I’ve been asked about gifts before. People love recommendations, especially if they aren’t familiar with the music of the Great American Songbook. So here’s a list of music and books that might make it into your shopping cart for a special someone this holiday season.
Let’s chat about the music for a second. I make these recommendations based on what I enjoy listening to, but also on what I think is accessible for others. Meaning, I’m not going to send you off to hear some heavy duty, super improvisational jazz cd. And why is that? Because I think that when someone first approaches jazz, it’s nice to be able to have a basic grasp of the melody. That’s one of the reasons why I think the Songbook is a great jumping off point to dip a toe into jazz waters.
To further that idea, all of my selections are vocals. For most people, the human voice is the first and sometimes only instrument that resonates with them. So again, it’s accessible and enjoyable. Plus the lyrics from the Songbook are well worth the listen.
So first up let’s look at this gem.
John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman – This is such a gorgeous recording. Sax player, John Coltrane, reached out to Johnny Hartman for this recording. Initially, Hartman didn’t want to do it because he didn’t think their styles would work together. But they recorded the session in 1963 and we are all glad they did. Not a stinker on the entire release. Hartman had a very clear baritone voice and sang in an unadorned style, so this recording is one for someone who would appreciate that purity. Coltrane’s quartet provides the backdrop for the session, and his tenor sax trades back and forth effortlessly with Hartman’s baritone voice. The songs are all standards from the Songbook and arranged in a ballad style which was Hartman’s forte.
Favorite track: “They Say It’s Wonderful.” This is probably my favorite recording of this song, but Kurt Elling’s version from his live tribute to Johnny Hartman is pretty perfect as well.
Blossom Dearie – You can never have too much Blossom Dearie. She’s on my default Spotify list. Blossom (her real name) was a singer and a pianist. Her voice was very clear, and almost child-like. If you are in your fifties or so, you might remember hearing her voice in the School House Rock series that played on television during morning cartoons. “Unpack Your Adjectives,” and “Figure Eight,” come to mind. She died in 2009 but performed in jazz clubs in New York up until 2006 and was considered quite a witty entertainer. She enjoyed poking fun at pretentious songwriters at her shows and Andrew Lloyd Webber was one of her favorite targets. Blossom had recently returned from France in 1956, when she recorded this release. Fittingly, she has a few French tunes included on the date. The session trio for the date included heavy weights, Herb Ellis (guitar), Ray Brown (bass), and Jo Jones (drums), while Blossom is on piano and vocals.
Favorite track: “They Say It’s Spring.” Blossom likes to sing the intro verse which is often excluded by singers. Also, I enjoy her piano playing.
Nat “King” Cole “Just One of Those Things” – I have a preference for recordings with big bands or full orchestras. This would be one of those recordings. Nat King Cole is backed by an orchestra and partnered with the great arranger, Billy May. All the songs are standards and have been recorded many times over, but Billy May arranges them in a way that makes them memorable and in some cases, definitive recordings (“Just For the Fun of It”, “These Foolish Things”). The session was recorded in 1957, when Cole was immensely popular and coming off of a successful weekly television show. The arrangements range from upbeat, danceable tunes to beautiful ballads, and Cole’s voice is in perfect form. Definitely on my “Keeper” shelf.
Favorite track: “These Foolish Things (Remind Me of You).” This song just has gorgeous lyrics. You can actually see them when you listen to this recording.
Frank Sinatra – “Songs for Swingin Lovers!” – There are a gazillion Sinatra compilations you could choose from, but this was one of his albums from his Capitol Records period. I believe it’s one of the best examples of this man’s work. Like the Nat King Cole release, this is an orchestra date, which was Sinatra’s preference. This time Sinatra is paired with another great arranger, Nelson Riddle. (They would be linked together throughout their careers.) The year is 1956 and Sinatra’s voice is at its zenith according to most scholars/critics. The songs are primarily from Songbook writers (Johnny Mercer, the Gershwins, Cole Porter) and Sinatra’s interpretation of the Songbook is unparalleled.
Favorite track: “I Thought About You.” This is another song that you can see when you hear it. The lyrics are by Johnny Mercer and have, at times, a pastoral feel to them all the while traveling by train (a favorite subject for Mercer).
NOTE: When buying Sinatra recordings, always consider the year. His career was tremendously lengthy, and you can divide his work up into several periods, some which might not be the sound you’re looking for. I point to his recording of “Bad, Bad, Leroy Brown,” as evidence.
But now let’s look at my book list. I am a fan of biographies and I’ve enjoyed learning about the writers and interpreters of the Songbook. I think the insights to how they wrote the songs, or what was going on in their lives to produce the songs, is so interesting.
“Easy to Remember: The Great American Songwriters and Their Songs” – This is an extremely readable book with lots of interesting information. William Zinsser covers over twenty songwriters with stories about their lives as well as the creation of some of their most notable works. There are extra chapters that detail specifics surrounding The Great American Songbook, such as songs from World War II, or the songs written for Fred Astaire (his connection to the Songbook was obvious once I actually thought about it, but not so much before it was pointed out).
Interesting tidbit from the book: Ella Fitzgerald’s recordings of The Great American Songbook (there are eight sessions) were considered by many of the songwriters to be definitive references for their work.
“Skylark: The Life and Times of Johnny Mercer” – Johnny Mercer is hands down my favorite lyricist. He is responsible for some of the most memorable words in the Great American Songbook. If you’ve ever sung to “Moon River,” “Autumn Leaves”, or the theme to the film noir “Laura,” then you are familiar with his work. The title of the book, “Skylark,” is a reference to his collaboration with Hoagy Carmichael. (Just about every girl singer in the jazz world knows it-:)). Born in Savannah, Georgia, he had a knack for using the American vernacular that made his work so appealing. The book details his childhood which would always influence his work, the formation of Capitol Records (he founded it), and his work writing for films (“Breakfast at Tiffany’s”). During his Hollywood years, his heavy drinking would surface, showing a perfect southern gentleman when sober, and a very mean drunk when intoxicated. Writer, Philip Furia, interviewed hundreds of Mercer’s associates, and drew on material from a book published by Mercer’s widow as well as an unpublished autobiography.
Interesting tidbit from the book: Mercer had a long term affair with Judy Garland who is considered his muse for a good portion of his work.
“Reading Lyrics” – This is a reference book. It’s for those friends who just like to HAVE books about subjects that are dear to them. There are over a thousand lyrics in this book, edited by Robert Gottlieb and Robert Kimball. A short biography of each of the writers is included. The words are compelling even without the music, and in some cases, they can mean something altogether different when read alone.
No tidbits here, just beautiful words.
I hope my list gives you some ideas for your holiday shopping list. If not, maybe for yourself! If there’s a recording or a book you think we need to include in our shopping cart, just let me know!
Thanks for stopping by,