Jimmie Lunceford: The Complete Jimmie Lunceford Decca Sessions
The Complete Jimmie Lunceford Decca Sessions
When saxophonist Jimmie Lunceford signed to the Decca label in 1934 he was running one of the best orchestras in the US. He had signed a deal to appear at the Cotton Club (where bandleaders Duke Ellington and Cab Calloway had recently launched into stardom) and was frequently beating others in battles of the bands, all the while leading an outfit with an uncanny amount of precision and professionalism. Even Glenn Miller claimed that when Lunceford's band was at its peak, no one could top it.
It's a shame, then, that Lunceford isn't more well known in 2011, since the music he recorded for Decca is some of the best that came out of the big band era. Perhaps it's because Lunceford never had an era-defining hit such as Benny Goodman's "Sing, Sing, Sing" or Miller's "In the Mood." Or maybe it's because the bandleader had trouble finding ways to adapt in the mid 1940s when the big band era was over (Lunceford himself died a few years later.) More than likely it's that the fickle nature of popular music, that sometimes rewards the less deserving while others languish in relative obscurity.
Because Lunceford recorded for Decca for almost his entire career, the superb seven disc Mosaic set The Complete Jimmie Lunceford Decca Sessions provides as complete a look at an artist as you're likely to find and an essential document of the time when big bands reigned. As is the norm with Mosaic sets, the sound is exceptionally crisp, although more than a few tracks display the tell-tale crackle of age (since Mosiac is known for being fastidious about such matters these will have been the best sources the label could find.) The trumpets are bright, the drums have a propulsive snap, the horn sections are well balanced and, unusually, the rhythm guitar and bass are audible. It'seasy to imagine being one of the eager teens depicted on the cover hearing this band live in its heyday.
The Lunceford band was all about arrangements, not composing; very few of the band's charts were originals. Rather, the bandstand was always stocked with a handful of men who could do double duty as a player or arranger. Trumpeter Sy Oliver was the most accomplished and played the largest role in determining the band's sound, but there was also the Eddies, Durham and Wilcox, and Willie Smith. The Lunceford band proved to be fertile ground for ideas; the individual styles of each began to converge as the years went on and the arranging think tank began to settle on a precise network of contrasts and balances. In many ways they were working as architects of the big band sound, eagerly listening to what others (including themselves) were doing and grabbing the best ideas; many of their charts sound drastically different from what anyone else was doing at the time, but very similar to what would come shortly thereafter.
Of course part of the craft of arranging is making sure your "Star Dust" doesn't sound like the other guy's "Star Dust," and Oliver and company in the band were capable of coming up with ways to add new twists to just about anything. The first sides the band recorded for Decca, for instance, were a handful of Ellington tunes, and "Mood Indigo" is markedly different from Ellington's, not as solemn and brisker. The breakout chart was Oliver's "Rhythm Is Our Business," an apt title for a band that was on the verge of perfecting the swing tempo (before Count Basie perfected the way to play it), and filled with little surprises from Oliver, who had an endless supply of ways of writing exciting horn parts (it also helped that Wilcox, one of the best at crafting horn lines, was in the house).
By the mid 1930s, Lunceford was turning out so many jukebox hits that A&R men told him that he should spread out his best material over several records instead of putting them back to back. Part of this was due to strong material put together by men who seemed to have an endless supply of new ideas for old songs"Swanee River" and "Organ Grinder's Swing" are two of many such masterpiecesbut Lunceford, ever the professional, also treated the novelty tunes that he and everyone else were forced to record with the same standards. Thus goofy junk such as "I'm Nuts About Screwy Music" and "'Tain't Good (Like a Nickel Made of Wood)" and even "The Merry-Go-Round Broke Down" become fairly decent tracks when given the Lunceford treatmentthere never seemed to be anything that couldn't be arranged properly (well, maybe not "Merry-Go-Round").
