4 CD soundtrack to the Ken Burns Television Series
Reviewed for Coffeerooms by Mike Jefferson
In times of war, men and women sucked into a death dealing conflict often rely on the sights, smells and sounds of home to carry them to victory. During the Second World War, the aggressive pounding of Gene Krupa’s drums, the fiery passion of Harry James’ trumpet, and the warm crooning of Frank Sinatra soothed soldiers sitting in muddy foxholes or sailors freezing in gales on patrol. Ken Burns’ 4 CD set for his television series “The War” features some of the W.W.2’s familiar tunes, but for the bulk of the soundtrack Burns dug deep into the trenches for unknown or forgotten performances. There are a number of duds and outright bombs that miss the mark altogether. The material on the 4 CDs won’t make any new allies for the swing/jazz axis, but devoted fans of 40s music will want to sit back and surrender to the lush, spotless sound.
As in real life, there are four phases to “The War”: the attack (the original soundtrack), the counterattack (“I’m Beginning To See The Light”), the calm (“Sentimental Journey) and the storm – the storming of the beach that is (“Songs Without Words”).
(3 out of 5 stars)
“The War” is a mixture of modern compositions written by Field Marshall Wynton Marsalis, who lays out a cool strategy, but lacks the assault weapons to establish a lasting musical beachhead, and classic musical maneuvers by veterans Benny Goodman, Count Basie, Nat “King” Cole and Duke Ellington.
The CD begins with “American Dream” by Nora Jones. Jones obviously knows how to sing, the question is whether you like her half-soused diction and gurgle-filled whispering. Guess that answers the question whether I do or don’t. Solemn, respectful but as drab as Army fatigues, “American Dream” is a case of an artist winding up on soundtrack because she’s a big name, not a big talent.
Leonard Saltkin’s “Walton: The Death of Falstaff” features full staff orchestration. I never knew a song about beer could be so moving. The London Philharmonic, who has backed everybody from the Moody Blues to Chris Squire, and yes, even some classical music highbrows, creates saturated string music to bring out your dead.
The great Benny Goodman is represented throughout the series, but he initially gets out of the blocks with “The Wang Wang Blues” (bet he’d like to reconsider the title). It’s a stroll down to New Orleans Goodman recorded with his sextet, one of his lesser stellar aggregations. Sid Weiss bends the acoustic bass strings and Ralph Collier gives the beat a gentle push on the drums, a far cry from Gene Krupa’s howitzer blast percussion. Goodman’s playing isn’t as strained as it sometimes was in the big band setting (likely because he doesn’t have to compete with supersticks Krupa, trumpeter Harry James or pianist Jess Stacey, flashy showman who frequently swiped the spotlight from their boss).
Every once in a while Goodman liked to show people a jazzbo could play classical music, so he’d team up with long hairs like Aaron Copeland. Problem was he played the clarinet, one of the most squint-inducing, drill-a-hole-through-your-forehead implements of mass musical destruction. Occasional passages in his performance of Copland’s “Concerto For Clarinet, Strings, Harp and Piano,” (recorded post-war in 1950) are strikingly moving. You’ll tear up -- then ol’ four eyes’ll hit one of those squeaky seal high notes and you’ll really cry because your fillings will be vibrating. Maybe I never forgave Benny for telling Gene Krupa and Harry James to start their own bands or for sacking Jess Stacey, but this toots like the yard whistle at Alcatraz for far too long. (And yes, I do know what that sounds like.)
The soundtrack shifts to a modern sound with “Movin’ Back” written by Marsalis, who thankfully doesn’t participate. “Movin’ Back” is a sonic exercise by guitarist Doug Wamble, who can make his six string guitar keen eerily like a wailing woman, conjuring up visions of bombed out, war ravaged back roads. “Movin’ Back” is unlike anything else you’ll hear on the soundtrack, and it’ll set you back on your heels.
You get more moody Marsalis music in “American My Home.” Its brother can you spare a dime backdrop material with cellist Amanda Forsyth bowing sadly and Bill Charlap filling in the gaps on piano. You can see the wash hanging from the lines of the dirty Brooklyn tenements as Dad struggles home from the factory. It’s hard for a piece of music to be depressingly beautiful, but “America My Home” will hit you in your emotional core.
