The Wonders of Pablo Records

Most people with any knowledge or love of jazz will agree that the late 1920s through to the early 1940s was the first golden age of jazz, and that the 1950s was jazz‘s second coming, with the genre branching out into disparate and yet linked sub-genres such as be-bop, cool, west coast jazz and the resurgence of the big band. But what is generally forgotten or, perhaps, under-estimated, was what I would suggest was jazz‘s third golden age: the 1970s.

The 1960s was a tough time for many jazz artists and many jazz fans. Older statesmen of the genre seemed to lose direction, with big bands such as Basie and Ellington often making albums of current pop songs or short, simple arrangements of standards. Ella Fitzgerald ended up without a permanent contract, resulting in some unlikely albums for Capitol and Reprise. Meanwhile, acid jazz came to the fore, but was hardly the most accessible form of jazz. Yes, there were some fine albums recorded during the decade but as the 1960s progressed, jazz got lost in a milieu of a lack of ambition and direction and an overdose of pretension.

But then, in the early 1970s, Norman Granz came to the rescue. Granz had been behind the idea of taking jazz to the concert hall in the 1940s with his Jazz at the Philharmonic concerts, and he was champion of the jam session. He liked to sit a group of musicians in a studio or on a stage and light the touchpaper to see what happened. In 1972, he recorded a concert in Santa Monica, which he released as “Jazz at the Santa Monica Civic.” The concert was billed as a Basie/Ella Fitzgerald show, but Granz had some surprises up his sleeve, and presented the audience not just with the main stars of the evening, but also a revival of the JATP format, bringing out guest stars such as Stan Getz, Harry Edison, Roy Eldridge and Oscar Peterson for a number of jams. The show lasted nearly three hours (all of which is now available on CD) and signalled the birth of Pablo records – the finale is below:

Pablo records, for me, is the 3rd golden age of jazz. Pablo was not concerned with nurturing new talent, but bringing the old guard back to doing what they did best. Granz pulled together a great roster of talent, including Basie, Ellington, Fitzgerald, Joe Pass, Sarah Vaughan, Oscar Peterson, Dizzy Gillespie, Zoot Sims and more. All were viewed in the early 1970s as well past their prime, but the recordings they made for Pablo show something different altogether, and the label went on to win multiple Grammy awards.

Pablo is well-known for two things. Firstly, a succession of some of the most awful album covers ever created:

And, secondly, reiterating the old saying that you should never judge a book by its cover. The big band albums aside, the key element of Pablo recordings was the notion of improvisation and spontaneity. Granz would get a group of musicians together and let them just jam on a batch of songs, often recording a whole album in just a couple of hours. The results are some of the greatest and most under-rated jazz albums ever recorded.

Granz was always keen at Pablo on mixing things up, trying combinations of musicians that would never normally come together. Ella Fitzgerald’s voice was sounding rather ragged and harsh in 1973, but Granz put her in that most exposed of environments: the guitar/vocal duo. The result, the first of four albums with Joe Pass, is regarded as one of her finest hours. Count Basie and Oscar Peterson were pianists with wildly differing styles. Basie was the most economic of all players, using as few notes as possible to make his solos, whereas Peterson was a virtuoso of the keyboard, often using more notes in five minutes than Basie would in an hour. But, again, Granz pulled them together for a series of albums that are remarkable in their musicianship and entertainment. Many of the albums for the label were live efforts, with Ella Fitzgerald (as an example), being recorded in a live setting in 1972, 1974, 1975, 1977, 1979 and 1983. In 1977 Granz virtually took over the Montreux festival and released a staggering fourteen albums from the event (and I may have missed some). He also used the label as a way of releasing tapes that he had recorded up to three decades earlier, allowing for new material by long-gone greats such as Art Tatum, Lester Young and John Coltrane.

