Peggy Lee - Black Coffee
Peggy Lee: Black Coffee. Verve B0003093-02

Found this one at a genuine garage sale, one of eight CDs I bought for a dollar each. Most of them were for sale but this one I wanted to listen to. I also liked the packaging, which reproduces the original Decca LP jacket on the front and—as I could tell, since the disc wasn’t sealed — the original 10” issue jacket also, along with the program notes from both editions (they are almost identical) both in microtype and in readable size. I remember Peggy Lee from when I was very young. I had a 78 of her “Manana” (a novelty song, insulting to Mexicans, which she both wrote and sang) and I listened to her often through the years since. I liked an expression from the new jacket blurb, “a glamorous beacon whose sultry voice gave her performances a shimmering eroticism.” Yes. That same paragraph claims that the original 1953 10” edition of “Black Coffee” was the first jazz project by any “mainstream” singer. Maybe.

The reissue notes by Will Friedland, “jazz reviewer for The New York Sun” (not exactly a prestige gig), go a lot further. “Peggy Lee’s album ‘Black Coffee’ not only may be the greatest album of her career, it is also one of the top ten jazz vocal albums of all time.” Sorry, Will, that’s going miles too far. It’s a good album, yes, and it might be Lee’s own favorite and even her best album. But I can easily name ten better jazz vocal albums by Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong, or Billie Holliday, among others. In fact, any Billie Holliday album is better jazz than this one, with the sole exception of her very last, “Lady in Satin,” with its hideous arrangements. And what makes this a “concept album”? That all the songs have something to do with love? That they’re all accompanied by jazz ensembles? (There are two different ones, one for the original 1953 10” album, a completely different one for the supplementary 1956 tracks.) I don’t buy the idea. And if you want to hear a supposed mainstream pop singer singing jazz, try the live album of Frank Sinatra’s Australian tour with a group led by Red Norvo. That’s jazz!

Too much negativity here. I enjoyed hearing “Black Coffee” quite a bit. Lee sings beautifully throughout, if not very jazzily. The two different ensembles play quite well, although there aren’t any adventurous solos. (No room, with the longest track running 3:23. Each track had to fit on one side of a 10” 78 or a 45.) The format of the reissue is entertaining, especially to those of us who remember what a Decca LP label looked like.

But back to negativity for the close. This CD contains 35 minutes of music. That’s a travesty. The program notes mention that the 1956 supplementary session for the 12” version of the album resulted in six tracks, four of which were included on the LP. Where are the other two? I’m all for reissuing LPs on CD in a way which maintains the integrity of the original recording concept, so I’m glad this is not a “Best of Peggy Lee” CD with material from half a dozen different albums. But with 45 minutes of blank space to play with, Verve’s producers could have included the other two 1956 tracks and virtually any other complete Peggy Lee Decca album on the same CD. And they should have.

Tom Piazza - Devil Sent the Rain
When I write to recommend a new book by Tom Piazza (“Devil Sent the Rain: Music and Writing in Desperate America”), I have to say immediately that Tom is a friend of mine, although we have met in person only half a dozen times. Starting with a phone call he made to me a decade ago from Cape Cod, seeking recommendations for Sviatoslav Richter recordings, we have maintained a lively and wide-ranging contact through e-mails and phone conversations. In recent years our contact has diminished, mostly because Tom’s increasing success as a writer has left him with what one writer described as “a choice between writing novels and writing e-mails.” Still he is a best buddy and I have to admit that I hope you will be interested in his book because I want it to be a success.

Reading through the essays in “Devil Sent the Rain: Music and Writing in Desperate America”, you will get a pretty good idea of the range of Tom’s interest, although it’s definitely not a complete survey. (Among other omissions, there’s nothing here about Gustav Mahler’s music or Sviatoslav Richter’s piano playing.) Although he studied writing at Williams College, he was also a serious pianist and for a time supported himself playing jazz piano. His “The Guide to Classic Recorded Jazz” although now outdated as a guide to current issues, is the best critical guide to jazz recordings I’ve ever read. (My late friend Marty Laforse, a historian whose jazz background went back as far as hearing Fats Waller play, borrowed a copy of the Guide from me and refused to return it; I had to buy another copy.) He has written a book of short stories and two novels in addition to various nonfiction, and there is another novel currently in the works.

Tom moved to New Orleans fifteen years ago, after being attracted for years by the city’s music and general culture. He was en route home when the disaster we conveniently call Hurricane Katrina (although it was not the hurricane itself which caused most of the disaster) struck the city. Holed up in temporary quarters at his girlfriend’s parents’ home in Missouri, in response to a request from his publisher, he wrote the remarkable short book “Why New Orleans Matters” in five weeks. (Get the paperback edition, which has supplementary chapters.) This essay fulfills its title, and it’s indispensable for people seeking to understand the uniqueness of the city’s nature and its necessary place in America. He followed this up with the equally remarkable novel “City of Refuge,” a portrait of New Orleans after Katrina as seen through two very different families’ experiences. I still don’t understand why this book failed to become a best-seller and a blockbuster movie.

“Devil Sent the Rain” is a collection of separate essays written for a wide variety of purposes and not originally intended to be published together. Issuing a book like this seem to indicate that Tom’s publisher believes he has a fan base large enough to justify a miscellaneous collection, which is gratifying to know. He has tied the material together with little introductions, much in the manner of Norman Mailer’s “Advertisements for Myself”. Since Tom was a close friend of Mailer’s for years, and includes two pieces about Mailer, it’s an obvious influence.

The subtitle of the book is accurate. The first section is devoted to essays on a wide variety of musicians, including Jimmy Martin (a lengthy piece once issued as a separate book), Jelly Roll Morton, Bob Dylan (a longtime interest of Piazza’s), Jimmie Rodgers, Carl Perkins (how I envy him that meeting!), Charley Patton, and others, including the Grammy-winning program notes to the Martin Scorsese “Blues” collection. Even when reading about musicians I was already well familiar with, like Perkins and Morton, I found new insights and illuminations in these essays. Others sent me back to my CD collection to rehear (and supplement) my understanding of the subjects. In fact, reading this book has already cost me a couple of hundred dollars in CD purchases, so beware.

The second section is about the writing and the desperation. I’m not sure how Charlie Chan wound up here (and, frankly, after watching a couple of the movies, I am still unconvinced by Tom’s arguments in favor of them). The writing material includes Mailer, general comments on literature, Flaubert, and a wonderful “self-interview” which shows Tom’s wicked sense of humor better than any other published writing of his I’ve seen. The desperation relates mostly to New Orleans, and includes some articles and on-line exchanges from shortly after Katrina which add further understanding of the situation beyond what’s in “Why New Orleans Matters”

The last essay is one which may appeal mostly to collectors, particularly record collectors like myself. It’s about a surprisingly successful expedition which led to acquiring some very rare 78s. I suspect there’s some illuminating material about the nature of collecting in here also, but frankly, I can’t be sure, being afflicted with that syndrome myself.

“Devil Sent the Rain” isn’t the most essential Piazza for newcomers to his writing. For the best introduction, go to “Why New Orleans Matters” and “City of Refuge.” But it’s a very entertaining collection, showing vividly the expressive and concentrated nature of his writing even while remaining spontaneous. I guess those qualities are just in his nature by now. They’re everywhere in “Why New Orleans Matters” despite the haste in which it was written.