Thursday, 9 May 2013

The Music Journalism of Gene Lees: The Dark at the Bottom of the Stairs

I was first aware of Gene Lees as a lyricist — he worked with Lalo Schifrin among other notable composers.

But I recently discovered that he's written an impressive body of music criticism, journalism and biography. And it's wonderful stuff. After I'd read a few pieces in his book Singers and the Song, I set about obtaining every title I could find by him.

Perversely, though, this posting is not to praise Lees (I'll do that later) but to harry him... Just a little.

Because for all his keen, astute intelligence, Lees had a serious blind spot where pop music is concerned.

Like many other people he believed that the golden age of popular music was approximately 1910 to 1950 and was dominated by writers like Yip Harburg, the Gershwins, Cole Porter, Irving Berling, Jerome Kern, Johnny Mercer and Frank Loesser. The lyricists and composers of the Great American Songbook, as it's known.

And he's certainly not wrong. What's more, at the end of this period in the early 50s, American popular music sank to an abject low. It was dominated by novelty songs fashioned by producers of the Mitch Miller school. Songs like How Much is that Doggie in the Window?

Enough said. 

But most music critics agree that the pop song was pulled out of these doldrums by R&B, the birth of rock and roll, Elvis, etc.

To Gene Lees, though, this is when the rot really set in. He says that this "early phase of musical decline... led down to Bill Haley and the Comets, Elvis Presley and the dark at the bottom of the stairs."

He is also inclined to believe that the post-rock and roll pop song is responsible for vapid promiscuity, loveless sex and even states that "rock-and-roll was the primary cause of the drug epidemic in which America is now drowning." 

That was written circa 1998, and it seems to me profoundly unlikely. I don't see any cause and effect relationship between listening to popular music and drug use. After all, in America in the 1930s Cab Calloway was about as big as the Beatles, and he wrote and sang some shameless drug songs. Yet no one is trying to peddle any dubious cause-and-effect theories about him.

(Just for the record, I love Cab Calloway, and think the war against drugs is the most stupid, ruinous and tragic public policy of the last century.)

Anyway, back to Gene Lees. He is right about so much else, but just plain wrong about songwriting since the 1950s. I don't see how he can dismiss, for example, Joni Mitchell, Randy Newman and Leiber & Stoller. Not to mention the priceless Burt Bacharach & Hal David.

Lees lived until 2010 and by that time I bet he wished he'd gone a little easier on rock and roll saved a little ammunition to fire at rap. 

But never mind, that's enough pillorying of a great writer. Gene Lees is marvellous and has written books about Oscar Peterson, Henry Mancini and Woody Herman, among many others. And every one of these is worth reading. If you're looking for a place to start, try Singers and the Song. There are two versions of this, both excellent, both with different contents. I'm currently reading the first one, which features a superb essay about, among other things, the Clarke-Boland big band.

(Image credits: The cool photo of Gene with a pipe is from the Bill Evans website. The first version of Singers and the Song is from Barnes & Noble and version II from Barnes & Noble again. Young Gene Lees, slightly doctored by me, is from Brew Lite's intriguing blog. The Cab Calloway pic, also slightly doctored by yours truly, is from Arcane Radio Trivia.)

Thursday, 2 May 2013

Bill Potts' Porgy and Bess: The Curse of Ping-Pong Stereo

At a dinner party a while back a friend who was a jazz novice asked me what I'd suggest he should buy as his second jazz record ever.

(His first jazz record ever was, of course, Kind of Blue by Miles Davis. And a bloody good choice it was.)

I took his request very seriously and thought long and hard about what to recommend. 

Candidates included The Blues and the Abstract Truth by Oliver Nelson and Eastern Sounds by Yusef Lateef. Both stunning albums, both classics.

But in the end I advised him to get hold of The Jazz Soul of Porgy and Bess by Bill Potts. Never heard of it? Neither had I until Clare Teal played it on her Sunday night radio show.

Thank you Clare.

Bill Potts is a genius. Another one of the great jazz arrangers. 

My recommendation of this album speaks for itself. And if my friend has followed my advice he's a very lucky fellow.

The Potts album, which features Bill Evans on piano and a sax section consisting of Al Cohn, Zoot Sims, Phil Woods and Gene Quill (!), has only recently been reissued on CD. Prior to that it was a rare and hard to find item.

It took me months of searching to track down an old and somewhat battered original American deep groove pressing (UAL 4032). Once I heard how good the music was, I became eager to locate a copy which was in better shape.

So imagine my delight when a Japanese vinyl reissue (GXF 3038) turned up.

