Saturday, 20 April 2013

Diahann Carroll & Ralph Burns

I have an unusual procedure for choosing albums by singers — I select them based on the arranger.

To me, vocal albums are actually instrumental albums with the singer as a featured soloist.

Looked at from this perspective, the arranger becomes the most important member of the personnel on a record.

And it's a view which has paid substantial dividends. I've found a lot of unexpected treasures this way.

The latest of these is Diahann Carroll Sings Harold Arlen Songs. I was aware of Diahann Carroll, with her oddly spelled name, purely because she was the star of a TV sitcom when I was growing up. And she was hot.

But I didn't know she was a singer (and she's an excellent one) and Sings Harold Arlen is not an album I would normally have picked up — if not for the fact that the arranger was Ralph Burns.

Burns was an important post-bop jazz musician: a pianist, bandleader composer and (I believe I mentioned) arranger. His career began in the 1940s with Charlie Barnet's band and he played a major role in Woody Herman's 'Second Herd'. He would go on to do a lot of movie soundtracks and Broadway work, including Oscar-winning contributions to Cabaret and All That Jazz. 

Between these two points in his career he did a lot of arranging for singers, including this gem from 1957. The selection of Harold Arlen songs here is wonderful, with highlights including 'It's Only a Paper Moon', 'Down With Love' (one of my all time favourite songs, with marvelous anti-romantic lyrics by Yip Harburg), 'Hit the Road to Dreamland' and 'Let's Take the Long Way Home'. (It also features 'Somewhere Over the Rainbow' — but don't let that put you off.)

Diahann Carroll sings with sweet, smooth precision and Ralph Burn's genius for instrumentation, detail and colour is evident throughout.

It's lovely stuff. I initially got a copy of it on a Japanese CD reissue and I've just picked up of the original vinyl (thank you, Dusty Groove!). It's a nice mono RCA black label pressing. And like the name of the blog says, deep groove.

But if you're looking for a copy, there's are currently some reasonably priced CDs available on Amazon

Incidentally, all that malarkey I was spinning about singers and arrangers goes out the window when the vocalist is backed by such a small combo that formal arrangements aren't necessary.

And there's a great example of that I'll write about next time.

(Image credits: The album cover is from Dusty Groove, my favourite record store in the world. You should shop there. Right now. The sultry black and white glamour shot of Diahann is from IMDB, courtesy of MPTV Images, and the photo is by the distinguished Hollywood photographer John Engstead. The shot of Ralph Burns looking all James Dean is from eNotes. The picture of him at the piano is from Birth of Modern Jazz. The image of Jet ('The Weekly Negro News Magazine') is from Base de Fotos —  and the hilarious cover line by Diahann's right ear is eerily relevant because Burns spent his entire professional life concealing the fact that he was gay.)

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