Newly Reissued 'Astaire Story' Suffers From A Couple Of Missteps

Dec 1, 2017
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DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. In 1952, record producer Norman Granz brought six of his jazz all-stars into the studio to back a singer from outside their circle, Hollywood song and dance man Fred Astaire. The result, the Astaire story has just been reissued. Jazz critic Kevin Whitehead says the singer and the band sound great, but the reissue makes a couple of missteps.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NICE WORK IF YOU CAN GET IT")

FRED ASTAIRE: (Singing) Holding hands at midnight 'neath the starry sky. Nice work if you can get it. And you can get it if you try. Strolling with the one girl sighing sigh after sigh. Nice work if you can get it. And you can get it if you try. Strolling with the one girl sighing sigh after sigh. Nice work if you can get it. And you can get it if you try. Now just imagine someone waiting at the cottage door where two hearts become one, who could ask for anything more?

KEVIN WHITEHEAD, BYLINE: It's easy to forget how many classic American songs had been written for Fred Astaire to sing on stage or in the movies. George Gershwin, Irving Berlin, Jerome Kern and Cole Porter all wrote for him aiming for the kind of elegance Astaire brought to the dance floor. Putting him in front of a modern jazz band to sing songs he'd introduced was a good idea that work just how it was supposed to. On the Astaire story, trumpeter Charlie Shavers sounds especially fine.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CHANGE PARTNERS")

ASTAIRE: (Singing) You've been locked in his arms ever since heaven knows when, won't you change partners and then you may never want to change partners again.

WIHTEHEAD: Fred Astaire didn't have a magnificent voice by any objective measure. It was thin and reedy, and he reached for high notes. But songwriters adored him. Irving Berlin, Alec Wilder, even finnicky Jerome Kern, who hated to hear his tunes, jazzed up. Astaire's stuck close to a written melody but brought a subtle almost conversational formality to his phrasing. His dancers timing made Berlin's rhythms rooted in Ragtime sounds swinging and up-to-date.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NO STRINGS")

ASTAIRE: (Singing) No strings and no connections. No ties to my buy affections. I'm fancy free and free for anything fancy. No dates that can't be broken. No words that can't be spoken, especially when I am feeling romancy. Like a robin upon a tree, like a sailor that goes to sea, like an unwritten melody, I'm free.

WIHTEHEAD: You can bet Bing Crosby's spry in 1950s radio bands knew the album "The Astaire Story." Major fan Alec Wilder surmised some of those classic songs had been written to match dance routines Fred had already worked up. So his rhythmic language left its mark on every musician who came up jamming on those tunes.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FASCINATING RHYTHM")

ASTAIRE: Fascinating rhythm, you got me on the go. Fascinating rhythm, I'm all aquiver. What a mess you're making. The neighbors want to know why I'm always shaking just like a flivver. Each morning, I get up with the sun. Start a hopping, never stopping to find at night no work has been done. I know that once it didn't matter, but now you're doing wrong. When you start to patter, I'm so unhappy. Won't you take a day off? Decide to run along somewhere far away off and make it snappy. Oh, how I long to be the man I used to be. Fascinating rhythm, oh won't you stop picking on me.

WIHTEHEAD: The six-piece band includes pianist Oscar Peterson and saxophonist Flip Phillips. They could whip up forced excitement on producer Norman Granz's concert tours but are model citizens here. Granz had told them this is Mr. Astaire's date, not a jam session. Perversely enough, a new 2-CD reissue tries to mold "The Astaire Story" into just that. It leads off with a 12-minute blues jam from the same date, which steps all over the singer's quiet entrance on the original opener.

The producers have fiddled with the order of the program to spotlight the instrumentals and scrapped Astaire's short self-deprecating liner note. On the cover, the album's now co-credited to him and Oscar Peterson. So the star of the session has been demoted to singer and tap dancer with the band. But the musicians knew this was the Fred Astaire show.

(SOUNDBITE OF FRED ASTAIRE'S "MEDIUM DANCE (AD LIB)")

BIANCULLI: Kevin Whitehead writes for Point Of Departure and is the author of "Why Jazz?". He reviewed "The Astaire Story" on Verve. Coming up, film critic David Edelstein reviews the new movie starring James Franco. It's called "The Disaster Artist," and Franco plays a real-life filmmaker with a dubious reputation. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF DAVE MCKENNA'S "SWINGING ON A STAR") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.