Wednesday, August 5, 2009
Covering a Classic: Harlem Nocturne
It seems improbable: Earl Hagen, whose productivity gravitated to film scores and theme songs for television programs like the Andy Griffith Show, pens a piece in 1939 to honor Duke Ellington and his silky smooth alto sax player Johnny Hodges that ends up becoming almost a standard of the 1950's to be covered by R&B and jazz musicians alike. Hagen's piece "Harlem Nocturne" emerges out of his association with the English bandleader Ray Noble Orchestra of the 1930' and seems to nod, if not in title alone, to the predominance of African American musicians involved in the jazz scene of the period. Favored by saxophonists, Harlem Nocturne is a composition whose popularity almost seems to transcend time and space. Its association with pulp fiction and film noir based scores is later affirmed by its adoption as the theme song for Mickey Spillane's Mike Hammer film which was released in 1984.
Unfortunately, not all the renditions of Harlem Nocturne are available on youtube to examine in this post. What is very interesting is the way each musician's approach to the song differs. I have tried to arrange the covers in chronological order so as to highlight the differences in arrangement and approach can be appreciated.
Stan Kenton: Kenton's marvelously arranged interpretation here probably dates to the late 1940's, wonderful use of dynamics in a big band setting.
Les Brown: This sounds like a fifties or early sixties arrangement to me even though the claim is that it dates to the 1940's. Very nice alto solo.
Johnny Otis: Although recorded with Johnny's Big Band, this version moves to a more R&B based feeling and format. Predictably, alto sax is featured, nicely done.
Sam the Man Taylor: Sam's haunting version here really captures the R&B essence of the song. Superb phrasing by the player who helped shape jump blues and later rock n' roll sax during the 1950's.
Earl Bostic: Earl was a genuine horn Einstein and his breadth and fluency really show here up on a piece like Harlem Nocturne. Superb playing.
Les and Larry Elgart: This is a very smooth and tight arrangement by the brothers known for their ecclectic range of material related to pop and jazz. Probably from the 1960's
King Curtis: The King injects a bit of soulish groovin into this unique and quite polished arrangement from the early 1960's. Wonderful tone and phrasing by the King in this unfortunately truncated version.
The Viscounts: This excellent version charted for this combo in 1959 and then again in 1966.
Danny Gatton: Guitar virtuoso Gatton had a penchant for elaborate arrangements of well known standards that captured the feel of a period; his covers of Santo and Johnny's "Sleepwalk" and "Tragedy" by Thomas Wayne are good examples. This version of Harlem Nocturne, although not his best, is one of his signature pieces. It is unique in that he adapts an arrangement set for big band saxophone to the guitar. Mid 1980's. Fascinating.