Sunday, 12 August 2012

Mel Tormé Meets Wally Stott — a Bit of a Brit Enigma

One of my favourite British arrangers is Wally Stott. A musical genius and a complex character (he later moved to America and became Angela Morley, a valuable collaborator of John Williams), Stott/Morley deserves a blog entry all his/her own. Stott's work straddled jazz and light orchestral (and, later, film and TV soundtracks). He also did a lot of distinguished work supporting vocalists — I first became aware of his existence through a terrific, jazzy album recorded with, of all people, Diana Dors. When I learned that Stott had done an album with Mel Tormé, one of my favourite jazz singers, I just had to have it. Tormé was a bit of a grasshopper (or is it a gadfly?) where record labels were concerned and it seems when he was touring Britain in 1956 he decided he might as well record an album with the locals. I discovered its existence when it was reissued, with some additional tracks, on CD. Of course, if you know anything about me, you’ll know that a CD is no good for my purposes. I had to have the vinyl. And this is where I hit a brick wall. Not only could I not find a copy of the original LP, I couldn’t even find a picture of the cover. That was weird. It didn’t help that I initially thought the album was on Verve (because Stott and Tormé also did some work together on a later Verve release My Kind of Music). The only images that surfaced were the somewhat dull CD cover and — most recently — a delightful cover for the four track EP of tracks from the album (which was actually on the Philips label, where Stott was the musical director). Great cover (see the main picture, above). Dig the bowler hatted toff! Dig the cloth capped taxi driver! I hope you tipped him well, Mel. I hope you kicked the toff in the nuts. Watch out for that British bulldog. Here matters stood, until yesterday when I had the opportunity to buy a portion of an excellent collection of jazz and vocal LPs (thank you, Lawrence). Among the tantalising items I found was — no, not the Philips album, that would have been too much — but a reissue on vinyl released some 25 years later. From the obscure Apex label it was entitled The Great Song Stylists, which explained why it hadn’t turned up on my radar. It has some helpful liner notes by Stan Britt and, very usefully, adds two tracks to the original Philips release, the A and B sides of a single Tormé also recorded here in ’57. These tracks are also on the CD (which additionally includes six non-Stott recordings Mel did in the UK, with stalwarts like Roland Shaw and Ted Heath.) So the search for the original LP continues, but in the meantime I’ve got some vinyl to listen to. Parenthetically, one of my other favourite British arrangers (all right, he was actually Canadian), Robert Farnon, also did an obscure UK-only session with another great crooner. In fact, the greatest of them all: Frank Sinatra's Great Songs from Great Britain. But that’s another blog...

Sunday, 15 April 2012

Surprise Classic: Mr Lucky Goes Latin

This just in from the estimable Dusty Groove in Chicago (to my mind, the world's best record shop). It's a lovely mono copy, in nice shape, on heavy vinyl, a black label RCA issue with the electro-flash 'A' on the logo. I was initially a bit sniffy because it's not a deep groove pressing, but it plays beautifully. Mr Lucky was a 1950s TV show from Blake Edwards, who also created Peter Gunn. Like Peter Gunn, it featured music by the magnificent Henry Mancini and, like Peter Gunn, it was popular enough for two albums to be released. To be honest I didn't have high hopes for this album musically — I'm not a huge fan of the original Mr Lucky LP, which wasn't really in the same league as Peter Gunn, and I thought this sequel would be a light weight, south of the border novelty excursion cash-in. So I bought it as much for the terrific cover art as anything else. The illustration is by Don Peters who also did the classic art for the original Mr Lucky album. Retro crime jazz plus cats. Who could ask for more? But the album is much more than just a pretty cover. It turns out to be a real gem, one of the best from Mancini in this period, and it certainly seems superior to the original Mr Lucky. The cheesy cha-cha tracks that dominated the first album are balanced by some outstanding compositions here. Highlights emerging from early listening include the slinky, smoky, sexy Blue Mantilla which features some judicious use of Hammond organ, restrained and subtle strings and canny percussion; meanwhile, Lujon reminds me of Les Baxter's classic exotica pieces with great percussion and tasty guitar; and best of all is The Dancing Cat — and not just because of the title, but thanks to some amazing little electronic beeps (possibly coaxed out of the Hammond) which sound like an old fashioned telephone busy signal. They push the album towards the avant-garde. There isn't a huge amount of information in the liner notes but, as with most Mancini albums, certain outstanding musicians are name checked. Players on the album include Laurindo Almeida, Jimmy Rowles, Larry Bunker, Milt Holland and Shelly Manne. Wonderful stuff. If you get a chance to pick it up, particularly on vinyl, don't hesitate.