As Christmas Day arrived, Bill Kirchner sent me a YouTube clip of a classic version of “Embraceable You”, recorded for Commodore on April 30, 1938 by Eddie Condon & His Windy City Seven. It was very thoughtful of him and as nice a Christmas present as any I received. Bill stumbled across it after not hearing it for years and knew I’d love it, which I did – repeated listening to its delightful four minutes made the immediate, concrete world melt away temporarily. A performance like this takes us back to a time when individuality in jazz was not only crucially important, but also more possible, if only because the field was less crowded. Furthermore, it summons up a brief interval when the darkness of the thirties in America lifted: Prohibition and the worst of the Depression were over and, while the storm clouds of war were gathering, they had not yet engulfed the world.
Like Bill, I was familiar with this track and had heard it before, but not for some time and it took a while to figure out just where I knew it from. Eventually it came to me, it’s on a very aptly named CD – PEE WEE RUSSELL, JAZZ ORIGINAL, a compilation of various sessions Russell did for Commodore as a leader and sideman. It was the singular personnel on this track – Bobby Hackett on cornet, Jack Teagarden on trombone, Russell on clarinet, Bud Freeman on tenor, Jess Stacy on piano, Condon on guitar, Artie Shapiro on bass, and George Wettling on drums – that made it come back to me. One doesn’t soon forget such a murderer’s row lineup, easily the best one Condon ever recorded with.
I’ve embedded the track below. Some may want to listen to it right away and return to the narrative, others may want to read the commentary first. Either way, I hope what I have to say will enhance everyone’s enjoyment of this music rather than detract from it.
Whose record is this, anyway?
While Eddie Condon may have been the nominal leader here and this date was reissued on CD under Russell’s name, it’s quite clear that Bobby Hackett was providing the musical direction on this track and maybe the overall session, which yielded some other equally fine music. It’s also pretty clear from the sound of it that “Embraceable You” was recorded early in the session when everyone was still sober, which was not always the case with these guys. It was not for nothing that Hackett came to call Condon’s brand of Dixieland “whiskyland”.
For one thing, there’s Gershwin’s tune itself as evidence of Hackett’s lead. More in the ‘30s and ‘40s than later, Condon’s so-called barefoot gang sometimes tackled standards to go along with the more customary staples of the ‘trad’ repertoire, but Hackett in particular had a special affinity for “Embraceable You”. He recorded an even more celebrated version for Columbia in 1939 with his short-lived and ill-fated big band, and tackled it with a quartet for Capitol in 1959. Then there’s the presence of Teagarden, which also has Hackett written all over it. The two were very close musically and personally, they would renew their jazz friendship many times on records over the years, including two very good ones for Capitol in the mid-fifties: COAST CONCERT and JAZZ ULTIMATE. While the other men on this session were Condon regulars and Hackett was at least a semi-regular, Teagarden, though very comfortable and fitting in effortlessly here, was not: Condon’s trombone regulars at that time were George Brunies or Brad Gowans and later, Cutty Cutshall. And finally, there are some thoughtful arranging touches and a sublime, elegant lyricism here that are much more typical of Hackett than Condon. Left to their own devices, Condon and his men generally offered a more extroverted, gutbucket style of music – one capable of lyricism to be sure, but usually of a more roughhouse variety. In contrast, this track is veiled, delicate, very intimate.
Don’t forget to wear a Condon
The type of music Condon and his gang made was most often called “Chicago-style jazz”, so named because many of them were either from the Windy City or settled there as young men to cut their musical teeth. Many were drawn by the irresistible magnet of hearing King Oliver’s band with Louis Armstrong at the Lincoln Gardens in 1924-5, or the New Orleans Rhythm Kings and other seminal bands at Friar’s Point. But, while the young upstarts took their inspiration from the original masters of New Orleans jazz, over time added a wrinkle of their own: a determined commitment to a springy and freewheeling 4/4 ‘walking’ beat, rather than the chunkier ‘two-beat’ of the earlier music. If there was a hallmark of the Chicago style, that was it, a kind of Dixieland-cum-Swing. Eventually all of them sought their jazz fortunes in New York under Condon’s titular leadership, he was the extroverted Fagin of this makeshift jazz orphanage. But like most labels, “Chicago jazz” missed the point: the style worked because of the ruggedly individual voices of the men who played it, not because it was a musical school of thought – it was not a “what”, so much as a “who”. There was a dichotomy at work in Condon’s circle: the overall vision seemed to be firmly retro-traditional, yet many of the key participants – men like Bud Freeman, Pee Wee Russell, Muggsy Spanier, Brad Gowans, Bobby Hackett, Wild Bill Davison, Jess Stacy, Dave Tough and George Wettling – were among the most fiercely creative and distinctively individual players jazz has known, brimming with energy, fire and personality. Condon deserves the credit he has received for providing a nurturing forum for these one-offs who might not have found as productive a musical home elsewhere.
