It was pretty common practice in the 1930s and ’40s to simply borrow a famous (or even obscure) theme from a classical composition and turn it into a popular song, its composer being conveniently dead and thus incapable of suing or collecting royalties. The music business powers of the day weren’t too shy about this kind of thing (they’re even worse now) and it’s surprising how many of these hybrids have entered the jazz repertoire and are trotted out now and then, often thanks to some good records of them made over the years. Most of these versions have been instrumental, a good thing because, trust me, you don’t want to hear the words that were dreamed up for most of them, they’re pretty drecky. It’s not like Lorenz Hart or Cole Porter were writing the lyrics, they both had bigger fish to fry, but their musical content is usually strong enough.
For example, the old spiritual “Goin’ Home” is based on one of the movements (I’d tell you which one if I knew or cared) of Anton Dvorak’s famous “New World Symphony” – Czech it out. Actually it’s funny, because the main minor theme (notice how I didn’t say “major minor theme”) that opens this opus always reminds me of the first few notes of “My Funny Valentine”, if played by a German marching band with a pole stuck way up its ass. (Come to think of it, all German marching bands sound like they have a pole shoved pretty far up there.) There are plenty of good jazz recordings of “Goin’ Home” – by Art Tatum, Jack Teagarden, Archie Shepp – and most unforgettably by Ben Webster, who really knew how to milk the emotion from this kind of melody. I dare anyone to listen to his version and remain dry-eyed. Here’s Teagarden’s version from his fine Capitol record SWING LOW, SWEET SPIRITUAL:
Another early one was “Martha (Ah! So Pure!)”, which is from a popular operetta written by German composer Friedrich von Flotow in 1847 – honestly. The very tuneful aria was excerpted, a swing beat added and it became a huge hit for Connie Boswell in 1937; it was also performed by the Bob Crosby Orchestra. The fine singer Rebecca Kilgore made a nice record of it about twenty years ago with Dave Frishberg playing the piano, though it didn’t exactly revive the song. Here’s Boswell with Bob Crosby’s Bob Cats:
Also there’s “The Lamp Is Low”, which has been recorded by countless people, including Oscar Peterson, both on his own and backing singer Bill Henderson. It’s based on the main theme of Maurice Ravel’s elegaic piano piece “Pavane For A Dead Princess” – I’d tell you the French title but I feel like I’ve done well enough by spelling “pavane” right, thanks. This has absolutely nothing to do with anything, but I actually first heard this piece performed as a transcription by John Williams for two guitars, played by Williams and Julian Bream on a record from the ’70s. During the making of this they must have gotten really smashed at least once, judging by the looks of them on the album cover. The arrangement is beautiful enough to convince you “Pavane” was originally written for two guitars, until you hear somebody like Walter Geseking play it on piano – boy, could he unravel Ravel. Here’s Bill Henderson singing it with the Oscar Peterson Trio:
The majority of these songs were co-opted from Russian composers though, as in the case of “Song of India”, which was originally an aria from an 1896 opera by Sergei Rimsky-Korsakov called “Sadko” (emphasis on sad), believe it or not. Tommy Dorsey had it adapted as an instrumental for his big band, featuring his very high, muted and beautifully controlled trombone playing. It was a pretty big hit record for “The Sentimental Gentleman of Swing” (read tough, hard-drinking son of a bitch), but it’s not as if anyone else has done the tune much since then, it was kind of a one-off. Dorsey blew its ‘corsets off’ and that was that.
When he wasn’t busy operating as a Moscow detective, P. I. Tchaikovsky wrote as many great melodies as anyone who ever lived, so it’s little surprise he was victimized twice, yielding “These Are the Things I Love” and “My Reverie”. The former has been recorded many times, by Frank Sinatra among others, and I first learned it from playing it with trumpeter Sam Noto, who really liked it. Later, Rob McConnell wrote a beautiful a capella arrangement of it for his Tentet. As you would expect from its source, it has a very affecting melody with interesting harmonic possibilities. “My Reverie” was maybe most notably done by Sonny Rollins on his famous record “Tenor Madness”. Sonny plays it as a walking ballad, which suits the song’s somewhat yearning and plaintive melody.
