Preserving that `eminently listenable jazz'. `Swing Reunion' promises to be a memorable three-record set
``Jazz is the riskiest of all music -- you cannot do a predictable jazz recording.'' These are the words of record producer George Spitzer, who, along with producer Edith Kiggen, managed to pull off two wonderfully unpredictable, historic recorded evenings of jazz at Town Hall early this month -- a ``Swing Reunion.'' Seven veterans of the swing era, whose names have been associated over the years in a variety of musical situations, provided the music. These were pianist Teddy Wilson; vibraphonist Red Norvo; guitarist Remo Palmier; saxophonist Benny Carter; guitarist Freddie Green; bassist George Duvivier; and drummer Louis Bellson. Mr. Spitzer, director of Book-of-the-Month Records, has been licensing existing recorded material from outside sources. And he has recently begun to branch out and do its own recording. The Swing Reunion is the company's its first jazz recording.
Why a Swing Reunion? And why these particular musicians?
Initially, the idea was to create a durable recording of eminently listenable jazz, and, as Mr. Spitzer says: ``I wanted interaction between the musicians, as well as between the audience and the musicians. The only way you can have superb jazz is with superb musicians who can relate with each other, who want to relate with each other.''
He stressed the importance of the audience, too: ``With jazz you have to play to somebody. It must be recorded live. The interaction, the spontaneity of jazz -- you can't get it in a studio.''
The two evenings lived up to his desires and expectations. They were elegant and swinging. And they were comfortable. It was obvious that these men really did enjoy playing with each other -- the audience could feel it. It was unlike so many of the popular ``all-star'' assemblages, where musicians are lumped together because of their previous association with a particular band, era, or whatever, with little regard for the compatability of their styles, let alone their desire (or lack of desire) to play together. Even though all seven have played with one another in the past, this is the first time they all have appeared together.
For the purposes of the recording (a three-record set that will be released this fall), the musicians were asked to play a different program each night, to include something they hadn't recorded before, and to add some new material. The only deviation from this was the repetition of a couple of tunes they felt could have gone a little better.
George Duvivier, whom Benny Carter refers to as a ``national treasure,'' and one of the most versatile, skillful, and musical of all jazz bassists, took the stage alone to open the concerts both nights. He was joined, one by one, by the other members of the group -- all attired in tuxedos -- as they slid into a lightly swinging version of the old jazz favorite ``Rosetta.''
Throughout both evenings, the band played in sundry solo settings and group combinations, providing just enough variety to keep things moving -- the musicians even took turns introducing each other, the tunes, and the band. Red Norvo, who is the soul of sweetness, took a couple of lovely solos -- one on ``Candlelight,'' an impressionist piece by Bix Beiderbecke, and the other on Duke Ellington's ``Dancers in Love,'' which elicited some spontaneous fingersnapping from the audience.
Teddy Wilson, with a poignant and lighter-than-ever touch, played several solo and duo spots (with Duvivier), including a medley from ``Porgy and Bess,'' ``Body and Soul,'' ``Stompin' at the Savoy,'' and ``Shiny Stockings.'' Mr. Wilson's gentle lyricism was especially evident on Billy Strayhorn's ``Lush Life.''
The smiling Freddie Green, legs crossed in the familiar pose he has struck since 1937 with the Count Basie Orchestra, nailed down the time with his rhythm guitar, while Remo Palmier covered the solo guitar spot. The public appearances of Mr. Palmier are so rare, it was a treat both to see him and to hear his straightforward, melodic way of playing. He did a couple of intricate improvised counterpoint duets with Mr. Norvo that got a burst of applause from the audience.
Benny Carter is a wonder. The man takes command of the saxophone and makes it mirror his every idea and emotion to perfection. He was a charmer with the audience as well, and brought the house down with a vocal rendition of a hip little tune called ``All That Jazz'' (from the movie ``A Man Called Adam''). His own composition, ``Evening Star,'' was lovely -- and he played it beautifully.
Louis Bellson's vast and imposing drum set, with two bass drums, although it looked a bit intimidating on stage, never got in the way under Mr. Bellson's sensitive hands. He played respectfully and solidly behind the quietest tunes, and only let all the stops out on his two blockbuster solos, where he displayed his penchant for swirling brushes and wild, cross-handed stick work, sometimes using four sticks at once!
The band played ``Town Hall,'' a composition written especially for the occasion by Louis Bellson and Remo Palmier -- a nice jump tune with a minor feel. These two men also contributed another original, ``Expressway.'' Mr. Duvivier's solo bass was featured splendidly on ``I Can't Get Started.'' He managed to capture the rich chromaticism of this song all by himself, with pure intonation and fine phrasing -- not an easy feat on the instrument.
Town Hall, which was chosen by the musicians, seats 1,497 and was filled both nights. This was a special occasion -- an event -- and everyone knew it. The musicians enjoyed themselves, and the audience loved it.
As for the recording -- how was it done?
``It was recorded digitally -- a two-track recording,'' explained Spitzer. ``With responsible, intelligent preparation, one can get better sound on two track than with 16 track. You get a more genuine sound. This has been evidenced by great past recordings in both classical and jazz. It's just a matter of having a competent recording engineer, which we had -- Malcom Addey.''
The Swing Reunion recording will be available by mail and at selected record stores. For information, write: Book-of-the-Month Records, 485 Lexington Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10017.