Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Moonlight In Vermont

Ella and Louis
Recorded August 16, 1956
Track Time 3:43
Written by Karl Suessdorf and John Blackburn
Recorded in Los Angeles, California
Louis Armstrong, trumpet, vocal; Ella Fitzgerald, vocal; Oscar Peterson, piano; Herb Ellis, guitar; Ray Brown, bass; Buddy Rich, drums
Originally released on Verve 2V6-8811
Currently available on CD: Available on Ella and Louis, which has been reissued around 700 times by the Verve/Universal people.
Available on Itunes? Yes

For the majority of these blog posts, I begin by doing what I usually lovingly refer to as "spinning the ol' Itunes shuffle." But, dear reader, perhaps you wonder how often I am 100% honest and do write about the first thing that comes up. The truth is, I'm pretty honest but let's face it, Louis Armstrong recorded many songs dozens of times (when you factor in the live records) and if I don't have the time, I'll just keep hitting the "shuffle" button until I get a song that Pops recorded only once or twice. Of course, when the spirit hits me or if it's a special occasion, I'll divide and conquer all the recordings of an Armstrong number in my collection for the purpose of a usually dissertation-length blog.

Well, today, I'm indeed divided, but I haven't been conquered yet. My shuffle landed on "Indiana." Yes, "(Back Home Again In) Indiana." Pops's opener from 1951 to 1968. And how many version are contained in my Itunes? 47. Now, if you think I'm going to sit here and analyze 47 versions of "Indiana," you're nuts.


Yes, there's always a but. The thing is, I love "Indiana." I've never gotten sick of it. What I have gotten sick of, is the myth that Louis Armstrong consistently played the same solos every night in his later years and never improvised. Balderdash! You see, to understand Louis Armstrong, you have to realize that in addition to being a jazz genius, the man was a great composer. And he worked on his solos, listening to them every damn night and day on his tape recorder, tinkering with them until he reached a solo he was 100% proud of. At that point, it would become "set" and usually didn't change much after that. But sometimes, the ride up to that point could be pretty thrilling, especially in the case of "Indiana," which took FIVE years before Pops settled on something that resembled a set solo.

These days, my Mac is treating me well and I'm learning how to do more editing-type stuff with it. So stay tuned as I'll take you on a journey through "Indiana" later this week.

"But Rick," you're saying, "Why all this talk about 'Indiana' in a blog about 'Moonlight in Vermont'?" No, I did not get my states confused. You see, this "Indiana" business is going to take some time but I don't have enough time to contribute one of my usual diatribes. However, doing my morning blog stroll (is that a term?), I noticed that Marc Myers at Jazzwax.com devoted his entry today on "Moonlight in Vermont." Marc did a fine job in outlining the tune's history as well as the unique composition of the lyrics (nothing rhymes and they're written in haiku form). So please go to Marc's site to read the backstory, as well as a list of his favorite versions of "Moonlight."

Pops encountered the Vermont moon on only one occasion and he had a helluva accomplice: Ella Fitzgerald. The tune was recorded during the session for their first Norman Granz Verve album, one of my favorite albums of any kind by anyone. This is a timely entry since I announced that my wife and I are expecting and the kid is going to either be named Louis or Ella and also because the song was recorded 52 years ago this week, on August 16, 1956.

In fact, EVERYTHING on that first album was recorded 52 years ago this week. What troopers. Granz rarely had time to capture Pops for days on end, so he had to cram as much as he could into short periods of time. The night before, on August 15, Armstrong and Fitzgerald warmed up by singing two duets at a Granz-produced JATP-style concert at the Hollywood Bowl (Verve/Universal should be ashamed for not issuing the complete concert on C.D., though Bob Porter has told me that he has tried to get them to do it for 25 years with no luck).

The next day, Armstrong, Fitzgerald, the Oscar Peterson Trio and Buddy Rich gathered in Granz's Los Angeles studio and when they left that evening, 11 tunes were in the can, suitable for issue. Looking in the Jos Willems discography, it's intersting to notice the take numbers: eight takes of "Isn't This a Lovely Day," five takes of "Tenderly," ten takes of "Under a Blanket of Blue," six takes of "A Foggy Day"...this session must have went on for hours. Clearly, Granz felt rushed at the end as the final two tunes, "The Nearness of You" and "Can't We Be Friends" were recorded in one and two takes, respectively (they're also my two favorite tracks on the album, which could also mean that everyone was supremely warmed up).

On an album with no duds, certain songs are still bound to fade into the background and for me, that usually happens with "Moonlight in Vermont." Listening to the original album as released, it starts with the perfect opener, a bouncy "Can't We Be Friends," before a long, gorgeous, slow reading of "Isn't It a Lovely Day," one of my favorites. But then "Moonlight" follows at almost the exact same tempo, it's much shorter and Pops barely sings on it. Thus, that's when my mind usually starts thinking about whether or not the Yankees are going to make the playoffs. But I don't want to slight the performance as it's quite beautiful. Listen for yourself:

Beautiful stuff, right from the Peterson piano intro. Oscar's the kind of guy who inspires fierce debate in the jazz world. As a pianist, I happen to love him but I especially love his accompaniment. He's very sensitive, yet melodic; I can't tell you how many times a soloist AND Peterson's backing both get stuck in my head equally. Ella's in prime voice here and Oscar couldn't be any more sensitive...listen to his "falling" piano as Ella sings about "falling leaves." Ellis's guitar is also very sensitive and Ella's former husband, Ray Brown, is a master at ballad tempos. Unfortunately, Pops doesn't get to sing one word of the first chorus, which is a shame. Perhaps he had trouble with it...the issued take is number seven. Or perhaps Granz just wanted to hear Ella sing it.

Regardless, Armstrong gets his time in the spotlight with a very pretty half chorus of trumpet playing. As I've written about time and again, Armstrong's playing on the Granz sessions is some of his most human because he was never fully at rest and his usually slightly worn-down chops forced him to head in some different directions than he was used to when he was playing at full power. The Peterson's (and Rich's sublime brushes) give him appropriate support and Pops responds. He sounds slightly fragile in the beginning, but it adds to the mood. Still Superman at heart, he plays the whole solo and octave higher than one might expect it. His descending little skitters in between the snatches of melody perfectly captures the mood of the lyrics, especially the aforementioned reference to "falling leaves."

Ella returns at the bridge, but what's the ominous growl behind her voice? Is a grizzly bear in the studio about to eat her? Nope, it's just Pops, moaning low to himself, but nevertheless getting picked up by the studio microphone. He's preparing to deliver his contribution to the vocal, singing the last half of the bridge, which was tailor-made for him, with its use of repeated notes. Ella takes it from there but Pops returns at the very end for one last pretty reading of the titular phrase. Very nice stuff.

So that's that for our scenic tour of "Moonlight in Vermont." Thanks again to Marc Myers for inadvertently giving me the idea (and by the way, Marc's "JazzWax" blog can now be found in my snazzy new lineup of links...moving up in the world, huh?). Next time out, things will get slightly rowdier as we wind up "(Back Home Again In) Indiana." Til then...

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