Thursday, October 27, 2016

New Releases: Arthur Gunter's Excello Singles, 1954-61

Very few people remember bluesman Arthur Gunter today, and chances are that those who have heard of him have gotten to know his name via Elvis Presley. Indeed, Gunter wrote "Baby Let's Play House," which became one of Presley's earliest hits, but before Elvis got around to recording it, the song had already charted for its composer, who cut it for the Nashville-based Excello label in 1954. Besides the fact that it's an exciting, powerful title,  the song became a national hit partly because it was picked up and distributed by Chess Records, making it more widely available. Gunter spent the next several years attempting to recapture the excitement created by this song, but even though he made fine recordings such as "She's Mine All Mine" or "Honey Babe," none of his subsequent discs made the same impact. In fact, if Gunter is so obscure today, it's to a certain extent because his music hasn't been readily available on CD. A 1995 compilation of his Excello cuts has been out of print for a long time, but fortunately, the British label Jasmine Records has just issued Baby Let's Play House: The Complete Excello Singles, which gathers both sides of the 12 singles that Gunter made for the Nashville-based imprint between 1954 and 1961. These 24 tracks constitute the bulk of his recorded legacy, and often show the influence of great blues artists such as Big Bill Broonzy, Blind Boy Fuller, Slim Harpo, and another of Elvis's favorites, Arthur "Big Boy" Crudup.

Born in 1926 precisely in Nashville, TN, Gunter began his career singing gospel in a family group, along with his brother Al Gunter, who would play guitar on many of Arthur's recordings for Excello. By 1954, when he signed his first record contract, Gunter was well known in the vibrant African-American music scene that, though sometimes neglected by critics, has always existed in the Music City, a location primarily associated with country music. On his first session for Excello (a label owned by the legendary impresario Ernie Young) Gunter cut his classic "Baby Let's Play House," which rose to number 12 on the R&B charts. The track epitomizes the Gunter sound, with its raw guitar and exciting vocals, and like many of the songs recorded by Gunter, was his own composition. Several more sessions followed in the next few years, without a great deal of success, although Gunter remained popular on the jukeboxes throughout the south. In 1958, his brother Al died tragically in the course of a barroom brawl, and it took Gunter two years to enter a recording studio again. By the time he resumed his career, in 1960, he was trying to cut slightly more commercial sides, including ballads like "Who Will Ever Move Me from You," and attempting to cash in on the new vogue for rock'n'roll that he'd helped usher in with "Baby Let's Play House." This never worked out, however, so Excello ended up dropping him in 1961, and five years later Gunter moved to Pontiac, MI, performing only occasionally. Gunter always regretted never having had the chance to shake Elvis's hand, but Presley's recording of "Baby Let's Play House" did provide the bluesman with some healthy royalty checks. By the time of his death, following a bout of pneumonia in 1976, when he was barely 49, Gunter was living comfortably in Michigan and had won $50,000 on the Michigan Lottery three years before. A unique bluesman, hopefully Arthur Gunter will finally come out of his current obscurity with the help of this very welcome Jasmine Records release.

Friday, October 21, 2016

New Reissues: Jan Lundgren Trio Plays the Music of Victor Young

Last month, the newly formed Fog Arts label began what is an ongoing series of digital reissues of Jan Lundgren albums that have been long out of print due to the demise of the record label for which they were originally cut. The first two are songbook packages that concentrate on the work of Victor Young and Jule Styne, two great composers who aren't usually the subject of such full-length projects by jazz musicians. A third album of Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn tunes is slated for release next month, and it's our intention to devote one Jazz Flash to each of these and other forthcoming Lundgren reissues, beginning with The Jan Lundgren Trio Plays the Music of Victor Young. By the time the Lundgren-led trio (with Mattias Svensson on bass and Rasmus Kihlberg on drums) entered the studio in Copenhagen in 2000 and 2001 to record this tribute to Young, one of the most celebrated film composers of all time, the Swedish pianist was well established, with a series of fine albums (Swedish Standards, Cooking! At the Jazz Bakery, Something to Live For) and collaborations with legendary jazzmen such as Herb Geller, Bill Perkins, Conte Candoli, and Arne Domnérus, to cite just a few. Lundgren had traveled to the U.S. to perform and had recorded twice in NYC. After cutting a whole CD of Ellington originals for the now-defunct Sittel label, he began to concentrate on the work of Great American Songbook songwriters who don't usually receive as much attention as the Gershwins, Porters, Mercers, etc., and thus this album was born. The idea was, it seems, to focus on both Young's well-known songs and some more obscure items from his prolific output. As it happened, it didn't prove to be an easy task, as Lundgren himself has noted: "I couldn't unearth any modern sheet music songbooks for either composer [he refers to Styne as well], and Young was particularly neglected. I found that curious—and a little bit shocking . . . Yet I also found it appealing, because I wanted to play songs by writers who hadn't been done to death by everyone else."

Swedish pianist Jan Lundgren
Lundgren was fortunate to be able to enlist the help of three excellent American artists—singers Stacey Kent and Deborah Brown, who handle the vocals on several of the tracks, and, particularly, the outstanding tenor saxophonist Johnny Griffin. They were all apparently touring European cities at the time and joined Lundgren's trio in Denmark on some of these sessions, to which they contributed in a major way. New Jersey-born Kent bookends the album with pensive readings of the classic ballads "Ghost of a Chance" and "My Foolish Heart," and she's also featured on a bouncy "Street of Dreams." Brown, who's from Kansas City, approaches the beautiful "A Hundred Years from Today" in a delicate manner, very much in tune with Lundgren's piano on that track, and then hastens the tempo on "Beautiful Love" and a scat-filled "Stella by Starlight." Griffin, one of the greatest tenorists in jazz history, shows off his mastery on two very different selections: the uptempo "A Weaver of Dreams," possibly inspired by the John Coltrane version, and the heartfelt ballad "When I Fall in Love," which taps into Griffin's most intimate persona. The latter is one of the highlights from the album, prompting these telling words from Lundgren: "When we'd finished the take, I noticed a tear in the corner of [Griffin's] eye. 'I was thinking of Ben,' Johnny quietly told me, referring of course to the great Ben Webster. It was a very emotional moment." And it is, indeed, a rendition that would have made the Brute proud!

Johnny Griffin
The trio is featured on the other five songs, which again range from Young classics to lesser-known compositions. Lundgren's piano shines on the uptempo "Sweet Sue (Just You)," one of Young's most enduring offerings, and "Love Letters" is given a Latin treatment that proves to be a good vehicle for Svensson's bass. "Song of Delilah" may sound like an odd choice at first, but its hip R&B arrangement actually turns it into one of the most memorable moments on the album. Very few probably remember the Ray Milland movie for which Young wrote "Golden Earrings," but the tune is lovely, and Lundgren treats it gently and with quite a bit of easy-going swing. Finally, "Alone at Last" is another of those obscurities that Lundgren is so adept at digging up, a film ballad that lends itself perfectly to the trio's relaxed approach. Overall, this is undoubtedly one of the best entries in Lundgren's ever-growing discography, and true jazz fans should be thankful to Fog Arts for making its content available again as digital downloads and on all major streaming platforms. We look forward to seeing the rest of these long-deleted albums back in circulation after so many years.