Music in a Hurry: Standard Transcriptions
When the Roots signed on as Jimmy Fallon’s Late Night house band, there was a curious catch: NBC wouldn’t be paying for the rights to any music, not even the band’s own. Consequently. the Roots had to compose dozens of new pieces for on-air use. The upside: those pieces needed only be long enough to play the show in and out of commercials, or to accompany guests from the wings to the desk.
Everything old becomes new again. Decades ago, musicians provided short interludes for broadcast all the time – except they weren’t playing live. Starting in the 1930s, when radio was ascendant, a few companies hired jazz, pop, country and Latin musicians to make “transcription recordings”– 16-inch discs containing a few songs per side, licensed exclusively to radio stations (not to be confused with the other kind of transcription discs: recordings of live shows for posterity). Broadcasters used transcription recordings to build programming – commercial releases frequently carried the injunction “Not licensed for broadcast”– or to fill scheduled breaks or unexpected delays in a live show. Those gapfillers might run two or three minutes, or even less.
You might think short running times would frustrate improvisers, who like having room to stretch out. But the format didn’t inhibit the irrepressible piano virtuoso Art Tatum, on his 60 collected transcriptions for the industry-standard Standard company, waxed between 1935 and ’43. Only four of those performances exceed three minutes, and Tatum makes the most of every second, embroidering the melodies and bucking them up with bouts of left-hand “stride piano,” cascading runs and hip substitute chords. (Hear “Running Wild,” or “All God’s Chillun Got Rhythm.”) Tatum’s concentrated bursts of improvisational energy are perfect intermission music: they can reset your mood and revitalize you just by listening to them.
Duke Ellington one of his premier bands in 1941, with Ben Webster on tenor sax and the amazing young bassist Jimmy Blanton. Duke’s Standard transcriptions from that year – from three sessions, with the ailing Blanton absent from the last – are an overlooked trove of alternate performances of the band’s repertoire, filled out with a little contemporary pop they didn’t record elsewhere (“Frenesi,” “I Don’t Want to Set the World on Fire”). Some of these tunes are a mite longer than other transcriptions here – two of them top four minutes – but shorties posed no obstacles to a composer who’d started recording in the 1920s when three-minute sides were the norm. He and his signature soloists – Cootie Williams, Ray Nance, Johnny Hodges, Harry Carney, Tricky Sam Nanton and more – knew how to deploy their styles effectively in short cameos; these compact pieces are so overstuffed with action, they seem longer than they are.
her Standard transcriptions, Doris Day uses mostly discreet, fleet small bands and minimal arrangements to match her unfussy, proto-cool delivery. She sings the melodies straight, with just enough jazzy lilt. (Not many duds among the tunes she sings, either.)
Violinist Eddie South scales down and thoroughly remakes Gershwin’s orchestral “Rhapsody in Blue,” for trio. That one’s from a marathon, mostly quartet 1944 session that sounds like it was fun to play. And that game 23 year old on piano turned out to be … Billy Taylor. (In memoriam, radio’s Paul Harvey.) South finds middle ground between Stephane Grappelli‘s sweet-tooth balladry and Jack Benny’s scratch-bow humor. He swings a Paganini caprice, tugs his bow and your heartstrings both on “Blues in the Night,” and in the midst of “Tabu”‘s boilerplate exotica, evokes a microtonal North Indian sarangi, without putting big quotations marks around it – in 1944 no less. South knew his East European music too, had a broad range to draw on.
I started delving into the Standard Transcriptions last year, while writing about guitarist George Barnes. (His best transcriptions are on the complete edition.) Listening to a cross section of these recordings, you hear how fluid musical boundaries once were – between jazz and country music for example. Bob Crosby’s Bobcats indiscriminately mixed Dixieland, swing, sugary pop and hillbilly – including the faux country show tune “Politics.” Broadway composer Frank Loesser wrote the western ballad “Have I Stayed Away Too Long,” and cowboy singer Johnny Bond’s men picked it up. Hank Penny, like other western swing stars, played some eastern swing, like the 1928 Broadway hit “Crazy Rhythm.”
Former Benny Goodman thrush Martha Tilton did the rustic “San Fernando Valley” by Gordon Jenkins (who wrote Goodman’s theme), about a pioneer’s lonely trek west to resettle in the wilds of Pacoima. (It’s a hipper destination than her corny “Number Ten Lullaby Lane.”) Or take Native American singer Kay Starr, whose husky pipes suggest jazz and Nashville at once, linking Dinah Washington and Patsy Cline. Starr’s five-piece 1945 “Novelty Orchestra,” the first ensemble under her name, cut nine transcriptions with Les Paul on guitar and her onetime employer Joe Venuti on jazz violin. Try her takes on Fats Waller‘s “Ain’t Misbehavin’” and “Honeysuckle Rose,” or the improbably jolly saga of a trumpeter who drops dead, “The Dixieland Band.”
The early ’40s Standard transcriptions by English bandleader Ray Noble – he wrote the bebop standard “Cherokee,” but doesn’t play it here – cover a lot of bases. There’s a businessman’s bounce for squares (“Over the Waves”), the circle-of-fifths chord progression boppers loved (“Take Five”), charts that volley between a big band and classy strings, soupy vocals, dance-academy Latin steps – and jazzed up Scottish music (“Swing of the Kilts”) decades before Philly’s bagpipe swinger Rufus Harley. Noble’s hodge-podgery is sort of endearing. And that aggressive eclecticism makes commercial sense, when your records might turn up on any radio format.