Summertime, and the living was somewhat easy. I’m not sure if the fish were jumping, but here in Alabama the cotton is indeed high (acres of land alongside the roads around town are full of fields of cotton. Yep, this is ALABAMA Alabama). The calendar says it’s now officially Fall, but nobody told the weather that. This cool-toned album, featuring one of the most audibly cool-toned instruments, has been on heavy rotation throughout the summer and has helped me keep my…cool. But now that it’s officially Autumn, something’s coming!
The Tune: “Summertime”
Recorded: 14-16 August, 1963 in New York City, NY
- Gary Burton- Vibes
- Jim Hall- Guitar
- Chuck Israels- Bass
- Larry Bunker- Drums
The Tune: “Something’s Coming”
Recorded: Same as above
Personnel: Same as above
Full disclosure: There aren’t very many jazz standards that I don’t like, but song numero uno of jazz standards I can’t stand is “Summertime” (with “My Romance” right behind it). Maybe it’s because I’ve heard it too many times, or perhaps because of those too many times, it was usually performed without much life. During my college days, whenever somebody wanted to appear hip and suave, they’d grab some musicians together and sing this song as a slowish song, repeating the same verse over and over again. Having grown tired of the monotonous treatment usually given to this tune by jazz artists, it was refreshing and surprising to hear Gary Burton and his cohorts give this tune a revamp and play it up-tempo, breezy and with no frills.
When it comes to professional jazz artists, one of the ways of knowing what they’re about is the degree to which they can breathe new life into tunes we’ve all heard a gazillion times. Gary Burton does that a few times in this album. On “Summertime”, the guys play it through pretty straight, as they do on the album opener “On Green Dolphin Street”. Burton gives “Summertime” a hip, low-key vibe (pun intended) in his treatment, with bass walking and drums brushing. Jim Hall’s guitar is sumptuous, never obtrusive, but always lurking. Both this tune and “On Green Dolphin Street” were vehicles to allow the men to just blow and have a ball, which they do. If “Summertime” is one of my least-favorite jazz standards, “On Green Dolphin Street” is one of my favorites, and Gary Burton does it justice here. Those two songs are the more conventional performances on the record. The rest of the tunes are unorthodox, avant garde-style jazz, done with more creative license.
“Melanie” and “Six Improvisatory Sketches” were written by Mike Gibbs, Burton’s classmate over at Berklee School of Music. The former tune features polyrhythmic beats and time signatures and the latter tune, other than the initial written phrases for the vibraharp, is a completely improvised tune. So improvised that there is no actual ending; the song just ends at the conclusion of the bass solo. “Little Girl Blue” is done as a beautiful, liltingly sensitive waltz, and Jim Hall’s accompaniment here is perfect.
“Something’s Coming” is another great example of a musician taking a tune that’s been heard numerous times and turning it into something fresh and new. Leonard Bernstein’s tune from ‘West Side Story’ is already slightly odd with the unique song structure, but Burton decided to add a few measures of space at the ends of each phrase of the song for the vibes or guitar to just be on their own. This coupled with the freedoms the bass and drums take with the rhythms makes for a sometimes-floating, sometimes-driving performance. It almost sounds like a completely new song in these guys’ hands.
Burton, all of 20 years old in 1963 when he recorded this album, was a child prodigy and master of the vibraphone and pioneered the four-mallet technique. This technique coupled with his personal style of playing resulted in a new approach to the jazz vibes, so technically anything he played sounded new and exciting. Joining him on this album is master guitarist and musical introvert Jim Hall, his quiet playing serving as the perfect foil to Burton’s shimmering statements. I always thought Jim Hall made his guitar sound like it wasn’t being plucked, but really played. The notes just cascade from his guitar so smoothly. Part of that was the sound engineers’ way of recording his guitar. He never sounded as warm and melodic as he did when he was in the RCA studios. The bass and drums team of Chuck Israels and Larry Bunker (who was also a vibes player) contributed to the swingingly modern sounds of the record, which makes sense considering both men were 2/3rds of Bill Evans’ trio.
The unusual instrumentation of vibes/guitar is a tasteful one, especially when Gary Burton and Jim Hall are the musicians. The vibes are a naturally cool-toned instrument, and Jim Hall’s tasty guitar wonderfully matches Gary Burton’s quiet fire to produce some stimulating music, perfect for a hot day.
