NYC-based Harbinger Records specializes in recording artists who interpret the Songbook, though typically their singers have tended to be Broadway stars rather than jazz stylists. The label’s catalogue stretches back to 1983, almost two decades after the popular ear had turned away from vocal jazz. Even so, Ken Bloom and Bill Rudman, co-founders of Harbinger Records, saw an opportunity in the 1985 release of the Francis Ford Coppola film, The Cotton Club, and set out to make a recording with Maxine Sullivan, one of the few remaining Cotton Club singers still actively performing at the time. (She was 73.) The result, Maxine Sullivan: Great Songs from the Cotton Club, now stands as a historical record of one of the most influential singers from the formative years of jazz history.
Harbinger Records, under the auspices of its parent, Ohio-based The Musical Theater Project (TMTP), has re-released this Grammy-nominated album of 15 tunes by composer Harold Arlen and lyricist Ted Koehler, the pre-eminent writing duo during the Cotton Club’s heyday. The CD’s liner notes contain little information about Sullivan’s contribution to the recording—or to the Cotton Club’s history, for that matter. But the vocals on this release give us a better understanding of the unerring, unadorned swing of the 1930s than the printed word ever can. On each tune Sullivan holds the groove tight to her chest, placing each note, each lyric just so in pianist Keith Ingham’s arrangements. Her performances are an object lesson in musical economy; she wastes not one heartful note. Beyond some of the well-known and expected tunes (“Stormy Weather” and “I’ve Got the World On a String”), the recording contains three never-before-recorded, now-forgotten Arlen/Koehler compositions: “’Neath the Pale Cuban Moon” (1931),” “In the Silence of the Night” (1932) and “Primitive Prima Donna” (1934). These three tunes don’t have the appeal of the pair’s more celebrated pieces, but they give us a glimpse into The Cotton Club’s stock-in-trade. Savvy singers, hip musicians, and romanticized exoticism.
TMTP/Harbinger has also just released an intriguing recording of singer Mark Murphy from 2008, Mark Murphy: Live in Athens, Greece. Electric guitarist/producer Spiros Exaras had invited Murphy to perform in Athens for three days, two shows a day. The indefatigable Murphy, who had just turned 76, charmed the Greek fans with his intelligence, his wit, and the sheer power of his vocal ideas. In these performances Murphy stuck to the standards (“My Funny Valentine,” “Summertime,” “Autumn Leaves”), feeling his way through each tune with long stretches of melody sung a cappella, calls and shouts, vocal percussion, and his inimitable scats. This CD—vocal improv at its purist—is a departure for Harbinger, but a welcome one, so soon after Murphy’s passing. Listening to this recording, it’s easy to imagine that we’re in Gazarte Club with him, just a short walk from the Parthenon. Some things are so great they seem to transcend time itself.
Even while Murphy was scatting away in the world’s top jazz clubs, singer Al Jarreau was the one who managed to revive some popular interest in scat singing with his chart-topping hits, each a fusion of R&B, jazz, and pop ideas. Jarreau has retained his popular audience and is a dependable headliner at jazz festivals; he’s appeared at the Montreux Jazz Festival a total of 11 times, for instance. Eagle Rock Entertainment captured one of his Montreux performances on tape and has just released it as a CD, Al Jarreau: Live at Montreux 1993. This Montreux concert was the run-up to his 1994 studio album, Tenderness, and contains much of the same material (“Mas Que Nada,” “Try A Little Tenderness,” “Your Song”) mixed in with some perennial favorites (“We’re In This Love Together,” “Alonzo”). Local fans can catch him at the Blue Note Jazz Fest at Town Hall on June 25.
Svetlana and The Delancey Five will also appear in the Blue Note Jazz Fest, the night before Jarreau, on June 24 at BB Kings. They’ll be working their swing with trombone player Wycliffe Gordon in an “Ella & Louis” tribute to the 60th anniversary of the eponymous Verve recording that featured the Oscar Peterson Quartet. Most likely Svetlana, the Five, and Gordon will play some selections from their first album together, Night at the Speakeasy (OA2 Records)—modern, horn-filled interpretations of some highly danceable swing tunes (the Gershwin’s “Lady Be Good”) and cleverly arranged pop tunes (the Beatles “Because” and the Beach Boys “God Only Knows”). Play a few of these tunes and you’ll understand why this group’s star is rising so rapidly.
(Reprinted from the June 2016 issue of The New York City Jazz Record.)