WHIRIMAKO BLACK / “Konehunehu/Misty”
Sometimes the obvious, the ordinary is filled with arcane and hidden delights. We know “Misty.” Know walking down the street, singing on the sidewalk, not caring who hears, 'cause we in love. That feeling on the way back from a lover’s total embrace, busting loose with unbridled joy and just wanting to shout, to sing, to dance, to be so glad to be alive, and in love. “Look at me….” Born in Pittsburgh on June 15, 1921, jazz pianist extraordinaire Erroll Louis Garner flew into Chicago for a recording session. By the time the plane descended, by the time he walked through the studio doors, that melody was stuck in his head. He had to play what he had never before played. It was July 27, 1954 and Garner recorded the classic in one take. One take. Hit it. Quit it. Signed, sealed and delivered. Later Johnny Burke added lyrics. Not much later every supper club, lounge and hotel act worth their salt (or sugar) had “Misty” in their repertoire. “Misty,” a song you could (and many, many people did) sing while dead drunk. “I’m as helpless as a kitten up a treeeeeeee….” Erroll Garner was a self-taught original whose orchestral/African-drum approach to piano stylings was unduplicable. His left had was pure John Henry sledgehammer strong and the delights he could toss off with jubilant and seemingly effortless (until you tried to do it) élan trills of his right hand made orchestral conductors jealous. They had thirty, forty member string sections, he had four fingers and a thumb. Who sounded better? Wasn’t even no contest. Garner’s most significant achievement was his ability to take a standard you knew and set a new standard just by improvising on it. Garner made you hear something new kernelled inside the familiar, made you appreciate anew the old melody that had been around long before you were born. On top of that, “Misty” was a new melody that it seems like you had heard all your life. “Never knowing my right foot from my left….” So here are twelve versions. 1. Erroll Garner Trio This is the original session featuring Wyatt Ruther on bass and Eugene “Fats” Heard on drums. Recorded for Mercury Records and currently available on The Orignal Misty (Verve). What I really dig on this version is that little stop-time thing he does near the end, suspending the rhythm but never loosing the driving momentum of the beat. That hesitation, that pause, that moment when we hold it in with all our might before releasing it—with all our might. 2. Billy Eckstine This is quintessential fifties jazz vocals although actually recorded in 1960 at the New Frontier Hotel in Las Vagas. A beautifully burnished baritone caressing the lyrics, floating cloud-like in the hip gone-asphere (i.e. that’s located just left of cloud nine). This version is full of swoops and long tones, heavy swoops that lightly float, deep long tones that seem almost impossible to hold except that Billy does it. This is classic jazz crooning. (But didn’t I already say that?—don’t matter, I’ll say it again.) This is classic jazz stylings for the first instrument—the human voice. And don’t miss that ending, how Billy swells the note, lets it slowly grow and float. Damn. 3. Johnny Mathis I know, I know, but you gotta listen closely. This cat can sing like no one before or since. (I bet you Luther listened to Mathis.) Johnny’s sound is much lighter than Eckstine's and the arrangement is much more corny in a square 'fifties-with-strings' way. Nevertheless, if you pay attention, what you hear is a craftsman hitting each note with superb control of his vibrato. His re-entry after the strings interlude is worth the whole song. 4. Donny Hathaway This is some sixties ish. This is what it would have sounded like if Ray Charles had arranged “Misty” for Aretha to sing it. Of course this is on Atlantic Records, the label that set the standards for gospel-influenced blues-based R&B. 5. Ray Stevens Time now for equal opportunity. This is (surprise, surprise) a rather hip Country & Western version as performed by Ray Stevens. From the opening “Yee hawwww” to the doo-wop influenced breaks (including falsetto) near the end, it is both as country as country gets and as jazz-influenced as retro takes can get. This arrangement, as Stevens mentions, won a Grammy. Also, FYI, the banjo is an African-derived instrument. 6. Etta James The reigning matriarch of funky, low down blues eschews her usual raunchy ways and gives us a jazzy interpretation that even ventures off into Ella “Tisket-a-Tasket” Fitzgerald land with some brilliant scatting as they take it out. The swinging arrangement features tenor saxophonist Red Holloway. 