Tanglewood 75 - From the Audio Archives: Day 68

BSO

Lerner and Loewe: My Fair Lady, arranged for singers and jazz orchestra by John Williams (1964)
DURATION: 54:50
Seiji Ozawa Hall, August 9, 2004

John Williams, conductor
Dianne Reeves and Brian Stokes Mitchell, vocalists
Carl Saunders, trumpet
Gary Foster, alto saxophone
Tom Ranier, piano
Steve Houghton, percussion
Chuck Berghofer, bass
The Tanglewood Big Band Jazz Ensemble

Purchase

Available for purchase starting August 27, 2012 8:30 AM

 

Background on the Music

In 1964 the great jazz drummer Shelly Manne (1920-1984) approached John Williams with a suggestion that Williams couldn't resist. Williams has described Manne, who needs no introduction to anyone interested in jazz, as "great, innovative, and influential." At the time, Williams was 32 years old and still best known as "Johnny Williams," jazz pianist - he had only five film scores to his credit, but he had written the music for dozens of television shows, arranged many albums (including two for Manne), and participated in many soundtrack and studio recordings.

Eight years before, in 1956, Manne, had been a major figure in what became one of the best-selling jazz albums of all time. Together with pianist André Previn (still a year away from his first major appointment as a conductor), Manne had planned to make an album of "modern jazz performances" of various show tunes. The producer Lester Koenig suggested they might want to include something from the biggest Broadway hit of the moment, My Fair Lady, which had opened only four months before. As Previn and Manne looked over the score, they found jazz possibilities everywhere, although the setting of the show is Edwardian England before the birth of jazz. So with bassist Leo Vinnegar - the album was billed as "Shelly Manne and Friends" - the trio recorded eight tunes from the show. This was the first time anyone had made a full album of jazz versions of songs from a single Broadway show. Sometimes the trio deliberately departed from the original, not only in rhythm and harmony but also changing the tempo and mood - up-tempo songs became ballads and vice versa.

The album became such a runaway hit that over the next three years Manne and Previn recorded albums of jazz versions of five other Broadway shows, the first of them with Vinnegar, the rest with another bassist, Red Mitchell; and other soloists and groups followed suit with similar albums.

When Manne approached John Williams, he wanted something a little bit different. His first My Fair Lady album was purely instrumental - it was based entirely on the music of Frederick Loewe and bypassed the lyrics of Alan Jay Lerner altogether. And the pieces were not in the same order on the disc as they were in the original show. This time, Manne wanted something more elaborate - there would be two singers (Irene Kral and Jack Sheldon), his own jazz quintet rather than a trio, and, on some numbers, a "big band" ensemble. There would also be four additional numbers, and everything would appear in the order of the original show. Williams did the arranging, which in this instance also involved some composing that would also leave plenty of room for improvisation. The singers appeared on six of the twelve tracks - Sheldon had three songs, Kral two, and there was one duet on "The Rain in Spain." Quite deliberately Williams arranged some of the biggest songs like "On the Street Where You Live" as instrumentals.

Capitol Records issued the disc as My Fair Lady With the Un-Original Cast and later retitled it My Fair Lady Swings.But the moment had passed; by 1964, the show had closed after a six-year run. The film version had also come and gone. (Apparently Lerner & Loewe bore no grudges; the adaptation of the music for the film was made by André Previn!)

Despite the wonderful music-making on the album, and the fact that it was nominated for a Grammy, it soon slipped out of sight and memory of everyone but extreme Shelly Manne fans. The only CD issue was in Japan, and that disc is now out of print, although sellers on Amazon.com list it for $50.

The record did, however, seize the imagination of a contemporary jazz drummer, Steve Houghton, who teaches at Indiana University and counts himself as an extreme fan of Shelly Manne. He researched the work, managed to recover the original charts, and even arranged a performance in California. Williams did not participate in it, but he heard about it, and before long plans were afoot to present it at Tanglewood in an event organized to celebrate his 25 years as a member of the BSO family. There was a quintet of prominent jazz musicians led by Houghton; two major vocalists, jazz great Dianne Reeves and Broadway baritone Brian Stokes Mitchell; and a 13-member "Tanglewood Big Band Jazz Ensemble" drawn from New York-area jazz professionals supplemented by a member of the BSO, tubist Mike Roylance; a former member of the BSO, French horn player David Ohanian, and Kate Gascoigne, who has often played with the BSO as a substitute player.

