Monday, 22 March 2010

Gimme some sugar ... cake


I mentioned Joe Venuti's sublime recording of Tea for Two in the entry about Hubert Gregg. I have now found out a little more about it and located streamed versions of both sides of the original UK Parlophone 78.


Sadly, they're on spotify, which may not yet have spread to America, and is no longer free to use in the UK unless you have already signed up. But if you are in that lucky position, here is a link to the other side, Body and Soul.

There is even a review of the record in Gramophone magazine's online archives, here, which finally explains why this recording has been so hard to find: it was recorded in 1947, long after his sides with Eddie Lang, so not eliglible for the numerous CD compilations of those recordings (qualifying for entry into Greggland all the same, as it precedes the London premiere of Oklahoma).

The anonymous Gramophone reviewer, writing in July 1947, makes the point that Venuti's style hasn't changed much in the twenty or so years since the height of his fame, so these could pass for earlier recordings. The records aren't really swing, the reviewer suggests, "just Venuti improvising tunefully, and not very far from the original melodies, 'in tempo.' " But as Louis Armstrong often observed, sometimes a straight rendition of the melody is beautiful enough on its own.

A few years ago in an earlier incarnation as an educator of sorts, I prepared a talk about interpretations of Tea for Two, partly as a peg on which to hang some very basic points about jazz but mostly as an excuse to share the wonderful recording to which I'd been introduced by Hubert Gregg.

The initial idea for this talk, however, had come from another favourite radio presenter, Benny Green. He had written about Tea for Two in his book Drums in My Ears and probably discussed it on his Sunday afternoon show as well. A saxophonist himself, Green's basic point was that jazz musicians (and singers such as Billie Holiday and Louis Armstrong) treat songs as blueprints and had been particularly attracted to the possibilities offered by Tea for Two over the decades.

Among other illustrations for the talk I chose the obvious (Art Tatum) plus a Ravens recording which was more jazzy than doo wop as well as a lesser-known (to me, anyway) Django Reinhardt side with a very spare guitar solo. I think I chose a Fats Waller piano solo as well.

The Venuti side was the climactic recording, after which the entire orchestra of that institution launched into a cha-cha version - although not before the Head of Music agreed that Venuti's recording was indeed a lovely version.

Which prompts me to offer belated thanks to a certain still-going-strong non-musical Radio 4 presenter who very kindly sent me a cassette of the Venuti recording from a 78 in the BBC record library.

This was especially welcome on the morning I received it. I don't want to relive every painful detail but I had been up most of the previous night selecting and arranging the work in students' folders for a marking session with colleagues (an annual source of dread) the next day. The only note of lightness had been, in the middle of the night, wearily opening yet another student's work to find a note saying:
YOU ARE NOW ENTERING THE LITERATURE PART OF THE FOLDER
or something similar.

Well, it made me smile, anyway. Maybe you had to be gripped by anxiety as I was at the possibility of my limitations being exposed in a matter of hours. And this unnecessary but somehow very pleasing signpost - pleasing, I suppose, because of its pointlessness - had been, I may add, inserted by someone who had earlier copied a certain piece of work out again without complaint when I was obliged to confess to him that, er, it looked like I had lost it. I can't remember his name, but I thank him both for that task and the literal note of humanity which momentarily eased my burden. (Yes, yes, a burden which might have been avoided entirely had I taken the trouble to prepare everything earlier. Happy?)

Anyway, after about an hour of unavoidable sleep followed by lots more frenzied industry I was just about ready to go out and face the next stage of my ordeal when the promised cassette of Tea for Two (which I hadn't heard for around five years, as my tape of the relevant Hubert Gregg programme had become damaged) arrived in those days of morning postal deliveries.

I put it on. It was probably around this time of year or not long after, and the morning was sunny and quiet.
 In my caffeine-boosted tiredness I listened to it several times before setting out: as when I first heard it on Thanks for the Memory in the early eighties, it still sounded fresh and full of possibilities, suggesting that that day and others to come might be gettable-through and even bring the odd moment of happiness - and that is still pretty much how, even stripped of that context, it still sounds, if you are one of those fortunate enough to feel the benefit of clicking here.

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