Perhaps because of their look, the Pablo albums are almost unknown today outside of the jazz world. Ella’s Verve catalogue is still well-known, and yet much of it sounds square compared to the records she made in her twilight years for Pablo. Pablo’s product wasn’t progressive, forward-thinking jazz, and some afficianados might even call it conservative, but for me jazz has never been about intellect and challenging music, but having a great time. Pablo’s output was brilliantly accessible music, and wonderfully played by the great masters who managed to end their careers on a high thanks to Granz’s willingness to let them get on with their craft and do what they did best. Most of the albums have been released on CD through the Fantasy label.

So, here’s a toast to the wonders of the Pablo label, and jazz‘s 3rd, little-known, golden age.

Sammy Davis Jr

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Over the years, Sammy Davis Jr has been referred to a number of times as the “world’s greatest entertainer,” and this may well be true.  He was a gifted singer, dancer, impressionist, comedian, actor, multi-instrumentalist and even an expert at fast-draw (guns, not pencils).  And yet, the title he has been given often masks how brilliant a singer he actually was.  History books have left us with the impression that, for all his vocal talent, Davis was forever trying to emulate or copy his idol, Frank Sinatra, but a closer look at his musical legacy reveals a very different picture.  Contrary to popular opinion, Davis was very much his own man.

Davis began his recording career in the late 1940s for Capitol – an association that can be viewed now simply as a prelude to his work with Decca and Reprise from the mid-1950s until the late 1960s.  I can’t say I’m a huge fan of his early Decca albums, made in the mid-1950s, despite the fact that they helped catapult him to super-stardom.  For example, Lonesome Road, the opening track on the Starring Sammy Davis Jr LP, finds him beginning the song in Sinatra-esque style before moving into a section which sounds like him impersonating Johnnie Ray.  Davis had yet to find his voice.  And yet, even on this album, he had started doing things that Sinatra rarely did, with My Funny Valentine utilising a small group rather than a big band or full orchestra.   What’s more, Davis’s arrangements were often more extravagant and flippant than those often used by Sinatra, with the possible exceptions of certain tracks on Come Fly with Me and Sinatra Swings.

By the time of Sammy Swings, in 1957, and due to be released on CD along with Sammy Awards in a few weeks, Davis had found his own voice.  A look at the track listing for Sammy Swings sees him seemingly avoiding standards that Sinatra was associated with, and he certainly puts his stamp on Don’t Get Around Much Anymore, Comes Love, and By Myself.  The arrangements are big and brassy, and Davis himself uses his voice in a way that Sinatra would not have done.  Davis uses his remarkable power, singing in a swing style but with a Broadway voice.   This album, and the even better Sammy Awards, are all showbiz.  What they lack in subtlety, they make up for in exuberance.   For a comparison of how Davis and Sinatra approached songs differently, one could compare their two very different 1950s readings of The Gal That Got Away, with Sinatra’s being more straight-award swing, and Davis’s being a mini Broadway play, starting off in a low-key jazzy style and using an almost rhapsodic arrangement that switches from lyrical sections to bombastic swing and back again.  When he takes on a Sinatra song, as in I Fall in Love Too Easily, he does so in a quiet, subdued manner, using just a guitar accompaniment – something Sinatra didn’t do in the studio until the early 1980s.

By the late 1950s, Davis was putting together albums that were collaborative efforts, including ones with jazz singer Carmen McCrae, the Count Basie Orchestra and, most notably, a whole album of just Davis and guitarist Mundell Lowe.   He was also already venturing far away from standard repertoire, most notably incorporating the influence of Ray Charles with recordings of Mess Around and I Got a Woman (and even incorporating Hound Dog into his live act).   But if there was an ongoing problem with Davis’s Decca recordings it was that he, for some reason, didn’t seem able to take himself totally seriously, often larking around in the middle of serious songs for no apparent reason – almost as if he is embarrassed of his own talent.

