Midnight in the Naked City

The common tropes of Asphalt Jungle, Peter Gunn, D.O.A., The Maltese Falcon, This Gun for Hire, Johnny Staccato and dozens of other classic crime and detective serials and movies are well documented.  Watching how certain motifs – the chase scenes, the smoky nightclubs, the femme fatales – get individually rendered and manipulated is one of the pleasures of Film Noir.

My favorite instrumentals tend to have some strong visual, atmospheric or cinematic component to them.  What’s so satisfying about the coded forms within film and television crime dramas applies to the corresponding jazz, pop and R&B instrumental music of the era.  Each finds expression in shared, meaningful motifs that are at once clichés, as well as things to be savored – the dark jazz of the nightclub scene, the galloping bongos of the chase through the streets, the sultry sax of the femme fatale’s entrance and so forth.

This week, as a sort of follow-up to some previous posts on the crime jazz and “suspense” instrumental phenomenon, we explore another favorite motif:  The solitude and quiet danger of the city.

One Man Against the World

It's one man against an unforgiving world this week on Office Naps. Image from the 1961 movie Blast of Silence, courtesy of the excellent Criterion Confessions.

This form owes a bit to “After Hours,” and a lot to the atmospherics of “Harlem Nocturne” and the brooding riffs of themes like The Naked City.  The visual analogue here is one of the cynical hero turning up his collar and disappearing into the night, or closing out an empty bar, the city’s loneliness, and his own isolation, rendered in the moody tones of the tremolo guitar and a lonely saxophone, a languid ballad marking the rhythm.

It’s one man against a corrupt, dangerous world this week on Office Naps.

Rusty Isabell, Manhunt (Brent 7006)1.  Rusty Isabell, Manhunt (Brent 7006)
A handful of 45s comprises pianist Rusty Isabel’s recorded legacy.

Born in Arizona in 1938, Isabell recorded his earliest sides barely out of his teens, allying himself early on with some of the central characters in Phoenix’s endlessly fascinating early rock ‘n’ roll scene (which I touch on here and here).  Starting in 1958, a brief flurry of wild rock ‘n’ roll songs and barrelhouse piano-driven instrumentals – often under the aegis of local Phoenix songwriter and guitarist Don Cole – would ensue for Isabell, including a 45 for the local Porter Records label (as Red “Hot” Russell), one for Capitol Records (as the Rio Rockers), and, following those, two more 45s that were picked up for release by the New York City-based indie label Brent.

This body of recordings was somewhat uncharacteristic of Phoenix in those years, often showing more of a Jerry Lee Lewis influence than the revved-up hillbilly and deep, echo-flooded guitar aesthetic that dominated the city’s early rock ‘n’ roll product.

Isabell’s most interesting sides tend to be his most atmospheric.  There’s the stupendous “Mexican Rock ‘n’ Roll” (with the Rio Rockers), for one.  And there’s this selection, his final 45 release.   Released in October 1959, “Manhunt” is perhaps the most uncharacteristic of them all, dripping with mood, ghostly laugh-cries and a downward, dirge-like drift.

There are rumors of a late ’60s live LP recorded in Las Vegas, but, following “Manhunt,” the Rusty Isabell trail becomes a bit difficult to follow.

Thanks to the Black Cat Rockabilly Hall of Fame and the liner notes to Bear Family’s excellent Rockin’ and Boppin’ in the Desert for the information.

Lem Davis, Lem Told Beethoven (Pattern 103B)2.  Lem Davis, Lem Told Beethoven (Pattern 103B)
Lemuel Davis, born in 1914 in Tampa, was a prolific saxophonist whose professional career took hold in the early ‘40s New York City jazz world.

Widely respected in his time, Davis honed his skills in the pre-War swing jazz idiom.  His peers in the ‘40s included some of the style’s most popular exponents.   Among others, Davis played and recorded with Billie Holiday, Rex Stewart, Billy Kyle, John Kirby, Joe Thomas, Eddie Safranski and, significantly, Coleman Hawkins and Eddie Heywood.  Davis would also occasionally record with his own band during these years.

