Milestone Recordings in American Music

1/23/10

Jazz Bands Stretch Their Legs (1936)

In 1936, the Big Band scene was starting to heat up in America, and band leaders responded with a variety of excellent recordings. Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, some very talented European musicians were showing that expertise in jazz was no longer limited to Americans.

Tommy Dorsey and His Orchestra
I’m Getting Sentimental Over You (Victor 25236, 1936)

Tommy Dorsey was a talented trombonist who had played with many of the top Chicago jazz groups of the 1920s and early ‘30s. He would go on to become one of the most popular big band leaders of the era. Although his orchestra would have bigger hits than “I’m Getting Sentimental Over You,” there would never be a better showcase for their leader’s talent on trombone. The trombone tends to have a larger-than-life personality as an instrument, but here Dorsey reigns it in to deliver a soft, sentimental performance. The entire band does a fine job with this material, but it is Dorsey’s rich, graceful soling that stands out and makes this record such a classic.

~ You may also like: Freddy Martin and His Orchestra featuring Elmer Feldkamp, “I Saw Stars” (Brunswick 6948, 1934)

Le Quintette du Hot Club de France
Djangology(Decca 23003, 1936)

Not long after jazz exploded in popularity in the U.S. in the 1920s, European audiences also began paying attention. Many of America’s top jazz stars, such as clarinetist Sidney Bechet, were able to extend their careers by playing in France. Before long, French musicians were copying the new style and adding their own spin to it. Chief among them was the Quintet of the Hot Club of France, an all-string ensemble of the highest caliber that featured Jean “Django” Reinhardt, one of the all-time great guitarists of any nationality. Reinhardt had only partial use of two of the fingers on his left hand, owing to injuries sustained in a fire when he was 18. This led him to develop his own unique playing style that was as impressive as it was distinct. Reinhardt was a Gypsy and combined the music he had learned in his youth with his passion for jazz to create a new “Gypsy jazz” sound that was utterly spellbinding.

“Djangology,” one of his original compositions, showcases his virtuosity splendidly. It is an easy-going piece that features some highly inventive soloing by both Reinhardt and violinist St├ęphane Grappelli. The pair perform complex maneuvers in the most relaxed way. Reinhardt’s guitar is the centerpiece. For the first half of the record, he plays an entrancing solo, and on the second half he adds little interjections behind Grappelli’s violin, turning the song into an upbeat, friendly musical conversation. Reinhardt is particularly good at using contrast in beautifully inventive ways. For example, he will lure the listener into a trance repeating a low passage, then suddenly provide an unexpected but lovely, high response. Likewise, in the middle of such beautiful melody, he will keep things interesting with a few well-placed discordant strokes.

~ You may also like: Le Quintette du Hot Club de France with Freddie Taylor, “After You’ve Gone” (Victor 25511, 1937)

Fletcher Henderson and His Orchestra
Christopher Columbus (A Rhythm Cocktail)(Vocalion 3211, 1936)

After Benny Goodman hit it big in 1935 with a Fletcher Henderson arrangement of “King Porter Stomp,” Henderson quickly capitalized on the opportunity by reassembling his own orchestra. The band soon had a major hit with this classic, in which the band members improvise a series of superb solos over a highly memorable main theme.

Although there were several new faces in the band this time, it is amazing to hear how fully-formed the orchestra sounded. Two of the newest faces provided some of the best highlights: Roy Eldridge’s wailing trumpet and Leon “Chu” Berry’s smooth tenor sax. One can only wonder to what heights they would have soared if Henderson had been able to hold the band together, but sadly they were unable to maintain their momentum and by 1939 had disbanded again for good.

~ You may also like: Fletcher Henderson and His Orchestra, “Hotter Than ‘Ell” (Decca 3518, 1940)

Benny Goodman and His Orchestra
The Glory Of Love(Victor 25316, 1936)

After the success of “King Porter Stomp” in 1935, Goodman could do no wrong. He scored 15 Top Ten hits in 1936, including this lovely chart-topper written by Billy Hill. Helen Ward’s vocals are the centerpiece of the record. Her voice is charmingly sweet on the high notes, with a hint of worldly sauciness on the low notes (such as when she sings the words “a little” at the end of each line). Although very subtle, Jess Stacey’s mischievous piano provides the perfect accompaniment. And when the vocals end, Goodman unleashes one of his patented so-sweet-it’s-hot solos on clarinet.

