Fetishizing the LP

Verve Miniaturizes 20 Old Albums

Old recording artifacts die hard, their value increasing in ratio to the ethereality of their replacements. Last year boxes of Billie Holiday and Charley Patton mimicked 78 rpm albums. Many CDs replicate original LPs, in cardboard or paper-modified jewel boxes—among them series from Savoy, Sony, Impulse, and Verve. If memory serves, Verve was the first to offer miniaturization: The Complete Ella Fitzgerald Songbooksremains one of the most delectable of reissues, a shrunken version of the original albums that seemed terribly witty in 1993. Since then Verve has offered amended versions of LPs in Master Edition and By Request lines—cardboard gatefolds with breakable plastic disc-holders and rejected takes. Now the label, which, thanks to recent mergers, owns Impulse, Decca, Mercury, A&M, Horizon, and other catalogs, returns to the Fitzgerald template for its LP Reproduction series. Unlike the Savoy editions, which included inserts with basic recording info, Verve offers inserted blowups of the original liners when they are deemed too small to read.

This reflects laziness, cheapness, or a zealousness worthy of counterfeiters, but not of typical jazz lovers, who like to know the identity of the musicians, composers, and arrangers; the years when the tracks were cut; and the order in which they are presented—information that '50s producers, particularly Norman Granz, often failed to supply. Duplication does not extend to the disc itself, which reproduces the logo, though this would have been a handy place to include a track list with composer credits. Still, petite replicas offer a certain frisson to those who like inner and outer sleeves, cheesy graphics, an average playing time of 35 minutes, and a reprieve from repeated takes. Moreover, it gets neglected product back in catalog. Jazz discs must be moving so briskly that the industry can hardly keep up with the demand—hence an initial release of 20 LPs, with another 10 scheduled for August. The choices are trèsstrange, reflecting neither consistent excellence nor commercial success, and running the gamut from Margaret Whiting to Alice Coltrane. A few groupings suggest themselves. Half are vocal or part-vocal.

Carmen McRae's 1958 Birds of a Feather is a find: her last album for Decca, representing a transition from the sweet naïf to the edgy sophisticate she would become. It offers one of Decca's howl-inducing covers—two bluebirds examining her décolletage—and a saturated sound mix that sends McRae even more over the top than she was inclined to go. A few tracks ("The Eagle and Me," "Baltimore Oriole") are distorted by echo chamber; here is an instance where remastering might have undone the damage, but at the cost of fidelity to 1958. For the same reason, there is no identification of "a tenorman," though Ben Webster's sound is an unmistakable calling card, and his participation amounts to a full-scale collaboration. (Al Cohn also appears, but as a section man.) Ralph Burns's efficient charts employ four French horns on a few tracks, but generally leave McRae and Webster unfettered. She is radiant: her left-field entrance on "Skylark," loose aggression on "Bob White," brief scat on "Bye Bye Blackbird." A choir and country-gospel chart by producer Milt Gabler on "His Eye Is on the Sparrow" suggests unfulfilled plans for a single.

Rosemary Clooney's Swing Around Rosie pretends to be a Coral recording (subsidiary of Decca), but actually consists of a dozen transcriptions from her radio show, backed by Buddy Cole's organ quartet. Again, the audio was maxed to fire the old hi-fi. Though Clooney's in hearty voice, Cole's buoyantly cute, often corny charts don't give her much room to maneuver. Her musicianship allows no intrusions on "Do Nothing Till You Hear From Me" and "This Can't Be Love," but her finest work of the period was on RCA. Anita O'Day's 1960 Incomparable!, however, isher finest, or some of it, parsed in tight Bill Holman arrangements. She reveals an unusual glimmer of Billie Holiday's influence on "It Could Happen to You," and an appealingly raw edge to her top notes on a romping "Indian Summer." But she is always her own sexy, risk-taking self—note the canny embellishments on "Old Devil Moon," "Why Shouldn't I," and "Easy Living." Her wordless "Slaughter on 10th Avenue" breaks the three-minute mold and shows her accurate pitch, but all those doo-doo-doos recall Clem Kadiddlehopper. The several uncredited soloists include Bill Perkins, Conte Candoli, Frank Rosolino, and Lou Levy, with Mel Lewis keeping time.

