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Monday, November 25, 2013

Brenda Lee: For The First Time


1) Cabaret; 2) There's A Kind Of Hush; 3) Basin Street Blues; 4) Windy; 5) Night And Day; 6) One Of Those Songs; 7) Mood Indigo; 8) Can't Take My Eyes Off You; 9) 59th Street Bridge Song; 10) Anything Goes; 11) I Gotta Right To Sing The Blues.

But wait, here is another late-Sixties Brenda Lee album that somehow stands out, and this time, in a more refined or, at least, more fun manner than Reflections In Blue. The twist here is a col­laboration with famed Dixieland clarinetist Pete Fountain — which is what the title refers to, of course, and what did you think it might refer to?.. — and since the overall quality of Brenda's albums had always depended on what sort of musicians were given the green light on them, and given Fountain's hitherto impeccable jazz credentials, one could finally expect something more-than-just-pitiful even before putting on the record.

These expectations are fulfilled only partially, because, in general, the arrangements are still based on glitz and glamour, the vibe is one of fluffy cabaret entertainment (it suffices only to look at what particular number has been chosen as the introduction to the LP), and the year may only be guessed as 1968 if you look long enough at the song titles — pre-war standards like ʽAnything Goesʼ are in the minority next to contemporary hits from 1966 and 1967, but whoever produced the album must not have thought much of Sgt. Pepper, let alone the Monterey Pop Festival.

On the other hand, though, the songs are generally lively and Dixieland-ish a-plenty, which at the very least means there is little danger of falling asleep; and the addition of Fountain as a working partner works fine, just as expected — the man has a swell tone (or, rather, variety of tones) and a seductive old-timey playfulness that perfectly matches the same in Brenda's voice. So yes, they take Simon & Garfunkel's ʽ59th Street Bridge Songʼ and spoil its cozy little vibe with orchestra­tion, but if you filter the superfluous strings past your ears, what remains is a cutesy-friendly dia­log between the voice and the clarinet — one that understands that vibe and cherishes it. Then they also take Jimmy Durante's joke number ʽOne Of Those Songsʼ, crack its vibe, speed it up, and come out with something that, musically at least, beats the original (well, music-wise, any­body could beat Jimmy Durante — the man was about comedy, not about hitting notes — but they do retain the humor punch as well).

This dialog works within any setting — modern, ancient, folksy, jazzy, bluesy, with or without a huge brass backing, with or without gushing / pouring strings, it's as if this «vicinity of the tal­king clarinet» were giving a new sense of existence to Brenda's singing, and even if it does not help her override her usual limitations (on the whole, the clarinet shows a much higher degree of sub­tlety than the voice), it is still that one missing ingredient that makes For The First Time her best album by far since the very early 1960s, which isn't saying all that much, but at least it does deserve a thumbs up — too bad it was all just a one-night stand.


  1. "the vibe is one of fluffy cabaret entertainment"
    While I have lot against sappy strings I don't have anything against fluffy cabaret entertainment. Such stuff needs another kind of subtlety in singing (the kind that convinces the listener that life is fun as soon as we forget our worries) and Brenda Lee has it plenty.
    We should not look down on this at all. There is a reason that Benny Goodman recorded one of the highest acclaimed versions of Mozart's Clarinet Concerto - Mozart never reflected his personal issues in his music either. Music doesn't need to explore psychological depths or reflect Weltschmertz to be genius. Now I won't argue that this album has Mozart's genius - but then again, only very little music has.
    Sometimes it's enough just to deliver a pleasant listening. This album does.

  2. Brenda: "Oh, hello there, middle aged man. Are you bringing your clarinet to a Klezmer session?"
    Pete: "Why, no, attractive young lady. I'll be playing on your session today. I believe it's what the fine minds in our Creative Department are billing as a Super Session!"
    Brenda: "Oh, right on! Is Al Kooper coming too? Maybe even that hot hunk Stephen Stills?"
    Pete: "Err, well, no. It's just you and me. But, no worries: I've brought along some far out new charts. I even have a swingin' new Simon & Garfunkel tune for the boys to learn!"
    Brenda: "I hope this puts us back in the charts. My royalty checks have been bouncing since 1963."
    Pete: "Never fear, my dear! This is one session that will leave all those 'frisco hippies swooning in their sandals! Roll tape, boys! My horn is hot tonight!"