Saturday, 26 September 2009

Two Faces of Peggy Lee

What's even better than finding a great LP in some shop? Discovering a great LP you didn't know you had, already lurking in your record collection. From time to time, as I merrily scour through boxes of second hand albums ("crate digging" as it's known to today's hipsters), or sleuth the internet, I pause to think that I should be devoting a little more time to listening to the phenomenal selection I already have. It's like my dad used to say when I was buying books. "Why don't you read the ones you've already got?" Well, the answer is, I did, Dad. And I do. And I did — and do — listen to the records I already possess. I make great inroads into my jazz and soundtrack library almost every day. That's one of the sweet things about writing. You can work at home with the music playing. So on a good day I've got the valve amps glowing from dawn until dusk, and the turntable spinning. The first order of business is always to play my way through new acquisitions. (And, since the gods of vinyl have been smiling on me lately, there have been plenty of these — see my previous entry about the Unknown Jazz Fan.) But as much fun as it is assimilating new arrivals, it's rewarding in quite another way to take something down from the shelf and rediscover it. This just happened to me this afternoon when, after a hard day writing (it went very well, since you ask) I decided to unwind by browsing through a for-sale list of jazz vocal LPs — one of my favourite kinds of music. The LPs were on the website of my friend Alan Ross who runs the truly wonderful Jazz House Records here in the UK. I saw that Alan had a Peggy Lee album listed with an ace jazz pedigree including contributions by Bud Shank, Bob Cooper and Shorty Rogers. The album was a re-release on Jasmine, a dependably high quality British reissue label. But the title rang a bell (there was no picture of the record, or I would have recognised it instantly). I remembered finding a nice early British copy of a Peggy Lee LP a few years ago, with a title like that. I went to the shelf and sure enough there, between Yusef Lateef and Michelle Legrand, it nestled. An immaculate original Brunswick pressing in glorious mono, which was pretty much the only recording option back in June 1956 (some would say this was the high water mark of recorded sound; I'm willing to put it a few years later and allow that there are some virtues in early stereo). I'd listened to the album before and enjoyed it, but it's not a straight ahead jazz session and I'd never dreamed (no pun intended) that it featured sidemen like Bud Shank. Actually, according to a highly informative discography by Ivan Santiago, a Downbeat article in 1957 stated that the album "has the cream of West Coast jazzmen in [Lou] Levy, [Larry] Bunker, [Max] Bennett, Shorty Rogers, Buddy Clark, Bob Cooper and Bud Shank, to name but a few." Oh yes, and one Peggy Lee on vocals. By the way, the US (Decca) and British (Brunswick) releases had different covers, as shown here for your viewing pleasure. In my estimate the UK version has the edge, perhaps because it's an honest to gosh photo instead of a slightly goofy painting (based on a photo you can see here). The British cover's photo is taken from the back sleeve of Peggy's earlier album, Black Coffee. That's another classic LP, well worth your attention, even though the cover does feature a picture of a coffee cup (yes, really). Take your pick between the garishly kitsch 1956 (12 inch) release and the marginally more stylish monochrome version for the original ten inch LP in 1953. Any way you cut it, a waste of Ms Lee's visual charms, methinks.

Saturday, 19 September 2009

The Unknown Jazz Fan (UJF)

