'Pops' Whiteman is viewed as the pioneer of symphonic jazz and is probably
best known, certainly by cross-over aficionados, as the man who put Gershwin's
Rhapsody in Blue on the map. Born in 1890 at Denver, Colorado, (he
died in Philadelphia in 1967) he trained as a boy on the violin and in his
teenage years was an orchestral as well as chamber music player, but during
the First World War he discovered jazz. He first fronted a small nine-piece
band, then he was taken up (1922) by Victor Records and produced the hits
Whispering and The Japanese Sandman which sold two million
copies. His unique ability to attract the best players in their instrumental
fields to his band unsurprisingly produced performances of the highest calibre;
names such as Jack Teagarden, Joe Venuti, the Dorsey brothers, Hoagy Carmichael
and Bix Beiderbecke were legends in their own right but played under Whiteman.
They were then joined by vocalists such as Harry Lillis 'Bing' Crosby when
Whiteman's New York base was extended to Broadway including such showtime
hits as Ziegfeld's Follies. The first volume in the dance band series
which Naxos have produced as part of their highly welcome nostalgia series
is full of Crosby gems such as Mississippi Mud, Ol' Man
River, Makin' Whoopee, Oh Miss Hannah, and the song more associated with
Maurice Chevalier, Louise.
Transfers (whilst still retaining that evocative ambience of the period)
by David Lennick are excellent, instrumental breaks (Beiderbecke's playing
on eleven of the eighteen tracks of the Dance Band disc underline his tragic
loss from alcohol abuse at the age of 28 in 1931) and the vocal contributions
of the likes of Crosby (even in a very un-Paul Robeson version of Ol'
Man River which generally lies too low for him) and the Rhythm Boys
(including marvellous scat singing by Crosby, Al Rinker and Harry Barris
in Changes and There ain't no sweet man that's worth the salt of
my tears and Wistful and blue, the latter with one of the few
piano breaks) are of the highest order. Whiteman's versatility as an orchestrator
is at its best on this disc in the three purely instrumental numbers Lonely
Melody, San, and Dardanella, but for witty words (and an
unusually prominent part for the celesta) listen carefully to Makin'
Whoopee, an anti-marriage song if ever there was one, and for instrumentation
the sheer variety in I'm in love again).
In the Concert Orchestra disc (also a first volume), the spotlight falls
more on Whiteman himself, and his collaborations with the likes of Gershwin,
Ferde Grofé, and even Victor Herbert, who in the year before his death
in 1924, wrote his Suite of Serenades for the bandleader, underline
the bandleader's stature at this time. Herbert's four-movement Suite is a
short characteristic but colourful work covering Spanish, Chinese, Cuban,
and Oriental styles, somewhat stereotyped in approach. The trouble with it
is its limited variety, Spanish and Cuban, Chinese and Oriental are in themselves
related. When day is done (a Robert Katscher number) is the best on
both discs, superb piano and trumpet breaks, subtle instrumentation and a
catchy tune. The familiar Gershwin recording of the Rhapsody underscores
his incredible pianism, though the instrument's rather distant placing (compared
to the muppet-like sounds of a very prominent baritone sax at one point!)
is a disappointment - this is the 1927 recording (with cuts coming in at
half the full length) conducted by Victor Studio's resident maestro Nathaniel
Shilkret, and well too judging by the immaculate ensemble he achieves.
Some of Whiteman's players also feature in their own right as arrangers.
Rube Bloom's Soliloquy is notable for its prominent writing for flutes
and the piano duettists Harry Perella and Ray Turner, Midnight reflections
for Matty Malneck's unashamedly sentimental playing on the violin, still
he wrote it so he should know. He features again in a more virtuosic account
of his Caprice futuristic. Domenico Savino's Study in Blue has
more than a passing semblance of a parody of Gershwin's Rhapsody,
while Grofé (famed for his Grand Canyon Suite) orchestrated
Eastman Lane's Sea Burial (a movement from a larger 1920 work called
Eastern Seas) for Whiteman in 1928. Roy Bargy is the starry soloist
in the 1928 recording of Gershwin's concerto (about ten minutes cut), by
then three years old. A highly recommended pair of discs.