While the Rifftides staff regroups and copes with family matters, we shall revisit a few posts from the past. This one appeared almost exactly four years ago. It concerns a recording that received far less general attention that it warranted.
December 30, 2008
The release of a new CD, The Film Music Of Ralph Rainger, is the occasion for my piece in today’s Wall Street Journal. Coupled with an article about the contemporary motion picture composer A.B. Rahman, it is headlined, Another Who Has Been Unjustly Forgotten and begins:
For years, Jack Benny opened his CBS radio and television broadcasts with “Love in Bloom.” The comedian’s violin butchery of his theme song became a running coast-to-coast Sunday night gag. As a result, the piece became even more famous than Bing Crosby had made it with his hit record in 1934. Generations of listeners and viewers heard Bob Hope close his NBC shows with “Thanks for the Memory,” which he introduced in a movie, “The Big Broadcast of 1938.” The song was inseparable from Hope’s career.
Ralph Rainger, the man who wrote those songs, was a pianist and recovering lawyer from Newark, N.J., who also composed such standards as “Easy Living,” “If I Should Lose You,” “Here Lies Love,” “Moanin’ Low,” “June in January,” “Please” and “Blue Hawaii,” most often with lyricist Leo Robin. Rainger and Robin turned out dozens of songs for Hollywood movies. They were frequently on the hit parade with Rodgers and Hart, Cole Porter and the Gershwins. George Gershwin died at age 38, Rainger at 41. But while Gershwin’s fame increased after his death, Rainger’s name faded. With their beguiling melodies and challenging chord progressions, Rainger’s works are frequent vehicles for improvisation. Yet, in my experience, most musicians who play those songs respond with puzzled looks when asked who wrote them. That might have been the case with bassist Chuck Berghofer, pianist Jan Lundgren, drummer Joe La Barbera and the incomparable vocalist Sue Raney until producer Dick Bank recruited them to record the CD “The Film Music of Ralph Rainger” (Fresh Sound).
Producer Dick Bank swears that this is his last project. If that proves to be true, he is retiring a champion. He provides Berghofer with a classy repertoire, two superb sidemen and the first leader assignment in the bassist’s distinguished career. Berghofer gets the music underway by playing the melody of “Miss Brown to You.” The stentorian sound of his bass is beautifully captured by engineers Talley Sherwood and Bernie Grundman. La Barbera and Lundgren gently escort Berghofer into a chorus of improvisation. Lundgren follows with his first solo in a CD full of work that makes this the best recording so far by a remarkable pianist. In the Journal piece, I wrote:
…it is the first all-Rainger album since pianist Jack Fina managed to reduce Rainger’s tunes to dreary cocktail music in a 1950s LP. Mr. Lundgren, a brilliant Swedish pianist, plumbs the songs’ harmonic souls. He illuminates even the prosaic “Blue Hawaii,” which — to Rainger’s horror — became a huge hit in 1937. “It will disgrace us,” he told Robin. “It’s a cheap melody . . . a piece of c—-.”
It is not only Lundgren’s harmonic ear and gift for chord voicings that elevate his work here, but also his unforced swing and an easy keyboard touch that puts him in a class with Jimmy Jones, Ellis Larkins, Tommy Flanagan and his countryman Bengt Hallberg. His tag ending on “Sweet is the Word for You,” with Berghofer walking him home and La Barbera nudging every fourth beat, is exhilarating. Lundgren’s wry interpolations are a significant part of the fun. They show deep familiarity with, among other sources, Lester Young, as In two quite different uses of a phrase from Young’s 1943 recording of “Sometimes I’m Happy.”
Throughout, La Barbera reminds listeners why, from his days with Bill Evans, he has been one of the most respected drummers in jazz. His touch with brushes equates to Lundgren’s at the piano, and he employs it to construct a full-chorus solo on “Blue Hawaii” proving that a drum set can be a melody instrument.
Sue Raney is the guest artist for two of Rainger’s best-known songs, “If I Should Lose You” and “Thanks for the Memory.” They are perfectly served by the richness of her voice and interpretations. The performances are among her best on record.
With his unaccompanied “Love in Bloom,” Lundgren banishes recollections of Jack Benny’s violin clowning. He finds harmonic treasure beneath the surface of that abused melody, as he does in another solo piece, “Faithful Forever.” Hugely popular in the 1930s, those songs are less known today than many of Rainger’s others. The jaunty “Havin’ Myself a Time,” which Lundgren and Berghofer perform as a duo, is nearly forgotten, but the harmonic possibilities Lundgren finds in it show that it is worthy of revival.
In addition to the trio music, the CD has a ten-minute final track that amounts to a little documentary. Lundgren introduces a 1937 interview with Rainger. Bank, the producer, introduces a segment of a1940 ceremony of the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers in which Rainger plays the piano and his partner Leo Robin sings “Love in Bloom.” The 32-page CD booklet is packed with information and photographs. If I make all of this sound like an exercise in nostalgia, do not be misled. The musical material may be standard songs from the 1930s, but Lundgren, Berghofer and La Barbera constitute one of the hippest trios of our time. This album is on my top-ten list for 2008 and will be permanently installed in my CD player for a long time.