I keep an eager eye out for interesting LPs in the local charity shops (US readers should think thrift stores; it's the same principle). In this connection I'm reminded of a quote from El Maestro con Queso, a witty British internet wraith who writes about a dream he had of Hammond organs. "The B3... would be more useful for studio use. If your studio was under air attack." He adds, "Normally I only dream of scouring charity shop for records." Well, me too. The thing about charity shops is, from time to time, extraordinary things turn up in their vinyl bins. On one memorable occasion a mint copy of a bootleg of Quincy Jones's score for The Italian Job appeared; what the hell was that doing here in Putney High Street? Never mind, just scoop it up quick before it dissolves like a dream). Anyhow, the last few weeks have been a bonanza on this front. It all began in Putney at the British Heart Foundation shop with a clutch of albums by Jimmy Rowles, Duke Ellington and Miles Davis (Siesta, with Marcus Miller). It didn't stop there. I found that other shops in Putney had similar caches of quality jazz records.Gerry Mulligan (with Ben Webster), Zoot Sims, more Duke Ellington and more Jimmy Rowles (a pattern was emerging here). These were duly added to the bag. They were all in tip top condition and had obviously come from the collection of the same person. A discriminating and admirable individual. I began to think of this person as the Unknown Jazz Fan. Maybe the Unknown Jazz Fan has moved on to that big jazz club in the sky, leaving grieving family members to disperse an impressive collection of records to the local charity shops. Or on a more optimistic note, perhaps the UJF had converted the entire collection to digital recordings and was simply liquidating the now redundant vinyl as charitable donations. (Of course there are those who will think that death is preferable to converting analogue recordings to digital, in which case they should swap the opening clauses of the last two sentences.) In any case, I soon had a large stack of LPs supplanting the cat from the armchair (sorry Molly) and hours of listening pleasure ensued. It was great and I was a little wistful that I had found all of the UJF's LPs. Then an idea struck me. What if the Unknown Jazz Fan had gone further afield than Putney? I duly checked the charity shops in Wandsworth. Nothing. Then I went to East Sheen. Bingo. Fats Waller (a great 1960s RCA Camden pressing), Albert Ammons, Tommy Dorsey, and a splendid Si Zentner compilation (Big Band Hits) with some arrangements by Bill Holman. It seems that the UJF had a particular enthusiasm for the big bands. And also vocalists. As I trawled through the shops in Sheen I found a Tony Bennett with Ruby Braff, an Ella Fitzgerald with Nelson Riddle, a Hoagy Carmichael and a slew of Sinatra. Okay, so the UJF had gone through Putney and Sheen, spreading his treasures like Johnny Appleseed. I consulted my mental map. Where else should I try? Clapham Junction yielded just one Peggy Lee and another Hoagy Carmichael. But Richmond and Twickenham provided another mother lode. Artie Shaw and his Gramercy Five, another Peggy Lee and a Ted Heath Phase 4 album with Johnny Keating arrangements. Also my one-time co-worker and all around nice guy Courtney Pine's first album on Island (as with the Miles Davis Siesta, it seems the UJF does occasionally slip and listen to something modern). And thanks to my book on the big bands (see 2 August 2009) I picked up a compilation by the previously unknown Roy Fox, an expat American who was huge in Britain in the 1930s. It's charming and beguiling, with some delightful vocals by Mary Lee. There were also incredible early British Fontana pressings of a 1950s Sinatra album and, unbelievably a 50s Fontana Miles Ahead by Miles Davis. Unfortunately these last two were so badly scratched that there was no point in buying them. I regretfully left them there for the next jazz nut to find. The Unknown Jazz Fan's LPs were normally immaculate but occasionally a real dog would turn up and my guess is that these were already second hand when the UJF acquired them. Nonetheless, I couldn't believe my luck. Where else should I try? Hammersmith and Chiswick were earmarked for an early swoop on Saturday morning, yielding Woody Herman and a German pressing of Les Brown with Doris Day on vocals (a combination that I'd been actively looking for). After that minor triumph I almost left behind a double album by Dave Pell. This was a budget compilation on Pickwick (50 Hit Sounds of the Big Bands by the Dave Pell Orchestra) and it had a majestically tacky cover. But then, so did that great Si Zentner... So I bought it, feeling like a bit of a chump. But as soon as it hit the turntable it just about took my head off. Consisting of Dave Pell's covers of classics by Ellington, Goodman, the Dorseys, et al, it was just beautiful and sweet and swinging. A wonderfully smooth, tight, together combo. I was already an admirer of Pell from his work with Lucy Ann Polk (see 6 September 2009), but my estimation of him moved up several notches. Another classic, salvaged from a charity shop, for a pittance... And the quest continued. On Wednesday I joined my sister for a pizza in Barnes on the occasion of her birthday. Was she touched by the promptness with which I turned up at the restaurant? Was there a tear in her eye at my enthusiasm? She evidently didn't notice the bag bulging with ten albums from the Barnes charity shop which I had turned up early to browse (yes, the UJF has been here, too!) featuring Count Basie, Benny Goodman, Duke Ellington and Woody Herman. The Woody Herman LPs not only featured Bill Holman arrangements but also had the great Balkan trumpeter Dusko Goykovich in the band — that's his picture at the top of this entry. (Dusko is pronounced Doo-skoe, by the way. Thank you for pointing that out, Guy Barker.) Now I sit here, wondering where next to travel in London to seek out the largesse of the Unknown Jazz Fan. Of course, I'm aware that he may not even exist. The findings could all be coincidental, the pattern just imaginary, something I'm imposing on random data, like the canals of Mars. Hmm yes. Fascinating theory. I think I might head up towards Chelsea next week. There are some promising charity shops there...

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.