Sunday, April 12, 2015

Listening to Prestige Part 100: Billy Taylor

My 100th blog entry in this Prestige project, and the last session of 1953. Still loving the music, still privileged to be able to write about it. The year ends with another session by Billy Taylor and his trio. Given that Prestige, or the companies that later acquired the Prestige catalog, reissued nearly everything, and given Billy Taylor's continuing popularity, these are surprisingly difficult to find, but they're worth the effort.

Taylor was going for tuneful on this set, and he succeeds. "That's All" is a melody by Bob Haymes, brother of crooner Dick Haymes, and in 1953 it was still a new song. It had been recorded by Nat "King" Cole but hadn't really become a hit. Ben Webster also did a jazz version of it in 1953, but certainly Billy Taylor was one of the first to discover its possibilities as a jazz vehicle. The Wikipedia entry on the song insists a little too stridently that it is a part of the Great American Songbook, which it really isn't. The pages were closing on that volume by 1952, and Bob Haymes didn't make much of a mark in the history of American popular music. But Alec Wilder loved the song enough to include it in his American Popular Song: The Great Innovators, 1900-1950, even though it doesn't actually make the cutoff, and he gives his reasons eloquently.

First, it is one of the last free-flowing, native, and natural melodies in the grand pop style. Second, it has had a curious career insofar as it went through no initial hit phase but became an immediate standard...“It is verseless and of conventional A-A1-B-A form. The use of octave jumps in the release should produce monotony, there are so many of them. But, due to the mysteries of creation, they don’t. ...It’s one of the warmest, most natural, and least ‘studied’ songs I know.”

 "Nice Work if You Can Get It" is a favorite of mine and of many jazz musicians. Hip and tuneful, it's a Gershwin melody introduced in 1937 by Fred Astaire, and almost immediately a standard of both pop and jazz. Teddy Wilson's was probably the first jazz recording, with Billie Holiday and Buck Clayton. Taylor gives it the respect it deserves and the swing it demands.

In a sense, any jazz rendition of "Nice Work" is an homage to Teddy Wilson, who made it his own. "The Little Things" is a Teddy Wilson tune, and on it Taylor shows that he knows where he came from, and that he knows who he is.

"The Surrey With the Fringe on Top," a homey paean to a white small-town yesteryear by Rodgers and Hammerstein, is an unlikely jazz standard. That it has become one is generally credited to Miles Davis's ultra-cool 1957 version, but Billy Taylor beat him to it by a few years, and was the first to show how the tune can swing.

The songs were released on two 78s, and under two different titles on EP -- Billy Taylor and Billy Taylor Trio, Vol. 2. Also on a 10-inch LP called Billy Taylor Trio Vol. 3 -- go figure -- and later on a 12-inch 7000-series LP called Billy Taylor Trio, Vol. 2. Since then, there have been no reissues, which is just wrong.

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