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.)