Bossa America, part two

(Ed. Note: This is essentially a continuation of an earlier Office Naps installment on American versions of the Bossa Nova. That first post can be found here.)

It’d started in the mid-‘50s with sophisticated young Rio musicians hooked on American jazz and pop, a new music that translated Brazil’s samba rhythms to guitars and trap drum sets with native African and Portuguese elements swirled all into the mix. In due time, American jazz musicians would be drawn to it, musical collaborations and overseas tours would ensue, and, next thing you know, strains of “Girl From Ipanema” wafted from your downstairs neighbor’s cocktail parties.

Like the mambo craze a decade earlier, the Bossa Nova was an “exotic” musical import to this country that was endlessly copied and endlessly bastardized. Blame can be fixed on America’s mostly appalling, occasionally endearing, habit of unapologetic indifference to the finer points and sensitivities of other cultures.

But, by some point in the ‘60s, everybody, and I do mean everybody, was having a go at the Bossa Nova. It could be a token version of “Corcovado” enlivening a lounge singer’s musty live repertoire. It could be whole albums of interpretations and original material by a Frank Sinatra or a Lionel Hampton. Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn’t. But for every sour hornful of “Girl From Ipanema” that the aging Louis Armstrong blew forth, there was the thumping “Bossa Nova Blues” by Doris Troy or Nancy Ames’s sparkling, vibraphone-laden version of “Mas Que Nada.” Like this week’s selections, the Bossa Nova proved more a matter of attitude than authenticity.

1. Eddie Russ Trio, Natasha (Cascades Sound)
A jazz pianist and keyboard player who preferred to work from the ‘60s onward in his adopted state of Michigan – and one of innumerable talents struggling to stay relevant in the years of mainstream jazz’s declining popularity – it was perhaps always Russ’s lot to remain underappreciated.

Still, Russ would manage some notable, if obscure, recording dates, especially in the ‘70s. From straight ahead collaborations with aging bebopper Sonny Stitt to funkier releases with Detroit jazz combo the Mixed Bag, Eddie Russ proved himself adroit, certainly, a musician capable of keeping up with the times, even if later ‘70s releases like See the Light meant synthesizers, 4/4 beats and various disco accoutrement.

Likely recorded around 1974 or ‘75, “Natasha” was clearly an excerpt from a much longer jam session, the kind that ends when three not-too-stoned jazz musicians are reminded that the tape ran out forty minutes earlier. “Natasha” also observes one of those precepts of jazz, immutable no matter the decade: compositions named for females sound more convincing with a Bossa Nova rhythm.

It is Russ himself on the wonderfully atmospheric Fender Rhodes electric piano here. The other personnel on “Natasha” remain a mystery, but conceivably included Dan Spencer (drums) and Rob Brooks (bass), then members of Russ’s working group the Mixed Bag. Cascades Sound was a short-lived label that belonged to another familiar name in Michigan jazz circles, tenor saxophonist Benny Poole.

Eddie Russ continued playing and teaching music until his death in 1996.

2. Chris Connor, I Concentrate on You (FM)
Born Mary Loutsenhizer, the fabulous Chris Connor grew up in Missouri and sang in her late teens with various college ensembles in the Columbus and Kansas City area. In 1948, she left for New York, finding vocal work shortly thereafter with the Claude Thornhill orchestra, then – with Gil Evans’s and Gerry Mulligan’s modern boppish arrangements – in its modernist incarnation. After an early ‘50s residency with Stan Kenton’s progressive jazz orchestra in Los Angeles, Connors embarked on a solo career which, in the half-century since, has generated one of jazz’s sterling vocal discographies.

Stylistically, there’s little difference among early masterpieces like 1954’s Chris Connor sings Lullabys of Birdland or 1958’s Chris Craft, mid-‘80s rarities like New Again or even Connors’s recent Everything I Love. This is all part of the hip charm of Chris Connor. If Connor’s recording career never regained its momentum of the ‘50s, when she was one of jazz’s top-selling vocalists, it doesn’t seem to have bothered her. Despite popular music’s seismic shifts in the last five decades, the small jazz combo remains her favored setting while her demeanor remains implacably cool, coaxing every last syllable of meaning from endlessly fertile sources like the Gerswhin and Porter songbooks. Diamonds and sapphires have nothing on Chris Connor. Clear winter moonlight has nothing on her, either; she stays fixed like a cool blue star in the jazz cosmos, a paradox of simultaneous swing and restraint.

This Bossa Nova-tinged version of Cole Porter’s “I Concentrate on You” was recorded at New York City’s Village Gate jazz club in 1963. It originally appeared on Chris Connor at the Village Gate, an album released on the brief-lived FM Records label run by Connor’s manager Monte Kay. In addition to Connor, the personnel on this selection include Mundell Lowe (guitar), Ronnie Ball (piano), Richard Davis (bass) and Ed Shaughnessy (drums).

Chris Connor still sings and tours today.

3. “Charlie,” “Charlie’s Tune” (A Charlie Record)
This record was made as a promotional tie-in for Revlon’s 1974 introduction of its Charlie fragrance. Charlie was marketed as the perfume of the modern working woman – the perfume of plaid pants suits, company fast tracks and steady samba beats.

1974. The year that Richard Nixon resigned as president. It was also, promised the record’s label, the “Year of Charlie.
Kinda young! Kinda now! Kinda free! Kinda WOW! So sang early television campaigns cheerfully of the scent. What better than the Bossa Nova, the elegant and breezy Bossa Nova, to reinforce all of this? And what better than a little dab of perfume to make the Bossa Nova, easily over a decade old by that point, feel “floral and fresh,” feel, well, pretty again? The Charlie fragrance itself? It was an instant, smashing success. 1974 was a great year all around.

“Charlie’s Tune” was produced by “Charlie’s Way,” released as “A Charlie Record,” and distributed, lest we forget, by “The Charlie People.” Which is another way of saying that a group of studio musicians were wholly responsible for this classy little Bossa Nova-lite. This anonymous crew was also responsible for the record’s A-side (hear excerpt here), a spirited vocal sketch of “Charlie,” that girl whom summertime, turned heads and a newfound sense of confidence seem to follow around, Ipanema-style.

The Charlie fragrance was relaunched fairly recently, if anyone’s curious about what 1974 smelled like.

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4 Responses to Bossa America, part two

  1. Anonymous says:

    i like the charlie backstory

    the more quaint good old days of product placement and “branding”

    dissing “see the light” – i love that record

    i own the natasha 45 – love that moody fender

    always reminds me of good coffee

    lash la rue

  2. Anonymous says:

    You have a habit of digging out the really good instrumentals. So what if they’re obscure? Good is good. One group that seems to have fallen through the cracks is the Bobby Peterson Trio or Quintet. Two tracks I remember are “Smooth Sailing” and “Rockin’ Charlie.” There may have been a vocal version of “Irresistable You” but I’m not positive. Just a thought for a potential post. Thanks

  3. Thanks, I’ve always loved a good instrumental, especially in attention-deficit 45 rpm format. I know Peterson from his “Hunch” 45. He had some others on that label, didn’t he? Will definitely keep my eyes peeled.

  4. Anonymous says:

    More musical dope!

    That Eddie Russ track is amazing. Some lovely Fender Rhodes. Oh – and that Chris Connor track is beautiful!

    – Mr. Attention

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