By Marc Myers at www.jazzwax.com
Nelson Riddle is best remembered as the
helped re-invent Nat King Cole, Frank Sinatra and many other great
Capitol recording artists of the 1950s. Riddle's genius rested with his
ability to construct intricate instrumental
delicately atop a swinging big-band beat. To establish a song's mood,
Riddle was not above pairing, say, a bass clarinet and baritone
saxophone with a Hammond B-3 organ and flute.
The result of this and
countless other instrumental collages was pure ear candy. To this day
Riddle's charts sound so simple, yet even the most knowing listeners
often find they are hard-pressed to decipher exactly what instruments
were used. They're like giant magic tricks, and it's no wonder the best
singers of the 1950s and beyond adored his sweet-and-power touch.
In addition to being a much in-demand
Hollywood studio, TV and
arranger, Riddle also was a composer. One of his finest albums in this
capacity was Cross Country Suite, which won a Grammy in 1959
for Best Original Instrumental Composition. Recorded with 36 musicians
over three days in the summer of 1958, the album features 11
tracks, each one a different impressionistic portrait of America.
According to the University of Arizona, the orchestrations were by Bill
Jones, one of three ghostwriters Nelson used to help meet project
deadlines. What makes the album particularly special is that it
showcased the cool, knowing clarinet of Buddy DeFranco.
In retrospect, Cross Country Suite
is Riddle's love
letter to America.
The music is pastoral and panoramic, and
the recording may well be one of the first symphonic folk-jazz albums,
akin to Ferde Grofe's Grand
Canyon Suite and Aaron Copland's Rodeo or Billy
Kid. With Buddy soloing, the album becomes the musical
equivalent of a Thomas Hart Benton mural.
Long out of print, Cross Country
Suite recently was
CD by the Nelson Riddle estate and released by Universal Music. Each
track runs between two and five minutes and
was meant to capture the feel of the region it's named after. Taken
together, the suite is a flurry of "Wish You Were Here" postcards, a
sentimental soundtrack that brings America's wide-shouldered beauty to
life. Each time you listen to this album, you feel as if you are gently
crossing the country in the basket of a hot-air balloon—with Buddy
pointing out the sites on his clarinet.
"I remember when my Dad brought the
album home," said Rosemary
Nelson Riddle's daughter, when I spoke to
her yesterday afternoon. "I
knew he was working on it when I was 8 years old, and I started to
listen to the album intently when I was 10, I became infatuated with
his compositions and what they made me think of and the pictures they
painted. This album was my Dad's concept of what this country looked
and felt like, musically. I've always loved listening to it."
The album's opener, Tall Timber,
sounds mighty, with
horns and trombones sawing away to tease out the
impressions of a redwood forest. Smoky Mountain Country
sounds like the rolling green hills and cabins of the rural South. The
Rockies is explosive and captures the scale and magnitude of the
peaks. The Great Lakes takes a jaunty approach, capturing
the mood of a flatter landscape and a more distant horizon.
The Great Plains makes you
think of golden wheat
rustling in the
wind, while Gulf Coast is three parts Bourbon Street, one
part blues. On The Mississippi, you feel the slow chug of a
riverboat, and a harmonica is added for a laid-back, Huck Finn flavor. Down
East delivers a folksy, two-step riff, and El Camino Real
offers a Latin touch. Metropolis
is pure New York City, with the xylophone conjuring up images of people
coming up out of a subway and skyscrapers with setbacks.
Finally, Longhorn is a tribute
to Texas and Texans.
As a bonus,
there's a male chorus driving home the point with a vocal line dance.
In unison, the voices chant: "We're much bigger than... stronger
than... handsomer than... richer than... smarter than... braver than...
any-one (clap-clap-clap)." It's pure Texas, big, tall and boastful.
All of these compositions provide Buddy
DeFranco with a massive continental canvas on which to create his
own impressions. His clarinet is relaxed, swaying and always digging
deep to create just the right regional touch. He moves in and out of
Riddle's orchestrations and brings the entire suite together. There's
bop, swing and everything else in between.
I've found that one of the most
enjoyable ways to listen to
is with your eyes closed. You wind up seeing exactly what Nelson, Bill
Jones and Buddy had in mind.
Credit Marc Myers at www.jazzwax.com