Favorite Fridays: Phil Napoleon Will Say “Anything”

According to pianist Marty Napoleon, when his uncle Phil asked the audience at a gig what he should play, they replied, “Play anything!”  Here is what “Anything” meant to Phil Napoleon:

For Napoleon, “Anything,” (either song title or aesthetic) signified beauty, warmth, and enough rhythm to keep things laidback but not directionless.  The tension and release between minor and major chords (at 0:01 and 0:06, respectively) also illustrates his ear for symmetry in “anything” he played.

Makes you wonder what Phil Napoleon could have come up with had listeners asked for “something special.”

Slack tempo and tender mood aside, this recording points to the power of musical paraphrase.  Napoleon’s glistening melody bears repeating, and his “Emperors” rely on recapitulation rather than deconstruction; variety and expression are as simple and infinite as the difference between two voices saying the same lines.

Trombonist Tommy Dorsey starts the side with his mellifluous air column, a preview of the smooth, legato style that would make his Swing Era ballads into the perfect soundtrack for necking.  Napoleon’s muted trumpet follows with a clear, unadorned statement of a second theme.  The contrast between Dorsey’s rhapsodizing in brass and Napoleon’s pinched “wah-wah” inflection actually offers the most interesting contrast.  The second theme just isn’t as memorable as the opening melody, and it’s only a few musical sighs short of smarmy.

Luckily, clarinetist Jimmy Dorsey takes us back to the original melody, with just the slightest variation in notes from his brother’s opening chorus.  A trombone and a clarinet naturally have very different sounds, but the difference between a trombone and a clarinet playing “Anything” is so much more than simple mechanics.  The repeated melody highlights those differences as distinct aural experiences.  Though he doesn’t depart very far from the melody, Dorsey’s reedy tone and liquid phrasing make what’s been said before into a whole new personal expression.

Eddie Lang says “Anything” with tight guitar plucks and a shade of the blues, before his musical twin Joe Venuti glides over the theme on his honeyed violin.  The theme we know so well by now moves from downhome to refined and then triumphant when Napoleon enters on open horn. We briefly expect a clarion, assertive cadence, but instead it’s right back to Dorsey’s clarinet, and a more reflective finale.

“Anything” turns out to be a perfectly descriptive title, and a reminder that jazz doesn’t always involve rifling through chord changes or improvising whole new compositions.  Jazz is originality and expression of self, no matter how many times a musician has played something (or an audience has heard it).  Along those lines, the musician truly can say “anything.”

Special thanks to “Atticus70” for this and all the other incredible music they share on YouTube, and for sharing with me Marty Napoleon’s terrific anecdote about his uncle came up with “Anything.”

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