Tuesday, January 06, 2015

Listening to Prestige Records Part 66: Annie Ross

There's so much to say about this session that I scarcely know where to start.
I decided to undertake this blog project -- well, on a whim, mostly, but because Prestige Records played such an important role in my learning about. and coming to appreciate, jazz. So many of the first records upon which I built my jazz collection were from Prestige. So I first thought that this would be a way to revisit some of my favorite sounds.
It's turned out to be three different experiences:
  • Revisiting sounds I've loved.
  • Discovering sounds I've never heard.
  • Discovering artists I've never heard of, or barely heard of.
In the third category, Joe Holiday and Chubby Jackson, for sure. George Wallington, up till now only a name I vaguely knew as a sideman. Charlie Mariano.

In the second category, so much. Early Stan Getz. Tristano recordings I hadn't heard. Miles Davis and Lee Konitz. Gene Ammons and Sonny Stitt. Mulligan before he decamped for the Left Coast. Zoot Sims (there's a Zoot session for Prestige on September 8 with George Wallington on piano. Also Al Cohn, Kai Winding, Percy Heath, Art Blakey. Spotify doesn't have it, and neither does YouTube, so I couldn't write about it, more's the pity).

In the first category -- I've talked before (and even earlier) about how important the King Pleasure/Annie Ross album was to me when I first started listening to jazz.

So let's talk about this session, starting with the incredibly fortuitous chance meeting between Annie Ross and Bob Weinstock.

Annie was a show business kid, and an early talent. She played Judy Garland's sister in a movie, and age 14, she won a songwriting contest judged by Dinah Shore and Johnny Mercer, and her winning entry, "Let's Fly," was recorded by Mercer and the Pied Pipers. You can find it on YouTube, and it's a pretty darn good song by any standards -- incredible, for a 14-year-old.

She has said in a recent Downbeat interview that what she looks for in a song is "good lyrics. I can’t sing stupid words." And even at 14, she was starting to find a way with lyrics.

Let's fly away to lands strange and unknown
Where love's free and there's no such thing as a mailman, doorbell, telephone

So...Bob Weinstock had his runaway jukebox hit with "Moody's Mood," and he was looking for something similar. In the same Downbeat interview, she describes it:

I was introduced to Bob Weinstock, head of Prestige Records. He asked me if I’d ever heard of King Pleasure. And he asked if I could do the same thing he was doing: write lyrics for solos. I was desperate, so I said, “Sure.” If he’d asked me if I could learn how to fly, I would have said “Sure.” He gave me some records and said, “Pick a tune and come back when you’re ready.” I was there the next morning with the lyrics to “Twisted.”
The thing about this session is -- every decision made, all along the line, was perfect, starting with Weinstock's decision to ask Ross if she could do it. Because this was brand new -- nobody had done it except Eddie Jefferson, and King Pleasure recording Jefferson's lyric. There was no way of knowing who could do it well and who couldn't -- or even what doing it well meant.

Then there was the decision of what records to give Ross to listen to. Obviously, he gave her a stack of Prestige 78s, because who wouldn't?  If I were a record label owner/producer, and I were becoming a midwife at the birth of a new jazz form, I'd be damn sure it was happening with artists and records from my label. I'm guessing he gave her some Gene Ammons and Sonny Stitt -- and King Pleasure was later to make a classic version of Ammons's recording of the Lionel Hampton tune, "Red Top." And he gave her the Wardell Gray/Art Farmer session.

And she picked it out -- another exactly right decision. "Twisted" is a great composition, a great solo by Wardell Gray, and a title that suggested...well, as Ross put it, "the title was infinite possibilities. You could marry anything to it." And she was in analysis at the time.

I'm guessing that one listen to Annie's version of "Twisted" and Weinstock set up a recording session as fast as he could -- giving her time to write one more song, again choosing from the same session, this time Art Farmer's "Farmer's Market."

What else for the session? An Annie Ross composition, "The Time Was Right," and a wordless scat ballad, "Annie's Lament" -- improvised by Annie right in the studio? Could be. I couldn't find any information on it.

