Swinging 1961 session reissued in 2017 with bonuses
From “Splish Splash” to “Mack the Knife” to “Simple Song of Freedom,” Bobby Darin showed off a restless artistic soul. In 1961 Darin teamed with songwriter (and Capitol Records co-founder) Johnny Mercer for a swinging set of Tin Pan Alley standards, arranged and executed with brassy sizzle by Billy May. The album’s joie de vivre is undeniable, sparked both by the principals’ chemistry and the band’s relentless push. Darin and Mercer seem to be unreeling these classics extemporaneously, with each inserting playful ad libs as the other sings. Imagine if Martin and Lewis, or Hope and Crosby, had both been vocalists first, rather than vocalist-comedian pairs, and you’ll get a sense of this duo’s playful power. Their 27-year age difference evaporates as they express their shared love of these songs, including a few of Mercer’s own titles.
Having established himself as one of Australia’s premier singer-songwriters, Paul Kelly’s also established himself as one of the continent’s most creative musical artists. His recent releases include an album of Shakespeare sonnets set to song, a live collaboration and album with Neil Finn, and an A-Z tour and accompanying eight-CD anthology of his entire song catalog. His latest, a collaboration with multi-instrumentalist Charlie Owen, collects songs the two musicians had been asked to perform at funerals. It’s a remarkable playlist of songs selected by the deceased and as salve for the souls of those left behind.
What’s most fascinating are the new layers of meaning these songs gain in a funereal frame, and the philosophical continuities exposed by their juxtaposition. Stephen Foster’s nineteenth century parlor song “Hard Times Come Again No More” moves from a plea to the fortunate to a consideration of everyone’s equality at life’s end, and Cole Porter’s western-themed “Don’t Fence Me In” points to freedoms that eventually accrue to all good souls. Leonard Cohen’s “Bird on a Wire” essays earthly bonds that may be released in the hereafter, and Townes Van Zandt’s soaring “To Live is to Fly” provides a hopefully ironic twist.
Doris Day’s success as an actress in the 1960s has often eclipsed her earlier renown as a vocalist, but it was with the big bands of the 1940s that she first became a star. Though her films fell out of step with the social changes of the late 60s, she found renewed success on television, and it was amid this transition that she returned to the studio to record a set of standards, newly orchestrated by Sid Feller. Having just parted ways with her longtime label, Columbia, the independently produced album was shopped around without success, and shelved until the UK Vision label dug it out of the vault in 1994. A 2006 reissued added three bonus tracks recorded in 1970 for a 1971 television special, and it’s that fourteen-track lineup that’s reproduced here.
Anne McCue is better known for standing in front of guitars and drums than clarinets and brass. Her previous albums reached back to the gutsy sound of 1970s rock vocalists, as well as contemporaries like Sam Phillips and Lucinda Williams; her latest reaches back several more decades, to the sounds of the 1930s. There’s always been a bluesy edge to her singing, and here those notes consort with the roots of swing and gypsy jazz. McCue dials down the ferocity of her vocals to an era-appropriate slyness, picks terrific figures on her guitar, and perhaps most impressively of all, writes songs that bid to fill some blank pages in the great American songbook.
Drummer Dave Raven nails the era’s blood-pumping excitement with Krupa-styled tom-toms on the opening “Dig Two Graves,” Deanie Richardson’s fiddle provides a superb foil for McCue’s six string swing, and Jim Hoke’s clarinet and horn chart fills in the period detail. The song’s bouncy tempo camouflages lyrics of noirish revenge, with San Francisco fog cloaking fatalistic fortunes. McCue turns to folk-blues with the finger-picked renewal of “Spring Cleaning in the Wintertime” and the old-timey “Cowgirl Blues.” She turns into a charming, coquettish chanteuse for “Long Tall Story,” and gets slinky, ala Peggy Lee, on the double bass and finger-snapping “Save a Life.”
The last studio recordings of a New Orleans legend
Though often cited as one of three primary New Orleans piano legends, James Booker’s popular renown never grew to the size of Professor Longhair’s or Dr. John’s. Launching his career in the mid-50s, he was sidetracked by a late-60s drug bust and continuing brushes with the law. One of those brushes, apparently, was with legal counsel Harry Connick, Sr., whose son became one of Booker’s students. The mid-70s roots revival brought renewed opportunities for Booker, particularly in Europe, and upon returning to the U.S. he took up residency at the Maple Leaf Bar. At the end of this run, in 1982, he hurriedly recorded this last studio album, and the following year succumbed to the physical and mental ravages of his drug use. Rounder’s remixed and expanded 2013 reissue adds ten bonus tracks to the original dozen, including nine previously unissued performances.
