Thursday, September 9, 2021

Woodwinds: Sing, Sing, Sing

Benny Goodman: Sing, Sing, Sing

My last couple of postings haven’t been all that popular with the readership. I’m not sure why an instrumental cello cover of a King Crimson song, or a difficult Velvet Underground song featuring a droning viola might not be all that attractive…..So to try to pander to the readers and rack up views, I’m going to write about a 12 minute jazz song that was performed in 1938. I suspect that it will blow up the Internet! 

When the great clarinetist and bandleader Benny Goodman considered playing a concert at New York’s Carnegie Hall in the late 1930s, jazz had never been performed there. Initially concerned that jazz would not go over well at the bastion of classical music propriety, it was only after his movie, Hollywood Hotel, was a hit, that Goodman decided to go for it, and canceled recording dates to rehearse inside the venerable venue. Goodman’s initial concerns about financial success proved unfounded, when the 2760 seats sold out weeks in advance—the best seats cost $2.75, but third balcony and standing room seats cost 85 cents (depending on the website, $2.75 then is worth somewhere between $30 and $55 today, which is not bad, considering that if you wanted to go to Carnegie Hall next February to see Jon Batiste, the tickets range from $46-$65—but if you wanted to see Michael Feinstein, it would set you back between $83-$100). 

Goodman’s orchestra was racially mixed, which was also groundbreaking for its time, and many writers have remarked that this concert was the point at which jazz became respectable (although some might consider that a bad thing, I guess). 

In addition to performances by Goodman’s small groups and big band, there was a jam session that included members of the Count Basie and Duke Ellington orchestras. But the finale was what Goodman considered a “killer-diller” designed to get the patrons up and dancing—the Louis Prima penned “Sing, Sing, Sing.” As a brief aside, my introduction to this great song was when my high school band director, Mr. Sitts, had us play a marching band arrangement of the song at halftime of a football game. What I most remember about that was that I was playing bass drum, and had to keep a steady beat with one hand, while playing another rhythm with my other hand, which to this day, I remember being difficult. But Clarkstown North had a pretty strong marching band back in those days, so we did what we had to do. 

The song begins with drumming from the great Gene Krupa, who had zero problems playing independent rhythms with both hands and feet, and eventually, pretty much everyone gets a solo, with Goodman’s appearing to ascend above the clarinet’s range. The song brought the audience to its feet, with some dancing in the aisles, not something that happened during the classical performances at Carnegie Hall. 

The concert was recorded onto acetates as well as on aluminum transcription discs, but were not released contemporaneously because Goodman was distracted by other projects, and because of the use of musicians from various bands, there were difficult contractual issues to resolve. The aluminum discs, which were of higher quality, were filed away by CBS and forgotten. In 1950, Goodman’s niece, who had taken over his apartment, found the degraded acetate, and through difficult work, much of it was restored, and similarly difficult legal work cleared the music for release in 1950, becoming one of the first 33 1/3 records to sell over a million copies. Phil Schaap, who passed away on Tuesday, found a second set of acetates and worked to improve the quality, and the album was re-released in 1985. In 1998, a CD version was released based on the aluminum masters, improving the sound quality again, and there have been various CD releases and remasters since.

Tuesday, September 7, 2021


Woodwinds seem often made of brass, which is confusing, but don't include horns, except the english horn, which seems to be a form of clarinet. And, even more extraordinarily, that includes bagpipes and accordions, but don't panic, I'm not going there, at least not this week. So, choices, choices and I think I'm going for oboe, as it looks so darn difficult, like trying to blow a hard-boiled egg down a curtain rod. And because the list of greatest oboe player in rock is a short and exclusive list. To be fair most people falter after Andy Mackay

I'd like to show you and explain how Kate St. John has a better claim to that title. And, as I write this down, I find myself suddenly panicking, realising she is probably playing cor anglais, or some such, in the songs I use to apply my thesis. Luckily, hardly any reader will be capable of telling the difference; it seems it is all to do with available pitch, the cor anglais (or english horn, see above, who knew) having access to the lower notes.