When he signed a contract with Sinatra’s Reprise label, he did three important things.  Firstly there was a series of sessions with Marty Paich, who provided Davis with arrangements that incorporated his “showbiz” style of performance, but also added some subtlety.  At the same time, Davis started digging more into Broadway for his repertoire, being among the first to record songs from shows written by Anthony Newley and Leslie Bricusse, and Lionel Bart.   And then, Davis also stopped the joking.  He was at the peak of his vocal ability, and his first album for the new label, The Wham of Sam, proved that.  Sammy was now his own man, taking songs associated with others and making them wholly his own – not by clowning but by being versatile.  Sinatra’s I’m a Fool to Want You became an unexpected tango, and Blame It on My Youth eclipses virtually every other recording of the song.

The album As Long As She Needs Me encapsulates Davis completely, from the beautiful rendition of showtunes such as the title song and an earnest Climb Every Mountain through to a wonderful, light-hearted reworking of There Is a Tavern in a Town that seems somewhat influenced by Sinatra’s rendition of Old MacDonald.  But just listen to what Davis does with the vocal line – it’s Broadway, swing, jazz and comedy all at the same time.

Davis was also ambitious, with him recording the entirety of the California Suite by Mel Torme for one album made up entirely of Torme compositions.  There were yet more collaborations with Count Basie, Sam Butera, Laurindo Almeida and the great Buddy Rich, with the latter resulting in a wonderful live album that swings from start to finish.  Not only does Davis sing two of his signature songs on this occasion, but he also completely reworks them, turning What Kind of Fool am I into a mid-tempo swing number.   Davis was doing things that Sinatra never did, such as the vocal/guitar duet albums, the recording of the Torme album, and an album dedicated to the songs from Dr Dolittle – not the cheesefest one might imagine, but one of Davis’s very best albums.   He was also appearing in his second Broadway show, Golden Boy.

Then it all fell apart.  Davis started working new sounds into his music such as Motown, soul and funk, and while he didn’t do this badly, his efforts to become hip and cool sometimes backfired and he ended up sounding silly (as in the awful In the Ghetto) and appearing on TV in more and more bizarre costumes.  The best days were gone, but he still had hits with I Gotta Be Me, The Candy Man and Mr Bojangles, and recorded a fine TV special entitled simply “Sammy.”  Davis made a move to Motown and recorded some generally poor albums, although they have nice moments.  And, then it was basically over.  His tour of Australia in 1977 was recorded by RCA and released on two albums released in 1977 and 1979.  And there was just one more studio album, of country material, in the early 1980s.  Davis, helped along by fast-living, drink, sex and drugs, had become an imitation of himself.

But there would be one last hurrah.  The Ultimate Event saw him touring with Sinatra and Dean Martin (replaced by Liza Minnelli) in the late 1980s and video footage from the tour finds him in brilliant form.  His rendition of Music of the Night showed that he was still in touch with what Broadway musicals had to offer, and his comic rendition of Michael Jackson’s Bad showed that he could still poke fun at himself.  Sadly there was no final album.  Davis was diagnosed with throat cancer and died in 1990.

Davis was, despite what we might be told, very much his own man vocally, with his own unique phrasing and styling, and his work for Reprise in particular is a real marvel.  Collector’s Choice released the Reprise albums on CD some time back, and then started on the Decca years, but never finished that part of the reissue programme.  PD company Sepia have remastered Sammy Awards and Sammy Swings and this will be released April 2015, making available for the first time in decent quality two key Decca albums on CD.  Great news – my vinyl copies have long been worn out.

Jazz at the Santa Monica Civic ’72

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In 1975, jazz impresario Norman Granz released a 4LP boxed set of concert recordings from 1967 and called it “The Greatest Jazz Concert in the World”, a slight exaggeration as the material was taken from a number of live dates.  Good though that set is/was, Granz perhaps could and should have used that grandiose title for his release from a couple of years earlier, “Jazz at the Santa Monic Civic ‘72”.  That concert, originally in slightly edited form on a 3LP mail-order set and now available unedited on 3CDs, was rather unusual.  It was billed as a Count Basie-Ella Fitzgerald concert, but unknown to the audience (and, so it is said, some of the participants) Granz had invited along a few special guests.  The audience was therefore treated to a concert that included nearly three hours of music with, alongside the Basie and Fitzgerald sets, featured a full-blown Jazz at the Philharmonic jazz session and a short set from Oscar Peterson.  What better way to kick off this blog, therefore, than by discussing what is one of most joy-filled and enjoyable jazz concerts that was ever recorded.

