Sound Advice Reviews
Let's do the time warp again. If you long for long-lost performances, meet me first in 1956 for a recently unearthed Judy Garland concert. Next, we travel back even further (circa 1938-1940) for jazz souvenirs from musician Luis Russell, including his tenure with Louis Armstrong. These genuine "time capsules" are followed by Time Capsule, a present-day presentation by brass man Bill Warfield and the Hell's Kitchen Funk Orchestra with a decades-hopping survey of music's soulful past.
Yes, it's all palpable: that extra excitement and expertise on display when Judy Garland was in full command in concert. Thought to only live on in the memories of those in the room where it happened (The Venus Room at the New Frontier Hotel in Las Vegas), except for one surviving/released number, "Lucky Day," a near-complete tape of the singer's act finally surfaced. So it's a lucky day for Garland fans when they can hear what's now available as The Lost Vegas Show: July 16, 1956. It was the opening night show of a weeks-long engagement; the sound quality is excellent and the work of the lady in the spotlight is spot on.
If you have a fair amount of Judy material (live recordings or studio albums) in your collection or in your head, you've heard her treatment of some or most of these treasures, but maybe not in such good voice or such good sound. Some were staples. Five of the ten tracks from her album of the previous year, Miss Show Business, are heard, some of them holdovers from her earlier years. Her medley of hits known as "Judy's Olio" with its sung set-up describing herself as "a minstrel girl, singing for my supper" includes a warm version of "The Boy Next Door" that was left out in later live versions of this medley. Needless to say, her signature "Over the Rainbow" comes near the end, and it doesn't disappoint. Singing off-mic for an intensely intimate effect works its magic, and the gathered strength for the climax has its own surefire pow. A ballad by the same writers, Harold Arlen and E.Y. Harburg, "Happiness Is a Thing Called Joe," is dedicated to her then-15-month-old son, Joey. And there's even more Arlen with two selections from the Broadway score of St. Louis Woman (lyrics by Johnny Mercer): "Any Place I Hang My Hat Is Home" and "Come Rain or Come Shine" with the memorable arrangement that builds and builds.
The orchestra is well balanced with the vocals, and nuances and colors can be appreciated. It's not stated how many musicians there were, but the conductor was Jack Cathcart (extra points if you know he was married to Judy Garland's sister). The tempi and phrasing follow the tried-and-true blueprints of the singer's earlier versions imprinted upon my brain, but she was in that zone where she could make things sound amazingly fresh and/or inevitable. Audience applause sounds appreciative without audible evidence of the more vocal and vociferous adulation in some later concerts. Patter is minimal, but there's talk at the end, offering encores and asking the audience what else they want to hear. The song title "Liza" is yelled out and accepted and we hear the first seven words of it sung and then ... nothing. Apparently, alas, the tape ran out (but the liner notes tell us that there were a couple of other encores that night, too).
The only unique number for her here is the very brief and brisk bit of special material by Roger Edens and Kay Thompson, "This Is a Party," setting the festive mood and expectations, inviting the audience to "have a ball." She performs this with her backup singer-dancers billed as The Eight Boyfriends. They sing on their own with two other sly Edens/Thompson confections, with lyrics that reference their chance for attention while the star is backstage changing her outfit and purport to ponder what she'll do to top herself when she enters toward the end of the show. They also open the set with a razzle-dazzler montage to literally sing the praises of Garland and build the anticipation before she comes on. These sleek winks are entertainingly splashy, but prospective customers who haven't read up on the contents as detailed on the website of the Canadian-based company releasing this wouldn't have all the info. If you came upon the song list on the back of the physical CD, there is no indication that the unfamiliar titles–"A Hot Time in the Old Town" (a zippy adaptation of the oldie), "This Is Our Spot," "What's Next? What'll She Do Now?"–are sung only by the (unnamed) chorus members, nor does the packaging give the songwriter names for anything in the set.
The company (which has a few other Garland sets, too, in their multi-genre catalog) offers various choices and combinations in format and packaging for their releases, with appropriate differences in price. How great for grateful Garland appreciators to have a new shining example of the legend in fine form–in any format.
If you need to fill a prescription for smiles, here is just what the doctor ordered to get you grinning, with likely welcome physical side effects of foot-tapping and jazzy jumps for joy. At the Swing Cats Ball - Newly Discovered Recordings from the Closet Volume 1, 1938-1940 is a mix of instrumental and vocal renditions. The culled performances are divided into four segments: one featuring Luis Russell (1902-1963) leading his own orchestra (five live numbers); four brief recording studio tracks showcasing him as a solo stride pianist; and two broadcasts from his time spent as part of Louis Armstrong's orchestra (Russell is not featured prominently on those, but Armstrong is certainly in the spotlight, so maybe the latter's name shouldn't be in the same small font as the other musicians and singers listed on the CD cover). The historic document provides a bouncy bounty of high-energy entertainment. Sound quality varies on the restored rare radio relics, understandably.
