Asmussen Took a Lickin’ and Kept on Tickin’

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THE INCOMPARABLE FIDDLER: SVEND ASMUSSEN / Medley: McHUGH-FIELDS: On the Sunny Side of the Street; CARMICHAEL: Georgie on My Mind; NOBLE: Goodnight, Sweetheart.1,8 Medley: BROOKS: Some of These Days; YOUNG-HARRIS: Sweet Sue; McHUGH-FIELDS: I Can’t Give You Anything But Love; SCHOENBERGER: Whispering.1,8 JACOBS: The Booglie Wooglie Piggy.1,12 ASMUSSEN: Hanne Vent På Mig.1 Svend’s Riff.2,10,12 Fiddler in Rio.2,13 Svend’s Blues.2,13 Take Off Blues. So Sorry.3,11 Twins.3,11 DAVIS-MITCHELL: You Are My Sunshine.1 Medley: G & I GERSHWIN: I Got Rhythm; Bess, You Is My Woman Now.1 Medley: Liza; It Ain’t Necessarily So; Oh Lady Be Good.1 NOBLE: Cherokee.1 McHUGH-FIELDS: Exactly Like You.9,12 WARFIELD-WILLIAMS: Baby, Won’t You Please Come Home?9,12 ELLINGTON-MILLS: It Don’t Mean a Thing (2 tks: 1,9,12 27,11,14). HANIGHAN-MERCER: My Old Man.9,12 KALMAR-RUBY: Three Little Words.1,12 STEPT-GREEN: That’s My Weakness Now.1,12 REDMAN-FOWLER: How Am I Doin’ Hey Hey?1,12 CAHN-CHAPLIN: Rhythm is Our Business.2,10,12 WEEMS-CAVANAUGH: Panhandle Pete.2,10,12 DeLUGG-HILLIARD: Be My Life’s Companion.2,10,12 G & I GERSHWIN: Someone to Watch Over Me (3 vers: 1,2,10,12 2,3 3). Oh, Lady Be Good.4,5 I Loves You, Porgy.15 BROOKS: Darktown Strutters’ Ball.2,10,12 CASUCCI-BRAMMER: Schöner Gigolo (Just a Gigolo) (2 tks: 1,2,10,12 2). ELLINGTON: Ellington’s Mood (Medley including The Mooche & Mood Indigo).2,10,12 Cotton Tail.2,10,12 Satin Doll (2 vers: 1,3,11 23). The “C” Jam Blues (2 vers: 1,4,5 27,11,14). The Mooche. Prelude to a Kiss. HERBERT-DUBIN: Indian Summer.2,10,12 LAYTON-CREAMER: After You’ve Gone.2,10,12 SHAY-GOODWIN-FISHER: When You’re Smiling.2,10,12 HUDSON-DeLANGE-MILLS: Moonglow.2,13 BLAND: Carry Me Back to Old Virginny.2,13 WARREN-MERCER: Jeepers Creepers.2,13 HUBBELL-GOLDEN: Poor Butterfly.2,13 MILLS: At a Georgia Camp Meeting.2,13 YOUMANS-ROBIN-GREY: Hallelujah.1 WALLER-RAZAF: Honeysuckle Rose (2 vers: 1,1 23). LANE-FREED: How About You?1 DELANEY: Jazz Me Blues.1 THIELEMANS: Blue Lady.3,11 GRAPPELLI: Love is Back.3,11 POWELL: Parisian Thoroughfare.3,11 KAHN-CAESAR: Crazy Rhythm.3 TIZOL: Caravan.4,5 SMITH: Timme’s Blues.4,5 REINHARDT-GRAPPELLI: Minor Swing.6,11 BERNIE-CASEY-PINKARD: Sweet Georgia Brown.6,11 GILLESPIE: Groovin’ High.6,11 BAER-FRIEND: June Night (2 vers: 1,6,11 27,11,14). GIBBS-GREY-WOOD: Runnin’ Wild. 15 HENDERSON-DIXON: Bye Bye Blackbird.15 F. HENDERSON: Wrappin’ it Up.15 RICHARDSON: Groove Merchant. FISCHER: Latino. LUMBYE: Columbine Polka Mazurka. GILLESPIE-PAPPILARDI: A Night in Tunisia. HENRIKSSON: Lapp Nils Polska.7,11,14 ADOLPHSON: Trubbel.7,11,14 ROLLINS: Pent-Up House7,11,14 / Svend Asmussen, vln with assorted musicians including 1Ulrik Neumann, gtr; 2Max Leth, pn/vib; 3Stéphane Grappelli, 4Stuff Smith, vln; 5Jørgen Borch, 6Georges Arvanitas, 7Kenny Drew, pn; 8Niels Foss, 9Johan Poulsen, 10Poul Gregersen, 11Niels-Henning Ørsted Pedersen, 15Jesper Lundgaard, bass; 15Jacob Fischer, gt; 12Erik Frederiksen, 13Preben Oxbøl, 14Charles Saudrais, 14Ed Thigpen, 15Aage Tanggaard, dr / Storyville 108 8618 (5 CDs & 1 DVD)

