Tuesday, 18 August 2009

Robert Farnon and George Shearing (Thanks to BBC Radio)

Kudos to BBC Radio and their replay system. Thanks to this wonderful online device I can listen to music, documentaries and even the occasional drama while I'm doing my daily yoga session (which used to involve catching a train or bus to the yoga centre but now, happily, merely involves unrolling a mat on the living room floor). As a result I'm listening to seven hours of radio a week, just while I'm practising yoga.One of my favourite programs, as I've mentioned elsewhere, is Russell Davies on popular song. I'm also growing increasingly fond of Clare Teal, who does big band shows on both Sunday and Monday nights. The great thing about both these broadcasters is that they give due credit to arrangers. In fact it was Russell Davies who introduced me to the work of Robert Farnon. According to Davies, Farnon is esteemed as being the greatest arranger of his time. A Canadian who relocated in Britain, he is regarded as the king of easy listening, so as you can imagine, I approached his work with a certain degree of trepidation. Luckily he has also recorded a fair amount of authentic jazz with some great musicians, so that gave me an obvious starting point. The first CD (yes, I had to resort to CDs) that I got hold of was the Grammy award winning Tangence with trombonist JJ Johnson. Farnon also did some memorable soundtracks including Horatio Hornblower (the beautiful theme to which first attracted JJ Johnson to his work) and Shalako, which is pictured above. I'm on the look out for both of these on vinyl, but in the meantime I've been happy exploring Farnon's jazz work. Then last week both Russell Davies and Clare Teal broadcast programs celebrating the 90th birthday of George Shearing. A blind British piano prodigy who relocated in America, Shearing has managed to acquire near legendary status in jazz while remaining virtually absent from my record collection (okay I do have Beauty and the Beat, with Peggy Lee and a few others). I was delighted to have the chance to learn a bit more about him and doubly delighted when Clare Teal played a track with Shearing playing piano against arrangements by Robert Farnon. The track was 'Surrey with a Fringe on Top' by Rogers and Hammerstein, an old favourite of mine thanks to jazz interpretations by the likes of Miles Davis and Blossom Dearie. The Farnon and Shearing version was dynamite and I was chuffed to find it came from a complete album by the two. The album How Beautiful is Night is only available on CD, from the somewhat cheesy Telarc label, but you can't have everything. And inexpensive copies were for sale on Amazon, as I discovered when I went scurrying to my computer. The CD arrived today and I'm now listening to it. I would recommend it highly. Shearing has a terrific touch and as you kight guess, the arrangements by Farnon are so subtle and smooth and appropriate that they're almost not there, if you know what I mean. So I'm now rubbing my hands with glee and keeping my eyes peeled for more albums by both these guys. Because, of course, more albums is what I need in my life. Excuse me including the cheesy Telarc CD cover, but you might want to know what it looks like. Buy it if you see it.

Friday, 7 August 2009

Krzysztof Komeda and the Abstracted Listening Test

I listen to music constantly while I work, and my work is writing so I tend to get very abstracted. I become so absorbed in what I'm doing that I might surface after an hour of concentration and realise I have no idea what I'm currently listening to. Today I was in the process of writing a new opening chapter for my spy novel and I was so wrapped up in it that I'd quite forgotten what CD I hastily popped on to play in the background. I've learned to treasure these moments because they throw up unexpected insights. Instead of trying to remember what the CD was or, worst of all, looking at the cover, I approach things from first principles. Who does it sound like? Well this was evidently 1960s jazz and it sounded a little like Henry Mancini, although I was sure it wasn't him. It also sounded like some of Mancini's great Italian contemporaries, such as Piero Umiliani or Piero Piccioni. It didn't quite have the depth or big band complexity of any of these stalwarts, but it definitely had a European sound. And it was very very funky. Was it that German guy who did the Edgar Wallace soundtracks (Peter Thomas)? I was studiously trying to avoid recalling who it actually was while these useful insights poured out. But then, like a bubble bursting, I remembered. It was Christopher Komeda, actually Krzysztof Komeda, one of the true stars of Polish jazz. Komeda was the composer of most of Roman Polanki's film scores, up until Komeda's untimely death in late 1968, after completing the music to Rosemary's Baby. That's a great soundtrack and well worth tracking down, but the CD I'd been listening to was Volume 13 of the Complete Recordings of Krzysztof Komeda on Polonia (CD 159) which features jazz standards and the score for Polanski's Cul de Sac. Probably Komeda's greatest jazz album was Astigmatic, which is generally regarded as a classic of European jazz, or anybody's jazz. There is a first rate reissue on vinyl which is still available. Click on the cover for a link to it. There's some good photographs of Komeda working on Polanski's early films and some further information here.

