Friday, April 14, 2017

Billy Eckstine & Quincy Jones at Basin Street East, 1961

One of the smoothest and most successful jazz and pop vocalists of the 1940s and '50s, Billy Eckstine was also one of the most forward-thinking, as we can infer from the lineup of his famous orchestra of the mid-'40s, which included soon-to-be famous jazzmen such as Miles Davis, Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Dexter Gordon, and Art Blakey, among many others. Not only was Mr. B a fantastic vocalist, but he was also an intelligent man who made his mark socially and politically. As critic Will Friedwald has noted in his Biographical Guide, "before Louis Armstrong or Nat King Cole dared sing anything other than the blues or novelties, Billy Eckstine was among the first to show the world that the black man could be intellectual, passionate, sensitive, literate, articulate, proud—and profound." Indeed, Eckstine was all this, but most of all, he was profound: his voice was rich and deep, and he imbued everything he sang with a depth that very few singers in jazz, pop, or any other style could even dream of achieving. He felt at ease singing different types of music, but he excelled at the art of the ballad, particularly that of the intimate, emotionally deep variety, like his big 1947 hit, "Everything I Have Is Yours." No wonder that his female fans—black and white alike, in a time of open segregation, no less—went wild over him. He was simply just that deep, that emotional, that attractive.

Producer and arranger Quincy Jones.

By October 1961, when he was recorded live at Basin Street East in New York City, Eckstine's hit-making days were pretty much over, yet he was still at his peak vocally. For this engagement at the legendary club, Mr. B assembled a fantastic orchestra including great musicians such as trumpeter Joe Newman, trombonists Curtis Fuller and Melba Liston, and altoist Phil Woods. With Quincy Jones at the helm and taking care of the arrangements, the results couldn't be anything but outstanding. The album kicks off with a spirited R&B-inflected reading of "All Right, Okay, You Win" that makes it instantly clear that Eckstine still has it and that the listener is in for a real treat. After jokingly describing himself as "the Fabian of the forties," Eckstine goes into a lovely medley of three ballads ("I'm Falling for You," "Fool That I Am," and the classic "Everything I Have Is Yours") that show his mastery of the romantic ballad to great effect. Cole Porter's "In the Still of the Night" is infused with a tasteful Latin beat that suits Eckstine's style perfectly. Next comes one of the highlights of the album—a medley of four Duke Ellington standards that work very well together and that Mr. B performs effortlessly, apparently in front of Ellington himself, who was in the audience on that particular night. Eckstine then moves into more contemporary territory, and his interpretation of Nat Adderley's "Work Song" is surprising for its gospel undertones. The album closes with a fun, swinging rendition of the Con Conrad novelty "Ma (She's Making Eyes at Me)" that once again indicates Eckstine's versatility. Released on Mercury as Billy Eckstine & Quincy Jones at Basin Street East, this is one of Eckstine's best live records, and my only complaint about it is that it's entirely too short.

Monday, April 3, 2017

Charlie Parker Jams on Verve, 1952

While certain critics consider that producer Norman Granz was responsible for encouraging Charlie Parker to veer away from bebop somewhat and venture into more commercial territory, there's no doubt that Granz also helped widen Bird's horizons. It would be enough to mention the classic album Charlie Parker with Strings, in which Parker is paired with a string section to create a masterpiece that has stood the test of time and that would later be imitated by countless jazz soloists. But the producer influenced the career of the saxophonist in other ways, as well. Granz was very involved in the production and promotion of live jazz gatherings known as Jazz at the Philharmonic (JATP), all-star groups of jazz musicians who interacted in a jam-session format and who toured both the U.S. and overseas. Many of these live concerts have been preserved on tape thanks to Granz's foresight, and the producer also organized similar studio sessions with an eye to releasing them commercially. One of these, cut in July 1952, involved Parker, who was joined by a stellar cast that included Benny Carter and Johnny Hodges on alto sax, Ben Webster and Flip Phillips on tenor, Charlie Shavers on trumpet, Oscar Peterson on piano, Barney Kessel on guitar, Ray Brown on bass, and J.C. Heard on drums.

