilac Wine,” on his debut album.)

The choice of “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out,” an early 20th century blues made famous by Bessie Smith, further connects Simone’s writing to the blues tradition. “End of the Line,” by contrast, connects to the melancholy tradition in European classical art song, sounding like a Schubert lieder in its unaccompanied opening before the rest of the band joins on the second verse.

Nina had recorded the venerable vaudeville blues song “Trouble in Mind” with a larger band in 1961, with a recording that hit number 11 on the R&B chart and 92 on the Billboard Hot 100. The version here is more stripped down, but still features electric guitar alongside Nina’s stride-influenced piano.

Tell Me More and More and Then Some” was originally recorded with a full band by Billie Holiday; here a swampy harmonica lends it a deeper Delta blues feel, while Nina’s piano veers between classical harmonies and blues scales.

Side two opens with “Chilly Winds Don’t Blow,” a major key blues written by producer Hermann Krasnow, better known for his work with Gene Autry on “Frosty the Snowman” and “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.” Nina turns it into a barn burner, with her piano lending a slightly unsettled undercurrent of menace beneath the bright chords as she sings about fleeing for better weather. “Ain’t No Use” continues in the same key, but a slower, more deliberate blues, with the narrator making it clear that she is fleeing not just the chilly winds but her partner, telling him he is “just too doggone mean.”

Strange Fruit” takes another Billie Holiday song, perhaps the most famous of all, and strips it down to the most devastating essentials as Simone sings about lynched African Americans. Simone’s version is almost unaccompanied, and almost silent at the end, as she veers from anger to grief.

That brings us to “Sinnerman,” in which all Simone’s considerable talents come together to create a masterpiece. The piano accompaniment, informed by both her classical training and African-American pentatonic scales, is the foundation together with the drums (Bobby Hamilton) and bass (Lisle Atkinson) from which Simone’s voice narrates the fate of the sinner: turned away by the Lord, he seeks the devil instead. When he finds him, he cries “Power” to the Lord, but the Lord can no longer help him. Nina and the band exchange a call and response on “Power!/Power, Lord” for a full two minutes before the vocals and piano fall away, leaving the guitars (Al Schackman, Rudy Stevenson) to exchange notes before they too cease. There follows polyrhythmic hand percussion, and the piano comes back in, first in rhythm, then with powerful chords in the left hand signaling a shift. Sure enough, the rhythm changes to a slow six for about 32 bars before the chorus comes back. Simone recapitulates the journey of the sinner, asking for succor from the river, the sea, the rock, and the Lord once more. The whole track clocks in at over ten minutes of apocalyptic blues fury. It’s a brilliant response to the horror of “Strange Fruit” and an impossible-to-top capstone for the album.

Simone left American in 1970, frustrated at the poor reception for her recordings, and found when she tried to return that she was wanted for tax evasion; allegedly she had stopped paying taxes in protest against the Vietnam War. She fled to Barbados, then Liberia, then the Netherlands. She was eventually diagnosed with bipolar disorder, and medication helped her regain some measure of peace. She settled in the town of Carry-le-Route, in the department of Bouches-du-Rhône near Aix-en-Provence in southern France. She died there of breast cancer, in 2003.

You can listen to today’s album here:

Ella Fitzgerald, Sings the Irving Berlin Song Book (Vol. 1)

Album of the Week, November 11, 2023

My hometown of Newport News, Virginia remembers Ella Fitzgerald as perhaps its most famous native daughter, naming a middle school, auditorium, street, and music festival after her. But there is little physical evidence of her presence in the city. The house where she spent the first three years of her life stood at 2050 Madison Avenue, but no longer appears to stand there, and there is no historical marker; the mural dedicated to Fitzgerald stands a block away. Fitzgerald made her way with her family to New York, and ultimately made her mark in Harlem and on the circuit.