Of course, the Lunceford band had its share of outstanding soloists, none of whom enjoyed the renown of any of Ellington's or Basie's guys, but were nonetheless architects of what would become the standard big band sound. Joe Thomas was an important influence on the honking and bar walking saxophones that would come later; both Eddie Tompkins and Tommy Stevenson contribute dexterous trumpet solos. Then there was trombonist Trummy Young, who cut his teeth with the Lunceford band and got a significant spotlight with "Margie," and Eddie Durham, who carved out the role for the guitar in a big band context (especially when he plugged it in later.) Many of these guys contributed vocals as well; for most of his career Lunceford never had a singer that didn't also play an instrument. The vocals are uncommonly good for the time, still with that pre-Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra feel, and the vocal trios are as good as any that were around at the time.
By the latter half of the 1930s, the Lunceford band was able to combine great arrangements and reliable soloists to cut some of the best swing records of the era, most of which are contained on the third and fourth Mosaic discs. A perfect arrangement of "My Blue Heaven" features an Oliver arrangement and a splendid vocal trio; the band's signature hit, "For Dancers Only," features sprightly soloing over a tune pitched at the perfect tempo for young crowds eager to jitterbug. Even a song like "On the Beach of Bali-Bali," which sounds like it might be a dreadful Hawaiian-themed number, is in fact a trickily syncopated jump tune.
Sadly, the recording ban was not good to the Lunceford band. Much of his lineup left disgruntled during this time, feeling like they weren't getting a fair shake financially, and many of the arrangers left for more lucrative gigs (Sy Oliver in particular continued to create some of the best arranged records in jazz for the likes of trumpeter Louis Armstrong and singer Ella Fitzgerald). Their replacements had clearly been inspired by the adventures of their predecessors, but their current work had none of the spark that made the previous decade's work so engaging. Only the appearance of arrangers Gerald Wilson and Tadd Dameron, both of whom were beginning to explore new avenues for the big band sound, threatens to make this band a little more special.
In truth, what probably led to the foundering of Lunceford's unit was what actually made his records so appealing. He never had aspirations to write suites or appear at Carnegie Hall; he just wanted to entertain. Had Lunceford set his sights a little wider, he might have found a way to ride his popularity and to thrive after most orchestras had to call it quits. But instead he crafted some of the most enjoyable records in the big band era, songs, as one of his tunes put it, "For Dancers Only." One of the endearing qualities of all Mosaic sets is that in their completeness the real warts and all nature of an outfit is revealed, and Lunceford had to record his share of dogs just like any other band of the time. But nobody infused the lighter fair with more of a sense of spirited funand professionalismas he did, and nobody treated the harder-hitting material with a better sense of how to make it work.
Tracks: CD1: Sophisticated Lady; Mood Indigo; Rose Room; Black and Tan Fantasie; Stratosphere; Nana; Miss Otis Regrets; Unsophisticated Sue; Star Dust; Dream Of You; Stomp It Off; Call It Anything (It Wasn't Love); Because You're You; Chillun, Get Up!; Solitude; Rain; Since My Best Gal Turned Me Down; Jealous; Rhythm Is Our Business; Mood Indigo (alt take); Star Dust (alt take); Because You're You 9alt take); Rhythm is Our Business (alt take). CD2: Shake Your Head; I'm Walking Through Heaven With You; Sleepy Time Gal; Bird Of Paradise; Rhapsody Jr.; Runnin' Wild; Four Or Five Times; (If I Had) Rhythm in My Nursery Rhymes; Babs; Swanee River; Thunder; Oh Boy; Charmaine; You Take the