Count Basie has a light, lazy touch on piano, wiggling the keys effectively on “How Long Blues.” Despite the slumbering pace, the Count plays like a member of the royal house, with respectful ease, style and class.
“In The Nick of Time” features Edgar Meyer (bass), Joshua Bell (violin), Sam Bush (mandolin) and Mike Marshall (guitar). No, this isn’t a reinterpretation of Bonnie Raitt’s career-making tune with the Dodger pitcher who invented kinesiology (Mike Marshall) and President Bush’s illegitimate brother. Its baby-faced violinist Joshua Bell playing a cross between a spirited Irish jig and frontier music and creating a close cousin to the theme song for “Deadwood.” One more reason to love this out of time tune – “In The Nick Of Time” was recorded at nearby Purchase College. (Well it’s close to me anyway).
Der Bingle (Bing Crosby) was one of the most popular singers in the 40s (30s and 50s too for that matter). He’s ba-ba-beautiful in “It’s Been A Long, Long Time,” his voice sincere and resonant. Throw in a youthful Les Paul on electric guitar making love strings and you’ve got what amounts to a supersession.
Pianist Kalle Randalu serves up “Part: Variations For The Healing of Arinuska.” I believe I once had Kalle Randalu in a restaurant – As a meal! As a meal! This Adam and Eve on a raft wreck ‘em arrangement makes Kalle sound like a tone deaf piano tuner. He/she knows the scales, but I need more than a plink here and a plonk there to stay alert. Randalu’s playing is too halting to have an effect, displaying the skill of a fifth grader’s first recital. Something tells me Arinuska slowly bled out.
The closer is the same cut as the starter -- “American Anthem”-- this time as interpreted by cellist Amanda Forsythe and Bill Charlap. I think I recognize Forsythe’s style now. Burns probably used her to flesh out scenes in his unforgettable series about the Civil War. Her cello expresses in grief-stricken tones what Nora Jones can’t properly convey with her voice.
“I’m Beginning To See The Light”
Dance Hits From the Second World War
(3 out of 5 stars)
“I’m Beginning To See The Light” features many of the big guns who recorded during the war years, including Glenn Miller, Charlie Barnet, Artie Shaw and the aforementioned durable grunts -- Goodman, Basie and Ellington..
Glenn Miller’s “In The Mood” is one of those instantly recognizable classics from the late swing era, with happy high hat work and the horn section playing counterpoint off of one another. Tex Beneke and Al Klink share the tenor sax solo and Clyde Hurley plays with the same fiery attack dog style as Harry James. The slow fade, fake ending will put you in the mood for more. Surprisingly, you can hear the snap crackle pop of the record on this. C’mon Ken, you couldn’t get a clean version from the Library of Congress or Napster?
Miller and his orchestra take a bumpy road trip with “(I’ve Got a Gal In) Kalamazoo.” Billy May puts some Jamesesque snap into his trumpet -- this is one hep cat, and the horns section radiates with enough force to blow you all the way to Kalamazoo. The trip takes a wrong turn when singer Tex Beneke and the Modernaires join in. Tex is monotone, as flat as a stretch of U.S. Route 1. Who let this guy in the studio? No wonder vocalists had a hard time breaking into swing music.
Al Dexter and His Troopers shoot blanks with their version of “Pistol Packin’ Mama.” This is packed to the barrel bland country western, rendered as if Roy Rodgers or Mr. Rodgers were conducting the proceedings. If this pistol packin’ mama came in to a neighborhood bar, she’d be waving a cap gun. Given the song’s subject matter (a guy duckin’ bullets from his girlfriend in a bar) you need something stronger than this Frankie Yankovic and the Yanks arrangement. Louis Jordan fired up a much better version (not available here) with a more animated (re: lively) vocal and a series of goofy cartoon sax solos.
The Benny Goodman Sextet has a little too much musical space to operate in “Rose Room.” Following Gene Krupa into the band, Nick Fatool had tough sticks to fill. Fatool makes love to his high hat and stays out of the way of Goodman’s clarinet. The legendary Charlie Christian plays a solo that certainly must have inspired Les Ford; Lionel Hampton is forever happy on the vibes and Fletcher Henderson plays with a style that combines Jess Stacey’s swing with Count Basie’s more staid style. These guys are stylin’ pros, but Christian’s more jazzy sorties clash with Henderson’s cool cat style, leaving “Rose Room” a bit thorny.
