Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Curtis Amy's First Record

Saxophonist Curtis Amy (1929-2002) was born in Houston; in his thirties he moved to Los Angeles, where he because a busy and well-respected figure, recording some fine albums for Pacific Jazz, Verve, and other labels. His main source of income, though was the LA studio scene, where his talent and versatility kept him busy playing and arranging - for Ray Charles, Lou Rawls, The Doors, etc. As a teenager, I heard him on the radio frequently, since he played on Carole King's "It's Too Late," which was all over the airwaves at the time. I admired the tasteful, expressive soprano sax solo without knowing who it was until several years later.

Young Curtis Amy made his first record when he was still in Houston, around 1948 or so, for the Gold Star label. Bill Quinn's record label, based in Houston, specialized in blues, Cajun, and country sides. Amy's record fit the billl; the tunes are jump blues rather than straight-ahead jazz. The band is rather rough-hewn; guitarist Joyce McQuarn's is pretty out of tune, and the vocalist, Hubert Robinson, has a loose grasp of time. But I find the rawness appealing, and there are good tenor sax solos on both sides. There is another tenor saxophonist in the band, and I first thought that the saxophone solo on side A, "Realization Blues," was not the same player as the soloist on "Sleeping Blues," the flip. I have since changed my mind - I think it's Curtis Amy on both sides - but I've put the two solos back to back in one sound file so folks can listen and make up their own minds.

My copy shows the signs of being a former jukebox record - one side is in pretty good condition, while the other is much more worn. In this case, "Sleeping Blues" was the more popular side in whatever jukebox this record used to reside. But this is a scarce record, and I'm glad to have this copy of it.

Realization Blues

Sleeping Blues

Saxophone solos back to back

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

A "New" Casals Record?

I may have uncovered a previously unknown recording of the great cellist Pablo Casals, but I would like cellists and Casals experts to weigh in.

From 1915 to 1924, Casals recorded for Columbia Records. Interestingly, this period largely overlaps with the 1914-1923 lifespan of the Little Wonder record label. In brief, Little Wonder was the first discount record label; their records were one-sided, five inches in diameter, and sold for ten cents in an era when most records sold for 65 or 75 cents. (Celebrity classical recordings often sold for much more than that.) Little Wonders look like children's records, but they were aimed at a general audience. The repertoire consists mostly of pop hits of the day, but there were also jazz sides, classical selections, marches, and examples of other genres among their releases. There was no artist credit on the vast majority of Little Wonders - just a generic "Tenor Solo," "Band," "Vocal Trio," etc. Record collectors and specialists in early recorded sound have identified many of the artists, although many Little Wonders remain anonymous.

Without going into too much detail here, Little Wonder had a shadowy relationship with Columbia Records. All identified Little Wonder artists also recorded for Columbia - which is not to imply that they all had exclusive contracts with that label. In some cases the artists at Columbia sessions were offered a little extra money to record minute-and-a-half versions (the duration of a LW record) of the same selections they were recording for Columbia. In at least one case, a Columbia artist didn't know that he was making records for Little Wonder. Clarinetist Wilbur Sweatman's band was asked to make short "test" recordings at several of his sessions; Sweatman was later shocked when someone played him some of those "tests," which Little Wonder released as "Jazz Band" records.

Which brings us to Little Wonder 649, labeled "Tannhauser - The Evening Star; Violincello Solo." Knowing the Columbia connection, I have long wondered if the anonymous cellist could be Pablo Casals, the most prominent cellist recording for Columbia at the time. No company files have been discovered, but according to Tim Brooks and Merle Sprinzen's book about the label (see below), LW 649 would have come out around 1917. Casals recorded "The Evening Star" for a twelve-inch Columbia record on April 21, 1916 - the first of several times he recorded Wagner's aria. I've had the Little Wonder record for years, but just managed to track down a copy of the 1916 Columbia - a nice French issue, with the title listed as "O Star of Eve" on the label.

On first listen, I was struck by how much it seemed to be the same orchestra, the same conductor, and even the same studio on both records. I was less convinced that it was the same cellist - the player on the Little Wonder played more dramatic glissandos in a few places - a characteristic I've never associated with Casals. But on listening more carefully, I found that the glissandos are there on the Columbia recording; they're just more subtle. If it's the same player, it's easy to imagine him having a little fun and "schmaltzing" up the short version more.

And I do think that it's the same player on both records. Below I have linked to the full Columbia version, the Little Wonder version, a one-and-a-half-minute excerpt (starting at 2:13) from the Columbia that corresponds to the portion of the piece recorded for Little Wonder, and a composite on which the Columbia excerpt is immediately followed by the Little Wonder.

Some caveats are in order for those unfamiliar with early 20th century recording techniques and records. These recordings were made acoustically, with the musicians playing into large horns that fed the sound to a membrane, which in turn vibrated the cutting needle. Microphones wouldn't come into play for recording for almost ten more years. And surface noise is always present on 78 RPM records. Furthermore, the razor-thin profit margin of the Little Wonder company required that the records be made as cheaply as possible, so they are made of cheaper and noisier material than the standard records of the time. I have applied a little bit of noise reduction on the Columbia and a little more on the Little Wonder. But since noise reduction can affect the sound of the instruments, I tried to stop at the point at which I heard just a little change in the cello sound.

I think that Little Wonder 649 is played by Pablo Casals. Cellists and other experts, what do you think?

