Ella Fitzgerald: These Are The Blues (review)

There are a handful of Ella’s albums for Verve that more obscure or forgotten than the rest, and These Are the Blues from 1964 is one of them. Some of them, ironically, include some of her best work, such as the Whisper Not collection, but this blues album doesn’t fall into that category. It finds her in a small-group setting, led by Wild Bill Davis on organ.

The organ is the first of the issues with the album. As with the later with-organ album Lady Time from the late 1970s, it fails to give her the rhythmic drive that a piano-led combo or full big band can. It may be fitting for the blues, but it’s not fitting for Ella Fitzgerald. But then, for the most part, neither are the blues themselves.

The impression one gets when listening to the album is that Fitzgerald doesn’t really know what to do with these songs. She was fine with throwing in a blues song into an album project or a concert, but here she’s faced with ten of them. She was not a blues singer in the first place, although she successfully included them in her live shows from the ’50s onwards (maybe before). But in those cases, she took a blues number and moulded it into something that fit her. In the case of this studio album, she does almost the opposite in that she tries to fit the songs, and she often loses all identity. For a good third of the album she sounds more like Pearl Bailey than Ella Fitzgerald – check out the spoken “this house is surely getting raided” at the beginning of the LP for proof of that (and here how uncomfortable she sounds saying it). Elsewhere she sounds more like Dinah Washington, and she also sometimes seems to be channelling Bessie Smith. She was doing party-piece style impressions of Dinah and Pearl as part of her live shows around this time (normally in her version of Bill Bailey), and that can be fun – but it doesn’t work when she does it for a full song and in a serious number (and probably doesn’t realise she is doing it either).

In concert, even without the impressions, she could be remarkably impressive on a blues number. Check out her version of “T’ain’t Nobody’s Business If I Do” that was the encore for her concert at Montreux in 1975. It is stunning. The same is true when she launched into what she often referred to as a “Joe Williams Blues,” a fast blues that she would ultimately turn into a masterclass in improvisation. But those are more about improvisation than blues.

On These Are the Blues, she occasionally does use the song as a launchpad for improvisation, most notably on Trouble In Mind when the faster tempo kicks in. But the song loses all meaning. This eight bar blues is essentially a song about suicide – but Ella can’t help but give it a happy ending. On the uptempo repeat of the verse with the lyrics “I’m gonna lay my head on some lonesome railroad line/Let the 2.19 train ease my troubled mind” she changes them to “I’m gonna lay my head on some lonesome track/But when I hear that whistle, I’m just gonna pull it back.” But at least the song DOES sound like an Ella number, unlike some of the others. Elsewhere she works through something like See See Rider at something of a snail’s pace, and with no obvious awareness of where it’s going. Even St Louis Blues, which she often sang in concert so brilliantly, is disappointing, sung at a slow pace and with Ella seemingly making up verses as she goes along, with half of them not making any sense – and for over six minutes.

The irony here is that there was a blues album in Ella. In 1996, a blues album was pulled together from her studio and live albums at Pablo, with whom she recorded from 1972 through to the end of her career nearly twenty years later. There, on a label with no intentions of bowing to commercial interests (check out the covers!), Ella worked entirely in the jazz genre, with Norman Granz placing her in various combos and bands. So on “Bluella” (as the compilation is called), we get her wonderful version of Fine and Mellow from 1974, sung with a combo; Basella, Duke’s Place with the Duke Ellington orchestra, and a stunning ten minute C Jam Blues with Count Basie and his band. If you want to hear Ella singing the blues, then that’s the place to go. These Are the Blues is out of print on CD – and, for once, that might be for a good reason.

Review: The Birth of the Blues (1941)

458full-birth-of-the-blues----------------------------------(1941)-poster

The Birth of the Blues should perhaps be called The Birth of Jazz, or perhaps even more appropriately, The Birth of Jazz According to Hollywood.  If you want to know just why this film from 1941 is problematic in 2019, just check out the last sixty seconds, where the audience is informed that Louis Armstrong learned jazz from an all-white, middle-class jazz band.  Armstrong appears (for two seconds, literally) in a montage of the great jazz musicians of the age, of which only he and Duke Ellington are African American.  The really great jazz musicians of the early 1940s were apparently Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey, Paul Whiteman, and George Gershwin.

