Thursday, 30 April 2009

Return to Lonely Street

Following my recent post on the Charlie Barnet album Lonely Street, I have been in correspondence with Desne Villepigue, daughter of composer Paul.

Desne kindly supplied the sequence of tunes from the original vinyl album. I am delighted to add the details here:

SIDE 1:I Gotta Right To Sing The Blues; The Moon Is Yellow(sic); Serenade In Blue; You'd Be So Nice To Come Home To; Isn't This A Lovely Day; Lonely Street

SIDE 2:Myna; Phylisse; Lumby; Blue Rose; Hear Me Talking To You; Lemon Twist

I have amended the play list in my iPod accordingly and am enjoying this album now as it was meant to be heard.

A significant player in the album’s creation was overlooked entirely by me in my original post, too. I think I believed the mournful brass work accompanying Barnet’s solos on the soprano saxophone was a trombone. The wrong idea. It was, in fact, a bass trumpet played by Dave Wells. Desne writes:

Dave Wells told me this story about the idea for the album: Dave was playing bass trumpet with Charlie on sop sax leading a small combo out on Catalina Island the summer of 1956. Charlie wanted to do an album featuring what he called "the two bastard instruments" with full band plus strings. Dave, who was then on the faculty of Westlake College of Music along with Russ Garcia, recommended Russ as the arranger.

I am pleased to add this fascinating information, helping to ensure Dave Wells gets due credit for his part in creating this magnificent album, his own tender obligato emphasising the bruised nature of these ballads on love and loss. Thank you, Desne.

With regard to her father’s part in the music, Desne writes additionally:

The original score for "Lonely Street," handwritten in pencil, is presently held by the Institute of Jazz Studies at Rutgers. Until recently, it was misidentified as being Paul's original score (from 1948-49). But I sent a photocopy to Russ and he confirmed that it was indeed his, noting: "I remember the mistake in the last four bars. The Vibra and Celeste were written a whole step too high. I corrected it at the session but I see that I never changed the score."

Several original Paul Villepigue charts are included, however, as additional material, from the album Dancing Party. We shall look at those and Charlie Barnet’s original recording of Lonely Street in future posts.

Tuesday, 28 April 2009

Happy Birthday, Duke

Edward Kennedy Ellington was born this day, 29 April, 1899.

You can join the celebrations at WKCR, Columbia University Radio in New York which will be broadcasting Duke's music for the next twenty-four hours.

Sunday, 26 April 2009

Lonely Street

I’m somewhat ambivalent about CD re-issues which are released within Europe without licence from the major label which owns them because copyright has lapsed after fifty years. I have many in my collection so to condemn these issues outright would be hypocritical. The alternative is to be Jesuitical – or to dance on the head of a pin or whatever the expression is – which, to be honest, is how I justify their place on my shelves.

Since such re-issues are legal within the European Community, I buy these releases where they contain material which is not otherwise available. And, strictly speaking, these CDs ought to be produced from original fifty-year old plus vinyl or shellac. It has been the case that these reissue houses will occasionally pirate legitimate releases from the likes of Mosaic –who have paid their dues – and put them out at minimal cost to themselves. The music may be more than fifty years old but the mastering certainly is not. This is hardly ethical.

Provenance is everything then to my pick-and-mix morality on this point. I would much rather a legitimate release existed. If not and this material languishes unissued somewhere in one of the major’s vaults, then a ‘copy of the LP’ seems to me a reasonable way to go. Second hand vinyl, after all, changes hands on Ebay sometimes for astronomical prices – and not a penny of this goes to the artists or their families.

Charlie Barnet’s album Lonely Street is a case in point. I have only ever seen one copy of the original album – in Ray’s Jazz in Foyles on the Charing Cross Road. It looked pretty dog-eared and was upwards of forty pounds. I couldn’t afford it. The new CD re-issue from Lonehill Jazz (a major Spanish operation in this field) claims this is the first time this album appears on CD. I can believe that. And I believe it, partly, because of the sound of the CD which sounds horribly processed in places- as though the life has been wrung out of the sound of the original vinyl in order to wring out the snap, crackle and pops. This is throwing the baby out with the bathwater. But how else are you going to hear this wonderful music?

The CD comprises the entire album plus selections from two other Barnet LPs. This week I burnt a copy of just the tracks from Lonely Street to a CD (in session order, since the CD notes do not contain the album’s original running order and I cannot trace a copy of the original vinyl on line) for listening in the car.

The sessions comprise a standard big band for four of the tracks with some major hitters amongst the ranks and two sessions with strings. The discography I found on line which is printed below credits Russ Garcia as director. I am assuming, therefore, he arranged the pieces on this album.

