Between 2000 and 2005 John recorded 8 albums for the venerable jazz/swing/dance band label Vocalion, and I now have 6 of them (whereas 4 months ago I had none). I have that awful Orchestral Jazz he did with Richard Rodney Bennett; his 2 albums of Angela Morley’s work; his Paul Weston and his Geraldo (see my post “Geraldo Among the Filipinos” below); and I just ordered Dance Date.
There are two more albums I haven’t gotten yet: One is with a pleasant but unimaginative crooner named Gary Williams (who I suspect was the guy who enabled John to increase the size of his orchestra—”He just turned up one day at my door with a pot of money and said, ‘Will you put together a great big orchestra for me to sing to?’ And that was the start of it,” said my blinky winsome John in a 2011 interview—and somebody, bear me out on this story) but it doesn’t sound interesting enough to drop fifteen bucks on.
But this one, Lessons In Love, sounds perfectly gorgeous, the little I heard—it’s classic Songbook stuff—and I’m dying to have it. It’s Lance Ellington’s strong clear vocals and fundamental John Wilson Orchestra through and through. Trouble is, it apparently went through a limited pressing so available copies run from 115 American bucks upward. How can a record only 13 years old be a collector’s item already???
Anyway, Lance Ellington is the son of English bandleader/singer Ray Ellington, who I know only as that weird singer on The Goon Show who mangled my beloved Charles Trenet’s song “Boum”, even though I yelled at him not to do it through my computer screen. Lance is great, though. He teamed up with John and Orchestra for their 2014 Cole Porter album doing the song “Now You Has Jazz” and that album won the Echo Klassik Music Without Borders Prize.
Castles were crumbling
And daydreams were tumbling
December was battling with June
But on this bright afternoon
Guess I’ll be changing my tune
We can thank composer/arranger Kay Swift, Gershwin’s secret lover, for making sure this song found its perfect setting in this 1947 20th Century Fox musical after Gershwin’s untimely death ten years earlier.
Co-composer Blaine once said that he’d been glancing at a picture book he’d found at the Beverly Hills Public Library, landed on a page about early streetcars captioned “Clang, Clang, Clang, Went the Trolley”, and bang was off to the races. The song’s unusual structure, which Martin based on 19th century tunes, was a showcase for Garland’s strong voice. It was nominated for a 1944 Academy Award for Best Original Song (but lost to “Swinging on a Star” from Going My Way, a catchy tune when Bing Crosby sings it, but no “Trolley Song”.)
Orchestrator for this song—as well as the entire MGM Judy Garland musical Meet Me in St Louis—was Conrad Salinger. “He had a very individual, sophisticated sense of harmony,” said our John in a 2013 interview. “It was those very subtle and exclusive touches that he gave to those numbers that set him apart… Little touches of instrumentation, like alto flutes and French horns, that gave those pictures a sound world all their own. His specialty was that high-class production number, the theatrical presentation of a popular song, or a balletic development of a number. In the hands of Salinger, you could be listening to Debussy or Ravel. He’s never going to be a household name, but that doesn’t diminish his stature.”
Orchestrator/arranger/conductor Jack Campey pointed to this clip highlighting Salinger’s orchestration, sans vocals. Cheers, Jack.
You are the promised kiss of springtime
That makes the lonely winter seem long.
You are the breathless hush of evening
That trembles on the brink of a lovely song.
You are the angel glow that lights a star,
The dearest things I know are what you are.
High culture and nothing less. The most beautiful song ever written, sung in the classiest concert in the world, conducted by the sweetest musical theater restorer/preservationist who ever lived (John McGlinn, who died too young at 55), hosted by the most glamorous hostess in New York, Kitty Carlisle Hart. Orchestration of this Jerome Kern classic by Robert Russell Bennett. Milton Babbitt, that champion of musical theater and Stephen Sondheim’s teacher, wrote an analysis of this song having to do with tritones and inverted fifths which I was never able to entirely grasp, but you’re welcome to take a crack at it here.