Saturday, June 19, 2010

Michael Fremer Album Review

Duke Ellington and Johnny Hodges (reissue)
Side by Side

Verve/Speakers Corner MGVS-6109 180g LP

Produced by: Norman Granz
Engineered by: N/A
Mixed by: N/A
Mastered by: maarten de Boer at UMG Berliner

Review by: Michael Fremer

These loose, swinging 50+ year old sessions recorded in the summer of 1958 and winter of 1959 and sounding incredibly life-like tonally, offer Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn on piano fronting small combos of legendary horn players, some not normally associated with Ellington, Joe Jones on drums and a few added musicians to spice up the mix.

By the end of the ‘50s big band music had pretty much had its day—at least as far as mainstream popularity went— so perhaps Ellington and producer Norman Granz figured these small combo sessions would add some modernity, though Ellington had recorded small group sessions back in the 1930s and 1940s.

Given the excitement sweeping modern jazz at the time, no matter how you arranged these predictable swing-based tunes ( predictable even then and way more so now) , there was no way to breathe new life into the proceedings. Perhaps Duke saw the handwriting on the wall, naming the set’s final tune “You Need to Rock.”

This music was starting to sound dated even in 1959. Reading Nat Hentoff’s valiant liner notes, you find one of the great annotators searching for something, anything exciting to say about these sessions (he even lets on near the end that writing notes is “…not always an unalloyed delight…”). Hentoff essentially gives up and instead goes for a useful (particularly now) play-by-play type rundown that spotlights the great musicianship and the small gestures that make this set more than worthwhile listening despite the well-worn grooves.

Hearing beyond the predictable changes and familiar riffs is essential to get to the core of what truly is worthwhile here, which is an opportunity to hear guys like Hodges, trumpeter Harry “Sweets” Edison, Ben Webster, Roy Eldridge and others, (plus of course Ellington and Billy Strayhorn) get a chance to stretch out in ways not possible in a big band context.

Though the musical set ups often bordered on trite even then, many rewarding musical moments are contained therein nonetheless. Given the players, how could it be otherwise? Just listen to the solos by Ben Webster, Roy Eldridge and Lawrence Brown (trombone) on “Let’s Fall in Love” and you’ll know that while the musical style may have been passed its prime, they players still had the goods.

Modern jazz at the time had gotten cerebral. This was about feeling good.

The early stereo recording is spatially odd, putting most of the action hard left/hard right, with just the drums for the most part stretched out in a non-box like space bathed in some reverb. So forget about seeing a realistic soundstage and concentrate on the warm, natural timbres of the instruments themselves and the musical pleasures will flow.

A comparison between this and Classic Records’ long out of print edition mastered by Bernie Grundman demonstrated that the two versions are similar but this one sounds somewhat less spacious and immediate. I’d say it was cut from a copy of the master, while Classic’s was cut from the master. No matter though, this one sounds very good and can actually be purchased.

So yes, this is music from a time long gone, but given the craziness of the world today, musically and otherwise, this offers a swinging, respite packed with great solo work from an assemblage of jazz giants. The music may not be in style today but it’s not out of style either and never will be.

Thanks to Michael over at  for the exclusive rights to reprint this material.

Copyright © 2008 & Michael Fremer - All rights reserved Reprinted by Permission

This Date In Music History - June 19


Tommy Devito - Four Seasons (1936)

Elaine McFarlane - Spanky And Our Gang (1942)

Robin Box - White Plains (1944)

Ann Wilson - Heart (1951)

Larry Dunn - Earth, Wind & Fire (1953)

Mark Debarge - Debarge (1959)

Paula Abdul (1963)

Simon Wright - AC/DC, joined in 1983. Joined Dio in 1989 (1963)

Brian Vander Ark - Verve Pipe (1964)

Brian Welch - Korn (1970)

They Are Missed:

Born on this day in 1948, Nick Drake UK singer, songwriter. Drake committed suicide on November 25th 1974 (age 26).

Bobby Helms ("My Special Angel") died of emphysema in 1997.

Original Molly Hatchet guitarist Duane Roland dies at age 53 of natural causes at his residence in St. Augustine, FLin 2006. Roland was part of the Southern-rock group's three-guitar attack from ‘76 until ‘90. "We are terribly shocked and saddened by the loss of Duane,” reads the band’s online post. "He was and always will be part of the Molly Hatchet family."

Born on this day in 1939, Al Wilson, US singer. Died on April 21, 2008.


Buddy Holly cuts his first tracks without the Crickets. 1958

Pat Boone went to #1 on the US singles chart in 1961 with the immortal crooner "Moody River."

Bobby Darin recorded "Things" and "You Must Have Been A Beautiful Baby" in 1961.

Nat "King" Cole recorded the classic cut "Ramblin' Rose" in 1962.

In 1964, touring Australia for the first and only time, The Beatles played a second night at Sydney Stadium in Sydney.

The Who, Manfred Mann, Long John Baldry, The Birds, Solomon Burke, Zoot Money and Marianne Faithfull all appeared at Uxbridge Blues Festival, England in 1965.

The Four Tops went to #1 on the US singles chart in 1965 with "I Can't Help Myself." Lead singer Levi Stubbs had not been satisfied with the recording session and was promised that he could do it again the following day, but no other session ever took place. The track that became a hit was just the second take of the song.

During an interview with Life Magazine in 1967, Paul McCartney admitted that he had taken the drug LSD. Far out man....

Carole King started a five week run at #1 on the US singles chart in 1971 with "It's Too Late / I Feel The Earth Move." Both songs were from her 'Tapestry' album.

The Jackson Five played two shows at the Apollo, Glasgow, Scotland in 1974.

Blue Oyster Cult released the album, "Agents of Fortune" in 1976. The LP contains the darkly majestic “Don’t Fear The Reaper.”

In 1977, six men wielding knives and iron bars outside Shepherd's Bush underground station beat up Paul Cook from The Sex Pistols. Cook required 15 stitches to a head wound.

In 1980, singer Donna Summer became the first act to be signed by David Geffen to his new Geffen record label.

Asia’s self-titled debut album topped the LP charts in 1982.

Guns N' Roses made their UK live debut at a sold out Marquee Club in London in 1987.

In 1988 - Over 3,000 East Germans gathered at the Berlin Wall to hear Michael Jackson. Jackson was performing a concert on the other side of the wall in West Berlin.

In 2000, Eminem was to be immortalised in animation, with a new cartoon series, which would be hosted on a new web site. 26 weekly 'webisodes' would be broadcast on the site, featuring Eminem providing all the voices.

Red Hot Chili Peppers play the first of three shows at London`s Hyde Park in 2004. The concerts earn more than $17 million with tracks recorded for the group`s first official concert album, the double-disc "Live in Hyde Park."

The White Stripes release their sixth album, "Icky Thump" in 2007. Frontman Jack White says his decision to record the album on vintage reel-to-reel equipment was a stylistic choice. "In the technological age, everyone wants to find out what the newest toy is," says White. "That attitude doesn’t really coincide with what sounds the best."

In 2007, lawyers for Britney Spears demanded a Florida radio station remove "offensive" advertisements, which featured her with a shaved head. The WFLZ billboards included the slogans "Total nut jobs", "Shock Therapy" and "Certifiable", which ran across pictures of a bald Spears. Law firm Lavely and Singer demanded the "immediate removal" of the banners in a letter to the station. Spears was photographed shaving her own head in a Californian hair salon earlier this year.

The iTunes Music Store reached 5 billion songs sold in 2008.