This is a brand new disc of Martha accompanied by The Carolina Chamber Jazz Players. It features the music of Duke Ellington, Hoagy Carmichael, and Johnny Mercer. This is a beautifully recorded live record featuring songs such as “Moon River,” “Skylark,” “The Nearness of You,” “I Got It Bad,” “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore,” and, of course “Blues in the Night.” Here are the liner notes by Ken Keuffel:
“My momma don tol’ me,” but in case yours has not…
Each summer over the past six years, singer Martha Bassett and the Carolina Chamber Jazz Players have presented a concert devoted to a different giant of the Great American Songbook. This ritual has become a highly anticipated feature of the Carolina Summer Music Festival of Winston-Salem, a presentation of the Carolina Chamber Symphony Players that offers everything from the chamber music of Beethoven to the band music that Moravian musicians performed during the Civil War. And it has raised hopes, finally realized, that live recordings of the Jazz Players’ superlative Songbook performances at the festival would end up on CDs.
As I listened to this wonderful compilation, I considered just why the Great American Songbook is so great, why we repeatedly yearn to hear classics by the likes of George Gershwin, Cole Porter, Duke Ellington and Hoagy Carmichael.
One reason lies in the quality teamwork of lyricist and composer that characterized much of the Songbook era, most of which happened during the first 50 years of the 20th century. While collaboration was not always the rule–Carmichael, for example, wrote the words and the music for some of his songs while contributing just the music for many others–it was frequently a vital force in the making of tunes-cum-jazz standards that keep attracting new generations of interpreters.
Take “Blues in the Night,” the CD’s title track, which composer Harold Arlen and lyricist Johnny Mercer wrote for a 1941 film of the same name. Can you think of a more masterful marriage of melody and words? Or one that’s more effective in its expression of worldly wisdom born of real pain (aka the blues)? Or one that inspires such a fervent wail on trumpet (Ken Wilmot)?
A similar judgement applies to “Skylark,” a personal favorite that Bassett and the Jazz Players have made an even greater pleasure. This 1941 ballad, with music by Carmichael and words by Mercer, is reported to have been a year-long struggle for Mercer to complete. We can only be eternally grateful that he stuck with it, for we now have something that speaks to desire like few other songs can.
As for other Songbook partnerships, this compilation recalls one of the most famous, namely Ellington’s with Billy Strayhorn (1915-1967). Strayhorn was a composer, arranger and pianist like few others. His association with Ellington lasted many years, yielding such enduring standards as “Take the ‘A’ Train” and “Lush Life.” It is impossible to imagine Ellington without Strayhorn.
“Something to Live For” (1939), featured in this compilation, was the first Strayhorn song that Ellington’s band recorded. It drives home an important truth, namely that all the riches in the world can’t take the place of a loved one. And it gives the listener something to live for as well.