The First of the Singer Songwriters: Key Cuts 1924-1946
Its title aside (which suggests that Hoagy Carmichael was a some distant forerunner of Jackson Browne or Dar Williams, a case that would be both difficult and a little absurd to make), there's no doubt that this four-disc, 101-track collection from English reissue label JSP is carefully and lovingly assembled, and it outlines an impressive and amazing legacy. Carmichael was technically a singer/songwriter, of course, in the sense that he was quite capable of performing his songs at a commercial level, and he certainly had a public persona as an unassuming, laid-back, slightly world weary but jivin' jazz cat out of Indiana, but his songs didn't depend on that persona in order to get across, and that, more than anything, sets him apart from most if not all of the so-called singer/songwriters of the present day. Carmichael is also different than the other great American jazz and pop song stylists of his time like the Gershwins, Cole Porter and Irving Berlin in a couple of important ways. He didn't necessarily need a lyricist, for one, although he worked frequently with great ones like Johnny Mercer, Mitchell Parish, Frank Loesser and Stuart Gorrell, and his songs only occasionally had romance as a central theme, preferring instead to deal with places, times and mindsets, with a song like "Georgia on My Mind" being a perfect example. It's a love song, certainly, but it is a love song to a place, and more specifically, to a place in time, and (as the title states) a place in mind. Even Carmichael's most famous composition, "Stardust," isn't so much a song about love as it is a song about thinking about a song about love, which makes it a love song one step removed. Songs like "Rockin' Chair," "Lazy River" and "In the Cool, Cool, Cool of the Evening" may be romantic in tone but they aren't love songs in any normal sense. Perhaps this is why Carmichael's melodies also do so well as instrumentals, since they depend more on mood, time and feel than any kind of romantic plot line. At the very least, Carmichael's songs are extremely versatile, which this expansive anthology makes clear. There are nine different versions of "Stardust" here done in almost every conceivable way (including by Carmichael himself), and almost that many versions of "Georgia on My Mind." The list of bandleaders compiled here tackling Carmichael tunes is simply mind blowing, including sides by Frank Trumbauer, Red Nichols, Paul Whiteman, Eddie Lang, Irving Mills, Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, the Dorsey Brothers, Isham Jones and Bennie Moten, among many others. Songs are done fast, slow, and in-between, with sung lyrics and without them. They always work. Carmichael is featured singing and performing his own melodies on maybe a dozen tracks, and while his versions may not be -- and usually aren't -- the most definitive, they are in some ways the most revealing, as his everyman Joe perception of his work shines clear as a desk bell in that slightly weary and amused voice he had. This is a marvelous anthology, but it may be a bit too much for casual listeners who probably don't need to hear nine versions of "Stardust" to grasp its importance and power, and they may be better off with a single-disc collection like Bluebird's carefully selected Stardust Melody from 2002. Those interested in a deeper look at Carmichael's own versions of his work can turn to the exhaustive ten-disc In Person 1925-1955 box put out by Avid in 2006 or the wonderfully concise single-disc Hoagy Sings Carmichael from 1956. This set, meanwhile, balances between Carmichael's own versions of his compositions and key versions by other pop and jazz artists recorded between 1926 and 1946. All of these sets are excellent in their own way, framing the legacy of a very unique writer, one who wrote love songs to places and ideas, and in doing so, defined the concept of Americana in the purest sense.