Erin McDougald Swings Outside the Soirée

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OUTSIDE THE SOIRÉE / WYCHE-KELLY-WATTS: Don’t Be on the Outside. PORTER: Begin the Beguine. HARBURG-GORNEY: Brother, Can You Spare a Dime? JENNEY-DeLANGE-LAKE: The Man With the Horn. HAMPTON-BURKE-MERCER: Midnight Sun. McDOUGALD: Outside the Soirée. DeFOREST: Don’t Wait Up for Me. MAGIDSON-WRUBEL: The Masquerade is Over. LANDESMAN-WOLF: Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most. VANNIER-GÉRAUD-WOLF-MERCER: When the World Was Young. ROSE-OWENS: Linger Awhile/JOLSON-DeSYLVA-ROSE: Avalon. M. YESTON: Unusual Way. TRAD. IRISH: The Parting Glass / Erin McDougald, voc; Dave Liebman, a-sax/s-sax; Tom Harrell, tpt/fl-hn; Dan Block, a-sax/fl/cl; Rob Block, pn/gtr: Mark Sherman, vib/perc; Cliff Schmitt, bs; Rodney Green, dm/cymb; Chembo Corneil, perc / Miles High Records (no number)

The most difficult part of reviewing this CD, for me, was trying to read the curlicue cursive script in the liner notes, which of COURSE had to be white print on a black background (one of the most difficult to read, third to red on black or blue on black…all three seem to be in vogue these days).

The easy part was the music. Erin McDougald, thank God, is one of those jazz singers who actually believe in singing “out” with the voice, not whispering and trying to sound like Marilyn Monroe. She’s an aggressive singer in the Anita O’Day mold, she pushes the beat and her backup band is equally hot and hip, particularly soprano and also saxist Dave Liebman and vibes player Mark Sherman, who attack their instruments with both musical invention and gusto. On Begin the Beguine, she does start softly, but nuances her voice with crescendos. She also does an imaginative rendition, adding notes to the melody line that aren’t in the sheet music, her backup featuring slow piano triplets to vary the beat. McDougald doesn’t really scat, but she knows how to bend the beat in a really jazzy way.

A sort of calypso beat opens the old Depression-era hit Brother, Can You Spare a Dime? This she sings in a medium-up tempo, with flute and soprano sax playing nice licks behind her, far different from the way Bing Crosby did originally or Spanky McFarland did decades later with her band, Spanky and Our Gang. “Al” almost sounds as if he’s having a ball as he begs for change! The middle section is given over to the horns as a group, with Tom Harrell swinging out in a wonderfully boppish trumpet solo. When flautist Dan Block takes his solo, McDougald does indulge in a bit of scatting, followed in turn by Rob Block again on piano.

James 1I was surprised and delighted to hear her sing Jack Jenney’s 1947 hit with the Harry James band, The Man With the Horn, as a vocal. (How many readers out there remember, or have even heard of, Jack Jenney? And yet he was once considered one of the greatest jazz trombonists of his time.) Yet although the song was written by Jenney, the star of the original record was alto saxist Willie Smith, and McDougald does a lovely job emulating some of his phrasing. This is followed by the wonderful progressive swing tune by Lionel Hampton, Midnight Sun, with Johnny Mercer’s great lyrics. She starts this out at Hampton’s original relaxed tempo, but adds some double-time passages as the song goes on. (Trivia: Hampton stole the title of this tune from his bass player at the time, Charles Mingus. Mingus wasn’t very happy about this, but then turned around and wrote his own tune with the title Tonight at Noon, which was even hipper.) The soprano sax solo is absolutely superb, and Sherman’s vibes solo is also quite good.

McDougald’s original tune, Outside the Soirée, begins very slowly, with guitar playing over bowed bass. It’s a ballad, but a hip ballad, and she sings out on this one, too. In the notes, she is quoted as saying, “I just hear a possibility and sing it…Serious players do this in rehearsal or writing phases, but I tend to get these ideas onstage.” Rob Block switches to guitar on this one; it sounds like an amplified acoustic rather than an electric instrument. There’s also a sweet alto solo, and McDougald’s lyrics tell a story of a woman trying to make it in the big city, a parallel to her own life. Charles DeForest’s Don’t Wait Up for Me, taken at a swinging but asymmetric beat, also tells its own little tale. The solos on this one are less spectacular but no less original or tasteful, with Rob again on guitar.

When The Masquerade is Over started, I almost thought it was a Jobim tune, since it’s played with a bossa nova beat. This has been one of my favorite old songs since I first heard it as a teenager on the old Glenn Miller version, but McDougald is a far better singer than Ray Eberle. (Al Jarreau also did a cute version of it back in the 1980s.) This one has a nice quiet accompaniment, mostly Rob Block’s acoustic guitar with bass and very minimal percussion. Both bassist and guitarist take nice solos, Block’s being especially inventive. The piano comes in for the last chorus as well.

McDougald opens Spring Can Hang You Up the Most in a laid-back fashion, but as soon as the bass enters the tempo picks up and the tune begins to really swing. Alto sax and vibes back her up with imaginative playing, later laying out some wonderful solo work. When the World Was Young is another life tale sort of song, with McDougald accompanied solely by guitar. But the biggest surprise, to me, was her uptempo bop treatment of the old 1920s tunes Linger Awhile and Avalon. Had Al Jolson heard this, he wouldn’t have known what hit him! She cooks at an almost manic uptempo throughout, with Rob Block reminding me of Oscar Moore in his solo. (In case you don’t know, Oscar was Nat Cole’s original guitarist with his trio, and absolutely one of the hippest and most original jazz soloists of the 1940s.) The muted trumpet also has echoes of the past, a bit of Dizzy here and a little Fats Navarro there. We’re also treated to a drum solo in this one.

The most modern of the songs on this album (except for her original), Maury Yeston’s Unusual Way is also given a hip sort of bossa nova treatment, with Dan Block switching to clarinet for a nice low-register solo and brother Rob following on guitar. She closes her set with a jazz treatment of an old Irish tune, The Parting Glass, taken at a nice medium-uptempo. Again the solos are outstanding, as is the band as a whole.

Erin McDougald is clearly the jazz vocal find of the year to date. You’ll love this album!