Anyway, let's get to the session itself, and some more exactly right decisions. "Twisted" and "Farmer's Market" are recorded with a group led by Teacho Wiltshire, and that turns out to have been the right decision. "Twisted" has become such an iconic song, covered by singers from Bette Midler to Joni Mitchell to Amy Winehouse, that the song, the lyric, and Annie's vocal are indelibly stamped on our memories. But listen to the whole thing. Listen to the rhythm-and-bluesy riff from Teacho that opens the track, kicked and twisted by an amazing drum pattern from Blakey. Then Teacho wisely stays outta the way. Listen to how Blakey answers Annie's rhythmic swirls and tricks all the way through. And don't forget that Weinstock didn't rehearse his sessions, and didn't do a lot of takes. And don't forget that Ross wrote these lyrics to Wardell Gray's solo, but she's singing it as a jazz musician. She's making it her solo.

The same can be said of Percy Heath  -- and there is a bass solo here, right near the end, a powerful one. I'm assuming what we're hearing on Spotify is from the album, so it may have been remastered by Rudy Van Gelder to bring out the bass more vividly, but to be honest, I don't know how much you can remaster a monaural session with one mike. Anyway, you can hear the bass, and it's Percy Heath, and 'nuff said.

And who thought of adding Roger "Ram" Ramirez to this session? Ramirez was mostly a piano player who had just recently taken up organ. He had worked with female vocalists in the past, notably Helen Humes and Ella Fitzgerald, as a pianist. Again, a dead perfect decision. Listen to what Ramirez does at the beginning, at the end, and adding emphasis and coloration all the way through.

Listen to the incredibly fast part in the middle, between the fifth of vodka part and the double decker bus part. Listen to what Annie does, and what the rhythm section does. Hell, just put the song on
repeat and listen to it straight through about four or five times. It won't stop rewarding you.

I could say all the same things about "Farmer's Market." Wonderful stuff from Ram Ramirez. Teacho getting more space here, and doing it proud. How about listening to Annie's fast-paced rhymes, which would many hip-hop wordsmith sit up and take notice? And a nice shout-out to the guy who mentored Art Farmer, and pulled everything together on the "Farmer's Market" session, when the crew-cut kid with the crazy goatee goes out on tour with Wardell Gray.

OK, then what? We have these two tunes by Annie - not the same thing as this new sound that doesn't have a name yet but pretty soon everyone will be calling vocalese. Not the same thing at all. Maybe a rhythm and blues bandleader isn't quite the right guy for the job.

Hey, I know! We'll call George Wallington. He's been doing everything for us this summer, and he's still in town.

I like to think that's how it happened. A quick call to George, and he shows up just in time to take over on piano. In any event, another exactly right decision. Wallington doesn't get outta the way here, and he and Annie complement and inspire each other.

Why isn't "The Time is Right" one of the great pop music standards? I don't know of anyone else who's recorded it. Annie Ross wrote it, and brought it to the session with her. It is a beautiful song, worthy to be put alongside Johnny Mercer or anyone else you can name.

Was "Annie's Lament" written, or improvised in the studio? It's wordless, it's haunting, it's beautiful, and again it's Annie Ross and George Wallington.

Annie must have learned something from Bob Weinstock, because here she is, more than half a century later (same Downbeat interview), talking about her most recent album, a tribute to Billie Holiday, cut with Bucky and John Pizzarelli:

 How much pre-production did you do?

None! [laughs] They’re real musicians. I made a list of songs, we looked ’em over and then we recorded ’em. With real musicians, you don’t need to rehearse. That’s where the creativity comes in. We did one or two takes, no more than that. The level of trust between musicians and singer has got to be implicit, and it was with John and Bucky. The arrangements were done as we felt them, in the moment. It was pure joy; you know when you’ve got something good. 

Annie owed her first break in New York, in a way, to Billie Holiday:

I’d been working in France with James Moody and Kenny Clarke and I’d just come back to America. The morning after I signed with Joe Glaser—who was Billie Holiday’s agent—I got a call to get up to the Apollo. Joe asked me, “Do you have a piano player? Do you have a gown? Do you have music?” I said yes to all three and he told me to get up to the Apollo by 8:30. “You’re replacing Billie Holiday.” I was 20 or 21. It was my baptism by fire. She later became a good friend.

20 or 21 would make it 1950 or '51, a year or two before meeting Bob Weinstock and writing "Twisted" in one night.

"Annie's Lament" / "Twisted" came out on 78; "Farmer's Market" / "The Time Was Right" on both 78 and 45. All four songs were collected on a 45 RPM EP. And, of course, the 1957 release of the King Pleasure/Annie Ross LP.  The records won her DownBeat's New Star award for 1952.

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