Svend Asmussed made it to the age of 100 last year, but fate wasn’t kind enough to extend it. On February 7, 2017, three weeks shy of his 101st birthday, the famous fiddler passed away. Yet he was still playing in public until 2010, at the age of 94, when he got a blood clot that caused partial paralysis (though he still occasionally played privately until his passing).

The “fiddler Viking” was well known in continental Europe, and possibly in England as well, but here in the U.S. he wasn’t as well known as Joe Venuti, Stuff Smith or Stéphane Grappelli until the late 1960s when his albums started showing up through the Peters International catalog. This is a shame, as these performances clearly prove he was at least Grappelli’s equal in terms of both technique and swing.

This set covers a large portion of his career, from his first discs in 1937 to 1996. Like most jazz violinists who emerged during the Swing Era, Asmussen never quite ventured much beyond the styles of his youth. He wasn’t much of a bop player and never embraced any newer jazz post-bop, but within his parameters he was interesting and fun to listen to. He was also on the professional music scene almost as early as his French counterpart Grappelli, making his debut in 1933, although his first recordings weren’t made until four years later. In 1939 Grappelli and Asmussen met for the first time; in a fit of pique, Django Reinhardt insisted that he and Asmussen switch instruments and Grappelli play piano. Well, Reinhardt could play the violin quite well and Grappelli was a fairly decent pianist, but Asmussen wasn’t very good on guitar so the session came to nothing.

Other jazz critics have taken Asmussen’s swing band to task for playing such “embarrassingly dated and eminently forgettable items as ‘The Booglie Wooglie Piggy,’” but I don’t see why they would think that. As it so happens, The Booglie Wooglie Piggy was a fairly big hit for Glenn Miller, it has a nice “hook,” and in fact is a far superior song to such ephemera as Kay Kyser’s Three Little Fishies or that sterling gem Ella Fitzgerald sang with Chick Webb, Chew Chew Chew Your Bubble Gum. The Swing Era was a period in which art and commerce frequently stepped on each other’s toes, and to decry Asmussen’s wanting to cover a hit record of the time seems a bit jejune to me. For that matter, I find Rhythm is Our Business and Panhandle Pete no better or worse as songs. So there!

asmussen-goodman-1950

Asmussen with Benny Goodman in 1950

The main thing is what you do with the material, not necessarily what the material is. I thought Fats Waller had proved that point 85 years ago. One of the things that impressed me about Asmussen’s recordings is that, like his work with the Swe-Danes (1959-1963), he had that rare knack of making you smile and bounce along with the music. In fact, on many tracks in the first two CDs there is as much if not more singing than violin-playing, and even as far back as 1937 Asmussen’s English pronunciation is astonishingly good, even better than that of Alice Babs in the late ‘30s-early ‘40s, and her English was quite good indeed for a young girl performing in Scandinavia. But of course, Asmussen was seven years older than Babs and apparently got out of Denmark several times before the Nazi invasion.