Booker is heard here playing solo as well as with a quartet of Alvin “Red” Tyler, James Singleton and Johnny Vidacovich. Playing “with” the quartet may be an overstatement, as they often seem to be chasing songs that he selected on a whim. Still, his playing and singing both show a lot of verve in each setting. The material is drawn from an incredible array of sources, including R&B (Lloyd Price’s “Lawdy Miss Clawdy,” Doc Pomus’ “Lonely Avenue,” Leiber & Stoller’s “Hound Dog” and Titus Turner’s “All Around the World”), country (Roger Miller’s “King of the Road”), classical (Richard Addinsell’s “Warsaw Concerto”), jazz (“Angel Eyes”), film (Nino Rota’s “Theme from the Godfather”) and the great American songbook (“Yes Sir, That’s My Baby” and “Baby Face”). Booker also drew from the New Orleans repertoire with Allen Toussaint’s “All These Things,” Fats Domino’s “One for the Highway” and a Professor Longhair medley; but even when he was playing outside material, the Crescent City was always in his fingers.
The fluency with which Booker plays this wide range of material is breathtaking. He’s equally adept at classical fingerings, florid jazz changes, blue R&B chords and the rolling arpeggios of New Orleans. There are many highlights among the original album tracks, including a lighthearted take on “Baby Face” that shows more finesse than Little Richard’s 1958 hit, with a vocal that maintains the spark of Al Jolson. The reading of “Yes Sir, That’s My Baby” added to this reissue is even funkier, with Booker on organ, a wicked second-line drum beat from Vidacovich and some fat sax from Tyler. There’s little hint of Eddie Cantor here (and perhaps a touch of Ricky Nelson‘s sax man), but the core emotion is swing. Booker’s classical training comes forward for dramatic readings of the Rachmaninoff inspired “Warsaw Concerto” and the title theme to the 1966 Lana Turner film Madame X. Note that “Madame X” was listed by its subtitle, “Swedish Rhapsody,” on previous reissues, but it’s the same track.
From the pop songbook, Booker tears into Leiber & Stoller’s “Hound Dog” and Roger Miller’s “King of the Road.” The former is played with great percussiveness, the latter as a haggard ballad. Booker’s singing never really matched the easiness of his piano, but it serves both of these songs well, the former coy and sassy, the latter a bit shopworn. The bonus solo take of “Lawdy Miss Clawdy” is speedier than the band version included on the original album, but each approach has its own merits. Booker’s originals include the album’s title song, the bonus track “I’m Not Sayin’,” and the original closer, “Three Keys.” The first two have edgy rhythms and unusual fingerings that bring to mind Thelonious Monk, the third weaves “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands” into a rolling New Orleans’ piano solo.
The turn of the twentieth century was a tumultuous time for the music industry. The sheet music boom of the 1890s was giving way to the sale of phonograph records, and records would in turn be challenged by radio. But through these transitions, one thing remained constant: hit songs. But hit songs were becoming increasingly transitory idols, one replacing the next in a procession of quickly forgotten multi-platinum (that is, multi-million selling) favorites. A select few managed to stick in the public’s long-term memory, but many more remained extant only in printed form, waiting to be rediscovered by musical explorers. Such explorers are producers Paul Marsteller and Gabriel Rhodes, who have reanimated nineteen turn-of-the-century songs – both familiar and obscure – with a hand-picked crew of singers and instrumentalists.
Unlike a tribute that reconsiders a songwriter, performer, label or scene, this collection aims at framing an era of music making. It’s not a slavish reproduction – the vocals occasionally shade to phrasings that didn’t exist at the time these songs were written – but by limiting themselves to instruments in use at the time, the producers have created a general impression of the times in which these songs were originally heard. And by cherry-picking their vocalists, Marsteller and Rhodes have nicely matched voices to song. Richard Thompson and Christine Collister open with one of the collection’s most easily remembered tunes, “The Band Played On.” Listeners will quickly discover that while the title line flows easily from their memories, the lyrics seem brand new to their ears. Thompson’s theatrical vocal is a perfect fit for the circus-style melody, and Garth Hudson adds terrific accordion flourishes.
Willie and Family stroll through the Great American Songbook
Willie Nelson sang from the Great American Songbook as early as 1976’s The Sound in Your Mind, and with 1978’s Stardust he demonstrated a unique affinity for pop standards. He continued to draw on this material for decades to come, including 1981’s Over the Rainbow, 1983’s Without a Song and 1988’s What a Wonderful World. His latest collection of pop and country standards is a low-key affair without backing vocals or orchestrations, leaving Nelson’s voice isolated out front of his Family band. His idiosyncratic phrasing continues to serve this type of material wonderfully, but unlike the statement of Stardust, this set is more of a Saturday night jam than a staged performance. With his sister Bobbie and longtime compadres Mickey Raphael and Paul English on board, the sessions feel as if Nelson’s calling out favorites for the group to pick up. The players slide easily into familiar songs, and though the solos can be tentative, the warmth these musicians share, Nelson’s deep feeling for the material and his inimitable singing are all worth hearing.
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