Presented last in the line-up, the four short piano solos feel like delectable sweet desserts or nightcaps after a big meal. These spiffy delights make that old phrase "tickling the ivories" seem inadequate to describe the nimbleness and flair. Three are compositions of notable pianist Willie "The Lion" Smith and the other is "Moonlight Cocktail," the 1941 big band hit developed from a ragtime number.
The section with Russell as bandleader features three attention-grabbing vocals. "Heebie Jeebies" with the likable Midge Williams is a cute caper. Then, those of you new to this history should hold onto your hats and forget holding onto your musical theatre knowledge for predictability when you come to "Ol' Man River." With revved-up vocalist Sonny Woods glibly pouncing on it, the Show Boat classic you know as serious and dignified is cast against type, speedy and spiffy at an eyebrow-raising gallop. And this "Ol' Man River" just keeps rolling along, as if determined to conquer its presumed dyed-in-the-wool fatalistic despair by sheer will.
Best of all (and an easier "sell") is "At the Swing Cats Ball." This is an apt choice for which to name the compilation, as the very title epitomizes the dominant style and sense of fun and is a showcase equally for instrumental and vocal displays and Russell's songwriting skills. It is co-credited to William Campbell; the only other item indicating the pianist/bandleader as author is the instrumental "Hot Bricks," although the liner notes state there is some uncertainty about that identification. The CD package has a booklet of more than 20 pages filled with the history of the songs, bands, band members, and the era. Some of it is excerpted from a not-yet-published biography of Russell by Paul Kahn, husband of Russell's daughter/co-keeper of the flame, the terrific jazz singer, Catherine Russell. Her own version of "At the Swing Cats Ball" is on her own most recent recording, Send for Me.
Louis Armstrong dazzles, as expected, with his bright brass playing and cheer-charged band-leading, and his trademark sandpaper voice is heard romping through lyrics ("Them There Eyes" and the less-familiar but ultra-spiffy "I've Got a Heart Full of Rhythm") and bantering with the radio announcer. The aforementioned Sonny Woods is on hand for more vocals, less radical than with his would-be sunny "Ol' Man River."
Filled with examples of vintage material that's generally accessible and irrepressible, this Volume 1 is a worthy excavation. Those of us not ready to say goodbye to a bygone era will also smile seeing what's pictured just before we get to the last page of the booklet: a photo of an album cover with a similar design–and the small but largely welcome words: "Volume 2".
BILL WARFIELD AND THE HELL'S KITCHEN FUNK ORCHESTRA
On his birthday last week, arranger and bandleader Bill Warfield, who plays trumpet and flugelhorn, turned 71. With the varied songs on Time Capsule, he looks back at the still-vital music that he's loved, participated in, and been influenced by over the decades, re-shaping it to be played by himself and his Hell's Kitchen Funk Orchestra. The driving and muscular results offer a something-for-everyone sampler of styles. There's jazz, fusion, soul, blues, Motown, pop, even a Disney power ballad is chosen: the Frozen blast, "Let It Go," one of six tracks with the commanding, convincing vocalist Chrissi Poland. Fourteen other instrumentalists contribute their sounds in various combinations, including Paul Shaffer on Hammond organ and Lou Marini on sax.
Most of the tracks are combustive in a satisfying way, although folks not enamored of some styles may find that tracks going on for more than six minutes could test their attention span. (Your mileage may vary; there are five that are that lengthy, with "Chain Reaction" reaching the nine-minute mark.) One of my favorites of the instrumentals is one of the long ones, "Man in the Green Shirt," previously recorded by Weather Report, which doesn't wear out its welcome for me at seven and a half minutes.
A couple of melodies get double dips. Notably putting the funk in the Hell's Kitchen Funk Orchestra, there are two servings of James Brown's "Cold Sweat," a special radio mix and a longer track that mixes in another Brown barnburner, "I Got the Feeling." And "Alfie," the Burt Bacharach/ Hal David gem from the 1960s, is presented both with and without the vocal. It is striking in either form.
The soaring, sizzling brass lines throughout Time Capsule often dazzle, and there's impressive teamwork, but at the end of the day I mostly gravitate to the selections with Chrissi Poland's vocals. She nails the neediness and sultry center of Percy Mayfield's "Please Send Me Someone to Love" and the longing and lamenting in "I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free." She also stands out on the two numbers that recently found their way to Broadway stages: "Just My Imagination (Running Away with Me)," heard in Ain't Too Proud; and the aforementioned "Let It Go." These hits hit, respectively, just the right amount of mellow grooving or grand "go for it" release.
The band can be found playing north of Manhattan's Hell's Kitchen, cooking up their musical concoctions in Harlem at Shrine Music Venue on March 17 and 30.