The films charts the rise to fame of a group of jazz musicians headed by Bing Crosby.  It is a loose re-telling of the story of the Original Dixieland Jazz Band, whose claim to fame were that they were the first group to record jazz, back in 1917.  This claim to fame is pretty much glossed over in the film, which seems a little odd considering it should perhaps be the climax of it.  Instead, the film concentrates on how the group popularised jazz in New Orleans polite society and how they worked to take their new music to the rest of America.

It’s hard to know whether to be completely offended by the whole endeavour, or to allow yourself to be charmed by the effortless performances by Bing Crosby and Mary Martin.  But for every good performance, the film presents us with a racial stereotype or a rewriting of history.  Perhaps that shouldn’t be surprising, but this movie seems to be more problematic than most from the period, if only due to its endless endeavour to whitewash history.  There are the occasional moments when the film tells us that African Americans might just have had something to do with the beginnings of jazz – in the rather cute prologue (see below) and where Eddie “Rochester” Anderson teaches Mary Martin how to jazz up a Tin Pan Alley number – but they are few and far between.

Musically speaking, many of the songs are Tin Pan Alley numbers rather that jazz as such, but Bing Crosby and Mary Martin sing beautifully and work very well together on screen.  However, the best number in the film is a wonderfully staged and arranged St. Louis Blues, sung by Ruby Elzy and a chorus. Unfortunately the sequence from the film is not on YouTube, but a performance from a radio appearance from the time is, although it is not as good:

The current DVD of the film runs around eight minutes shorter than the given run time on the internet, and so it may be possible that it is slightly edited for whatever reason.  Picture and sound are very good.  The film was released in the UK on DVD as a double bill with Blue Skies.

Original Dixieland Jass Band, 1917.

The-Original-Dixieland-Jazz-Band

In February 1917, jazz was recorded for arguably the first time when the Original Dixieland Jass Band recorded Dixieland Jass Band One Step and Livery Stable Blues.   I say “arguably” because it depends on your definition of what jazz music is.  For example, thirteen tracks (mostly ragtime) precede these recordings on the masterful Le Grande Histoire du Jazz, a collection of 100 CDs released in four boxed sets that almost singlehandedly made the case for the EU public domain fifty-year rule for recorded music.  In other words, buy them now if you don’t already have them – the prices have already started rising.

But I digress.  This modest post takes a look at advertisements and reactions in the press to those early recordings by the Original Dixieland Jass Band.  We start with the New York Times, and an advertisement for an appearance by the band less than one month before they made recorded music history.

The_New_York_Times_Sat__Jan_27__1917_p7

The Scranton Republican, April 17, 1917.

The_Scranton_Republican_Tue__Apr_17__1917_p5

The Decatur Daily Review, April 21, 1917.

The_Decatur_ Daily_Review_Sun__Apr_22__1917_p12

The Hutchinson Gazette, April 25, 1917.

The_Hutchinson_Gazette_Wed__Apr_25__1917_p4

El Paso Herald, April 28, 1917.

El_Paso_Herald_Sat__Apr_28__1917_p12

The Wassau Daily Herald, May 1, 1917.

Wausau_Daily_Herald_Sat__May_19__1917_p5

The Sandusky Star Journal, August 14, 1917.The_Sandusky_Star_Journal_Tue__Aug_14__1917_p5

A Ghost of a Chance (new novel)

ghost-of-a-chance-cover

I am pleased to announce the publication of my new young adult novel A Ghost of a Chance!