7. Richard Groove Holmes There was a time in the seventies when damn near every jazz combo playing in a black nightclub had to know and play this version of “Misty.” I call it the “Jack-Black-with-water-back” version. (And if you don’t know what the “Jack” phrase refers to then you probably won’t recognize this version.) Jack Black is a reference to Jack Daniels Black Label whiskey ordered up straight with a small glass of water as a chaser. I bet you all the seventies hipsters are very, very familiar with this hard swinging, finger snapping version. 8. Carmen McRae (accompanied by the Shirley Horn Trio) Carmen was one of the most brilliant stylists in modern jazz history. She didn’t have half the range of many other singers but damn she knew how to read a lyric. A lot of it was in the micro-tonal inflections but even more was her rhythmic grace. Here with Shirley Horn (also a great vocalist) at the piano, they take the song at a pace slow enough for mature lingering, after-glow love. 9. Ben Webster Clinic time. God damn this man sounds like he is singing about every woman he has ever loved. Remembering their youthful touch in the quaking autumn of his flesh. His breathing is laboured, but the very obviousness of his deep breaths is what gives added poignancy to an already touching interpretation. Is that sweat or tears he wipes from his eyes at the end of his solo? Perhaps it’s a bittersweet, salty bit of both. Ben Webster. My man, my main man. 10. Dianne Reeves I didn’t include a Sarah Vaughn version because of this Dianne Reeves version. Everytime I think I have heard Dianne Reeves before, she offers up something crystalline and utterly beautiful, some superbly-crafted angelic solo that makes you appreciate her all over again. Wondrous. 11. Whirimako Black Ok, this is the curve ball. Whirimako is Maori, from New Zealand and this is from her album call Soul Sessions featuring Whirimako doing classic soul songs except she’s using her mother tongue. Y'all know my hole-in-the-earth theory about black and brown people getting together in that tunnel under the earth that offers a portal into deep soul no matter where we are located on the face of the planet. What I really, really dig about this version is the audacity of it. I mean they offer a completely unique version by mixing in a Maori song, “Konehunehu,” with a Joel Haines guitar-led jazz version (dig that vamp) that includes a flugelhorn (Kim Paterson) solo and is topped off by the familiar “Misty” melody. When Mtume first heard this he thought it was African. I’m laughing because I always fool him with the New Zealand stuff—gotcha again, son. 12 Erroll Garner We close out with a live reading by Mr. Garner. Enough said. There are a bunch more versions of “Misty” but I think this dozen is enough to hold you for a while. —Kalamu ya Salaam Whirimako and Webster Kalamu hit the nail on the head when he made the comment about "every supper club, lounge and hotel act" having to play "Misty." And that's exactly why I had a hard time listening to most of these versions: almost all of these musicians sound like they're playing in for a Vegas audience. There are way too many flourishes and crescendos and dramatic pauses and not nearly enough straight-forward singing and playing. Of course, twelve versions are a lot to pick from, so I did hear a couple I liked. The feature version by the New Zealand band Whirimako Black is good because it's a very original take on the well-worn tune. I'm not sure why everyone feels a need to keep singing this song in what is essentially the same way, but thankfully, Whirimako are far enough away from the source (maybe...I'm just speculating) to just treat "Misty" as music and do their own thing with it. And yes, I did think they were from somewhere in Africa...and, in a way, I guess they are. The other version that I really like is Ben Webster's. Ben's tone is perfect (as it always is). And, I really like the way he plays the melody. Straight up, no fooling around. He's not showing off or trying to be glitzy. Instead, he puts a lot of real, albeit subdued, emotion into his performance. For me, this one is the keeper. As for the rest of the versions: I'll see 'em in Vegas. —Mtume ya Salaam P.S. When I'm listening to Kalamu's selections, I usually jot down a few notes so I can have something to refer back to. I thought I'd include my notes about the Ben Webster version because Kalamu might have something to say about the Coltrane-Hartman-Webster connection. (If there is one at all. I'm just guessing.)
Ben Webster - So pretty. Ben Webster's tenor sounds like Johnny Hartman's voice. This one is excellent. ... And as I'm thinking about it now, maybe Coltrane's style when he plays ballads sounds a little like Ben Webster's, because this sounds a lot like the music on the classic Coltrane/Hartman LP. Also, whoever the bass player is, I like what he's doing. This is the best version so far and by far.
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