Revisiting Eddie Sauter, 1957-58

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EDDIE SAUTER’S MUSIC TIME / BASIE-GREEN: High Tide. SAUTER: Superman. I. JONES: It Has to Be You. RODGERS-HART: My Funny Valentine. HILDINGER: Was ist Los in Baden-Oos. SOLAL: Dernière Minute* / band includes Rolf Schneebiegl, tp; Adi Feuerstein, fl; Hans Koller, cl/t-sax; Hans Hammerschmid, *Martial Solal, pn;  Rudi Flierl, bar-sax; Sperie Karas, dm. / HILDINGER: Kopf Hoch. BASIE: Easy Does It. LANE-HARBURG: Old Devil Moon+ SAUTER: Three on a Match / Schneebielg, Kurt Sauter, tp; Otto Bredl, tb; Koller, Don Rendell, Barney Wilen, t-sax; Hammerschmid, pn; Flierl, bar-sax; +Ritti Reys, voc.; others / HAMMERSCHMID: Street Market. LOESSER: Suddenly It’s Spring. HILDINGER: Little Girl in a Big City#; Reeperbahn#; Spook Walk. SAUTER: Hightor. HAMMERSCHMID: Port au Prince / Schneebielg, tp; Bredl, Albert Mangelsdorff, tb; Flierl, t-sax; Hammerschmid, pn; Attila Zoller, gt; Willie Sonner, bs; #Blanche Birdsong, voc; others / SWR Jazzhaus JAH-460 (live, 1957-58)

Eddie Sauter, once well known as one of the most innovative jazz composers and arrangers in the world, has for some reason fallen out of fashion and out of mind in recent decades. In part this was due to his strange career spiral after winning a Grammy for his string score behind tenor saxist Stan Getz on the album Focus; all that followed were a pretty good score for the 1965 Arthur Penn film, Mickey One, and a pretty awful “concerto” for Getz and the Boston Pops Orchestra three years later. Perhaps the poor popular and critical reaction to the Getz concerto, which he scrambled to revise, put a lid on Sauter’s career, but in any case he never really recovered from it and died in 1981 at the age of 67.

Sauter’s behind-the-scenes work as arranger-composer for the big bands of Red Norvo (1936-39), Benny Goodman (1939-44), Artie Shaw (1945) and Ray McKinley (1946-49), in addition to independent work for jazz singer Mildred Bailey (1939-1945), was well known and respected by his jazz peers but not well known to the general public. In 1952 he co-founded a big band, initially for recording purposes only but eventually for touring and TV appearances, with former Tommy Dorsey and Glenn Miller arranger Bill Finegan, whose name and work were much better known to audiences. The Sauter-Finegan Orchestra scored a few big hit early on (most notably Doodletown Fifers, Nina Never Knew, The Moon is Blue and Rain) but then moved into more complex realms as the two leaders flexed their composing and arranging muscles. The band never quite reclaimed its initial impact as a favorite of “bachelor pad” hi-fis, and by 1956 faded from view as Sauter and Finegan filed for bankruptcy. After they formally disbanded in March 1957, Sauter accepted an invitation to travel to Kommingen, Germany, on the edge of the Black Forest, to assume leadership of the Südwestfunk big band from Kurt Edelhagen. This is where the first tracks of this CD, recorded live in December 1957, pick up the story.

Despite performing with the band at the October 1957 Kommingen Jazz Festival and scoring an impressive success there with his scores Kinetic Energy and Tropic of Kommingen,, Sauter was apparently never very comfortable leading this band of German musicians. Much of the problem can be heard in the second track on this album, his 1940 score of Superman for trumpeter Cootie Williams and the Goodman band. On the original recording, Williams—the “superman” of the title—gets the lion’s share of solo space, swinging mightily and employing the famed growl technique he perfected with Duke Ellington. The Goodman band also swings mightily behind him, propelled by the great rhythm section of pianist Fletcher Henderson, bassist Artie Bernstein and drummer Harry Jaeger. Here, Williams’ part is given to trumpeter Rolf Schneebiegl who, whatever his technical prowess, simply doesn’t swing like an American—and neither does the band. This was, probably, the source of some of Sauter’s frustration with this group.

As a result, he turned over much of the arranging duties to others, particularly Hans Koller (High Tide, Easy Does It), Dave Hildinger (My Funny Valentine, Was ist Los in Baden-Oos, Kopfhoch, Suddenly It’s Spring, Little Girl in a Big City, Reeperbahn and Spook Walk) and Hans Hammerschmid (Street Market, Port au Prince) with one track (Dernière Minute) written by and featuring the great French pianist, Martial Solal. This was not altogether a bad thing, as the musicians were more comfortable playing their less “freaky” scores. One should take this into consideration, however, in judging the work of this band at this particular period.