Composer and lyricist Irving Berlin made a similar pilgrimage. Born Israel Beilin in Tyumen, Siberia in 1888 and raised in the shtetl of Tolochin in Belarus, Berlin’s sole memory of his first five years in Russia was watching his family house burn to the ground. The family emigrated to escape the poverty, discrimination and pogroms of Imperial Russia, sailing through Antwerp on the Red Star Line and arriving at Ellis Island in September 1893, where their name was naturalized to Baline. Life in the city was crowded and it was hard for him to make money as a newsboy, so he left the family apartment and moved into a Lower East Side lodging house.

Berlin worked as a singing waiter and a song plugger, taught himself to play piano after hours at the Pelham Cafe in Chinatown, and published his first song. Moving to Jimmy Kelly’s in Union Square, he began collaborating with other young songwriters and got a big break as a staff lyricist for the Ted Snyder Company. He began publishing works with his own music as well as lyrics, and in 1910 wrote his first big hit, “Alexander’s Ragtime Band.” The song was a lasting hit, earning him spotlights at vaudeville shows and climbing the charts to Number 1 a dozen times in its first fifty years of publication. Gershwin called it “the first real American musical work,” and Berlin decided to continue to follow the model. He soon broke away from ragtime and began writing more complex melodies and ballads, as well as revues and Broadway shows. By the time that Fitzgerald began performing in the 1930s, Berlin was more than twenty years into a successful career as a songwriter, and his songs were like oxygen in the atmosphere.

The performances that Ella delivers on Sings the Irving Berlin Song Book (or at least in Volume 1, which is the record that I have in my collection) mostly hew to the sophisticated, rather than the raggy, side of the line, thanks in part to Paul Weston’s subtle orchestration. Indeed, the opening performance of “Let’s Face the Music and Dance” might just be the definitive version of a song that was premiered by Fred Astaire (in the film Follow the Fleet) and famously performed by Frank Sinatra, Nat King Cole, Mel Tormé, and others. (We’ll get to a modern-day performance of the song in a later post.) Ella’s version starts out somber rather than swinging, but then kicks into high gear as the chorus pivots from minor to major. Ella’s voice similarly starts in a low contralto range but climbs as the the song swings into the major key, ultimately sounding a triumphant note as the “dance” section ends, performed by a jazz trio rather than the full orchestra.

There are a few performances on the record where exuberance is uncolored by regret. Ella’s version of “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” is one, with what sounds like a full Dixieland band swinging hard behind her. “Top Hat, White Tie, And Tails” is the rhythmic cousin to “Puttin’ On the Ritz,” with both finding Berlin with a keen interest in American sartorial splendor and in splendid syncopation.

The great “Cheek to Cheek,” which like “Top Hat” appeared for the first time in Berlin’s movie musical Top Hat and was premiered by Fred Astaire, gets a gentle cha-cha rhythm here, And “I Used to Be Color Blind” is that rare thing on the record, a purely lovely love song.

On the purely melancholic side, “Russian Lullaby” expresses the immigrant’s remembered anxiety in his homeland, with the words, “Just a little plaintive tune/When baby starts to cry/Rock-a-bye my baby/Somewhere there may be/A land that’s free for you and me” forming almost the entirety of the song. “How Deep is the Ocean” mingles an expression of undying love with an unusual rhetorical device—the entire song takes the form of questions, save for one line, “I’ll tell you no lie.” It’s a devastatingly subtle example of the depth of Berlin’s songwriting throughout the album.

The Irving Berlin Song Book was the fourth installment in Ella’s Song Book series; released in 1958, it followed Cole Porter, Rodgers & Hart, and Duke Ellington. She would record four more entries in the series, releasing volumes devoted to the music of George and Ira Gershwin, Harold Arlen, Jerome Kern, and Johnny Mercer, before leaving Verve in 1966 for Capitol Records, then for Reprise. Along the way she recorded a slew of other classic records, including her famed Ella Wishes You a Swinging Christmas! and my personal favorite, the underrated Ella, on which she covered songs by Smokey Robinson, Randy Newman, Bacharach/David, and the Beatles. (Yes, really.) She performed well into her 70s, finally retiring three years before her death in 1996. Her influence as a trailblazer for jazz singers, female performers, and serious interpreters of the Great American Song Book remains a lasting testimony to her greatness. The great female jazz singers who followed Ella, indeed, either had to sing in her shadow or find radically different performing voices. We’ll listen to someone in the latter camp next time.

