There is a lot to like about The Great Jazz and Pop Vocal Albums by Will Friedwald. In fact, there’s everything to like about it, right down to the cover artwork and the Introduction, which you definitely should not skip. Here, the author frames the book’s focus as album-oriented; “the concept of the album had a long and respectable run” and “the CD would be, so far, the last physical format for which artists would put together programs of creative and interesting music.” This is due to the current download-era of singles and songs, along with, in my opinion, a severe attention deficit disorder amongst many music listeners over the past ten years. People simply do not care, nor have the time for 40 minutes of conceptual and thematic musical content these days. Squirrel!
Friedwald’s book, then, concentrates on the pop and jazz albums that follow some sort of format, such as “the songs of … (a composer),” or “The Great American Songbook,” or lyrically and emotionally thematic albums; in other words, records where “listening to eight songs in a row felt like a complete experience.”
Being unfamiliar yet intrigued with many of these titles (they’re well before my time), the book provides an excellent entry point. It would be easy to characterize this as “simply” an essential reference book, but it’s so much more than that. With Friedwald’s wonderful writing leading the way, it reads more like biographies — perhaps interludes is a better word — of both the greatest as well as some overlooked classic jazz and pop albums of all time. It sent me to Spotify after each and every entry I read. And that’s the best way to enjoy it; there’s a lot of detail, so it’s not something to read straight through. Rather, it's more of an interactive book; find an album you’d like to explore, read Friedwald’s piece and then head to your streaming service to take it all in. But his writing will help get you there.
It’s nearly impossible to quote from my favorite piece of writing — the entire first page set-up of June Christy’s Something Cool that, as the author notes, reads as a screenplay. Reading “it’s not quite noir since there’s no crimes involved — except crimes of the heart, perhaps” led me to one of the most unusual —and strangest (in a good way) — torch records I’ve ever heard.
Now consider these opening salvos:
“Where does a sound like the voice of Chet Baker come from? There’s no obvious precedent.” (Let’s Get Lost: The Best of Chet Baker Sings)
“Never was an album more appropriately named and, alas, never was such an excellent album so little known.” (Billy Eckstine: Billy’s Best)
How about, simply, “Light has weight.” I mean, why not use an allusion to Albert Einstein and his scientific theory that “sunshine has mass and is affected by the force of gravity” to open his reviews of a pair of Doris Day albums. (Day by Day, and Day by Night)
Oh. He also writes in Louis Armstrong Meets Oscar Peterson that the trumpeter’s vocals were the “prototype for many successive generations of growlers.” Friedman’s list includes Jack Teagarden, Howlin’ Wolf and Tom Waits, but ends with…the Cookie Monster. Brilliant.
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