The name suggests a gangster

Muggsy Spanier. The name suggests a gangster from the Al Capone era, but Francis Joseph “Muggsy” Spanier was a musician. Given that the mob controlled all the best nightclubs in those days, and that, like Capone, Spanier was a native of Chicago, they might have crossed paths.

Muggsy played the cornet. The what? It’s a cousin of the trumpet – same basic design but a bit smaller, and the tube is differently shaped, and has a mellower sound. For many years it was the preferred instrument in jazz bands. The trumpet was all a bit bold and, well, brassy.

Spanier was just outside the absolute top flight of jazz musicians in the 1930s and 1940s. He played with the big guys: Fats Waller, Sidney Bechet, Bob Crosby, many more. Just didn’t quite crack the A-list, but surely not through lack of talent.

Trumpet playing evolved, and that instrument became king in jazz. The cornet – well, it’s still around, but a minority thing. But, man, does it sound great? Certainly in the hands of Muggsy Spanier it does. This is a 1941 recording, a shellac cutting of a sort of Dixieland-meets-swing version of a gospel tune, “Little David, Play Your Harp”. Actually, no harp is played, but there are lots of horns, played with skill and exuberance. Just listen, especially to Muggsy on the cornet.

  • Artist: Muggsy Spanier And His Orchestra
  • A side: Little David, Play Your Harp
  • B side: Hesitating Blues
  • Format: 10”, 78 rpm, shellac, mono
  • Label: Decca
  • Made in: Australia
  • Catalogue: Y5972
  • Year: 1941

Many of the records featured on this blog, and hundreds of others, are for sale via Discogs

Liquorice stick

On Sunday, my wife and I saw a jazz band, Sandra Tulty’s Swing Quartet. Australians all, and all stellar musicians: one of those jaw-dropping jazz ensembles, which sing, play multiple instruments, and take on solos without so much as raising a sweat. I was particularly impressed by the clarinettist, Michael McQuaid. He moved in and out of the music, soloing with extraordinary power and dexterity.

It reminded me of the great Artie Shaw – one of those musicians I have discovered through Planet Vinyl. Shaw was a contemporary of Benny Goodman, and they were built up as rivals, though the two men liked and respected each other. They were both Jewish (Shaw was an anglicization of Arshawsky) and they both took the jazz clarinet, the “liquorice stick” as it was called, into aural spaces no one had ever even thought of.

IMG_2241This is Artie Shaw’s recording of “Begin the Beguine”, released in 1938. The record has been played so often that the label is hard to read, but it once belonged to someone called Dawson. Whoever that was, they took good care of their records – the shellac still plays well, letting the smooth, sinuous clarinet sound shine.

  • Artist: Artie Shaw And His Orchestra,
  • Track: “Beguine the Beguine”
  • Format: 10”, 78 rpm, shellac
  • Label: His Master’s Voice
  • Manufactured in: Australia
  • Catalogue: EA 2369
  • Year: 1938

Many of the records featured on this blog, and hundreds of others, are for sale via Discogs

 

 

 

 

A strange democracy

“Jazz is a team game”. This was said a few days ago by T. S. Monk, a stellar jazz drummer who is touring Australia. Monk (son of Thelonious) was chatting on community radio about his art. “In a jazz group, everyone gets to solo. No one is the star, because everyone’s the star.” I’d never really thought about it this way, but he’s right. A jazz group is a strange democracy of geniuses.

Solid_(Grant_Green_album)

Case in point. Grant Green was a guitarist. I didn’t know that when I found this LP – I had never heard of him. I still didn’t know it when I had listened to the record. I loved it: dazzling be-bop, amazing musical prowess. But no instrument stands out. Everyone solos, even the drummer. I guessed Grant Green might have been on sax.

All this shows that I don’t know much about jazz, but I’m learning. That is part of the point of Planet Vinyl. Grant Green, who has been described as “one of the great unsung heroes of jazz guitar” was born in Missouri in 1935, and recorded prolifically, mostly for Blue Note records and mostly in groups headlined by others. Like many other jazz greats of that time, drug addiction marred his career and ruined his health, and he died aged only 38.

But, man, could he play. The LP was originally recorded in 1964, but inexplicably not released until 1979. Even a jazz neophyte like me can recognise it as a work of genius. This track, a Duke Pearson tune called “Minor League”, is the album’s opener. Like everything else, it is brilliant, with solos all round. Green shines on guitar, but so does everyone else: James Spaulding on alto sax, Joe Henderson on tenor sax, McCoy Tyner on piano, Bob Cranshaw on bass and Elvin Jones on drums.