I like this cover. It’s one of the better examples of modern art-themed album covers from the 1960’s, with what appears to be an out of focus shot of chimes or vibes. I’m not sure, which plays into the album title ‘Something’s Coming!’. The layout of the title and wording is a great touch, putting emphasis on Gary’s name by keeping the other print in grey and in a smaller font size. I find the ‘Downbeat’ quote rather amusing; the use of the ellipses makes me wonder what the full quote was.
George Avakian, formerly with Columbia Records, penned the liner notes. They’re succinct yet do the job of giving background to the artist, the album and the music on said album. The brevity of the liners allowed a couple of pictures of Gary Burton to be put on the back. Actually, I find it rather neat that everything Gary Burton has on in the pictures, from the haircut to his glasses to his clothing is back in style among the hipper young people of today.
I have to say, as much information is provided in the box on the right side of the album, I’m disappointed that the dates of the recording session weren’t included. Naturally, RCA figured we wanted to know they recorded in Studio B instead of when they recorded in Studio B. During the 1960’s, RCA made a big to-do about their new system of sound recording, which they named ‘Dynagroove’. They claimed it was the best thing in records since records were invented, and yet…
RCA’s Dynagroove has an interesting background that remains controversial to this day. For more on this, I turn once again to the Raggy Waltz staff researcher and Scholar-in-Residence, Dr. Hiptwostuff, or Dr. H for short. Learn us some history, Dr. H!
Dynagroove was recording system developed by RCA in 1963 and used until the early 70’s. It promised the end of inner-groove distortion and the elimination of surface noise, among other things, and boasted the use of computers to enhance the sound. In reality, RCA used these computers to pre-distort the sound of the recordings, the thinking being that the record players most people used at the time would then, through their own distortion, cancel out the distortion, thus producing a record without distortion at all. On paper, that makes sense I guess, but in practice it was an alleged train wreck. This process of putting distortion directly into the music worked if you had one of the cheapo record players with a ball-stylus record needle, where there may have been some improvement of sound. If you owned a better hifi set with equipment that faithfully reproduced the sound, however, the distortion was readily apparent. Stereophile magazines immediately shot this process of recording records down, and recording industry big shots like Columbia Records president Goddard Lieberson denounced it, calling it a “step backwards”. To add insult to bad publicity, in 1964, the year after they introduced this new system, the elliptical stylus became more widespread, making the distorted sound more obvious.
A quick Google of ‘Dynagroove’ will yield results both damning and praising it and everything in the middle. As with everything, it’s all about what you and your ears like. My uncle had nothing but nice things to say about Dynagroove RCA albums. He also owned one of those fancy stereo consoles in the early 1960’s (tubes, not solid state!) and said they sounded wonderful on there. Playing them on my system, not at all an audiophile’s dream but not a cheapo Urban Outfitters outfit either, I find that each record should be assessed on its own. Some sound fine, others, not so much, and others absolutely fantastic. As for RCA’s official statement about Dynagroove? They quietly retired the system in the early 1970’s.
Thanks Dr. H!
Back to my record, I think it sounds fantastic, surface noise aside. On quiet passages, you can hear the bassists fingers sliding across the strings, making for a very life-like recording. The stereo stage is spread out nicely, with Burton’s vibes on the left, Hall’s guitar on the right, and the bass and drums from Israels and Bunker permeating the recording from the middle. Fantastic job to recording engineer Bob Simpson. Interestingly, despite being released in 1964, this record is deep-groove. It sports the classic RCA labels with the classic logo of the dog listening to the old phonograph machine. My copy is a bit noisy, but when the music is playing, it doesn’t really bother me. It was advertised as mint, but obviously they didn’t actually play the record through.
The Place of Acquisition
This was another record I bought while on the road, this time during a trip to Atlanta, Georgia earlier this year. I had read that the must-visit record store in Atlanta was Criminal Records, located in a gentrified hipster haven section of town known as Little Five Points. Surprisingly, they had a decently-sized section of jazz records, but unsurprisingly it consisted of mostly new reissues with prices starting at $25. After much searching, I found this album, as well as few others. I found an original Horace Silver album on Blue Note (Silver’s Serenade), but due to its suspiciously low price of $17 (I couldn’t listen to it in the store and I had the feeling it was either noisy or had a ton of scratches) and the fact that I have it on iTunes, I passed it up. I probably shoulda grabbed it anyhow, but oh well. Criminal Records was a little too trendy for me and had a low used-jazz record quota, but at least I can say I’ve been to that (locally) famous place!