Friday, November 8, 2013

Lambert, Avakian and Pennebaker

A life in harmony: Singer Dave Lambert enjoys a moment in the New York sunshine, about a year after making his debut recordings with fellow vocalist Buddy Stewart and trumpeter Red Rodney. William P. Gottlieb photo, from Wikipedia

I belong to a jazz service hosted by the tireless Jim Eigo, and it supplies me with no end of interesting stuff about the music we love. Most recently, Jim sent me a link to a marvelous little film that you may already know about but was news to me. The movie is a fifteen-minute bit of cinema verite called "Audition at RCA," made by a young film maker named D.A. Pennebaker.

We Baby Boomers know Pennebaker as the guy who followed Bob Dylan around England with a Bolex in 1965 and who made the landmark documentary "Monterey Pop" in 1967, but who knew he was a jazz fan? I certainly didn't. Anyway, "Audition" is an intriguing glimpse into 1960s jazz making, with record execs, A&R guys, engineers in suits and obscure jazz musicians who punctuate their sentences with "crazy!" The performers – aside from Messrs. Lambert and Duvivier – are all largely unknown, but they acquit themselves admirably, and watching their interplay as they negotiate the complex lyrics and harmonies is fascinating. The striking Ms. Vonnie is especially charming and Dave himself comes off as a benevolent goateed elf in a stingy-brim fedora. And there's Columbia legend George Avakian, too, one of Black Rock's great champions of jazz.

The film is reposted here from a jazz blog called JazzWax, the creation of Marc Myers. He supplies this commentary on the film, explaining the action and who the players are:

Audition at RCA
By Marc Myers
Steve Sholes and George Avakian
As long-time readers of this blog know, I've been rather obsessed with D.A. Pennebaker's film "Audition at RCA" (also known as "Lambert & Co."), a 15-minute mini-documentary made in the summer of 1964 that features Dave Lambert and his new group of vocalese singers. As the film opens, they meet producer George Avakian outside of RCA's studios before going in to pitch material for an album.

To recap the names of those in the film, that's George walking up just as Lambert and his singers – David Lucas, Leslie Dorsey, Sarah Boatner and Mary Vonnie – emerge from Dave's car. In the recording studio, they were backed by Moe Wechsler on piano, George Duvivier on bass and Gary Chester on drums. 

Ernie Oelrich
The action is this: Avakian meets Dave and the group outside the RCA studios. They then go upstairs to record, where they are accompanied by the trio. Avakian, the engineer and a few A&R men chat in the control room while the session progresses. The singers do several tunes successfully – they've clearly rehearsed them before arriving at the strudio.

A few months ago, as I was writing the liner notes for "Miles Davis: The Original Mono Recordings" – a box set due on Nov. 11 – I spent time with George chatting about the Davis sessions. I also brought my computer to show him "Audition at RCA," which he hadn't seen in decades. We talked about the audition, and George gave me the names of most of the remaining people in the film:

"At the beginning, it appears as if I had asked Dave to meet me outside and that I was championing the session. In truth, I had found out about the session only an hour or so before and agreed to tag along in case I could be of help.

Sholes, Avakian and Ben Rosner
"The studio looks like RCA Studios at 155 East 24th St., between Lexington and Third. The guy in front of the dials is Ernie Oelrich, a superb engineer.

"The guy to my right is Steve Sholes, the director of RCA's pop department. The guy I'm talking to without a jacket is Ben Rosner, an RCA promotion man. He's probably the one who got Dave the audition, and Steve probably set up the session.

"The musicians were terrific. George Duvivier was an absolute rock in the studio – he knew exactly what to do the first time, perfectly. The same was true about Moe and Gary.

"I'm not sure why the audition didn't result in an album. I think the reason was that Dave didn’t have enough new original material for a full 12-inch LP. At any rate, the decision to do the album would have been Steve's. I was in charge of the overall department but Steve was in charge of pop. I wouldn't have overruled him or stood in the way of what he thought was best."

Tragically, Dave Lambert would be killed a few years after this session, in October of 1966. He had stopped late at night on the Connecticut Turnpike to help a motorist with a flat tire, and both were killed when a passing truck plowed into them. It was a fate similar to that suffered by Buddy Stewart, Dave's original vocal partner.

Since this music blog likes to post rare jazz recordings, here's something from the Gems archive that features the Dave Lambert Singers doing Jimmy Giuffre's "Four Brothers." It was recorded in New York in 1955 for the obscure Avalon label. The participants are Dave, Jon Hendricks, Butch Birdsall and Harry Clark, vocals; they're accompanied by the Teacho Wiltshire Trio. Dig the lyrics on this two-side 78 rpm performance – to quote Moe Weschler, "Crazy!"

1 comment:

  1. thanks for the 4 brothers track!! a real rare gem!

    keep boppin´