You can listen to the full two-volume set of the Irving Berlin Song Book here:

Ella Fitzgerald, Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Rodgers and Hart Song Book (Vol. 2)

Ella produces unhurried, definitive versions of songs from the Great American Songbook.

Album of the Week, November 4, 2023

If you say “female jazz singer,” odds are you think about today’s artist. We’ve covered a few of her recordings before, but today we dig into one of the recordings that led to her towering reputation—her surveys of the Great American Song Book.

Ella Fitzgerald was born in Newport News, Virginia, almost exactly eleven months before Pearl Bailey, and she spent the first two and a half years of her life there, near the great coal port that had been built by Collis P. Huntington. Her mother and her new partner moved with Ella to Yonkers in Westchester County, New York. An excellent student, her grades began to suffer after her mother’s death of injuries sustained in a car crash. She moved to her aunt’s in Harlem and took a series of odd jobs, including lookout at a bordello and a numbers runner. She was caught by the police and placed in a series of reform schools.

In 1933 and 1934, she began singing on the street, and in 1934 she won first prize at one of the earliest Amateur Nights at the Apollo Theatre. Like Pearl Bailey, she never was able to perform the week-long engagement that formed part of that earliest award, but later won a gig at the Harlem Opera House. In late 1935 she met bandleader Chick Webb and joined his band for their performances at the Savoy Theatre in Harlem. She recorded several hit songs, becoming best known for “A Tisket, A-Tasket.” When Webb died of spinal tuberculosis in 1939, she took on his band, which became known as Ella Fitzgerald and Her Famous Orchestra.

By 1942 the band had grown difficult to maintain, and she took on solo work, eventually learning (and evolving) scat singing while performing with Dizzy Gillespie and revolutionizing the art of vocal jazz in the process. She recorded for Decca during this period. When she began appearing at Norman Granz’s “Jazz at the Philharmonic” series, he convinced her to leave Decca for a new label he would found with her at the center, and thus Verve Records was created. At Verve, with be-bop flagging and audiences shifting, she and Granz created the Songbook series as a way to give her a more serious outlet for her voice. In the series, which consisted of recordings dedicated to songwriters or lyricists, she and Granz essentially memorialized the concept of the Great American Songbook, recording definitive versions of many of the twentieth century’s great songs.

Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Rodgers and Hart Song Book, released in 1956, was the second entrant in the series, and follows the formula. Across two volumes, she recorded the greatest songs by the duo, in arrangements by a great arranger and bandleader, in this case Buddy Bregman. I’ll be reviewing the second volume today since that’s the one that washed up in my local used record store.

I listened to today’s record while driving around with my daughter, who knows Ella’s voice by ear but has mostly heard the Christmas album. After a few seconds of the chorus of “Give It Back to the Indians,” she asked, “Um, when was this recorded?” When I told her the record dates to 1956, she said, “Ah, that explains it.” The original context, in the 1939 musical Too Many Girls, doesn’t really help explain why we’re singing about Peter Minuit swindling the Lenape tribe out of the island of Manhattan. But the song itself is a great exasperated shout out to the charms and frustrations of New York.