Charlie Barnet was never quite carried along on the big band era’s ‘second wind’ to the extent that contemporaries such as Count Basie or Woody Herman were, nor even the ‘newer fellas’ like Ray Anthony. I doubt he had a regular road band by 1956, so this is strictly a studio session. Barnet’s name would still have been a draw, I suppose, to some extent, the inclusion of strings a necessary nod to the packaging of ‘mood’ albums during that period and a chance to hear Barnet stretch out on the soprano sax another reason for buying the record.

Barnet’s predilection for all things Ducal which was such a hallmark of his original band is in evidence here, too, with the inclusion of Billy Strayhorn’s Blue Rose – a composition the EKE band had only just recorded themselves for the first time that year for their Columbia album with Rosemary Clooney.

There seems, too, to be more than an echo of EKE’s Prelude to a Kiss in the brass work for the Barnet original Phylysse. And Barnet’s work on the soprano throughout, well, it is a sort of re-mix of the Apostolic succession, if you will, a shuffling of the laying on of hands in that it is Hodges coming out of Bechet coming out of Hodges - the New Orleans sound of Bechet’s soprano rippling like the lights on the Mississipi now streamlined and without vibrato.

Garcia’s writing for strings gives the album a sort of Hollywood B-Movie feel in places – the opening of Phylysse being a case in point. One is reminded of windswept autumn leaves crowding against the wet railings of some neglected yard. The album’s recording in November and December only adds to the gloom and seems suited perfectly to the maudlin sound of Barnet’s sax against the lachrymose strings.

Then there is the composition which gives the album its title. Lonely Street was the creation of Paul Villepigue. Please visit the web pages dedicated to his memory here. I shall return to his work –as I turn to his music – time and again in posts to come.

This album is an exquisite listening experience which Lonehill have at least made available to the public again. It is a prime candidate for re-issue on the Verve originals imprint – when I shall gladly buy a copy and see these musicians and writers are given the financial – as well as the artistic due – their remarkable accomplishments on this collection deserve. Until then, the album can be found here.

Album session details:
Conrad Cozzo, Carlton McBeath, Ralph Mullens, Dave Wells (tp) Bob Burgess, Dick Nash (tb) Willie Smith (as) Charlie Barnet (as, ss, ts) Bill Holman (ts) Bob Dawes, Ernie Small (bars) Norman Pockrandt (p) Bob Bain (g) Red Wooten (b) Alvin Stoller (d) Russ Garcia (dir) unidentified strings
Los Angeles, CA, September 24, 1956
20405-4 : The Moon Was Yellow
Verve MGV 2040
20406-11 Myna
Verve V 10036, MGV 2040
20407-6 You'd Be So Nice To Come Home To
Verve MGV 2040
20408-10 Phylisse
Charlie Barnet - Lonely Street (Verve MGV 2040)* Charlie Barnet - Myna c/w Lonely Street (Verve V 10036)

Gene Duermeyer, Maynard Ferguson, Carlton McBeath, Ollie Mitchell, Ralph Mullens (tp) Dave Wells (btp) Roy Anderson, Bob Burgess, Dick Nash (tb) Dick Paladino, Willie Smith (as) Charlie Barnet (as, ss) Bill Holman, Bill Trujillo (ts) Bob Dawes (bars) Norman Pockrandt (p) Barney Kessel (g) Red Wooten (b) Alvin Stoller (d)
Los Angeles, CA, November 8, 1956
20460-5 Blue Rose
Verve MGV 2040
20461-4 Lemon Twist
20462-2 Lumby
20463-2 Hear Me Talking To You
Charlie Barnet - Lonely Street (Verve MGV 2040)

Dave Wells (btp) Charlie Barnet (as) Norman Pockrandt (p) Barney Kessel (g) Red Wooten (b) Alvin Stoller (d) Russ Garcia (arr, dir) unidentified strings
Los Angeles, CA, December 15, 1956
20464-10 I Gotta Right To Sing The Blues
Verve MGV 2040
20465-6 Serenade In Blue
20466-2 Lonely Street
Verve V 10036, MGV 2040
20467-7 Isn't This A Lovely Day?
Verve MGV 2040
* Charlie Barnet - Lonely Street (Verve MGV 2040)* Charlie Barnet - Myna c/w Lonely Street (Verve V 10036)

Tuesday, 14 April 2009

The beauty, the wonder, the splendour and the majesty...

The last time I was here I had the honour of being presented to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth. I was so thrilled by the beauty, the wonder, the majesty, the splendour of it all that I told Her Majesty that I was sure something musical would come of it. She very, very graciously said she would be listening. And so I wrote a suite of six numbers which were recorded and the only record that was ever pressed, of course, is in the possession of Queen Elizabeth.

