Friday, December 10, 2010
Consider this a sidebar to my previous posts on Bill Perkins and Richie Kamuca, with Part 3 still in the works...
Lately I've been reading two newish Jazz books, and I recommend both--Stan Kenton: This Is an Orchestra! (University of North Texas Press) by British Kenton specialist Michael Sparke, and the massive tome titled A Biographical Guide to the Great Jazz and Pop Singers (Pantheon) by canny and witty collector-critic Will Friedwald. Sparke plays it straight, telling the long and convoluted Kenton story through dozens of interviews with band members and others, while Friedwald's two hundred essays are opinionated, rich with anecdotes and the occasional pun, and usually offer complete career overviews as well as detailed analysis of individual discs (whether 78s, 45s, LPs, or CDs). Both works are excellent, invigorating reads, and that's true whether you dip in or plow straight through, though Friedwald's 800 pages might take a while!
Anyway, I mention them together thanks to the small overlap of the Kenton organization's famed threesome of female vocalists--Anita O'Day, June Christy, and Chris Connor, the great "band thrushes," as Friedwald calls them in retro slang--each of whom gets her due in both books. And here's the fun coincidence, one of those serendipitous events you just have to embrace. The other day, idly thinking about Jazz vocals, having read Will's first 25 pieces which included both Christy and Connor, I wandered into a local used CD store and found that some fan had just unloaded a slew of female vocal albums, and sure enough there were several fine Jazz items I didn't already have, by the Kenton three plus Blossom Dearie, Ella and Billie live at Newport, and more. When I read in the booklet notes that O'Day's 1959 Sings the Winners had Kamuca and Perkins side by side on tenor, well, it seemed like some cosmic alignment.
(But I soon noticed major discographical confusion. The reissue CD from 1990 says the 12 original tracks feature a Russ Garcia Orchestra, arrangements by Russ and Marty Paich, Perk and Richie present... but the comprehensive O'Day Mosaic set book from 1999 lists a whole different cast for The Winners sessions, and the mistaken personnel instead correct for 1960 sessions led by Bill Holman. There are other discrepancies too--for example, Barney Kessel is credited as "coordinator" for the Garcia orchestra, but his name does not appear in either list of personnel playing; and the facts of some other session dates are also in dispute. Assuming the 1960 date correct means that Perkins and Kamuca aren't here after all.)
Before discussing any one album, let's deal with the silly matter of, as some Kenton dissenters are wont to say, "they all sound/sing alike"--a canard as baseless (and bassless) as the belief that Kenton's recordings "never swung." Just as the latter statement is demonstrably false, with his mid-Fifties ensembles and some later groups too all working the brilliant charts by Bill Holman, Gerry Mulligan, and others, and swinging their collective assets quite convincingly, so too are the women distinct and distinctive. That's not to deny their similarities, but to give each her particular due.
Anita O'Day was reputed to be mentally tough, aggressively independent, a risktaker (drugs and all); and that's how she sounds: like a real character, and with acquired extra character in her voice, ranging higher than the other two (though I'd guess them all to be approximately altos). Here was a white chick able to sing a ballad with a Holiday lilt and whine (gorgeous takes on "Whisper Not" and "Early Autumn"), scat nearly as freely as Ella ("Sing, Sing, Sing"), and show as much sass as Sarah ("What's Your Story, Morning Glory"; would you please "Peel Me a Grape"?). Anita could speed the beat or shift across it at will, take almost any lyric and play with it--or even play it straight, her pipes another instrument in the arrangement, trading fours with the other horns; check her great version of "Four Brothers" for one example among many.
So Anita shone most brightly when her interest and playfulness were engaged (caught in the light O'Day, so to speak); but with an indifferent lyric or a tame tune ("Ivy," anyone?), she might just sound bored ("The Rock and Roll Waltz," perhaps?), a thoroughbred irritably going through her paces. From The Winners it's the difference between her fumbling of "Frenesi" and her cheeky mastery of "The Peanut Vendor," which you might expect her to sneer at instead. And on her Pick Yourself Up album the listener goes straight from an awkward and mannered "Sweet Georgia Brown" to the smile-on-her-face total fun of "I Won't Dance," the very next track.
By my lame and limping analogy, June Christy in contrast--though a well-groomed filly indeed--was more workhorse than racehorse, laboring in the Kenton stable for six or seven years, from Tampico all the way across the alley to the Alamo. June sang more gently, maybe lazily, always a bit back of the beat, and often sounding as though she might happily settle for slightly flat (I'm attempting accurate description here, not negative criticism), all of this stuff comprising her own inherent style, vulnerable but knowing too. Just as June seemed shy and introverted, more stay-at-home than party girl, so too her voice seemed softer and sweeter, as befitting the best-looking bird on this particular branch, less sophisticated and more domesticated. She wasn't just Gone for the Day (one album's title), she seemed halfway out the door always, ready to retire from performing yet reluctantly pressing on.
