|The great American songbook, inimitably interpreted by the
legendary Joni James in this splendid new gathering of three exceptional albums,
represents much more than a lavish, expansive visit to an unforgettable musical era. These
recordings, in fact, are a consequence of Joni's forward-looking vision (rather than any
backward-glancing affection for nostalgia, as nice as nostalgia can be musically), of her
self-admitted artistic wanderlust, of her never-ending search for new musical vistas and
of her smiling pleasure in winning new audiences.
When Joni burst on the international music scene seemingly out of nowhere with
her multi-million hit "Why Don't You Believe Me," the whole world seemed to fall
in love with her unusual voice, her one-of-a-kind style and the instantly identifiable
sound of her little-girl-blue records. What the whole world (and perhaps Joni herself)
couldn't foresee was the Joni they had fallen in love with would evolve into other
quite-different Joni's the world would keep falling in love with all over again. For Joni,
with her high-pitched curiosity about people and the world and art, and her low level of
tolerance for boredom, sticking with the tried - and - true was never an issue. By the end
of her first year as a successful recording artist - a year in which she astoundingly had
landed a dozen single sides in the Top Ten - she already was making changes.
The albums of classic love ballads gave way to yet
another facet of James art: international music. Joni's burgeoning catalog came to cover
just about every aspect of popular music imaginable - Broadway and Hollywood classics,
inspirational, Italian and French and Irish, country and folk. In just a few years, in
fact, Joni James had compiled the largest album catalog of any popular singer.
Joni had reigned at the top of the singles and
albums charts a decade when she decided to do the three albums gathered in this new
36-song collection. Though it seemed clear she had long passed the new-star-in-the sky
stage of her career and had become a forever-established headliner, she was still looking
for new areas of music and new audiences to conquer.
In this case, the new area Joni set out to conquer
was jazz and pop music of the type finding favor on both college campuses and in the
posher supper clubs and intimate city nighteries. The audience was the hip students on
those college campuses and the alive-and-alert young adults in those clubs. Joni already
had won a favored place with college audiences, having pioneered the field of campus
engagements for popular singers. Before she began her trailblazing college tours as a hot
record star, the famous Big Bands mostly had the field to themselves. Innovative Joni came
up with the idea of appearing as a headline attraction with those bands-among them, most
notably, the Stan Kenton aggregation. The orchestra would do the first half of the concert
and then, after an intermission, the star, Joni, would appear, accompanied by the
orchestra. These innovative engagements proved enormously successful. (Joni's innovative
work with the big orchestras eventually resulted in her being one of the few vocalists to
be inducted into the Big Band Hall of Fame and the only vocalist to be inducted who never
sang as a member of a big band!)
It was only when the enthusiastic audiences at her
college concerts asked her why they couldn't find jazz albums by her or big-band-type
albums by her that she considered adding that music to her recording repertoire. The
result was a spectacular three-album project representing the first step in what would
prove a new era for Joni crossing over from the field of pop music to jazz audiences. The
three albums were titled "The Mood Is Swinging," "The Mood Is Blue,"
and "The Mood Is Romance" and M-G-M Records gave them extra special treatment.
Although M-G-M always granted Joni the best
musicians and arrangers for her albums, many of them recording stars in their own right,
it outdid itself with "The Mood" albums. Three outstanding and distinctly
different arrangers were brought on board. For the "Swinging!'' album, Jimmy Haskell
fashioned the arrangements-big, brassy, bold. Fans who had seen Joni James in person knew
she could be big, brassy and bold. In fact, in her prerecording years as a supperclub
chanteuse she was known for her fast numbers as her ballads. But for her record audience
this was a new kind of Joni, a sing-out, full-steam-ahead, hold-onto-that-note-Joni.
"I myself was surprised when I heard those recordings," Joni says with a rueful
smile, "I'm not sure I ever thought of myself as that kind of singer."
For the "Blue" album Jack Marshall was
sought. A favorite of Judy Garland and Peggy Lee, his specialty was bright, crackerjack,
brisk-paced (even for ballads) orchestrations with particularly felicitous use of horns
and reeds. Joni responded with a sense of musical joy and freshness that makes even the
bluest of the songs engaging.
For the "Romance" album Skip Martin was
engaged. Famous for his Hollywood studio string voicings mixed piquantly with gentle jazz
touches, Martin produced orchestrations, which were distinctly, sophisticated but also
whimsical and jaunty. They inspired Joni to cozy performances gently bubbling with humor
and sauciness, quite unlike anything she had done before.
The arrangers came to the project after Joni herself
had selected the songs. They reflect her lifelong love with American popular music, her
knack for bringing fresh insights to well-known songs and her fascination for unearthing
long-lost show tunes, little-noticed film songs and pop hits long gone from the Hit Parade
but deserving of standard status.
The well-known standards range from a jaunty
"Ain't Misbehavin", to one of the raucous highlights of Joni's concerts,
"The Lady ls ATramp," to the great Billie Holiday hit "Lover Man", to
the wistful "I Remember You." The lesser-known gems include Jimmy McHugh's
lovely "The Music Stopped" and "Dream Dream Dream" and Sammy Cahn's
nearly-forgotten opus from MGM's "A Date With Judy", "Wonder Why."
Upon their original release, the three
"Mood" albums found favor with the college and young adult audiences to whom
they were directed. But, sadly, they seemed to have been lost to the wider audience which
would have enjoyed them. There seems to have been confusion about whether these were
popular albums or these were Big Band albums or these were jazz albums. In truth they were
all three at the same time.
All three albums got rave reviews in the popular
music press and M-G-M Records certainly was more than pleased with their success. But
perhaps because record dealers-at the time geared toward strict musical categories-seemed
unsure how to stock them or market them, many people today are unaware they even existed.
This new two-CD set at last corrects that injustice.
Here, sounding better than ever thanks to the latest in digital stereo remastering
technology, are three absolutely smashing albums which should long ago have found fame.
But they are also albums which sound astoundingly fresh and contemporary-they could have
been recorded just this year!
The credit for that timelessness goes to the three
arrangers who so memorably fashioned the musical settings for the songs and the singer who
so indelibly brought enthusiasm and a willing-to-take-a-chance spirit to her performances
Joni James indeed has a way of making every song
sound like it has never been performed before. She seems to be telling the story of her
own life, and the lives of her listeners, in each lyric. And she seems to be creating each
song on the spot, as if it never existed on sheet music, only in her heart, head and
Liner Notes: Wayne Brasler