Recorded and produced by Johnny Mercer, Never Before… Never Again captures a spontaneous 1954 Hollywood studio date between legendary jazz violinist Joe Venuti and journeyman guitarist Tony Romano. Venuti made his name playing with guitar innovator Eddie Lang from the 1920s until the latter’s untimely 1933 death. Mercer introduced Venuti and Romano in 1937. They hit it off immediately, and the duet played together regularly until Venuti died in 1978. The guitar heard on this recording, a booming Gibson L-5 prototype designed by Eddie Lang, was given by Lang’s wife to Venuti, with instructions to pass it on to Romano, in whose playing she heard echoes of her deceased husband’s signature style. (Romano readily admits to having worn out many Lang platters attempting to master the innovator’s guitar approach.)
Venuti’s own playing is inventively sublime throughout, and Romano creates an understated but engaging rhythm guitar underpinning, vamping and unleashing a series of lightly-fingered arpeggios on a selection of seven jazz standards and a waltz. “Almost Like Being in Love” begins in unhurried, reflective fashion, but launches into a loping swing. Venuti gives “Summertime” a surprising Hungarian gypsy lilt, as he does “Autumn Leaves”, which rendition ranks among the tune’s most idiosyncratic on record, accented by Romano’s plaintive, wordless vocal interlude. Venuti’s unnamed optometrist steps in nimbly on mandolin on a swinging “I Want to Be Happy”, and an unapologetically schmaltzy “Angelina”, the pizza-pie-in-your-eye waltz whose lead vocals Romano sings in Italian. While certainly a period production, the eight Venuti-Romano tracks show remarkable staying power when taken on their own terms, and the sound quality (with remastering by Romano’s son, Richard Niles Romano) is remarkable.
Apart from a feisty, informative 10-minute interview recorded with Romano in July 2000, the release could have dispensed with the competent but regrettably sans-Venuti “bonus tracks” (recorded in 1953 by Mercer), on which Romano sings and plays guitar, backed by trombone, piano, bass and drum on two additional tracks.