The latest homage in Verve's outstanding songwriter's songbook series is paid To Harold Arlen. Not as well known, even among musicians and singers, as Gershwin, Porter, and Kern, Harold Arlen nevertheless produced a body of work that is as ingrained in American musical culture as any of his better know piers.
Born into a Jewish family in Buffalo, NY in 1905, Hyman Arluck (Arlen later changed his name to a less ethnic moniker upon attempting a musical career) was first introduced to music through the ever popular child piano lessens. He discovered that he enjoyed the piano a great deal, and at a young age decided that he was going to be a professional musician, most hopefully with a Broadway pit band. Along the road to that career however, Arlen's talent for songwriting was discovered during a break in a dance rehearsal where Arlen was serving as pianist. During a break, Arlen absent-mindedly noodled around on the piano and one of his little ideas caught the attention of several of the dancers, who convinced him to develop the riff into a full song. The result? The classic "Get Happy", and the end of Arlen's career as a musician, and the start of a long and successful career as a composer.
This first songbook volume (as in the recent Mercer collection, Verve oh so "slickly" mentions in the liner notes that a second volume is on the way) highlights several of Arlen's contributions to the canon of jazz and popular standards. The selections for this disc were made by cabaret performer Bobby Short, a lifelong Arlen fan. His choices for selections are excellent, hitting several underheard performers (Margaret Whiting, Frances Faye) as well known stars (Louis Armstrong, Mel Torme, Elle Fitzgerald). The songs themselves run the gamete from upbeat toe-tappers like "Down With Love", "That Old Black Magic", and "Hooray For Love", to seductive swingers like "Any Place I Hang My Hat Is Home", and "It's Only A Paper Moon".
Throughout this set, two things shine through: Arlen's knack for riff writing, and the wide popularity of his music as reflected by the multiple lyricists with whom he collaborated. Half a dozen tunes with lyrics penned by Johnny Mercer are included, as well as several with lyrics by Ted Koehler, one of Arlen's favorite cohorts who actually helped turn "Get Happy" into a full song by writing the lyrics. In this respect, Arlen is much like the musical equivalent of lyricist Mercer...perhaps that is why the two seemed to produce much of their best individual work in collaboration with the other.
Overall, this disc is very enjoyable. The treatments of the Mercer songs are preferable to those on Mercer's own Verve songbook in many cases. The roster of artists is broad and well balanced, lending a sense of the balance that Arlen had in his work. With a second volume on the way, Verve has again created a tasteful and worthy tribute to another of the great men of American of song.