Chet Barclay is a gay, jazz-obsessed sixteen year old that has been suffering from depression since the mysterious suicide of his boyfriend a few months earlier. When his parents go away on holiday, Chet is overjoyed at the thought of being alone in the house for a week – and away from his constantly fussing mother. However, it doesn’t take long before he starts hearing strange noises, and things start to move around by themselves. Chet begins to wonder whether he is alone in the house after all, especially when a friend tells him she saw the ghost of a boy there just after he had moved in. And how is everything connected to the bizarrely realistic dreams he has been having? Chet soon realises that he is about to embark on one of the strangest weeks of his life…

The book features a lead character who has depression – I myself have had bipolar disorder going back nearly two decades. I wanted to write something that had a character with depression but where the storyline didn’t revolve around that.  Therefore, A Ghost of a Chance is a surprisingly irreverent, lighthearted book at times but, through Chet’s storytelling, also portrays the difficulties that all sufferers of depression have to cope with.  I hope it will be seen as a positive portrayal of ordinary guy saddled with a difficult condition, and a far cry from the portrayals we see so often of those with mental illness seen as violent, unpredictable and about to go on a murderous rampage!

The Kindle edition will be free to download from October 29th to October 31st, 2016.

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.

Bobby Darin: Bill Bailey and the February 1960 Jazz Recordings

thN1AETJ0T

Just a few days after finishing the It’s You or No One LP, Bobby was back in the studio to record a very different album.  In just two days, Bobby recorded fifteen songs, this time backed by a small jazz combo headed by Bobby Scott.  Once again, this may well have been an instance of Darin trying to distance himself from Sinatra.  In 1959 and 1962, Sinatra performed concerts using just a jazz sextet as backing, but he never recorded an album with that kind of setting (which is a great loss, it should be added).  Here, Bobby records what is, pure and simply, a jazz vocal album.  The results are much looser than on any of his other albums of standards and, while Bobby Scott is credited as arranger, it sounds much more as if he put together some basic ideas and the musicians simply took it from there.  This group of songs (released on an album and three singles) shows Darin in fine form and demonstrating his versatility in a way that It’s You or No One ultimately failed to do.

Before discussing the recordings themselves, it is worth talking about how they were released.  Won’t You Come Home Bill Bailey was released as a single backed with I’ll Be There in June 1960, reaching #19 in the U.S. charts.  In November 1962, I Found a New Baby was released as a single side.  Then, in June 1964, nine more songs (plus I Found a New Baby) appeared on an album called Winners, which was released with relatively little notice.  The remainder of the album was filled by both sides of the Milord/Golden Earrings single which had been unearthed from the vaults two months earlier and reached #45 in the charts.  The problem here is that the sound and orchestration of the single sides (recorded in June 1960 and March 1961) had nothing to do with the distinctive jazz sound of the rest of the album. Two months after the release of Winners, ATCO released yet another track from these February 1960 sessions, this time pairing Swing Low Sweet Chariot with Similau, an odd little number recorded in December 1960.  Finally, one more track from the sessions, Minnie the Moocher, was paired up with Hard Hearted Hannah (already released on the Winners  album) as a single in February 1965, more than five years after they were recorded.  And that’s not all! A Game of Poker and I Got a Woman have never been released at all.  The reason for the latter may have been because the song had been released in different arrangements on two other albums by 1964, but why A Game of Poker never appeared is unknown.

Such a release strategy is mystifying.  When Bill Bailey became a hit in 1960, one would think that the obvious thing to have done would have been to place it as the lead track on an album containing the other songs from the same session.  For some reason, that didn’t happen and, to date, these wonderful tracks have never appeared all together in one place – and yet they are a collection of songs just waiting to be rediscovered.