It was a generation of musicians making an often uneasy transition to the radical new bop forms that were emerging in the early ‘40s, and Lem Davis would be no different.  Davis continued to gig with small jazz and R&B combos, and recording dates with popular bandleaders and musicians like King Pleasure, Buck Clayton, Joe Thomas and Bennie Green followed throughout the ’50s.   A far from ignoble fate – New York City was, after all, then at its apex as the world’s jazz capitol.

But the contemporary media spotlight would largely be accorded to the bop modernists henceforth, and perhaps Davis’s decrease in momentum was inevitable.  After some early ‘50s leader dates for the Prestige label, this 45 seems to have been the last release under his own name.  Written by obscure New York City-based composer and songwriter Maynor Steward, and released on the tiny Pattern Records label in the late ’50s, “Lem Told Beethoven” is of a piece with a lot of late ’50s R&B instrumentals.  But there’s some “Harlem Nocturne” about its tremolo guitar, too, and a whole lot of after-hours moodiness.   Like the unspooling introduction to some monochrome thriller, you can almost hear a narrator intoning in sotto voice.  The streets were dark with something more than night.

Davis passed away in 1970 in New York City.

Abie "Available" Baker, The Web (Laurel Lu-6001)3.  Abie “Available” Baker, The Web (Laurel Lu-6001)
A New York City-based bassist and bandleader, Abie Baker recorded prolifically in the 1950s and early ’60s.  That Baker’s recorded work occurred largely behind-the-scenes – even more so than Lem Davis – tends to obscure his name these days.

Baker first appears in discographies in the late ’40s, though I suspect his recording career extends at least back to the ’30s.  Likely born in the early part of the 20th century, biographical details are meagre, though his work as a bassist over the ensuing decade-and-a-half would include sessions for many of the era’s important R&B-oriented singers and vocal groups: Hadda Brooks, Steve Gibson and the Red Caps, Nappy Brown, Larry Darnell, “Big Mike” Gordon, the Four Fellows, Big Maybelle, Ethel Ennis, the Coasters, LaVern Baker, Ruth Brown, Mickey Baker, Baby Boy Jennings and others.  Many of these sessions saw release on Atlantic and Savoy Records, two labels – Atlantic, especially – with impressive discographies of New York City R&B and jazz.   Baker, as further indication of his talents, regularly played alongside blue chip session men like Buddy Lucas, Sticks Evans, Al Sears, Bert Keyes and King Curtis.

There were also a few releases to his own name.   Baker’s earliest seems to be a 1949 single date as the Abe Baker Trio.  This 1959 selection, though, is perhaps the most interesting.  Released on Tony Sepe’s 45-only Laurel Records, a brief-lived New York City label (Baker would supply arrangements for a few other Laurel releases), “The Web” and its flipside “Moccasin Rock” are as pure a statement of creeping, end-of-the-rope anxiety as ever graced the two sides of a 45.

Interestingly, “The Web” can be heard punctuating moments of The Brain That Wouldn’t Die, a wonderfully campy mad scientist flick that the Mystery Science Theater guys would later resurrect.

Also, Abie’s son Mickey Baker – who would achieve fame as part of the great R&B and pop duo Mickey & Sylvia, and for his considerable prowess as a session guitarist – is heard playing guitar on this selection.

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4 Responses to Midnight in the Naked City

  1. Listener Greg G. says:

    Fantastic sounds here, Danny. Just oozing atmospheric noir….

  2. one drop says:

    HI Danny, i absolutely love this site.. & your exotica project.. just bloody fantastic.. I’d like to put you on the mailing list to find out bout for our little 45 label so send me your email if your interested.

  3. Great blog. Love the variety and the research. Listening gets me through the work day!

  4. Not sure if you knew this already, but the Baker tune, The Web, was featured in the cult classic film, “The Brain That Wouldn’t Die.”

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