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One index to the stagnancy of American popular music is the proliferation of recorded tributes to peerless performers. Every third jazz CD release seems to be an homage to Miles, Monk, Coltrane, Evans, or some other departed giant. Alternative rock artists cue up to appear on revisionist compendiums of material associated with, among others, the Beatles, the Carpenters, Laura Nyro, and Elvis Costello. Pop/jazz vocalists are also hitching their wagons to their elders’ stars: Dee Dee Bridgewater’s, Ann Hampton Callaway’s, and Martha Lorin’s collections of songs associated with Ella Fitzgerald; Diana Krall’s, John Pizzarelli’s, and Natalie Cole’s remakes of Natalie’s father’s hits; and Tony Bennett’s award-winning Fred Astaire, Frank Sinatra, and Billie Holiday salutes.
My idea of celebrating artists’ achievements is what Mosaic Records has been doing since 1983. The Connecticut mail-order company produces handsome, exhaustively researched limited-edition box sets documenting fertile periods in musicians’ careers. Some examples: an 18-CD set of Nat Cole’s trio sessions for Capitol; multi-volume collections devoted to Count Basie’s live and studio performances for Roulette; a four-disc anthology of recordings by the brilliant, undervalued baritone saxist Serge Chaloff.
Mosaic’s latest release, The Complete Peggy Lee & June Christy Capitol Transcription Sessions, makes available obscure early material by these jazz-oriented songbirds. Transcriptions were 16-inch disks containing about a dozen songs specifically recorded for radio broadcast and not sold in music stores. Their contents tended to be more informal and less airplay- and jukebox-driven than commercial singles. As Lee recently observed, “We made these transcriptions for radio play only, and I have been hesitant to have them released. They were recorded very quickly, and if we were making a record album we would have done things quite differently. However, if you listen with this in mind, I think you will enjoy what we were doing.”
June Christy had just turned 20 in December 1945 when she cut the first 15 tracks in this retrospective. Nine months earlier, she had replaced Anita O’Day as vocalist with Stan Kenton’s orchestra, and she had sung on only three Kenton recordings before making her initial transcriptions. These sides, credited to “June Christy and the Kentones,” feature the singer with a septet combining Kenton sidemen (saxophonist Henry “Boots” Mussulli, trombonist Gene Roland) with several ringers, notably guitarist Dave Barbour, who at the time was married to Peggy Lee and who appears on all 99 tracks of this five-CD set.
Christy’s greenness is unmistakable on these early solo efforts. Her singing is marked by deadpan delivery of lyrics, weird elocution (peculiar vowel sounds that almost suggest she learned the songs phonetically), pitch problems, and a plodding tendency to phrase dead on the beat. One senses only a few faint glimmers of her artistic potential. The musical value on these tracks comes from the instrumentalist’s efforts, notably Barbour’s and bassist Eddie Safranski’s.
But Christy was a quick study. When she returned the following July to record a dozen more transcriptions with another Kenton-derived ensemble, including her soon-to-be-husband, saxophonist Bob Cooper, her singing had noticeably improved. She’d begun investing some thought and feeling in her lyric presentations (even a slightly Billie Holiday moan in “Lover Man”), and had worked on her diction, intonation, and rhythmic problems. On the effervescent “Get Happy,” the obscure Vernon Duke ballad “This Is Romance,” and the bluesy “Supper Time,” one can hear emerging the distinctive, fondly remembered vocalist whose adventurous ’50s album collaborations with arranger Pete RugoloSomething Cool, The Misty Miss Christy, Gone for the Dayhave been successfully reissued on CD and continue to inspire novice jazz singers.
Peggy Lee, five years Christy’s senior, had toured and recorded with Benny Goodman’s band, retired from performing to raise a daughter, and then changed her mind and resumed her career by the time she cut her first Capitol transcriptions. Of the 72 tracks in the Mosaic set recorded between 1946 and 1949, Barbour’s guitar-keyboards-bass-drums combo backs all but nine. (On the final 1949 sessions, master guitarist George Van Eps expanded this quartet to a quintet. The remaining nine tunes feature a studio strings-and-brass orchestra playing deft Frank DeVol arrangements.) The preponderance of percussion-based, small-group settings leads to a sonic sameness offset by Barbour’s inventive solos and responsiveness to his wife’s musical and expressive needs.
