1957

20. The Canadian Scene via Phil Nimmons

NimmonsRecord: The Canadian Scene via Phil Nimmons
Artist: The Phil Nimmons Group
Released: Verve Records, 1957

If you'd told me back when I started this vinyl adventure that I'd one day be listening to a jazz clarinetist from Canada, I'd never have believed it, but at this point it makes perfect sense. Jazz is probably the first true American art form, and I can only think of three others off the top of my head -- rock and roll, hip-hop, and baseball. Like those later three, jazz has never been constrained by national borders. 

It should be no surprise, then, that there was such a thing as a "Canadian scene," and as I learned from Woody Herman, there's no reason that a clarinetist shouldn't be fronting a group like this. Even though I've come to understand this on an intellectual level, it's still hard to square what I'm listening to right now -- an absolutely blistering solo by Nimmons on "Rhumba Pseudo," the finger-snapping track that closes side one -- with the musical struggles of Squidward Tentacles or the incessant squeaking of a beginning sixth grader. It's a much maligned instrument, and that's a shame. In the hands of an expert like Nimmons, it's more than just a licorice stick; it's a magic wand.

After the high energy of the first side, Nimmons and his group return to the classics on side two with a series of standards that even a casual listener would recognize. There is no definitive list of jazz standards, but to paraphrase a Supreme Court justice who was talking about something entirely different, you know one when you hear it. These were classic tunes that any jazz musician would know and be able to play, a requirement due to the fluid nature of jazz performance, where musicians would often jump from one band to another from night to night, filling vacancies and picking up jobs where they could. If the group in front of him hadn't been rehearsing together consistently -- or perhaps didn't even know each other's names -- the band leader could still confidently call out for Gershwin's "Someone to Watch Over Me" or Benny Goodman's "Stompin' at the Savoy" and know for certain that any musician worth his salt would be able to jump right in. (The standards could also serve as measuring sticks by which one musician could be compared to another.)

The standards weren't strictly jazz numbers, but they were always recognizable songs that an audience would know. Broadway tunes would often find a second life bouncing around the jazz clubs where their familiar hooks would tug at the ears of listeners while providing jumping off places for the musicians to explore musical tangents. Perhaps the best example of this is John Coltrane's My Favorite Things, a collection of songs by Cole Porter, George and Ira Gershwin, and the title track, which is from Rodgers and Hammerstein's Sound of Music. You can imagine Julie Andrews for a few bars here and there, but then she disappears into a sea of the most beautiful jazz improvisation you'll ever hear. 

The Nimmons Group's treatment of the standards on side two is similar, but there's something more than jazz -- or maybe quintessentially jazz -- happening on the third track. In no other musical genre could you find a Canadian clarinetist leading his band through an interpretation of a song written by another clarinetist to honor a Harlem nightclub. It makes no sense at all. Except it does.

Nimmons2

Side 1
Pick Yourself Up
Muggs
Rhumba Pseudo

Side 2
Humpy
Someone to Watch Over Me
Stompin' at the Savoy
April in Paris
We'll Be Together Again


6. Just One of Those Things

ColeRecord: Just One of Those Things
Artist: Nat "King" Cole
Released: Capitol Records, 1957

Once upon a time there was no more common rite of passage for a teenager than the creation of a mixtape. You'd fill a sixty- or ninety-minute cassette with favorite songs from your collection, maybe from your friend's, and you had a soundtrack for your summer. It was usually just a collection of the best songs from your favorite bands, but sometimes there was a theme of some sort -- British new wave, bands with female leads, classic rock guitar legends. (Rob Sheffield wrote a great book about this that I highly recommend, Love Is a Mixtape.)

Which brings us to the pinnacle of the art form, the romantic mixtape. Never did we spend so much time finding just the right songs with just the right lyrics and putting them in just the right order as when we were crafting a collection of songs to present to someone we loved and hoped would love us back. I still have the mixtape my wife made for me when we first started dating almost a quarter century ago, and even though I no longer have a cassette player and don't even know where I'd get one, I'll keep that tape forever.

None of that was possible for young lovers sixty years ago, so the music industry obliged. There were any number of options for those looking to set a romantic mood, and all the crooners of the day -- Frank Sinatra, Billie Holiday, Tony Bennett -- regularly released collections of love songs that were no doubt played over candlelight dinners everywhere.

Nat "King" Cole was one of the legendary singers of that or any era, and here he presents a collection of ballads lamenting lost love. In "A Cottage for Sale," a man comes across a home where he once lived with his true love and discovers that though it looks the same, everything is different.

From every single window, I see your face
But when I reach a window, there's an empty space.
The key's in the mailbox, the same as before,
But no one is waiting for me anymore.

The lyrics are from Larry Conley, and the song has been recorded dozens of times by everyone from Frank Sinatra to Judy Garland to Willie Nelson, but Cole's phrasing here is perfect as he expresses a longing for something he can no longer reach.

Continuing with the theme of heartbreak, Cole tackles another standard, "These Foolish Things." Of all the tracks on the record, none has been recorded by as many different legends. There are versions from the people you'd expect -- Sinatra, Holiday, Fitzgerald -- but it's also appealed to modern singers from different genres, like Aaron Neville, Rod Stewart, and Bob Dylan. The first time I came across the song it was the Bryan Ferry version, which isn't surprising because I'm sure Ferry would've been right at home singing standards back in the 1950s.

The lyrics are simple but poignant.

A cigarette that bears a lipstick's traces,An airline ticket to romantic places,A fairgrounds painted swings,These foolish things remind me of you.
 
A tinkling piano in the next apartment,Those stumbling words that told you what my heart meant,And still my heart has wings.These foolish things remind me of you.
 
You came, you saw, you conquered me.When you did that to me, I knew somehowIt had to be.
 
The winds of March that make my heart a dancer,A telephone that rings but who's to answer?Oh, how the thought of you clings.These foolish things remind me of you.
Who among us hasn't experienced something like this? The surprise that comes when a common object triggers a flood of memories. A pack of gum might remind you of your high school boyfriend, a child's hairbrush can bring your newborn baby back into your arms. Or the feel of an old cassette tape can remind you of what it was like to fall in love.
 
If my father were sitting with me this morning, listening to this record, I wonder what foolish things the music might bring to his mind. Maybe they wouldn't be foolish at all.

Cole2

Side 1
When Your Lover Has Gone
A Cottage for Sale
Who's Sorry Now?
Once in a While
These Foolish Things Remind Me of You
Just for the Fun of It

Side 2
Don't Get Around Much Anymore
I Understand
Just One of Those Things
The Song Is Ended
I Should Care
The Party's Over