“Prelude in C Sharp Major”
Composed and Arranged by Ray Conniff and Artie Shaw
Recorded by Artie Shaw and His Orchestra for Victor Records December 4, 1940 in Hollywood.
Artie Shaw, clarinet, directing: Billy Butterfield, first trumpet; George “Jumbo” Wendt, Jack Cathcart, trumpets; Jack Jenney, first trombone; Vernon Brown, trombone; Les Robinson, first alto saxophone; Neely Plumb, alto saxophone; Bus Bassey. Jerry Jerome, tenor saxophones; Truman Boardman, Ted Klages, Bill Brower, Bob Morrow, Alex Beller, Eugene Lamas, violins; Al Harshman, Keith Collins, violas; Fred Groener, cello; Johnny Guarnieri, piano; Al Hendrickson, guitar; Jud De Naut, bass; Nick Fatool, drums. Note: Ray Conniff joined the Shaw band soon after this recording was made, playing trombone, and contributing many more arrangements and original compositions to the Shaw book.
The Music and Story:
The 16 bar introduction to “Prelude” is a minimalist exposition of the tasty harmonies on which the piece is based played by the strings (in contrasting registers), with punctuation by the saxophones. The rhythm is provided solely by drummer Nick Fatool’s crisp high-hat cymbals. Shaw’s solo clarinet appears suddenly against descending string harmonies and strong rhythm, followed by some bright reed and brass bursts. The brass, led by Billy Butterfield on trumpet and Jack Jenney on trombone, are particularly potent. Johnny Guarnieri follows with a swinging 16 bar piano solo that is bracing jazz. The two and four rhythm behind him (Fatool playing in 2/4, the bass and guitar are in 4/4.) fairly levitates him. Conniff’s use of the sighing saxophones here is a delight. Shaw’s next solo is improvised and a wonderful example of what a compelling jazz soloist he could be. (Guarnieri’s comping behind Artie is superb. He was among the best accompanists of the swing era. His inspired work placed him on the rarefied stratum where only a few others—like Count Basie, Duke Ellington and Teddy Wilson, were to be found.)
Tenor saxophonist Jerry Jerome takes the next jazz solo. He was an early follower of tenor jazz titans Lester Young and Leon “Chu” Berry, and he could swing, as he does here, against the descending harmonies played by the brass with their horns pointed down, for a mellow sound. Catch Jerry and Artie’s unison couple of bars at the end of Jerome’s solo: it is a springboard for the brass to come on blasting…a marvelously colorful contrast. The ensemble quiets down quickly with the saxes and trumpets riffing a bit, while the virile trombones take their turn outlining the descending chords, with Shaw’s clarinet fluttering gently overhead. The strings reappear to wrap-up this most colorful composition much as they opened it.
“Prelude in C Sharp Minor” was actually composed in early 1939, when Ray Conniff (shown above right) was a member of Bunny Berigan’s hard-swinging band, and was played by the Berigan band using the rather peculiar title “Familiar Moe.” The tune is a clever mixture of the riff from “Time Out,” a tune played by the Count Basie band, with the chords that were used behind the jazz trombone solo in the Berigan band’s arrangement of “A Study in Brown,” (which Conniff played many times). “Prelude” is a splendid revision of the string-less Berigan chart to fit the Shaw band with strings. Although Artie Shaw’s name is on “Prelude” as a co-composer, I doubt that he did any composing on this piece. Swing era bandleaders often “cut themselves in” on an original composition in exchange for recording the piece, which, with a top band, would create a substantial promotional push for a new composition. In this case, I think that was a fair trade because this recording was a large first step in the process of the general public becoming aware of who Ray Conniff was.
“Prelude in C Sharp Major” provided Conniff with a most impressive debut as an arranger for Artie Shaw’s 1940-1941 band. Conniff would return again to play and arrange for Shaw in late 1941-early 1942 (that orchestra would have 15 strings instead of the 9 used on “Prelude”), and then again to Shaw’s 1944-1945 band without strings. He went on to a major career as a bandleader and recording artist that lasted well into the 1990s.
Digital remastering and sonic restoration by Mike Zirpolo.