As you may know, Japanese pressings are among the finest in the world. High quality vinyl, noise free pressings, immaculate transfers of the master tape.

It was also my first chance to hear the record in stereo.

Which is where the problems begin.

Because, although my second hand Japanese copy was in great shape — no scratches, no pops, no skips, virtually no surface noise — there was something very weird about the sound.

Instruments would jump from the left side of the mix to the right — moving from speaker to speaker — and back again. Sometimes in the middle of a solo.

I couldn't believe my ears. Of course I'd never encountered this aspect of the album before, because I'd been listening to a mono copy. On that, exactly the same music came out of each speaker and the sound-stage (as we call it) remained stable.

But now there was this whip-pan weirdness. 

Star soloists in the middle of a rhapsodic sax break would leap across the room like a mountain goat on amphetamines.

It had the effect of making the listener feel vaguely seasick.

I couldn't tell if this was some bizarre attempt to exploit the potential of stereo (still a novelty when this album first appeared): maybe the players were instructed to stop in mid breath while a colleague on the other side of the studio picked up the same solo with immaculate precision... and utter pointlessness.

More likely the effect was created in the control room by panning the microphones.

Maybe they hadn't figured out how to record stereo properly. Maybe it's an electronic rechanneling of a mono original. Maybe it's a flaw on the master tape.

Or maybe they actually thought it was a good idea... after all, this was the heyday of ping-pong stereo effects. 

The 'Wall-to-Wall Stereo' logo on the United Artists Ultra Audio pressing suggests this is indeed the explanation. (Ultra Audio my Unhappy Ass.)

In any case, it completely ruins the listening experience — not an easy thing to achieve with a masterpiece like this.

The only way to cure it would be to suppress the stereo effect. You can do this on some amplifiers by pushing a mono button.

Unfortunately my amplifier doesn't offer this option.

So back I go to my well worn 1950s mono pressings from the US. 

One day I will track down a stereo American version from the same period and see if the problem dates back that far, or if it was something introduced over the subsequent years and decades by some hare brained studio engineer.

Meanwhile I lower the needle onto the record and as the hiss and the crackles begin, so does this ineffable, beautiful music...
In magnificent mono.

Nothing can spoil this album for me. 

Though I can't help wondering what surprises are in store for someone buying a copy of the CD, or other digital formats.

(Image credits:  The yellow original UA cover (which I have on my beloved mono copy) is from Paris Jazz Corner, an excellent shop where I urge you to... er... shop. Kind of Blue is from Wikipedia. As is Oliver Nelson's The Blues and the Abstract Truth. Yusef Lateef's Eastern Sounds is from Collector's Frenzy, because Wikipedia didn't feature the original Moodsville cover. Silly them. The Wal-to-Wall Stereo "Ultra Audio" cover (you have to imagine that phrase being uttered through gritted teeth) is from the admirable Clare Teal's wonderful website. The cover that resembles this but without the odious Ultra Audio band across it is from Fresh Sound, a truly marvellous Spanish reissue label who richly deserve your business. If you want a CD, I recommend you give them a try. The striking Jazz Masters cover is from 7 Audio where you can buy a download of the album. The garish remix of this cover is also, oddly enough, from 7 Audio. The most boring cover of them all is from iTunes. The music will still be great, though.)

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.)

Tuesday, 26 March 2013

The Scream of a Dying Pterodactyl

I admire David Quantick the music pundit and broadcaster for his erudition and wit. Also, he once bought me a hot chocolate.

Whenever there is a Quantick program on the radio, I make a point of listening. 

The latest gem to come my way is a repeat of his series about the Bristol sound, which you can find here. Listen to it before it disappears, if you get a chance.

It's a wonderful documentary charting the origin of trip-hop (though David derides the term) in the funk, punk and (crucially) dub scene in Bristol.

It brought back memories of seeing Massive Attack at the Royal Albert Hall. They warmed up for the concert by playing a tape of Lalo Schifrin's theme to Enter the Dragon as they took to the stage.

And it has got me digging out my dusty CDs of Portishead and Massive Attack and Tricky. I even have Tricky's Maxinquaye on vinyl here somewhere... Let's hope that's not too dusty. 

Plus I'm ordering Martina Topley-Bird’s 'new' album Quixotic (2003!) from Amazon.

Many thanks, David. 

And, incidentally, the title of this post comes from Martina’s wonderfully evocative description of the sort of atmospherics Tricky was making on his recordings.

(Image credits: Maxinquaye, Mezzanine, Dummy and Quixotic are all from Amazon UK. Go there and buy them immediately if you don't already have them. Don't buy that cheap copy of Quixotic before I get it, though.)