Friday, January 2, 2009
On Broadway: You Haven't Changed at All
There was once a time when a jazz musician recording a Broadway standard was, er, standard practise. If one did not have a masterful composer like Ellington at one's disposal than where else was one going to find material? The commercial aspirations of swing's old guard meant that blues-based tunes were often spurned in favour of popular numbers culled from Broadway, jazz's only serious rival in the twenties and thirties. Even well into the fifties was there a strong affinity for the show tune, particularly after Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong recorded Porgy and Bess. But seemingly overnight this tradition seems to have been altered with the release of John Coltrane's seminal My Favorite Things. Suddenly, the thought of a serious soloist embarking on such supposedly lightweight numbers as the title track and 'But Not for Me' became a novelty, one of music's first of many grand ironic statements.* Since then, the Broadway aspect of jazz has largely disappeared. In this landscape came Coleman Hawkins' On Broadway sessions, the sound of one man refusing to admit defeat.
As is often the case, Hawkins managed to make the most of those compositions that offered him as little as possible. Opener 'I Talk to the Trees' (from Lerner and Loewe's Paint Your Wagon) is a minor but splendid recording, as delightfully light as 'Limbo Jazz' would be on Duke Ellington Meets Coleman Hawkins, recorded later that same year. Similarly, the winsome Richard Rodgers original 'Loads of Love' simply sparkles. Not that more substantive pieces don't have their charm: My Fair Lady's 'Wouldn't it Be Loverly' is probably the collection's best track, featuring some supple interaction between Hawkins and pianist Tommy Flanagan. Still, On Broadway feels far too long, the beginning scarcely remembered by the time you get to the end. There's something too anonymous about each piece (or, perhaps, a bit too typically Coleman Hawkins) and you begin to wish that the tenorist had added the same kind of inventiveness that Coltrane had injected on to 'My Favorite Things'. As two separate albums, as it was originally released, it all works much better but I can't help but wonder why he didn't just try to recreate his favourite musical in its entirety rather than cherry picking a few choice favourites.
It has to be said that Hawkins was probably growing somewhat out of touch by this point and all the better for it. While others may have taken the project lightly (considering what Coltrane was already up to in the same studio, this likely came as light relief for engineer Rudy Van Gelder), this is very much Coleman Hawkins in his element. There's also a statement of purpose here that few bothered to heed: namely, that jazz needed to regain its lost glamour and why not go back to Broadway to find it?
* I've already argued that rather than being an example of Coltrane coasting, it was in fact the boldest creative move of his career but I'm in the minority on that one, even among fans of the album.