WYNTON MARSALIS / “Embraceable You”
I shouldn’t do this. I shouldn’t pick Wynton for a classic cut, but regardless of what discretion is shouting in my face, my ears don’t lie, so Wynton it is.
One of the major knocks against Wynton used to be that he had great technique but he couldn’t play ballads. Well, he plays the shit out “Embraceable You.” He occasionally flashes that awesome technique of his, but for the most part he stays in the lower register, playing just above a whisper, blowing long tones rather than whiplash runs up and down the scale. But before I go on about Wynton, let’s back up.
“Embraceable You” is a Gershwin composition and as such it is harmonically a cut above most of the songs of its era. It’s a difficult song. After the opening notes, the melody is not all that memorable. If you’re a singer, you really have to work at it and if you’re an instrumentalist playing it at a ballad tempo, you have to come up with your own melodic ideas. In other words, despite how well known the song is within jazz circles, it’s still a major challenge to do it well.
So here are three different versions, three classic versions of a classic. We start off with a jam session from a Jazz At The Philharmonic session recorded September 18, 1949 at Carnegie Hall in New York City. The soloists are: trumpeter Roy Eldridge, who was known as “Little Jazz” and was “the” jazz trumpeter between Louis Armstrong and Dizzy Gillespie; then Lester Young, the reigning president of the tenor saxophone who was revered as one of the most lyrical tenor saxophonists in the history of jazz; trombonist Tommy Turk follows Pres and basically is a bridge to bring on alto-saxophonist-supremus Charlie “Yardbird” Parker who is single-handedly credited with modernizing jazz by founding the bebop movement; tenor saxophonist Flip Phillips closes out the session. The rhythm section is Hank Jones on piano, Ray Brown on bass and Buddy Rich on drums.
Little Jazz displays a big, brassy, surging tone that was characteristic of his playing, but mostly he’s embellishing the melody with growls, smears, little rhythmic figures and short runs. If you know the lyrics, you can easily sing along.
Pres alters the melody in very inventive ways. Indeed, he sounds like he’s singing. However, what is noteworthy is that he has offered us a complete melodic makeover and it’s a wonderful exercise. This is the first classic statement.
Tommy works the song from a melodic perspective also, unfortunately, his conception is neither as inspired as Pres' (which would be a challenge for anyone) nor as pretty as Eldridge's.
Then Bird takes flight. From the opening notes, we know he is up to something completely different. His approach is leagues beyond everyone else's in terms of harmonic variation. He’s singing too, it’s just in a different language. It’s a classic Charlie Parker solo, including a humorous quote. Indeed, for its time period it was radical.
Flip Phillips has the unenviable task of following Charlie Parker. He’s neither as melodically inventive as Pres nor as harmonically adventurous as Bird, but he plays with sincerity and acquits himself well as a foil for Parker and as a bookend mirroring the “swing” style of Eldridge.
I know that it is difficult to hear the greatness of this version over fifty-five years later, especially if one is not familiar with pre-fifties jazz, however, this version offers us the best of the outgoing era in Pres and the best of the incoming era in Bird.
Next up is Sassy Sarah Vaughan doing what only Sassy could do. This is from a Sarah Vaughn, a self-titled December 1954 release which featured trumpeter Clifford Brown, who unfortunately does not solo on "Embraceable You." Sarah lays down a clinic in jazz singing with that gorgeous voice and unerring musical understanding. Her entrance is the richest cream in tone and execution. So smooth. She is fully in control of her vibrato as she takes the song at a slow tempo that emphasizes her impeccable tone. After a piano solo by Jimmy Jones, Sarah sails back in on a high note and then proceeds to use timbre shadings and micro-tones to give us an ending worthy of a semester’s study. This is a classy and classic jazz vocalist at the top of her form.
Which brings us to Wynton Marsalis. After hearing Little Jazz, Pres, Bird and Sassy, we can now appreciate that Wynton pulls on elements of the four aforementioned masters to put together a solo that, in effect, reflects the whole history of post-New Orleans jazz up to the sixties. What would happen if Sarah played trumpet with Bird’s harmonic facility, Pres’ lyric inventiveness, and Little Jazz's swinging aggressiveness? What Wynton does is what would happen.
This is from Live at the Village Vanguard, a superb, budget-priced, seven-disc boxed set by Wynton that is easily his most impressive jazz outing.
You may now hit the back button and play these songs again!
—Kalamu ya Salaam
All they have to do is play…
You know, after reading the write-up, but before hearing the music, I didn't expect to like these tracks. I'm generally not a fan of jazz ballads, mainly because I don't know the words. I remember reading this story once that the legendary jazz pianist and educator Ellis Marsalis refused to record ballads with the young tenor phenom Courtney Pine until Pine learned the words to the songs. "How else can you play the song?" Ellis asked. I kind of feel that way about listening to jazz ballads. If I don't know the words, how can I enjoy the tune? In any event, I listened to the Sarah Vaughan, and it was OK. (At least I got to hear the words.) Then I heard the jam session version. Now, I don't know who's who, but by midway through, I was into it. It was immediately apparent what Kalamu means when he speaks about the older cats' prowess at playing ballads. There's a certain soulfulness, an ease that they display. It's something the younger players just don't have. Almost like the young musicians are trying to impress us with their ability whereas the older cats realize that all they have to do is play.
—Mtume ya Salaam
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