Indeed, Koller’s arrangement of Count Basie’s High Tide has the feel of some of Sy Oliver’s 1940s arrangements for Tommy Dorsey, with a “heavy” sax sound, anchored by the baritone, playing against high winds and brass, but modified to make it more ‘50s-ish. And here, lo and behold, the band sounds loose and relaxed, falling into a nice groove with tasteful solos—particularly the trumpet, flute and bass—that enhance the arranger’s concept. Since I’ve already commented on Superman, let us move on to It Has to Be You. This is a Sauter score and a superb one, with his patented use of inverted chord positions that he uses as pivot-points for key changes, some in the middle of a bar and quite unexpected. There’s one chromatic change upward at about 1:48 that will stun you, only to change again around 2:18, and again the band is loose and responsive to his work. Curiously, Hildinger’s arrangement of My Funny Valentine falls into a Sauter-ish vein, reminding me of Eddie’s scores for Norvo (Remember), Goodman (More Than You Know) and Shaw (Summertime), albeit less “busy” in the subsidiary figures. I also noted that some of the voicings were borrowed from the work that Sauter-Finegan had already laid out on disc.

Dave Hildiger’s Was ist Los in Baden-Oos, though more conventionally scored in an almost Basie-band manner, contains some Sauter-Finegan features such as the vibes playing very high up along with the staccato trumpet interjections. Yet it’s the solos by Rudi Flierl on baritone sax and Koller on tenor that provide most of the interest. Dernière Minute, though too brief (2:20), presents an entirely different vibe, its rhythmically conventional score enlivened by Solal’s interesting harmonic changes as well as his highly inventive and swinging solo.

The next set, from January 1958, kicks off with Hildinger’s Kopf Hoch, another combination of Basie’s “atomic band” style with a few Sauter-Finegan touches. This one isn’t really much of a tune, either, just a few little licks before the soloists are off and running. Here the band includes the fine trombonist Otto Bredl in addition to Koller. There’s not much of a tune in Basie’s Easy Does It, either, but Heinz Kiessling’s arrangement of Old Devil Moon is quite good, including a fine vocal by Ritti Reys, a singer previously unknown to me. The band gets back into high gear with another Sauter original, Three on a Match, which sounds to me based on Baubles, Bangles and Beads. The centerpiece of this one is the fantastic tenor sax playing of Don Rendell and Barney Wilen.

The last set, from later that same January, kicks off with Hans Hammerschmid’s Street Market. This one is highlighted by Hammerschmid’s piano and a flute solo, possibly by Flierl (the soloist is not identified). Hildinger’s airy, imaginative chart of Suddenly It’s Spring is more creative, with tasty solos by Schneebiegl and Flierl enhancing the whole. Little Girl in a Big City is also imaginative, and very much in the Sauter-Finegan vein with high vibes and trumpet and an eerie, wordless vocal by one Blanche Birdsong (no, I’m not making it up, though she probably did!), sounding almost like a Theremin. This is certainly one of the highlights of the set. Sauter’s own Hightor, ironically, looks backwards in style rather than forwards, though it is a good piece. Hildinger’s Reeperbahn has more of the tone of a mysterious, sexy suburb than the grimy, dirty cesspool it really was, and again Birdsong returns for a wordless vocal. I checked online, but the only reference I could find to her was that she appears on a 1965 album by Jonny Teupen, “Love and Harp à la Latin.” Don’t ask me!

Hammerschmid’s Port au Prince is a Latin sort of cha-cha that swings nicely with solos by Flierl and Schneebiegl. The album concludes with Hildinger’s Spook Walk, featuring a trombone solo by special guest Albert Mangelsdorff. It’s a curious piece, slow and loping with unusual chord progressions, but very effective in its own way.

[Addendum, August 7: I just discovered, two days ago, that there is an alternate “online edition of this album that includes 5 bonus tracks: Zoller’s Blues for Al, Heinz Kiessling’s elegant and beautiful arrangement of Polka Dots and Moonbeams (with a nice vocal by Ritti Reys), Wolfgang Forster’s interesting chart of A Night in Tunisia, an unidentified arranger’s version of Bags’ Groove and a Sauter arrangement of Cherokee. Ironically, I found the Cherokee arrangement to be the weakest because it sounds the most like the Sauter-Finegan band’s hit records, i.e., lots of chirpy winds and such effects and not much substance, but the others are excellent.]

All in all, this slice of Sauter’s career is interesting and well worth investigating despite two or three fairly conventional pieces. There’s so little of him available post-Sauter-Finegan that almost anything he did up through the mid-sixties is worth hearing. And now, check out my review of Sauter’s music for Mickey One starring Stan Getz.

— © 2016 Lynn René Bayley

Read my book, From Baroque to Bop and Beyond: An extended and detailed history of the intersection of classical music and jazz OR

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