A Little Winter Music

I’d hoped to write some sort of Christmas post – a Yule blog, if you will – as in the past few years but a lot of time was taken up with, well…….. Christmas, so I didn’t get to it. At any rate, I hope everyone had a nice one, as I did.

Most of northern North America is caught in a deep cold snap and there’s been plenty of snow to boot – actually, to shovel* – so perhaps a look at some music suggested by this weather is in order. In some cases the winter theme is captured by the titles only, but some of these songs also invoke the forbidding cold in their musical content too.

I’ve lost track of how many mornings the past ten days or so I’ve watched snow falling from indoors – sometimes straight down and peacefully, other times swirling or furiously blowing sideways; big flakes, little flakes. It’s happening even now as I write. Without fail this calls to mind James P. Johnson’s classic “Snowy Morning Blues”, which he revisited a number of times in the recording studio throughout his career. Like many efforts from that time it’s not a blues at all despite its title, nor is it particularly sad but rather quite jaunty and cheerful. Just as falling snow can be, provided you don’t have to go anywhere in it. It’s probably my favourite of Johnson’s piano pieces and certainly one of my favourite stride pieces ever, it has a lilting kind of strut I never tire of. And as a card-carrying Canadian, the implicit poetry of the title moves me, though I would adore this just as much if it were called “Steppin’ In Dog Shit Blues”. This is his first version from 1927, and taken at a slower tempo than later ones from the ’40s. The more leisurely pace only serves to broaden its stately and loping grandeur:

There have been dire forecasts about the deep freeze this year between Christmas and the New Year: frostbite warnings and cold alerts all over the place and to hammer all this home our laundry pipes have been frozen for a few days. This might not have happened if we’d left the heater on in our ‘laundry cubby’ but we turned it off to take advantage of the space as a kind of second ‘fridge’ when our real one got a little overstuffed with extra Christmas vittles – back to the drawing board on that idea. And there’s a prediction that Toronto will experience its coldest New Year’s Eve since the ’40s – another silver lining to yet again not having a NYE gig. Just to prove there’s a song for every subject or occasion, this leads quite obviously to Hank Mobley’s “Funk In Deep Freeze”, one of his best and most oft-performed tunes. Although it’s a hard bop staple, its title maybe seeks to take the notion of “cool jazz” to new extremes. Here’s the original version from his classic quintet album – Blue Note 1550 from 1957 – with Art Farmer, Horace Silver, Doug Watkins, and Art Blakey. The band is a kind of hybrid – Silver and the front line of his quintet at the time, with Watkins and Blakey from The Jazz Messengers of the day. There’s an effortless loose-limbed, bluesy relaxation to this performance which is timeless; most everybody sounds like they’re trying too hard on this tune nowadays.

Ed Bickert liked “Funk” and as a deeply blues-based guitarist always played the pants off it, which perhaps accounts for why it’s still played fairly often around Toronto. As an extra treat and for Canadian content, here’s a live video of Ed performing it in a trio with Don Thompson and Barry Elmes. The dark lighting and graininess are very effective in exaggerating the already considerable weather-beaten lines of Ed’s cowboy face and hands, but only by a little. Not to mention his venerable Telecaster, which looks here like it was fashioned from a huge block of very old, gnarled Stilton:

And now, to go for the jugular metaphorically speaking, one of the the most mournful and stark of winter songs, “The Winter of My Discontent”, written in the early ’50s by Alec Wilder with lyrics by Ben Ross Berenberg instead of Wilder’s usual collaborator, Bill Engvick. There have been many fine recordings of it by singers, including Jackie & Roy, Morgana King, Marlene VerPlanck, Norma Winstone and Toronto’s own Maureen Kennedy, in 2005. But by far my favourite version is by Helen Merrill from her superb 1965 record The Feeling Is Mutual. Surely one of the hippest small-group ‘jazz singer’ albums of all, it benefits from incisive arrangements by pianist Dick Katz for the dream band of Thad Jones, Jim Hall, Katz, Ron Carter, and either Pete LaRoca or Arnie Wise on drums. And Merrill’s “small” and coolly intimate approach is perfect for this singular song by one of the great mavericks of American songwriting.

There’s nothing quite like the moon in winter; depending on the phase it has a very clear corona of light or some ghostly penumbral shadows. One of Hoagy Carmichael’s lesser-known tunes, “Winter Moon” explores this both musically and lyrically in haunting fashion. This strikingly sombre version is from the wonderful 1956 record Hoagy Sings Carmichael, with a small big band of LA’s finest beautifully arranged by Johnny Mandel. The muted trumpeter featured here is Don Fagerquist and the whole thing begins with a rapt melody statement by Art Pepper, so effective that it sounds as though the song was written for him. This probably led Pepper to record the song on his excellent 1980 album with strings, entitled – wait for it – Winter Moon.

