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Thursday, February 21, 2013

Larry Adler Plays Woodstock

From the Vault Dept.: In a blog post last year around this time, I expostulated on the life and career of mouth-organ virtuoso Larry Adler, noting that one of the times I’d seen him perform was “at some point in the 1980s when he played at a theater in Woodstock.” I’ve now unearthed my review of the 1985 concert.


There isn’t another performer living who can boast having had works written for him by Vaughan Williams, Milhaud, Benjamin, and others of similar magnitude; having played with the Dorsey Brothers, Joe Venuti, Eddie Lang, and other jazz greats; having been granted permission from Ravel to play “Bolero” in any style he pleases; having a stand-up act as funny as his playing is superb -- and to have made a specialty of that most unclassifiable of instruments, the harmonica.

Larry Adler
Photo by Gjon Mili
Larry Adler can boast of all that, and his talents were well displayed in his Monday evening recital at the Woodstock Playhouse with illustrious jazz pianist Ellis Larkins.

The concert was billed in advance material as being classically-rooted; the program promised and named standards by Gershwin and Porter and others: what we got was Adler’s own array of selections to give us a little bit of the many types of things he plays (and he is quick to explain that he prefers to term his instrument the “mouth organ.”)

There were standards, many of which were accompanied by stories from Adler’s colorful life. His first recording, for example. was at the behest of a gangster who befriended him: Moe “The Gimp,” singer Ruth Etting’s boyfriend, who hauled young Adler into a studio and demanded that he be allowed to join in. This was followed by one of Etting’s favorites, “If I Could Be With You.”

There were many songs by George Gershwin: “It Ain’t Necessarily So,” for example, and “The Man I Love,” “Our Love Is Here to Stay,’ “Lady Be Good,’ and, with Adler playing both mouth organ and piano, “Embraceable You.”

This was not meant to slight Larkins, which would be an impossible task. There is probably no more sensitive and accomplished jazz accompanist around. Larkins has been the favorite of such singers as Billie Holiday, Mildred Bailey, and Ella Fitzgerald; he is also a fascinating and creative soloist, and exhibited that skill in a few solo selections, the most notable being an Ellington medley.

A version of the gavotte from Bach’s Partita in E for violin solo showed what Alder can do unaccompanied, and it would make many a fiddler jealous – but Adler has counted Jascha Heifetz as one of his fans (and declares the admiration a mutual one). He also played Lecuona’s “Malaguena,” and, to conclude the concert, his rip-roaring, condensed version of “Bolero.”

And another side of the man was revealed: the composer who was nominated for an Oscar for the soundtrack to the British movie “Genevieve” (Dimitri Tiomkin won, which, says Adler, proves that the system was rigged). He played the theme from that movie, and another of his favorite compositions: “Screws Blues,” from a BBC-TV documentary on prisons. Owing to the American uncertainty about that title, lyricist E.Y. Harburg changed it to”Lady Luck Blues” when he added words to it.

All of this autobiographical material was cheerfully offered by Adler between pieces, and between jokes of a suspiciously Borscht Belt character. It’s also contained in his written autobiography. published in England and titled “It Ain’t Necessarily So.”

He lives in England now, as he has for the past 35 years, hounded out of this country by McCarthy-era fanatics. The concert was a rare opportunity to see one of the most delightfully iconoclastic performers and personalities ever to ignore the bugbears of musical expectations.

Adler and Larkins performed on the set of Woodstock’s current play, Noël Coward’s “Present Laughter,” which was fitting: he belongs in a posh drawing room. Strange technical problems plagued the concert, however, including a ringing telephone and the untimely entry of a stagehand to protect the piano from the rain dripping through the roof. It had a certain lassez-faire cuteness but was nevertheless unprofessional.

– Schenectady Daily Gazette, 17 July 1985

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