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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Edward Downes’ Magnificent “Rienzi”

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WAGNER: Rienzi, der Letzt die Tribun / John Mitchinson, ten (Cola di Rienzi); Lois McDonald, sop (Irene); Lorna Haywood, sop (Adriano Colonna); Michael Langdon, bass (Steffano Colonna); Raimund Herincx, bass-bar (Paolo Orsini); David Ward, bs (Raimondo); Adrian de Peyer, tenor (Baroncelli); Paul Hudson, bs (Cecco del Vecchio); Elizabeth Gale, sop (Messenger of Peace); Brian Cookson, ten (Herald); BBC Northern Singers & Orchestra; Edward Downes, cond / Opera Depot OD-10914-4 (available at https://operadepot.com/products/wagner-rienzi-mitchinson-haywood-mcdonnall-langdon-herincx-ward-downes-london-1976)

“I am of the firm opinion that [Rienzi] is the finest thing achieved in grand opera in the last twelve years, that it is the most significant dramatic creation since Les Huguenots, and that it is just as epoch-making for its own time as were Les Huguenots, Der Freischütz, and Don Giovanni, each for its respective period of musical history.”

—Eduard Hanslick

Despite its being his first (and biggest) hit opera, and the one that led to his further productions in both Dresden and Paris, Wagner came to loathe Rienzi. Yet despite the fact that he kept cutting music from the score, not only for the 1842 opening night but also making further cuts over the next two years, it was not necessarily the music that became “repugnant” to him. It was, actually, the militaristic tone of the work. We tend to forget that Wagner, an iconoclastic thinker, not only despised the control that members of the royalty had over the arts, but also the militaristic trend of his own country, which is what led him into exile and becoming a wanted man for several years. Yet, ironically, it was exactly this militaristic tone, and the strong manner in which Rienzi fought the patricians as well as the Catholic church of his time, that so attracted young Adolf Hitler and led him to consider Rienzi Wagner’s greatest opera. He kept the only known completed and approved final score of the opera by him night and day, and in fact had it incinerated with him in his bunker in 1945.

This has led to a general distaste for and condemnation of the opera in the 20th and 21st centuries. But should we blame Richard Wagner for this militaristic view when he clearly disliked it so much that he ejected it from his canon of operas? True, he also dismissed his even earlier operas, Die Feen and Das Liebesverbot, but these were rejected on musical grounds. With Rienzi, he emerged almost fully-developed as a composer. Almost, but not quite; close listening to the music reveals the strong influence of two earlier composers who he once admired. Vincenzo Bellini and Giacomo Meyerbeer, though he later wrote virulent condemnations of the latter because one of Meyerbeer’s letters to the Paris Opera recommending him got lost in the mail and he accused Meyerbeer of never writing it. Part of Wagner’s motivation for distancing himself from Rienzi was that the Parisians wanted his later operas to sound like it. Tannhäuser was a resounding flop at the Paris Opera, not least because he placed the ballet, set in the Venusburg, at the very beginning of the opera instead of in Act II or III as the French dilettantes preferred.

Yet Rienzi as a musical construction continued to fascinate singers and conductors. Even in the early 20th century, many great singers (among them Louise Kirkby-Lunn, Jacques Urlus and Ernestine Schumann-Heink) were so attracted to arias from the opera that they sang and recorded them, and the overture became a favorite concert piece, even of Italian conductor Guido Cantelli who performed it with the NBC Symphony Orchestra. This fascination led to abridged performances, one of the most interesting being from 1960 with tenor Set Svanholm in the title role, Christa Ludwig as Adriano and American soprano Teresa Stich-Randall as the Messenger of Peace. But in all these performances, a heavily abridged score was used because the original sources were obscure. It wasn’t until the 1970s that other scores came to light, one autograph by Wagner which included much music cut even before the first performance, and three published scores, the last from 1844, edited by Wagner with further cuts. It seems to me that another reason why Wagner came to hate the opera was because he was forced to keep cutting it, just as poor Hector Berlioz was forced to make cuts in Les Troyens for performance.

A commercial recording finally appeared in 1974, about three hours and 20 minutes of the nearly five-hour opera, with René Kollo as Rienzi, Siv Wenneberg as Irene, American mezzo Janis Martin as Adriano and Theo Adam as Paolo Orsini. It met with astonishing critical acclaim, but until recent years was the only studio version of the opera. Modern recordings are cut just as much if not more.

But in 1976 British conductor Edward Downes convinced the BBC to let him perform and broadcast an uncut performance of the opera, based on the surviving manuscript and scores, trimmed just a bit to match what musicologists then felt was the closest they could come to the way it was performed in 1842. Downes assembled a cast of first-rate British singers. Some, like tenor John Mitchison, baritone Raimund Herincx and basses Michael Langdon and David Ward, were fairly well-known outside of England, but most of the others—and particularly the outstanding sopranos Lois McDonald and Lorna Haywood—were scarcely known at all internationally. This is the performance presented here on this superb release.

The sound is first-class stereo for its time, although a couple of passages in Act I are, for some reason, heard in mono (but good, clear mono). It has had only three issues prior to this that I can trace, all on small or “pirate” CD labels: Audio Encyclopedia AE 003, Oriel Music Society OMS 146/5 (the only one stretched out to five CDs), and Mitridate’s Ponto label, PO 1040, which was the best-circulated and therefore the most commonly available version.

Thus this current version being sold by Opera Depot, an independent label run by Andy Whitfield (http://operadepot.com), is an especially welcome edition for those who want their Wagner on CDs and not just as streaming audio (the performance is also on YouTube). What makes this performance so interesting, in my view, runs counter to what most critics say of Rienzi, that it doesn’t suffer from the cut music, that as usual Wagner over-wrote the opera. But considering how little action takes place, Wagner also over-wrote Lohengrin, Die Meistersinger, Tristan und Isolde and Siegfried, and except for Tristan, which almost always has a chunk cut out of the love duet (which is superfluous music; I heard the uncut performance that James Levine conducted at the Metropolitan Opera with Jane Eaglen and Ben Heppner, and the extra music was a crashing bore), none of the other operas are generally performed with cuts.

