Of all American music, The Blues
have been left most strictly alone. Scarcely a musical
innovator - from early jazz through swing through
bop through far out - has had the raw bravery or,
perhaps,the imagination to tamper with the old 12-bar
structure which has always stood solidly as a sort
of edifice - like a Corinthian Column or a Chicago
Condon. But now Hal Schaefer, one of our most inventive
and thoughtful talents, hangs some new clothes, in
varied hues, on the old frame.
In Ten Shades of Blue, Schaefer
proves that The Blues needn't be primitive and needn't
even be historically hidebound. Yet never once does
he deface the original basic premise just for the
sake of change. As modern and as unusual as this album
is, there is more of old blues in it than can be found
in many of the "traditional" versions. A
case in point? Experimenting with W.C. Handy's 1909
Memphis Blues he is careful, if you will
listen, to play the "first jazz break" exactly
as scored by Handy.
Also, in the opening of Harold Arlen's
I've Got a Right to Sing the Blues, the tempo
is not Schaefer's alone. It was, originally, Arlen's
and is so marked. To most of us, whose memories and
ears are attuned to the great gravelling of the great
Satchel-mouth with this song, this may come as - at
least - a mild surprise. The inventiveness and exploration
values of the songs, however, are clearly discernible
in both treatment and technique. It is doubtful that,
in the long and glorious history of The Blues, anyone
has figured out quite such paradoxical musical effects.
You will hear, for instance, and
possibly be startled by, Ted Sommer using such non-Blues
instruments as finger cymbals, percussion, tympani
and triangle. Yet each, as used, seems to have been
just what one Blues or another has been awaiting and
needing for a couple of generations.
From the physical standpoint, Schaefer's
group for this record numbers about right. With himself
at his piano, here is Morty Lewis on tenor and bass
clarinet, Chet Amsterdam on bass, Charlie Persip at
the drums and Sommer for the surprises. These men
have no trouble in taking the familiar Tin Roof
Blues right into today. Schaefer manages to give
his own Blues for My Leah exactly the shade
he wants. A shade he describes as "almost golden,"
possibly the best description. And for further inventiveness,
this surely must be the first time anybody has heard
a superior bass solo dominate the familiar and, to
the modern ear, somewhat monotonous Bye Bye Blues.
From the point of view of composition
and arrangement, probably the most surprising and
satisfying effect Schaefer has managed is to somehow,
unbelievably, get the sound of almost a full brass
section out of tympani. And in some of the solos,
notably the bass and bass clarinet, his men have the
courage to use instrumental tones above, below and
beyond the call of duty.
Blues, to the traditionalist, almost
screams for a vocal. There are none on this record
and, as one mild voice, I'm glad. I am probably all
alone, but the historic Blues vocals never moved me
far. From Jelly Roll to Joe Turner, a Blues lyric
to me consists of one line repeated until exhaustion
and then another single line tossed in - tossed in
from Outer Space, usually.
Hal Schaefer was a natural for this
interesting and fulfilling musical experiment. He
is one of our newer-type musicians dedicated to jazz
who, like so many of today's and tomorrow's sound
workmen, has not only had a thorough education but
has worked in just about every field of music and
learned something from each.
He has recorded, written and arranged
for his own groups and for others. His Hal Schaefer
in the Jazz Workshop recently gave us a clear
look at his versatility and creativeness and with
his showcase of Great Songs from United Artists
Pictures, United Artists UAL 30001-S,he proved
that he could bring brightness of imagination and
bubbling innovation to songs which in other treatments
had become, to put it squarely, otherwise stuck in
the musical ear of the nation.
Schaefer has played piano for himself
and for many top vocalists. He has worked daytimes
in the film studio and nightimes in the cellar clubs.
Recently he has channelled his work almost totally
toward creating. Three songs in this album - Caribbean
Blues, Blues for My Leah and Blues
for Goin' Home are his own contributions. All
of them, I think, would satisfy even Mr. Crump, the
hero of Memphis Blues who wouldn't stand
for any "easy riders" hangin' around.
Author of the nationally syndicated column, Dream