Ein Ansturm In Berlin

A good friend recently shared this record with me, the listing for which in various discographies regularly sparked my curiosity:

This is one of my favorite songs/arrangements, with Fletcher Henderson’s version widely considered a crucial recorded example of developments in jazz arrangement and improvisation at the time, here interpreted by another band, in their own personal way, and demonstrating how other national cultures absorbed American popular music of the twenties. In other words, it is a goldmine.

José M. Melzak’s orchestra dba as Orchestra Merton plays with a crisp, metronomic beat and staccato phrasing that might seem like the antithesis of jazz or even the most classically-tinged ragtime. Yet dismissal is rarely as interesting as curiosity: what did this group of presumably mostly German and likely all European musicians, probably classically trained, whose exposure to jazz and American dance music was perhaps secondhand, see and hear in the score for “The Stampede?” What regional dances did they have in mind playing the chart? Musicians often have to play for an audience, so what were the audience expectations Melzak’s band was trying to satisfy? Instead of calculating what they missed, it’s ear-opening to consider what they might have done right.

At the very least, this band’s firm ensemble sections, transparent textures, and precise intonation are commendable; it’s like “The Stampede” filtered through the woodwinds and brass of a symphony orchestra. The airtight ensemble stop-time transition into the second chorus (at 0:31 in the above clip) sounds like one instrument. The minor key second strain (at 1:28) acquires a spooky musical theater vibe, with the trombone’s operatic vibrato and those tongue-in-cheek cymbal crashes. The soprano saxophone peeking out slightly on the penultimate chorus, halfway between an obbligato and a harmony part, is another subtle but novel touch.

Grammophon-platten.de explains that “The Stampede” was recorded at Melzak’s penultimate recording session. Melzak had led a popular ensemble in Berlin for several years, playing various venues and events as well as recording frequently before having to leave Germany when the Nazis took power. After that, his musical activity was sporadic. The website also notes this record as Melzak’s “’hottest’ title.” Yet his discography also includes numbers such as “Everybody Stomp,” “Oh, Baby” and “Last Night On The Back Porch,” indicating that a little American hot music kept the band gigging. Judging by “The Stampede,” it also got this band thinking and reacting to new things. Now it’s the listener’s turn.

The Melzak band circa 1926. Photo from grammophon-platten.de

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