Jazz producer Norman Granz

It's well known that all-star dates can be hit or miss, but from the very first bars it seems clear that this one is most definitely a winner. The length of the four cuts recorded (all of them over 13 minutes each) affords plenty of room for each soloist to show off his undeniable talents, and nobody gets in the way of anyone else. The result is a classic jam session that keeps surprising new listeners several decades after its original release. The meeting of these jazz greats is bookended by two bluesy compositions, "Jam Blues" and "Funky Blues," which work perfectly as vehicles for each participant to explore familiar musical territory in a succession of imaginative solos that allow us to experience different approaches to the blues idiom. Cole Porter's "What Is This Thing Called Love," introduced by an energetic piano solo by Peterson, is taken at a breakneck tempo and serves as an excuse for some inspired blowing by everyone. Finally, the cut simply entitled "Ballad Medley" presents the group at its mellowest and most intimate, as they tastefully run through a selection of slow standards by Jerome Kern, Matt Dennis, George Gershwin, Richard Rodgers, and others. Throughout the whole session there's that kind of electricity created by a group of excellent musicians who feel comfortable playing together and who constantly spur each other on to achieve new heights with every new solo. The album has been issued on CD as Charlie Parker Jam Session, and its contents are also available as part of the five-disc set The Complete Norman Granz Jam Sessions, which also presents other similar jams produced by Granz in the same time period. While there are other Bird recordings that one should listen to first, in my opinion this remains one of the most satisfying dates of his remarkable career.

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

June Christy & Stan Kenton on Capitol, 1955

Illinois-born singer June Christy was arguably one of the most unique female vocalists to come out of the big band era and first rose to prominence in the mid-1940s as the replacement for Anita O'Day in the popular band led by Stan Kenton at a time when arranger Pete Rugolo (later a close associate of Christy's at Capitol) was writing most of the charts for the orchestra. During her rather brief tenure with the Kenton organization, Christy had an important part in the creation of such hits as "Tampico" and "How High the Moon" and quickly became known for her cool, relaxed approach to the vocal art. Christy went on to have a successful solo career starting in the early '50s, recording great concept albums such as Something Cool and The Misty Miss Christy, among many others that have become pop classics of the era. About ten years after she first joined his band, Christy reunited with former boss Kenton for an LP that stands as one of the most challenging in the careers of both participants. The project, simply entitled Duet and recorded for Capitol over the course of four sessions in May 1955, presents Miss Christy's divinely husky voice, with its astounding ability to convincingly narrate stories in song, sharing the spotlight with Kenton's forceful piano accompaniment, which is afforded plenty of space to shine in its own right throughout the album.

June Christy on stage at the Hollywood Palladium with the Stan Kenton band.

The result of this collaboration is a classic, though often neglected, record that combines standards (Cole Porter's "Ev'ry Time We Say Goodbye," George and Ira Gershwin's "How Long Has This Been Going On," Matt Dennis's "Angel Eyes") with under-recorded gems (Joe Greene's "Come to the Party," Bobby Troup's "Just the Way I Am") that really sound special in the hands—and pipes—of the duo of Kenton and Christy. Benny Carter's "Lonely Woman," with its powerfully dramatic undertones, and "Baby, Baby All the Time," a song that came to Miss Christy's attention via her much-admired Nat King Cole, are among the many high spots of the album, the latter even prompting the singer to do a little scatting. In his Biographical Guide to the Great Jazz and Pop Singers, critic Will Friedwald notes that the album could well have been inspired by similar collaborations between Ella Fitzgerald and Ellis Larkins, and suggests that "the starkness of the accompaniment and the exposed, vulnerable nature of Christy's singing effectively foreshadow Tony Bennett and Bill Evans twenty years later." Though the 1993 Capitol CD reissue has been out of print for a while, this highly recommendable album has been included recently in a four-CD collection of Christy LPs from the '50s released by the European label Real Gone. The way to go, however, is still the Capitol reissue, since it boasts not only fine liner notes by Mr. Friedwald himself, but also two tracks ("Prelude to a Kiss" and the lovely "Thanks for You") that were left out of the original LP release.

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Paul Desmond with Strings, 1961

There are many adjectives one can use to describe Desmond Blue, altoist Paul Desmond's 1961 date with strings subtly arranged by Bob Prince. The album is moody, soft, and restrained. Desmond's playing is imaginative and soothing, and Prince's string arrangements serve as a sort of cushion, never getting in the way of the soloist. But, most of all, the adjective that comes most readily to mind when listening to Desmond Blue is beautiful, and sometimes one is simply in the mood to listen to jazz that is beautiful. If that's the case, then one can't go wrong with this album. Best remembered for his association with pianist Dave Brubeck, of whose very successful quartet he was an integral part in the 1950s and '60s, Desmond cut several excellent albums under his own name throughout his collaboration with Brubeck. Six of these were recorded for RCA Victor in the sixties, and fortunately, they were reissued in 2012 as a very attractive and affordable box set that reproduces the format of the original LPs, though adding some bonus tracks. And the first of these albums chronologically is Desmond Blue.

