Mention the name Johnny Mathis, and the response, depending on generation, is "Who?" or "Oh, you mean `Chances Are,' `Wonderful, Wonderful,' and `The Twelfth of Never.' "
Mathis was the reigning King Ballad in the late 1950s and 1960s, but I remember Mathis before that, when the former California prep track star (high jump) was singing mellow jazz in the San Francisco area. Columbia Record's George Avakian visited the Bay one night to listen to Mathis, and Johnny impressed Avakian enough that his Columbia recording debut was a full album.Long gone is an early jazz album by Mathis - I think it was a live performance from the Blackhawk - but I do remember enough of it that I was prepared for his current effort, "In a Sentimental Mood - Mathis sings Ellington" (CD Columbia CK 46069). A fellow reviewer heard the album and wondered if Mathis "is out of his element. I thought almost every song on this Ellington restrospective was awful, but I'm afraid my Ellington knowledge is dim."
Ah, there's the rub. Taking on Ellington is much more challenging than singing Irving Berlin backed by Percy Faith. Verbalizing the Duke can be tough, and sometimes Mathis' tremulous voice appears to be headed toward trouble. However, an orchestral backing keeps him headed in the right direction while not overpowering him. Mathis was wise enough to sing the Ellington tunes that are compatible to his smoky style, beginning with Billy Strayhorn's "Lush Life" and continuing through "Solitude," "Come Sunday" and the title song, "In a Sentimental Mood." Even the oft-rollicking "Don't Get Around Much Anymore" is brought to a crawl by Mathis.
Other Ellington classics, such as "Satin Doll," "Caravan" and "Perdido," are used as instrumental bridges between the Mathis vocals.
Will you like Mathis singing Ellington? It may depend on when you were born, but chances are you'll find it wonderful, wonderful.
- THE MARSALIS BROTHERS are at it again. This time Wynton is right on the button with "Tune in Tomorrow," his first try at a movie soundtrack, and the result is a marvelous musical tribute to his hometown of New Orleans. The Ellington influence is unmistakable in the 15 of 16 cuts composed by Marsalis, the other being Duke and Gershwin's "I Can't Get Started." The New Orleans musical heritage has never been treated in such fine fashion, and if the movie is half as good as the soundtrack, it must be a good one. "Tune in Tomorrow" (CD CBS Records 47044) is worth a listen.
The Branford Marsalis Quartet along with Terence Blanchard on trumpet handle the movie soundtrack for Spike Lee's "mo' better blues" (CD Columbia 46792) and, as you might expect, it's a fun outing. Especially appealing is the leadoff "Harlem Blues," with the venerable Claire Fisher conducting and Cynda Williams providing a delicious vocal. The album contains some rap - after all, it is a Spike Lee movie - and the success of such is strictly in the ears of the beholder.
An early alert on the arrival of another Marsalis prodigy. There is Wynton, Branford, Delfeayo and now there is 13-year-old Jason who, according to his father, "has occasionally played drums on jobs with me. To tell you the truth, Jason played on a gig with Delfeayo when he was about 6," says patriarch Ellis Marsalis about the youngest of his six sons. Ellis is a skilled pianist who is director of jazz studies at the University of New Orleans.
It appears that all the Marsalis family needs now is a bassist to complete an "All in the Family." Wynton's trumpet, Branford's tenor and soprano, Dad's piano and now Jason on drums leaves just one hole in the roster. I wonder what Mom is doing in her spare time?