The new Gene Krupa, Buddy Rich, is on drums for Tommy Dorsey’s “Opus #1” and when given the chance, cracks with alacrity. “Opus” features lots of vo-de-oh-do horns that’ll warp your speaker’s cabinets. Dorsey’s cohorts aren’t shy, and Bruce Golden hits the piano keys with rhythmic authority.
The Count of Basie puts his rep on the ledge with his version of “One O’clock Jump,” a song he wrote that was given a classic performance by the Benny Goodman Orchestra at their historic 1938 Carnegie Hall Jazz concert. I said it before and I’ll say it again -- You can’t beat a line up that includes Harry James, Goodman, and Gene Krupa. But Goodman’s secret weapon was pianist Jess Stacey, who mixed New Orleans jazz with swing. Basie’s version bounces more than jumps; Basie’s great at caressing, rather than playing the ivories, and his soloing won’t set your leg to tapping the way Stacey’s did. Goodman also gave his version more space to breathe and got a lot more drive from his horn section. Make no mistake, it picks up some hop at the end, but Benny’s version really jumps, thanks to his sidemen.
Trummy Young doesn’t distinguish himself as a vocalist on Jimmy Lunceford’s “Taint What You Do (It’s How You Do It).” His half sung, half rapped performance is a hep time capsule, but it ‘taint very smooth and cries out for a diction coach. Gotta expect that from somebody who was probably supposed to be named Tummy, not Trummy. Congratulations to Jimmy Crawford though for discovering that drums have tom-toms and cymbals.
There are plenty of questionable choices to eclipse your enjoyment of “I’m Beginning to See the Light,” including foot draggers from Barnett, Basie, Dorsey and Shaw. But the final selection makes up for Burns mislabeling the collection as “dance hits.” “Sing, Sing, Sing” is the grand daddy of all swing tunes. Already a work out at over eight minutes, it was extended to over twelve minutes in concert. Gene Krupa plays the drums like he’s firing a Gatling Gun. “Sing, Sing, Sing” has the nasty jungle rhythm with threatening horns blowing counter riffs off of each other. The whole band sounds hopped up and wired into the same frenzy. Krupa is unbelievable, a dynamo who belts his drums harder and faster than Joe Louis taking out an opponent. He makes his kit a lead instrument, a rarity in the 30s and 40s. This studio take nearly matches the energy of the live version, so much so you can feel the sweat flying from Krupa’s brow. When Harry James and Krupa play together, it’s an overdose of crazed yet rhythmic energy. This is war and the enemy is Krupa’s drums. I had the pleasure of taking drum lessons from Krupa, just before he died from Leukemia. (Trying to imbue me with a sense of rhythm probably hastened his demise.) He was obviously a very sick man, but when he propped himself up to play “Sing, Sing, Sing” he turned into a sinewy knot of power. The only solo missing is Jess Stacey’s, improvised honky tonk/classical music combo, one the many crowning moments in the 1938 concert. When Stacey let loose on piano, the hall grew silent, he thought because the crowd hated it. The reason everyone was silent was because they were in awe of his speed, dexterity and creativity. It doesn’t get any better than this.
Hits From the Second World War
(2 out of 5 stars)
Burns should have called this CD “Frank Sinatra’s Sentimental Journey,” as he takes the most trips to the mike. Very little of this swings, so if you’re old enough to remember any of these songs, your musical journey will be memorable indeed. If not, you won’t get to complete the journey because you’ll be in the land of nod, nodding off.
With a very young Sinatra still searching for his persona, the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra goes for the heart strings in “I’ll Be Seeing You.” Frankie rushes a few of his lines and generally displays a smooth, but standard crooner’s voice – he’s Bing without the zing. “Saturday Night Is The Loneliest Night Of The Week” is more like the gaudy productions Sinatra would do with Nelson Riddle. Recorded in 1942, the Chairman of the Board’s voice doesn’t have the rich bottom it would develop as he got older, but he’s much more at ease. Frankie gets it now; he knows how to shape a lyric to the sound of his voice. Recorded two years after he waxed “Saturday Night,” 1944s “Long Ago and Far Away” is closest to the Sinatra we love or loathe. There’s more emotion, more maturity in his voice. Do I like it? No. But there’s no denying that while Sinatra was filling out physically, so was his sound.