These unearthed transcriptions prove eye-openers, even for listeners who share my belief that Lee is one of the premier musical talents of our fading century. Her singing combines all of the qualities one finds separately in other vocalists: a strikingly individual sound, polished musicianship, rhythmic assurance, versatility, intelligence, sensitivity, wit. By the time most of us knew her work, she had become “Miss” Peggy Lee, a glamorous, somewhat distant celebrity whose heartfelt singing was counterbalanced by a rather aloof, perfectionist stage presence. But the Lee of the Capitol transcriptions had yet to become an icon. Having just liberated herself from housework, she was informal, playful, sometimes even kittenish, more “Peggy” than the imposing, slightly intimidating “Miss Lee” of her heyday.
Of the orchestral tracks, I am especially taken by a vivacious version of the Goodman-associated “All the Cats Join In,” the atmospheric torch song “A Nightingale Can Sing the Blues” and the cheeky “My Sugar Is So Refined.” The small-group sessions interweave delicately wrought interpretations of familiar songs a shimmering ” I Only Have Eyes for You,” the pensive “Lonesome Road,” a time-stands-still reading of “The Way You Look Tonight” with some forgotten gems long overdue for revival: Benny Carter’s brooding “Melancholy Lullaby,” Walter Donaldson and Gus Kahn’s reflective ballad “I’ve Had My Moments,” and Jimmy Van Heusen and Johnny Burke’s wistful “As Long as I’m Dreaming.”
With a heavy heart, I turn to the monograph that accompanies the Mosaic box. I have taken its author, Will Friedwald, to task so often in print that I vowed to spare him this time around. I tried hard (I honestly did!) to overlook the redundancies (we’re informed that Christy’s given name was Shirley Luster in two consecutive paragraphs); the buildup of arcane and irrelevant factoids; the childish puns, inane jokes and Borscht Belt yiddishisms; and other aspects of Friedwald’s style that I find off-putting.
Then I stumbled upon this blooper: In discussing Lee’s recording of “I Can’t Believe That You’re in Love With Me,” he writes, “Lee sings with such clarity that it amplifies the oddness of the opening lines, ‘Your eyes are blue/Your kiss is too.’ (What does that mean? What is a blue kiss? Punk lipstick?)”
Lee indeed sings with such clarity that anyone but the hearing-impaired will register that she correctly conveys the Jimmy McHugh-Clarence Gaskill standard’s familiar opening lines “Your eyes of blue/Your kisses too/I never knew/What they could do.” Dummkopf blunders like this I will refrain from pointing out lesser infelicitiesstain the otherwise meticulously produced and packaged Mosaic set. If record companies insist on hiring Friedwald as annotator, the least they can do is engage an editor to tidy up after him.
Although I’d hardly recommend The Complete Peggy Lee & June Christy Capitol Transcription Sessions as an introduction to the work of these two songstresses, their fans will find it an irresistible indulgence. Mosaic’s edition is limited to 7,500 copies and, like the company’s other projects, will not be reissued after the first pressing runs out. You might also want to consider purchasing my Christmas gift to myself: The Complete Capitol Fifties Jack Teagarden Sessions. On this four-disc set, the incomparable trombonist-singer performs in a variety of musical settings small ensembles co-led by trumpeter Bobby Hackett, big bands, and string orchestras. My copy is No. 3,118 of 5,000 which means you’d better move fast if you hope to obtain this treasure.
Another new release, in varying degrees, demonstrates how not to pay homage to a classic vocalist. Its title alone indicates that there’s something amiss about Jack Jones Paints a Tribute to Tony Bennett. Although Bennett enjoys a successful second career as a painter, Jones restricts his homage to singing.
Jones was the last great white balladeer of the Frank Sinatra-Dick Haymes-Vic Damone school, emerging just as rock ‘n’ roll was killing off that tradition. His ’60s Kapp albums recently resurrected in England as twofer CDs impressed even Sinatra, and his 1971 RCA collaboration with Michel Legrand (available as a Laserlight cheapo CD) remains a vocal classic. But Jones followed the money trail and, over the past two decades, has become a Vegas-y, blue-haired lounge lizard crooning “The Love Boat Theme” to similarly azure-tressed auditors.
Had a bit more imagination gone into his Bennett tribute, Jones’ new CD could be considered something of a return to form. But the repertoire contains predictable choices all of the over-roasted Bennett chestnuts from “Rags to Riches” and “Because of You” to “The Shadow of Your Smile,” and, inevitably, “I Left My Heart in San Francisco.” All but one of the 14 songs are ballads, which, combined with the minimalist jazz-piano-trio backing, make for monotonous listening. Jones’ sotto voce delivery indicates that his chops are still strong, and pianist Mike Renzi’s unconventional chords provide harmonic interest. But, ultimately, this tribute fails to cast new light on material that Bennett interprets more affectingly, and does little to jump-start Jones’ stalled career.CP
To order Mosaic releases, call (203) 327-7111 or visit www.mosaicrecords.com.