Flora, Goldblatt and Stone Martin

I mentioned Jim Flora in my first post. Well here are examples of LP cover art by two of the other most talented illustrators who contributed to the jazz record labels. In fact, between them Burt Goldblatt (Holiday in Sax) and David Stone Martin (The President) pretty much provided the foundations of jazz album cover design. Besides working for EmArcy (Mercury) as in this example, Goldblatt almost single handedly supervised the output of Bethlehem (including a great deal of fine photography) while Stone Martin served a similar function on Norman Granz's labels, including Norgran, Clef and Verve. To see some impressive examples of their work, visit the archive of album covers at the Birka Jazz archive where there are a collections of cover images by Goldblatt and Stone Martin.

Sunday, 2 August 2009

Burgers, Big Bands and Bennett (Richard Rodney)

I had a burger with Ben Aaronovitch and Simon Clegg in Belsize Park on Thursday. I got there early and had time to nose around a charity shop, which I must confess is one of my favourite pastimes. I look for DVDs, books and LPs. Occasionally CDs (I will listen to digital music in a pinch). As usual there was a box of LPs sitting on the floor of the shop. It was full of the normal depressing junk (how many copies of the soundtrack of the Sound of Music can there be out there?) but then I spotted a collection of the solo piano music of George Gershwin. Normally this wouldn't have filled me with any great excitement either, but the pianist in question was Richard Rodney Bennett. I have a lot of respect for Bennett thanks to his soundtracks, such as Murder on the Orient Express and his work on the fringes of jazz, often with top notch singers. The liner notes for the Gershwin album (EMI EMD 5538) were by Max Harrison, another jazz stalwart. So I eagerly scooped this up. Then I found a tranche of big band records. These came from a period earlier than my usual area of interest. For me jazz pretty much begins with Duke Ellington. But there was a serious looking Fletcher Henderson collection here (VJM VLP 36) and also a record of McKinney's Cotton Pickers. Ordinarily that name would signal the kind of early-scratchy trad jazz-Dixieland kind of material I'd steer well clear of. But I've recently been reading a rather groovy book about big bands The Big Band Years by Crowther and Pinfold (what great names, another charity shop acquisition). Just the previous night I'd been reading in it about McKinney's Cotton Pickers and the excellence of Don Redman's arrangements for them. This LP was Volume 1 of a two volume set, and I grinned a savage grin of triumph when Volume 2 turned up in the box as well. They were nice French pressings too, on RCA, the Black and White series (81 and 87). And in immaculate condition. When the pristine vinyl slid from the inner sleeve the static electricity emanating from it caused the hairs on the back of my hands to stir. Great stuff. The ensuing burger was very nice, too, at the admirable GBK and it was good to see Simon and Ben. But this is a music blog, so to hell with that. I got home and put the records on my turntable and I've been listening to them at intervals ever since. A bit squeaky and old timey compared to my usual listening but they do indeed swing. With arrangements by Redman and Henderson and solos by Fats Waller and Louis Armstrong, how can you go wrong? Oh, and a rather saucy title for 1928 on one of the Cottonpicker's sides: Put It There (Shag Nasty). Can they possibly mean...