The leaves are back on the trees, the sun is finally working again, and birds are building nests once again. Spring has sprang! I mean sprung. But also sprang. Keep reading to understand what I’m talking about. To the music!
The Tune: “Bijou”
- Ralph Burns- Piano
- Jimmy Raney- Guitar
- Clyde Lombardi- Bass
- Osie Johnson- Drums
The Tune: “Spring Sequence”
Recording info/personnel: Same as above
This is a rather interesting album with an interesting background. First, a couple of words about the music itself. Quite simply, the music is fantastic. It’s satisfying, varied, soothing, evocative, and swinging- everything jazz is supposed to be. Recorded in 1955 by a veteran of the swing era, the music is perfectly situated on the border between that old-timey swing jazz and the more modern jazz being played at the time. And who was Ralph Burns, anyway? I had no idea who he was when I stumbled across this album at the store. According to the neat summary on the back of the liner notes, he was a popular arranger for Woody Herman’s band during the 1940’s and 50’s. While his main gig was as an arranger, he played some spicy piano unbeknownst to the masses and after a tour of Europe with Woody Herman in the early 50’s, was persuaded to record an album featuring his spicy piano. That’s the heavily summarized summary of his summations. This album is the product of his early summations.
This album is something of a concept album, themed around spring. Most of the songs have ‘spring’ in their title, and the entire first side of the album is dedicated to the season. Jimmy Raney’s guitar graces the session, and his rather laid back, breezy guitar style meshes well with both the theme of the album and the musical style of Mr. Burns. I’d never heard of bassist Clyde Lombardi before, but his bass work here is solid and does the job. As for Osie Johnson, I’ve heard of him but always associated him with that older-fashioned jazz. That’s not a knock on him, though. I’m just saying, he’s more Jo Jones than Philly Joe Jones.
The first side gets off to a pensive, low-key start, with Burns’ original composition “Spring Sequence” languidly unfurling like a fresh leaf in spring (that’s probably the corniest thing I’ve written in a long while). On a serious note, the tune and the mood it establishes does emote a warm spring afternoon, cool breeze blowing through the freshly unveiled leaves of the trees.
The following two tunes, “It Might As Well Be Spring” and “Spring Is Here” flow in much the same reflective vein. I’m not a big fan of the song “It Might As Well Be Spring” (if there was a jazz band in Hell, this tune and “My Romance” would be in their setlist), but Ralph Burns’ treatment of this tune is not terrible and actually kinda nice. Just as the lazy mood of the first three tunes begins to lull you to a pleasant snooze, “Sprang” shakes things up with its spunky tempo and rather catchy melody. After playing some rhapsodic piano, this tune allows Burns to stretch out and exhibit his meaty two-handed piano playing, complete with some wild harmonics, polyrhythmic playing, and logical lines that would make Brubeck proud. Jimmy Raney’s ensuing solo beautifully offsets Burns’ hot solo with a pared-down, economically cool solo. By the way, if it sounds like there’s a lot of piano going on, that’s because there is; Burns dubbed another piano line in for an extra-contrapuntal effect.
The other tune I spotlighted, “Bijou” is a fun little thing that I’ve heard infrequently covered by other jazz artists. I had no idea Ralph Burns was the person who actually wrote it, though, so it was awesome to hear his interpretation of it. It didn’t disappoint. Taken at a healthier clip than any other version I’ve heard, the Latin groove Osie Johnson gets on his drums is downright nasty and propels Burns and the group on for some of the most extroverted, gutsy playing on the entire album. Burns starts off politely enough before steadily turning up the heat going into his second chorus. Jimmy Raney once again proves to be the perfect foil to Burns by cooling things down with his relaxed yet jumping statements. The rest of the tunes are perfect gems, providing a perfect soundtrack to these vernal days of spring. Spring has sprang!
As excited and jazzed about this album as I am, my enthusiasm is beat by our friend Scott Yanow over at Allmusic. Giving the album a whopping 9 out of 10, or 4.5 out of 5 stars, Yanow wrote a glowing review of the album. He called out Burns’ compositions “Sprang” and “Spring Sequence” in particular as “quite memorable” before proclaiming this album Ralph Burns’ “finest ever album as a player.” In closing, Yanow writes that this album, although obscure, is well worth searching for. High praise indeed.