By about 1950, Condon was something of a cottage industry – with two books, a newspaper column, a TV show, leading his mob at his recently opened club and on records while making with his famously barbed bon-mots, he was almost a household name, a real jazz personality. The irony of his career is that by the time this fame and fortune were at a peak and he was recording regularly for a big-time label like Columbia, his music began to show signs of going past its best-before date. To be sure, he still made some fine records in the fifties, but the circle of musicians surrounding him – so wide and varied in the previous two decades – began to narrow and so did the music they offered. A certain booze-soaked and coarse sameness began to set in as the routines on his records ossified and the repertoire became more predictably ‘trad’, with fewer free-ranging explorations of standards than before. Without variation, a typical late-Condon performance would go as follows: old Dixie warhorse, opening ensemble, piano solo, clarinet solo, trombone solo, trumpet solo, raucous closing ensemble with maybe a drum tag and then out. Perhaps success and wearing too many hats had blunted him somewhat, or maybe it was age and the grind of performing nightly at his club, but his glory years were the thirties and forties when he was recording for Commodore and Decca. The music his mob was making in those earlier years was fresher, more vibrant and more relevant, perhaps because he welcomed input and delegated authority more, as on this track.
These background details are not as important as the musical ones, so on to “Embraceable You”. The song is taken at a perfect walking-ballad tempo: slow enough to allow a relaxed exploration of this great song’s intricate nooks and crannies, but not so slow as to bog down – it moves, you could dance to this. It begins with an eight-bar intro fashioned by Hackett playing the lead on top with the other three horns offering a cushion of soft chord-pads underneath him, a gentle choir effect that continues throughout.
Bud Freeman is up first, playing the first sixteen bars of the song’s A-B form. He hints at the melody in his very first bar and offers traces of it elsewhere, but mostly he’s improvising right off the bat, with his curiously furry sound and billowing phrase shapes in play. This skirting around a definitive statement of the melody was quite forward-looking for that time – Coleman Hawkins was celebrated for a similar daring in his famous version of “Body and Soul”, but that came more than a year after this. I’ve long been split about Bud Freeman, as if I had a little imp on each shoulder, one whispering “yea” and the other “nay”. At his most harshly critical, the nay guy whispers…. You know, if Bud had spent more time practising and less time on his eccentric affectations, his beat would have been less flabby and his vibrato less braying – he would have sounded much better. The yea side often counters with….Technique, schmechnique…..what about his original ideas and musical vocabulary? And how about great records like “The Eel” and “Margo’s Seal”? Or his version of “Three Little Words” that Lester Young liked so much he called it “a bitch”? What about all that? But when I hear Freeman at his best like here – and there’s a lot of him at this level – the yea side wins out. If creating a unique personal voice is the true mark of jazz greatness – and at the end of the day, it is – then Bud Freeman is great, limitations and all. Nobody else sounded remotely like this, ever.
Jack Teagarden is next, playing the second sixteen. He stays much closer to the melody, but transforms it by gift-wrapping it with those patented little improvised flourishes and decorative turns of his, all delivered with that majestic tone. His was a talent so deep and natural that he could play a melody straight and still make it sound like jazz, and nothing but jazz. It’s one of the hardest things for a musician to do, but Jack always makes it sound easy.
