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December 9, 2013

TT: What I'm up to this week

I'm off to Chicago this morning, there to break bread with Our Girl and see three shows, Remy Bumppo's revival of J.B. Priestley's An Inspector Calls, Writers Theatre's revival of Conor McPherson's Port Authority, and Chicago Shakespeare's updated Merry Wives of Windsor.

In the nonce, I'd like to tell you about my two latest undertakings:

Alec%2BWilder%2BOctet%2Bcirca%2B1940%2Bwilderoctet%2Bcvr.jpg• Hep Records, a Scottish label that specializes in reissues commercial recordings and airchecks of performances by great jazz and pop musicians of the Thirties and Forties, has just released a two-disc set called Music for Lost Souls and Wounded Birds that is devoted in large part to the complete recordings of the Alec Wilder Octet. Alastair Robertson, the producer, asked me to write the liner notes:

Alec Wilder spent his life looking for cracks to fall through. Though he wrote two songs, "I'll Be Around" and "While We're Young," that became standards, most of his "popular" music was too delicate and introspective to please a mass audience. He also composed works for several of America's finest instrumentalists, but these "classical" pieces were too strongly colored by jazz and popular music to win critical acceptance. Today he is mainly remembered for his book American Popular Song: The Great Innovators, 1900-1950--which has nothing to say about his own songs. All this suggests a man more than half in love with failure, and Wilder's self-destructive behavior was no secret to those who knew him. Especially when drunk, he liked nothing better than to burn bridges, and had he been less charming when sober, he would surely have lost every friend he ever made.

Outside of his songs, Wilder's most enduring achievement is--or should have been--the music of the Alec Wilder Octet, whose thirty 78 sides, recorded between 1938 and 1947, constituted one of the earliest sustained attempts to fuse jazz with classical music. But while the octet's recordings attracted attention in the Thirties and Forties, they are now poorly remembered, in part because they were never reissued in their entirety prior to the release of this album....

The ensemble that recorded the octets, which seems never to have performed in public, consisted of a crack group of studio musicians led by Mitch Miller. The four sides cut at the first session sold well enough for Brunswick (and, later, Columbia) to bring the group back to the studio for five more sessions. Their fey titles, hauntingly nostalgic tunes, off-center harmonies, and piquant scoring delighted musicians and other sharp-eared listeners....

Music for Lost Souls and Wounded Birds will not be available in this country until next year, but you can order it directly from Hep. To do so, or to read more about the album, go here.

Project Shaw, which presents concert-style semi-staged readings of the plays of George Bernard Shaw each month, is putting on The Devil's Disciple next Monday night. David Staller, who probably knows more about Shaw than anybody in America, is the director. Project Shaw's performances are never reviewed, but they're quite extraordinarily good, so much so that I agreed to introduce Pygmalion last November. (Here's what I said.)

I had so much fun that I accepted David's invitation to serve as the narrator of The Devil's Disciple. This will be the first time in thirty-five years that I've appeared on stage in a theatrical performance. Please come and cheer me on--or do the other thing, if you feel so inclined!

The show is at Symphony Space, 95th and Broadway, and starts at seven p.m. To order tickets or for more information, go here.

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"Her Old Man Was Suspicious," recorded in 1941 by the Alec Wilder Octet:

Posted December 9, 2013 12:00 AM

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