East, Take the West; Take the North, I'll Take the South; Avalon; Charmaine; Hittin' the Bottle; Four or Five Times (alt take). CD3: My Blue Heaven; I'm Nuts About Screwy Music; The Best Things in Life are Free; The Melody Man; Organ Grinder's Swing; On the Beach at Bali-Bali; Me and the Moon; Living From Day to Day; 'Tain't Good; Muddy Water; I Can't Escape From You; Harlem Shout; My Last Affair; Running A Temperature; Honet, Keep Your Mind on Me; Count Me Out; I'll See You in My Dreams; My Blue Heaven (alt take); The Melody Man (alt take). CD4: He Ain't Got Rhythm; Linger Awhile; Honest and Truly; Slumming on Park Avenue; Coquette; The Merry-Go-Round Broke Down; Raggin' the Scale; Hell's Bells; For Dancers Only; Posin'; The First Time I Saw You; Honey, Keep Your Mind on Me; Put On Your Old Grey Bonnet; Pigeon Walk; Like A Ship At Sea; Teasin' Tessie Brown; Annie Laurie; 'Frisco Fog; Honest and Truly (alt take); Coquette (alt take); The Merry-Go-Round Broke Down (alt take); Raggin' the Scale (alt take) Pigeon Walk (alt take). CD5: Maggie; The Love Nest; I'm Laughing Up My Sleeve; Down By the Old Mill Stream; My Melancholy Baby; Sweet Sue, Just You; By the River Sainte Marie; Blue Prelude; Twenty-Four Robbers; I Had a Premonition; Battle Axe; Peace and Love For All; Chocolate; I'm Walking Through Heaven; You're Always in My Dreams; Flamingo; Siesta at the Fiesta; Gone; Hi Spook; Yard Dog Mazurka; Impromptu. CD6: Blues in the Night (Part I); Blues in the Night (Part II); I'm Losing My Mind; Life Is Fine; It Had To Be You; I'm Gonna Move to the Outskirts Of Town (Part I); I'm Gonna Move To the Outskirts of Town (Part II); Strictly Instrumental; Knock Me a Kiss; Keep Smilin' Keep Laughin' Be Happy; I Dram A Lot About You; Easy Street; Back Door Stuff (Part I); Back Door Stuff (Part II); The Goon Came On; Just Once Too Often; Jeep Rhythm; Charmaine; Solitude; Down By the Old Mill Stream; Like A Ship At Sea; For Dancers Only; Jeep Rhythm (alt take). CD7: The Chicks That I Pick Are Slender, Tender and Tall; By the River Sainte Marie; Pretty Eyes; Margie; Sleepy Time Gal; My Melancholy Baby; I'm Gonna See My Baby; That Someone Must Be You; Oh Gee, Oh Gosh, Oh Pshaw; I'm In a Jam (With Baby); What a Difference a Day Made; I Passed Through Memphis; Buzz-Buzz-Buzz; This Is My Confession (To You); I Need A Lift; Baby Are You Kiddin'?; Where's The Melody?; The Honeydripper; I've Got Those Carolina Blues.
Personnel: Jimmie Lunceford: director, alto sax; Eddie Tompkins: trumpet, vocal; Tommy Stevenson: trumpet; Sy Oliver: trumpet, vocal, arranger; Russell Bowles: trombone; Henry Wells: trombone, vocal; Willie Smith: clarinet, alto sax, vocal, arranger; Laforet Dent: clarinet, alto sax; Joe Thomas: clarinet, tenor sax; Earl Carruthers: clarinet, alto sax, baritone sax; Eddie Wilcox: piano, arranger; Al Norris: guitar, violin; Moses Allen: bass; Jimmy Crawford: drums, vibes, tympani, glockenspiel; Paul Webster: trumpet; Elmer Crumbley: trombone; Eddie Durham: trombone, guitar, arranger; Dan Grissom: clarinet, alto sax, vocal; Ed Brown: clarinet, alto sax, tenor sax; Trummy Young: trombone, vocal; Ted Buckner: alto sax; Leon Carr: arranger; Snooky Young: trumpet; Gerald Wilson: trumpet, vocal, arranger; Billy Moore, Roger Segure: arranger; Freddie Webster: trumpet; Harry Jackson: trumpet, arranger; Fernando Arbello: trombone; Benny Waters: tenor sax; Truck Parham: bass; Tadd Dameron: arranger; Bob Mitchell: trombone; Russell Green: trumpet; Melvin Moore: trumpet; William Scott: trumpet; Earl Hardy: trombone; John Ewing: trombone; Omer Simeon: clarinet, alto sax; Kirt Bradford: alto sax; Ernest Purce: tenor sax; Claude Trenier: vocal; Horace Henderson: arranger; Ralph Griffin: trumpet; Bill Darnell: vocals; Lonnie Wilfong: arranger; Rostelle Reece: trumpet; Les Current: trumpet; John Mitchell: guitar; Charles Stewart: trumpet; Bob Mitchell: trumpet, vocal; Nick Brooks: vocal; Delta Rhythm Boys: vocal; Joe Liggins: arranger.