Glenn Miller & his Orch.: "The Spirit is Willing" Jan 26, 2011 0:38:13 GMT -5
Post by William L. Rupp on Jan 26, 2011 0:38:13 GMT -5
The Spirit is Willing: Glenn Miller and his orchestra.
Jazz Heritage: 514058W
Total time: 69 minutes, 45 seconds.
Alton Glenn Miller, better known simply as Glenn Miller, led the most popular dance band of the 20th Century. It’s true that men such as Henderson, Ellington, Basie, and Goodman were more influential in the development of big band music. When it comes to public acceptance, however, no one could match Miller. Since his active career as a leader spanned only the eight years from 1937 to 1944, that’s rather remarkable. If anything, the popularity of his orchestra has actually increased since the small transport plane in which he was a passenger disappeared over the English Channel in December, 1944.
With respect to Glenn Miller’s music, the verdict of the masses has been overwhelmingly positive. The reaction of jazz musicians and critics, on the other hand, has been far less favorable. A typical complaint ones hears is that Miller’s band was so disciplined that it lacked that spark of creativity and spontaneity that characterizes all great jazz groups. His reputation among the knowledgeable was also not helped any by the great number of trivial pop songs Miller recorded for Bluebird/Victor records.
That brings us to the subject of this review. It is "The Spirit is Willing," a CD released in 1995. (It’s readily available today; just Google the title along with Miller’s name.) This set includes only instrumentals by the Miller band, and less well-known ones, at that. You will not find “Little Brown Jug”, “String of Pearls”, “In the Mood”, or any other of the well known Miller instrumentals. This is in effect a concept album. The stated purpose is to convince the big band listener that Miller actually had a pretty good group that could, at least when it wanted to, give the Kings of Swing a run for their money.
The format of these recordings is similar to that of the best jazz-oriented bands of the Swing Era. Miller’s crew included an eight man brass section (four trumpets and four trombones, with Miller himself playing in the latter), five saxophones, and a four man rhythm section. You will hear many unison passages, but also the typical “call and response” structure, in which one of the horn sections (reeds or brass) plays a passage (the call) followed by a contrasting passage by the other section (the response) A good example of this is heard in “Glen Island Special.” There are also numerous improvised solos, a feature which has always been standard practice in all jazz bands, large or small. (An added bonus is that, with no vocals included, you will not have to endure the syrupy singing of Ray Eberle, a young man who is almost universally considered to have been just about the biggest weakness of the Miller organization.)
In my opinion, the author of the CD’s notes (Loren Schoenberg) has not quite made his case. Nothing here will make the knowledgeable jazz fan turn away from Basie, Goodman, Ellington, etc. Still, the music contained herein is certainly worth listening to. The arranging is good and the solos, though not necessarily up to the standard of the Basie or Ellington orchestras, is not bad at all. And with any Miller unit, the musicianship is first rate.
The album offers plenty of information that anyone in the least interested in big band music will appreciate. The notes are extensive, with information about each song, when it was recorded, who wrote the arrangement, the lineup of musicians for each session, etc. Of, yes; the soloists in each case are identified.
One thing that is especially worthwhile is that the listener can hear the evolution of the band from the first track, “King Porter Stomp”, recorded in 1938) to the last, “Rhapsody in Blue” (recorded in mid-1942). On the former, the band sounds little different from the average swing band of 1935. On the later, the band sounds much more polished, self-assured, and up-to-date. (Speaking of that last point, notice how often one hears the baritone saxophone anchoring the reed section in the more up-tempo recordings.
The bari sax really started to come into its own about 1939 or 1940, meaning that most bands now had five saxes instead of just four. That fifth sax, the baritone, really made a difference. With just four horns, two altos and two tenors, sax sections had a lighter, higher pitched sound. With the deeper range of the baritone added in, five member sections sounded much more robust. You will hear this in numbers such as “Long Tall Mama”, and “Keep ‘Em Flying.”)
There are some interesting surprises here. One is “My Blue Heaven,” played at a very fast tempo rather than as a medium tempo number. Another, perhaps the most noteworthy track of all, is Billy Strayhorn’s “Take the A Train” (Yes, Duke’s band recorded it, but Sweet Pea was the composer!) Of the many versions of this classic recorded by various bands, this is the only one that treats the “Train” as a romantic ballad. Glenn Miller, besides being a competent trombone player and a very good arranger, had the invaluable ability to sense what the music listening public wanted in a song. It’s anybody’s guess why he decided to buck the trend and turn “Take the A Train” into the kind of song that couples with romantic thoughts wanted to dance to late in the evening. Whatever his reasons, the thing works, making the Glenn Miller version of the Duke’s theme song remarkable. (I should add that the success Miller had in reworking Strayhorn’s classic is also a testament to the quality of the composition.)
As I indicated earlier, Glenn Miller’s band could not match the swing produced by the great bands of the late 30’s and early 40’s. However, neither was the Miller band just a well-rehearsed and somewhat less corny member of the Mickey Mouse school of big bandom. It really could swing more than what the critics were willing to admit, as the later recordings on the CD prove. (For more evidence of the direction in which Miller was headed, take a listen to some of the things his Army Air Force band of ’43 to ’45 was playing!)
If you are building a big band record collection and have no Miller records, this one would not be your logical first acquisition. Instead, get one of the many records that include the band’s biggest hits, such as “Moonlight Serenade,” “In the Mood,” “Tuxedo Junction,” “String of Pearls,” and “Jukebox Saturday Night.” Once you have such a record, however, “The Spirit is Willing” would make a great second addition.
My score for this CD is 4 out of 5 stars!
1. King Porter Stomp (3:26)
2. Slip Horn Jive (3:13)
3. Pagan Love Song (3:12)
4. Glen Island Special (2:58)
5. I Want To Be Happy (3:03)
6. Farewell Blues (3:09)
7. Johnson Rag (2:54)
8. Rug Cutter’s Swing (2:59)
9. Slow Freight (3:09)
10. Bugle Call Rag (2:54)
11. My Blue Heaven (3:11)
12. I Dreamt I Dwelt in Harlem (3:37)
13. Sun Valley Jump (2:57)
14. The Spirit Is Willing (3:32)
15. Boulder Buff (3:27)
16. Take The “A” Train (3:24)
17. Long Tall Mama (3:01)
18. Keep ‘Em Flying (2:59)
19. Caribbean Clipper (2:39)
20. Here We Go Again (2:58)
21. Rainbow Rhapsody (3:17)
22. Rhapsody In Blue (3:01)