Some of the songs on the album live up to Lorenz Hart’s reputation as one of the most depressed lyricists around. “Ten Cents a Dance” and its evocation of the desperation of poverty, the inability to escape at the low rate of ten cents a dance, and especially the inability to escape her undesirable beaus, might be the emotional low point. Others, like “Ev’rything I’ve Got,” just feel manic. The latter, coming (like June Christy’s “Nobody’s Heart”) from By Jupiter, is a battle-of-the sexes song with these mind-boggling lines:

I have eyes for you to give you dirty looks
I have words that do not come from children’s books
There’s a trick with a knife I’m learning to do
And ev’rything I’ve got belongs to you
I’ve a powerful anesthesia in my fist
And the perfect wrist to give your neck atwist
There are hammerlock holds
I’ve mastered a few
And ev’rything I’ve got belongs to you

Then of course there’s “My Funny Valentine.” One feature of the Song Books is that without fail Ella would sing the whole song, including the verses, for songs that usually in the jazz tradition only get heard as their choruses. So it is with “Valentine.” In this case, one forgives the jazz artists, as both the melody and lyrics of the verse are essentially disposable, serving only to set up the odd couple of the song’s central tragedy, or romance, or both. In Ella’s rendition, the pathos and hope of the relationship are mingled through the whole performance.

Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered” is another of the great songs, notable for its unusually suggestive lyrics, including “Vexed again, perplexed again/
Thank God, I can be oversexed again,” and “Romance, finis; your chance, finis/
Those ants that invaded my pants, finis.” Ella sings them with a mix of cool restraint, humor and simmering emotion that is simply stunning.

Not all the arrangements feature the full big band. “Wait ‘Till You See Him,” also from By Jupiter, features Ella’s voice accompanied only by a guitar. It’s brief, restrained, and utterly flawless. It leads straight into “Lover,” which is given a full big band treatment; the impression is of shock and awe. Ella’s “Lover” narrator is leaving nothing to chance.

The album closes out with “Blue Moon,” a song that went through three different sets of lyrics before becoming the standard that would later be covered by the Marcels, Elvis Presley, and the Cowboy Junkies. Here it’s a sweeping, slightly swooning ballad, with the romance cut slightly by Ella’s no-nonsense reading of the bridge: “And then there suddenly appeared before me
The only one my arms will hold.”

There are other songs on the record, but honestly this is one that just needs listening. Each performance ranks as the finest version of these great songs, and Ella just kept doing them. She would record six records in the Song Book series; we’ll hear another next week.

You can hear the full two volume version of Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Rodgers and Hart Songbook below. If you just want to hear the second volume, start at Track 18, then swap out “My Romance” for “Mountain Greenery.”

June Christy, The Song is June!

The great, yet little-known singer June Christy takes us through a collection of delicious melancholy.

Album of the Week, October 28, 2023

Our tour of vocalists has reached an interesting corner. I hadn’t heard of June Christy before I found her 1961 Christmas album This Time of Year recommended in a list of little-known holiday albums. I was hooked: a beautiful instrument with sadness and pain around the edges, singing songs for grown-ups that layer delight, regret, and heartbreak in equal measures. (Christmas songs that demand Scotch rather than eggnog.) So I was thrilled when I found a few more of her records in a small shop in Asheville last summer, and came home with today’s album of the week.

Shirley Luster was born in 1925 in Springfield, Illinois. At the age of 13 she was singing with big bands and jazz orchestras around Decatur. She moved to Chicago after high school and began performing under the name Sharon Leslie, then moved to New York. Her big break came when Anita O’Day left the Stan Kenton orchestra in 1945 and she got the gig. Changing her stage name again to June Christy, she recorded a string of hits with Kenton, including “Shoo Fly Pie (and Apple Pan Dowdy),” “How High the Moon,” and “Tampico.” While still performing and recording with Kenton, she began a series of solo records, backed by Pete Rugolo and his orchestra. She had a a hit in 1954 with the album Something Cool. In 1958 she released The Song is June!.

Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most” gives you a good flavor for where the divine Ms. Christy differs from the other vocalists in the pack. Written by Fran Landesman (lyrics) and Tommy Wolf, the melody has been described as “slithery, slippery, abstract, bordering on unsingable,” but June’s rendition is unhurried, unfussy, and devastatingly dark. Her voice rides a little low against the pitch—not flat, but with a depth and darkness to it that you don’t find in the works of other great singers of the period. Knowing that Landesman wrote it for a “beatnik musical” (The Nervous Set) from inspiration from “The Waste Land” is the icing on the cake for me and makes the song utterly compelling.