Raggy Waltz Rating: F-
The album art of this record was so horrendous that it stopped me cold in the record store when I found it. I was like, “is that a ghost? What the hail is going on here on this cover?” Upon closer review, I discovered that it’s a dude at a piano infused into a picture of grass and wildflowers. Both are in black and white. Ish. There’s almost a green tint to the whole thing, and the font choices of the words blend in. It almost hurts my eyes to try and actually read the lettering. The label logo and catalog number are in the top right and the bottom right, and despite both being in different colors, they both blend in to the nondescript cover art. It’s just an all-around terrible cover. Who was the person that designed it, you ask? One Burt Goldblatt. Figures.
The tragedy of this cover is that the original cover art for the album was much cooler. For more on that, here’s a brief appearance by our staff scholar in residence Dr. Hipto Stuff, known around the offices as Dr. H.
When this album was originally released, it was as a 10-inch record on the Period label. It was entitled ‘Spring Sequence’ and featured just the tunes with “spring” in the title, with five tunes in total on the record. The original artwork for that album featured colorful artwork, with a picture of Ralph Burns on the back.
Sometime shortly after the album’s initial release, the Jazztone re-released the album as a 12-inch record with additional material recorded at the original sessions. In that regard, it was almost a new album. Who was Jazztone, anyhow? London Jazz Collector researched and discusses it on his fantastic site, but long story short, Jazztone was a record club label that has the distinction of being the first independent jazz record club in the United States. Their main claim to fame was producing high quality represses of material from other independent jazz labels and releasing it on its own Jazztone label, often with new cover art and liner notes. The Jazztone record label ran from 1955-57, and while they were mostly repressing material from other record labels (Fantasy, Pacific Jazz, and more obscure labels), they occasionally released an album recorded specifically for their label. This Ralph Burns album appears to be a hybrid between repress and special release for Jazztone. Jazztone albums turn up with some regularity in stores and online, indicating that they were pressed in decent-sized quantities. The Raggy Waltz office has three Jazztone albums in its library, and with the exception of the hideous cover of this Ralph Burns album, all of them are fantastic albums. That then is the brief history of both this record and the Jazztone label! Back to you, Tarik.
Thanks Dr. H! And if you don’t remember anything from this whole spiel, at least know that this is the first record in Raggy Waltz history to score an F-. A well-deserved F- at that.
As Dr. H detailed above, the original 10-inch album only had five tunes, all of which are contained on the first side of the record. The liner notes are written by Leonard Feather, who was rather excited about Ralph Burns. Makes sense, since he apparently was the persuader mentioned in his prose that got Burns in a studio to record. A quick note about the album jacket itself- it’s rather unusual in that it’s that malleable (I.E. flimsy) style usually tied with records made overseas in Europe. It was made in America though, which is intriguing. These types of album jackets are an interesting oddity, both strong yet weak.
The deep-groove is deliciously prominent on this record, and those labels are too clean. Like, the pianist logo, the cursive ‘Jazztone’, the choice to color the font brown… CLEAN. It’s like a hipster saw Norman Granz’s Clef, Norgran, and early Verve labels and said “I can do that, but hipper”. Unfortunately though, you could only listen to this record on phonographs located in homes. The vinyl is heavy and thick, like a proper record should be. Jazztone really packed the music on the record, and the runnout wax is almost nonexistent as a result.
The music is in mono, and it sounds like there was only one microphone in the studio, placed in the corner with everyone else a little ways off. Despite this, I find the lo-fi recording charming. It makes the music sound almost more spontaneous and honest, like they set up a home recorder just because they wanted to make some music for their own enjoyment and released it on record as an afterthought. I don’t know if that makes sense, but I dig the recording. Lo-fi for the win!
The Place Of Acquisition
I found this album at my local record store here in Huntsville, Alabama one Friday afternoon. I briefly mentioned it in my first edition of Record Storing series, but the basically the disgusting cover art caused me to stop and investigate. The Jazztone label rang a bell as something special and out of the ordinary. The album jacket also made me pause as I thought it was a European release, which it wasn’t but oh well. A quick Google search on my phone showed that it was an obscure release (!!!) and that it was highly rated by Scott Yanow of all people (!!!!!!!). The $8 price made it easy to take a chance and take it home to listen, and I’m glad I did. I had never heard of Ralph Burns before, but now I’ll be looking for his other albums as well as listening for him in the context of Woody Herman’s big bands. I love buying records of jazz artists that I’m not familiar with, and I REALLY love it when those records end up being surprise hits, like this one. Amen and amen!