Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Paul Desmond with Strings, 1961

There are many adjectives one can use to describe Desmond Blue, altoist Paul Desmond's 1961 date with strings subtly arranged by Bob Prince. The album is moody, soft, and restrained. Desmond's playing is imaginative and soothing, and Prince's string arrangements serve as a sort of cushion, never getting in the way of the soloist. But, most of all, the adjective that comes most readily to mind when listening to Desmond Blue is beautiful, and sometimes one is simply in the mood to listen to jazz that is beautiful. If that's the case, then one can't go wrong with this album. Best remembered for his association with pianist Dave Brubeck, of whose very successful quartet he was an integral part in the 1950s and '60s, Desmond cut several excellent albums under his own name throughout his collaboration with Brubeck. Six of these were recorded for RCA Victor in the sixties, and fortunately, they were reissued in 2012 as a very attractive and affordable box set that reproduces the format of the original LPs, though adding some bonus tracks. And the first of these albums chronologically is Desmond Blue.

Jim Hall and Paul Desmond
Recorded in New York City over the course of several sessions in September and October 1961, Desmond Blue was released in 1962 and, as its cover proudly states, it presents "a great saxophonist in a new setting." This new setting is, of course, Desmond accompanied by a string orchestra and performing a selection of well-known standards and two originals, "Desmond Blue" and "Late Lament," both of them included on the first side of the record. As his discography clearly shows, Desmond was always very fond of standards, and the ones he chose on this occasion seem tailor-made for his delicate, often understated style. He approaches classic ballads such as "My Funny Valentine," "Then I'll Be Tired of You," and "I Should Care" with great lyricism. Yet, as we can hear on "I've Got You Under My Skin" and "Like Someone in Love," he also sounds comfortable varying the tempo and lending some diversity to the album. Jim Hall guests on guitar on four of the tracks, blending in with the orchestra as perfectly as Desmond himself and adding an extra touch of class to the proceedings. The result is a magnificent album of the kind that is agreeable to the ears and soothing to the spirit, an album that could most appropriately be described as beautiful.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Bobby Darin Swings Some Love Songs, 1961

In celebration of Valentine's Day, here's a review of one of my favorite albums by Bobby Darin—Love Swings, a concept album with the ups and downs of love as its central theme, cut for Atco in 1961. A good listen for this time of year!

A singer clearly influenced by Frank Sinatra, Bobby Darin could rival Ol' Blue Eyes at hard-swinging numbers, but when it came to emotional depth, that was a totally different matter. Critics have long pointed out that one of the main differences between Sinatra and Darin is that the younger singer wasn't as successful at creating a lingering mood through song and maintaining it during the course of a whole album. That is perhaps why Darin didn't usually record concept albums, which was home territory for The Voice. Yet Love Swings, an LP Darin cut for Atlantic in 1961, is the one worthwhile exception--a collection of twelve standards outlining the different stages of a love relationship, from the effervescence of its early stages to the sadness, melancholy, and acceptance of its eventual failure.

Anyone expecting an album of hard-swinging tracks is misled by the title. While many of the songs are uptempo numbers, particularly the ones depicting the early stages of love, there are also beautifully sung ballads such as Isham Jones's "There Is No Greater Love" and Jerome Kern and Leo Robin's often-overlooked "In Love in Vain." In general the uptempo numbers ("Long Ago and Far Away," "I Didn't Know What Time It Was," "How About You," "The More I See You," "It Had to Be You") appear in the first part of the album, coinciding with the excitement brought about by love, while the more pensive tunes ("Something to Remember You By," "Skylark," "Spring Is Here") surface on side B, as the relationship slowly begins to take a downturn. But by this time Darin had learned Sinatra's lesson from the classic Songs for Swinging Lovers that there is no reason why a sad song shouldn't swing, and so we find here a nice uptempo reading of the Russ Columbo-associated "Just Friends," which Chet Baker had also recorded in a fast-paced version for Pacific a few years earlier. The album closes appropriately with a mid-tempo rendition of the self-mocking, hopeful "I Guess I'll Have to Change My Plan."

Arranger Torrie Zito

The twelve charts are arranged by Torrie Zito, and while he doesn't come anywhere near Nelson Riddle, Billy May, or Gordon Jenkins, who wrote such fine albums for the Capitol Sinatra, he does stay out of Darin's way on the swinging tracks and shows a certain knack for arranging the ballads. Darin sounds very comfortable and occasionally takes liberties with the lyrics, particularly on "How About You," where he finds a way to fit "a TV set," "fish and chips," and "rock'n'roll" into the lyrics and proclaims that Mrs. Darin's looks "kinda" give him a thrill. Exactly why this collection failed to capture the public's imagination (and spending money) when it was first released remains a mystery to me. I only wish Darin had recorded a few more discs like this one...