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This week on Jazz Spectrum – 5/3/24-5/5/24

Song of the Week – “Last Night When We Were Young” -- Music By Harold Arlen; lyrics by Yip Harburg.

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 checked the rules, but I don’t see one that prohibits beginning consecutive Song of the Week emails with a reference to a poem. So, last week, e.e. cummings, this week, Frank O’Hara.

Frank’s affecting poem, “St. Paul and All That,” has this perfectly cadenced stanza:

I walk in
sit down and
face the frigidaire
it’s April
no May
it’s May
such little things have to be established in the morning
after the big things of night

Two things: first, leaping lizards, he’s right Aly: it IS May. I never believed that malarkey about April’s being the cruelest month. Truth is, April is kind and generous.  But, regardless, I’m happy to greet the new month, with all its whispered promises. So this poem feels apt for that reason alone.

But, also, the poem’s nod to the need to establish something new, even something small, after a momentous night is rich with redolences, both happy and melancholy.

We might slide down that slope, Aly, but, instead, let’s use this mood to introduce this week's SotW – “Last Night When We Were Young,” comprising the music of Harold Arlen and the lyrics of Yip Harburg. That dual engine of brilliance produced enduring classics, including “Over the Rainbow,” which in 2001 was voted first in the “Songs of the Century” project created by the Recording Industry of American Association and the National Endowment for the Arts. Together, Harold and Yip – I’m so glad there isn’t a zany 90s buddy film about their madcap adventures -- also created one of Jazz Spectrum’s favorite songs, the magnificent “It’s Only a Paper Moon.”

Yip wrote classic lyrics with other composers -- “April in Paris” to the music of Vernon Duke and “Old Devil Moon” with Burton Lane among them. He was literate, clever, and capable of romantic precision.

Harold Arlen is, by any measure, one of America’s greatest composers. Read the full list of his songs sometime and feel the flood of familiar, timeless songs wash over you. Or, if you want a beautifully organized distillation, listen to Ella Fitzgerald’s two-lp anthology of his songs, part of her indispensable Songbook series recorded for Verve between 1956 and 1964. 

This past weekend, after I had the thought of choosing “Last Night” for this week’s song and realized that, although I know Harold’s music fairly well, I know nothing about his life, I read Edward Jablonski’s biography – Harold Arlen: Rhythm, Rainbows, and Blues. I was enormously surprised to read that he considered “Last Night When We Were Young” to be the favorite of ALL of the songs he wrote. Wouldn’t you love to know how he landed on that conclusion? Do you think he did the old-timey equivalent of one of those Internet-bracket playoffs? Nah, not likely. He probably just felt somewhere deep inside that he’d come about as close as possible to an expression of the archetype of musical perfection he’d had in mind all along. So many of his songs give a glimpse of something like that.

This is a marvelous song, Aly, and in so many ways it is unlike anything else in the jazz repertoire. There are so many things to be said about it! It feels as though it has a nearly operatic sweep, although if you plunk out the melody on piano, as I just tried to do, you realize its range is barely a full octave. I don’t know how he achieved that, any more than I can fathom how Yip managed to write such poignant lyrics of nostalgia, longing, and melancholy, and set them to this high-brow melody without seeming pretentious. 

Aly, I’ve barely recovered from the last sustained conversation we had about our differing estimations of Frank Sinatra, so it’s not easy for me to venture the opinion that his version of the song, from his nonpareil Capitol recording, In the Wee Small Hours, all but lays definitive claim to the song. I find this even hard to say to you since I know how you feel about Judy Garland and her version. So how about this: let’s include both this week. Deal?

Lawrence Tibbett’s original version, from October 1939, will start things out in our two-set survey. The producers axed it from the movie it was recorded for, so I’m doing my share to make sure Lawrence doesn’t disappear from popular memory. 

Bill Charlap exists to play enthralling melodies and their accompanying intricate harmonies of Great American songs. He does marvelously with this one with his classic trio, with Peter Washington on bass and the drummer Kenny Washington. Their version, which captures the group in another flawless live performance, is nearly perfect.

Then we’ll heard Judy – in deference to you, I chose the latter of her two versions. The first was for 1949 movie In the Good Old Summertime – you can watch and listen here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=k91Rcxogkb0. I know you prefer the 1956 version from her Capitol record, Judy. So we’ll hear that in the first set.

The first set concludes with a vocal performance by the Welsh singer, actor, and comedian Ian Shaw, accompanied by the ever-tasteful pianist Cedar Walton. When I thought of this version, which I hadn’t heard in years, I pulled out the CD – it’s twenty-five years old, so that seems like a round-enough number to warrant another listen.

Frank’s great version opens the second set. I’ll be eager to read what you make of it.

