Tuesday, April 30, 2013

The Maestro's Masterpiece

Edward Kennedy in Europe with a few of his fans not long after the conclusion of World War II, and a few years after his first groundbreaking Carnegie Hall concert in 1943. Photo from the Illustrated Encyclopedia of Jazz

Here's a belated birthday tribute to the immortal Duke Ellington (his 114th was April 29th). It's an interesting artifact from the Duke's first great Carnegie Hall concert from January 23, 1943. It took almost a year to get Ellington and the band into the studio to record selections from the concert's major work, "Black, Brown and Beige," and when RCA finally issued them they did so using their 12-inch format – a size usually reserved for classical music. The album, appropriately entitled "Black, Brown and Beige," was first released with the conventional "photo album" packaging – hard-board covers, cloth spine, multiple pockets inside. But then, for some reason, RCA put out a second version with the records contained in a simple folding paper sleeve. The new format anticipated the jacket designs for double LPs by twenty-five years, and must have been a hopeful, cost-saving experiment. Unlike vinyl LPs, though, 78-rpm discs are brittle and subject to breakage, and I can only assume that many of the Ellington records shipped out in these avant garde covers must have come back broken. The jacket offers scant protection for the shellac platters.

That said, I was lucky enough to come across an unbroken edition of "Black, Brown and Beige" in the paper sleeve a few years ago. It's been carefully kept on the shelf ever since, and with the arrival of the Duke's natal day I thought I'd get it out and share it with Gems' visitors. I doubt these records have been played in nearly 70 years, so it's definitely time.

This music you've heard many times, I'm sure, and it's readily available in numerous formats, so there's nothing really rare in this offering. Except the packaging. As you can see, there are some great liner notes and photos, and RCA sweetened the deal by including a program from the original concert. I've scanned them all and have included them here. The music itself is extraordinary, mostly through-composed with only a few solos, and should rank right up there in the popular consciousness with Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue." Maybe someday, but until then, enjoy this masterwork in celebration of EKE's birthday.

These are the original 78s, so there's surface noise and the accompanying pops and clicks. But this is how fans heard music back in 1944, and we strive for authenticity here at Gems.

Black, Brown and Beige
Duke Ellington Orchestra
Duke Ellington, p; Rex Stewart, cnt; Shorty Baker, Wallace Jones, tp; Ray Nance, tp, vln; Lawrence Brown, Joe Nanton, tbn; Juan Tizol, vtbn; Otto Hardwick, as, cl; Johnny Hodges, as; Chauncy Haughton, cl, ts; Ben Webster, ts; Harry Carney, bar, cl, as; Fred Guy, g; Junior Raglin, b; Sonny Greer, d; Joya Sherill, v.
December 11, 12, 1944; New York, NY; RCA 

1. Work Song
2. Come Sunday
3. The Blues
4. Three Dances

Find it here: http://www.mediafire.com/download/ir18v442rx1ly68/Black_Brown_Beige.rar

Friday, April 26, 2013

The Lady Carmen

Few fans today know that Carmen McRae was a gifted pianist as well as singer. Here she
emotes from the keyboard during a late '50s gig. Photo from the NEA

I never liked Carmen McRae. Her hoarse, whisky-soaked voice never struck me as much more than one-dimensional. She seemed to sprechstimme her way through many of the tunes she performed. I much preferred Sarah Vaughan or Betty Carter. I only collected McRae records when they came my way gratis. Needless to say, my selection of Carmen material was pretty slim.

But then, my point of reference had always been the Atlantic sides that Carmen did in the '60s and '70s and the several she did for Mainstream afterward. They indeed showcased the later, roughened sound of McRae's voice and were an acquired taste in the way Etta Jones' in-tune/out-of-tune vocalizing is something one has to learn to hear. I never really learned to hear Carmen.

But then I found this record last week at a church thrift store in a town a few miles from where I live in the Catskills. I'm a changed man! This is Carmen McRae from 1959, and she is extraordinary. None of the coarse quality of her later recordings, no spoken lyrics. Carmen's voice here is fluid and lovely, filled with startling embellishments and superbly stated melodies.

Dave Kapp ran his
record label from
1954 to 1967.
She recorded several LPs in the late '50s for Kapp, a label that was started by Dave Kapp, brother of Decca founder Jack Kapp. Kapp lacked the financial depth that Decca had, so its productions tended to have a skimpy, cheap look. But much of the music on the label (jazz-wise) is excellent, and this recording by Carmen McRae is proof. Though Kapp burdens her with conventional string arrangements, she gets sympathetic support from a trio on some of the selections (probably Don Abney on piano) and she navigates the charts with real aplomb. You can clearly hear what a great jazz soloist she was. Check out "I Only Have Eyes for You," one of the trio sides on the album. Carmen demonstrates what a supple and inventive jazz improviser she was.