Then there’s “(Take My Hand, I’m A) Stranger In Paradise”, or as we musicians sometimes call it, “Take My Gland, I’m A Strange Little Parasite”. The melody was borrowed from a theme by Borrowed-in, sorry, make that Borodin. (Which theme I couldn’t tell you and I’m much too lazy to look it up, I’m too busy making with the jokes here.) Anyway, it’s a very interesting tune with an unusual form of A-A-B-A-A, 48 bars in length. The 16-bar bridge is really a humdinger, full of sudden and far-reaching key changes, there’s nothing else quite like it in the world of song and the only American songwriter I could imagine coming up with something like it is Jerome Kern, maybe. (I’ve always felt that of all the major songwriters, Kern was the closest to being an actual composer.) From the home key of C Major, and always starting on the dominant chord of the new target key, the bridge moves to Db Major, then to F Minor, on to A Major then to G and G7, more or less. As Yogi Berra once said after seeing Doctor Zhivago, “Boy, it got really cold in Russia back in those days.”
(Forgive me the aside, but this brings up one of guitarist Ed Bickert’s pithier lines, from a career full of them. One time the Boss Brass was rehearsing some new arrangements by Rob McConnell, some of which had some pretty tightly-voiced ‘razor-blade’ chords for the horns and other dissonant stuff. It was early spring and Rob had been living (and writing charts) year-round at his cottage up north on a lake near Bancroft. As was his habit, he stopped the band and asked Ed about one of the crunchier horn voicings, checking if it was OK. Ed answered in his best ranch-hand deadpan, eyebrows twitching menacingly, “Boy….. she must have got mighty cold up there at the lake this winter.” It was some time before we all stopped laughing.) Anyway, my favourite record of this tune is by the Curtis Counce Quintet, it’s fun to hear great players like Jack Sheldon, Harold Land and especially Carl Perkins have their way with it, bridge and all. Here they are:
There are probably more examples of these long-hair-pop hybrids, but either I don’t know or have forgotten them, thank your lucky stars. There’s one more I want to mention though because it’s become my favourite of these – “Full Moon and Empty Arms”. It was written in 1945 by Buddy Kaye and Ted Mossman, based on the theme to Sergei Rachmaninoff’s famous Piano Concerto No. 2. Knowing that he lived well into WWII, I’ve often wondered how good old Sergei felt about this, but he very obligingly fell off the twig in 1943, so was none the wiser.
What appeals to me most about the song is its melody – it’s very strong, dramatic (maybe even operatic) and Russian to the bone. It’s the kind of tune that lodges in your brain for days and won’t leave you alone. It’s tonally ambiguous because, although it’s in a major key, almost right away there are melody notes that also suggest minor, such as the flat-seven and flat-six. You might call this effect “Kremlin Phrygian” or something, the major-minor dichotomy gives it a sort of “Volga blues” flavour and accommodating the above-mentioned notes opens up some interesting harmonic possibilities. It’s a 32-bar form, structured ABAC. The major-minor tension happens during the A sections, the B and C sections are more straightforward and diatonic, they have the same beginning but B has a longer cadence, whereas C resolves more quickly back to the tonic.
The first and most famous record of the song was by Frank Sinatra, right off the bat in 1945. Sarah Vaughan recorded it in 1963 and I’ve played it live a couple of times, backing John Alcorn singing it.
The list of other artists who’ve recorded it is not inspiring however, to say the least – Eddie Fisher (yawn), Donna Brooks (who?), Robert Goulet (shudder), Jerry Vale (ick), The Platters (really?), Carmen Cavallaro (wow), Jim Nabors (shazaam, shazaam, I’m gettin’ dizzy), June Valli (me neither), Billy Vaughan (zzzz), and Caterina Valente (break out the Spumante Bambino!)
This reads like a virtual “Who’s Who” of kitsch, you can practically hear the layers of bad taste – sugary strings, “Outer Limits” vocal choirs, banks of tremolo-guitar, over-emotive singing, wacko ethnic effects, electric tympani – congealing like the noodles in a giant, overcooked lasagna of crap. This must have had poor old Rachmaninoff rolling around in his grave and classical purists wringing their hands at the philistinism of these shameless pop rip-offs of a master’s work. I can sympathize and you might wonder why, given all this, I like “Full Moon” so much. The answer is simply that I got lucky. For a long time the only version of “Moon” I’d heard was a wonderful one by J.J. Johnson, still one of my favourite tracks by him and in all of jazz for that matter. It’s proof of the old principle that it’s not so much what is played that really counts, but how its played. J.J. just plays the hell out of it and I’ll admit that if I heard any of the above versions first I’d probably have given the tune a wide berth, like say the size of Manitoba.
