Concept, Compilation, and Annotation by Brian Belton
Mastering by Tall-Order; Co-ordination by Paul Pelletier
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RAY CONNIFF - THE BIG BAND YEARS
For more than 45 years the name of Ray Conniff has meant easy listening music at its very best. Launched by COLUMBIA Records in 1956, 'The Conniff Sound', a unique blend of voices and instruments, has been heard on countless record albums and in concert appearances world-wide. During the years of international fame, Conniff has drawn on his early career as a trombonist and arranger for the Big Bands and this collection traces his time with several of the top orchestras of the 1930s and '40s.
Ray Conniff was born in Attleboro, Massachusetts, on 6th November, 1916. He took up the trombone and later taught himself arranging, using a transposing method bought by mail order. He did his first dance music work with his high school companions, a group known as Van Rounseville and his Hollanders. After graduation he joined Dan Murphy's Musical Skippers, a territory dance unit which helped him increase his knowledge of dance music in all its aspects: composition, orchestration and presentation. In 1937 he joing trumpeter Bunny Berigan's orchestra, playing trombone and arranging many of the pop tunes of the day. The Berigan band was a fairly ill-disciplined outfit, reflecting its own leader's uneven behaviour, but a good dance orchestra nevertheless. 1939 into 1940 saw Ray with the Bob Crosby group mainly as a trombonist - the presence of established Crosby arrangers Bob Haggart and Matty Matlock gave him little opportunity to arrange for the band. During this period, he may have done some freelance arranging work for the Teddy Powell orchestra who recorded his compositions, "Feather Merchanges Ball" and "Ridin' The Subways".
Leaving Bob Crosby, Conniff moved to the newly formed 1940 Artie Shaw orchestra, the famous 'band with strings'. This was a much improved position for the 24-year-old arranger-trombonist, for Artie encouraged his writing and also gave him occasional trombone solos. Ray was with Shaw when the great Jack Jenney was the featured trombone soloist and has recounted the times on tour he had to play, not without much anxiety, Jenney's famous solo on "Stardust" when Jack was worse the wear for drink.
Army service interrupted Ray's career for a spell and then around 1943 he did some arrangements for Glen Gray's Casa Loma Orchestra. He also kept steady company with jazz musicians in smaller band settings including his own octet. The trombone was temporarily set aside in 1945 when he joined Harry james as staff arranger. The next few years produced the best of his big band work, with fine arrangements which gave the James orchestra a fresh, swinging sound after the years of sweet and sentimental wartime ballads.
The collection opens with a swining rif tune composed and arranged for Bunny Berigan and his Orchestra. "Little Gate's Special" was recorded in New York on 15th March, 1939. While this item is a typical swing era jump number, the first of the Artie Shaw recordings which follows illustrates a much more mature approach to swing music. "Prelude In C Major" (recorded 4th December, 1940) shows a leaning towards classical music in the core theme and the large Shaw orchestra, a standard dance band plus strings, gives the Conniff score a sumptuous reading. The 1940 Shaw aggregation was an adventurous outfit reflecting the leader's ambitions in music after a brief exile in Mexico. Twelve moths pass before our next selection, Ray's original composition "To A Broadway Rose", recorded in mid-December 1941 by a similar size Shaw orchestra now well established with the listening and dancing public. Shaw trumpeter Max Kaminsky once observed that "Conniff arrangements are memorable contributions to the band's library, with coulour, pulsation and, invariably, a good jazz content." These observations are well supported by a second number from 4th December, 1940, "Who's Excited?"; an Artie Shaw song and Ray Conniff arrangement, the number is played with zest and a very strong ensemble sound.
Harry James was one of the biggest attractions in the band business by the time Ray Conniff joined him as staff arranger in late 1945. With the end of World War II the onset of peace gave rise to fresh optimism and less strained emotions, with the result that sweet and sentimental dance music started to be replaced by more vigorous, upbeat sounds. Ray Conniff's now seasoned experience as an arranger and as a jazz trombonist was just right for developing new musical trneds and he would breathe fresh life into the James band with many outstanding instrumental scores.
The romping "Easy", recorded in Hollywood on 21st February, 1946, gets our James-Conniff first sgment off to a flying start and typifies the reinvigoration of the James unit as a swinging dance band. New drummer Lou Fromm (ex-Thornhill, Shaw and Teddy Powell sideman) drives the band in splendid fashion. "Moten Swing", originally a two part 78, is taken at a slower, mid-tempo that is very effective. Conniff achieves a rich ensemblesound in his writing and there are a string of fine solos by James 'Corky' Corcoran (tenor sax), Eddie Rosa (clarinet), Willie Smith on also and, kicking the number off, Arnold Ross on piano. The last four men were stalwarts of the James band in the 1940s and made telling contributions to a long list of COLUMBIA recordings. "The Beaumont Ride" evokes memories of a young Harry James and his musical roots in territory dance bands in and around Beaumont, Texas, where his family had a home for several years.
