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BILLY ECKSTINE

The Fabulous Mister B --
Centenary Tribute --
His 50 finest, 1940-1961

Retrospective RTS 4252

 

 

CD 1

1. Jelly, Jelly

2. Skylark

3. Stormy Monday Blues

Earl Hines (piano) and his Orchestra

4. Blowin' the Blues Away

5. A Cottage for Sale

6. Lonesome Lover Blues

7. Prisoner of Love

8. I'm in the Mood for Love

9. You Call It Madness

Billy Eckstine and his Orchestra

10. Everything I Have Is Yours

Sonny Burke and his Orchestra

11. Intrigue

12. Blue Moon

13. Mister B's Blues

14. Caravan

Hugo Winterhalter and his Orchestra

15. Body and Soul

16. Jealousy

Buddy Baker and his Orchestra

17. My Foolish Heart

Russ Case and his Orchestra

18. Dedicated to You

19. You're All I Need

Duets with Sarah Vaughan; Joe Lippman and his Orchestra

20. I Wanna Be Loved

Russ Case and his Orchestra

21. Be My Love

Buddy Baker and his Orchestra

22. I Apologize

23. If

Pete Rugolo and his Orchestra

24. I Left My Hat in Haiti

Woody Herman (clarinet, alto saxophone) and his Orchestra

25. Taking a Chance on Love

George Shearing (piano) and his Quintet

26. One for My Baby and One More for the Road

Bobby Tucker (piano) and his Quartet

CD 2

1. Kiss of Fire

Nelson Riddle and the Orchestra

2. Tenderly

Bobby Tucker (piano) and his Quartet

3. St. Louis Blues

The Metronome All-Stars

4. I Let a Song Go Out of My Heart

5. No One but You

Lou Bring and his Orchestra

6. Cheek to Cheek

7. Passing Strangers

Duets with Sara Vaughan; Hal Mooney and his Orchestra

8. The Boulevard of Broken Dreams

9. You Don't Know What Love Is

10. Stella by Starlight

11. Gigi (Gaston's Soliloquy)

Bobby Tucker (piano) and his Orchestra

12. Imagination

13. Lullaby of the Leaves

Pete Rugolo and his Orchestra

14. Little Mama

15. Blues, the Mother of Sin

Count Basie and his Orchestra

16. As Time Goes By

17. Stormy Weather

18. Blues in the Night

Billy May and his Orchestra

19. Without a Song

20. Lush Life

21. 'Deed I Do

22. Misty

Bobby Tucker (piano) and his Orchestra

23. In the Still of the Night

24. Alright, Okay, You Win

Quincy Jones and his Orchestra

Dip into any track here, and enjoy the smooth, even singing of Billy Eckstine as he caresses the melodies with honeyed tone. His handling of music and text, reflecting the natural flow and emphasis of speech with a tasteful, tactful rhythmic freedom,

could serve as an object lesson for students of popular song.

Still, Eckstine's performances, for all their ease and flexibility, can feel a bit detached. The best balladeers -- a Sinatra, a Streisand, a Nancy LaMott -- treat each song as a dramatic scene, bringing it to life by connecting to the shifting emotional nuances of the lyric, line by line. Eckstine, particularly in the earlier tracks, is content to roll out the words and the honeyed tones in much the same way from line to line, and even from song to song. It's all pleasing and musical, to be sure, but only occasionally -- as with the affirmative ambivalence of Prisoner of Love -- does the singer's manner seem directed to a specific response.

A pair of duets with Sarah Vaughan, recorded in 1949, stand out from the surrounding tracks on the first disc, perhaps because she spurred Eckstine to greater involvement efforts. When Vaughan begins Dedicated to You, her clear, forward voice is a refreshing change from Eckstine's invariable baritone. You're All I Need, in this arrangement, is even better: Eckstine begins, in warm voice; Vaughan answers; and the two continue to swap off lines and verses, back-and-forth, to lively effect.

Otherwise, the best tracks on the first disc are a laid-back treatment of Be My Love -- the extroverted Lanza passion is missing, and it's not missed -- and a light, pointed Taking a Chance on Love. I Left My Hat in Haiti is playful, and I liked If, where Eckstine pivots in mid-phrase from a proclamatory stance to an intimate, caressing one -- nicely done.

Things get better on the second disc, and not just because the recording quality keeps improving: a more experienced Eckstine finally starts to make his performances personal, rather than merely pleasant. He's nuanced and responsive in Tenderly, where the piano brings a nice improvisatory feel to the bridge. I Let a Song Go Out of My Heart brings a distinct leap forward in sonic clarity, though it, like the previous track, dates from 1953; Eckstine plays against the text in a hopeful performance. St. Louis Blues is properly bluesy, Stella by Starlight expressive, as well as enveloping in the low range.

In Gigi, Eckstine is gripping in the brief, unfamiliar introduction, then oddly run-of-the-mill in the chorus; on the other hand, he enters into the ruminative spirit of Blues, the Mother of Sin. Another pair of duets with Sarah Vaughan again offer a nice immediacy: the close harmonies and firm singing are appealing in Cheek to Cheek, and really affecting in Passing Strangers. The "live" recordings from Las Vegas and New York that close out the collection catch Eckstine at his most spontaneous, although Misty ends up feeling generic.

Occasionally, we're reminded that not every item in the Great American Songbook is necessarily deathless: Harry Akst's Intrigue is a forgettable beguine, and I find no reason ever to return to it, save that I've already forgotten how it goes. Neither are all the arrangements felicitous. Caravan, backed by "tribal" drums, slows the main theme to half speed -- I didn't immediately recognize it -- and then reverts to the usual tempo at the bridge! The stylized rendering of One for My Baby and One More for the Road loses the lazy effect of the original rhythms, leaving Eckstine sounding more generic than ever. I'm in the Mood for Love sounds too high for this singer in this key, and he strains audibly at the upward lines. (To be fair, up-tempos and more pattery songs that lie similarly high, such as Mister B's Blues, cause the singer no problem.)

This kind of retrospective allows you to trace the evolution of arranging styles along with that of the artist. The early tracks -- along with the later Stormy Weather -- hew to the basic jazz-band model, dominated by saxophones and trumpets. Lonesome Lover Blues even hews rather closely to a traditional jazz structure, bracketing a brief Eckstine solo -- one chorus and out -- with an extended introduction and postlude, treating the vocal as "just" one more featured instrumental. In the ballads, the addition of strings to the arrangements adds warmth and a romantic surge, particularly in the later cuts. Tenderly is accompanied by just a small combo, as in a nightclub, with a lovely intimacy. Boulevard of Broken Dreams, with its gently dissonant boulevardier flutes and its martial take on the tango, seems to have classical ambitions.

The remastered sound is mostly rather good. Eckstine's voice is always front and center, marred only by a touch of distortion in A Cottage for Sale and the peaks of St. Louis Blues. On the earlier, jazz-band tracks, the saxes sound as present as the voice, but the trumpets are comparatively thin and shallow. The brassy introduction to Kiss of Fire is both hard-edged and congested. In the later recordings -- beginning with that late-1953 I Let a Song... -- the instruments sound beautiful, with expansive tone and, when strings are involved, a nice sheen.

Stephen Francis Vasta

Stephen Francis Vasta is a New York-based conductor, coach, and journalist.



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