What strikes the ear in this remarkable performances, aside from the extraordinarily high quality of all of the singing, down to the smallest role, are two things. Firstly, and perhaps more importantly, is the fact that Downes conducts it like an opera from the Wagner canon, meaning with an alternation of dramatic and lyrical phrasing. This reduces the almost overwhelmingly martial impact that the opera as a whole makes, as opposed to those scenes clearly intended to be dramatic and exciting, which he does not gloss over. But secondly, most of the music new to my ears is some of the most beautiful and moving that Wagner ever wrote. One example among many is the newly extended version of the Irene-Adriano duet in Act I. What is given most of the time, and even in the 1974 recording, as a nice interlude is here revealed as one of the most interesting, well-crafted and moving pieces in the entire opera. The fact that it runs nearly three times as long as what we previously heard is of no importance; sheer length is not always an indicator of musical invention or lack of it, and it is clear that the young Wagner (he was only 29 when Rienzi premiered) was clearly channeling the long lines and continually-developing musical flow of Bellini, for whose opera Norma he once wrote an alternate bass aria.

Nor is this the only moment when one steps back, allows time to stand still, and admires what he poured into this score. Yes, there are some moments—not too many—where you think to yourself that this is going on too long, but for the most part you just keep listening and following the thread of the music because it is so good. What I’m saying, then, is that these snarky critics and musicologists who dump on Rienzi as overwritten trash are dead wrong. Very little of it bores; you just have to consider that this is French Grand Opera written by a German and accept it on its own terms. (For those who care, there’s also a completely uncut performance of Meyerbeer’s Les Huguenots running nearly four hours on YouTube, conducted by Cyril Diederich, and most of the “new” music is relatively uninteresting.) In only two places did I feel the music was over-written: 1) the incredibly lengthy Act II ballet, which runs a whopping 38 minutes. Part of this IS banal. I cut five minutes out of the middle that I found unimpressive. 2) the orchestral interlude near the beginning of Act IV, which repeats itself unnecessarily. I trimmed that, too.

Yet even so, you won’t be disappointed with this performance, even though Haywood (Adriano) is a soprano, and thus sounds a bit too similar to McDonald (Irene), instead of the called-for mezzo-soprano in the role. Mitchinson wasn’t much of an interpreter, but his superb phrasing, great diction (in fact, most of the singers here have incredibly clear German pronunciation) and sympathetic treatment of the title role can be deeply affection at times, particularly in his “prayer” which opens the fifth and last act. A bit too long? Sure, but so are Huguenots and Rossini’s Guillaume Tell, and frankly, there’s only about 90 minutes of great music in Tell. Highly recommended.

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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Diane Moser’s Inventive, Fascinating Birdsongs

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BIRDSONGS / MOSER: Birdsongs for Eric. Hello. Dancin’ With the Sparrows. If You Call Me, Then I’ll Call You. Won’t You Come Out to Play. Folk Song. When Birds Dream. MacDOWELL: Woodlands: I. Morning and Afternoon; II. Evening. BEACH: A Hermit Thrush at Eve & Variations. PEDERSON: The (Un)Common Loon / Diane Moser, pn; Anton Denner, fl/pic; Ken Filiano, bs / Planet Arts 30174

Here is something new under the sun: a jazz trio’s classical-jazz fusion treatment of music dedicated to birds. At first blush, the music seems to be ambient jazz, but this is deceiving, because Diane Moser, who apparently also leads the Composers Big Band in New York, has a discursive musical mind that marches to the beat of a different flute. Yes, the music is soft-grained and definitely has strong classical overtones, as indicated not only by the inclusion of the two pieces from Edward Mac Dowell’s Woodlands and Amy Beach’s A Hermit Thrust at Eve, but also from her own strongly classical-based compositions/arrangements. The very first tune, dedicated to Eric Dolphy, begins with bowed bass and flute flutterings, which thrown you off at first, but before long a jazz beat emerges and the music becomes more rhythmic with improvisations thrown in—and then moves back again. It’s very difficult music to describe, however, because both its structure and its ebb and flow bend and morph like small tree branches in the wind.

Of course, the hardcore jazz fan may be turned off by this approach, since much of the music here is gentle and bassist Filiano almost always plays arco or bowed rather than standard pizzicato jazz bass, but I found it fascinating. In some ways the music is very modern, hence its resemblance to ambient jazz (but without ever becoming banal or uninteresting), and in some ways it harks back to the kind of musical experiments one heard in the late 1950s from such innovative musical minds as the late Fred Katz, particularly when he played cello with the Chico Hamilton group that had Paul Horn on flute and saxophone.

Absolutely key to the success of this music is Filiano, whose playing flows like a golden thread through each and every piece. He is a dominant presence in every track, as is flautist-piccolo player Anton Denner; if anything, it is the leader’s delicate traceries on the piano that act more as the ambient element in this music. She gives free rein to Denner in his imitations of birds which are intermingled with the constant flow of the music. Moreover, since the tracks flow seamlessly into one another, listening without seeing the change of tracks gives the impression of a complete work divided into different movements. This music is as great as anything I’ve heard accomplished by modern classical composers, and in those moments when Moser’s playing becomes more forward and more rhythmic, it simply acts as another variant in the ongoing musical discourse.

This is especially evident in the third track, Dancin’ With the Sparrows, where Moser not only becomes more jazz-animated but Filiano suddenly switches to plucked bass. Yet this, too, acts like another movement in the ongoing suite. The marvelous thing about this music is that its shifts of mood do not break up the flow but rather enhances it. Another name that crossed my mind when listening to this album was that of jazz-folk flautist Abbie Rabinovitz, whose Flute Story CD of many years ago I fell in love with. Even the introduction of quasi-bop figures here and there add to rather than detract from the music’s quality and impact.

Moser also holds the listener’s attention by means of her keen ear for detail. Although most of the music is sparse, she uses space in a highly creative way, which keeps the listener engaged in the ongoing musical discourse.

The MacDowell and Amy Beach pieces are also transformed through Moser’s musical mind into jazz-classical pieces, which adds to the classical feel of the album without disrupting the overall mood. As she put it in the publicity sheet for this album, “Our world is overrun with all kinds of sounds that are not always good for your health, or mental and emotional well-being. I wanted this recording to be a respite from that, so that those who listen can feel relieved from their daily stress and feel refreshed and positive.” Towards the end of the album, we get mostly Moser alone on piano, playing very softly and more ambient than jazzy, bringing the CD to a soft close.

She has clearly accomplished her goal. This album is mostly a gem.

