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The Great Jazz and Pop Vocal Albums

Steve Provizer By

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Do I have bones to pick? Yes, but comparing author Will Friedwald's responses to one's own is interesting and what really makes this book valuable is the extensive context he provides for each album.
The Great Jazz and Pop Vocal Albums
Will Friedwald
432 pages
ISBN: 0307379078
Pantheon
2017

Will Friedwald has written a nice fat, fact-laden book, closely analyzing each song on the fifty-one albums he's chosen. Comparing his responses to one's own is interesting, but what really makes this book valuable is the extensive context he provides for each album.

Friedwald has been operating in the world of jazz and pop vocals for a long time and gives the reader insider history. He looks at where the album fits in the career path of the artist, how the arrangers-and often the musicians-ended up working on the project, background on the composers of the tunes, the dope on the record label people who decided to back the project, and comparisons with other recordings of the song. Friedwald thus provides an extensive historical framework for the albums.

There's a lot of dish-you'll learn how Peggy Lee's alcoholic husband figured into the making of "Black Coffee." But more interestingly, some of the broad conclusions he draws are absolutely new and spot on. Sinatra did show that songs taken in swinging tempos could also be sexy and romantic; tragic divas are given more serious consideration than light or comic singers; the use of verses were probably eschewed in the swing era because they tended to be rubato (not in tempo) and therefore not danceable.

If you already know the music, it's interesting to compare his responses to your own, but if you don't, his prose reads well enough that it can be enjoyed on its own. In any case, all this analysis is an excellent goad to check out the music you don't know-for personal discovery purposes and to reality-check Friedwald's take. For example:

I was not familiar with Carmen McRae's album Live at the Dug and checking it out was a pleasure. On the other hand, here's what he says about her version of "I Could Have told You": "When she sings 'making promises he'll never keep,' instead of stretching the last word the way you might expect, she cuts it off shortly, and follows it with a few minor notes for emphasis-as if to literally illustrate the sound of a promise unkept." I then listened to the tune. She repeats that line a couple of times in the song and I don't know what Friedwald means by "cutting it off," but in fact, both times she holds out the note for several beats. It seems as though he thought he had a nice metaphorical point and stretched the musical facts to fit. Although I disagreed with this and some of his other evaluations and choice of artists (Tiny Tim the most obvious example), I found the process pretty fascinating.

And yes, I do have a laundry list of bones to pick: p.14 Was Astaire a "high baritone"? Can it be said that the Armstrong and Astaire Verve records "couldn't have been made without [Oscar Peterson]?" Was Peterson always up to the task? For sure, but... p.25 What does a "coarse groove" 78 mean? p.78 Harry "Sweets" Edison's "beeping trumpet"? A phrase used several times. p.82 In the 30's and 40's, is it true that there was really no generation gap and everyone listened to Bing? p.85 Was it really "every man for himself" in the 1920's, without any arrangements? p.122 Unlike Friedwald, I think you DO need big chops to put over "Midnight Sun." p.134 Scatting at its best is a minor annoyance? p.194 Loesser's "cryptic, almost indecipherable line" from his Guys and Dolls song "More I Cannot Wish You,"? Well, Sheep's Eye is a gin produced by the Lickerish Tooth company. p.197 L, H&R were NOT the only ones doing what they did. There was the Blue Stars of Paris and the Double Six of Paris. And, you don't talk about the great "Every Tub" in your Sing a Song of Basie coverage. p. 201 A trumpet mute "attaches to the bell"? p.234 Carmen McRae DOES sound like herself. p.268 Miles never played "Bye Bye Blackbird" at a "slow crawl." p.314 Venuti was "by far the greatest soloist" on violin? Only if you restrict it to the 20's. p.385 Ruby Braff was a cornetist, not a trumpeter.

But really, these are minor quibbles. If you're into vocals, check this book out.

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