Friday, January 13, 2017

Listening to Prestige 231: Barbara Lea

This is the last Barbara Lea session, three more songs to fill out the Lea in Love album, with her backing group changed just a little. Trumpeter Johnny Windhurst, who worked with Lea a lot, and was on her first Prestige sessions, is back. Dick Cary stays on alto horn here, and Jimmy Lyon on piano. This time they go without a drummer.

New to the mix is harpist Adele Girard. There aren't all that many jazz harpists, and most of them are women, although the first person to use the harp as a jazz solo instrument was a man, Casper Reardon, and probably the most famous American harpist was a man, too: Harpo Marx. There aren't all that many jazz harpists because it's not always easy to
see how a harp fits into a jazz context. Corky Hale and Alice Coltrane are probably the best known. Adele Girard probably should be. Her "Harp Boogie" may be the best jazz harp tour de force ever. She doesn't do that kind of soloing on this session, but she adds nice stuff to the mix.

Lea did four songs on this day three of which made the album, and the fourth was not only unissued, but there's no record of what it was. Two that did make the cut are by Cole Porter. "You'd Be So Nice To Come Home To" has become a jazz standard, beloved by vocalists and instrumentalists alike.

"True Love" was written for the movie High Society, where Bing Crosby sings it to Grace Kelly, and she chimes in a little on the last chorus. This was enough to put her name on the label, and it became Princess Grace's only gold record. There really aren't any other jazz recordings of it (although there's a very weird one by Beatle George Harrison). Is there something about it that says Pop, not jazz? Lord knows Cole Porter has provided many many highlights of the jazz repertoire. But there's not much that says Jazz in the Barbara Lea version, either, although it's a beautiful pop song, and Lea, as always, understands the lyric and delivers it sensitively.

"A Straw Hat Full of Lilacs" is the real show stopper here, partly because it's so obscure. I can't find any other recording of it. The lyric was written by Peggy Lee (who as a 17-year-old appeared on a radio show called Hayloft Jamboree as "Freckle-faced Gertie," wearing a trademark straw hat), but there's no record of Lee ever recording it. The music was by Willard Robison, known for the hauntingly sad "A Cottage For Sale," and this song has some of the same haunting melancholy. If I were a contemporary jazz singer (Teri Roiger, are you listening?), I would take this song and Annie Ross's "The Time Was Right," another neglected gem, and add them to my repertoire.

"Straw Hat Full of Lilacs" was the flip side of a 45, with "Mountain Greenery" as the A side, as well as being on Lea in Love.

 Order Listening to Prestige, Vol. 1 here.

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