~ You may also like: Benny Goodman and His Orchestra featuring Ella Fitzgerald, “Goodnight, My Love” (Victor 25461, 1936)

1/17/10

Sentimental Singers (1935-1936)

The next selections are feature vocals that are almost too sentimental, but the singers are all top-notch, and with performances this magnificent it’s easy to forgive a little maudlin.

Fats Waller and His Rhythm
I’m Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter (Victor 25044, 1935)

This is another striking example of Waller’s talents, this time showing him interpreting someone else’s material (music by Fred E. Ahlert, lyrics by Joe Young). The lyrics are pure gold, written from the point of view of someone who tries to cheer himself up by writing a letter and willing himself to believe that his love has written it. Although the record’s sound is generally upbeat, it is filled with a dramatic poignancy by the knowledge that his love couldn’t or wouldn’t write to him herself: “Gonna smile and say, ‘I hope you’re feeling better’ / And close ‘with love’ the way you do / I’m gonna sit right down and write myself a letter / And make believe it came from you.”

The instrumentation is all understated, placing Waller’s honeyed vocals squarely at the center of the listener’s attention. Waller’s voice is much less animated than in most of his recordings, as he prefers to let the simple, sweet melody and lyrics speak for themselves. In addition to Waller’s effortless piano, Rudy Powell’s clarinet wistfully responds to each line as it is sung, and Herman Autry has a subdued trumpet solo during the break.

~ You may also like one of Waller’s more over-the-top records: Fats Waller and His Rhythm, “Hold Tight (Want Some Sea Food Mama)” (Bluebird B-10116, 1939)

Fred Astaire
Cheek To Cheek (Brunswick 7486, 1935)

Fred Astaire was not the strongest singer of his day, but he used what he had marvelously. “Cheek to Cheek” is a great example: the fragile delicateness of Astaire’s voice in the higher notes actually adds to the tenderness of his delivery and strengthens the sentiment. This is a lovely song, well arranged and beautifully performed. Just listen to the subtle but exciting way the violins answer Astaire as he sings, “Heaven, I’m in heaven.” Heavenly!

~ You may also like: Andy Kirk and His Twelve Clouds of Joy, “Until the Real Thing Comes Along” (Decca 809, 1936)

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1936 Headlines … Great Depression continues … Edward VIII becomes King of the U.K., then abdicates and is succeeded by George VI … American Jesse Owens wins four gold medals at Olympics in Berlin
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Fred Astaire
The Way You Look Tonight(Brunswick 7717, 1936)

This is probably the most beautiful record Astaire ever made. As in “Cheek to Cheek,” the frailty of Astaire’s voice is its strength, its thinness providing transparency into his soul. The orchestra makes its presence known more forcefully in this outing and becomes the perfect dance partner to Astaire’s sentimental vocals. Those vocals are made powerful by wonderful lyrics that masterfully pull at the heartstrings: “Someday , when I’m awfully low / When the world is cold / I will feel a glow just thinking of you / And the way you look tonight.”

~ You may also like: Ray Noble and His Orchestra featuring Al Bowlly, “The Very Thought of You” (Victor 24657, 1934)

Bing Crosby
Pennies From Heaven(Decca 947, 1936)

“Pennies from Heaven” shows why Crosby was the top crooner of his generation. His full, baritone voice is in top form as he slowly unfolds the sentiment in every word, stretching each note to its dramatic limit. The highlight of the record may be the introduction. It has a looser, more playful feel and Crosby magnificently fills the space with a reassuring warmth, setting the stage for the more familiar refrain that dominates the rest of the song.

~ You may also like: Bing Crosby, “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?” (Brunswick 6414, 1932)

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