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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Joanne Tatham Swings on New Release

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THE RINGS OF SATURN / DONALDSON-KAHN: love Me or Leave Me. FRANKS: Summer in New York.* WINKLER-BRUGGERMAN: Catch Me if You Can. SNOW: Poetry Man. GABLE: The Rings of Saturn. RUNDGREN: Can We Still Be Friends?+# JOBIM: If You Never Come to Me. SONDHEIM: Anyone Can Whistle. JOHN & PAUL WILLIAMS: Nice to Be Around.+ JOBIM-DE MORAES-GIMBEL: Jazz ‘n’ Samba (So Danço Samba). VAN HEUSEN-BURKE: It Could Happen to You# / Joanne Tatham, voc; +Brian Swartz, tpt; #Bob Sheppard, t-sax; Max Haymer, pn; Marcel Camargo, *Larry Koonse, gtr; Lyman Medeiros, bs; Dan Schnelle, dm; Kevin Winard, perc / Café Pacific Records CPCD 14060

Joanne Tathum has been a singer since she was her New Jersey high school, working with an all-girl vocal group that sang standards and show tunes. She also worked as a single doing weddings, bowling banquets and New Year’s Eve parties before she married TV writer Chuck Tatham and moved to Los Angeles with him. There, she got into jazz singing, performing at the Cinegrill, Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel and at Herb Alpert’s Vibrato Grill and Jazz. As she puts it, “I can’t believe I had the nerve, but I actually walked up to him one day when he was there checking on construction, and gave him a copy of my first CD. I began playing there almost from the day it opened!”

On this disc, Tatham is lucky to have an outstanding, swinging group of musicians whose playing is anything but “lounge” style. They swing, and so does she. Tatham does hold back a bit on her voice, not quite singing out as much as I’d like, but she has great jazz timing. And I don’t just mean in a generic sense. Tatham holds back on the beat, pushes it forward, and adds little quasi-beats to the rhythm when she sings. Max Haymer is a pianist who catches her mood and style perfectly through his instrument, playing swinging, sparse choruses and breaks as she sings. She can also improvise on the melody while sticking to the lyrics—in other words, where other singers would just scat, Tatham holds onto the words while inventing her own choruses. Love Me or Leave Me is a perfect introduction to her and her style, and I loved the way she and the band do a samba-like treatment of Summer in New York, where her “New Joisey” accent sneaks through a bit. (I’m from New Jersey myself, so I’m not being critical, just factual.) Haymer creates a softly swirling mélange of notes in his first solo on this one, and the tight rhythm section is a delight. Guest guitarist Larry Koonse plays a nice solo on this one, too.

Tatham is particularly good on Catch Me if You Can, her rhythmic sense as sharp as that of any jazz soloist. And the backup band really cooks on this one, Haymer playing a single-line solo as fine as any you’d hear from a first-rank pianist. Kevin Winard’s tight drumming is both subtle and propulsive at the same time. I was interested to hear what she could do with Phoebe Snow’s Poetry Man, particularly since Snow was really a “soft rock” singer and not a jazz writer. She performs it as a ballad, which isn’t too surprising, and resorts to some ultra-breathiness here that didn’t really grab me, but still manages to infuse the music with a jazz feeling. And her backup band does not disappoint.

Both Tatham and the band cook pretty well on The Rings of Saturn, also played with a Latin beat. In a few bars, she seems to have double-tracked her own voice for effect. Another surprise on the disc is a song by Todd Rundgren, Can We Still Be Friends? Here, she most definitely converts it into a jazz tune, played in a swinging 4 and featuring guests Brian Swartz on trumpet and Bob Sheppard on sax, playing nice, swinging licks behind her. One of things I really liked about Tatham is that she is part of the band, and not just a voice-accompanied-by-instruments. Listen, for instance, to the way her solo follows those of Sheppard and Swartz, more minimal in terms of notes but no less inventive rhythmically. And she opens up the voice a bit more in the final bars, which I wished she would do more often. Antonio Carlos Jobim’s If You Never Come to Me could almost have been tailor-made for her, so good is her phrasing and rhythm, at one point scatting along with Marcel Camargo’s guitar and Haymer’s piano. This is surely one of the highlights of the album, with bassist Medeiros also getting a nice solo.

Sondheim’s Anyone Can Whistle is a show tune turned ballad, with Tatham again in whispery mode, but also swinging in a light, relaxed style. Nice to be Around is also given the ballad treatment. Predictably, things heat up a bit in Jobim’s So Danço Samba, here retitled Jazz ‘n Samba. Both Tatham and the band cook beautifully on this one, with her voice bouncing off Camargo’s guitar. The closer, It Could Happen to You, is a medium-slow piece alternating between 4 and 3 in which Tatham swings gently with the band, featuring nice licks from Sheppard on tenor and a nicely swinging Haymer solo. Tatham then scats with Sheppard for a chorus before the saxist takes off on his own.

This is a nice introduction to this singer and this band, very rewarding for the most part. Recommended.

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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Liberation Via the Janczarski-McCraven Quintet

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LIBERATOR / GADJA: The Torn Veil. Daddy’s Bounce. Love Is. JANCZARSKI: The Spark (for Jasia). SHAW: Sweet Love of Mine. McCRAVEN: Hambone/Intertwining Spirits. ECKSTINE: I Want to Talk About You / Borys Janczarski, t-sax; Stephen McCraven, dm/body; Rasul Siddik, tp/fl/perc/voc; Joanna Gajda, pn; Adam Kowalewski, bs / Fortune 2018 (live: Warsaw, 11/15/2016 & 12/9/2016).

The Janczarski-McCraven Quintet, whose wonderful CD Traveling East-West I reviewed in September of 2016, is back again with this latest offering. The results are equally fine, in part because the group is still intact—each of their members are the same.

