The occasion for such a launch is the hundredth birthday of Harold Arlen, certainly not as widely celebrated as, say, Irving Berlin, to whom everyone sang outside his apartment window on his hundredth birthday. But Arlen’s music is wide-ranging, soulful, unforgettable and ingrained in the American songbook as securely as that of George Gershwin. Arlen’s "Over The Rainbow" was voted the Number One song of the twentieth century, and who could imagine The Wizard Of Oz without it? Talk about a singer owning a song! But "Over The Rainbow" is just the beginning. With a background in Harlem theater, Arlen wrote many songs, among the 400 that he composed, that have become standard among jazz musicians, like "Stormy Weather."
And Concord Records has gone through its not significantly increased archives to search for some classic performances of Arlen songs to help celebrate his centennial a centennial which will be presided over by Barbra Streisand. The 2-CD set in itself contains some extraordinary performances that certainly do justice to Arlen’s music.
Indeed, some of the accompanists on the recordings are so outstanding that it’s fortunate that Concord included details about the performers on each track. For example, Carol Sloane’s version of "That Old Black Magic" is subtle enough, but who is that piano player behind her? Why, it’s Bill Charlap, before he gained his current prominence on the jazz scene. Then there’s Monica Mancini’s version of "Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate The Positive." Is she really recording it with Take 6? Well no, it’s Mancini on overdubbing all of the vocal parts into one of those pearlescent Gene Puerling-like vocal arrangements, with, yes, Take 6 bass vocalist Alvin Chea holding down the bottom part. And listening to Sarah Vaughan sing "I Gotta Right To Sing The Blues" leads to an re-appreciation of her unique talent as she swoops and swings at the top of her form. But there’s more. Her back-up by the Count Basie Orchestra, led by Grover Mitchell and minus Basie, has such power that one realizes that there is no current big band with its distinctive drive. And who is that trombonist with the cup-muted solo? Oh, it’s Booty Wood.
And of course, there are more delights throughout the entire set. Who would Concord pick to sing "Over The Rainbow?" Surprisingly, not Susannah McCorkle or Rosemary Clooney, but Jack Sheldon, accompanied by Ross Tompkins, as he adds a humorous perspective to the song. Then there’s Kenny Burrell, and the track included on Harold Arlen Centennial Celebration is one from Concord’s catalog, but an older than expected version with Tommy Flanagan and Major Holley. Speaking of older track,s there’s the Miles Davis recording of "It’s Only A Paper Moon" on the Prestige album, Dig that features a young Sonny Rollins in 1951. Art Tatum, who’s revered by jazz pianist, and rightly so, receives renewed exposure on the CD, now that he can be featured in compilations too. "Get Happy" is appropriately played by Dizzy Gillespie, but also his propulsive rhythm section of Milt Jackson, Monty Alexander, Ray Brown and Jimmie Jones retains the level of excitement (not to mention the teaming up with Jon Faddis as well).
Harold Arlen certainly deserves the year-long recognition that Concord is kicking off. And its spirited CD set in Arlen’s honor reinforces the harmonic appeal of his music that jazz musicians have enjoyed for generations.