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Tuesday, September 01, 2015

Rhapsody under Water

From the Vault Dept.: As it happens, I’m married to a Whiteman from New York’s Columbia County who believes that the Colorado Whitemans – from which bandleader Paul emerged – are distantly related. So it’s always nice to see cousin Paul celebrated. But this event, which took place 28 years ago, may be the last time such a tribute has occurred in the area.


THE ORCHESTRA WAS ARRAYED on a raised concrete platform surrounded by square pools of water drizzling over into a larger pool below. As the sky darkened, the lights came up. This is how vintage Hollywood would have placed an orchestra – in fact, it was reminiscent of the placement of Paul Whiteman’s orchestra in his 1930 feature “King of Jazz.”

Paul Whiteman and Maurice Ravel
But Hollywood can control rain. There was no such ability in Riverfront Park Monday evening as the Collar City Pops performed a brief tribute to “Pops” Whiteman, the Oliver Hardy-esque bandleader who “made a lady out of jazz” back when jazz was a terrible evil.

Whiteman will always be remembered as the man who commissioned and premiered Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue,” and pianist Abba Bogin waited in the wings (or, in this case, on a bench) to perform that work for the never-to-be-realized finale of this concert.

Conductor Paul Elisha, who was associated with Whiteman in the 1950s, began a musical tour of a variety of antique stylings as clouds thickened over the Hudson.

“Alexander’s Ragtime Band” was an appropriate kick-off: songwriter Irving Berlin, like Whiteman, was quick to spot what the public enjoyed. The Whiteman arrangement opened with strings and piano and added brass, bringing in a trumpet solo in the second chorus in the muted style made famous by Whiteman alumnus Henry Busse.

There’s something quaintly four-square about these arrangements, as the tune that followed, “Royal Garden Blues,” demonstrated. It’s been a swinging vehicle for many a band and combo, but this version relied instead on gimmicky riffs. But that’s not a big detriment when viewed in the larger perspective of Whiteman’s function in making jazz accessible to the many who were otherwise frightened by it.

The first strains of “Heartaches” brought sighs of recognition from the audience, and “Sweet Georgia Brown,” in a Charleston style, was another success.

Many fleet-fingered virtuosi were nestled in Whiteman’s orchestra at one time or another: Bix Beiderbecke on trumpet, guitarist Eddie Lang, violinist Joe Venuti; and the arrangements were created to show off the talents of sections and soloists.

The Collar City Pops certainly seemed able enough, but the nice balance from section to section that would have shown off the players was overcome by a poor sound mix that seemed to originate in the bell of the tuba and stop, much too loudly, at the guitar.

This undermined the effect of Ravel’s “Bolero,” played in a truncated jazz-band version: a programming digression amusingly justified by a meeting between during Whiteman and Ravel during the latter’s trip through the U.S. in 1927.

“Bolero,” a study of orchestral texture in a long crescendo, sounded in this performance like a piece cut to fit on one side of a 78, with an acoustical recording’s absence of dynamic subtlety. It did, however, provide a splendid accompaniment to the crescendo of rain that began with just a rhythmic few drops to the taps of the snare.

“Paper Moon” and “There’s a Small Hotel” were proof that not even Paul Whiteman was immune to the demands of the song pluggers and A & R men; they were competent cover versions of the tunes, accurately rendered.

Soprano Ida Faiella was guest vocalist of the evening, performing with the rhythm section headed by pianist Malcolm Kogut. Gershwin songs were the feature, and “Someone to Watch Over Me” got off to a hesitant start as the players adjusted to one another. In the midst of “But Not For Me,” the magic happened: singer and players slipped into a loose, energetic groove, with just the right touch of swing for the song.

And then the drips became a shower and the concert was abandoned to the snaps of the many folding chairs being hustled away by a fleeing crowd.

– Schenectady Daily Gazette, 2 September 1987

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