Jim Hall and Paul Desmond
Recorded in New York City over the course of several sessions in September and October 1961, Desmond Blue was released in 1962 and, as its cover proudly states, it presents "a great saxophonist in a new setting." This new setting is, of course, Desmond accompanied by a string orchestra and performing a selection of well-known standards and two originals, "Desmond Blue" and "Late Lament," both of them included on the first side of the record. As his discography clearly shows, Desmond was always very fond of standards, and the ones he chose on this occasion seem tailor-made for his delicate, often understated style. He approaches classic ballads such as "My Funny Valentine," "Then I'll Be Tired of You," and "I Should Care" with great lyricism. Yet, as we can hear on "I've Got You Under My Skin" and "Like Someone in Love," he also sounds comfortable varying the tempo and lending some diversity to the album. Jim Hall guests on guitar on four of the tracks, blending in with the orchestra as perfectly as Desmond himself and adding an extra touch of class to the proceedings. The result is a magnificent album of the kind that is agreeable to the ears and soothing to the spirit, an album that could most appropriately be described as beautiful.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Bobby Darin Swings Some Love Songs, 1961

In celebration of Valentine's Day, here's a review of one of my favorite albums by Bobby Darin—Love Swings, a concept album with the ups and downs of love as its central theme, cut for Atco in 1961. A good listen for this time of year!

A singer clearly influenced by Frank Sinatra, Bobby Darin could rival Ol' Blue Eyes at hard-swinging numbers, but when it came to emotional depth, that was a totally different matter. Critics have long pointed out that one of the main differences between Sinatra and Darin is that the younger singer wasn't as successful at creating a lingering mood through song and maintaining it during the course of a whole album. That is perhaps why Darin didn't usually record concept albums, which was home territory for The Voice. Yet Love Swings, an LP Darin cut for Atlantic in 1961, is the one worthwhile exception--a collection of twelve standards outlining the different stages of a love relationship, from the effervescence of its early stages to the sadness, melancholy, and acceptance of its eventual failure.

Anyone expecting an album of hard-swinging tracks is misled by the title. While many of the songs are uptempo numbers, particularly the ones depicting the early stages of love, there are also beautifully sung ballads such as Isham Jones's "There Is No Greater Love" and Jerome Kern and Leo Robin's often-overlooked "In Love in Vain." In general the uptempo numbers ("Long Ago and Far Away," "I Didn't Know What Time It Was," "How About You," "The More I See You," "It Had to Be You") appear in the first part of the album, coinciding with the excitement brought about by love, while the more pensive tunes ("Something to Remember You By," "Skylark," "Spring Is Here") surface on side B, as the relationship slowly begins to take a downturn. But by this time Darin had learned Sinatra's lesson from the classic Songs for Swinging Lovers that there is no reason why a sad song shouldn't swing, and so we find here a nice uptempo reading of the Russ Columbo-associated "Just Friends," which Chet Baker had also recorded in a fast-paced version for Pacific a few years earlier. The album closes appropriately with a mid-tempo rendition of the self-mocking, hopeful "I Guess I'll Have to Change My Plan."

Arranger Torrie Zito

The twelve charts are arranged by Torrie Zito, and while he doesn't come anywhere near Nelson Riddle, Billy May, or Gordon Jenkins, who wrote such fine albums for the Capitol Sinatra, he does stay out of Darin's way on the swinging tracks and shows a certain knack for arranging the ballads. Darin sounds very comfortable and occasionally takes liberties with the lyrics, particularly on "How About You," where he finds a way to fit "a TV set," "fish and chips," and "rock'n'roll" into the lyrics and proclaims that Mrs. Darin's looks "kinda" give him a thrill. Exactly why this collection failed to capture the public's imagination (and spending money) when it was first released remains a mystery to me. I only wish Darin had recorded a few more discs like this one...

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Jazz Flashes News: R.I.P. Singer and Pianist Buddy Greco (1926-2017)

This new year of 2017 has begun on several sour notes, with the departures of Nat Hentoff and Buddy Bregman a few days ago, to which we must add now that of vocalist and pianist Buddy Greco, one of the last of the vanishing breed of saloon singers. He passed away on January 10 at 90 years old. Unfortunately, whenever Greco is cited these days, it's mostly because of his rocky personal life: his many failed marriages, his eccentricities, his dealings with the Rat Pack, and his quick temper. But if we concentrate on his musical career, we find that Greco was a solid jazz pianist and a sophisticated singer who has left behind a very valuable body of work. Born in Philadelphia in 1926, Greco was extremely precocious, and his interest in music was encouraged by his father, who owned a record store. In the early 1940s Greco spent four years singing, playing piano, and writing arrangements for Benny Goodman. He left the orchestra and struck out on his own in 1946, around the time when solo singers had started eclipsing the big bands, and he was quite successful at it, even scoring a few hits, one of the most memorable of which was his fun uptempo version of "The Lady Is a Tramp." The success of his very entertaining live concerts and classy recordings quickly led to television and film appearances, as well as to opportunities to sing and pal around with Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, and Sammy Davis, Jr., in Las Vegas. However, he never attained the heights of popularity of his more famous confreres.