As always, these tunes were ripped from the original vinyl with only a slight cleaning of the sound. Be forewarned here that there is occasional slight crackle on some of the selections.

When You're Away
Carmen McRae
McRae, v; Luther Henderson Jr. Orchestra; *Frank Hunter Orchestra probably with Don Abney, p; Joe Benjamin, b; Charles Smith, d.
New York, NY; 1959; Kapp KL1135

1. When You're Away
2. The More I See You
3. I Only Have Eyes for You*
4. Willingly*
5. If I Could Be with You*
6. I'll Be Seeing You
7. I Concentrate on You
8. Ain't Misbehavin'*
9. Every Time We Say Goodbye
10. When Your Lover Has Gone
11. I'm Glad There Is You*
12. Two Faces in the Dark*

Find it here: https://www.mediafire.com/?gn2faqy2x7n2y8d

Saturday, April 13, 2013

FM Farewell

Multi-reedist Herb Steward blowing tenor for a studio shot probably taken in the mid-'40s, around the time he was playing for Artie Shaw. His big break came in 1947 with Woody Herman. Photo from "Black Beauty, White Heat"

Never let it be said that we here at Gems are not an eclectic bunch. Everything from the AACM to ... well, to this offering, can be found here. And since I'm in a sentimental mood and thinking about jazz radio, I thought I'd post this LP of "beautiful music" by Herb Steward.

Platter mavens searching the boxes at one of WJFF's
music sales. At 50 cents apiece, a collector could buy a
cartonful and still have enough left to buy donuts and
coffee at the snack table. WJFF photo
Why the mood? Well, I've just ended my 23-year stint as a jazz radio host at WJFF 90.5 FM in upstate New York's Catskills. The reasons aren't really important, but it's been a wonderful run and an experience that has allowed me to meet many great musicians and hundreds of jazz enthusiasts over the years. 

So, I thought I'd pay tribute to my former radio station by offering a rare item purchased at one of WJFF's legendary music sales. It's music that was meant to be pretty, just as the album's title proclaims, and while it was probably heard in some of the better highrise elevators and dentist offices of the 1960s, it mirrors my sentiments about my departure. Bittersweet, in a word.

A few of the sides picked up by Gems at the
most most recent WJFF music sale. Someone
dumped a lot of vintage Kenton ...
So here's Herbie Steward, one of the original "four brothers," the sax quartet that recorded a number of lush hits with Woody Herman in the mid-'40s, including the Jimmy Guiffre tune from whence comes their name. Along with Steward in the original section were Stan Getz, Zoot Sims and Serge Chaloff. Those gents went on to have distinguished jazz careers. But Herb eventually fell out of sight, getting lost in the LA studios. He seems not to have appreciated developments in the music much beyond the innovations of Lester Young, and eventually lost interest in the form. While Pres ain't a bad place to stop, it's unfortunate that Steward didn't keep at it back in the day. He had a great tone and, as is evident here, was also a master of the clarinet and baritone. Not unlike his Herd-mate Guiffre.

Herb Steward recorded a number of nice singles on his own for Roost in the 78 era. Some of those are available on various tenor sax compendiums, but this recording is his sole LP effort in the modern era. It's pretty tepid stuff jazz-wise, but the arrangements (by one Dick Hazard and a mysterious string section with rhythm) are competent and pleasant enough, and you can hum along with the melodies. And, if you're in a reflective mood, it's ... so pretty.

This gem required only a minor cleaning up of the sound. The file comes, as always, from the original vinyl. Thanks, WJFF!



So Pretty
Herb Steward
Herb Steward, ts, cl, bar; unknown string orchestra and rhythm section; Dick Hazard, arr.
Los Angeles, CA; March, June 5, 1962
Ava/Choreo Records A-9

1. Indian Summer
2. Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans?
3. Remember
4. With All My Love
5. Memphis in June
6. I'm Coming Virginia
7. When Day Is Done
8. Lovely Melody
9. Among My Sounvenirs
10. So Pretty (Hazard)

Find it here: https://www.mediafire.com/?6cirjunk9gcm204

Yours truly at the mic in WJFF's
Master Control a few years back,
producing my long-running jazz
program, "Crosscurrents."

Photo by Myra Winner