Of all American music, The Blues have been left most strictly alone. Scarcely a musical innovator - from early jazz through swing through bop through far out - has had the raw bravery or, perhaps,the imagination to tamper with the old 12-bar structure which has always stood solidly as a sort of edifice - like a Corinthian Column or a Chicago Condon. But now Hal Schaefer, one of our most inventive and thoughtful talents, hangs some new clothes, in varied hues, on the old frame.
In Ten Shades of Blue, Schaefer proves that The Blues needn't be primitive and needn't even be historically hidebound. Yet never once does he deface the original basic premise just for the sake of change. As modern and as unusual as this album is, there is more of old blues in it than can be found in many of the "traditional" versions. A case in point? Experimenting with W.C. Handy's 1909 Memphis Blues he is careful, if you will listen, to play the "first jazz break" exactly as scored by Handy.
Also, in the opening of Harold Arlen's I've Got a Right to Sing the Blues, the tempo is not Schaefer's alone. It was, originally, Arlen's and is so marked. To most of us, whose memories and ears are attuned to the great gravelling of the great Satchel-mouth with this song, this may come as - at least - a mild surprise. The inventiveness and exploration values of the songs, however, are clearly discernible in both treatment and technique. It is doubtful that, in the long and glorious history of The Blues, anyone has figured out quite such paradoxical musical effects.
You will hear, for instance, and possibly be startled by, Ted Sommer using such non-Blues instruments as finger cymbals, percussion, tympani and triangle. Yet each, as used, seems to have been just what one Blues or another has been awaiting and needing for a couple of generations.
From the physical standpoint, Schaefer's group for this record numbers about right. With himself at his piano, here is Morty Lewis on tenor and bass clarinet, Chet Amsterdam on bass, Charlie Persip at the drums and Sommer for the surprises. These men have no trouble in taking the familiar Tin Roof Blues right into today. Schaefer manages to give his own Blues for My Leah exactly the shade he wants. A shade he describes as "almost golden," possibly the best description. And for further inventiveness, this surely must be the first time anybody has heard a superior bass solo dominate the familiar and, to the modern ear, somewhat monotonous Bye Bye Blues.
From the point of view of composition and arrangement, probably the most surprising and satisfying effect Schaefer has managed is to somehow, unbelievably, get the sound of almost a full brass section out of tympani. And in some of the solos, notably the bass and bass clarinet, his men have the courage to use instrumental tones above, below and beyond the call of duty.
Blues, to the traditionalist, almost screams for a vocal. There are none on this record and, as one mild voice, I'm glad. I am probably all alone, but the historic Blues vocals never moved me far. From Jelly Roll to Joe Turner, a Blues lyric to me consists of one line repeated until exhaustion and then another single line tossed in - tossed in from Outer Space, usually.
Hal Schaefer was a natural for this interesting and fulfilling musical experiment. He is one of our newer-type musicians dedicated to jazz who, like so many of today's and tomorrow's sound workmen, has not only had a thorough education but has worked in just about every field of music and learned something from each.
He has recorded, written and arranged for his own groups and for others. His Hal Schaefer in the Jazz Workshop recently gave us a clear look at his versatility and creativeness and with his showcase of Great Songs from United Artists Pictures, United Artists UAL 30001-S,he proved that he could bring brightness of imagination and bubbling innovation to songs which in other treatments had become, to put it squarely, otherwise stuck in the musical ear of the nation.
Schaefer has played piano for himself and for many top vocalists. He has worked daytimes in the film studio and nightimes in the cellar clubs. Recently he has channelled his work almost totally toward creating. Three songs in this album - Caribbean Blues, Blues for My Leah and Blues for Goin' Home are his own contributions. All of them, I think, would satisfy even Mr. Crump, the hero of Memphis Blues who wouldn't stand for any "easy riders" hangin' around.
Author of the nationally syndicated column, Dream Street