Duke Ellington, January 22, 1963

Today is the fiftieth anniversary of Duke Ellington recording The Single Petal of a Rose, the final session on The Queen’s Suite.

Ellington tells of the origins of this work in the remarks quoted above made during the course of a television broadcast in London. The phrase the beauty, the wonder, the majesty, the splendour echoes the notes Ellington made on the back of a publicity bill - probably the same evening he was presented to Her Majesty the Queen in 1958.

The notes comprised Ellington’s earliest conception of The Queen’s Suite – a work in six movements.

Ellington wrote:

(1) The Single Petal of a Rose. So delicate, fragile, gentle, luminous. Only God could make one, and like love it should be admired, not analyzed.

(2) Mocking Bird in the Sunset. While speeding across Florida from Tampa to West Palm Beach at 80 m.p.h. It was the half-light of sunset that we passed a bird. It seemed to call to us. We would have liked to have gone back and thanked the bird, but we were much too far down the road and we didn’t knoiw what kind of bird it was anyway. But the first phrase is the melody we heard.

(3) Lightning Bugs and Frogs. It was a hot summer night on the south shore of the Ohio River, a vast clearing with a backdrop of tall silhouetted trees, against which a million lightning bugs were weaving a spangled scrim, a design in symphonic splendour, while the frogs in the orchestra pit (pond in the foreground) provided the audio accompaniment.

(4) Northern Lights. Up in Quebec. All night we watched this, the most majestic stage show I ever saw. It was like being a short man standing behind many tall people at radio City Music Hall or the Palladium. You can’t actually see the performers. You only see lights or shadows, or reflections of the actors’ movements. The prima ballerina, the heavy, the thirty-six girl kickers, the quartette, are all there simultaneously, all night, only magnified a million times. And then when you stop, get out of the car, and look straight up overhead, it’s all going on up there, too. This is terrifying.

(5) Le Sucrier Velour is the name of a bird in France. I have seen pictures of it and think it is a good name for the bird. But after thinking more, I believe a more fitting sight, that encroaches on the domain or sense of taste, is the almost-moustache, the fuzz over the corners of the upper lip of a sweet girl.

(6) Apes and Peacocks. From the Bible: I Kings 10:22. For the King had at sea a navy of Tarshish with the navy of Hiram: once in three years came the navy of Tarshish bringing gold and silver, ivory, and apes and peacocks.
Copyright Duke Ellington In Person by Mercer Ellington (Hutchinson, 1978)

One always has to wonder at the extent to which Ellington is putting us on with remarks like these. Le Sucrier Velour was originally entitled Do Not Disturb and was recorded under that title as part of the stockpile of private recordings over three years earlier on 3 January, 1956, the occasion of Johnny Hodges’s return to the band following his ‘sabbatical’. Was Duke rhapsodising over the down-soft top lip of a girl when he entitled the piece Do Not Disturb?

Certainly Sunset and the Mocking Bird as it was finally titled which begins the suite, opens with one of the most delicious Ellington refrains if this is, indeed, taken down from nature.

The melody is taken up throughout the piece by each of the instrumentalists in turn, shouldering their several solo responsibilities. It is less, the cat is put amongst the pigeons as the pigeon is thrown to the cats, as it were. And if it is a competition, - and who knows whether that wasn’t sometimes Ellington’s agenda - the winner is clearly Johnny Hodges who burnishes and caresses the melody in the way only he can.

It is the clarinet, I think, of Jimmy Hamilton which bridges the first two selections, fading away at the end of Mocking Bird and returning with an extended filigree solo at the beginning of Lightning Bugs and Frogs.

If Hamilton traces the path of the lightning bug through the air, the bass chorus of frogs is provided by the wah-wah figures of the brass section, a sonic impressionism to which Ellington returns to sketch in the sounds of the apes and peacocks in the suite’s closing movement.

Sure enough, the saxophone section nudges the melody as softly as peach fuzz in Le Sucrier Velours and it is just as sweet. This is the Ellington band at the apex of its ballroom best. There is no brass work here nor, Ellington’s dappled piano intro aside, no improvisation – just rhythm and the melody carried by the buttery sax section.

The brass section is much in evidence – hitting an almost military stride, in the opening of Northern Lights, the solo reed of Hamilton riding atop their charge before being joined, in harmony, by several other clarinets weeping against the brassy beat. As is often the case in Ellington’s writing, the reeds then dissolve into their constituent parts, Harry Carney’s baritone sax clearly audible in step with the rhythm, echoed by the to brass– the whole piece hitting a pattern of tension-release-tension until the final dissolve and a release under the aegis of a note from Paul Gonsalves.