These early recordings, in addition to being a lot of fun, are also wonderfully relaxed in feel. You get the impression that you’re listening to a rehearsal of the band rather than a performance, where they try some different things and goof around in addition to playing some really fine music like the Ellington medley. It’s a much more casual approach to jazz than most Americans are used to; the only parallels among recordings of the 1930s and ‘40s are those made by Billy Banks with Henry “Red” Allen and Pee Wee Russell or the various Lionel Hampton jam session discs for Victor, but the Asmussen band was even more relaxed than that, and continued playing in this vein as late as the 1950s. Also, in 1953 they was still playing older material like Panhandle Pete, Darktown Strutters’ Ball, Just a Gigolo, Indian Summer, After You’ve Gone and When You’re Smiling. Without a genius like Django Reinhardt to prod him, Asmussen only occasionally played “outside” chord changes in his improvisations, but in the end it doesn’t really matter. Enjoyment trumps creativity here. I also liked the fact that his band used the same kind of shuffle rhythm later patented by Louis Prima and Keely Smith.

For obvious reasons, the Swe-Danes period is entirely omitted here. I understand why: they were so incredibly popular that everyone in the world knew their recordings—even here in the U.S., tunes like Scandinavian Shuffle and At a Georgia Camp Meeting hit the Billboard charts (I remember hearing them as a nine-year-old and loving them without having the faintest idea that two of the three were Alice Babs and Svend Asmussen)—but in a way it’s a shame because some of their work, like Organ Grinder’s Swing and Swe-Danes Symphony, were remarkably witty, hip, tongue-in-cheek creations. As a sidelight, I’d say it’s no real surprise that Asmussen and Babs got together: they both loved jazz and had exuberant, outgoing personalities that meshed perfectly. If you watch some of the old TV clips of the Swe-Danes on YouTube, you’ll see that, if anything, the violinist was even more of a comic and showman than Babs!

On CD 3 we hear 1964-65 performances with Grappelli and Asmussen, now playing a tenor violin tuned an octave lower. Once again there is that wonderful relaxed feeling that imbued so many of the earlier recordings, but the added push from the French violinist made the Dane up his game a little. The treble on these recordings is somewhat dull and the bass rather tubby, so you may want to adjust your tuner somewhat. What I found interesting was the way Grappelli played double-time chiraroscuro figures around Asmussen’s lines while the rhythm section retained the same relaxed swing heard in the previous two discs. Surely, the most fascinating and creative track is Grappelli’s Love is Back, a minor-key tune that starts out with the two violinists playing Bach-like counterpoint for a full chorus. When Asmussen enters with his solo, he is surprisingly bluesy, much more so than in any of his prior recordings on this set. The final chorus returns to the counterpoint for the rideout. Although taken at a much slower tempo, there is also some interesting interplay between them on Someone to Watch Over Me. Overall, this was a friendlier and more laid-back exchange than the album Grappelli made with Joe Venuti, where the gloves were off and the challenge was on from the first note.

svend-asmussen-stuff-smith-1966

Asmussen swings while Stuff Smith sings, 1966

By and large, the rhythm sections on most of these tracks, even the ones with Grappelli, are competent but unexceptional. That streak ends in the remarkable session with Stuff Smith on CD 4 from 1966, a year before Smith’s death. Here, a truly “springy” section of pianist Jørgen Borch, bassist Eril Mølbak and drummer Bjarne Rostvold kick the rhythm righteously behind the two violinists. Smith was a very different kind of violinist from Venuti, Grappelli, Asmussen or Eddie South. He played in a slightly rough, country-fiddle sort of way, as did Ray Nance to a lesser extent, and he is on fire in this live session which spurs Asmussen on to some of his most aggressive playing. The two of them are clearly having fun; this was the first time I had ever heard Stuff as a singer. He had a typically bluesy voice but, like so many singing jazz musicians, impeccable timing and swing. In short, he had style. Asmussen seems to be enjoying him as much as the audience, so much so that he often takes a back seat and lets Smith steal the show. Caravan is a particular standout, although Smith is on fire in Timme’s Blues and Asmussen really flies on Oh, Lady Be Good, on which they also perform a scat duet. On the second half of this CD we jump ahead to 1985 and a quartet including the fine pianist Georges Arvanitas and drummer Charles Saudrais. Amazingly, there is no deterioration in Asmussen’s playing; he is as joyful and swinging as ever, tossing in a quote from the opening of Mozart’s 40th Symphony in Minor Swing. He also seems to be having fun playing off the microphone reverb, particularly in the a cappella performance of Sweet Georgia Brown. Typically of Asmussen, he plays Dizzy Gillespie’s contrafact Groovin’ High with a swing rather than a bop beat, morphing into Whispering—the tune on which it was based—immediately after the opening chorus. Arvanitas’ piano solo sort of vacillates between the two. Later on, the violinist and pianist play an exquisite chase chorus.

