One thing is clear from this twofer retrospective; over a quarter-century
Red Norvo always kept up with the times. From his 1933 sides with Jimmy
Dorsey to the fiery finale of his orchestra in 1958, led by the exultant
trumpets of Don Fagerquist and Conrad Gozzo, Norvo effortlessly, tastefully
and eloquently absorbed new idioms into his playing and his ensembles
whilst remaining recognisably himself.
He moved between xylophone, marimba (much less often), and vibes. He was
always interested in new harmonies but also in ensemble colour. Listen to
his marimba playing on Bixís In a Mist and the inventive way he
casts Benny Goodmanís bass-clarinet as a colouristic and expressive device,
for example, His swing-era small groups starred some players as elegant and
precise as he; Teddy Wilson, principally, whose name reappears time and
again in the Norvo discography. And he had a reservoir of talent on which
he could call for his recording sessions; his Swing Octet contained Bunny
Berigan, Jack Jenney and Chu Berry with Wilson and Gene Krupa driving the
rhythm section and the results speak for themselves. Berigan is punchy on Bughouse and Chu Berry rhapsodises in the Blues in E flat
in the way he had for Spike Hughes in his New York sessions.
The 1936 big band had the huge advantage of Eddie Sauterís superior
arrangements and the presence of Norvoís then wife, Mildred Bailey, who has
her own twofer in this series (RTS 4344). Around this time Harry Jamesís
popularity encouraged a number of summit meetings. He teamed up with Albert
Ammons, for example, on the Boogie masterpiece Woo-Woo (on
Retrospective RTR4367) but a couple of years earlier he had recorded the
blues Just A Mood with Norvo, Teddy Wilson, and John Simmons, the
acme of relaxed chamber jazz. The war years saw a sequence of V-Discs, all
of which stretched out a minute longer than his usual three-minute 78s and
thus gave added opportunities for longer solos. Itís no coincidence, given
the morale-boosting nature of these sides, that they are booting swingers.
Toward the end of this first disc we hear one of the Goodman sextet
recordings from 1945, in which Norvo plays with Wilson, guitarist Mike
Bryan, bassist Slam Stewart and drummer Morey Feld.
The second disc charts the years 1945 to 1958, the post-war years
dramatically brokered by the arrival of Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker
in a rather unusual Comet 78. An example of the electricity generated in a
live Novo date can be savoured in the performance of The Man I Love from Town Hall, New York. Almost all the bands in
this twofer are Norvoís own but there are a couple of exceptions, one of
them being Woody Herman and his Woodchoppers who play the Norvo-Shorty
Rogers composition Igor with conspicuous fire. The interweaving
saxes of Jimmy Giuffre and Dexter Gordon irradiate the 1947 LA session for
Capitol and thereís the occasional slice of levity, as in the quirky
rendition of Twelfth Street Rag or the Latin rhythms ofNight and Day or in the stylish reworking of Zing! went the Strings of My Heart.
Recorded in April 1953 for Decca with Jimmy Raney and Red Mitchell, Lover, Come Back to Me sounds very much like the kind of thing
the MJQ produced with its Baroque hues but Tenor Blooz, with Art
Pepper, is straight-ahead Bop. Around this time Norvo revisited Just A Mood, made two decades before, this time with Sweets
Edison, Ben Webster, Jimmy Rowles in the Teddy Wilson role, bassist Bob
Carter and drummer Bill Douglass. Whilst looking back he was facing the
future, soon to mine his inner Basie for a superb big band Brittís Blues in January 1958. Itís at this point that the
compilers say farewell to the Norvo songbook, though he was to continue
playing until 1986 and lived on until 1999.
Digby Fairweather is back in the sleeve note saddle with superior results
and compilation and remastering alike are first-rate. If you have a lacuna
in your Norvo collection, make for this twofer.