Pee Wee Russell follows with a half chorus and it says much about his peculiar brand of magic that I listened to this cut many times before realizing that he breaks the song’s form sequence – he should be playing on the A section, but instead follows Teagarden’s B section with another B section. He’s not lost, it’s deliberate, as Condon and Jess Stacy follow him without a hint of surprise or confusion. The idea here was to drop an A section in order to give Hackett, who follows, a full chorus from the top without exceeding the limits of recording time back then. At any rate, what Russell plays is so absorbing that I only noticed this aberration recently. He sticks mostly to the woody lower register and his sound, never very clarinet-like, is gorgeous here, not as gurgling or squawky as it sometimes could be. As always, he sidles up to the song shyly, murmuring a few muffled asides and allusive comments up his sleeve and before you know it, you’re totally spellbound. He was a daring idea-man all the way, and perhaps his greatest gift was to force his audience to listen so closely to what he had to say because of the very diffidence of his abstraction, his oblique sotto voce. He’s like some great philosophical orator who delivers a profound thought in a very soft voice using heavily accented English – you pay close attention because you don’t want to miss anything. He finishes here by trailing off with a lovely slow, mooing trill, as if to say, “Hope you enjoyed that, chum, but I wasn’t really here at all.” Much has been written about Pee Wee’s uniqueness and all I can say is that, if he hadn’t existed, there’s never been a writer imaginative enough to have made him up.
And so on to Bobby Hackett, back at the top of the tune again. In his first sixteen the band plays an ornate, sashaying background figure behind him – puddle-um-dum tum-tum-tum – which implies double-time rather than forcing it. In the wrong hands this could be corny, but it’s charming here and allows Bobby to soar and swoop in and out of double-time, which he does. For someone who is regularly characterized as a supremely tasteful player, he often played a lot of notes – but always the ‘right’ notes and always arranged with perfect grace and logic. Given his maturity here, it’s shocking to realize that Hackett was only 23 and just becoming well-known. Musicians had admired him for some time, but it was his participation in the retrospective “Twenty Years of Jazz” portion of Benny Goodman’s historic Carnegie Hall concert earlier that year that turned the trick with the public. People marveled at this “new Bix” and Hackett became something of a star almost overnight, though he had to fight health battles and often received the short end of the stick in his career. No matter though, Hackett had all the ingredients of a top-flight jazz soloist in perfect balance – a great ear and flawless time, a gift for sublime melodic invention, all wed to his ravishing, silvery, burnished sound – glassy, but never brassy. As he would throughout his career, he offers here a fully realized piece of melodic improvisation without ever losing touch with the essence of Gershwin’s song. This was his special gift.
Bobby and the band go back to single-time in the second sixteen and, mindful of the overall story arc and that allotted recording time was running out, Hackett begins to wind things down a bit, suggesting the melody more. Toward the end of the chorus, the other horns drop the chord-pads and begin playing lines with Bobby in a loose, flawless closing ensemble – not barrelhouse exactly, but very warm. They slow down a bit and just when you think they’re finished, Condon plays a jingling little strum followed by two short horn chords and a cymbal choke, a beautiful little nudge-and-a-wink ending.
The soloists all have their brief glories, but this performance also succeeds on a group level and as always, the rhythm section is a big part of this. Though not afforded any solo space, pianist Jess Stacy makes himself very felt here by offering a running background commentary consisting of his elegant runs and glimmering tremolo fills, which serve to link and bookend each soloist. He’s never too busy but very tasty and musical as always in keeping the rhythm from growing too static. Though a gifted soloist and very rewarding to hear by himself, Stacy was a master at this kind of ‘blowing-accompaniment’ as a superb ensemble player; he’s my favourite of the many good pianists who played with Condon.
Artie Shapiro, just 22 in 1938, was one of the many solid bassists – Sid Weiss, Jack Lesberg, Bob Casey, Mort Stuhlmaker – who were in and out of various Condon units like a revolving door. He played with many other bands in those years, big and small – Paul Whiteman, Joe Marsala, Hackett and Teagarden, Benny Goodman and with countless singers. This music never featured the bass much but Shapiro supplies what’s needed here – big round notes and a bottom pulse – perfectly.
Though others held the post – Dave Tough, Buzzy Drootin, Cliff Leeman – George Wettling was the most regular of Condon’s drummers and epitomized the style more than any of them. He was a hard-driving swinger also capable of great dynamic subtlety and sounded equally good in small and big bands, especially those led by Artie Shaw and Red Norvo. Just shortly before he died a few years ago, I heard Jake Hanna give a little impromptu afternoon workshop as part of the Toronto Jazz Festival. He spent a good five minutes talking about what a great player Wettling was and how much he (Jake) had learned from listening and talking to him. Chiefly it had to do with Wettling’s sound and the care he took in tuning his drums – wiping down the calfskin head of the bass drum with a damp cloth to keep it loose, his crisp, refined snare drum sound and his beautifully matched cymbals – a big, sizzling Chinese and a little dark top ride. I was surprised, I thought Jake had taken all these tips from Davey Tough, but it was Wettling all along. The artistry of his drumming was almost matched by his skill with a paintbrush – he was a fine semi-abstract painter who studied under Stuart Davis and whose works sold. Come to think of it, Pee Wee Russell also became a good abstract painter later in his career. You really have to hear Wettling on a faster tune to get an idea of his full capabilities – in this slow and quiet setting he mostly keeps time discreetly, the musical thing to do.