I used to wonder why, when you hear jazz on the radio, the announcer gives the name of every musician. This is why. Jazz is a team game.

  • Artist: Grant Green
  • LP Title: Solid
  • Side 1, Track 1: “Minor League”
  • Format: 12”, 33⅓ rpm
  • Label: Blue Note
  • Catalogue: LT 990
  • Manufactured in: United States
  • Year: 1995 (reissue: recorded 1964, first released 1979)

Many of the records featured on Planet Vinyl are for sale on Discogs.

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Sergeant Pepper’s before there was one

The technology for stereo sound was invented in the 1930s. No one used it much. It was partly that the equipment, both to record and play back stereo, was expensive. But mostly, no one saw much point in stereo music. The first stereo LPs came out in the mid-1950s, and they were all of sound effects. Trains, were popular. You could hear them steam in from the left, pass with a loud whoosh, and then fade out to the right. Novelty stuff.

2020-sleeveThen this LP appeared. It was the idea of Enoch Light, a veteran American band leader. A skilled an imaginative musician, he decided to make music crafted specifically for the medium of stereo. Persuasive Percussion was built around the work of jazz drummer and vibraphonist Terry Snyder, who had played with Jimmy Dorsey, Benny Goodman and other swing legends.

Greg Milner tells the story in his fabulous history of recorded sound Perfecting Sound Forever:

Most of the songs on the album were well known standards … But the album was recorded and mastered with such care and the stereo effect was so dramatic , that is was unlike anything most people had ever heard … Even the album’s packaging made it seem like special …an abstract pattern of black dots designed by the painter Josef Albers …  Persuasive Percussion was like a concept album, with the “concept” being your hi-fi … a Sergeant Pepper’s (before there was one).

Persuasive Percussion was a huge hit. It millions of copies, and paved the way for stereo to become the dominant format for recorded music. This was not always such a good thing: mono sound works perfectly well for most music  and there was some naff use of stereo effects over the years. A lot of excellent mono recordings were also “split” for stereo editions. Like the mass shift of the vinyl back catalogue to CD in the 1990s, the reformatting was often hasty and carelessly done, actually diminishing sound quality.

The thing about Persuasive Percussion is that Enoch Light had a concept and patience and care, and Snyder and the other musicians on the album got the concept, and had the skill to execute. The result is a delight.

This is my favorite track on the album, a reworking of the Cole Porter tune “My Heart Belongs to Daddy”. Worth putting on a pair of headphones and turning up the volume for this one.

  • Artist: Terry Snyder and The All Stars
  • LP Title: Persuasive Percussion
  • Track: Side 2, Track 1 “My Heart Belongs To Daddy”
  • Format: 12”, 33⅓ rpm
  • Label: His Master’s Voice OCSD.7501
  • Manufactured in: Australia
  • Year: 1959

Many of the records featured on this blog, and hundreds of others, are for sale via Discogs

 

The alt + obscure litmus test

The true test of whether a record is both obscure and alternative? You should be able to pick it up and look at the cover, read the words on it, and have no idea what is the band name, and what is the record title. Equal Local (which turns out to be the band) pass this test with flying colours with their 1981 12-inch EP, Madagascar. The words tell you nothing. The cover design is interesting, but also tells you nothing.

equal local madagascarThe only thing I did recognise when I found this record, nestled next to a water-damaged copy of Barry Crocker Sings the Movies, was the label. Missing Link has an honoured place in the history of Australian music (obscure and alternative sub-branch). It was a little indy label, putting out all sorts of adventurous music in the late 1970s and 1980s. Lots of musicians passed through different groups under different names, flowering briefly and then moving on to new projects.

There is a website, www.punkjourney.com which has some information about the Equal Local, though the music is nothing like punk. The site uses the label “post punk”, whatever that might mean, but the description of the music is on the nail: “Utilizing a funky pulse-like beat as a base, the band was free to lay hypnotic textures and a rich tapestry of styles over the top.”

In this track, “The Cult Of Simplicity”, the base line sets the scene. It feels like nighttime in a dubious city. Over the top, what I think is a synth (clean, high-pitched, unvarying) and what is definitely a saxophone (sleazy, improvising, dark), engage in a call-and-response. It is stark, moody, troubling. Personally I would call it experimental jazz, but who cares about the label: it is inventive, exciting work.

