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.
Moonlight in Vermont ***** This album was probably the high point of Johnny Smith’s career and is viewed as one of the most influential guitar classics of the period by many, including prominent guitarists such as Barney Kessel, Wes Montgomery, and Jimmy Bruno. Charlie Parker was also rumored to be a huge fan. The album is still a great disc to listen to 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 saxophone superstar Stan Getz, who is the perfect foil for Smith on this album as 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. Moonlight in Vermont includes the original composition Jaguar with Smith and Getz playing the dual lead head and middle passages at breakneck tempo. 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 and 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). 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 (tight-closed voice) playing that he pulls off with the harmonic and melodic sense of a classical/jazz pianist. 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!
Soft Guitars***1/2 The Al Caiola (w/Don Arnone) Soft Guitars disc is another lush and very swanky jazz disc, released in 1961. Both Caiola and Arnone were 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. This is very typical of the Cool Jazz/Space Age pop/Bachelor-Pad style of music of the time; lots of playful sounds, swinging guitars, bongos, vibes, bells, whistles, sound effects, and lots of album covers with hot babes. 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. 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 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.
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. They cover Stella by Starlight, 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 1961, 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. Though this isn’t the genre-defining album that Moonlight in Vermont was and is, it is still a great listening experience.
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!