And lastly, there’s Condon himself. With all the other hats he wore, his accomplishments as a guitarist mostly go unnoticed. That may have been the way he wanted it, he never took solos or used an amplifier. He played a four-string Gibson he called his “porkchop”, tuned like his original instrument, the banjo. It was higher-pitched than a normal guitar, which allowed it to ring and cut through more with a distinctive jangle, though on louder numbers you felt Condon more than you heard him. But on a ballad like this, he’s very evident, providing the chiming quarter-notes that move everything along and free everyone else up. Hackett said of him that “Eddie was the greatest rhythm guitarist you ever heard.” That might be going a little far, but he was certainly very good, he knew the right chord changes to thousands of songs and had very propulsive, driving time. I love the surprise little strumming cadenza he plays just before the tune ends, a nice nod that Condon was a fine musician, more than a mere figurehead or mouthpiece for these men.
At long last, the track itself:
In his Christmas email, Bill commented that while this may not quite be the equal of more noted versions of “Embraceable You” – such as Hackett’s from 1939 or Charlie Parker’s from 1947 – it has a special charm all its own. He also said that this would be as good an introduction as any for those who haven’t heard the principal soloists before. He’s right on both counts, but, while this version doesn’t quite have the individual brilliance of the ones mentioned above….. taken as a whole, it’s deeply satisfying on an emotional level as a collective performance, as a leisurely, meditative conversation between old and like-minded friends.
There’s just something about this track that’s really touching and special…….an atmosphere, a mood, a flickering, candle-lit ambience. Certainly there’s great romance and lyricism here and a very relaxed, welcoming after-hours feeling. The track hasn’t dated one bit, it’s still as fresh as wet paint. Part of its magic is that it stands up to repeated listening – as soon as it’s over I want to hear it again and each time I hear it is like the first time. The soloists all wear their hearts on their sleeves and the brevity only adds to their eloquence. But these things can be said of many great jazz records made through the years. There’s something else here though, a kind of light that’s hard to put a finger on. At the risk of sounding twee, I think there’s mostly a whole lot of love on this record. The love these men felt for this tune, for playing jazz and for each other – they loved one another like brothers and it shines through in every note. It’s something there can never be too much of.
The late, lamented Richard Sudhalter wrote about this kind of music as well as anyone and better than most. His weighty tome LOST CHORDS – WHITE MUSICIANS and THEIR CONTRIBUTIONS to JAZZ, 1915-1945 is a masterwork, one of the most important books written about jazz in the last fifty years. Though even-handed, the racial aspect of its purported intent was preemptively seized upon and misunderstood, causing a lot of overblown and wrong-headed controversy. Thus, many people missed the brilliance and sweep of his historical scholarship, his extremely stylish prose and the unique insights he brought as a fine trumpet player who knew many of these men personally and well. I’m inclined to leave him the last word here. Among the many eloquent things he wrote about Pee Wee Russell, Sudhalter commented that “Perhaps the ultimate tribute is to try and imagine Jazz without him.” That’s very well said and applies equally to the other principals here – Freeman, Teagarden and Hackett – like Pee Wee, they’re supreme individualists, utterly irreplaceable.
As a reward for hanging in so long and by way of contrast, and also to show how much Bobby Hackett developed as an artist over his career, here are two more clips of him playing “Embraceable You”. The first is the aforementioned big band one from 1939. It’s slightly slower and has a similar intro and is quite unremarkable until his brilliant, aching solo, one of the best he ever played. Hackett’s note choices here had considerable impact on up-and-coming bebop trumpeters Benny Harris and Dizzy Gillespie, who were 21 when it was recorded, just three years younger than Hackett. The second one is the quartet version from 1959 and sacrilegious though it may be, I prefer it to the 1939 one – it’s even slower, his sound has deepened and his melodic ideas and phrasing seem more flexible and adventurous here. I’ll take the 1938 one over either of them, but there are other great players involved. Happy listening.
© 2016 – 2017, Steve Wallace. All rights reserved.