There must have been something in the air that night.  With the CD reissue we can finally hear the opening set by Basie in its entirety, and what a set it is.  The Basie band is heard at full force here and seems only too eager to let rip after those rather dull mid to late-1960s studio albums where they were reined in due to the two to three minute arrangements of each song.  Here, there is plenty of room for solos, but the ensemble playing finds the Basie band still as tight as a drum (so to speak), and a far cry from the slightly ramshackle outfit the Ellington band had become by this time.  DVD footage of the Ellington band from the period (great though it still was) finds the various players arriving late on stage, missing cues etc, but the Basie outfit remained a unique tight unit and is aided and abetted by the fine arrangements.

At the end of the Basie set, Granz takes to the stage to announce to a stunned audience the various guests that are about to take to the stage.  Oh, to have been in the audience that night.  The excitement in the audience as the names are read out is wonderfully captured in this fine recording.  And what a list of guests:  Ed Thigpen, Roy Eldridge, Stan Getz, Al Grey, Eddie Lockjaw Davis, Harry Edison and Ray Brown.  The jam session then follows, starting with a 15 minute rendition of In A Mellow Tone.  Everyone is in fine form.  Often the JATP jams can descend into good-hearted chaos, but not here.  The jam builds up wonderfully and the solos are quite brilliant.  Loose Walk follows and is (if you’ll excuse the pun) relatively pedestrian in comparison.   A beautiful ballad medley follows, with Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis stealing the show with his sublime rendition of If I Had You.  The first half of the show is then brought to a close by a final raucous jam, 5400 North.

The second half opens with yet another special guest, this time Oscar Peterson, who is joined by Ray Brown for a near-ten minute rendition of You Are My Sunshine.  But it is Ella Fitzgerald who really gets the second half into gear.  She had performed very little over the previous twelve months due to eye problems, but here she takes to the stage in brilliant voice and backed by the Basie band and her own trio.  Ella performs a number of songs not recorded by her elsewhere, starting with the Nat King Cole song L.O.V.E., and then wading into a Marty Paich arrangement of Begin The Beguine as if her life depended on it.  Cole Porter’s song had never been heard like this before, as Ella uses it to incorporate special lyrics about the great dance bands of the 1930s.  A Nelson Riddle arrangement of the beautiful Indian Summer follows, and then an epic take on You’ve Got A Friend and a rather unlikely cover of What’s Going On by Marvin Gaye!

The Basie band sits out to allow Ella and her trio to take centre stage for a quartet of numbers that includes a beautiful rendition of the rarely heard ballad Spring Can Really Hang You Up The Most and the Cole Porter classic Night and Day.    But the best is yet to come when the band rejoins Ella and her trio for Shiny Stockings, the theme tune to Sanford & Son, It’s Alright With Me, and a brilliantly realised five minute rendition of I Can’t Stop Loving You.

The evening comes to a close in what can only be described as possibly the most joyous JATP-style jam session of all.  For over ten minutes, Ella Fitzgerald trades fours with each of the horn players introduced earlier in the evening.   It is a fitting end to a wonderful show that sounds better than ever in its CD reissue, despite being re-mixed and mastered over twenty years ago.

This is wonderful , life-affirming music  with all of the participants having a wail of a time on stage (often literally!).  Many will cite the Jazz at the Hollywood Bowl concert of 1956 as the best multi-artist jazz concert of all time, but don’t make your mind up until you have heard this relatively little-known 165 minute epic from 1972.  This isn’t just jazz for jazz lovers, it’s jazz for music-lovers in general and anyone who wants to sit down in front of the hi-fi for three hours with a huge smile on their face.