That June's first album, Something Cool, was also her best just exacerbated the problem. Her regular arranger/producer Pete Rugolo tried everything he could dream up, but the results were always hit or Misty Miss Christy (the second LP), where she was infectiously happy for "Sing Something Simple," then simply flat for "This Year's Kisses"; pitching perfectly with "I Didn't Know About You" and, of all things, "'Round Midnight," then done in by Rugolo's melodramatic, weird-instruments derangement of "The Wind." More typical for this and her other albums were "There's No You " and "That's All," mid-tempo songs adrift in the cool studio air. Musicians approved her, but she didn't want the pressure; you could say this frail Shirley added Luster to every album she cut, from June to Christmas and beyond, but a solo career lasting just a decade-and-some was enough.
Chris Connor kept at it, whispering a Broadway lullaby to some Ronnie or other and resisting the lush life, until her voice was permanently stilled in 2009. That works out to well over 60 years of cheerful chirping ("Little Jazzbird" was one of her favorite Gershwin discoveries)--but, really, one could argue that only her albums for Bethlehem and then Atlantic, 15 or so recorded approximately 1953-62, belong in the Hall of Dames (to coin a Friedwaldism). If the cats and kiddies thought Tough Auntie-Mama Anita too hot and scattered, and Tender Mama June too cool and depressured, then Chris the Goldenlocks somehow managed to keep the pot at a just-right low-boil. She admired Sinatra's ability to tell a story as he sang, so she followed suit. Anita was a Jazz musician, an improvisor determined to mess with the tune; June listened to the lyrics and let the melody go; Chris's craft was to stay alert to both, altering as needed and at will--or, maybe, as Will would approve. (Connor and Friedwald were friends from the Eighties on, and he helped her choose 40 songs for the Atlantic-albums anthology, rightly named Warm Cool.)
So where Anita romps and wallops, and June simmers and soothes, Chris learned to drift and haunt, yet swing and sizzle too--the premiere voice among the three, even if O'Day worked harder to achieve more acclaim (while Christy just went quiet). And what a throatsome pleasure, slightly husky (like a young Bacall before her voice changed), able to half-talk the lyrics or stay with her warm vibrato, then easily drop into mellow blue notes, her tenor-saxy lower register only as flattened as she allowed (until her later years, anyway). During the Atlantic sojourn Chris cut several signature performances, little-known tunes usually: "When the Wind Was Green," "I Wonder What Became of Me," "Lilac Wine," "High on a Windy Hill," "Oh, You Crazy Moon," and umpteen others. (Go with the Warm Cool set for a splendid intro.)
But to wrap up this survey I thought it might be instructive to pit the thrushes against one another with songs sung in common. Anita and Chris both do upbeat versions of "I Get a Kick Out of You," Anita adding the uncommon opening verse, then prancing with a smile but no sweat through Cole Porter's lyrics, even on a second run-through, letting Billy May's orchestra do most of the work... so not one of her cardinal, adventurous efforts. Chris on the other hand has the benefit of John Lewis, Oscar Pettiford, and Connie Kay all running through the tune (running, not walking) while her vocal slipstreams along above them; a strikingly different if not perfect performance, the chanteuse herself not yet in total control.
For a more modern take, compare the same two on Horace Silver's "Senor Blues": both arrangements follow the circling Latin beat, but Connor's sways rather than dances, moving at half-speed, while Ms. O'Day (backed by Gary McFarland's band) brazenly power-shouts right along with the Gil Evans-styled rising and repeating brass, but her reading of the words suffers accordingly. And even if a bit less exciting, Chris's voice sounds just so luscious and lovely... who'd really want to resist?
June gets her say on the Gershwins' "They Can't Take That Away from Me," singing in a higher key or register than the arrangements usually force her into; I say that knowing well that Rugolo would be setting her at the sexy contralto level that made her famous. But up here, in husband Bob Cooper's arrangement (backed by ace West Coast players), June can still employ her full voice, and with no chance of going flat; even the downward lines are sung as rising. So: a beautiful example of Christy at her best. Connor's playful version from her Gershwin Almanac set rides lower, at a less wide-open emotional level, but none the worse for it. And since hers was recorded some years before June's, it could well be that Christy and Cooper had Connor in their hind sights.
I'd opine that the three band thrushes all chirp most excellently depending on the song and the circumstance. Though I favor Chris finally, I can still appreciate the joyous vocalizing of her friendly rivals. If Stan Kenton had done nothing else, the Jazz world would still owe him for showcasing and so helping to launch the remarkable careers of warm cool Connor, something cool Christy, and too cool O'Day.