J.J.’s version is from his 1961 Columbia album A Touch of Satin, probably so named because there’s also a great take of “Satin Doll” on it. It’s a quartet date with Cannonball Adderley’s rhythm section of Victor Feldman on piano, Sam Jones on bass and Louis Hayes on drums. This came about because J.J. did a European tour as a guest with Cannon’s band in the fall of 1960 and liked the trio so much he decided to record with them, small wonder. Johnson plays the tune in F Major at a medium-up tempo and his arrangement is simple but ingenious, structured very much like the normal approach to “Green Dolphin Street”. There’s a suspended feeling on the more harmonically complex A sections, with a repeated ostinato, pedal-point figure on the tonic F from the bass and a clean break on bar eight each time, maintained throughout the whole track. I’ve never quite been able to figure out what Feldman is playing chord-wise over this pedal – it’s mysterious sounding but great – some unrelated triads and/or diminished chords, I think. The B and C sections are played in 4/4 swing, the whole format really suits the contours and structure of the song. The arrangement is just the underpinning for the success of this track though, it’s how well everyone plays that really gets it off the ground.
J.J. avoids the temptation to over-dramatize the melody, but plays it with such authority and so majestic a sound that he almost convinces you it was written for the trombone. Some critics and other listeners have characterized Johnson as being too dry and unemotional a player, but I’ve never bought this. His playing on the Miles Davis album “Walkin'” sure doesn’t sound that way, nor does it on “Getz and J.J. at the Opera House”, to name two of many examples. I think people confuse his great technique, musical intelligence and respect for form and structure with blandness; Buddy DeFranco and Gerry Mulligan were often similarly misunderstood. At any rate, I’ve rarely heard him sound more passionate than here, he clearly loves the song and is just in blistering form. His solo shows his mastery of musical architecture, but with an even greater variety in rhythm and sound than usual; there are passages of repeated staccato notes, smooth legato phrases, some sustained notes and percussively blasted ones. He plays some really angular intervals negotiating the tricky chords of the A section and actually almost cuffs a couple of notes in his fourth chorus, but no matter, he’s going for broke as he uses the whole range of the horn with total command. In short, he’s J.J. Johnson, only a little more so here. The intricate song and this great rhythm section seem to bring out some new things in him.
Victor Feldman is fantastic here, both in his comping and soloing; he gets off some wonderful snaky phrases and long, looping lines which remind me of Tommy Flanagan, high praise indeed. As for Sam Jones, he’s a rock as usual, holding down the pedal ostinato and he walks with his typically springy beat and ropey sound. Louis Hayes offers a clinic for young drummers here, kicking the whole thing along without picking up a stick; it’s very crisp brushwork all the way with the intensity never flagging. After the last melody chorus they play an extended coda, a long cadence that almost sounds like part of a Viennese operetta (it’s beautiful and I assume this is taken from the concerto) then they fade on the pedal and end with J.J. landing on a fat low F. It’s a marvelous track and when I get listening to it I usually end up playing it four or five times in a row. I’m positive I wouldn’t like “Full Moon” so much if not for this version and I’d like to think Rachmaninoff would have dug it too.
Recently I became aware of a much different jazz version of “Full Moon” to rival Johnson’s. It’s by Erroll Garner and I didn’t come across it so much as it came across me, in a weird “it’s a small world” kind of way, as follows:
In mid-October I was doing some recording at John Loach’s house involving John Alcorn, Reg Schwager, Mark Eisenman and as a special guest our good friend Warren Vache, the great cornettist from New Jersey. After the first night’s session, Mark, Warren and I were unwinding with a few drinks and somehow Erroll Garner’s name came up. Warren fixed Mark and I with one of his wicked, gleaming stares and said, “Youse guys like Erroll? Check this shit out!” He had a laptop with a huge database of jazz downloads on it and punched in this Garner track.
