Mono Maven Is Back!
Now that I have semi-retired from the non-stop pursuit of obtaining the cleanest possible pressings of every recording of interest, I have time to share my travels with my readers. And, Dear Readers, it has been far too long... so, without further ado here is Mono Maven reviewing various big band LPs.
I have several articles outlined in my head:
• Four on Big Band recordings (two of which will be stereo) on various labels.
• Sinatra mono recordings on Capitol.
• Doris Day on Columbia.
• Original Cast Musicals.
• Solo Guitar LPs in mono.
• Hungaroton LPs, part 3
Columbia Mono Recordings of Les Elgart
Let's start with a series of LPs from what might be an unexpected quarter, usually found in the "Easy Listening" section of your brick & mortar or on-line retail store. These date from the mid-1950s. There are some half dozen LPs in this series, two of which are always on my demo table for unsuspecting guests. I can count on Elgart to vibrate the fillings out of mouths left ajar too long. I've even seen a tear or two of spontaneous pleasure.
Les Elgart started life in the big time on trumpet for Bunny Berigan, moving on to lead trumpet for Harry James and Charlie Spivak. He and brother Larry formed their own short-lived band in 1945, then got together again for the albums considered in this survey. The arrangements were not always theirs, but they certainly suited the sound. The LPs sold very well in their day, so it shouldn't be too difficult to find some of them.
Elgart is not experimental, like Kenton, nor does he rock. But he can move when the spirit calls. His material is targeted for 1950s prom nights, except that none of the cuts are as long as would have expected on a real dance floor. The cuts are roughly of the same length, as if expecting life on either side of a 45. What this comes down to for us are some terrific discs with a few demo cuts on each, rather than entirely satisfying sides played through. That said, I think that Sophisticated Swing, The Elgart Touch and Most Happy Fella have enough variety and a relatively high level of arrangements and performance that you should find playing through the sides most satisfying.
Unless my ear deceives, Elgart employs something like a college dance band ensemble consisting of reeds, brass, guitar, bass and drums. No strings. No piano. He tends to lay a consistent beat for each number, which at times can become monotonous; but the sumptuous textures that ride above the beat usually win over the ear.
believe these records are all cut in RIAA, even the earliest red label. If not,
they sure make one hell of a sound on modern playback equipment, even when a
stereo pickup is in play.
I'll start with the best and work my way down from there. I like both Sophisticated Swing and That Elgart Touch roughly equally. The latter is a bit more polished and, therefore, just a little less spontaneous, but the recording is right on the money. I just discovered Most Happy Fella at the last moment – see below.
Columbia's engineers bring the rhythm guitar forward, exaggerate the low reeds and trombones, and lay back the high brass (as does most everyone). From time to time, we can feel the very breath on the low reeds, and the effect is spine tingling. Curiously, it never feels out of place. For some reason, I haven't found the stereo recordings nearly so engaging.
From the opening measures of the title track, we can see this is going to be one of the most sensual recordings of a big band that we've ever heard. Sophisticated Swing begins life as a quiet duet between bass and rhythm guitar - the latter, well in the foreground – with the drum kit hidden away in background. Soon, the reeds, led by brother Larry on alto sax, add weight and sex to the texture, followed by the melody in muted brass. It's enough to give you goose bumps. The effect is so damaging to one's thinking about what is possible from an LP, let alone in a 50-year old mono that it takes the entire second cut to recover – which is a good thing, because we will just get our breath when Elgart lobs a slam dunk with his jiggy rendition of "Bendix Bounce". A couple of decent cuts later (Soon is quite nice) and we brace ourselves for "Geronimo", pumping ferocity in the low reeds and brass, like "The Rite of Spring" without the dissonance - an aptly named title if ever there was one. Side two is not as gratifying, though it has its moments. The upbeat "Comin' "Through the Scotch" and the opulent "Sophisticated Lady" give the album title its due. The record concludes with a fat and lovely arrangement of "Time to Go", featuring a solo, I assume, by brother Larry.
Sophisticated Swing was Les Elgart's first recording for Columbia and it's a knockout from every perspective. Not until his pentultimate mono recording for Columbia did he find as completely satisfying a record. I can't speak authoritatively for any of his Columbia mono's that followed, but this one can be had in either the original blood red or later six-eye label. The rest are pretty much all six-eye. Sophisticated Swing is so well recorded and cut that you can play it good and loud with complete confidence all the way to the last track. Knock yourself out.
