This past week I contributed a post to NPR’s weekly Take Five column, which features five recordings grouped around a certain theme or artist. My post, Jazz On The Range: Five Cinematic Sides rounded up five tracks that shared a jazz-cowboy connection with a movie twist. Here are a few more that fell, in one way or another, outside the parameters of the final list–outtakes, if you will, from the posting process:
- Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys, “New San Antonio Rose” and “Liza Pull Down the Shades.” (Doughboys, Playboys, and Cowboys: the Golden Years of Western Swing)
Bob Wills is often called the King of Western Swing, and he drew on a variety of influences that ranged from blues singer Bessie Smith and minstrel performer Emmett Miller to waltzes and Mexican music.
Although annotators have pointed out that his 1940 mega-hit “New San Antonio Rose” lacks the fiddle-and-steel-guitar elements that comprise a key component of the classic Western Swing sound, its roots in an earlier, fiddle-based version (see the video clip below–the song was originally adapted from a traditional song called “The Spanish Two-Step”) and its Wills-with-big-band vibe have made it a part of the brand. Consider these two songs entries in the soundtrack for a hypothetical documentary called How the West Was Swung.
- Claude Thornhill, “Gotta Get Me Somebody to Love” and “Twilight On the Trail.” (1946-47 Performances V. 1)
Snowfall on the prairie? The mighty late-1940s Thornhill orchestra takes an unusual turn west on these two tracks, with “Gotta Get Me Somebody to Love” the standout of the pair. The song comes from the 1946 Gregory Peck Western Duel in the Sun and was written by Allie Wrubel (who helped pen, among other tunes, “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah”).
In his liner notes to the linked Hep release, jazz scholar and recent Night Lights guest Loren Schoenberg praises the Thornhill band’s take on “Gotta Get Me Somebody to Love” for its inventive interpolation of the “T for Texas, T for Tennessee” refrain and says “the band’s entrance is cinematic in its sweep and grandeur.” Gil Evans famously said that the Thornhill orchestra’s sound “hung like a cloud”; in this case, the sky is the wide open vista of the West, and the effect is perfect.
- Dexter Gordon, “Dexter Rides Again.” (Dexter Digs In)
This 1946 slice of bebopology, featuring tenor saxophonist Dexter Gordon and pianist Bud Powell in their youthful prime, made the final cut for the new Smithsonian jazz anthology (where jazz historian Alyn Shipton provides a detailed analysis of its motifs and phrases). The only real Western links here are the title of the piece and the LP cover, but the music moves with the brash confidence of two cocksure cowpokes blazing a new trail for others to follow.
- Ornette Coleman, “Ramblin’.” (Change of the Century)
- Grant Green, “Wagon Wheels” and “Tumblin’ Tumbleweeds.” (Goin’ West)
Ray Charles struck gold in 1962 with his album Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music, which latter-day liner-note writer Bob Blumenthal points out was probably the inspiration for this Grant Green Blue Note project. (Green’s cover of Charles’ big hit from the album, “I Can’t Stop Loving You,” certainly points directly back at Brother Ray.)
Green also wasn’t the first to offer up a jazz interpretation of “Wagon Wheels,” which dates back to a 1934 Ziegfield Follies Broadway show; that honor would go to Sonny Rollins, from the same Way Out West date that yielded one of the tracks in my NPR post. Green and his A-list rhythm section (pianist Herbie Hancock, bassist Reggie Workman, and drummer Billy Higgins) roll through it with a soul-jazz groove, then turn a low flame on Bob Nolan’s cowboy anthem “Tumblin’ Tumbleweeds” until it cooks and bubbles like a well-tended pot of range chili. (Special thanks to listener Chuck Johnson, who dropped a note reminding me of this album.)
- Stan Kenton and Tex Ritter, “Home On the Range” and “Red River Valley.” (Stan Kenton! Tex Ritter!)
It’s true! They did collaborate! I referenced this strange-encounter-of-the-progressive/country-and-western-kind in my NPR post, choosing “High Noon” in part because it was a classic movie theme (sung by Ritter himself in the 1952 Gary Cooper film). But “Home On the Range” and “Red River Valley” are perhaps even worthier tracks, showcasing Ritter’s mournfully affirmative voice against a brass-choir background arranged by Kenton himself.
- Oscar Brown Jr., “The Lone Ranger.” (Brother Where Are You?)
Nobody could combine civil-rights passion with a hip and edgy wit like Oscar Brown Jr. His 1970s Atlantic LPs have not enjoyed the happy reissue fate of his earlier work, but this track, which satirically upends a favorite Western pop-culture narrative, ranks right up there with songs like “40 Acres and a Mule.” It came out in 1974, only a year after the Wounded Knee incident, with Native American activism still fresh in many listener’s minds.
- Charles Tyler, Saga Of The Outlaws. (Saga Of The Outlaws)
Avant-garde saxophonist and Albert Ayler protege Charles Tyler loved cowboys and Westerns, and he called this outing “a polyphonic sonic tale of the old and new West.” Written especially for the legendary 1976 New York jazz loft concerts staged at Sam Rivers’ Rivbea space, Saga of the Outlaws was too long to be included in the subsequent 5-LP set and too good to be excerpted; fortunately, it eventually found a home on producer Chuck Nessa’s label (and was reissued in 2009 on CD).
Saga of the Outlaws features two bassists, John Ore and Ronnie Boykins, Earl Cross on trumpet and Steve Reid on drums, and some of the best alto sax playing Tyler ever put down on record. In the liner notes Tyler says, “I wanted to project a feeling of the daring, romantic Old West, like the Dalton Gang or Gunfight at the OK Corral… I used to dig the background music in those films and the feeling that Frankie Laine used to achieve with his voice. Of course, this is quite different musically with modern overtones and instrumentation, but I was looking for the same sort of feeling.” Propelled by the double-team of bassists, Tyler and his compadres ride the theme for all the melodies it’s worth.
Only the lack of a cinematic connection kept this out of the NPR post. The two primal forces here–alto saxophonist Ornette Coleman and bassist Charlie Haden–each have Western roots; Coleman grew up in Fort Worth, Texas, and Haden performed as a child with his family’s country-music group, billed as “Little Cowboy Charlie.” On “Ramblin’” (which lives up to its name beautifully), one of Coleman’s most instantly engaging tunes, jazz critic Terry Martin cites Coleman’s
outmoving prairie theme over an excellently defined rhythm in which (Haden’s) repetitive figures fill the expressive gaps. These gaps seem to create the sense of the western emptiness across which men (the horns) move with their mixture of bravado and loneliness… The prairie sound is kept well to the fore and given psychological complexity, hence its life, by the use of short stabbing phrases that fall into a compulsive swing.
The piece ends with a softly fading gitalong-giddyup figure before pulling up to a halt with one last commanding reprise of the theme.