It started with one of his patented intros, where he establishes a tempo and key but you have absolutely no idea what he’s going to play, just like his sidemen often. Then suddenly he was into “Full Moon” at what our old drummer friend Joe Bendsza used to call a “professional tempo”, meaning audaciously medium-slow, a loping grind that’s hard to keep moving, but child’s play for Garner.
The groove of it grabbed us right away as Garner played the melody in block style with insinuating lightness, almost toying with it, his right hand getting a purring sustain out of the piano almost like an organ. Meanwhile, we swore there was a rhythm guitarist like Freddie Greene playing light 4/4 along with the bass and drums, but no, it was just Garner’s patented left hand “strumming”, right on the pulse – chonk, chonk, chonk, chonk. It was unbelievable, the beat as wide as a house, you could drive a truck through it. How the hell does he do all this at once? We were spellbound halfway through the melody chorus. Mark and I had heard lots of Garner before and he often used this same method, but this tempo and tune somehow brought it into bolder relief. I’d never heard Garner sound so, well… Garner-like, but he was just getting warmed up.
Erroll proceeded to have at “Full Moon” as only he can, playing all kinds of things – gentle blues touches, feathery block chords, spinning lines, tremolos, some funny mock-classical flourishes – the right hand lagging impossibly behind the beat then catching up. He built momentum and intensity throughout, while always keeping the melody close by and staying light and cool, the beat undulating, yet steady as a rock. It was toe-tapping madness and Warren was in his glory as he watched the utter joy of this track hit us. Mark and I were dancing around, shaking our butts, laughing, uttering “wows” and snapping our fingers like we’d never heard jazz before, our minds blown. The whole track lasted just over four minutes and as soon as it was over, we immediately asked Warren, ‘Play it again, play it again” like he was our daddy and we were a couple of little kids.
We all know about the Pyramids of Egypt and the Colossus at Rhodes etc., but among the other wonders of the world is the miracle of someone even conceiving of playing the piano like this (an otherworldly mixture of ragtime, stride, Zez Confrey, Earl Hines, the Count Basie rhythm section, bebop and God knows what else) and then actually bringing it all together in such a classic, integrated style. Part of the wonder of Erroll Garner is that he manages to play such creative, complex and original jazz piano while seeming to be just having fun, kidding around and entertaining folks, bringing them joy. It almost seems effortless until you see film of him and immediately notice the dripping sweat – those towels he carried around in a briefcase weren’t just for show.
Even as colossal a pianist as Cecil Taylor – light years removed from Garner in style and temperament – went out of his way to acknowledge what a great and original pianist Garner was. To me, apart from the feeling in his playing, the proof of the pudding is in the profound groove and bounce he gets going, as on “Full Moon”. You can’t fake swing and it never, ever lies – either your foot is patting or it isn’t. Speaking of which, I’ve noticed an odd paradox in Garner’s playing. Because of his unique 4/4 left-hand strumming, Garner gives the impression of rhythmic autonomy, so that when he’s playing with bass and drums you’re tempted to say, “He doesn’t really need those guys, they’re not doing much.” But, when Garner is on his own, he doesn’t really play this way at all, he drops the Freddie Greene left-hand and tends to play more rubato or even out-of-tempo altogether. His solo playing tends to be more flowery, saccharine and less swinging, I don’t like it nearly as much. He doesn’t seem to need the bass and drums, but he does; I think it’s the joy of matching their pulse with his left hand that drives his playing in a trio.
I have about fifteen Garner CDs and thought surely “Full Moon” would be on one of them and that I’d somehow missed it; this can happen when you have more records than time to listen to them. But no, after pouring over all of them, not one had this tune and I can’t tell you how much this bugged me. Busy with other things, I let it go, while keeping it in the back of my mind to find this track on a disc somewhere, somehow.
A few months later I did some on-line research, Googling “Full Moon and Empty Arms” and Wikipedia’s entry informed me that Garner recorded a version in 1946. When I combined the title with Erroll Garner in a search, a bunch of record websites turned up, several of which told me that he also recorded it in 1956 on a Columbia album called “The Most Happy Piano”. “Great” I thought, “now I have to figure out which version I heard.”
