Despite, or perhaps due to, being one of the most in-demand guitarists of the swing era, Dick McDonough rarely had the opportunity to lead his own record sessions. When he did get a chance to direct an ensemble in the mid thirties, he had the ears and connections to select some of the best jazz musicians in New York City. Record company ARC had the studio and cash, so they supplied the music and oversight.
After an impeccably played but soporific inaugural session of sweet music and waltzes on June 4, 1936, the company seemed to start hearing this group’s potential at their next session on June 23. Bunny Berigan’s melody statements on trumpet, Claude Thornhill’s piano solos and Artie Shaw’s clarinet obbligatos spice up Tin Pan Alley soft-serve like “Summer Holiday” and “I’m Grateful To You.” All three players are used in the same way, even at the same time in both arrangements, hinting at some A&R calculation of what a little musical individuality might do for sales. Things continue to loosen up on “Dear Old Southland” with a characteristically smart, swinging solo by Shaw and some brightly harmonized ensembles. “Way Down Yonder In New Orleans” swings even harder and leaves even more room for improvisation.
By August 4, 1936 and with slightly different personnel, those highly organized, jazz-flavored dance band arrangements have been replaced by open-ended jazz charts that are also very danceable. Dick McDonough and His Orchestra finally get a chance to stretch out on four tunes (“Dardanella, It Ain’t Right, Between The Devil And The Deep Blue Sea” and “In A Sentimental Mood“):
Berigan lives up to the accolades of Louis Armstrong, Benny Goodman and generations of musicians and fans devastated by his early death. His tone is blistering yet relentlessly warm. He swaggers into “Dardanella” and “It Ain’t Right” and adds a plaintive element to Ellington’s “In A Sentimental Mood.” Toots Mondello, best known for his section work with the big bands of Benny Goodman and others, is ( I believe) the confident, joyous clarinetist on these tracks, and (definitely) the rhapsodic alto sax voice on “In A Sentimental Mood.” Adrian Rollini’s bass saxophone, freed from its role in the rhythm section of so many twenties bands, is now even wittier and more flexible. His vibraphone also adds another color to the band. Drummer Cozy Cole is prominent throughout, adding a popping feel that’s part Jazz Age and part Swing Era to “Between The Devil And The Deep Blue Sea” (just listen to his splash cymbal at the end of the first chorus). Vocalist Buddy Clark clearly listened to Louis Armstrong and absorbed what he heard; Clark clips and elongates his phrases while never sounding like some commercial concession.
The once absurdly busy and now woefully forgotten tenor saxophonist Larry Binyon gets in some husky solos, with pianist Sammy Prager and bassist Paul Prince rounding out the ensemble. McDonough’s solos are spare both musically and literally. Maybe he wanted to give his colleagues extra room, making him a modest and/or smart leader as well as a tasteful guitarist. Judging by the energy on these sides, all the players were happy just to breathe.
Too bad that the very next day, as though hung over from too much improvisation and swing, the label was back to serving sedate tempos and sugary, occasionally mind-numbing words (why would a songwriter think that “color scheme” is a suitable lyric for anything other than a paint shop jingle?). On this session and McDonough’s remaining ones, the beat bounces more than swings and most of the tunes are generically pleasant. They’re also much more tightly arranged. Even Clark slides back into the role of legato pop singer.
It would be hard for a band like this to make a “bad” record, even an uninspired one. There are still beautiful, at times creative touches to find over the course of McDonough’s twelve sessions for ARC. He would in turn never lead another record session on this or any other label. It’s difficult to say whether McDonough was discouraged by his experience as a leader or simply too busy to care. He just did what he could, when he could.