On this disc, we get one piece each by the co-leaders but three by the pianist Joanna Gajda, and it is her tune The Torn Veil that leads off the album. It opens with soft percussion rumbles, setting the mood, before moving into the slow-moving, Eastern-sounding theme, in which the trumpet and tenor sax interweave spellbinding figures. The former instrument becomes busier as the latter remains calm, at least for a while, with the rhythm sounding free-form and defying metric boundaries. This group as indeed grown even more open in its approach to jazz, creating textures and feelings as they wend their way along. Liberated jazz, indeed! Finally, pianist Gadja enters, playing what sounds like a 7/4 beat, and the band falls in behind her, kicking up the tempo and swinging with a nice, relaxed beat. McCraven’s drums are particularly good, keeping the beat loose, feeding the band just the right licks at the right time to keep thing moving. Janczarski’s tenor solo has that kind of laser-focused sound that reminded me of certain tenor players from the 1960s, and as usual, his improvisation is structured and relaxed. Siddik, by contrast, is busier and wilder, taking enormous risks in his solo and generally pulling them off well. The live setting seems to inspire the band to more stretching-out than I heard in the studio-recorded album. Gajda’s solo is somewhat relaxed but also quite explorative.

This is followed by Janczarski’s The Spark (for Jasia), a lovely ballad with an especially well-defined melody. (This is one thing that sometimes irks me with jazz groups nowadays; in an effort to sound “original,” too few of them write actual melodies any more). Janczarski moves seamlessly into his solo from there, with Siddik playing long harmony notes behind his second chorus. Gadja then follows in a ruminative mood. Next up is Woody Shaw’s Sweet Love of Mine, played here with a quasi-Latin beat, the band again relaxed and inventive. Siddik is first up on this one, and his solo is truly outstanding, followed in turn by Janczarski in an energetic and well-crafted solo, leaning on some blue notes for emphasis. McCraven has some wonderful drum breaks in the following ensemble chorus. This band really cooks. Daddy’s Bounce isn’t quite as bouncy as you might think, but a laid-back jazz waltz with Gadja leading the way on piano. Kowalewski finally gets a brief solo in this one before the saxist enters, also in a relaxed mood. Solos and ensemble choruses follow, adding up to a nice piece.

At this juncture we hear McCraven clapping, slapping his mouth with his palm and making body sounds in the old tune Hambone, with Siddik doing the vocal, before an out-of-tempo piano flurry moves us into the funky original Intertwining Spirits, taken at a loping sort of calypso pace. Janczarski is all over this one, blowing bluesy figures with strength and conviction, eventually playing some twisting, rapid-fire triplets which include overblown notes…sort of a cousin to Sonny Rollins’ Saint Thomas. And finally, Kowalewski gets a full chorus solo before the co-leader returns on sax to ride it out gently.

I wasn’t at all familiar with Billy Eckstine’s I Want to Talk About You, a nice ballad with a vocal by Siddik. He’s no Eckstine but he does a pretty nice job. Janczarski is also quite relaxed on this one, his tone warm and ingratiating. The closer, Love Is, is a nice relaxed samba by Gadja with the pianist again leading off with the pretty theme. A nice ending to a wonderful CD!

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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Bruce Levingston Opens Windows

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WINDOWS / BRUCE: The Shadow of the Blackbird. SCHUMANN: Kinderszenen. Arabeske. MATHESON: Windows / Sono Luminus DSL-92218

Pianist Bruce Levingston presents us with a program of old and new, the old being Schumann’s played-to-death cycle Kinderszenen and Arabeske and the new being world premiere recordings of David Bruce’s The Shadow of the Blackbird and James Matheson’s Windows. The Bruce piece, in two movements, is tonal yet modern, melodic in form but neoclassic in style. It’s a fascinating piece, however, and Levingston’s crisp, no-nonsense keyboard approach brings out the work’s fascinating structure as well as its strange undercurrent of darkness. The album is described in the publicity blurb as “haunting,” and this surely applies to the second movement of Shadow, which is quiet and atmospheric yet in no way sentimental or treacly. It is here, and in similar other moments in the album, that Levingston shows his mettle as an artist, evoking an otherworldly mood without slipping into banality. And the piece itself is also interesting, sounding somewhat Oriental in its particular use of harmony.

Levingston also plays the familiar Kinderszenen with a delicate touch, reminding me in some respects of the classic performances that Clara Haskil gave of this chestnut back in the 1950s. And yet Levingston applies his own touches, such as the nice swagger he gives to “Kuriose Geschichte,” as well as his own particular way of bringing out the left-hand runs in “Hasche-Mann.” On the other hand, I found “Traümerai” too slow and mannered for my taste. Levngston also brings a softer, more romantic profile to the Arabeske.

But Matheson’s Windows is an exciting, interesting modern work. Set in five movements titled “Jeremiah,” “Isaiah,” “Crucifixion,” “The Good Samaritan” and “The Rose,” it evidently has some kind of Biblical reference, but none of that is particularly clear in the promo blurb. As music, however, it is varied and interesting, the first piece starting out with a nerve-wracking clang on the keyboard, followed by dark, atonal bass notes, following which the music gradually becomes quieter but also somewhat menacing. “Isaiah” starts with repeated high Fs in the treble, followed by nervous jangling in an asymmetrical 4/4. The brief development section incorporates these figures and others in a staccato attack that is the aural equivalent of guillotine chops. By contrast, “Crucifixion” is sad and dolorous, while “The Good Samaritan” sets up a gently rocking rhythm, again with repeated notes in the upper range, which continues on different notes in different ranges on the piano. I didn’t care for this one much; it sounded too much like minimalism to me (which I loathe). “The Rose” also sets up a repeated rhythm, but slower and with more ominous overtones. Despite the repeated rhythms, the music shifts in color and range with changing bass lines and interesting chord structures.

All in all, an interesting disc, particularly for the two new pieces.

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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Goodyear Channels Gould

DSL-92220 Album Cover

FOR GLENN GOULD / GIBBONS: Lord Salisbury’s Pavan and Gaillard. SWEELINCK: Fantasia in D. J.S. BACH: Sinfonias Nos. 7, 8, 14, 11, 4. Partita No. 5 in G. Aria from “Goldberg Variations.” BRAHMS: Intermezzi: Op. 118, No. 2; Op. 117, No. 3. BERG: Piano Sonata / Stewart Goodyear, pn / Sono Luminus DSL-92220

Here is a tribute to the late Glenn Gould by Canadian pianist Stewart Goodyear. To those of us for whom Gould was a living presence, and a pretty wacky one at that, the comment by Goodyear that he wasn’t even aware of Gould until the year of his death (1981) brings you up short. Of course, younger generations wouldn’t know Gould the way we did, as the guy who gave up concertizing at a young age because audiences bored him and he felt he could give better performances in the recording studio, the lifelong hypochondriac whose collection of prescription medications sometimes equaled his daily intake of food, the wacky cutup who once made a fake promo for CBC TV in which he dressed up as a dotty old conductor who couldn’t hold a steady beat, and the commentator who wrote extremely colorful reviews and articles for High Fidelity. It’s kind of like reviewing an album of tribute to equally wacky mezzo-soprano Cathy Berberian by someone who only heard of her the year she died.