Evening Star - Columbia version, April 21, 1916; Columbia matrix 48716; French Columbia 7360; also issued on American Columbia A5953

The Evening Star - Little Wonder 649

Columbia Evening Star excerpt

Columbia excerpt and Little Wonder 649 in succession

More information about the Little Wonder label can be found at this website, by Merle Sprinzen, the dean of Little Wonder collectors. She is the coauthor (with Tim Brooks) of Little Wonder Records and Bubble Books, published in 2011 by Mainspring Press. It's an essential volume for Little Wonder collectors.

Monday, August 28, 2017

Varèse's Ionisation

The visionary composer Edgard Varèse completed "Ionisation," perhaps the first masterpiece of percussion ensemble literature, in 1931. It was premiered in 1933 and recorded the following year, making it the first Varèse composition to be issued on records. It's a fiendishly difficult piece, especially so for the orchestral percussionists of the time. Conductor Nicolas Slonimsky recalled, "We engaged the percussion players from the New York Philharmonic, but it soon became clear that they could never master the rhythms. In desperation, we appealed to fellow composers to take over the task; to them the Varèsian asymmetry was child’s play." So Henry Cowell, Paul Creston, Wallingford Reigger, William Schuman, and Varèse himself (on sirens) were among the percussionists in the Columbia studios.

Recording technology and record manufacturing techniques of the time couldn't do justice to the subtleties of "Ionisation." In addition, my copy of the original Columbia "royal blue" record is somewhat worn. I've cleaned up clicks, pops, and surface noise to the extent I could without compromising the sound of the instruments. The six-minute piece was split across two sides of the original record; I've joined them, but the "seam" is apparent. While I have heard more precise and eloquent performances of this groundbreaking piece, I love the spirit of this first recording, which shines through the limitations of the record.

Friday, August 4, 2017

The Wolverines on Claxtonola

I recently acquired a rare record by Bix Beiderbecke and the Wolverines, that midwestern jazz band that recorded for Gennett in 1924.  When I became interested in jazz as a teenager, the first jazz record I remember buying was a Milestone LP collection which had all of the Wolverines' sides with Bix. Over 40 years later, I still love this music.

Claxtonola was a small Iowa City label that operated from 1922 to 1925 or so. It drew material from Paramount and Gennett, and like many small labels that leased material from larger companies, they often used pseudonyms to disguise the artists. Thus Gennett 5454, with "Riverboat Shuffle" and "Susie" played by the Wolverine Orchestra, has as its equivalent Claxtonola 40339, by The Jazz Harmonizers.

The Ebay seller who listed this record was apparently not aware of its true nature - there was no mention of Bix or the Wolverines - so I was able to buy it for a very reasonable price, considering its rarity. It's a fairly worn record, with lots of surface noise, but the music is still quite audible and enjoyable. I won't post a transfer here, because anyone interested can find the music in much better sound elsewhere on the web. But I'm happy to have this rarity by one of my favorite early jazz musicians.

Thursday, June 8, 2017

Nikos Relias, Greek Clarinet Master

Today I present a 12" Columbia record in their "E" series of ethnic recordings. I'm not sure when this disc was recorded, but based on the label style, it was probably issued in the United States in 1925. It was likely recorded in New York, where the great clarinetist Nikos Relias (1892-1969) lived from 1907 to 1925. Relias is accompanied by Kostas (Gus) Papagika on cymbalon (hammered dulcimer) and Markos Sifneos on cello. Note that Papagika's last name is misspelled on the label.

Papagika was the husband and accompanist of his more-famous wife, the singer Marika Papagika. Cellist Sifneos frequently played and recorded with Mrs. Papagika as well. Relias had a long and colorful career, and was known as quite the entertainer in Greece. He composed the theme music for the national radio station that is still used today.

I don't know enough about traditional Greek music to say much about these pieces, except that they are complex and impressively played. Unfortunately, Sifneos' cello is practically inaudible. I tried to correct this with some EQ, but there was barely any low-frequency signal to boost.

Aryiticos Horos

O Loulios, Tsamicos

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Bach's Art of the Fugue - First Recording

In 1934, the Roth String Quartet made the first recording of Bach's mammoth Art of the Fugue, a set of 14 fugues and four two-voice canons, all based on the same thematic material. Bach didn't specify any particular instrumentation; the Roth version was arranged by composer Roy Harris and musicologist Mary Norton. Even without the canons, which weren't included in this first recording, the work runs to 19 12-inch record sides. Even many years later, this performance gets pretty good reviews, and it has given my much pleasure.

My set is a later pressing, from the first half of the 1940s. It's in very nice condition, with minimal surface noise, for the most part. Most of the fugues fit onto one record side, but a few run to two or even three sides. I've merged the parts digitally in those cases.

The longest of the fugues is "Contrapunctus XIV," and Bach left it unfinished, either by design or by chance. It's one of my favorite pieces of music; to me, the ending is a metaphor for the unfinished nature of our lives.

The members of the Roth String Quartet are Feri Roth, Jeno Antal, Ference Molnár, and Janos Scholz. They recorded Art of the Fugue in December, 1934.

Contrapunctus I

Contrapunctus II

Contrapunctus III

Contrapunctus IV

Contrapunctus V

Contrapunctus VI

Contrapunctus VII

Contrapunctus VIII

Contrapunctus IX

Contrapunctus X

Contrapunctus XI

Contrapunctus XII

Contrapunctus XIII

Contrapunctus XIV