So, that exquisite sound on Julian Cope's 'World Shut Your Mouth' album is oboe/cor anglais and is played by Kate St John. Originally classically trained, well, you'd have to be, she will be familiar to older readers as being a core member of those fey purveyors of winsome pop, The Dream Academy, who, for some strange reason I confuse with the nothing like them at all Dream Syndicate, who never knowingly branded woodwinds at all, in love or warfare. (OK, I lied.....). I like the video below as it actually shows off Ms St. John on active service, the Smith's cover version being the one from the film, 'Ferris Bueller's Day Off'.

At this time she was married to Sid Griffin, the all americana leader of the Long Ryders, who actually were label mates of Dream Syndicate, adding to the confusion. The oboe never comes to mind often in country tinged music, but, hey, she gets there, not until his next band, the Coal Porters. (And it is cor anglais here, nitpickers!!) A Gram Parsons song, too, no less.

Later, in the 1990s, she worked with a lot withVan Morrison, often on saxophone but still managing to to get her chosen out for when Van needed to go his most transcendental. A lovely, evocative sound, it also transfers well into new age music. In the short lived band Channel Light Vessel, she hooked up with Roger, brother of Brian, Eno, Bill Nelson and Laraaji. I suspect I was one of the few who bought anything by them, with it being, it's true, seldom the record I need to hear too much of, but it has its moments.


Other contributions have included playing with the Waterboys on their 2011 'Appointment With Mr Yeats'; if she could do Donne with Van, she could certainly do Yeats with Scott!! Whether it all works is arguably up for grabs, but it has the song below is worth it for the burst of play that comes after Scott's doleful sing song recital.

In more art imitating life, she got also to tour with Morrissey, perhaps getting to play her oboe part for 'Please, Please Let Me Get What I Want' with one of the songwriters. Other folk who paid up for her live contributions have included Marianne Faithfull and Damon Albarn. And she has been credited to discs for those as varied as the Pet Shop Boys, XTC and Boyzone. However, by now married to Neil MacColl, son of Ewan and half-brother of Kirsty, she has found a niche as the musical director for a number of big production shows and projects. These have included Joe Boyd's Nick Drake tributes, some of the late Hal Willner works, like his Rogues Gallery Sea Chanteys project, and various collective performances of the Richard Thompson and extended family performances. Husband and wife have also worked together on a number of film and TV scores. Whilst this means she is now more often arranging and on keyboards, like the song below, it is too good not to include, her link with MacColl drawing her into folk networks and the songs of her late father-in-law, had he ever been alive to meet her.

Busy, busy woman, and, now you know, I dare say there is way more of her you have heard than earlier you ever knew. 

Take a chance?

Sunday, September 5, 2021

Bigger Strings: Jack Bruce


purchase [Wheels of Fire]

I confess that I have never given much attention to the bass player. Yeah, I know that the bass and drums are critical to the ryhthm, but the paucity of notes that the bass plays belies the importance of a song's underlying structure. 

A Quora post I read recently asked "why can't you ever hear the bass?" While the question strikes me as a bit "out of it", I fear that there is some truth to the question: the bass (player) rarely gets the spotlight. And I confess it wasn't until I started digging this week, that I paid much attention to Jack Bruce. 

Musically trained as a cello player and then moving to the standing bass, Bruce moved through various groups, including time with John McLaughlin and Ginger Baker in the Graham Bond Quartet, and with John Mayall and the Bluesbreakers with Eric Clapton.

Although I owned a copy of Cream's double album Wheels of Fire as well as one of Fresh Cream, neither, particularly in comparison with Disraeli Gears did much for me. Although we generally think of Cream as a trio (Clapton, Bruce, Baker), a majority of Wheels of Fire is a quartet, with Felix Pappalardi as the fourth member (later to head off and help found Mountain with Leslie West - with whom Bruce later founded West, Bruce & Laing)

Jack Bruce, of course, is the bass player of the original trio, but he also did a lot of the lead vocals as well as writing  quite a few of the songs. He was a multi-intrumentalist and you can find videos of him playing the piano and more. On Wheels of Fire, we get Bruce and Pappalardi playing cellos, violas, bass ... but I bet you wouldn't know it unless you read the credits/liner notes. Pappalardi is playing the viola in "White Room" up top. Here, in "Passing the Time", Bruce is credited with playing the viola.

At one point in his early career, we find him playing with Charlie Watts, among others at the London Blues and Barrelhouse Club.