Oh, brother, what you missed!

Goodyear uses a piano that sounds more resonant than the dry-sounding Steinway model that Gould preferred (he spent an entire day in the Steinway factory and sampled close to 50 models before he found the one he liked), and occasionally seems to use the sustain pedal, although that might me a sonic illusion caused by the greater resonance of the recorded sound. Gould was so fanatic about having a dry, crisp sound that, when he made his few recordings on an organ, he insisted having the microphone placed right up against the soundboard of the instrument, which gave it a claustrophobic acoustic. But that was what he preferred. I told you he was eccentric!

I also noticed that Goodyear uses a wider range of dynamics than Gould did, playing the Bach Sinfonia No. 7 with a lighter, more delicate sound than he did the pieces by Gibbons and Sweelinck. Nonetheless, he does have a good grasp on the way Gould played, capturing his crisp attack and emotional impact. He asks in the liner notes if Gould was “cerebral or emotional?” Well, he was both. He only played music that appealed to him, but was emotionally convincing in that music. Never a fan of the harpsichord, he insisted on playing all Baroque music on the piano, and in doing so flew in the face of the then-burgeoning historically-informed practice movement. Yet, paradoxically, his Baroque performances were so utterly convincing that he opened the door for future keyboardists to continue playing Bach on the piano, even now in an era when harpsichordists, fortepianists and virginal players abound.

In only one instance did I feel that Goodyear didn’t quite capture Gould’s style, and that was in the “Tempo di Menuetto” movement of the Bach Partita, but that is a small thing. He’s certainly welcome to interpret the music slightly differently if he wishes. On the other hand, he perfectly captures Gould’s unusual approach to Brahms, which was resolutely unsentimental. Goodyear’s performance of the Berg Sonata captures Gould’s approach but, again, to my ears the piano is more resonant.

One final image of Gould before I wrap up this review. On YouTube there’s a video of him complaining that Strauss’ song Morgen is quite banal because, in his view, the music, and particularly the long piano opening of the piece, just sounds like some broken chords strummed on a guitar. He then proceeds to play it—quite beautifully. Finally he stops and says, “I just realized that I made this sound utterly convincing, but I assure you, I didn’t mean a note of it!”

That was Glenn Gould.

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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Aimard Plays Messiaen’s Bird Catalogue

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MESSIAEN: Catalogue d’Oiseux / Pierre-Laurent Aimard, pn / Pentatone SACD PTC 186670

Olivier Messiaen’s massive piano suite, Catalogue d’Oiseaux, is rarely heard in performance because it is long, complex, and, well, modern, but here Pierre-Laurent Aimard gives us the whole thing on three CDs. As he puts it in the liner notes:

These pages of immaculate, poetic freshness are also those of an acute, well-organized observer, who chooses to call this series of contemplative tableaux a catalogue. The innumerable bird chants notated by Messiaen himself while being in nature, or derived from the ornithological recordings he collected, serve as basic material for an artist who renews the tradition of human song as well as of piano writing. The diversity of the material and the challenge of transcribing it stimulated Messiaen to experiment with timbre, rhythm, musical language and form, and underline his modernism, independence and originality as a leader of the 1950s avant-garde. Messiaen’s desire to imitate the timbre of each bird inspired him to develop acoustic colouration techniques that fully redefined the sonorous identity of the piano.

The music is indeed complex, so much so that the casual observer will have a difficult time hearing them through the bitonal harmonies that Messiaen applied to each piece. Yet if you listen to the top lines only, you’ll hear a resemblance to each bird he sought to capture in sound. It’s just a matter of the ear catching up to the rest of it, which comes after repeated hearings. And once you do, you’ll be amazed at how well-coordinated these pieces, each of which is a mini-suite unto itself, really are.

The birds presented in this catalogue, in order of appearance, are: 1) The Alpine Chough; 2) The Golden Oriole; 3) The Blue Rock Thrush; 4) The Black-eared Wheatear; 5) The Tawny Owl; 6) The Wood Lark; 7) The Reed Warbler; 8) The Short-toed Lark; 9) The Warbler; 10) The Rock Thrush; 11) The Buzzard; 12) The Black Wheatear; and 13) The Curlew. Each bird portrait is quite extensive, the shortest of them being the Wood Lark at 6:48 and the longest, by far, being the Reed Warbler at 31:37, and Messiaen wrote rather pictorial liner notes describing each bird. Also, within several of these pieces Messiaen included the responding calls of other birds, such as Jackdaws, the Black Redstart, Herring Gull, Oystercatcher, Little Ringed Plover, Common Gull. Guillemot and Sandwich Tern. He thus gave us a veritable encyclopedia of bird sounds, answering and contrasting each other, within several of these pieces. The massive Reed Warbler piece, which he described as “a huge arch, from midnight to three o’clock in the morning through until the next midnight to three o’clock,” includes the Blackbird, the Red-backed Shrike, Redstart, Pheasant, Starling, Green Woodpecker, Great Tit, White Wagtail, Grasshopper Warbler, Sedge Warbler, Coot and Black-headed Gull. Quite an aviary!

The problems I have with the music, however, are its extraordinary length, its complexity, and its fragmentary nature. The bird songs come and go as they would in nature, meaning that the music frequently breaks off in the middle of nowhere, suddenly to restart again in a few seconds. This makes the listening experience both fragmentary and complex for its audience. The best solution, I have found, is to listen to each track individually, giving yourself a period of silence and rest before taking in the next one. Hearing the full 152 minutes’ worth of music, as I did, in one continuous listening session tends to make each piece sound alike, which is clearly not the case. The only other alternative is to listen to it as background music to your day’s activities, providing, of course, that no other sounds conflict with it. Also, although it is not necessary, it might help you follow the music better if you are familiar with the calls of these various birds.

