Various Artists

Harold Arlen Centennial Celebration

by Robert R. Calder

13 April 2005


Among other things there’s more than a peek at outstanding items in Concord’s own catalogue in this proper tribute to Harold Arlen’s outstanding accomplishment as a song composer. Nothing is stinted in this compilation of recordings from several high-class companies, including Verve, Prestige, Riverside; even items from still young and healthy Concord are up with the best here and elsewhere.

They do have the advantage of Arlen’s music. His given name was Hyman Arluck, he was the son of a synagogue cantor, and there’s probably no livelier example of the fertilising effect of ethnic rhythms and harmonies on a composer working within the ostensibly western idiom of the Great American Songbook. I once had an instructive demonstration of the musical relationships involved from the great drummer Jake Hanna, who sang themes with a slightly different pitching to demonstrate how Jewish, probably Russian-Jewish, some tunes are (the composer of the best tunes was actually, he thought, Jerome Kern, whose own ban on jazz treatments of his music had thankfully no force).

cover art

Various Artists

Harold Arlen Centennial Celebration

US: 8 Feb 2005
UK: 18 Apr 2005

Where Kern wanted to work in a sort of extension of western European art-song, Arlen found himself in demand as a composer for African-American bands, with a job at the Cotton Club (he had previously been pianist in some white dance bands). It’s generally conceded that the Jewish input needed not only the inventive tune-writer but also the harmonic understanding of the great pianists out of the Harlem school—especially Art Tatum, represented here by “I’ve Got the World on a String” from the massive body of solo piano performances recorded for Verve some fifty years ago, not long after Tatum died of kidney failure aged only 46. Arlen’s music was not conceived in a vacuum.

The set comprises one CD of vocal, and another CD of instrumental, performances, the vocals pretty well all with jazz accompaniment and usually with decent instrumental contributions including solos.

Monty Alexander and Ray Brown are with Ernestine Anderson, Sarah Vaughan descends into the baritone register in a contralto performance with a version of the Basie Band without the leader but co-starring Booty Wood’s trombone. The ensemble playing is very remarkable.

Carole Sloane on “That Old Black Magic” opens singing the theme in pretty well unaccompanied style across Bill Charlap’s oblique impressionistic piano: two current top-line performers. Rosemary Clooney is blessed with Ed Bickert’s guitar in support and the superlative Warren Vaché, in a line of lyrical cornetists (with the late Bobby Hackett and Ruby Braff, and happily still Bob Barnard) who produce, insufficiently widely acknowledged, some of the greatest beauty in all jazz. Keeping things brief, Jimmy Witherspoon’s “Blues in the Night” is a marvellous rendition of what’s always struck me as an awkward song. The notes err in thinking the song has any kinship with Muddy Waters, but with Roger Kellaway’s piano and Pepper Adams on baritone sax, Blues for Easy Livers now on OJC, seems a Witherspoon album worth seeking. The group’s comparable with the Sonny Rollins/Wynton Kelly support which Abbey Lincoln has. Diane Schuur has a happily noisy Maynard Ferguson small big band demonstrating the range of potential of Arlen tunes. Mel Torme has just George Shearing. Susannah McCorkle, recently painfully tragically deceased, has notably Randy Sandke’s trumpet, and Jack Sheldon solos on his own as well as singing.. Pause for a moment, and toast also the memory of Arlen’s splendid lyricist Ted Kohler.

On the instrumental CD Rollins is back on a Miles Davis “Paper Moon” which follows outings from Kenny Burrell/Tommy Flanagan (“Out of This World” is not so famous a tune), Then there’s the current mainstream tenor master Scott Hamilton (Bill Berry very good on trumpet on this Concord date with Nat Pierce, Monty Budwig, and Jake Hanna) and the classic Bill Evans trio with Scott LaFaro and Grandpappy Motian in his first flush of youth. Another veteran master, Curtis Fuller on a “Stormy Weather” from long ago justifies the sleevenote reference to him as a “ballad and be-bop trombonist’s stunning performance on a date where the late Red Garland shared the billing and solo distinction. Fuller’s terrific.

Tatum’s genius needs little comment, and provides extensive commentary on the harmonies, and possibilities of phrasing as well as swing. Art Pepper’s alto is heard here from his late and very great period, his passion along with Stanley Cowell’s incisive piano and Carl Burnett’s cymbal work contributing astringency to the only performance on this set with strings (Nate Rubin’s arrangement is properly taut, and “When the Sun Comes Out” is quite a tune; John Bunch these days does dancingly lyrical wonders with “A Sleeping Bee” but a few years back his friend the late Jimmy Rowles performed with a harder keyboard attack in very dynamic duo with Ray Brown on that tune). Hank Jones. Wes Montgomery, Ron Carter and Lex Humphries could bring a beautiful reminiscence of Nat Cole into a performance still all their own and exquisite.

Late in Roy Eldridge’s career he repeated for Pablo an earlier encounter with Oscar Peterson on organ. In a style formed by Fats Waller and Count Basie, Peterson really wails in solo following the contained heat of Eldridge’s muted trumpet, then maintains a Ray Brown walking bass as deep blue sea to Eldridge’s devilish second solo on climactic open horn. Arlen could be stomped. On “For Every Man There’s a Woman” George Shearing was in stunning unbuttoned form on a live date, and (with a nod to Debussy) brought out the drama of which Arlen was also capable.

“Get Happy”, perhaps Arlen’s first tune, includes in its discography an early Art Tatum performance commonly accorded the epithet “flying orchestra.” From the Pablo catalogue Monty Alexander, Ray Brown and Jimmie Smith provide solid rhythm for a live jam with solos from Jon Faddis on trumpet, Milt Jackson on vibes, and after some storming two-handed Alexander a heated Dizzy Gillespie bop solo with clear indication nonetheless of his debts to Eldridge. The soloists, in going into a final section of trading phrases, demonstrate the capacity of Arlen’s tunes to generate riffs.

Arlen in Heaven can fairly be expected to grant that with Ted Koehler he has been well celebrated, not merely incidentally to celebration of some splendid recording dates, not least on Concord. Gratitude is in order all around.

Harold Arlen Centennial Celebration


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