One of the earliest Mickey Mouse cartoons, the 1930 Blue Rhythm, features the scrappy rodent in the role of conductor of a big jazz band. As it happens, the tune that the Mousetro is playing is not a so-called piece of Mickey Mouse music but W.C. Handy's St. Louis Blues, which, even by then had attained the status of an all-time jazz classic. Since then the stratum of American culture known as Disney has enjoyed a relationship with the bigger mainstream of jazz and pop music that has never let up.
The Disney musical tradition is a rich one, and above all, it's an amazingly consistent one. Hundreds of talented composers have written music for Disney projects, from Carl Stalling's original Mickey Mouse theme, Minnie's Voo-Voo in 1929, to the sumptuous scores by Leigh Marline and Frank Churchill for such pioneering features Snow White and Pinocchio, to the Sherman Brotherâ€™s Broadway-style tunesmithery for such enduringly popular 60's musicals like Mary Poppins, and, most recently, the Ashman and Menken songs for such blockbuster animusicals as Aladdin, the Lion King, and Beauty And The Beast. Since the later two are properties that began life as cartoons that later migrated to Broadway, one could say that the "circle of life" is now complete. Despite the wide variety of composers involved in these projects, Disney music is a unified and consistent brand name, much like Richard Rodgers music or Duke Ellington music.
Mickey Mouse and The St. Louis Blues not withstanding, the primary nature of the relationship between Disney and the rest of American musical culture has rarely been a Disney character addressing jazz standards (though I always wonder what Donald Duck could have done with Giant Steps or Moanin' or even one of Steve Lacy's Duck compositions) but rather great musicians offering their interpretation of musical works from the Disney canon. On the jazz side, players from Artie Shaw (Whistle While You Work) to Bill Evans (Alice In Wonderland), to Wes Montgomery and John Coltrane (both doing Chim Chim Cheree) have applied their considerable talents to this music, while Louis Armstrong, Dave Brubeck, Duke Ellington, and Louis Prima have recorded entire albums of these animated arias. On the vocal side, artists of no less stature, such as Barbara Cook, June Christy, Doris Day, and even Rosemary Clooney (more about her later) have all left their indelible stamp on songs introduced in Disney movies. (Mel Torme even wrote a song for a Disney picture.)
They all heard what Roy Gerson hears in these songs - great pieces of melody that give the performer a considerable head-start in his or her goal of turning on an audience, Having listened closely to Gerson for ten years, I don't think I'm going too far on a limb when I put forward the observation that his ambition is to communicate something to a roomful of people: to make their lips curl in a smile and get their feet to bounce up and down in swingtime. Gerson has an exuberance reminiscent of the late Erroll Garner. Like the ragtime and stride piano professors of the first few decades of the last century, Gerson, like Garner, is as much entertainer as musician: they show up at your rent party, sit down at your upright and pretty soon everybody in the joint is in the groove - even the landlady. In the 70's, the concept of "fusion" first began to be widely explored, and usually that meant jazz musicians bringing elements of electric pop to
their work in order to attract a larger audience. With Gerson it's the other way around: he uses pure jazz techniques but applies them in such a way that it's hard to imagine people not responding to his playing. Garner once titled his music "happy" piano; the same term can be applied to Gerson. Echoes of Garner's style, in the form of his famous cascading showers of notes and rollicking approach to melody, can be heard in the closing, solo version of The Mickey Mouse March. It's A Small World is pure Count Basic, with the tune delineated in minimal, yet highly swinging fashion laid down over the very solid four of an All American rhythm section (complete with Bucky Pizzarelli's unmistakable guitar afterbeats). Under The Sea recalls the tradition of Caribbean and calypso piano, a genre well explored in recent years by Monty Alexander. The entire history of the jazz piano is, metaphorically speaking, a giant keyboard for Gerson to play on: a few notes from this era in his right hand, a chord or two from that style is his left, and it all carries Gerson's prodigious personality. Gerson is outgoing and extroverted on the two "big band" features, A Whole New World and Circle Of Life, in which his piano pyrotechnics are backed by horns and voices, and whisperingly intimate on "Feed The Birds" - somehow even the great Julie Andrews was never able to make me feel the extent of the song's melancholy the way that Gerson's solo does.
Gerson's playing is the meat of the music -the other players are worthy and necessary accoutrements, varied for the sake of diversity. Likewise, the three guest vocalists are icing on the cake - they're not collected at the end, but they could almost be considered bonus tracks. And considering the quality of these performances, that's really saying something: John Pizzarelli helps Gerson give I've Cot No Strings a whole new life as a swing-era style rhythm number; Michael Feinstein's Everybody Wants Jo Be A Cat (which shows that even a lesser Disney effort can produce a superior song) finds the cabaret star in a swinging groove and qualifies as my favorite-ever Feinstein track; I could go on all night about Rosemary Clooney's When You Wish Upon A Star (which opens with the rarely-heard verse). Everyone has a right to their opinion, but if you claim that Clooney doesn't move you then either (A) you're telling a lie and your nose is growing or (B) you must be made of wood. But none of these guest contributors wrest the spotlight away from Gerson, at least not for very long. Not every combination in the world is blessed from the beginning -1 like bacon and I like bananas, but I wouldn't want to eat them together on a bagel - however, Gerson and the Disney songbook seem almost predestined for each other. I can only imagine that this project will re-alert the jazz community as to what repertorial riches lie in these coffers and, on the other side, that these warm and swinging treatments of familiar melodies will provide an entry into the world of jazz for Disney fans of all ages. Who knows? Maybe The Mickey Mouse March will even replace Benny Golson's Blues March. Stranger things have happened in this world where elephants can fly.
Roy Gerson --- Piano
Jay Leonhart --- Bass
Bucky Pizzarelli --- Guitar
Ken Peplowski --- Tenor Sax / Clarinet
Randy Sandke --- Trumpet
Jim Pugh --- Trombone
Terry Clarke --- Drums
John Pizzarelli --- Guitar
Joel Hellany -- Trombone
Gary Keller --- Tenor Sax
James Kober --- Drums
Jim Saporito --- Percussion / Vibes
Corrine Manning --- Back-up Vocals
Carolyn Leonhart --- Back-up Vocals
"What I like best about Roy Gerson is that besides being a great musician, he truly loves to perform and finds great joy in entertaining people."
"The swinging drive of the music and the boisterous enthusiasm of the audience suggests Saturday night on 52nd street in the 1940's."
NEW YORK TIMES
"Gerson, that fascinating maverick, swings consistantly ... a joy to hear."
LEONARD FEATHER - LOS ANGELES TIMES
"One of the most dynamic pianist in jazz ... everything he touches indtantly swings"
NEW YORK DAILY NEWS