“We’ll meet again, don’t know where, don’t know when, but I know we’ll meet again, some sunny day.” And Benny Goodman’s “We’ll Meet Again” is as optimistically bright as a summer day in August. Plus you get Peggy Lee, one of the most instantly recognizable names in jazz. Not being up on Peggy (except that she has a lot of bad relationships and equally bad health), this piece doesn’t sound like the same beaten-down woman who dragged her way through “Is That All There Is” in 1969. This Peggy Lee has energy, and a smooth, rich delivery.
Artie Shaw always laid it on thick, with rows of strings and smaltzy sophisticated themes. “Dancing In the Dark” trips over its own heavy handedness and comes across as the most darted music Burns picked to fill out the sound track. Shaw’s music was the stuff of cotillions, long hoped skirts, and guys mooning over their purebred Dubarry coiffed girls. Shaw also takes a crack at “Moonglow,” a song Benny Goodman, Gene Krupa, Lionel Hampton and Teddy Wilson turned into a moody piece when they did it live in 1938. Shaw hits the listener with warm, sedate horns while Johnny Guarieri taps at the keys. Shaw still has plenty of class in his full-bodied arrangements, but the lack of a discernable beat or even a pulse makes this a snoozer.
Lionel Hampton plays a very watery vibraphone in Louie Armstrong’s take of “Memories of You.” Louie rasp makes him sound like a convict singing a love song -- In other words it ain’t very romantic and it’s even less memorable. Satch was a crowd pleaser, not Rudolph Valentino. Nice work on the horn though, Satchmo.
Benny Goodman’s “On the Alamo” is notable only because it unites Goodman, Charlie Christian and Count Basie (somewhere). It has the pacing of the relief army that came to the Alamo -- too slow, too little and too late.
The other Goodman piano player, Teddy Wilson, had a much more predictable and subdued style than the flamboyant Jess Stacey. “Pennies From Heaven” is a unique curio because Benny Goodman acts as his employee’s sideman. Cozy Cole shushes quietly on the drums and Billie Holiday completes the supersession on vocals. Too bad Holiday’s vocal isn’t worth a red cent. She sounds like she had a snootful before she entered the recording booth, but the team’s vamping saves “Pennies From Heaven” from going completely to hell.
Cab Calloway dials back the jump but he’s still got the jive in “Blues In the Night”: “My momma done told me when I was in knee pants. My mama done told me, son. A woman’ll sweet talk, and give you the glad eye, but when that sweet talk is done. A woman is two-faced, A worrisome thing who’ll leave you to sing the blues in the night.” Disparaging lyrics to be sure, but you know Cab’ll eventually shrug the hurt off and climb back on the bucking bronco that we call love. There’s a great call and response section between Cab and the band, especially when he says: “Here that train a callin’ and they answer “Whoooo-eee” like passing bar cars. Cab was more of a novelty singer, an entertainer than a straight up singer, but unlike the more successful crooners he was always had something interesting to say. An excellent performance, that doesn’t belong with the CDs more morose selections, “The Blues In The Night” will make your day.
The Duke of Ellington goes soft with “There Shall Be No Night.” Herb Jefferies, who doubled as an actor, sounds like a cross between Bing Crosby and Zeppo Marx, (and I mean that as a compliment, the forgotten Marx Brother could sing). Jefferies vocal lifts the drab arrangement from the doldrums.
Cootie Williams and His Rug Cutters lay out “Echoes of Harlem.” I’m not sure if these guys are rug cutters or carpet layers. The beat provided by Sonny Greer on drums is meant to be “different,” but comes off sounding as if a group of workers from Acme are pounding down a shag carpet with a toy hammer. It’s very distracting, as is the one-note-at-a-time style of pianist Duke Ellington. Here it comes – You may need a Cootie shot to navigate through “Harlem.”
Billy Eckstine was one of my father’s favorite vocalists; I can see why. My father (a non-professional who entertained at parties) sang just like him. Eckstine had a rich vibrato that locked in sexiness the same way a Zip seals in flavor. Eckstine’s mellow love in “Skylark” proves that Dads are wise and right 99.9% of the time.
