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Les Paul Leaves Us

This is a post that I hate to have to write. Les Paul, musician, inventor, industry-changer and all -around great guy passed away today in White Plains, NY. Les was 94. Up until just a couple of months ago, he was still playing his guitar, live, every Monday night at the Iridium Jazz Club, in New York City.

Although he always considered himself a Jazz guitarist and never put out a Rock record, Les was, literally, one of the founders of Rock ‘n Roll. The inventor of the solid-body electric guitar; the creator of over-dubbing and multi-track mixing, Les Paul is at the heart of the modern recording industry. An inveterate tinkerer, he built his own equipment and then taught the mainstream manufacturers, like Gibson Guitar Corporation how to duplicate it.

I became a fan when I was just a kid, watching the Les Paul & Mary Ford Show on TV. It was purportedly filmed at their house (Les & Mary were married for fifteen years) and the performance of a couple of songs would be woven into some small episode of daily life like Mary planting new flowers. I remember one show where Les explained some of his unique recording techniques and the home-made equipment behind it.

In the late 1930s Les formed The Les Paul Trio with bassist-percussionist Ernie Newton and Jim Atkiins (Chet Atkins‘ half-brother). The trio played on Bing Crosby‘s radio show and Les backed Bing on several recordings. When Crosby made an investment in Ampex Corporation, he secured for Les one of the first commercially produced reel-to-reel tape recorders, the Ampex Model 200. Les immediately began to tinker and he added a second playback head, mounted in front of the standard record/erase/playback. This allowed him to record a live track on top of an existing recording, the first instance of “overdubbing.”

Here is a link to an archive of several of The Les Paul Show which ran on NBC:

http://www.archive.org/details/TheLesPaulShow

In 1980 a documentary of Les’ life and career was released called The Wizard of Wakeshau. Just a couple of years ago, PBS produced an updated version featuring current interviews with Les and some of his appearances at the Iridium Jazz Club. Keep your eye out over the next few days for your local PBS station or other cable channel to be running one of these shows. It is time well spent learning about one of the giants of the music business and one of the nicest guys ever.

Vaya con Dios, Les!

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Disk 2 of my Jazz & Swing Collection

Cover of "Quiet Nights"
Cover of Quiet Nights

Following up on last week’s post of Disk 1, here is the playlist from the 2-CD mix I compiled for some family members and friends. My intent was to provide a sampler of some newer performers mixed in with classic recordings by some of the greats of Jazz and the Big Band era. The liner notes encompass a little bit of background information and some of my personal thoughts on the songs, lyrics, composers and performers presented. My thinking was that the oldsters (all my brothers are even older than me) likely would not know the new people, like Gota. And the young folks might not be too familiar with Hoagy Carmichael and Artie Shaw. Here are the notes for Disk 2:

thejazzmonger’s Jazz & Big Band Mix 3

Disk 2

1. Corcovado – Antonio Carlos Jobim – Antonio Carlos Jobim –  Bossa Nova

The lovely Astrud Gilberto on vocals. Jobim is rightfully recognized as a composer, songwriter, lyricist, arranger, singer, guitarist and pianist. Small wonder he is a favorite of mine considering the Latin rhythms and his citing Maurice Ravel (one of my all-time favorites) as a major influence. He is credited as major founder of the bossa nova sound and was first widely recognized as the composer of Desafinado.  Jobim collaborated with many major musical stars such as Joao Gilberto, Stan Getz, Sergio Mendes and Eumir Deodato. He composed many of Getz’s major hits and made Astrud Gilberto a top recording star in American music with the hits Girl From Ipanema and Corcovado, offered here.

