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This Week on Jazz Spectrum - 5/17-5/19

Song of the Week – “’S Wonderful” – Music by George Gershwin; lyrics by Ira Gershwin

Each week, Fritz exchanges thoughts with Aly Krajewski about the Song of the Week featured on Jazz Spectrum Saturday.

By Fritz Byers

Hi Aly,

I didn’t mention to you when we were talking last night that any impairment you detected in my capacity for linear thought was likely due to my having spent excessive time recently with the movies of the French New Wave. I think mostly the movies go way over my head, but I find them funny; often, I think, unintentionally so. And man, have I seen a lot of jump-cuts in the last week or so!

That’s all for the next time we hang out, although we probably won’t get to it at the Jazz Spectrum 35th anniversary party on June 6 at TolHouse & Lucille’s. Don’t you dare come without Baxter.

I asked someone who should know to recommend a movie that embodied the opposite of the aesthetics of the French New Wave, and she steered me to An American in Paris. A musical romantic comedy – a three-word concatenation likely to produce hives. But I asked, so I figured I had to watch it.

Which I did last weekend. Wow, can Gene Kelly dance – why didn’t you ever tell me that? His long, wordless ballet with Leslie Caron to “The American in Paris” is a stunner. And, although as you may know I’m pretty much in favor of freedom of expression, the censors weren’t entirely off-base in their prudish conclusions about Leslie’s sequence with the chair.

The absurdity of movie musicals, and the jaw-dropping talents of the stars who made them shine, are perfectly captured in the sequence that features Gene Kelly and Georges Guetary first, talking, then slightly singing, and finally tap-dancing their way through the Gershwins’ “‘S Wonderful.” Having spent some time getting to know you and the encyclopedia you have for a mind, I suspect that you probably know this scene by heart. Here it is for a quick refresher.

So that’s the song this week. There are oodles of jazz versions, although my favorite, since I first heard it, is Helen Merrill’s, from her album with the trumpeter Clifford Brown, which is on any sensible short list of the best jazz vocal albums. So that version is part of this week’s excursion. 

Alec Wilder condemned the song as “a monotony of imitative phrases which no amount of adroit harmony can leaven.” Seems a little harsh. I really like the song, although I try to avoid versions in which the vocalist gives too much sibilance to the “S” that begins each of the lines that repeat the title.

George and Ira Gershwin wrote the song in 1927 for the stage musical Funny Face, in which it was performed by Adele Astaire and Allen Kearns. One of the earliest recorded versions is by Frank Crumit. As best I can tell, it was recorded on October 25, 1927, although the release year is listed as 1928. 

The label on the original Victor 78rpm issue credits “Frank Crumit – Comedian with violin and piano.” That phrasing is why I chose this version – I love the “comedian” instead of “vocalist.” The pianist is Jack Shilkret, whom we’ve heard many times over the years of SofW, and the violinist is Lou Raderman, who is described here and there in the available sources as the “concert master of the Victor Studio Orchestra.” You and I well know that some of the greatest musicians in history decided to hide out in the studios, so let’s lift one for Lou as we listen to his playing behind Frank.

Also – you would know why without my having to say it – I couldn’t resist the version by the Ipana Trouadours (I do not consider the “u” to be optional), recorded one month after Frank’s and also released in 1928. Yes, the group’s name, which was really a pseudonym for the popular Sam Lanin Orchestra, comes from Ipana toothpaste, whose manufacturer, Bristol Myers, sponsored the radio program, which aired for more than a decade.

Between those two versions, you’ll hear the path-breaking saxophonist Frankie Trumbauer, this time without his frequent companion Bix Beiderbecke, who had passed by the time of this 1936 recording. 

The first set also has the guitarist Eddie Condon and his Orchestra from December 1944. The terrific piano solo is by Gene Schroeder and you’ll hear the trombone playing of Jack Teagarden, which is always worth an ear.

Yes, I added Fred Astaire at the end of the set in the hopes of keeping your attention.

Helen Merrill’s perfect treatment of the tune opens the second set. Listen for the flawless piano support from the always tasteful Jimmy Jones, and, of course, the clarion trumpet of Clifford Brown.

Buddy DeFranco on clarinet and Oscar Peterson on piano are next in the slowest version of the song I’ve ever heard. Alec Wilder wouldn’t give two figs for my opinion, nor can I see a reason why he should, but I’d like to play this version for him, because I think the slow pacing allows Buddy and Oscar to bring out lovely harmonies that really do lift the tune. And then you’ll hear what they do mid-way through.

