Monday, March 15, 2010

Johnny Richards - Mosaic Select

Johnny Richards is known for the wrong reasons. His main claim to posterity is writing Sinatra's "Young at Heart", but pop hit songwriting is not what he really is about. The tides of exotica movement brought ashore his album Rites of Diablo, it often shows up on the "lounge" blogs, but his best work is anything but easy listening; engaging, cerebral, complex - yes, easy - no.

Throughout 1950s and 60s Richards was the arranger/composer at the forefront of the "progressive jazz/third stream" movement. He wrote charts for Stan Kenton's Orchestra, led his own band for a while, and did movie scoring in Hollywood and in the UK. His music is an amalgam of his many influences and experiences: while jazz in spirit, it has cinematic sweep, and uses a multitude of hues in the palette. Complex structure, penchant for dissonance, and bold use of symphonic instrumentation (French horn, oboe, bassoon, tympani, tuba) come from his studies with Arnold Schoenberg; his feel for the latin rhythms, as seen on Kenton's Cuban Fire! and his own Aqui Se Habla Espanol, stems both from his Latino heritage and his travels through South America; on Kenton's Adventures in Time Richards was the first to use unusual time signatures in jazz context, predating the experiments of Don Ellis by almost a decade.

At the time, the "third stream" experiments were very influential and visible in the music of West Coast "cool school" and in a lot of Miles' work, from Birth of the Cool to his collaborations with Gil Evans. But in the long run, the highest peaks of the genre proved to be too cerebral and unaccessible - not only for the listening public, but even for the majority of musicians.

At the bottom I will include a thorough review of Annotations of the Muses taken from The Essential Jazz Records: Modernism to postmodernism; among the players on it are the great jazz guitarist Johnny Smith (who, incidentally, also played on the Arnold Schoenberg's Serenade, Op. 24), and Ray Starling, one of two jazz mellophone players in the world.

Johnny Richards - Mosaic Select
CD1: rapidshare, filefactory, megaupload: Annotations of the Muses EP 1955, Wide Range 1957 + unreleased material, 95mb
CD2: mediafire, megaupload, rapidshare - Experiments in Sound 1958, The Rites of Diablo 1958, 103mb
CD3: mediafire, megaupload, rapidshare - My Fair Lady - My Way 1964, Aqui Se Habla Espanol 1966, 118mb
Tracklist in comments

Johnny Richards
Annotations of the Muses
Legende (A) LP1401
Joe Wilder (tpt); John Barrow (ft h); Julius Baker (fl); Robert Bloom (ob); Vincent Abato (at); Harold Goltzer (bsn); Johnny Smith (g); Jack Lesberg (bs); Sol Gubin (d); Richards (comp, arr).
New York City, early 1955.

Annotations of the Muses: Calliope • Clio • Erato • Euterpe • Melpomene • Polymnia • Terpsichore • Thalia • Urania