As an interpreter Aimard has a firm grasp of both the music’s complexities and its pictorial scenario. It probably helps that he had a connection to the composer, first through his piano studies with Messiaen’s wife, Yvonne Loriod, at the Conservatoire de Paris, then winning the Messiaen Competition in 1973, and later working with the composer himself. He so completely immerses himself in the birdsongs that he virtually “disappears” as an interpreter, which I consider a high compliment.

I noted on the inlay for this set that when you purchase the physical CDs you also get a DVD. Of course I had no access to this, but it’s a nice bonus. If you are an avid fan of Messiaen, I’m sure you’ll consider this set a must.

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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Hines’ “Bluebeard’s Castle” Great But Uneven

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BARTÓK: Bluebeard’s Castle (sung in English) / Rosalind Elias, mez (Judith), Jerome Hines, bs (Bluebeard); Philadelphia Orchestra; Eugene Ormandy, cond / Sony Classical 19075810782

This is the first-ever CD issue of Columbia’s 1962 recording of Bluebeard’s Castle. As you can see, the label hired two American operatic stars of the time away from RCA Victor for this project. Bass Jerome Hines had been a star at the Met since the early 1950s whereas young mezzo-soprano Rosalind Elias was still considered up-and-coming at the time. But they had different strengths and weaknesses. Hines’ voice was so large and resonant that he developed an incipient wobble. It was not nearly as bad as listening, nowadays, to such losers as Kwangchul Youn, though it was noticeable; but he was such a great interpreter that he managed to carve out a long and prosperous career at the Metropolitan Opera. Elias was a different story. On records, at least up through 1964, the voice sounded fresh and steady, but in person she only sang well for about 20 minutes in each performance. Thereafter, she pressured the voice so much that it sounded shrill on top and hollow in the middle and bottom. By the mid-‘60s her voice was so bad that long-standing patrons would try to avoid performances she was in, yet she, too, had a long career at the New York house.

The decision to record this dark and somewhat unpopular work in English was probably made by Goddard Lieberson, Columbia’s classical music guru. I’m sure he thought the recording would sell better to a non-specialist public if sung in their own language. Normally, I’m not a fan of opera in any language but the original—unless the composer himself made adjustments for another language, as Verdi and Wagner did when their operas were sung in France—for the simple reason that composers had the specific syllabic distribution of words in mind when they wrote the music, and therefore the music itself often has to change when a translation is used, but in this case whoever made the English translation did a very good job.

In a 1995 article published in the New York Times, music critic Kenneth Furie listed this as one of his favorite recordings of the work but cautioned that the sound quality of the LP was exceptionally muddy by Columbia’s standards. That has changed considerably in this reissue. If anything, the sound is occasionally over-bright; there are moments when both the Philadelphia strings and Elias’ high range sound a bit abrasive and edgy. Otherwise, however, the sound for the most part is as clear as a bell.

The one problem on this set, however, is Ormandy’s conducting. Though Hungarian, he seems not to have had much of an affinity for Bartók’s score. The tempi are consistently brisk and he keeps the music flowing properly, but although he is dramatic he fails to draw out the kind of dark menace that Antal Doráti, Istvan Kertesz, Rafael Kubelik and Georg Solti brought to it. There are many collectors who favor the Doráti and Kertesz recordings as the best available, but I disagree. Doráti’s Judith has a wobbly, ugly voice, and Kertesz’ Bluebeard, Walter Berry, has too high and light of a voice to make the proper impact. The live 1981 Kubelik performance with the New York Philharmonic, Tatiana Troyanos and Siegmund Nimsgern, is one of my favorite Bluebeards, but I feel the plum goes to Solti with Sylvia Sass and Kolos Kovats, largely because of the phenomenal digital sound and the inclusion of the (for me) necessary spoken introduction.

Why Columbia did not choose to use their other Hungarian conductor, George Szell, remains a mystery. Szell had much more experience in opera than Ormandy in addition to being a more intense interpreter of Bartók’s music. Of course, since they were importing Hines and Elias from RCA, they might also have thought of using Fritz Reiner, a friend of the composer’s whose Bartók recordings are considered classics. But that’s water over the dam at this point.

The result is a Bluebeard’s Castle with tremendous drama emanating from the bass and a fair amount of intensity coming from the mezzo, but only intermittent menace and mystery from the orchestra. Yet Hines in particular was such an interesting vocal actor, and made so few recordings to show he was as great in that department as Hans Hotter, that one is loath to cast this one aside and discount it because of the language choice and the conducting. It is clearly not a first choice, but far from superfluous or uninteresting. On the contrary, Hines keeps you so wrapped up in to the richness of his voice and the nuance of his interpretation that you’ll return to it again to find even more in the performance than you heard the first time. He will make you forget Samuel Ramey’s beautifully-sung but two-dimensional recording, and Elias is no slouch, either; she’s almost as good a Judith as Troyanos, and that’s saying quite a bit.

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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Babs’ & Ellington’s “Serenade to Sweden” Finally Available!

Serenade Reprise cover

SERENADE TO SWEDEN / ELINGTON: Serenade to Sweden.1, 3, 4 The Boy (Girl) in My Dreams.1, 3, 4 Stoona.1, 3, 4 La De Doody Doo.3, 5 Strange Visitor. Azure.1-4 Come Sunday.1, 3, 4 “C” Jam Blues.3, 5. 6 Take Love Easy.3, 5 Babsie.1, 3, 4 (I Want) Something to Live For.1, 3, 4, 7 Untitled Lullaby.1-4 ELLINGTON-B. RUSSELL: I Didn’t Know About You.3, 5 ELLINGTON-STRAYHORN-MERCER: Satin Doll.1-4 ELLINGTON-D. GEORGE-H. JAMES-HODGES: I’m Beginning to See the Light3, 5 / Alice Babs, voc; Duke Ellington, 7Billy Strayhorn, pn; 1Georges Baroteau, 23 unknowns, Fr-hn; 3Gilbert Rovere, bs; 4Christian Barros, 5Kenny Clarke, dm; 6Percy Glascoe, cl; 6Joe Hrasko, a-sax; 6Gerard Badini, t-sax / Real Gone Music, available for purchase as a physical CD HERE or for free streaming on YouTube HERE.

