Friday, September 20, 2013

Shuffle It Right

Original Facebook post here.
Today's formative-album replay: Hoagy Carmichael, The Stardust Road. This bargain-bin collection, which I once owned on cassette, doesn't give us the hepcat Hoagy, the laconic jazzbo who could hold his own with the sharpest sidemen, as he did on the definitive 1956 jazz vocal record Hoagy Sings Carmichael. There's just one tune here from that album--a sleepy, smoky rendition of "Rockin' Chair"--as well as an exquisitely offhand rendition of Carmichael's signature tune, "Stardust." But most of the tracks here are short, sweet, borderline novelty-record material which coast by as much on Carmichael's light, dry Midwestern baritone as on his self-effacing, no-sweat songcraft.

Though this collection doesn't even have many of his best songs--"Two Sleepy People," "Skylark," "Georgia on My Mind," "The Nearness of You," or my favorite, "Lazy River"--I'm still happy it was effectively my introduction to this casually towering figure. For in such minor but perfectly executed trifles like "Little Old Lady," "Old Music Master," and "Hong Kong Blues," or such brilliant, oddly constructed curiosities as "Washboard Blues" or "My Resistance Is Low," Carmichael emerges less as a slick Tin Pan Alley tunesmith or too-cool-for-the-room jazzman than as the original Americana singer/songwriter--a figure closer to Hank Williams or Ray Charles, really, than to Frank Loesser or even Johnny Mercer. Carmichael's melodic sensibility is embedded so deeply in blues harmony, and his vocal phrasing and prosody in authentic old-time jazz rhythms, that his songs, even at their most artsy and sophisticated, have the rock-solid integrity and inevitability of folk music.

This is certainly true of the Beiderbeckean leaps and loops of "Stardust," which he elides and rephrases here as only the song's creator could do, and it's especially in evidence in his buoyant rendition of "Riverboat Shuffle." Delivering a lyric that's little more than a commercial for a rockin' nightclub, Carmichael slings a sidelong vocal melody that's essentially a horn part, then plays a clumpy but nimble piano solo that anticipates Nina Simone's contrapuntal flights; it's a dessert I can't get enough of. If cool can be measured partly by comfort with oneself, Carmichael--who can vamp through a dubious tune about a doctor, lawyer, and an Indian chief as blithely as he can whistle through his art-song-quality tunes--may be the coolest cat of all.

Leon Russom SKYLARK - divine!
Adam Liston LOVE Hoagy! Mostly because my dad would sing some of his songs in the shower. Personally own "Hoagy Carmichael: L'Art Vocal, Vol 18" and "Ole Buttermilk Sky". Nice one, Rob.
Douglas Green I'm guessing I have these same recordings - on an Australian album of him I got back when I was there. There's something so odd and haunting about his singing style - it's not "correct" at all - that to me prefigures Billie Holiday, Bob Dylan, and other purely unique voices. Really amazing. Now go watch "To Have and Have Not," which has a bunch of those songs in it (including as background in some scenes - "Baltimore Oriole" particularly movingly) and him having the coolest combo ever (particularly the newspaper-reading drummer).


  1. Hard to pick a favorite but "I Get Along Without You Very Well" deserves a mention too

  2. Oh yes, that's a good one, and with an odd structure that suits the can't-quite-let-go lyric. "How Little We Know" is also quite a gem.