Reputedly the only jazz musician ever to dedicate a piece to Ghengis Khan (First Heard [E] FH45), Richards was never in good odour with the pseudo-highbrows of jazz. They strongly disapproved of such things as The Rites of Diablo (Roulette [A] 52008, 1958) with its innovative placing of choral voices in the big-band context, later taken up by Don Ellis. Usually Richards's works have a particularly strong rhythmic orientation, for example the six-movement Cuban Fire for Stan Kenton (Capitol [E] CDP796 260-2, 1956), which centres on a fuller integration of Latin rhythms and big-band scoring than has often been achieved. Better still, and in fact one of the most satisfying records Kenton ever made, is Adventures in Time (tCapitol [E] CDP855 454-2), a main point of which is the fluent use of uneven time signatures such as 5/4 and 7/4.
Unlike most jazz composers, Richards was at his best in large-scale works, especially when he could plan a session or group of sessions as a whole. All too many jazz 'suites' and supposedly long 'compositions', including some by band leaden of far greater renown, are merely assemblages of random short pieces which display few essential — which is to say musical — links, if any. Probably Richards's finest single work, Annotations of the Muses, is the opposite case, though it should at once be noted that its completely unified fabric could be woven only at a cost which other jazz composers have likewise had to pay. As in such pieces as Ellington's Reminiscing in tempo or Dameron's Fontainebleau, there is very little improvisation, this amounting to no more than a couple of solos each by Wilder and Smith.
No background to the title of this work or to those of its individual movements is offered by the sleeve note so it ought to be stated here that in Greek mythology the muses were the goddesses of the arts — as they were then conceived — and were the daughters of Zeus and Mnemosyne. In the order in which Richards takes them they were: Calliope, who presided over eloquence and epic poetry, Clio over history, Erato over erotic poetry and elegy, Euterpe over music, Melpomene over tragedy, Polymnia over lyric poetry, Terpsichore over choral dance and song, Thalia over comedy and Urania over astronomy. Except occasionally in the most general sense, as with the elegiac warmth that informs the Erato movement, Richards is wise enough not to attempt to portray, barely to suggest, these areas of responsibility. What is important is that this mythological subject matter led him to a quite remarkable variety of invention on melodic, rhythmic and harmonic planes, and just as much in terms of orchestration, the range of instrumental colours, textures and blendings being extraordinary. And not only blendings, for Richards invention on melodic, rhythmic and harmonic planes, and just as much in terms of orchestration, the range of instrumental colours, textures and blendings being extraordinary. And not only blendings, for Richards often writes in such a way that rather than fusing together, the instruments stand off from each other. Given the work's frequently rich counterpoint, this is crucial.
He is much aided in this by using the well-differentiated components of a classical wind quintet as his basic resource, adding to them only a trumpet and a pianoless rhythm section. An element in the music's organization is interplay between the wind quintet as a separate entity and the ensemble as a whole, though it should be stressed that this is only one of a considerable number of stratagems used. Doing without set chorus lengths or repeating chord sequences, the work is freely composed yet maintains formal lucidity throughout. Questions about the jazz or classical origins of the many techniques of writing employed never arise because this music flows with apparently unforced naturalness through its diverse moods and several climates of expression.
Each movement has a distinct character but they are linked in three larger sections. In fact these nine pieces for nine instruments are arranged in three groups of three. Smith in places acts as an intermediary, joining together movements or sections thereof, occasionally leading, often accompanying. Gubin's timpani are sometimes prominent also, but essentially Annotations is a great extension and purification of several aspects of Richards's work for Raebum, and was to a degree anticipated by specific pieces such as Cartaphilius (Hep [E] CD42). Another possible influence was Tommy Talbot's group of 1946 scores for Raeburn using woodwind, french horns and a rhythm section, and an earlier precedent was the Alec Wilder octet with flute, english horn, clarinet, bass clarinet and bassoon which supported Mildred Bailey on some of her 1939-40 recordings.
Although not inherent in the programmatic titles, it is a sign of the quality of Richards's imaginative response to them that these nine movements, rather than seeming like stages in a journey as in a true suite, appear to radiate from one central experience, their great variety notwithstanding. Indirect proof of this was given when he made a later recording of the Terpsichore movement by itself (Capitol [A] T981, 1958). Removed from its context, this made very little impression and its character was virtually destroyed by transfer to conventional big-band instrumentation. A further, if slightly paradoxical, indication of this work's unity as much as of its diversity is the frequency of its shifting into and out of tempo, the range of tempos indeed being exceptional. This draws attention to the fine performance it receives. Richards evidently chose his men well, for the playing is full of subtle nuance, and although this is music of very unusual character, its interpreters demonstrably understand it completely.
The fact that it was issued on Legende, a minor Roost subsidiary, has obviously not helped this work, but it is supposed to be pan of the task of critics and historians to find out about obscure yet valuable endeavours. In fact, the literature of jazz appears to be innocent of any reference to Annotations of the Muses. Richards's score stands as a small but absolutely distinctive monument, however, and one that will continue quietly to demand the attention it deserves. M.H.
"The Essential Jazz Records"