Notes and Editorial Reviews
BETWEEN TWO WARS: The Art of the Comedian Harmonists
CLIC 2 (61:40) Live: San Francisco 8/18/2002.
This was an odd disc to order and review. I probably misread the listing in the Naxos catalog, because my impression was that this was a reissue of original Comedian Harmonist recordings, but it’s not. It’s a 2002 re-creation by Chanticleer, the well-known American vocal group. But there’s more (well, actually, less) to the disc than that. It is packaged in a thin cardboard sleeve. The front cover has a very light, Photoshopped
picture of a steamboat on it with the words, “Between Two Wars: The Art of the Comedian Harmonists” and Chanticleer’s name. The back cover lists all of the songs, composers and arrangers, the personnel of the group at the time of performance, location, and date. Period. There is absolutely
information anywhere on this disc as to who the Comedian Harmonists were, what they did, or how much or how little of their original arrangements were used by Chanticleer.
Like many Americans of my generation (born late 1940s–early 1950s), I never heard of the Comedian Harmonists until the late 1970s, after Eberhard Fechner’s four-hour documentary film was made. I’ve never seen that film, but it encouraged a reissue of some of their original records on LP, and I heard about them. Heard
them, but didn’t listen to the records, as I was told (corectly) that their name was a bit of a misnomer. They were not comedians in the sense that we accept the term. Their “comedy” was confined to the fact that they rearranged classical pieces in a popular close-harmony vocal style, and performed popular tunes in a vocal and musical style much closer to Renaissance motets than to the kind of groups they modeled themselves after, like The Revelers. When the Nazis arrived, the group ran into double indemnity: their two Jewish members, and one married to a Jewish woman, were thrown out of Germany where they reformed another group with the same name while the other three, stuck in Germany, formed a similar group named Das Meistersextett. Neither group achieved the success of the original Harmonists, the Meistersextett being bogged down by Nazi red tape while the new Comedian Harmonists were, ironically, unable to find work in America because of the newfound hostility toward German performers—even Jewish Germans.
Luckily, I was able to download and listen to two original records by the Comedian Harmonists before receiving this CD, so I had some idea of what they sounded like. What was particularly striking about them is that, with lead tenor Harry Frommermann’s exceptionally light, airy, Hugues Cuénod-like voice, the blend they achieved in the late 1920s and early 1930s is the one we now use as a tone model for nearly all early music vocal groups. They employed almost no vibrato in order to make their voices blend better, and in fact they were famous for having the solo voices in the quintet step forward and fall back into the ensemble so perfectly that they had an almost instrumental effect.
Thus Chanticleer, one of those “pinny-neat” but sometimes dull vocal groups, is in a sense a direct musical descendant of the Comedian Harmonists. The questions we want answered, of course, are: How much do they sound like the original group? And, are the performances good?
The answers are, they sound a
like their models, with differences to be explained below, and the performances are splendid. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that here, Chanticleer has unbuttoned its usual emotional reserve and had an absolute ball with these songs.
The differences in sound, aside from digital recording vs. early electrical 78s, come from the fact that Chanticleer is a group of a dozen voices plus piano, whereas the Comedian Harmonists were merely a quintet, and also that Chanticleer includes among those 12 voices six countertenors (six singing soprano and six singing alto). Now, I don’t have copies of their arrangements in front of me, but going just by my ears I think I only hear all 12 voices singing together in two or three instances. Most of the time, it sounds as if they split the group up a bit, using no more than, say, seven or eight singers at once, which gives them a sound much closer to the original Harmonists.
There are other differences, all of them in Chanticleer’s favor. Their English diction, obviously, is excellent while the Comedian Harmonists’ English was heavily German-accented, and in the rhythm numbers Chanticleer achieves something much closer to a real swing in the rhythm whereas the Harmonists sounded a little flat-footed. This is especially evident in songs like
Happy Days are Here Again
, sung to entirely different German lyrics that translate as
Weekend and Sunshine
; Duke Ellington’s
Creole Love Call
; and even in one of Walter Jurmann’s German tunes,
Veronika, der Lenz ist da!
(It might interest some readers to know that
Mein Onkel Bumba
is the same melody that later became known in America as
When Yuba Plays the Rhumba on the Tuba
.) I should also point out for jazz historians that this version of
Creole Love Call
is based on the 12-inch disc from 1932, which was a different arrangement, omitting the wordless vocal, from the 1927 Victor recording. (Ellington collectors will know what I mean.) Here, Chanticleeer does phenomenal imitations of muted brass, including wah-wah and plunger mutes (which draw laughter from the crowd, but that’s the way Ellington’s early band actually played). I was truly impressed by this one. In fact, it has made me a fan of Chanticleer.
This, then, is a rather offbeat disc stylstically, as it lies somewhere in a gray shadowland between popular, classical, and jazz-influenced music, but if you’ve read my review this far I think you’ll realize that I recommend it wholeheartedly.
FANFARE: Lynn René Bayley
Works on This Recording
Stormy weather by Harold Arlen
Period: 20th Century
Written: 1933; USA
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