Later I emailed a friend who knows a lot about jazz records and history and is pretty tech-savvy to boot. I mentioned my quandary and he sent me a YouTube link, asking, “Is this it?” He mentioned that he had a two-CD set of Garner’s 1956 trio stuff, which included “Most Happy” and said he’d be happy to burn me a copy as soon as he could find it in “the pile” – I could relate. He also said “Most Happy” was hard to find because Columbia had never bothered to release it even though it was one of their best-selling jazz records ever. The YouTube version was from 1946, with Al Hall on bass and Specs Powell on drums. My memory of it was now a little dim, but this seemed to be quite similar to the one Warren Vache had played for us, it certainly brought me a lot of pleasure. Something was bugging me though… Al Hall and Specs Powell were also on the 1956 version, but I supposed they could have played on both, being old buddies of Garner’s.
Anyway, God bless him, my friend turned up in late February to one of my gigs (despite having broken his arm the night before slipping on some ice) and he brought me a copy of the 1956 CDs. I couldn’t wait to get home and hear this version of “Full Moon” and when I did, the mystery unravelled as I’d started to suspect. This was the same version as on YouTube, in fact the only version Garner recorded; both YouTube and Wikipedia had been off by a decade in getting just one digit wrong on the date – not September 11, 1946, but rather ’56. I’m thrilled to have these great records and to be able to listen to The Elf play “Moon” at my leisure and you can too:
In the middle of writing this, I played the opening engagement of the sumptuous new Toronto jazz venue, the Jazz Bistro – a very elegant reincarnation of the old Top Of the Senator – I can’t tell you how happy I am that Sybil Walker is again running it, along with a couple of other key staff members from the past. Boy, have we needed this, hallelujah and thank God. The gig was three nights with tenor saxophonist/flautist Lew Tabackin, backed by Mark Eisenman on piano, Terry Clarke on drums and yours truly on bass. I mention this for a couple of reasons having to do with the theme of this, namely these classical-jazz cross-pollinations.
Firstly, on Good Friday, Camille Watts, who plays flute and piccolo with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, turned up to hear Lew, who’s just an amazing flautist. She sat right in front of the bandstand and hung on every note, enjoying his marvelous sound, power and inventiveness on the flaut, er…flute. I noticed she moved to a table farther away for the second set and realized why with a smile. Lew doesn’t always play loud on the saxophone but when he does, he can produce notes capable of blowing people backwards. Camille’s face had been about three feet away from the bell of his horn and she probably wanted to keep her hairstyle the way it was, thanks. She clearly enjoyed the music just as much from a safer distance though; this was somehow very gratifying and wouldn’t likely have happened 20 or 30 years ago. I see it as a sign of how far jazz has come up in the world, to the point where’s there’s now a healthy mutual respect between classical and jazz musicians and words like “serious” or “legitimate” preceding “music” have become a thing of the past. This is as it should be, what Duke Ellington had in mind when he said, “There’s only two kinds of music, good and bad, and it’s up to each individual to decide which is which for themselves.”
Secondly, Lew included in his repertoire another hybrid that I’d forgotten about, namely “Till the End of Time”. It’s based on Chopin’s famous “Polonaise in A-flat” and was a hit for singers like Perry Como, Doris Day, Dick Haymes and Tony Martin (oy vey), way back. Lew introduced it by saying humorously, “And now, we’re going to play some Polish music for you.”
Here’s Dick Haymes singing it in 1945:
It just goes to show how these things keep cropping up unexpectedly and during my bass solo on it, I (almost) accidentally quoted both the MJQ’s “The Golden Striker” and Irving Berlin’s “Cheek To Cheek”. The melodies of each bear more than a passing resemblance to the first few bars of the Chopin; I wasn’t playing for laughs but it does show the stream of commonality that links all good music. It also reminded me that Gerry Mulligan’s Sextet played a wonderful arrangement of Chopin’s immortal “Prelude in E Minor” on the album “Night Lights”. It works really well as a gentle bossa nova, and hearing Chopin played by the likes of Jeru, Art Farmer, Bob Brookmeyer, Jim Hall, Bill Crow and Mel Lewis isn’t exactly hard on the ears:
I’m going to trundle off now, the New York Philharmonic’s orchestral adaptation of Ellington’s “Black, Brown and Beige Suite” has just been released and I must buy a copy.
© 2013 – 2016, Steve Wallace. All rights reserved.