In week three of Peter and Will Anderson’s Songbook Summit at Symphony Space, the virtuoso musicians, their gifted band, and savvy vocalist Molly Ryan present Hoagy Carmichael. If the composer’s name does not ring a bell, his songs should. Carmichael (1899-1981), wrote four of the most-recorded American songs of all time. These include “Stardust,” “The Nearness of You,” “Georgia on My Mind,” and “Heart and Soul.” Indeed, Peter, Will Ryan, and the band give Carmichael his due in their hot presentation of these memorable tunes and others.
Simplistically, I love the Andersons’ shows for two main reasons. First, they combine fabulous entertainment with the deeper elements of learning social music history and composer biography. Thus, Will’s prodigious research, adept curation of film clips, archived photos, recordings, and interview clips sift the highpoints of a composer’s greatness. And they center each composer by revealing the timelessness of the music as past performers elect to sing his songs through the decades. The material also places the composer in American historical perspective in social and musical history. Second, their shows, beautifully executed and organized, instill a greater appreciation for this country and the genius of American musicians.
Carmichael’s timeless songs feature lyrics by friend Johnny Mercer (“Skylark”), and Frank Loesser (“The Nearness of You”). A young Aretha Franklin recorded “Skylark” in 1963.” Numerous artists recorded “The Nearness of You” like Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong in 1956, and Sheena Easton sings the Carmichael song in the 1993 film Indecent Proposal.
An ambitious personality, Carmichael wrote nearly 500 songs, and 50 of them made it to hit record status. He appeared on TV. The Andersons’ presentation includes a clip of Carmichael performing for children in a relax setting. He acted and performed in 14 films (i.e. To Have and Have Not with Lauren Bacall). Also, he hosted three radio variety programs and wrote two autobiographies. Interestingly, Ian Fleming, author of the James Bond series, imagined Bond looked like Carmichael whom he thought handsome.
Cleverly, Will’s facile narration becomes the flashpoint to delve into the substance of Carmichael and his music. Interestingly, Will’s script and selected media intermingles with the band’s illustrative musicality and grace. As they play Carmichael’s tunes with their unique, “in-the-moment” riffs and improves, solos and accompaniments for Molly Ryan, we reach a wider perspective and appreciation of Carmichael.
As always, the band’s novel approach coupled with Peter’s inspired arrangements revitalizes. The spontaneous moments Steve Ash (Piano), Clovis Nicolas (Bass), Phil Stewart (Drums), Peter (Tenor Sax/Soprano Sax/Clarinet), and Will (Alto Sax/Clarinet/Flute) create land with perfection. As the notes fling into other chords and digressions, we remain rapt. Then onto another riff and morphed melody. What’s played remains elusive, sings just ahead of us, then dissolves. I especially enjoyed the favorites and less familiar songs like “Skylark,” with a lovely interpretation by Molly Ryan. Their rendition of “Georgia on My Mind” thrilled the audience as a superb ending to the evening’s brilliance.
I always feel I need to hear some of the band member’s solos as well as the accompaniments again. Only then will I “get” the complexity of their iterations. Only then I will better note how these musicians meld, flow into and counteract the harmonies and cacaphonies of their combined contributions. Surely, their uniqueness plays disparately each time as they add and swap out notes and hit various registers. Thus, their presentation of Carmichael tomorrow night will shine with power and vibrance. Though the song order may be the same, the novelties will resound and echo differently. For their renditions are “out there.” Their vitality moves into the ethers to become the best of what jazz offers. And that remains spontaneous, live, distinctive.
Will discusses that Carmichael, who went to Indiana University received a Bachelor’s Degree. Eventually, he obtained a law degree. Though he received no formal training and could not read or write music, he continually composed. And we learn that Carmichael worked on “Stardust” for months until he “got it right.” The notes floated up to him at Indiana University one night as he walked the campus. And he raced into the “Book Nook” (campus cafe) to play the chords on the piano. Fervently, he intended to “get down” and remember what his talent bestowed to his imagination.
Pete’s spot-on, vibrant arrangements, the band’s fabulous accompaniments and Ryan’s vocals treat us to a glorious evening of Carmichael’s genius. At the conclusion of their show we can’t imagine Carmichael being given short shrift when considering the great American composers of 20th century music.
If you enjoy the Andersons, do not miss their presentation of Hoagy Carmichael’s music and life, and any prior appreciation of Hoagy Carmichael’s artistry will grow after you see their tribute to him in this week (August 21-26) at Symphony Space. For tickets and times CLICK HERE.