2. Deep Purple – Artie Shaw  – Mitchell Parish; Peter de Rose – Big Band

The incomparable band leader Artie Shaw again and he is not too bad a clarinetist, I might add. This version features Helen Forrest on vocals. She had a strong career logging time with several of the top Big Bands. Deep Purple is another of my all-time favorite songs. With its intricate, syncopated melody and catchy lyrics, it is almost like a Hoagy Carmichael song written by someone else. You will notice that Mitchell Parish, the lyricist on Carmichael’s Stardust is also credited here. He is, one would infer, responsible for the similarity. Those of MY era may remember the Rock ‘n Roll version done by Nino Tempo and April Stevens, where April spoke part of the lyrics in an incredibly sexy voice. Nice!

3. All Would Envy – Chris Botti – Sting – New

Yeah, Sting. How about that? Here is the very talented Chris Botti again. It is not surprising to find him collaborating with the aging rocker, as he is good friend of Sting (and Mrs. Sting). Botti’s early career was given a big boost by the Stinger. The vocals are courtesy of young talent Shawn Colvin who does a great job .

4. Cruisin’ Your Way –  Gota –  Gota Yashiki; J. Templeman; James Wiltshire – New

Gota Yashiki is an incredible young talent from Japan. He composes almost all the tunes on his albums, sometimes with collaboration, as is the case here. He also usually plays multiple instruments on each recording. Production values are always the highest and you will be amply rewarded when you play his CDs on high-end audio equipment. The better the equipment, especially speakers, the more you will hear. Gota’s tunes are usually upbeat in tempo, with complex rhythms and overlaid tracks. He creates some of the very best of new wave, orchestral jazz.

5. Peel Me a Grape –  Diana Krall – Dave Frishberg – New

Diana Krall, again, doing one of her characteristically top-notch “lounge-singer” performances of an old tune. This song has been fairly widely recorded by female singers and is all about clever lyrics. Let yourself listen to this one two or three times in a row to get how cleverly the poetry works within the theme. Nice songwriting.

6. Medley: Moonglow/Picnic – Chet Atkins & Les Paul – Hudson-DeLange-Mills; Geo. W. Duning – Big Band

This is one of my favorite tracks, from one of my favorite CDs. This is a recording of a studio session that is the only time that the two greatest guitarists in the history of guitars, Les Paul & Chet Atkins, played together. I had never heard of this recording but saw it mentioned in a bio piece that PBS did on Chet Atkins (watch it if you ever get a chance). Not only do you have incredible music here but the CD includes some of the hilarious by-play between these two great musicians. You get to hear a little bit of how a song gets worked out and “laid down” on tape. Listen to the production values. Get this onto a really good setup and listen. Trust me, folks, this CD is worth the price of having original source material.

7. Someone to Watch Over Me –  Keely Smith – George Gershwin; Ira Gershwin –  Big Band

I talked about the song at some length with the Ronstadt version on Disk 1. This is Keely Smith’s version and it is one of my favorites. Her strong, deeper tones seem to work well. Dorothy Jacqueline Keely was born in Norfolk, VA. Her part-Irish, part-Cherokee Indian descent gave her dark eyes and stunning good looks. At 14 she was singing with a band at the local navy base. At 15 she had a paying job with a local orchestra, and at 16 she became the full-time singer with the nationally popular Louie Prima orchestra. Listen closely to the lyrics and you will hear Keely’s distinct southern accent.

8. Venus of the Sea – Keiko Matsui – Keiko  Matsui –  New

Keiko again, with one of her more upbeat compositions. I really like this lady’s music. You can listen straight through a whole CD of hers without growing tired of the sound. Great music to cook to, or clean, or read, or….

9. Take Five – Dave Brubeck – Paul Desmond – Jazz

Talk about a jazz classic! How many movies has this tune been used in? One of the more recent uses was in the movie Pleasantville. This is a cute flick, with some points to make about nostalgia, prejudice the importance of individuality. After the whole movie having been dominated by the really old stuff, Take Five plays on the morning after “the fire” as Bud heads into the diner. It accompanies the scene where the other kids ask about, “What’s outside of Pleasantville?” What a perfect metaphor this free-form jazz is for the slow unraveling of the limitations of the past.