Anita O’Day is next, a recording that captures her performing in 1986 at the London jazz mecca, Ronnie Scott’s. You already know how affecting I find Anita’s style.

And we finish with the saxophonist Steve Wilson, from his 1993 recording with the pianist Cyrus Chestnut. I like the way they take the repetitive nature of the verse lines and turn them into sort of a stop-time syncopation. Steve’s alto playing on this tune is a nice representation of his strong, driving style. His fellow musicians have known for decades how good he is -- you can tell by the list of all the people he’s played with. And Freddie Bryant’s guitar solo is limber to say the least.

I may have lost you into the reverie of watching Gene Kelly tapdancing, but if you’re still reading, let me know what you think.

Yr fthfl frnd,

F

Aly's Response

Hey Fritz,

You know better than to utter Gene Kelly's name in my general direction and NOT expect my ears to perk. I will do my best to refrain from falling prey to discussions of him or his version of this SotW – but we absolutely DO need to discuss Georges Guetary's wonderfully froggy version of "I'll Build a Stairway to Paradise" sometime soon. And we should put a pin in further conversations surrounding how anyone would be compelled to leave a kind, rich, talented, silver fox of a French man (did you know Georges was actually Greek?) for an ex-army tap-dancing mediocre painter (no offense to whoever actually painted the canvases that Gene waved a brush in front of!).

"S'Wonderful" is, honestly, one of the less memorable performances on An American in Paris's soundtrack for me. By the time it rolls around in the movie, you've already heard "I Got Rhythm", "Embraceable You", "Love is Here to Stay", and a few other heavy-hitters. I know that I heard "S'Wonderful" in the general Jazz Zeitgeist over the years before seeing this film, and I probably met each version of it with a similarly disinterested response. 

Well, thanks to your astute song choice this week, I'm happy to report that I was wrong. (Hold for shock and gasp.) Yes, Alec Wilder may have had some credible qualms with this track's lyricism (or lack thereof); and yes, a sibilant S sound in this performance can make it feel like a worm is crawling into your brain; but when performed expertly and exuberantly, this song can pack as heavy of a punch as any other tune Kelly & Guetary sing in their Paris escapades. 

I'll start with the version this week that, of course, I know most intimately: Fred's. It's a classic example of his considerable charm and musical talent, I'm sure we can concur. Fascinating that Astaire would witness his sister’s debut of this song in the 1927 Broadway version of "Funny Face," and then put his own touch on it in his 1957 film version of the musical alongside Audrey Hepburn. In this version, his performance of the song in this context is playful and romantic, which, what more could you want out of the guy? (I posit not much more. Who could ask for anything more, really?) I won't say that this version is a favorite of mine, nor did it turn my ear onto liking the song any more than I did before today; but a serviceable track all the same.

Not having heard Helen Merrill’s version before today, her performance was a welcome deviation from the previous. This type of treatment does, admittedly, pique my interest much more than the lilting whitewash of a version like Fred's: fast-paced, beat-for-beat, the kind of near-frenzied portrayal that, I think, gets closer to a true and interesting interpretation of the lyrics. I won't speak for you, but I know that I have been lucky to experience the throes of young love in my short life so far, and it definitely felt more like being hit by a train than running through a field of daisies in Paris. Helen, Jimmy, and Clifford drive this train masterfully.

And before I forget, I need to at LEAST acknowledge the absolutely magical swing in the Eddie Condon orchestral version, too. Anytime you infuse a little taste of Dixieland or Chicago jazz into a tune, you've got my attention. A testament to the adaptability of the Gershwin catalogue, this version feels so clearly distinct and of its own time. One of the highlights is the interplay between the musicians (a hallmark of Condon's style from what I can tell). The improvisational flair and spontaneous energy bring a fresh and exciting dimension to the song. Condon's arrangement allows each musician to shine. All in all, a swinging and stylish performance that got my toes a-tapping. (Oscar and Buddy's push from a mellow pace up to a hi-hat bop in their arrangement is also worth at least a note!)

So there you have it. You've successfully converted at least one person from a casual participant in the world of "S'Wonderful" into an enthusiast who will probably watch the Kelly/Guetary version of it about seven and a half more times before bed today. I'd call that a job well done at some level. Jokes aside, though, it is a welcome, joyful feeling to be able to rediscover an interest in classic jazz tunes that you think you've had figured out for most of your life. It's a nice reminder that sometimes, it would do me well to come to the table with a bit more of an open mind, particularly when it comes to music. After all, if one of life's greatest gifts is the ability to create, shouldn't we celebrate that at all levels? (A smart guy told me something to that effect recently...)

Stay Wonderful!
Aly

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