On CD 5 we hear an 80-year-old Asmussen playing with bassist Jesper Lundgaard, guitarist Jacob Fischer and drummer Aage Tanggaard. Asmussen’s musical imagination is as fine if

jacob-fischer

Jacob Fischer

not better than ever, but his advancing age is somewhat evident in his bowing in Runnin’ Wild. Occasional notes are weaker than before, and a few of the highest ones sound a bit edgy and just a shade flat, although he warms up rather well halfway through Bye Bye Blackbird. I was very impressed with this rhythm section too, particularly guitarist Fischer who, if not quite Django, is at least as driving and exciting as Charlie Byrd was. What a pleasure to hear a jazz guitarist who doesn’t subscribe to the wimpy, soft-grained Jim Hall-Joe Pass style, which has become omnipresent in jazz! According to Wikipedia, Fischer, born in 1967, is self-taught and was initially inspired by Django, B.B. King and Wes Montgomery, which makes sense. I almost wish that Asmussen had participated in Alice Babs’ comeback recording session in 1998…she still sounded fresh-voiced and fabulous, and the two of them could have invented some violin-vocal duos as chase choruses. Lundgaard contributes some really fine solos on Take Off Blues and Wrappin’ it Up. Undoubtedly the oddest piece in this set is H.C. Lumbye’s Colunbine Polka Mazurka; and believe me, you haven’t lived until you’ve heard a jazz mazurka! After two Ellington standards (although I’m not really sure that The Mooche, on which Fischer plays some excellent bottleneck guitar, was standard for anyone but Duke himself), the set wraps up with a very relaxed version of A Night in Tunisia.

I should also mention that Storyville has issued an even later album of Asmussen’s work, Still Fiddling (1014252), which dates from 1999 with the same supporting trio as above. Here, in the controlled environment of a recording studio, Asmussen’s pitch and bow control are just fine, and his playing (along with Fischer’s) is as good as the 1996 album in this set, which includes such odd tunes as Silly Shuffle, Shalom Elechem and My Yiddische Momme!

The DVD backs up a decade, to 1986 when Asmussen was a mere stripling of 70. Filmed in concert at Club Montmartre, Copenhagen, he is accompanied by a truly first-rate rhythm section of pianist Kenny Drew, bassist Niels-Henning Ørsted Pedersen and Ed Thigpen. I was especially surprised to see the drummer, whom I had never seen play before, a veteran of the late bop era who had played with Oscar Peterson and Lennie Tristano, among others, but aside from the leader the star of the show is Drew, who is in sparkling form. What’s interesting is to watch how loose and laid-back Asmussen is at all times: he was a lot like Fats Waller and Jack Teagarden in this respect. When he plays pizzicato, he actually strums the strings with the thumb of his right hand, playing the violin like a mandolin.

All in all, this is a splendid souvenir of the fiddler Viking’s great career. A few of the CDs are short on time (41-47 minutes), but the overall quality of his work is unquestioned.

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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One thought on “Asmussen Took a Lickin’ and Kept on Tickin’

  1. Terence Smith says:

    RIP Sven Asmussen. This review makes me want to hear the things described,
    and Sven’s violin stylings are so well described here. I think readers might also
    enjoy Duke Ellington’s ( 1963) JAZZ VIOLIN SESSION, and John Lewis’ 1962 quartet presentation, EUROPEAN ENCOUNTER, featuring Asmussen on John Lewis and Ornette Coleman compositions, where Sven sounds right at home comfortable. On the Ellington album, Asmussen plays off good naturedly “against” Stephane Grappelli and Ray Nance. Duke chose ” Don’t Get Around Much Any More” to spotlight Sven, very well.

    Like

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