  •     Artist: Equal Local
  •     EP Title: Madagascar
  •     Track: B1 “The Cult Of Simplicity”
  •     Format: 12” 45 rpm
  •     Label: Missing Link, MSD 519
  •     Manufactured in: Australia
  •     Year: 1981

Many of the records featured on this blog, and hundreds of others, are for sale via Discogs. Mention this code “MSD519” before 1 October 2016 to receive a free 7” disc of your choice (up to the value of $5.00) with any purchase.

 

 

The ‘Don’t Worry, Be Happy’ Guy

“Bobby who?”

That is what people will say if you mention Bobby McFerrin. But start to sing “Don’t worry”, they will instantly join in “be happy”, and most of the time will also start to smile.

dwbh

I too knew “Don’t Worry, Be Happy”, a novelty hit from 1988, which I liked at the time and still do, but did not know the name of the artist or anything about him. I assumed that, in common with most novelty hits, it was a fluke. The planets had aligned, a musician had a brief and lucrative 15 minutes of fame, before returning to a career in forensic accounting.

This is why, on Planet Vinyl, we never assume anything. We listen, and then dig up some information. I was utterly and completely wrong. I began to suspect this when, with zero expectations, I played the B-side of this single. What unfolded was a beguiling, funny, acapella, bebop-meets-rap hymn in praise of domestic life, the “Simple Pleasures” of the title. As a man in his middle years who has come to understand and love concepts such as “home” and “family” and “marriage”, things which once I was cynical about – this was a discovery. Who is Bobby McFerrin? I wondered.

He is a wonder, a true original. Born in 1950 in a musical family – both his parents were opera singers – he grew up loving jazz, especially Miles Davis, and studied piano and excelled at it, but also became a vocalist of such inventiveness and originality that he transcended the genre, and jazz is a pretty tough genre to transcend. Using his voice and body in extraordinary ways, he was, as one song title put it, his own sound system.

“Simple Pleasures” is the title track of an album which includes a version of Cream’s “Sunshine of Your Love”, complete with a vocal “electric guitar” solo. If there is one bad thing about jazz, it is that it can be a thin-lipped and exclusionary world, and McFerrin’s inventiveness and success offended some pretentious folk. To which, I have now doubt, he would have replied “Don’t worry, be happy”.

  • Artist: ‎Bobby McFerrin
  • Single Title: Don’t Worry, Be Happy
  • Track: Side B “Simple Pleasures”
  • Format: 7”, 45 rpm
  • Label: EMI-Manhattan MH.2131
  • Manufactured in: Australia
  • Year: 1988

Many of the records featured on this blog, and hundreds of others, are for sale via Discogs

Poor old Johnny Ray

Poor old Johnny Ray …

This was a first line of “Come On Eileen”, which was a huge hit in the early 1980s for a UK band, Dexy’s Midnight Runners. I loved the song, but I was a teenager and had no idea who Johnny Ray was, so asked my Dad.

“Hmmph. He was a pop star. He was the first of the Screamers,” he said.

Ray 1956 aPuzzled, I asked what he meant. It emerged that it wasn’t Johnny Ray who screamed, but his young female fans. You know the hysterical screaming which made the Beatles pretty much inaudible when they played live? Apparently this meme started with Johnny Ray.

My Dad was a conservative soul. He loved music, but he believed it had reached perfection in the works of J.S. Bach, and been going downhill ever since, with the possible exception of Gilbert and Sullivan. So, he was never going to approve of Dexy’s Midnight Runners, or indeed Johnny Ray.

He had a point about the screaming, mind.

That was all I knew about Johnny Ray until I bought this 10” 78rpm disc. It is one of the “G.S.” collection, and came out in 1956. This was right at the end of shellac as a popular medium, and shows that “G.S.”, though fond of jazz and swing, liked the emerging pop of the fifties as well.Ray AM

The record stands as a monument of this transition. A jazz classic, Fats Waller’s “Ain’t Misbehavin’”, is given a doo-wop treatment by a rising rock star. The B-side is altogether different: in “Walk Along with Kings”, Ray shows himself a strong singer of a straight gospel which even my Dad could not disapprove of.

But I would wager this record against a mint condition copy of the first release of “Love Me Do” that it was “Ain’t Misbehavin’” that G.S. bought it for.

  • Artist: Johnny Ray
  • Title: Ain’t Misbehavin’
  • Track: Side A “Ain’t Misbehavin’”
  • Format: 10” shellac disc, 78rpm
  • Label: Coronet KP-032
  • Manufactured in: Australia
  • Year: 1952