A yearning melody is always well-served by the pianist Tommy Flanagan, so next up is Tommy’s treatment, from his recording dedicated entirely to Harold Arlen’s music. I had forgotten till I was listening to this track that Helen Merrill sneaks in toward the end of the 6-minute version, which until then is just Tommy’s immaculate trio, and Helen does her usual understated magic act with the lyrics. This recording should be enough to drive everyone to listen to the entire album that Helen recorded with the great trumpeter Clifford Brown.

In the same sense that Bill Charlap exists to play songs like this, Mel Torme lived to sing them, and I like him best when he’s accompanied by only the pianist George Shearing. The recording is, of course, precise and, as the album title suggests, elegant.

And we finish our survey with a version from the series of “On Broadway” records that the drummer Paul Motian made between 1988 and 2005. These albums don’t just hold up; they get inexpressibly better with time. This track is from On Broadway Volume 4, subtitled The Paradox of Continuity.  Interestingly, the vocalist Rebecca Martin, who sings on eight of the tunes on the disc, sits this one out. I would have liked to hear her, but her absence leaves plenty of room for the tenor saxophonist Chris Potter, who is both dynamic and tasteful here, and for the pianist Masabumi Kikuchi, who is both of those things as well.

To think that spring had depended on merely this . . .

So now let’s reminisce . . .

You’re up, Aly.


Aly's Response

Hey Fritz,

Another fabulous song choice this week – that perfect convergence of seasonally thematic and yearning-filled, don't you think? "Last Night When We Were Young" is, to me, encompassed in the root sensation of bittersweetness. Harold, born Hyman, & Yip (I'm really restraining myself from any name commentary right now) may have cemented their stardom in more well-known staples of the music canon, but your note about Harry's preference for this particular tune makes a lot of sense to me. It's a subtle shimmer of a track.

If I don't put a cap on my talk of Judy Garland this week, I'm liable to spend the entirety of this reply waxing about her – and about her version(s) of this SotW, too. I'll try to relegate my commentary to this introductory paragraph only. MGM Judy (approximately 1942-1949), to me, is the most beautiful woman to ever be put on film. Not just her physical beauty, though I do find that to be unparalleled; but also her ability to convey true passion, to elicit real tear-jerking feelings, in the technicolor landscape of the Golden Age of musicals. I adore her 1949 version of "Last Night When We Were Young" for all these reasons. But you're right, I did ask you to play the cut of this week's song from her 1956 album Judy. I can literally manifest goosebumps when I think about how her voice shifted into a new stratosphere of perfection in this performance. Certainly, it's not perfection in the traditional sense – it's that Garland-esque vibrato, the slides up to hit the notes, the deep warmth of her tone, that mixes into its own special sauce of "correct".

Okay, wiping the stars out of my eyes now...

I really resonated with your observation of this song's limited range once it's broken down to its basics. Perhaps that is what makes Judy's versions so poignant to me (please grant me one more Garland-ism, damnit): she was the master of simplicity, whether it was a fragile sentiment or a bombastic oration. This song asks – demands – a performance that matches its ease in some ways. And you're right, Frank does a masterful rendition of "Last Night..." on his 1955 cut. Maybe I feel as though his performance doesn't caress the song's arrangement in the same way that Judy does. Maybe you and I will stand on opposite sides of an "Opinions on Frank Sinatra" spectrum for the rest of time, shouting at each other in vain attempts to convince a change of heart in some direction. I'm fine with that challenge.

The Charlap arrangement you included in this week's rotation hums on that simple frequency in a way that scratches a good part of my brain, just like Ju- woops. Anyways. Bill chooses the notes and their placements in ways that feel more like a warm blanket than a triumphant declaration. The smooth ease is tinged with that delicious melancholic potion we know and love, too. I didn't realize it was possible for a piano to evoke that bittersweet yearning out of me. First time for everything!

I wonder, why am I so often drawn to this feeling of bittersweetness in music and art: pleasant, but marked by elements of suffering, of regret? I think that it makes me feel like I'm not alone in a twisted way; that if someone else can translate these emotions into their creative outputs, then it must be okay to also feel the emotions myself. You know I'll never turn down a chance to feel a little bit emotionally closer to Judy–though I am assuming her emotional state, I have to believe her rolodex of feelings included at least a little wistfulness, no? 

...Aw, shoot. I really tried to keep her out of this reply, but there's no telling Judy where she can or can't go. I trust you understand.

I'll close this ultimately Garlandian reply with another springtime stanza (A Color of the Sky, Tony Hoagland) that hits me in the gut in the same way that both Judy's version of "Last Night...." and your O'Hara poem selection did:

What I thought was an end turned out to be a middle.   
What I thought was a brick wall turned out to be a tunnel.   
What I thought was an injustice
turned out to be a color of the sky.

Ever the President of the Frances Ethel Gumm Fan Club,

Jazz Spectrum