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The Latin Jazz Stylings of Irving Fields

Elliott Simon By

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When I play, I like the top of the piano to sound like flutes or clarinets and the bottom part like a trombone...
To completely capture the career of pianist, composer, and arranger Irving Fields is a difficult task. There are his "lounge" credentials, which place him at the top of pianists who played NYC's finest hotels and society rooms during the decades that immediately preceded and followed WWII. Piano trio albums such as Live at the Emerald Room celebrate this aspect of his work. Then there are his legendary solo cocktail piano skills that allow him to play "any request" from the audience and seamlessly string together snippets of tunes from disparate eras and styles to form masterfully flawless medleys.

One also cannot forget his seminal compositional and arranging work that joined Latin, jazz and popular music, to result in such international hits as "Miami Beach Rhumba" and "Managua Nicaragua". In addition, his series of world fusion records that artfully combined Latin rhythms with Jewish ( Bagels and Bongos, More Bagels and Bongos ), Italian ( Pizza and Bongos ), French ( Champagne and Bongos ) and Hawaiian ( Bikinis and Bongos ) music remain immortal '50s period pieces and influential precursors to today's world fusion.

The talented avant-garde pianist Anthony Coleman, in an article for the online experimental music journal The Squids Ear, unashamedly credits Fields' Bagels and Bongos with major influence, "He has a couple of perfectly played klezmer clarinet riffs that function as signifiers throughout the disc. I've stolen them all. He's like Ahmad Jamal - he just knows what will work on piano in a trio context and what won't. The master!" Irving Fields is indeed the master, and as he turns 89 years young this year, he is beginning a new NYC gig, composing a tribute to an American icon and completing his 82nd album.

In 1930, Irving Fields won Fred Allen's Radio Amateur hour contest and had already established himself as a child actor in NYC's Yiddish Theatre. His prize was a week engagement at the Roxy. Entrance into the prestigious Eastman School of Music followed as did classical piano engagements and cruise ship appearances. These took him to Cuba and Puerto Rico where he absorbed Latin music to the point, as he relates, that Xavier Cugat thought him Spanish. "Cugat came in and asked me to join his band...he spoke to me in Spanish...I said I'm an American...he says to me 'I would like to have you as a piano soloist and use 2 pianos' but I was just signed to RCA Victor and my first record was "Miami Beach Rhumba" which I wrote and that sold over 2 million records."

Fields developed a unique piano style that combines precise technical ability with arrangements that can quickly change tempo and rhythm. He became extraordinarily adept at conveying contrasting feelings while remaining melodically true. He recently shared his approach to playing, "When I play, I like the top of the piano to sound like flutes or clarinets and the bottom part like a trombone...I picture the piano as an orchestra...I don't play a chorus the way it's written...I can put in different tempos, different keys and different chord construction...so it sounds refreshed." Fields' upcoming CD makes use of his love for both jazz and Latin music. "I love the original concept of jazz where the melody was pronounced first and then you improvise on the melody itself which is the creative part. Unfortunately, today a lot of pianists go right into an improvisation and you don't know what they are playing. They lose track of the combine of a melody and improvisation...it is over jazzed. In my latest recording...its called Irving Fields plays Latin Jazz...I take the great jazz popular classics of all time and I have five or six percussion instruments...I say you give me your beat and I do the jazz...and it works...it has a helluva beat...the rhythm is so tight...I think this is one of the best things I've ever done."

Although he has been around the world several times, Fields remains the consummate New Yorker who, while chastising the city for forsaking the great hotel jazz rooms of the past - "It's a disgrace that the cosmopolitan city of NY which should have more entertainment than any other city is a void...all the hotels they don't have any live music anymore." can at the same time lovingly write a tribute to one of its most famous symbols. "My latest endeavor as a composer is a soliloquy: "Here's to the Lady: A Dedication to the Statue of Liberty"...it is a patriotic selection that is needed today more than ever...I don't think that anyone has ever written a song about the Statue of Liberty...in fact she doesn't even have a name." Fortunately, for NYC, one of its musical treasures goes by the name of Irving Fields.

Recommended Listening from the '50s and '60s:

  • The Fabulous Fingers (Fiesta)
  • Plays Irving Berlin in Fabulous Hi-Fi (Tops)
  • At the Latin Quarter (20th Century Fox)
  • Bagels and Bongos (Decca)
  • Irving Fields and his Trio at the Emerald Room (Decca)
  • Latin Dance Date (RCA Camden)

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