It’s odd, but the next two examples of winter music also come from the sunny climes of California; maybe it was the heroin. Next up is “Grey December”, composed and arranged by Frank Campo and performed by Chet Baker from his Pacific Jazz album of the same name, with Bud Shank on flute, Russ Freeman on piano, Red Mitchell on bass, Bob Neel on drums, Corky Hale on harp, and unidentified strings. Like “Winter Moon”, it captures the barren loneliness of winter at its bleakest:

Next up is something a little more positive: “(I Love the) Winter Weather”, composed by Ted Shapiro around 1940. The first recording of it was by the Benny Goodman Orchestra in 1941, with vocals by Peggy Lee and Art Lund. I’ve been hearing this version a lot lately because it’s on a very good Columbia Christmas jazz collection called Jingle Bell Swing which has been in my CD player for about a week now. Given the currently dismal weather picture, the lyrics are a little too idiotically cheerful so it’s just as well the best version I’ve heard is an instrumental one by Jimmy Rowles, from his hard-to-find but excellent 1959 Andex album Weather In A Jazz Vane. As the title suggests it’s a program of standards having to do with weather of all seasons, and being a tune-smith with a vast repertoire, Rowles offers songs ranging from the very familiar (“Let It Snow”) to the obscure (“Throwing Rocks At the Sun”) and in between (“The Wind and the Rain In Your Hair”, “Tropical Heatwave”, etc.) And his inimitably droll delivery of “It’s Too Hot For Words” marks his recorded vocal debut. It’s one of the small gems of so-called West Coast jazz and one wishes Rowles made more like it during those years; in fact one wishes he recorded more, period. The arrangements for the septet of Lee Katzman (trumpet), Bob Enevoldsen (valve trombone and tenor saxophone), Herb Geller (alto and baritone saxophone), Bill Holman (tenor and baritone saxophone), Rowles on piano, Monty Budwig on bass and Mel Lewis on drums are split between Holman and Rowles, with this nicely voiced chart credited to Holman. The baritone solo here is by Geller, with Holman playing tenor and Rowles’ delightfully oblique and pithy piano taking centre stage.

“Baby, It’s Cold Outside” is an obvious candidate for inclusion here, but after not hearing it at all until Jerry Fuller played the Ray Charles/Betty Carter record for me when I was in my early twenties, versions of it have been everywhere this season and I’m a bit sick of it. No, what we need now is a bit of warmth, which takes us to Louis Armstrong. Among many other things, Armstrong is the very warmest jazz performer I can think of, he’s like the sun. Here he is singing “Summer Song”, from Dave Brubeck’s unique and prescient jazz opera “The Real Ambassadors”, with evocative lyrics by Brubeck’s wife, Iola. It’s an exquisite, pastoral chamber song which I never tire of hearing, whether in this version or others by Carmen McRae or Brubeck’s Quartet with strings. Oddly, the images of Armstrong in the accompanying video show mostly his pensive side and I’m not sure what Ella Fitzgerald is doing here, welcome though she is. But the images of summer show very palpably what we have to look forward to once this deep freeze is over.

Postscript – It would seem my snow-shoveling days are over. I suffered a mild heart attack on the morning of November 23, while riding the subway on the way to work. It was uncomfortable and not particularly pleasant – pain and tightness in the chest accompanied by pain and numbness down the left arm and some sweaty anxiety, all classic symptoms – but I’ve had hangovers that felt worse. I won’t bore everyone with too much detail, but eventually I went to the emergency ward of a local hospital where after several hours and tests they determined I’d had a heart attack. I had an angiogram to diagnose the problem which determined that my cardiac issues – narrow arteries with some small nicks – could be fixed with medicine rather than angioplasty or other surgeries. In other words it could have been much worse and I got off with a very light warning. After three days I was back home on a host of new medications to thin the blood, lower blood pressure and repair the arteries. The upshot is that I’m more than okay, my numbers – blood pressure, blood sugar (I’m a type-two diabetic) are all really good and so is my outlook. I feel fine, if a trifle fatigued from time to time. If I behave myself – which, believe it or not, I’m doing – I should be healthier than I’ve been in years. All of which is to say thank you to those that knew about this and have sent their good wishes. And, finding myself on the right side of the grass, a fervent wish to everyone for a Happy New Year. On all fronts, surely it will be better than this past one, right? It just has to be.

© 2017 – 2018, Steve Wallace. All rights reserved.

14 thoughts on “A Little Winter Music

  1. Steve, thanks for yet another excellent article. Once again I have some music to check out that I didn’t know. Good news about your recovery. May you have a healthy and fulfilling new year. I’m looking forward to reading your next blog.

  2. Steve, here’s to a healthy new year for you and yours. Thanks for all your musings; they brighten my day and expand my world. Cheers, Barry

  3. Steve
    I forwarded your post to my own facebook page , including some positive comments
    about your insightful and unforced commentary on music , songs and performances.
    You had referred to Alec Wilder ( I am on my third copy of his book) and he had his own rather high standards about what constitutes a good song.
    You seem able to offer aesthetic judgements without the absolute certainty some writers prefer to [practice.
    I am recommending your posts to people I know who are serious students iof jazz and classic popular song.

  4. Wonderful and evocative article, Steve. Glad to hear you survived your mild attack. I was pre-diabetes Type 2, but managed it with diet, exercise and Metformin (the fountain of youth pill). Look after yourself, we need you, your music and your writing. Have a happy, healthy and melodious New Year!

  5. Steve, Such a relief that you are recovered. You say “if I behave “. My wife Judy kicked the puffing, although it was tough to do. But, as my dad used to say , old age is hell but consider the alternative !! I thought you were too young to know James P !! Being a teenager of the 40’s I recall Claude Thornhill’s theme Snowfall. Keep Lucky !!! Terry

  6. Happy New Year Steve and love to Anna too.I am so glad your numbers are good. The Jazz Babes need you around. Who else would we stalk???

  7. Thanks, Steve, for all the “new” music! Glad you’re doing – and looking! – so much better, and here’s to a new and better year. (Love/want that Helen Merrill album just to frame for my living room wall!) The feeling is mutual, indeed.

  8. Thanks for all of this, especially “his venerable Telecaster, which looks here like it was fashioned from a huge block of very old, gnarled Stilton:”

    Happy new year,


  9. Thanks for the James P Johnson Snowy Morning Blues. i agree, it has such a great and relaxed ‘lope’. I’m going to learn it.
    great blog.

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