[By the way, pictured below is the original cover art for the blood red label, not the later, generally six-eye edition.]
Les Elgart The
Elgart Touch (1955)
If I had to choose, I'd give the nod to Sophisticated Swing on its ability to touch that nameless chord of staggering appreciation for the medium, but The Elgart Touch wins the engineering gold on points. The orchestra is certainly more dynamic where it counts, but I'm not so sure it's as luscious or as subtle as Sophisticated Swing in its best moments. The miking in the newer album has a more even coverage, confident that everyone will get their due without spotting them. On the other hand, spotting is a reality for live big band performance. The earlier album favors the reads, the later one acknowledges the brass better. So, perhaps we could say that the sound is better integrated here, but not as succulent or communicative as on Sophisticated Swing. The best tracks on The Elgart Touch are: the nourish "Autumn Serenade"; the just-about-perfect I Had the Craziest Dream; the very jitterbuggy Three to "Get Ready"; and on side two, the dynamic "Stompin at the Savoy" and the richly scored "Street of Dreams". The album concludes with a vivacious rendition of the band's theme song, The "Dancing Sound".
Just as I was about to send this survey off to Steve I discovered this title misfiled just a few spines away, so I didn't have the time to think it through. Suffice to say that this is an especially satisfying album in that all the tunes are from Frank Loesser's musical, which means they are all of high caliber. Elgart varies the arrangement to suit the mood of each tune while maintaining a sense of thematic coherence. His trumpet figures more prominently on this album than the others. Demo material: "Joey, Joey Joey; Don't Cry"; the aptly titled "Warm All Over"; the dynamic and very likeable "I LikeEv'rybody"; and the suave and sultry "Like a Woman". (Looks like my scoring below suggests it should be moved up a notch.) An unexpected treasure in an unexpected place.
Much more upbeat than Just One More Dance, Elgart finds a light touch for most all the numbers. The highlights are "Seems Like Old Times", which is saved repeatedly by the sax section; the lightly upbeat "I Hadn't Anyone 'Till You"; "Chicago", the one genuine rouser on the album; the beautifully recorded "Girl of My Dreams"; and "Melancholy Serenade", which all by itself is worth the price of the album with its haunting sax solos and responses by the trumpets.
Much more varied in mood and style than Just One More Dance, but compared to Elgart's best albums this one just misses the mark in respect to sonics, performance and arrangement. Even so, it's an album worth looking for. It has lots of variety, especially compared to most of his other LPs and several classic tunes. The lovely "Moonlight in Vermont" and the leisurely and not at all laconic "Out of Nowhere" have much to recommend it on Side 1, as does the jaunty "Enchanted Waitress". The second side fares better with a fairly successfully upbeat version of September Song, a fine choral treatment of "Tenderly" (though I longed for a Maynard Ferguson on trumpet), and journeyman presentations of It "Had To Be You and Beautiful Love". Again, a sexy sax projects Harlem Nocturne into the must-have category. Columbia has a bad habit of placing some of the best material last on the side – not good for us vinyl collectors. If you are having trouble laying hold of Sophisticated Swing or The Elgart Touch, For Dancers Only will give you some idea of what's in store.
Sonically, the engineering is close, though a little muted, while the arrangements remain characteristic of the Elgart sound. The title of this album is apt since compared to his best records, Just One More Dance is on the lazy side, earning its place in the "Mood Music" section of the store. These are generally what we would have called "old-fashioned" tunes even back then. "I Don't Know Why" gets one of his better treatments – the playing is focused and the arrangement makes use of his trademark low brass that sound so delicious on a good playback system. Elgart gives "Cuddle Up a Little Closer" an unexpected treatment – nothing cutesy-wutsey about it. Sadly, "Stardust" is inexplicably square. Dream would be exemplary if it weren't for the persistence of the drum kit, which is a little too Mitch Miller for my taste. We begin to feel those low reeds once again in "For Me and My Gal". "I'll See You in My Dreams" has life in it yet with that wonderful rhythm guitar Elgart uses. It ends the album with a long fade.
Not reviewed, but also should be considered a part of this group are:
Les Elgart The Band of
the Year (1954)
Les Elgart For Dancers