Did Ellington hold an image of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth in his mind’s eye whilst he teased the tender melody from The Single Petal of a Rose? An Ellington piano solo, with a hint of bowed bass from Jimmy Woode, I am listening to it now as I type these notes, fifty years after the fact. The melody seems to want to turn into Solitude at several points. And – in typical Ellington fashion – it lingers, never wanting to make an ending.

Jungle rhythms shimmy in the opening of the suite’s final movement with the saxophone of Paul Gonsalves sounding at its most simian, the chorus of screeching clarinets, the punctuations of the brass suggesting a suitably epic scope.

With The Queen’s Suite, then, Ellington, like Puck, conspires to put a girdle round the earth in something less than forty minutes and at dusk, encompassing its four points and offering the fruits of his travels and a menagerie of Biblical proportions to Her Majesty.

Whilst it was his contention that only a single pressing of The Queen’s Suite was made, there were, in fact, up to half a dozen printed. Whilst Ellington did not want the recording published, following the death of his father, Mercer decided the music was too beautiful for the world to be denied and it appeared on the Pablo label at the end of the seventies, anthologised with two, much later, suites. Whilst the CD is readily available, the best version to try to get hold of – though expensive – is the Japanese pressing detailed here. For this, the collector receives the full version of Loco Madi from The Uwis Suite which, hitherto, had only been available in edited form, even on the original LP release.

Monday, 13 April 2009

Dolphy surround sound

The Journey into Jazz video clip was suggested by a poster to the West Coast Jazz discussion group and I had to paste it into the blog.

I was delighted by the presence of Eric Dolphy in the orchestra. Subliminally aware of Dolphy's name - probably by seeing countless copies of Out to Lunch when browsing the racks of music stores - I had heard none of his music until I listened the other week to Chico Hamilton's Original Ellington Suite. I had never particularly cared for In a Sentimental Mood but when this particular number popped up, the phosphorescent solo on alto -soaring like a distress flare on a dark night - absolutely made me sit up and take notice. I had never heard any player in Ellington's original band render the melody with such dendrite-shredding verve. It was Dolphy.

I pulled the trigger on the CD simply because it is one of the casualties of the culling Blue Note is presently conducting within the ranks of its jazz catalogue. On the strength of Eric Dolphy's solo alone it was one of the best decisions I have ever made in my record-buying life. And the recording has much more going for it besides. But that is for another day. If you do not own this beauty, hurry - as they say - while stocks last. It can be purchased here.

Friday, 10 April 2009

Beauty and The Brute

Of all the former Ellingtonians, Ben Webster, I suppose, fell furthest from the nest, spending his last years on the continent of Europe, most notably in Denmark.

I have been celebrating Webster’s centenary this month by watching a DVD of priceless performances in that country. Ben Webster in Denmark (on the Emarcy label) comprises three performances recorded between 1965 and 1969 filmed for Danish television.

The absolute jewel of the collection, however, is the inclusion of Big Ben a documentary about the tenor man made in 1971. It is a privileged insight into what is, almost A Day in the Life of... We see Ben in his unprepossessing flat in Copenhagen, a spartan place bar a fridge, a shelf of LPs and a reel-to-reel recorder on which he listens to the playback of his latest studio session with which the documentary begins. We see him getting into a VW camper van to go to a gig. He talks about the making of Cottontail with the Ellington band, his dismay with the Duke when Ellington told the band they were running the number down for a rehearsal but told the engineers they were going for a take. This was the released version despite Ben’s avowed ‘casual’ solo. He talks about Hawk and Pres, about‘scuffling’ (lovely word) with the Fletcher Henderson Orchestra.

The highlight of the video is when Charlie Shavers drops by, a suitcase loaded with what looks suspiciously like vodka. Bizarrely a man who appears to have come to read the meter is also drawn into this impromptu mid-day drinking session, Ben grabbing him a beer from the fridge. The documentary concludes with two numbers from the gig Webster and Shavers play in a rather dingy cellar.

It is a remarkable document of a unique individual and a great artist. Webster clearly lived for his music, purveying that apparently casual artlessness in his playing but which is, actually, hard won. Shavers (who died the same year the documentary was made) is a joy. It is interesting to watch in their gig how he cracks Ben up with his corny turns of phrase on the trumpet, reminiscent of the sort of mischief Armstrong made, the DVD closing with Webster’s evanescent solo on Stardust.

I cannot recommend this DVD enough. It is an access point for the wonder and joy that is jazz and its makers. Watching the crowd in the cellar gone to the music – the women in their leopard skin tights and luminous sweaters, the men with heavy spectacles and billy goat beards is another reminder - if any were needed - that these are times, rendered here in slightly faded Kodacolor, the like of which we shall not see again.

The DVD is already out of print. Used copies – which are beginning to escalate in price – may be found here.