Between his associations with Shaw and James, Ray Conniff did military service and joined countless other big band musicians in the armed forces. The wartime draft saw frequent changes in the personnel of top bands, among them the Casa Loma Orchestra led by Glen Gray. This much admired band had a legion of fans and for a series of radio transcription recordings around 1944, Gray was able to utilise several delightful Conniff charts. In the short selection on this disc we hear first "Featuring The Boys", a 'meet the band' type showcase with a bright tempo and featuring Herb Ellis (guitar), Red Nichols on cornet, the facile clarinet of 'Fats' Daniels, Mike Doty (tenor sax), Otto Alburn on trombone and Lou Carter on paino. Such talent indicates that the Casa Lomans were not exactly decimated by the draft! Ray Conniff produced a most attractive arrangement for his original opus, "The Lion And The Mouse", which at a slower, easy paced temp, shows the famous 'sophisticated swing' style of the orchestra to perfection. By contrast, "Savage" is a sulty piece that starts off full of 'Eastern promise' and a typically bright and eloquent trumpet solo by the great Bobby Hackett along the way - definitely one of Ray's weirder pieces! The concluding Casa Loma selection, "Hold The Phone", is a more typical swing number taken at a fast 'killer-diller' tempo - excellent articulation by the driving ensemble.
We begin a second dip into the Artie Shaw library with one of Ray Conniff's finest big band ballad charts. He created a wonderful, wistful mood in his setting for the 1945 orchestra and their immaculate interpretation of the Marvell-Strachey standard "These Foolish Things". Ollie Willson's fine toned trombone opens the piece which develops a gorgeous, warm mellow sound in which Artie's clarinet is magical. "Needlenose" takes us back to January 1942 and the 32-piece orchestrawith stirngs for this Conniff original co-composed with Shaw bass player Ed McKinney. The 1945 Shaw big band was truly and impressive unit and further confirmation of that fact is provied by the next two numbers. "Jumpin' On The Merry-Go-Round" is a lively rhythm tune with solos by Shaw and two of the outstanding young musicians in the orchestra, Dodo Marmarosa on piano and guitarist Barney Kessel. Conniff produced another excellent original with "Lucky Number" and again the leader and Marmarosa are featured along with the band's start trumpeter, Roy Eldridge. Roudning out the Shaw-Conniff collaboration is "Just Kiddin' Around", dating from a recording session on 30th October, 1941. It's a splendid side by the 'band with strings' with solos by three key players, Johnny Guarnieri (paino), Oran 'Hot Lips' Page (trumpet), and Georgie Auld (tenor saxophone); Artie also contributes a telling solo.
Returning to Harry james we now come to probably the finest arrangemnet Ray Conniff wrote for a big band. The Kurt Weill standard "September Song" has attracted many performers through the years and in an instrumnetal vein, but none surpassed Ray' brilliant conception for the James band-book. The pace and mood of the arrangement is perfect and the superb melody is enhanced by the scoring and by the playing of the orchestra. No wonder Ray reprised the arrangement for one of his early COLUMBIA albums. Note the subtle use of strings in the latter part of the recording.
Harry James liked to play the blues and his version of "East Coast Blues" arranged by Conniff for this February 1947 cut is big band blues par excellence. James penned "Friar Rock" and with Ray's assistance he wrote "Redigal Jump". Both have the powerful, swaggering beat that hallmarked the post-war James brand of instrumental jazz, a style far removed from the likes of "Sleepy Lagoon" and "You Made Me Love You" some years earlier. "The Last Mile", a very attractivre Conniff melody recorded on 22nd June, 1947, is the penultimate item in this collection and wraps up the James-Conniff sides neatly.
Competing with "September Song" for the bet Conniff arrangment is "S'Wonderful". Artie Shaw recorded a number of Gerswin tunes with his immediate post-war orchestra using different arrangers to interpret these timeless songs. Ray Conniff excelled himself with his inspired treatment of "S'Wonderful", creating a memorable counter melody for a tune that was to headline his own career as a bandleader with his debute long playing album in 1956.
Ray Conniff has made an enormous contribution to quality popular music. Today at the age of 84 he is still making wonderful sounds with his orchestra and singers. I believe this collection shows Ray Conniff as a very creative and original writer for big bands. While his arrangements for the genre have not commanded the acclaim afforded to thelikes of Sy Oliver and Fletcher Henderson during the heyday of the big band, his work was distinctive and full of melodic delights. The international popularity of Artie Shaw's and Harry James' music in the 1940s owes much to Ray's sterling efforts. With his career since 1956 comprehensively documented on record, in news articles and in the narrative on countless album covers, this has overshadowed awareness of his early years in music. Hopefully this compact disc should go some way to revealing the man's special talents during his big band years.
BRIAN BELTON, May 2001
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