10. Over the Rainbow – Jane Monheit – E. Y. “Yip” Harburg; Harold Arlen – Big Band

I alluded to Jane’s version of Over the Rainbow in the notes on Disk 1. Well, here it is. Judge for yourself. You should hear her do this live.

11. How Long Has This Been Goin’ On – Rosemary Clooney – George & Ira Gershwin –  Big Band

This is a hilarious song that always makes me think of the scene in Thelma & Louise where Thelma shows up in the diner after her night with the drifter (a very young Brad Pitt). She points to a big hickey on her neck and the two ladies have a little cackle about how great her night was. Perhaps the funniest line in the whole movie is when Thelma says, in reference to her life with her dud husband, “I finally understand what all the fuss is about.”

12. They Can’t Take That Away From MeStacey Kent – George & Ira Gershwin –  Big Band

Broke my little rule again about stacking vocals on top of one another and THEN put two Gershwin tunes back-to-back. So shoot me! This is good stuff. Stacey Kent is a Canadian artist whose style and voice I really like. The production values are always top-drawer on her CDs and I love to play them, any time, anywhere, under any circumstances. I have a couple of hers and there is really not a bad track in the bunch. You need to be buying her music.

13. Mountain Dance –  Dave Grusin – Dave Grusin – NEW

Dave Grusin is a HUGE talent, and this is my favorite of all his work. Give this tune your complete attention and let him take you on a really fun ride. It builds and builds, kind of like Ravel’s Bolero (another of my real favorites). Grusin has composed music for hundreds of movies but what you will know best of all is the Theme from St. Elsewhere. If you saw The Fabulous Baker Boys, he did all the piano work in that film. If you haven’t seen this movie, get it, especially you guys. Michelle Pfeiffer plays the girl singer they add to their lounge act. Michelle sings all her own stuff and she is GOOD! Fellas, you need to see (not just hear) her rendition of Makin’ Whoopee. I have three Grusin CDs. I love them all. You can’t go wrong with this guy. Check out his personal website: http://www.grusin.net/

14. Unforgettable – Nat King Cole & Natalie Cole – Irving Gordon –  Big Band

I simply love this song. Great tune, great lyrics. It is one that really says something. Why did I go with the Nat & Natalie duet, instead of Nat’s well-known solo track, you might ask? Well, as great as his solo is, I really like what she adds to this, and the production values on his re-mastered tracks are much better than any solo version I have. Plus, what a sweet dad & daughter moment and, having two wonderful daughters myself, that is something I appreciate. I think this is good music-making.

15. I Wanna Be Loved – Peggy Lee – Billy Rose; Edward Heyman; Johnny Green –  Big Band

Miss Peggy Lee, as they always used to introduce her. This was recorded later in her career, after she had really settled into her own personal style and was such a star that nobody in the music business was going to tell her how to work. Given the  “hard knocks”  early life and some of the rest of Peggy’s history,  it is a wonder that this song is not one of her many personal compositions.

16. It Had To Be You –  Chet Atkins & Les Paul – Gus Kahn; Isham Jones  –  Big Band

This is an oldie originally performed in the 1920s. You may remember it being performed by Dooley Wilson, playing Sam (just Sam, no last name), in Casablanca. It was also a factor in the more recent movie A League of Their Own as the ugly wallflower Marla blossoms during the girls’ night out at the Suds Bucket and, more than slightly drunk, sings this from the stage to her newfound beau. I really, really love what these two great musicians have done with this excellent tune.

17. What’ll I do – Linda Ronstadt – Irving Berlin  –  Broadway

What a combination! Irving Berlin’s music and lyrics, Nelson Riddle’s orchestra and arrangement and Linda Ronstadt’s vocals. We can’t miss with ingredients like that. Irving Berlin was one of less than a handful from the days of the Tin Pan Alley composers who wrote his own lyrics. It is, in fact, hard decide if he was a composer who wrote lyrics too, OR a lyricist who put his words to music. I like this as an evocative sign off for Disk 2.

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