Here is yet more proof that if you live long enough, things you’ve been searching for may eventually show up. First, for me, it was the missing Rod Levitt Orchestra album on RCA Victor; then the Larry Elgart 10” LP Impressions of Outer Space; and now, after more than a half-century, we finally get the complete 1963 Serenade to Sweden album by Alice Babs and Duke Ellington.

The backstory to the album is this. In 1962, Ellington was touring Scandinavia when a friend suggested that he listen to the phenomenal 1959 Alice Babs album, Alice and Wonderband (which DID come out on CD in the early 2000s). Ellington was absolutely knocked out by her unusual combination of a crystal-clear voice, perfect diction, and ability to swing, scat and improvise. He had already worked with and admired Ella Fitzgerald, but Babs took it to an entirely new level. Ellington had been gaga about coloratura sopranos since the 1920s, and was forever looking for such singers to perform with him; the closest he came before Babs was soprano Kay Davis, who sang with him in 1945-48. But Davis had her limitations; a typical classical singer, she had great sight-reading ability but could neither swing nor scat. Babs, who as a girl had been deeply impressed by both the Ellington orchestra of the 1930s and the Mills Brothers’ abilities to simulate instruments with their voices, had developed an audacious singing style by age 15 that included all of this. But it wasn’t until 1954-55 that she studied voice seriously at the Stockholm Conservatory of Music, at which time she learned how to control her voice over a three-octave range. Adding this to her arsenal along with her other abilities, she was able to cross over easily into the classical repertoire—she recorded Mozart’s famous motet Exsultate, Jubilate and an album of Elizabethan art songs in the late 1960s/early ‘70s—while being able to apply these newfound powers to her jazz singing.

Ellington then got the chance to work with her, for one night, on a Stockholm TV broadcast with his big band, where she sang a stupendous vocal on his theme, Take the “A” Train. He was keen to record with her, but both of their schedules were so full that they could only get together for three dates. The first one on February 7, 1963 had his full orchestra present, at which they recorded only two titles: Take Love Easy and the instrumental Star-Crossed Lovers from Ellington’s suite Such Sweet Thunder, neither of which were released. But then he was in Paris for a few days, called her up in Stockholm and asked her to come make an album with him. Alice stocked the freezer and fridge for her family, gave them cooking instructions, and flew out to join him. On February 28 Babs and Ellington were back in the studio, but for whatever reason, financial or otherwise, the personnel included only four French horns and a rhythm section consisting of Duke on piano, Gilbert Rovere on bass and Christian Garros on drums. They recorded an amazing 29 takes of four songs, Azure, Satin Doll, Untitled Lullaby and Things Ain’t What They Used to Be, yet although they went through 16 takes of the latter, none of them were approved for release.

Then came the marathon session of March 1, which as Babs remembered went late into the night. Being a Friday, with no activity scheduled in the studio the following day, Ellington apparently booked it as an open-ended session. For all I know, they may have given him the keys to lock up after he was done. By the time the exhausted musicians were finished, turning over personnel three times, they had amassed an even more astonishing total of 40 takes of 12 songs. Somehow, miraculously, Babsie was done in one take, but despite working it over and over with slightly different personnel, the take they used of Strange Visitor was the one with just Ellington and Babs. According to the liner notes, there was an audience present of local musicians and jazz fans who stuffed themselves into the control booth and kept quiet. They were deeply moved by Babs’ voice, which most of them had never heard before. Duke turned to them after the first time she sang and said, “This voice, ladies and gentlemen, embodies all the warmth, joy of life, rhythm and tragedy that, for me, is the innermost secret of jazz.”

Then came the problem of trying to get the album released. Signed at the time to the Reprise label, basically a co-op whose principal partner was Frank Sinatra, the album was only released in Sweden on Reprise and in France on the Telstar label. Ellington was never able to persuade Sinatra and the other partners to issue it in the United States, and it was cut from the catalog a few years later. In a 1993 interview, Babs still couldn’t understand why the album was unavailable, stating that she herself had trouble getting a copy of the LP. And there it remained for more than 50 years until Real Gone Music issued it in 2016. They were able to procure the master tapes, hired a professional engineer named Aaron Kannowski to create the digital master and famed jazz scribe Scott Yanow to write the liner notes, and finally got it out on silver disc—but then did a poor job of promoting it, so poor in fact that I didn’t even know it existed until I ran across it on YouTube yesterday.

Although only a few of the songs and performances are still startling to the ear, all of them are solidly crafted and it’s interesting to hear Ellington working with a group of French horns, which he scored much like trombones. More importantly, it gave him the chance to hear what Babs could do to a wide variety of material, from the vocalize number Serenade to Sweden to a series of ballads and jazz tunes ranging from old to new. Some of the songs were obviously geared towards the pop market; Ellington was always up to trying to score a new hit record, because he knew that commerce supported art. And it’s a real shame that US Reprise took no interest in the record, because the title tune would surely have scored a big success on the Billboard Top 10 of the time.

Yet if no one else in America was interested in an Alice Babs record, Ellington was clearly interested in her. She became an integral part of his Second and Third Sacred Concerts in New York City, and worked with him in both England and Sweden during the 1970s, when he made a few further records with her (including the amazing tune Spaceman, with its rapid-fire improvised scat passages). It’s extremely telling that, despite all the great and famous musicians he worked with, Ellington’s solo request in his last will and testament was that Babs sing at his funeral. She flew all the way from Stockholm to New York to fulfill that request.

Some of the songs are a lot of fun to hear, i.e. Stoona, La De Doody Doo, “C” Jam Blues and Babsie, but the entire album is a treat for Babs fans. I’m a bit surprised that Ellington and Babs never recorded their special arrangement of his theme song, Strayhorn’s Take the “A” Train, which they performed in public on a number of occasions. The one tune that stands out from all the others is “C” Jam Blues, the only piece to use jazz soloists on it other than Duke or Billy Strayhorn. They are clarinetist Percy Glascoe, alto saxist Joe Hrascoe and tenor saxist Gerard Badini, and Duke even let bassist Gilbert Rovere play a break on this one. It’s a wonderful jazz performance, one of the best tracks on the album. One interesting aspect of Babs’ performance of I’m Beginning to See the Light is that she takes lower alternate lines rather than shooting up into the vocal stratosphere.

For fans of both Babs and Ellington, this CD is a must, but even casual jazz fans will find it extremely interesting in places. The physical CD is a steal, going for only $10.98.

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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