Despite the many ups and downs he went through in his career, Greco always concentrated on doing what he did best: singing and playing piano. In an interview with the New York Times in the 1960s, he explained: "I'd always wanted to be a jazz pianist. But it's easier to make a living as a singer. . . . By singing I can appeal to the masses." And so he did, almost right up until his very last days, appearing all over the world as a featured attraction and also as part of tribute shows to Benny Goodman and Peggy Lee. His recorded oeuvre is prodigiously vast, rich, and varied, ranging stylistically from jazz to pop to country, even to Italian songs, and his discography is full of excellent albums such as Live at Mr. Kelly's, My Buddy, and On Stage. But, in my opinion, his best project is arguably Songs for Swinging Losers, a 1960 concept album modeled on Sinatra's Songs for Swingin' Lovers that captures Greco at his peak as a saloon singer. The arrangements by Chuck Sagle are always tasteful, and Greco indulges his penchant for drama, more restrained than usual on this occasion, performing a repertoire of classic tunes that includes "Something I Dreamed Last Night," "I'm Lost," "These Foolish Things," "That Old Feeling," "You Don't Know What Love Is," and "I Got It Bad and That Ain't Good," as well as an opener written specifically for the album by Sagle and entitled "A Swinging Loser." This recording is quintessential Greco, and the perfect introduction to the sound of a singer like no other whose work is well worth delving into. R.I.P. Buddy Greco.

Monday, January 9, 2017

Jazz Flashes News: R.I.P. Buddy Bregman, Jazz Arranger and Orchestrator

I just heard from my friend Malcolm Macfarlane, of Cheshire, England, that the great arranger Buddy Bregman has passed away in his Los Angeles home at age 86. Born in Chicago in 1930, Bregman came into prominence in the 1950s and '60s, arranging classic albums for the likes of Bing Crosby, Ella Fitzgerald, Rosemary Clooney, Sammy Davis, Jr., and Anita O'Day, to name but a few. He also wrote scores for movies such as The Pajama Game, worked on television as the musical director of The Eddie Fisher Show, and in the '60s became much in demand in England as a producer for the BBC and ITV. Songwriting royalty ran in Bregman's family, since the famed songwriter Jule Styne was his uncle, and it didn't take too long for the young Bregman to develop a fascination with jazz and and interest in writing arrangements. His first big break came in the mid-'50s in the form of an offer from none other than Norman Granz to work for his then-new Verve label, where one of his first projects was the highly successful Ella Sings the Cole Porter Songbook with Fitzgerald, who apparently was at first a little wary of Bregman's youth. He was then in his mid-twenties and was beginning to be known for powerful, brassy arrangements that sounded quite modern, something that is evident in the charts he wrote for Crosby's Bing Sings Whilst Bregman Swings, in my opinion one of the best albums in Der Bingle's vast discography.

Bing Crosby and Buddy Bregman, 1956
While at Verve, Bregman also had the opportunity to showcase his high-octane style on excellent big band albums that were released under his own name. Possibly the best of these is 1956's Swinging Kicks, which features an incredible cast of stellar musicians like Bud Shank, Jimmy Giuffre, Ben Webster, Georgie Auld, Stan Getz, Conte and Pete Candoli, Andre Previn, Frank Rosolino, Alvin Stoller, and Stan Levey, among others—truly the cream of the crop of '50s West Coast jazz. Other albums with Bregman as a leader (Dig Buddy Bregman in Hi-Fi, Swingin' Standards) show a consistently high quality, and in arranging the Count Basie-Joe Williams classic The Greatest!!! Count Basie Plays, Joe Williams Sings Standards, Bregman proves that he has a deep understanding of Basie's hard-swinging style. From the '60s on, Bregman concentrated most of his efforts on television, the medium in which his daughter, soap-opera actress Tracey Bregman, has worked for many years. In his last several years, Bregman suffered from Alzheimer's disease, and it was precisely his daughter that confirmed his passing yesterday evening. Though perhaps not as well known as fellow orchestrators Nelson Riddle or Billy May, Bregman was nevertheless one of the best jazz-based arrangers of the 20th century, and left behind an enormous legacy of recordings with some of the best singers and musicians of his day to prove it, a legacy that is well worth checking out.

Interview with Buddy Bregman

For a very interesting interview with Bregman conducted by Bruce Kimmel, click here.