Saturday, 9 August 2014

Tea for Two

A little preamble: Vocalist Kiki Ebsen recently released an album "The Scarecrow Sessions", funded by a Kickstarter project. There's a lot of interesting stuff around that: you can find all the details here.  I'll just say that it's an album of songs for her father, Buddy Ebsen, who was an actor and song-and-dance man.  His story too is a very interesting one (he would have been the Tin Man in the movie of the Wizard of Oz, but for an allergic reaction to the makeup.  Nonetheless his voice appears in some songs).

Here's Buddy Ebsen with Shirley Temple.  All eyes are on the tiny Miss Temple, of course, but look at the how the lanky Buddy partners her with wit and grace, and (it seems to me), great kindness.  You can't but like him:


So Buddy's daughter, Kiki, 10 years after her dad's death, records an album of deliciously jazzy tunes for him (including Codfish Ball of course).  Park that thought, click on that link and have a listen while I take you in a different direction.

It's fascinating to me how tunes can be malleable in the hands of different performers, and before the age of singer-songwriters, this was the norm:  that the songwriting was one thing, the performance another.  Since the 1960's we strongly identify tunes with the original performers.  We talk of originals and cover versions. Go back a bit though and it wasn't like that.

Take the tune Tea for Two.  I was a very small boy when I first came across it.  This version: a track on an album of my big sister's: Cliff Richard ("Britain's answer to Elvis") - "21 Today" (1961). How odd  it seems to me now, that a pop album like that would include songs written, well almost 4 decades earlier.  Because by that time, Tea for Two already had lived many lives.

Written in 1924 for the musical No No Nanette this is an early recording: pleasant enough, but really I won't blame you for not listening all the way through.  Who would have thought it promising material?

But then this tune started getting a life of its own.  From Wikipedia "In October 1927, the conductor Nikolai Malko challenged Dmitri Shostakovich to do an arrangement of a piece in 45 minutes. His "Tea for Two" arrangement, Opus 16, was first performed on 25 November 1928". Here's what he came up with: Shostakovich version.

Then the jazz crowd got hold of it, most famously Art Tatum, in this performance.  And he wasn't the only one.  Here is bopper Thelonious Monk's version.  And Tommy Dorsey's somewhat heavy handed cha cha cha ...  Smoothly from Lester Young (Nat King Cole on piano).  And swingingly from Mr Thomas "Fats" Waller.  And for fans of Gypsy Jazz, the incomparable Django Reinhardt had his go at it too.  It almost feels that you could structure a history of jazz around just this tune.

And ... It was a hit for Doris Day ... And if the obsession takes you (and it took me), you can even find a recording by Harpo Marx (sadly not on youtube).

I suppose what strikes me most is that none of these is a pastiche or a perversion of some perfect "original" performance - indeed the original seems almost the weakest.  And no one would say that the tune itself is any sort of masterpiece.  But artist after artist has chosen it as a theme, an inspiration. And each of these versions seems to me equally valid, and in each performance the tune is both entirely and recognisably itself, and still, entirely and recognisably the artist's.  I find this a wonderful thing.

But if you click on just one link here, choose this one.  A more recent recording, which I find utterly charming: Cuban father and son, Bebo and Chucho Valdes, a piano duet.

And what about father and daughter, Buddy and Kiki Ebsen?

Well of course on her album, Scarecrow Sessions, she includes this song.  Here is a link.

And why would this be on an album for her father?  Well here is Buddy in later years, but still just as light on his feet:


Made me smile ....