Will Friedwald possesses a passionate knowledge of 20th century music. He routinely spouts bits of arcane granular information about an artist, label, or recording that reveals a keen intelligence and a smart sense of wit. If he were an arborist, he could identify a particular specimen by examining its flowers and fruit, identifying the leaf shape and size, inspecting the bark, smelling its essential oils, etc., provide an identifying taxonomy and still remain in awe at the wonder of a tree. However, there’s more to a forest — not only the other fauna, but birds, coyotes, and foxes to name but a few. Friedwald puts his musical choices in context and acknowledges the impact of the Great Depression and other social and historical factors in his discussions, but the history of great albums has much more to do with what was going on at the time one was recorded and released than Friedwald allows.
Consider the title: The Great Jazz and Vocal Albums. Friedwald doesn’t offer a timeline or a definition of his topic. One might guess such a collection would address albums such as The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds, Adele’s 21 or any number of best-selling, critically acclaimed records of the past 50 years. Friedwald selects a few titles from the 21st century and several from the ’60s and ’70s, but what he considers Jazz and or Pop is far from clear.
Adding insult to injury, Friedwald divided the book into 50 chapters, each listed alphabetically by the last name of the featured musician on the album. While he threads the pieces together by connecting songwriters and instrumentalists that appear on various albums, there’s no real continuity to the book. The volume can best be read as a series of separate essays on individual albums. The irony of this is that Friedwald takes great pains in the introduction to praise the idea of a concept album — which all of his choices seem to be — that are connected by a grand notion such as when all tracks on a disc were by the same songwriter, from the source material, or constructed to convey a shared mood. The conceit of the book is that these thematically linked albums are the best ones. It’s a shame he didn’t follow the same gestalt mindset when penning this tome and writing about the individual discs.
That said, the book is highly informative and entertaining. One can critique Friedwald for his organizational skills but not his excitement and enthusiasm. One might quibble with statements such as “Yet even in an age of intangible media — of pure downloads and album-less sound files — there’s every reason to believe that the songs of (Cole) Porter and the Gershwins and their contemporaries will continue to thrive. Ha, ha, ha. Who’s got the last laugh now?” The “Ha, ha, ha” makes the Gershwin reference more delicious as Friedwald’s allusion to the classic song shows where Friedwald’s heart and soul lie.
No doubt Friedwald would define much of contemporary pop as rock pop, and his biases clearly land on the side of jazz pop. The book features three albums apiece by Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong in addition to two each by Nat King Cole, Bing Crosby, Doris Day, Peggy Lee, Jimmy Scott, Frank Sinatra, Jo Stafford, and Sarah Vaughn. While de gustibus non disputandum est, he has somewhat lousy taste. To choose only one Billie Holiday because the previous discs were mere collections of material distorts the fact that every album release by Holiday has the overpowering central theme of music in the hands of a maestro. Even when various songs are juxtaposed with each other Holiday binds them together with her masterful vocal command. One might admire Lady in Satin for its charms but her reputation is largely due to previously recorded material.
While it’s easy to criticize anyone’s personal choices, to include God Bless Tiny Tim as on par with Ray Charles’ Modern Sounds in Country and Western, Nina Simone and Piano! and Frank Sinatra’s In the Wee Small Hours simply because Tiny Tim introduced the author to music of the ’20s when the author was just a child seems dubious if not disingenuous. He selected the other albums in large part because of their adult, sophisticated mentality.
Still, the bulk of the entries included here shine with wisdom. Friedwald eloquently exposes the genius behind Armstrong’s singing voice, the emotional resonance of Peggy Lee’s vocals, and the hidden glory of Sinatra’s ability to phrase. Friedwald provides the details of a song and its performance as an instructor who has lived with the material. He writes subjectively and is not afraid to be cheeky when he thinks audiences have misunderstood an artist or a release. The results may be insular. For example, calling Jo Stafford a soul musician, even an Anglo-American brand of one, is a stretch. But making his private feelings into pronouncements gives the author the freedom to say what he thinks and feels without restriction. Or, per the Friedwald quote mentioned earlier, “Who’s got the last word now. Ha, has. Ha.”
In this case, he does. The rest of us may only read and judge the contents for ourselves.