The Mills Brothers were as old as dirt when I saw them on Ed Sullivan; they had to be in their late 60s. I felt sorry for them, a quartet of ripe balding men trying to make it in the era of The Beatles and The Dave Clark Five. Then they opened their mouths to sing “Paper Doll” – and I turned up the volume. It was as crisp live as it had been in this recording made in 1942. These guys have the type of succinct harmonies that only family members do; they’ve been simpatico since birth. I saw them again on a TV special fifteen years later and was shocked to see how frail they were (in addition to the fact that three of them were still alive).One brother was blind and had to be lead on to the stage. Another looked ready to turn to dust in a strong wind. You could hear the crowd gasp at their appearance -- Then they opened their mouths to sing – and I turned the volume up. The 80 year-old old bone yard escapees sang a song entitled “You’ll Never Grow Old.” By the middle of the song, the audience was clapping out the beat. At the end, they got a standing ovation. They made me believe that music can indeed keep you young. Thank you, Mills Brothers (and Cab) for being the inspiration for my sentimental journey.
“Songs Without Words”
Classical Music From “The War”
(1 out of 5 stars)
Having worked for an orchestra, I tried to keep an open mind about music for the opera glasses crowd. But being a recreational vocalist, reviewing a CD of instrumentals can be about as exciting as watching a conductor glue down his hairpiece. (And believe me, I’ve seen it done.)
Two compositions, “Walton: The Death of Falstaff” and “Copland: Concerto for Clarinet, Strings, Harp and Piano” are refugees from “The War” CD. What, there was a shortage of classical music in W.W.2? Well plastic was being used for the war effort, so maybe some of these compositions should have been fashioned into shells and fired at the Reichstag. Judging from Burns’ choices, good classical during the war years was as rare as a pair of nylons.
Yo Yo Ma plays with the passion of a barefoot gypsy with a hotfoot dancing around a campfire as he channels Mendelssohn’s “Song Without Words.” Yo Mama plays with a high degree of passion absent from most of the other selections. I can’t dance to it Dick, but I might listen to it again.
Beware of men with two first names (I can say that I’ve got one). Pierre-Laurent Aimard’s “Ligeti: Lamento From Hommage A Brahms” is music from the milieu of Charles Ives, which means nightmarish, nonsensical chording on the piano, French horns that sound as if they’re recalling the hounds, and psyche ward violins. Your biggest lamento will be the time you spento peeling your braino from out of this draino.
Cellist Steven Isserlis and pianist Pascal Devoyon tap into the mournful sadness of war with “Faure Elegie Op.24.” It takes a few measures before Isserlis and pianist Pascal Devoyon work as a team, but when they do, Devoyon’s waterfall of keys pushes Issrelis to harness the sorrows of war in his performance.
It takes a brave man to record solo, now all pianist Barry Douglas needs is talent. Interpreting Liszt’s “Nuages Gris,” Douglas sounds as if he’s dusting, rather than playing the keys. I know classical music calls for subtlety, but don’t make me turn the stereo up to 11 just to figure out if you’re there. Leave the Gris Gris in New Orleans, Barry.
“Messiaen: Quartet For The End OF Time” by Ensemble Tashi is case of the title serving as a critique of the performance. The end of the world may very well sound like Richard Stoltzman’s Indian Point siren clarinet – I hope not. I don’t want to die with my head between my knees with a splitting headache. Personal note: I met violinist Ida Kavafian (along with her sister Ari) when they were guest soloists with the orchestra I worked for. She was charming, down to earth, quick witted and beautiful, the exact opposite of this piece.
Leonard Slatkin and The London Symphony Orchestra throw their collective weight around with “Elgar: Nimrod From Enigma Variations.” If memory serves me right the last person I referred to as “nimrod” threatened to turn me into an enigma – or worse. This is classical music in all its pompous glory; majestic flourishes of horns, hushed strings, and rumbling tympani.
I’m no expert on the music of the Second World War, but the omission of the Andrews Sisters leaves a gaping hole in the soundtrack’s credibility. (After all, Burns has 4 CDs to play with. He could have put them in somewhere.) It’s commendable to scholarly, but leaving out a group’s that sold 75 million records and were the most popular female artists of the 40s is akin to doing a documentary on American presidents and leaving out Lincoln. Burns should have gone for a wider variety of artists as well instead of doubling or triple up on songs by the same group. Burns wins the battle for integrity; but ultimately loses “The War” because too many of the performances are duds.