Margaret Whiting is by no definition a jazz singer, but like most good pop singers of her day, she had good time as well as a lovely vocal mask and exemplary intonation. Her Jerome Kern Song Bookincludes the verses and sustains an understated pulse. Only "D'Ye Love Me" is substandard Kern, and, among Russell Garcia's arrangements, only "I'm Old Fashioned" sinks to novelty level, though Whiting ignores its faux baroque and works with the rhythm section. Her vibratoless whole notes are engaging on "Look for the Silver Lining," and she confidently canters through "Dearly Beloved" and the more improbable "You Couldn't Be Cuter." Ella Fitzgerald's Whisper Not(1966, her last Verve album) and Sarah Vaughan's It's a Man's World(1967, her last Mercury) are often overlooked. The former has inventive golden-voiced ballads, notably "Thanks for the Memory," "Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most," and "Time After Time," and the latter, despite oppressive strings, has many exceptional moments and one full-blooded masterpiece, "My Man," in which every syllable is discretely inflected. Mel Torme's Olé Tormé!, arranged by Billy May, shows Mel in toreador rig—it was that or a fruit-salad hat. The rock 'n' roll intro to "Malagueña" screams 1958, though most of the tunes are well chosen, and Torme is in prime voice—"Baia" especially—if you like his prime voice. For some reason, the selections are heard in different order than listed on the jacket.

The Torme leads to a second division: three albums recorded in the '60s, part of Verve's good-neighbor policy. Astrud Gilberto's The Shadow of Your Smileis whispery mood music, heavily arranged to exploit her "yearning innocence"—25 minutes' worth. She is best with just guitar on a pleasing "Manha de Carnaval." According to the The New Grove Dictionary of Jazz, she has "an economy of melodic line and a steady momentum akin to that of Basie, but its rhythmic drive is often devoid of contours." Got that? The title of Willie Bobo's A New Dimensionrefers to his singing, which is nondescript, but his fixed dance rhythms pack a punch (Freddie Waits on traps), and so do his soloists. Sergio Mendes & Brasil '66's Equinoxis beyond the concerns, ken, and pale of this page.

As a bridge from bossa to boss instrumentals, Oscar Peterson's Soul Español, a 1966 Limelight, is overly familiar but effective. Adding three percussionists to his trio (Sam Jones, Louis Hayes), he spins each piece with rolling, hustling minor thirds and tremolos, mining romance from "How Insensitive" and "Meditation," and gusto from "Carioca" and "Mas Que Nada," which swing too hard to resist. Stan Getz and the Cool Soundsimplies that he's playing with one of those '50s lounge trios, but no, the title is generic, and so he balladeers with great rhythm sections (Lou Levy, Jimmy Rowles, Max Roach, a spot of Tony Fruscella's trumpet) in peak form. Paul Desmond does his hat trick, entering with peculiar notes on "These Foolish Things" and "Star Dust," on 1975: The Duets, but Dave Brubeck plods (he's stronger without Desmond, on "Summer Song"), and the absence of a rhythm section is no help. Willow Weep for Me, the posthumous Wes Montgomery album for which Claus Ogerman overdubbed orchestrations, should never have seen the light of day. This reissue is mind-boggling, especially since the type is so small that unsuspecting consumers are likely only to note the quartet. Montgomery's brilliant performances can be heard as intended, when he and Wynton Kelly recorded them live at the Half Note, on Impressions: The Verve Jazz Sides. If you see Willow Weep for Mein a store, it is perfectly legal to stomp on it or set it afire.

I have little space for the two remaining categories: big band classics and kitsch. Don't miss Woody Herman 1963, one of his all-time great ones, arranged almost entirely by members of the band, which helps explain the very cool choice of material—pieces by Horace Parlan, Horace Silver, Joe Newman, and Duke Ellington. The concerto for tenor saxophonist Sal Nistico, "Sister Sadie," is a high, but there are no lows—Jake Hanna's drumming is almost unbelievably on point throughout, and dig Woody's klezmer sound on "It's a Lonesome Old Town." The hot spots on Gerry Mulligan's Concert Jazz Band at the Village Vanguardare the Al Cohn charts on "Blueport" and "Lady Chatterly's Mother," and I hope this reissue won't hinder Verve's long-promised complete Concert Jazz Band. Count Basie's King of Swing, from 1953 to '54, is motored by drummer Gus Johnson, and features the leanest riffing machine in jazz, with rocking blues arrangements and superb solos; Frank Wess kills on Freddie Greene's "Right On," and goes toe-to-toe with Frank Foster on Neal Hefti's "Two for the Blues." Dizzy Gillespie's Afro, from 1954, restores a major achievement that led to the rebirth of his orchestra. Chico O'Farrill's title suite is a deconstruction of "Manteca"—first the piece itself, then elaborations on the bridge ("Contraste"), the key rhythmic figure ("Jungla"), and the vamps ("Rhumba-Finale"). Dizzy's playing is blindingly radiant.

Kitsch: Stan Kenton, The Formative Years, which includes "Concerto for Doghouse" with vocal by Howard Rumsey, sounding disconcertingly like Tex Avery's Droopy; and Alice Coltrane, Universal Consciousness, which isn't as bad as it sounds if you've achieved nirvana or a reasonable state of inebriation.

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