The One I Love (Belongs to Somebody Else)” is more uptempo, but similarly slippery in arrangement and performance. June’s diction hits the marks of the Isham Jones/Gus Kahn collaboration a full half measure behind the arrangement, lending it an off-kilter feel that staggers artfully against the bounce of Pete Rugolo’s orchestra.

Nobody’s Heart,” a lesser known Rodgers and Hart collaboration, is one of Hart’s great dark lyrics: “Nobody’s heart belongs to me/heigh ho, who cares?… I admire the moon/as a moon/Just a moon…” Coming from an oddball musical called By Jupiter and set in the land of the Amazons, the song could easily slip over into silliness or nostalgia, but Christy finds its dark center, trailing off the final “Nobody’s heart belongs to me / today” into a swoon.

My Shining Hour” belongs to the more manic side of this set, but the arrangement finds some melancholy even here, with woodwind solo passages amid the bright vibraphones and brass of the arrangement of the Harold Arlen/Johnny Mercer song. Christy finds emotional depth in the last moments of the song, stretching the tempo on the last “This will be my shining hour” until we realizes that her narrator repeats the phrase to convince herself, not us.

I Remember You” has plenty of pathos about it already. The song was written by Johnny Mercer, with Victor Schlesinger, for a 19-year-old Judy Garland, who broke off the pair’s relationship when she married composer David Rose. There’s wistfulness in Christy’s version, but an undercurrent of pain as well.

Night Time Was My Mother” is a deeply unusual song, slipping in and out of minor keys and exploring a dark familial structure—night as the mother, music as the brother, and “old man blues” as an adopted family member. Written by Connie Pearce and Arnold Miller, this song doesn’t appear on any earlier recordings; it may as well be Christy’s theme song, based on the dark tones of her work.

I Wished On the Moon” (Ralph Rainger with Dorothy Parker) is a more optimistic tune, and Christy gives it an almost bouncy performance, as though the light is coming through the clouds. “The Song is You” brings us back to the darkness, with Christy’s declamation of Oscar Hammerstein’s opening lyric “I hear music/A beautiful theme of every/dream I ever knew” sounding like a declaration of despair.

As Long As I Live” feels like it starts in the middle of things, with June scatting over the bouncy orchestration. Ted Koehler’s lyrics are on the slight side, but there’s still something melancholic in the idea of someone who never cared for life taking care of herself so that she can enjoy her new relationship longer longer: “I never cared, but now I’m scared/I won’t live long enough/That’s why I wear my rubbers when it rains…” Harold Arlen’s melody keeps things moving along, making this one of the brighter moments in the album.

Saturday’s Children” is another tune that appeared for the first time on this album, and it feels like a summation of the moods that Christy explores throughout. André Previn sets Bob Russell’s wry lyric (“I would call me Saturday’s child, For Saturday’s children got nothin’ for free! Nothin’ comes easy, like forgettin’ you…”) in a wistful haze of a melody, ably born out in Rugolo’s arrangement. The bandleader said, “I used all the best guys in the string sections. You’d go in to the session and you’d see ten concertmasters! They all… made more money than in the symphonies. So you’d see the first violinist from the Los Angeles symphony, and the people that used to play with Toscanini…”

Overall the record is a dark delight, a tone poem of mature melancholy that is by turns warmly optimistic, resigned, and fatalistic. Christy’s performance here is of a great craftsman, and it’s unfortunate that her collaboration with Rugolo would only yield one more album. Christy’s career, like many other singers of this period, did not survive the arrival of rock’n’roll, and she retired in 1969, partly due to an ongoing battle with alcoholism. She un-retired a few times, performing in jazz festivals in the 1970s and recording one last solo LP in 1977, before dying in 1990. But the performances that she left behind are richly rewarding… provided that you aren’t susceptible to infectious melancholy.

Next time we’ll listen to the first of a few vocal jazz recordings from the same period that, unlike Christy’s unfairly neglected work, have become modern classics.

You can listen to this week’s album here: