I got a message this week that said, “Hey Jude, don’t make it bad, but that back-order of discs you’re expecting? Ain’t gonna happen. Remember… to order from us again…then you’ll begin to make it…better…” The discs in question were from the order that included the Howlin’ Wolf and Davey Graham CDs I’ve already reviewed…and yes being the guy I am, I did make it better, but not at the same online retailer. We haven’t finished with the replacement for the broken Wolf discs yet…so it’s best to proceed cautiously. But there was a bunch of music listening done this week so here are a few down-and-dirty reviews. I’m a bit pressed for time right now, but I’ll still knock it out of the park…you just watch!
Johnny Smith — Moonlight in Vermont
First up is this gem of a disc Ladies and Gentlemen and what a disc it is! I’m not sure why I’ve waited until now to get Johnny Smith’s Moonlight in Vermont because: 1) It’s a bona-fide classic; 2) It’s one of the most impressive guitar discs ever made, and 3) I’ve heard it before on a few occasions (my brother has had it for years). For some reason it always slipped my mind, but last weekend I purchased through iTunes and have been listening to it ever since. Constantly. If you are unfamiliar with Johnny Smith’s career and/or life, the following sites will learn you everything you need to know. Moonlight in Vermont was probably the high point of Johnny’s guitar career and jazz guitar certainly took a major leap forward once it was issued. It is still a great disc to listen to and be enthralled by because of its high level of musicality and the emotional romance that music of this period contained.
The material on the album was actually a compilation drawn from 2 10-inch discs that Johnny had recorded while at NBC during the early 1950s (It was the song, Moonlight in Vermont, not the album, that was jazz magazine’s Downbeat #2 song of the year (in 1952). The album Moonlight… was released in 1956 and Smith picked his band from a group of fellers he met while was on staff at NBC. This group included the incomparable superstar Stan Getz, who Johnny actually got on staff at NBC because Stan “wanted to get off the road”. Getz is the perfect foil for Smith on this album and the two of them drive each other to thrilling and precipitous heights on several cuts. It’s easy to imagine that in lesser hands what is attempted would fall apart spectacularly, but they both had a level of mastery that enabled them to play cleanly, clearly, and brilliantly no matter the tempo or difficulty of the musical passages; a reason many of the performances on the disc are flat-out breathtaking, even by today’s standards.
Many reviews of Moonlight in Vermont allude to Smith’s chord melody style having the quality of a piano and his single line playing recalling the great saxophone lines of someone like Lester Young, and this is true. He also had a pure, very crystalline tone delivered either on an Epiphone or Guild archtop and there is at times a very distinct Western Swing vibe and a nod or three to the great Chet Atkins. Throughout the album there is a very Lush Musicality, that is well supported by the great rhythm section and piano players that appear on the disc. With this album I think Johnny inherited the guitar maestro mantle formerly occupied by Django Reinhardt in earlier days. Django was also always not quite, and yet so much more than a “jazz guitarist” and they were contemporaries as Johnny remembers in this brief interview.
The Moonlight in Vermont disc includes the original composition Jaguar with Smith and Getz playing the dual lead head and middle passages at breakneck tempo. This song reminds me of acclaimed French jazz band les Doigts de l’Homme and I can only imagine how this flipped people who heard it in the mid-50s. Then there is the Caravan-esque Tabu with its bebop harmonies and dark guitar tone…also a dual lead by Smith and Getz. Smith’s picking is clean and forceful in a way that recalls both Reinhardt and Barney Kessel. He has said he imagined that he would have to execute lines in the same smooth fashion as a violin player (going from a bottom note all the way to the top in one crescendo movement) and the breakdown middle during the solo choruses of Tabu illustrates this very well with both players blowing out a flurry of notes. The best ballads: Tenderly, Stars Fell on Alabama, I Don’t Stand a Ghost of a Chance, and the title cut all feature Johnny’s beautiful chord melody playing that he pulls off with the harmonic and melodic sense of a classical or jazz pianist. This is the result of his fingering
closed position chords and you can view a primer on this technique here. Though not easy to grip at times, this is an oft-used guitar device to add that extra level of sophistication and romantic sassiness to chord melody/comping work. At other times, the sound of Johnny’s guitar almost approaches that of a pedal steel and that tone adds an extra level of sweetness, ambiance, and emotionalism to the tunes and juxtaposes very nicely with Getz’s very throaty, resonant sax solos. Sometimes it also sounds like Hawaiian slack key slide guitar as on the bouncy Vilia and I’ll Be Around. Then there are the tunes that are completely early 50s bop: Cherokee, Nice Work If You Can Get It, and Cavu. All in all it’s a perfectly balanced listening experience and though it serves as such, it is much more than just a very inspired guitar study. Trust me when I say that if you throw it on the next time you want to set a romantic mood, you won’t be sorry!
Al Caiola (w/Don Arnone) — Soft Guitars
My second choice that I purchased through iTunes was Al Caiola’s Soft Guitars, and it’s an interesting disc. Like Johnny Smith, Caiola and another guitarist who appears on this disc, Don Arnone, were both well-regarded studio musicians in New York in the 1950s. So obviously this is top-level, well-arranged music for the swank set of that time. I’ve written before about the Bachelor-Pad style of music found at online radio like Illinois Street Lounge; lots of playful sounds, swinging guitars, bongos, vibes, bells, whistles, sound effects, and lots of album covers with hot babes. Some of them are really hilarious. Like this one. This album was originally part of a two-LP set called Great Pickin’ and Soft Guitars and then was a 2 LP on 1 CD set and somewhere along the line the set was split. This site gives some background on Caiola and the history of this release. It is a marvelous snapshot or earshot, if you will, of a time in music that is long gone, yet recalls the exuberance, optimism, and class of the pre-rock n’ roll era. People like me, who came of age during the 60s and 70s still heard this type of music and this type of musician all of the time on television and in movies. It didn’t really go away permanently until the 80s I think.
So what about the tunes? Well, I’ll tell you. They cover Stella by Starlight (a song EVERYONE has recorded), Try a Little Tenderness, The Sound of Music and More Than You Know. Leading off the album is their take on They Can’t Take That Away From Me, a song that was later associated with jazz guitar titans Ted Greene and Martin Taylor. Since this album was recorded way back in 1061, I would say Al and Don got there first! In addition to other jumpin’, jivin’ tunes like S’ Wonderful and S’Nice they do a great take on Imagination, the old jazz warhorse I Can’t Get Started and Clair de Lune as Debussy might’ve imagined it. I wrote about Debussy and the complicated history of Clair de Lune here and was very surprised to find it on an album like this. Because both guitarists are obviously playing electric (archtop) guitars their version has a much different, trebly, ringing quality that one doesn’t hear when the piece is performed classically as it usually is. But I enjoy the very ethereal and dreamy feel that is augmented with beautiful harp accompaniment from Gloria Agostini.
There is a well-arranged duet style that permeates the record and given that both of these guys were first call session guitarists, I’m sure they came to this kind of arranging naturally. There isn’t a whole lot of wild improvisation or flashy stuff; they keep it to some great instrumental jazz/popular music of the time, played exceptionally well. I had originally ordered Caiola’s Serenade in Blue/Deep in a Dream compilation and this was the back order that is no longer available. But I’ll still be looking to pick it up somewhere because I like what I hear on this disc. Though this isn’t the genre-defining album that Moonlight in Vermont was and is, it is still a great listening experience. I think guitarists can benefit from listening to players like Al Caiola, even in this day and age, because it’s fun stuff and there isn’t a wasted or excessive note on this disc and that’s always educational.
There were two other discs that I previewed, but ultimately passed on…and they were both Django Reinhardt CDs if you can believe that! The first disc was Django and His American Friends, a 3 disc set that is mostly Django backing up the likes of early jazz superstars like Coleman Hawkins and Benny Carter as well as lesser-knowns like Rex Stewart and Dickie Wells. There are some Freddie Taylor vocal cuts (After You’ve Gone, Georgia, Ilse Muggin’) too, but they (as well as some of the Hawkins material) can be found elsewhere and I already have. While the disc gets great reviews, most of this stuff is the big-band era kind of jazz that doesn’t really feature guitars or Django. Of course he was a GREAT rhythm player and there is something to be said for the historical value, but I do have some of this stuff on other comps and truth be told, it’s not really my go-to Django stuff. I prefer him playing his compositions.
Another Django disc I previewed and passed on was Django in Brussels, which is not the same as this disc that I have and have already reviewed and is very good. Culled from 1942 sessions, this new disc (new to me not NEW) sounds like it was recorded off of someone’s copy of a scratchy record in the back of a caravan somewhere. The sessions themselves are the stuff of legend: recorded beneath Stalag 13 while Colonel Klink and the rest of the oblivious Nazis slept, Django and his band recorded a bunch of rare and unheard tunes…at least for those who are familiar with his catalog. Of course, this is the major selling point of what I found to be a ho-hum collection. Also…I can’t get past the fidelity. That’s probably all that survives of this session at this point, but I didn’t think the songs themselves were so great that I could ignore the sound quality. Others make think differently about that equation and that is the beauty of musical opinions just BEWARE! If you are thinking about buying a Django in Brussels CD and it doesn’t look like this, better preview some of the audio first is all I’m saying!