With its stripped down arrangement, Won’t You Come Home, Bill Bailey was an unlikely single release.  While Darin had taken old songs and had hits with them in the past, they had always been in big, swinging arrangements, but this was something different.  Still, the song manages to draw in the listener from the very beginning, with Bobby’s spoken lines before the song starts proper, and that seemed to be enough for it to catch on.  As with some of the other songs from the sessions, Darin interacts with the group, spurring them on as he yells “yeah, I like it like that” during the instrumental.  Not only is Bobby showing off his vocal abilities here, but also is showmanship.  It’s a stunning record, and while it wasn’t the biggest hit that Darin ever had, the fact that a pure jazz number broke into the top twenty shows just how good it is.  Billboard magazine referred to the song as “another winning side for Bobby Darin, featuring a great vocal by the lad over smart backing by the Bobby Scott Trio.”[1]

The first day of recording had begun with the aforementioned, unreleased A Game of Poker, and then continued with a straightforward rendition of the Gershwin’s They All Laughed.  Despite the relatively mundane arrangement, there is some great interplay between Bobby and the musicians, with each giving the other room to breathe.  There’s no instrumental section, but enough space at the end of each vocal line for an instrumental lick, normally on xylophone.  The “laughs” on the record are provided by Darin’s friend George Burns.[2]

Hard Hearted Hannah, a song dating back to 1924, is even better and, as with some of the other songs here, Bobby sings the verse as well as the more familiar chorus.  Once again, we can hear just how much Darin is enjoying himself here.  Listen closely and you’ll hear him singing off-mic during the instrumental.  He revived the song a few years later with a full big-band arrangement, performing it on TV on one of his appearances on The Andy Williams Show.  Hard Hearted Hannah was a song also included in the 1955 film Pete Kelly’s Blues (Jack Webb), bringing the number of songs from the film that Darin covered up to three, with She Needs Me appearing on That’s All, and the title song recorded for This is Darin.

There are few disappointing numbers here, but Anything Goes certainly fits into that category, despite some tasty piano licks during the first half.  The song, written by Cole Porter for his 1934 musical of the same name, is just too slow, and never gets going.  It’s clearly an attempt at doing something different with the number, but it just doesn’t work.

What Can I Say After I Say I’m Sorry finds things moving along at a much better tempo, and Bobby gives a gently swinging performance that adds nothing new to the song, but is pleasant enough.  The same can be said about Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea, which is given a kind of Latin American rhythm before switching to a standard swing feel during the bridge section.

Perhaps the best upbeat track of the whole session is the masterful I Found a New Baby, which begins with Darin’s finger-snapping before the various instruments slowly join in.  There is wonderful late-night jazz feel to the whole number, and Bobby Short’s piano solo is stunning and Darin tells him to “growl on it.”  There’s more variations to Bobby’s vocal here too.  He never sings at full volume and yet still manages to switch between a silky smooth tone and one that has the rawer sound heard on the That’s All LP.

Bobby’s take on Duke Ellington’s Do Nothin’ Till You Hear From Me is at a slower tempo than usual, and also contains a mistake in the vocal – something very rare for a Darin track.  On the line “If you should take the word of others you’ve heard,” you hear that he starts to sing “anyone’s dream” instead of “others you’ve heard,” but tries to correct himself, but it’s just a little too late.  It’s surprising he didn’t decide to do another take – unless the wrong take was actually issued by ATCO.  Like Anything Goes, the song doesn’t entirely work at this speed (Ella Fitzgerald also tried it at this speed with similar results), and it would have been better to hear Bobby belting this out in a full big band arrangement.

Minnie the Moocher gets given a wonderful treatment, with Bobby in full show-stopping form.  He makes the lyrics a little more palatable for early 1960s conservative audiences by removing the references to drugs, but it takes nothing away from the authenticity of the performance which comes complete with a rare example of Darin scat-singing, which he does much better here than on the later Two of a Kind album.  By recording it with just a jazz combo to back him, he removes the opportunity for anyone to compare it with the well-known Cab Calloway rendition, and Darin’s take is a classic in its own right.

Two of the ballads here are among the best vocals that Bobby ever recorded.  What a Difference a Day Made and Easy Living are wonderful examples of just how much his ballad singing had progressed in the year or so that he had been recording standards in the studio.  Written for a 1937 screwball comedy, Easy Living in particular is truly marvellous and the smoky jazz-club-style playing behind him is perfect framing for a perfect vocal.  What a Difference a Day Made finds Bobby taking on a song that, the year before, had won a Grammy award for Dinah Washington.  Ironically, Bobby’s version of the song is more jazz-oriented than Washington’s. When Day is Done is another ballad in the same style and with a similar vocal, but it’s simply not quite up the standard of the aforementioned titles, with the vocal just a little too subdued.  The song itself is more obscure, being of German origin with lyricist Buddy DeSylva writing English words for it during the 1920s.

