Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Listening to Prestige Records Part 93: King Pleasure

Does it seem that every time Bob Weinstock decides to make a record with King Pleasure, he gets it all wrong, and yet it comes out so right?

In earlier sessions, he seems to have thought of Pleasure as a rhythm and blues singer. He's tossed him into recording sessions with other R&B singers, and given him R&B musicians, and come up with one of the most enduring and beloved classics of jazz vocal music, in "Moody's Mood For Love."

The success of "Moody's Mood" didn't give him the idea that he should put Pleasure in with some of the A-list jazz musicians he'd been recording; he did a second session with a rhythm and blues band, on which his tracks were sort of a throw-in -- the session was mostly about Charlie Ferguson's band, but they did include two King Pleasure vocals. On one of them, just as they'd tossed in a chick singer to the "Moody's Mood" recording who happened to be Blossom Dearie, they tossed in another chick singer, a girl who was scuffling around New York after being fired by Lionel Hampton for insisting on singing bebop instead of swing. That was Betty Carter, and the tune was "Red Top." And the other throw-in on the Charlie Ferguson session was "Jumpin' With Symphony Sid."

So this time, he brings in the creme de la creme, the A-list of A-lists, three quarters of the Modern Jazz Quartet, but you can't really hear them -- they're not given any solo time. In fact, at least on "Sometimes I'm Happy," King Pleasure takes something of a back seat to the Dave Lambert Singers.

Dave Lambert, in 1953, was 36 years old and a veteran of the music business. He was a singer and vocal arranger who seemed more at home in a group setting, although he was a pioneer of the bebop scat style that King Pleasure, Eddie Jefferson, Jackie Paris and others were to bring to fruition as solo artists, and that Lambert was ultimately to find the best expression of when he teamed with John Hendricks and then Annie Ross. He had made what many consider the first bebop vocal recording with Gene Krupa's band, as a duet with Buddy Stewart.

In September of 1953, he was coming off what was generally acknowledged to be a failure: Charlie Parker with Voices. This was the followup to the successful and popular "Charlie Parker with Strings," and it featured an orchestra under Gil Evans' direction, and a 12-voice group of Dave Lambert Singers. Marc Myers interviewed Hal McCusick, who played on the session, about what went wrong:
The voice parts were way too complicated. Gil’s charts were beautiful and complex, as always. His arrangements always could push your buttons, musically. But Dave’s vocal charts were heavy, and by the time everyone realized this, it was too late. The recording session was already underway.

JW: Was Dave aware of that?
HM: I'm sure he was. But in all fairness to Dave, he was in over his head. First, there were too many singers.  Dave could have accomplished the same goal with better results if he had used four. All of us in the woodwind section knew it at the time. Second, Dave wasn’t skilled enough as an arranger to write for so many singers. What's more, the singers weren’t polished enough as a group to pull off what Dave had in mind and had written.
This may be a little rough on Lambert, and on the session. You can hear it on YouTube and decide for yourself, but you can understand what McKusick means. He goes on to say that
Dave was terrific when singing take-offs on jazz instrumentals and writing for small-group things. But to write structured charts for so many singers behind arrangements by a guy like Gil Evans requires enormous skill. When you're writing for 10 or 12 singers, you have no choice but to double up voicings. This means two or more vocalists need to sing the same notes. It’s the only way a vocal group can be heard clearly.

But doubling up parts means greater room for intonation error, since you’re more likely to hear somebody wavering off the written notes. When a voice wavers, it throws everyone else off, or the producer catches it and calls for another take. It’s like two people walking a tightrope out of synch. Someone’s more likely to fall. That happened quite a bit that day. The vocal charts were too hard to sing. The result was false starts and re-takes.
Lambert had cut down his ensemble by September. He hasn't found the magic he would capture with LHR -- his arrangements here are more reminiscent of a group like the Four Freshmen -- but he provides a nice group sound for Pleasure to wing it from.

This session didn't provide classics like "Moody's Mood" or "Symphony Sid" or the later "Parker's Mood," but they're still good, and I love Pleasure's solo on "Sometimes I'm Happy." I don't know whose instrumental solos he's basing these on.

And again, speaking of Weinstock's mistakes in recording King Pleasure that turned out to be not so mistaken, why only two songs per session? In 1951 and 1952, no one was thinking about LPs, but a recording session was still generally four songs, so you could put out two 78s. But by 1953, the 10-inch LPs and the 45 RPM EPs were common. The upshot of it was, when it came time to put his vocalese stars on a 12-inch LP, he had not enough songs from Pleasure and even fewer from Annie Ross, so he had to put them together on one disc. And the result? King Pleasure Sings/Annie Ross Sings is one of the absolute treasures of the LP era. You couldn't ask for better.

These two songs came out on both 78 and 45, on an EP with "Red Top," and on a 10-inch LP in 1954.

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