Sunday, 6 September 2009
Lucy Ann Polk Newsflash (Plus a Small Caveat)
Lucy Ann Polk, although virtually unknown today, was one of the greatest female jazz singers of the 20th Century (for my money, perhaps the greatest). Called “the hippest person alive,” she recorded a couple of sessions with Dave Pell in the early 1950s, for the Trend and Kapp labels (there is, or was, a video clip accompanied by two songs from these sessions here), and a few years later crafted the classic album Lucky Lucy Ann with Marty Paich on Mode (also released as Easy Livin’ on Interlude). ¶ The paucity — and scarcity — of these recordings goes a long way towards explaining why Lucy Ann is so criminally under rated, or even completely unknown. Other than one wonderful song for a Jerry Fielding album (the eerily evocative Chicken Road on Fielding’s Formula) and a handful of airshots recorded with Les Brown’s big band, these few precious sessions were the entirety of the currently available Lucy Ann Polk canon. Until now. ¶ So delight and excitement were my entirely understandable response when I discovered that the Dutch record label BVHaast had announced a new release of Lucy Ann Polk material. A fat, beautiful package entitled Lucy Ann Polk with the Les Brown Orchestra (1950-1953) featuring a total of 29 tracks and coming in at a fraction under 75 minutes. ¶ I ordered a copy as soon as the CD was released. Unfortunately, and this is where that small caveat comes in, despite the title and all the information presented, Lucy Ann Polk only sings on a smidgen over half the tracks. Seventeen out of 29 to be precise. Yet there is nothing on this CD’s cover or packaging or, indeed on the record company’s website, to indicate that this is anything except purely a Lucy Ann Polk collection. ¶ If you read the booklet (which is otherwise informative, comprehensive and well illustrated) it does concede that only 17 of the tracks feature the singer — but, the only way to find out what these 17 tracks are is to listen to the CD and make notes! Or, in this case, read a blog by yours truly, because I’ve done it for you. ¶ Lucy Ann sings on tracks 2, 4, 6, 8, 10, 11, 12, 14, 16, 17, 18, 20, 21, 22, 24, 26, 28. (So as you can see, it’s not even every other track, or any such usefully intuitive patterning.) ¶ The tracks in question are: 2 Sometimes I’m Happy, 4 Waitin’ at the Station, 6 Where are You (a beautiful vocal performance which shows Lucy Ann’s yearning purity of tone), 8 You’re Different, 10 Crazy He Calls Me, 11 Them There Eyes, 12 What’s Happened to Joe? (a very soulful and easeful performance of this Bobby Troup song), 14 It’s Too Soon to Know, 16 Black Coffee, 17 Pretty Baby, 18 Squeeze Me, 20 Again, 21 Honeysuckle Rose, 22 September Song, 24 Rock Me to Sleep, 26 Back in Your Own Back Yard, 28 I’ve Got the World on a String. ¶ The people at BVHaast obviously know that Lucy Ann is the main selling point of this CD (she takes precedence in the album title and cover art) so it’s disingenuous of them to pretend the buyer doesn’t need to know on which tracks she sings (and also that she doesn’t sing at all on a dozen of them). ¶ So there are several clear and easy ways this CD issue could have been improved. The first and most obvious one would have been to make it entirely a collection of Lucy Ann Polk numbers. If there weren’t enough of these available to fill the disc to its (admittedly generous) length, then at least all the Lucy Ann tracks should have been grouped together at the beginning of the CD, allowing them to be easily played in a continuous session. The 12 instrumental Les Brown numbers could all have then followed, making up a generous slab of bonus tracks. ¶ Perhaps this was considered to be out of the question for reasons of presenting the tracks in strictly chronological sequence, a jazz-nut-purist point of view with which I have a little (just a little) sympathy. But there’s nothing to suggest this is the case in the (extensive) booklet notes, since there’s nothing about chronology and no information I could find about recording dates beyond the “1950-1953” title. ¶ Of course, the Les Brown Orchestra is a classic, classy big band and an exceptional outfit, well worth listening to. Among their moody and well crafted instrumentals on this album is a memorable version of Earl Hagen’s Harlem Nocturne. ¶ In the final analysis this remains a must-have album and a very welcome one,and BVHaast are to be congratulated on saving these tracks from obscurity. The sound quality is very good and the booklet and artwork are, apart from the reservations I mentioned, first rate. What's more, the CD is now on sale at a reduced price (about a third of what I paid for it, he said, not without chagrin) so I suggest you pony up and order a copy immediately. ¶ And since I seem to be in the position of helping BVHaast out here with the information missing from their release, I might as well point out that of the four songs without writing credits on the disc, and attributed to “unknown”, only two qualify as real mysteries. It’s Too Soon to Know is actually by Deborah Chessler and Again is by Dorcas Cochran and Lionel Newman. The remaining mystery tracks are Waitin’ at the Station and You’re Different. (Maybe someone reading this will be able to solve those mysteries and identify who wrote these songs.) ¶ If you want to find out more about Lucy Ann Polk and, believe me, you do, you should also look into her other recordings. There are a scattering of tracks on the Les Brown CDs available on Hindsight (there are cheap copies available from Amazon here) but I would only pursue these after buying the BVHaast collection and searching out the superb Pell and Paich sessions. ¶ Lucy Ann’s contributions to the two albums with Dave Pell were gathered together on a single terrific CD from Fresh Sound, complete with excellent, in-depth booklet notes. Unfortunately this disc is now out of print. Come on, Jordi, bring it back please. (Jordi Pujol is the unsung hero responsible for Fresh Sound, a magnificent Spanish reissue label.) A semi-bootleg of this disc, with terrible cover art, was floating around recently but I’d advise against it. ¶ If you're an MP3 fan (for me music is only real if on vinyl, or in a pinch, a CD) you're in luck, and you can download the album here. The only material from these sessions currently available (in a physical form) are the Trend tracks which were briefly available on a Japanese CD and are still around on a rather scarce Japanese vinyl reissue of the Trend ten inch LP. The good news is that Lucky Lucy Ann has been reissued on CD by VSOP and is available and inexpensive. It is a classic album of West Coast jazz vocals and you should snap it up. ¶ Oh, and check out the mighty Mark Murphy’s version of Chicken Road (written by Joe Greene and sung by Lucy Ann in 1958) on his 1973 Muse album Mark II.