Friday, March 9, 2018

Cecil Leeson, Classical Saxophonist


The three major pioneer virtuosi of the classical saxophone in the early 20th century were Marcel Mule in France, Sigurd Rascher in Germany and Denmark (and later in the U.S.), and Cecil Leeson, who was born on the plains of North Dakota in 1902. Although Leeson taught at Northwestern and Ball State Universities later in his career, his influence as a teacher was not widespread; his importance lies in his groundbreaking concertizing and recording, the commissioning of important works for saxophone, and as a historian of the instrument. Leeson was the first saxophone recitalist at Town Hall in New York (in 1937), and Paul Creston's very important Suite, Sonata, and Concerto for alto saxophone were all written for Leeson. And he was arguably the first American to record "serious" classical saxophone music - depending on how one defines those terms, of course. Leeson died in 1989.



Here is a three-record album of 12" 78s on American Decca, with Leeson and pianist Josef Wagner playing Edvard Moritz's Sonata for Alto Saxophone and Piano, op. 96, composed for Leeson in 1939. Although the album bears a 1941 copyright date, it was probably recorded in 1940; it appears in Decca's 1941 catalog, which "contains all records released to December 1, 1940." My copy is presumably from later in the 1940s; the first disc uses an early-1940s label style, but the other two records have labels of a variety that Decca introduced in 1946. (It was not unusual for record companies to use up remaining stock of discontinued labels, even if that meant that records in an album set had different labels, or even if two sides of a record had different label styles.)


Moritz (1891-1974) found himself in the unenviable position of being a prominent Jewish musician and composer in Hitler's Germany, so he emigrated to the United States in 1937. He composed and taught in New York City for the rest of his life; pop/jazz pianist and singer Bobby Scott was one of his students.

As a saxophonist, I find Leeson's performance more engaging that Moritz's composition, which is accomplished without being particularly original or interesting. The phrase that came to my mind when I first listened was, "This is Brahms plus whole-tone scales." But as a pioneering saxophone recording, this album is very interesting indeed. (I believe that it's the first multi-record classical saxophone album recorded in the U.S.) On the original issue, three of the four movements are split onto two sides of a record - the short third movement is complete on the first part of side five - but I have edited the parts together and present them here as separate movements. In researching this blog entry, I found that there is already a transfer of these records online, but I immodestly think that my transfer is somewhat better.

There's a nice booklet included in the album, and due to the scarcity of these records (I searched for a copy for several years) I'm including scans of the all pages.







Moritz - Sonata for Alto Saxophone and Piano, op. 96:

First movement - Allegro molto

Second movement - Molto andante

Third movement - Scherzo - presto

Fourth movement - Finale - quasi allegro

Friday, March 2, 2018

James Reese Europe Follow-Up

My February 12 post, with all of James Reese Europe's 1913-14 Victor records, attracted lots of attention from record collectors. This is a follow-up post, responding to several requests and comments.

It was requested that I post pictures of all the labels, so I have done so below. And for those who prefer a lossless audio format, I have uploaded flac files.

Finally, one reader suggested that "Castle Walk" was transferred too fast, and that it should play in the key of D rather than in E flat. All my transfers were made at exactly 78 RPM, but early recording equipment was certainly inconsistent, and could run slightly fast or slightly slow from one day to the next. So courtesy of Dutch, here is his version of "Castle Walk" in D.

Castle Walk in D

Flac files:

Too Much Mustard

Down Home Rag

Irresistible

Amapa

Castle's Lame Duck

Castle House Rag

Castle Walk

You're Here and I'm Here









Monday, February 12, 2018

James Reese Europe's Victor Records

James Reese Europe (1880-1919), although largely forgotten today, is an important figure in the history of black American music. In the second decade of the 20th century, Europe took the New York (and beyond) dancing and music worlds by storm. In 1910 he formed the Clef Club, an organization to promote the black orchestras and composers of New York, and by 1912 he had attracted the attention of Vernon and Irene Castle, the most influential dance team of their time. Europe's dance orchestra became the Castles' "official" accompanists, which led to the Europe band's appearance in a Broadway show; they were the first black band to be featured on Broadway.

Europe's Society Orchestra recorded eight sides for Victor in late 1913 and early 1914. These records were state-of-the-art dance music of the time; the ragtime sides in particular must have been tremendously exciting for dancers and listeners used to more sedate sounds. Six of the sides were longer than the three-minute capacity of a 10" 78, and so were issued on 12" records. The ragtime sides have been reissued here and there over the years, but as far as I can tell, the others (a tango, a maxixe, and a waltz) have never been reissued.

When the United States entered World War I, Europe enlisted and took a band to France, where he served with distinction, with some front-line combat duty mixed in with bandleading. After the war he made a series of interesting recordings for Pathe; the best of these at least touched on jazz. Backstage at a concert, a disagreement with one of his drummers led to the latter stabbing Europe with a small knife. Although the wound seemed superficial, he died of internal bleeding a few hours later.

Since these were dance records (each label announces, "For Dancing"), the type of dance for each selection is listed after the title. The headlong rush of the one-steps, driven by the energetic playing of ragtime drummer Buddy Gilmore, is heady stuff, even over a century later. Here, at last, are all the Victor recordings by Europe's band. The usual caveats apply - these are acoustical recordings, and some sides are in better condition than others.

James Reese Europe conducting Europe's Society Orchestra, including Cricket Smith (cornet), Edgar Campbell (clarinet), Tracy Cooper, George Smith, and Walter Scott (violin), Leonard Smith and Ford Dabney (piano), Buddy Gilmore (drums) and five (!) banjo-mandolins. December 29, 1913; New York:

Victor 35359 (12")
Too Much Mustard - One Step or Turkey Trot (Cecil Macklin)
Down Home Rag - One Step or Turkey Trot (Wilbur Sweatman)

Victor 35360 (12")
Irresistible - Tango Argentine (L. Logatti)
Amapa - Maxixe Bresilien (J. Storoni)

Add Chandler Ford (cello), baritone horn and flute; omit banjo-mandolins. February 10, 1914; New York:

Victor 35372 (12")
Castle House Rag - One-Step (Europe)
Castle's Lame Duck - Waltz (Europe)

Victor 17553 (10"):
Castle Walk - One-Step or Trot (Europe/Dabney)
You're Here and I'm Here - One-Step (Jerome Kern)



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.