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Century Club

By B.A. Nilsson

Tommy Dorsey

The Sentimental Gentleman of Swing: Centennial Collection (Bluebird/Legacy)

Tommy Dorsey’s 100th birthday came and went with nary a murmur, which isn’t surprising. In entertainment terms, a century has become a unit of measure with something seemingly Pleistocene at the other end, a point of view created, however inadvertently, by the recording industry. But Dorsey wouldn’t be remembered at all if it weren’t for recordings, a well-chosen set of which was issued in commemoration.

Dorsey was a hot trumpet player in the 1920s who put that instrument aside in favor of the trombone, on which he developed a matchless way with ballads. As a bandleader, he was tough and impulsive, easy to alienate, quick to patch things up. He hired some of the era’s greatest talent for his big band, which churned out an amazing array of hits beginning in 1935, popularly culminating in his recordings with a young Sinatra in the early ’40s—yet it was also Dorsey who gave a young Elvis one of his first TV appearances.

Back in the ’70s, RCA began a reissue project intending to cover Dorsey’s entire recorded career, but it died after eight two-record sets that made it only into early 1939. Many of the recordings were forgettable nonsense, yet there’s a combination of craftsmanship and worthy jazz talent that makes any Dorsey side worth hearing. Still, I wouldn’t have wanted the job of confining my reissue picks to three CDs.

But that’s what this new set does. And it confines the Dorsey big band’s commercial releases to only one of the three discs, which, furthermore, ignores all but one of the band’s 17 No. 1 hit recordings—Irving Berlin’s “Marie,” with its great Bunny Berigan trumpet solo. Not that songs like “Opus No. 1” and “Boogie Woogie” weren’t popular—and here they are, cleaned up a little better than the last time they came out on CD. We’re also treated to some of the Dorsey band’s later recordings, including a couple of sides from a 1955 session.

The first CD sets up Dorsey’s history, following him through a succession of other ensembles, often alongside his sax-playing brother, Jimmy, with whom he eventually joined forces as contentious coleader. The cuts, from 1925 to 1932, include stints with Paul Whiteman, Sam Lanin, Red Nichols and others, with singers and soloists like Bing Crosby, the Boswell Sisters, Benny Goodman, Joe Venuti and many, many more.

Most interesting of the set is the third disc, a collection of aircheck recordings that typically struggle to see light of day. These are all Dorsey Orchestra recordings, but with that extra pizazz you typically hear when they’re playing for an audience. Here’s a kicking instrumental version of “Put On Your Old Gray Bonnet,” with trumpeter Ziggy Elman and drummer Buddy Rich adding excitement; vocals by Sinatra, Jo Stafford, a very young Connie Haines—and even Elvis’s “Heartbreak Hotel.” Not to mention a bizarre version of “Take the ‘A’ Train,” from a 1946 broadcast with Duke Ellington sitting in.

Much, much more of this band and this vintage should be available, online or on cheap CDs, but for now, this is a great place to start—and even finish—satisfying those Tommy Dorsey needs you probably won’t realize you have until you sample this set.

Various Artists

Lowe Profile: A Tribute to Nick Lowe (Brewery)

This isn’t the first Nick Lowe tribute. That designation goes to Labour of Love: The Music of Nick Lowe from 2001. As with its predecessor, this new release is not as good as one of Lowe’s own albums—but then these projects never really are, and probably can’t ever be, since the biggest part of their allure comes from referencing the power of the originals.

The double-disc set’s primary flaw is its length. With 30 songs, it contains a fair amount of serviceable filler. It also breaks the aesthetic template of Lowe’s albums, wherein finely honed, concise songs are presented within the confines of a traditional, human-scaled set. With this many songs spread over two discs, Lowe Profile doesn’t function as an album experience; rather, it’s an archive with performances available for retrieval.

That said, there are some true gems contained herein. None aim toward reinvention, as there’s no need to mess with a durable song. Like an actor stepping into a well- written role, Dave Alvin’s rough-hewn baritone on “Failed Christian” revels in the gravity of the lyrics. Kim Shattuck of the the Muffs turns in a beautiful solo performance of “You Make Me.” Most of the other high points are built upon the joy of pure and rollicking pop: Eric Ambel’s “12 Step Program,” former Lowe bandmate Ian Gomm on “Cruel to Be Kind,” and Scott McCaughey’s Lowe cover band, the Lowe Beats, storming through “I Don’t Want the Night to End” in less than two minutes.

—David Greenberger


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