Williams himself provided a delightful introduction to the evening and conducted. It was a joyful occasion, and Williams introduced the widow of Shelly Manne, who was in the audience.

The performances will speak for themselves, but listening to it, one is lost in admiration for the ingenuity, creative impudence, musical integrity, and sheer fun of Williams's arrangements, and for the improvisational skill of the quintet and of the solo singers. Brian Stokes Mitchell, star of Man of La Mancha, Kiss Me Kate,and Ragtime on Broadway, and Sweeney Todd at the Kennedy Center, clearly reveled in the opportunity to go "off-book" for once and bounce his handsome baritone through some jazz licks that crackled with personality - and even with, at some remove, the personality of Professor Henry Higgins. Dianne Reeves made a splendidly original Liza Doolittle, singing "Wouldn't It Be Loverly" as a smoldering torch song and ricocheting her voice around "Show Me." The two Tanglewood performances helped start a resurgence of interest in this forgotten work by John Williams, who later led performances of this version in Los Angeles. Since then, other jazz ensembles and performers have taken it up. Albums are in one sense permanent, and in another, ephemeral, but John Williams and Shelly Manne made this a collaboration to last.

Richard Dyer

 

Reviews
Forty years ago, the great jazz drummer Shelly Manne approached a young pianist/arranger who was making a name for himself and asked him to put together a version of My Fair Lady for singers and a jazz ensemble. Johnny Williams did it, and over the years the long out-of-print LP 'with the UN-original cast' has become something of a collector's item for friends of Manne and Williams, who is pictured on the back, skinny, with unruly hair, but with a smile generations of audiences will recognize immediately. . . Williams's arrangements, some with singers, some of them purely instrumental, sound as cool-jazz '60's as the photograph on the album; 'I Could Have Danced All Night' comes from the same world as Henry Mancini's theme from Peter Gunn [which was originally played by Johnny Williams at the piano]. But there's also an edge that keeps them from sounding dated. Williams constantly plays against type, changing the original tempos and styles, adding new countermelodies and torchy harmonies, and generally having fun turning the original score inside out and shaking it out in fresh rhythms. The singers deliver pure American English, leaving the elocutionary models of Rex Harrison and Julie Andrews far behind. In many respects, Monday night's Tanglewood performance was superior to the one on the recording. Mitchell matched most of Sheldon's performance, but with a better voice; Reeves added her own spontaneity, humor, and superior pipes to the female vocals. Carl Saunders's trumpet torched through some amazing elaborations, and Gary Foster brought imagination and swing to the core saxophone part. Tom Ranier sounded lovely and sweet in Williams's impressionistic piano version of 'On The Street Where You Live,' and percussionist Steve Houghton rose to the challenge of playing two contrasting solos devised for [and by] Shelly Manne. The album ends quietly, so in order to send the crowd home happy, Williams added a perky new version of 'Get Me To The Church On Time,' with vocals, complete with a new reference to the Berkshires in the lyrics . . .Seiji Ozawa Hall is not a joint, but it was jumping." 
-Richard Dyer, Boston Globe

"Surprisingly at least half of this 45-minute jazz version is instrumental. The quintet that opened [the evening in the first half of the program] was augmented by 13 additional performers dubbed the Tanglewood Big Band Jazz Ensemble led by a beaming, finger-snapping John Williams, leaving too much down time for Mitchell and Reeves. It often took great effort to even recognize fragments of the original score; Tom Ranier's haunting treatment of 'On The Street Where You Live' was an exception, although it would have helped to have heard Mitchell sing it. When Mitchell had the opportunity to actually vocalize, very little of the Lerner-adapted Shavian wit came through. Reeves, in her de-Cockneyfied Doolittle role lacked the naïve bravado that made Eliza such a memorable character. . .Addressing the audience, Williams recalled a meeting with Lerner and Loewe after his jazz adaptation came out. 'They didn't forgive me immediately,' Williams quipped. With all due respect to the iconic composer of many a memorable film score, neither can we." 
-Clarence Fanto, Berkshire Eagle