Tag Archives: Vic Berton

Annette Hanshaw’s Small Groups

Singer Annette Hanshaw’s wholesome good looks and girlish sound are like catnip for lovers of twenties nostalgia. That shouldn’t obscure her strictly musical gifts.

Hanshaw’s voice was definitely of its time: earnest, bright and occasionally a little thin. It was also rhythmic, flexible and sexily sweet yet completely natural. She takes a merely pretty little ditty like “Who’ That Knocking On My Door” and turns it into something personal as well as musical:

Hanshaw’s interpretation clues the listener into why none other than Tommy Dorsey (no pussycat when it came to evaluating singers or sidemen) christened her a “musician’s singer.” Hanshaw’s sense of float and drive catalyzes a dream band of (White) twenties jazz musicians, with Adrian Rollini on bass sax, Joe Venuti on violin, Eddie Lang on guitar and Vic Berton’s barely heard but powerfully felt drums in turn providing a beautifully spacious feel.

They also squeeze a variety of different sounds from this small hodge-podge of instruments. The exchange between Lang, Rollini and Venuti, with Venuti double-stopping harmonies behind Lang’s tight plucking, Venuti strumming aggressively behind Venuti’s violin and Rollini tossing out short bridges between them, feels like a crossed ensemble signal that clicked into something “right.” Along with Rollini’s hot fountain pen (sounding like a clarinet with a steel wool reed) the instruments partner with rather than parody the lead. This isn’t a singer plus an accompaniment; it’s a group of musicians, including Hanshaw on vocals. Hip stuff, even if it’s also a lot of fun.

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Red Nichols: The Grand-Uncle of Cool

Cool jazz is usually assumed to have been a reaction to bebop that first appeared in the late forties, with opponents popping up soon after.  It’s no secret that Bix Beiderbecke and Frank Trumbauer were experimenting with “cooler” sounds in the twenties.  Yet the lineage of the cool, as well as its its haters, is just as strong in the music of Ernest Loring “Red” Nichols.  Both Red’s jazz and cool jazz share a sense of exploration and reflection, along with critics who were unable to listen past their own fiery, immediate preconceptions.

For Nichols’ kindest adversaries, he was merely a Bix Beiderbecke imitator, while words like “cold” and “mechanical” have logged a lot of mileage courtesy of his other detractors.  Such attacks may or may not have to do with the unromantic truth that Nichols was a disciplined, shrewd player and businessman who was able to pay his bills.  Geographically, chronologically and musically, he was also his own musician, .  During a period when “jazz” meant earthy and “hot,” Nichols had the imagination and gall to work with lighter textures, nuanced arrangements and subdued, cerebral energy.  A lucrative studio career has resulted in a nearly insurmountable discography, but  Nichols’ take on Hoagy Carmichael’s “Washboard Blues” best illustrates his singular cornet and style:

Nichols’ way with a front line speaks volumes from the start.  Instead of the three-way polyphony heard in hundreds of combos at the time, cornet and clarinet lay down a bone-dry lead  (similar to the brass and reed front lines of most post-war groups).  The attention to detail for just two horns is also revealing, first answering Eddie Lang‘s guitar in unison for the introduction, then switching to tight, coy harmony for the melody, with Vic Berton‘s timpani offering its own abstract commentary.  When collective improvisation does materialize, it’s with the same balance and intimacy heard earlier.  Even the timbres are telling: Nichols’ clean, lithe, slightly clipped cornet, Jimmy Dorsey whistling polished, cutting phrases on clarinet.

The false fingerings and ghosted notes of Nichols’ solo illustrate why “clever” doesn’t have to be an epithet.  Dorsey’s arpeggios and phrase entrances come across as more acrobatic but equally measured.  Pianist Arthur “The Baron” Schutt shows off his classical studies with busy, two-fisted rubato, while Lang’s strings resemble a steely, pensive harpsichord.  The players cherry-pick their notes as though in the midst of some detailed internal calculus, insistently (and for that time, bravely) refusing to throw everything in until they know what’s possible.  Many critics hear careful reserve.  Other listeners just notice technique, curiosity and patience.

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