“NEVER BEFORE…NEVER AGAIN” JOE VENUTI AND HIS VIOLIN; TONY ROMANO PLAYS EDDIE LANG’S GUITAR / MONACO-SIRAS-WEST: You Know You Belong to Somebody Else. LERNER-LOEWE: Almost Like Being in Love. PRÉVERT-KOSMA-MERCER: Autumn Leaves. YOUMANS-CAESAR: I Want to Be Happy. GERSHWIN-HEYWARD: Summertime. ROMANO-VENUTI: Feeling Free and Easy; I Remember Joe; Angelina / Joe Venuti, violin; Tony Romano, guitar/vocal. An Interview with Tony Romano. ROMANO: New England in the Fall. RODGERS-HART: It’s Easy to Remember. JONES: Tattle Tale Eyes. STRAYHORN: Johnny Come Lately / Tony Romano, guitar/vocal; Frank Rosolino, trombone; Claude Williamson, piano; Ray Brown, bass; Nick Fatool, drums / Warner Jazz 68944912759 or Justin Time Records 1080893 (available at Amazon as streaming audio, mp3 downloads and hard copy CD)
This is an extremely interesting reissue of a once-“lost” recording session from 1954 with legendary jazz violinist Joe Venuti and pop-jazz singer/guitarist Tony Romano. It was first issued on LP by a tiny label, Dobre Records, in 1979, the year after Venuti died…just the eight tracks with Venuti and Romano, which made it a very short LP (less than a half hour). It was then reissued on CD by “Justin Time” records, with the color cover photo of Eddie Lang’s guitar. This is when they added the 10-minute interview with Romano and four tracks by the singer/guitarist with a small band including Frank Rosolino on trombone and Ray Brown on bass. This is the format that Warner Jazz is following in this new reissue to be available, so they say, in July of 2016.
Aside from the many funny stories of Venuti’s acerbic wit and crazy practical jokes, the interview with Romano is a very important key to understanding this recording why it is so good. From the first time they played together, an impromptu session in 1941 on the Warner Brothers lot where Romano was playing on the soundtrack of Blues in the Night (misremembered by Romano as being 1938), the two musicians hit it off in such a way that, as Romano put it, they could finish each others’ musical thoughts and begin new ones. Venuti, who was emotionally devastated by the sudden death of his former guitar partner and childhood friend Eddie Lang (Sal Massaro) in March 1933, probably never thought he’d ever find another guitarist he’d “click” with as well as he did with Romano, but the guitarist was a busy man and not really available to barnstorm the country with Joe’s high-wired jazz orchestra. Nevertheless, as Romano puts it, they played together every chance they got, nearly always for free, at least until they came together in a recording studio in 1954 for this rare and long-lost session.
As soon as Venuti walked into the studio he shocked Romano by handing him Lang’s Gibson L-5. “Here, kid,” said Joe in his usual raucous voice. “This is Eddie’s guitar. You play like him, so you should have it.” Romano, understanding how much this meant to Venuti, was emotionally overwhelmed by the gesture, and the session went forward. According to Romano’s reminiscence, the session lasted well over an hour, yet somehow only 27 minutes’ worth of music survived. Perhaps the rest of the time consisted of talking and woodshedding, throwing ideas back and forth that never jelled into full performances.
Despite Venuti’s assertion, Romano doesn’t play exactly like Lang. His single-note playing is more fluid (Lang’s single-note solos were always slow and deliberate, never fast) and his chording, although excellent, doesn’t have the same swing-chop-swing sound that so deeply impressed Django Reinhardt. He also sounds, pardon the expression for all you PC readers out there, more “Italian” than Lang/Massaro. In the last tune of the session, a made-up song about “Angelina,” the duo completely eschew jazz as such and engage in a musical love fest. This sounds like the kind of music I used to hear played on the stoops of Italian homes in Paterson, New Jersey when I was growing up—except, of course, that no one in those neighborhoods played violin and if they did play it they certainly wouldn’t sound as good as Venuti.
Yet there remains in these eight selections a hint, an indication, of just how great a duo Venuti-Romano could have been had they become a steady performing duo. From the very start of You Know You Belong to Somebody Else (accidentally named on the record with an extra “You Know” at the beginning), where Romano hits an E7 chord and Venuti comes flying in with an upward series of trills, culminating in a downward passage in double stops, you get that shiver up your spine that tells you this is going to be great music-making. Thought follows thought as the two musicians wend their way through this tune and the others that follow, with surprises galore. In Autumn Leaves, for instance, following a wordless Romano vocal that sounds suspiciously French, Venuti suddenly ups the tempo at the two-minute mark, playing almost a hora (again, with some double stops thrown in) for most of one chorus; and another Romano vocal sparks yet another tempo shift at 3:12 which leaves Prévert’s melody in the dust, playing something that sounds close to a gypsy tune. Maybe Venuti wished he could have recorded with Django?
The surprise in I Want to Be Happy is not the uptempo treatment of the principal melody but, rather, the reflective, relaxed reading these two musicians give to the almost-never-heard verse. Seldom in Venuti’s long recorded history—to my mind, not since his early-‘30s recording of Ragging the Scale—was his playing as structurally sound and “composed” in the sense that the choruses on these recordings are. For whatever reason, Romano elicited not just Venuti’s usual sparkling jazz rhythm but also a sense of each song as a true composition, with logical beginnings, middles and endings.
But this hasn’t stopped some jazz critics from giving the album only three stars. Perhaps they were put off by the 1953 session that closes this album where, despite the presence of jazz greats Rosolino and Brown, the mood and temper of the performances are much more pop-music-flavored. There’s nothing wrong with this, of course, except that following the pure genius of the Venuti-Romano tracks it sounds like a different world, which it is.
In addition to the above-listed issues, both the “old” Justin Time CD and the “new” Warner Jazz incarnation, there is also a short (58-page) book of transcriptions of Venuti’s solos by British jazz violinist Aidan Massey with an introduction by Romano’s son, Richard Niles Romano, available from Mel-Bay as an eBook with online audio of the entire session (Mel-Bay 20854BCDEB) for only $14.99. If you are a musician, particularly a jazz violinist, you won’t want to miss this. However you wish to procure this historic session, I can assure you that it belongs in the library of any really serious student of jazz history. It is one for the ages.
— © 2016 Lynn René Bayley
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