I wrote this installment three years ago in 2019 when I was covering the trial of former Minneapolis police officer Mohamaed Noor (thus the reference to “returning home from court”). I had forgotten about it until I heard John Pizzarelli and Jessica Molasksey playing a number from the classic 1963 Johnny Hartman/John Coltrane album on their February 12 “Hearts and Icicles” edition of Radio Deluxe. This post elicited an email message from Terry Teachout that I used in the update. I thought this installment of the Sunday Morning series — slightly revised and expanded, but still not too long — might be worthy of another spin on the turntable.
According to Yeats, the intellect of man is forced to choose between perfection of the life or of the work. Does anyone choose perfection of the life? It doesn’t seem like a realistic alternative.
Perfection of the work, however, is a different story. Driving home one day from court last week, I listened to Ann Hampton Callaway spin the songs on SiriusXM’s Siriusly Sinatra channel. Playing Favorites is the name of the show and I felt lucky to happen onto it. Ann is one of my own favorites. A few months ago I saw her in concert at the Ordway in St. Paul backed by Ramsey Lewis’s band and then with sister Liz at the Dakota. Perfection of the work.
One of the songs Ann picked to play was “Lush Life” by Johnny Hartman with John Coltrane on sax, written by Billy Strayhorn. Here, I thought, is a perfect song performed perfectly.
Well, how about a few more? Seeking a diversion from the horror and stupidity of the news, I jotted down the first few that came to my mind. There’s no arguing about taste, as the adage has it. Maybe you can argue about Hartman and Coltrane, but you can’t argue about Frank Sinatra and Nelson Riddle on Cole Porter’s “From This Moment On.” The combination of Sinatra and Riddle featured prominently in Ann’s list of favorites as well.
Thinking my way back to a few of the artists who enticed me into the songbook, I want to highlight Ella Fitzgerald. It was her birthday [on April 25] last week [when I originally wrote this]. Shouldn’t it be a national holiday? I think it should. Below we have Ella backed by Joe Pass performing the Gershwins’ “A Foggy Day,” off the first of four albums Ella recorded on Pablo with Pass. (Thank you, Norman Granz.) It kicked off side 2.
Ann deserves an hour on the Sinatra channel for her own work. She is something else. On her recording Signature, she picked out “signature songs” by her favorite artists. From Ella’s songbook she plucked “Mr. Paganini (You’ll Have To Swing It),” a song Ella first recorded with the Chick Webb Orchestra in 1936. Ann talked a lot about Ella with me when I interviewed her back in 2009. Her Ella tribute album — To Ella With Love — is fantastic.
By my lights Mel Tormé was one of the greats. His perfectionism did not go in vain. Listen, for example, to one of his performances of “When the Sun Comes Out” (lyrics by Ted Koehler, music by Harold Arlen). Mel loved the song. He recorded it several times, including this version with the Marty Paich Dek-Tette back in the ’50’s. Mel reunited with Paich in 1990 for an incredible live performance at the Fujitsu-Concord Jazz Festival in Japan (available on disc but no longer available on YouTube).
Mel performed “When the Sun Comes Out” for one of his live at Marty’s recordings in 1982. Here he was backed by the late Mike Renzi on piano, Jay Leonhart on bass, and the Buddy Rich protégé Donny Osborne on drums. I was thrilled to see Leonhart backing Ann Hampton Callaway for a great show at the Dakota a few years back. Ann also talked about Mel with me in the interview linked above.
Digression: Mel is an underappreciated great. He must have been some kind of genius. He was a gifted singer and performer as well as a songwriter, a prolific author, and a popular actor. His memoir It Wasn’t All Velvet is terrific. In the video below he sings his own “Geometric Blues (Pythagoras, How You Stagger Us)” with the Mel-Tones. It was one of the the songs he wrote for a 1948 episode of his radio show. The episode was set at a small college. Mel wrote the song because the comedy writers for his radio show were struggling with the episode. I originally found the recording on the four-disc Proper Records box set Jazz and Velvet. As AllMusic puts it, the compilation “features a wealth of Tormé material from an era when he had varying control over his recordings, but none of them would cause the older, wiser artist to feel shamed by his early years.” I took the explanation for how Mel came to write the song from the booklet that accompanies the box set. End of digression.
Thinking a little more about the artists and the songs drawing me into this music, I worked my way back to Sarah Vaughan’s performance of “Midnight Sun” on her 1978 Pablo album How Long Has This Been Going On? Sarah was backed by the dream team of Oscar Peterson, Joe Pass, Louis Bellson, and Ray Brown. (Thank you, Norman Granz.) The question I asked myself was not how long this has been going on?, but rather where did that come from? The song, the vocal, the lyrics, the performance all blew me away.
Johnny Mercer famously wrote the lyrics after hearing the instrumental composed by Lionel Hampton and Sonny Burke on the radio in 1947. In The Poets of Tin Pan Alley Philip Furia concludes with the observation that “the lyric itself is a midnight sun, a last blaze of an Alley style extinguishing itself along with the Broadway stage and Hollywood studios its songs had once fueled.”
Everyone should know Nancy LaMott. She suffered with an extreme form of Crohn’s disease before she died of cancer at the age of 43. I thought I first heard of her in a loving profile by Terry Teachout in the New York Times, but I can’t find it now. Perhaps it was Carey Goldberg’s 1996 retrospective in the Times. I eventually caught up with her through Come Rain or Come Shine, her album of Mercer songs. “Accentuate the Positive” (music by Harold Arlen) may not be a perfect song, but Nancy LaMott made it so in this incandescent performance that turns that sermon into a statement of faith.
UPDATE: Terry Teachout kindly steered me to the loving profile of Nancy LaMott I must have had in mind: “Mourning Nancy LaMott.” Bringing me back to my theme here, Terry writes in his remembrance: “She was that most uncommon of artists, one whose life was worthy of her work.”