The final song of the session is also the hardest to find.  Bobby had been singing Swing Low Sweet Chariot on stage for a while in medley with Lonesome Road in a big band arrangement.  However, here it gets a jazz workout by itself in an arrangement that is a cross between Bill Bailey and some of the songs he recorded for the folk album Earthy.  Here, he growls and rasps his way through the spiritual, and the performance is both a bizarre and masterful mixture of styles and genres.  The fact that this song has seemingly not re-appeared on CD or LP since its original single release back in 1964 is a great shame, for this is a fine, intriguing recording that deserves to be much better known than it is.

Unlike It’s You or No One, Winners did at least get some recognition when released, helped along by the inclusion of Milord, which had been recent single release.  Billboard, however, were rather non-committal in their review, referring to the album simply as “romantic and sentimental ballads and up-tempo swingers aimed at the sophisticated set.”[4]  They clearly missed the fact that this was one of the best jazz-oriented sets ever recorded by a pop singer.

[1] “Spotlight Winners of the Week,” Billboard, May 16, 1960, 41.

[2] Bleiel, That’s All, 55.

[4] “Album Reviews,” Billboard, July 25, 1964, 50.

Jazz Mission to Moscow (CD Review)

Jazz Mission to Moscow

Jazz was hardly welcomed in the Soviet Union for much of the 1950s and 1960s. The most famous US jazz artist to play in Russia during a short lull in anti-jazz sentiment by authorities was Benny Goodman in his famous tour of 1962. That tour was documented on record with the Benny Goodman in Moscow release, but a number of other albums related to that tour, Russia and jazz were also released in 1962 and 1963. Three of these have been collected by the independent Fresh Sounds label and were released at the end of last year under the collective title of Jazz Mission to Moscow, also the title of one of the albums.

This is a double disc set that I confess I bought out of curiosity rather than any expectation that the music itself would be particularly good. However, I was quite wrong. The music contained here, not available for decades in most cases, is actually superb. The first album, Jazz Mission to Moscow, was recorded by ten musicians, most of which had been part of the Goodman tour. The album is a kind of souvenir of their experiences. It features a new number, Mission to Moscow, and then five Russia-related items, most of them either traditional Russian songs or pieces written by Soviet jazz musicians. Recorded in New York in 1962, and featuring Zoot Sims, Phil Woods and Mel Lewis, and arranged by Al Cohn, this is vibrant, exciting West Coast music.

A couple of months later, Victor Feldman, another member of the Goodman tour, recorded an album called Soviet Jazz Themes, this time entirely comprised of pieces written by Russian composers. Again, the band contained well-known names such as Nat Adderley and Joe Zawinul, and again the quality of the material and arrangements are very high. It fills up the remainder of the first disc.

The second disc is not quite so good musically, but still enjoyable and interesting. The album on this CD is Jazz at Liberty, pieces recorded for Radio Liberty for airplay in Russia once the crackdown on jazz had begun once again. The resulting album, released by RKO records, was hardly an epic (it runs at about 20 minutes) but the sound quality is surprisingly good and the music is also worthy – this time featuring Zoot Sims, Bob Brookmeyer and Art Farmer among others. Filling out the disc are four alternate takes from Jazz at Liberty and a short interview with saxophonist Phil Woods.

Fresh Sound Records have really come up with the goods here, as this label so often does. The bringing together of these forgotten albums (unavailable for decades in most cases) on one set is a wonderful idea, the music itself is superb, and the sound quality is great. The 24-page booklet contains new material, original album covers and original liner notes for all albums. This is a set that could so easily have been nothing more than a curio, and yet actually one that will be returned to repeatedly. Well worth the modest investment for anyone interested in this material from either a historical or musical point of view. Great stuff.