Composed by Duke Ellington; arranged by Andy Gibson.
Recorded by Charlie Barnet and His Orchestra for RCA-Bluebird on August 14, 1941 in Hollywood, California.
Charlie Barnet, alto saxophone, directing: Seymour “Sy” Baker, first trumpet; Bob Price, Bob Burnet, Mickey Bloom, trumpets; Spud Murphy, Tommy Reo, Bill Robertson, Ford Leary, trombones; Ray Hopfner, Conn Humphries, alto saxophones; Kurt Bloom, tenor saxophone; James Lamare, tenor and baritone saxophones; Bill Miller, piano; Bus Etri, guitar; Phil Stevens, bass; Cliff Leeman, drums.
Charlie Barnet was an unabashed fan of Duke Ellington’s music. Although some not too rigorous critics accused him of “aping” Ellington, my take on Barnet’s performances of Ellington’s music is that he was true at all times to his own musical vision, which was straight-ahead swing, within which he allowed his musicians and arrangers to be themselves. The result very often was highly stimulating jazz. “Harlem Speaks” is a perfect example of Barnet’s approach to Ellington’s music.
The powerful Barnet brass open this bracing performance with a brief fanfare that is followed by the Barnet-led saxophones paraphrasing Ellington’s melody, answered by muted brass. Note the open single trombone bell tones in this passage. The brass players remove their mutes toward the end of this chorus, with lead trumpeter Cy Baker emerging briefly from the ensemble. (Baker and Bob Price, another excellent lead trumpeter, split the first trumpet book in the time they were together in the Barnet band. Baker handled the high-note work, however.) Barnet takes a jubilant solo on alto saxophone, with the trombones urging him along at first. The Harmon-muted trumpet solo is by Bob Burnet (pictured below at right), and it is a gem of jazz improvisation. Burnet plays with masterful control, yet at the same time with intense swing and cogent jazz ideas. The humming saxes provide him with a cozy harmonic cushion. The open brass octet takes the spotlight after Burnet’s solo, engaging in a bit of hide-and-seek with Barnet’s solo alto. The brass continue to play with heat against some tasty saxophone backgrounds. The entire ensemble riffs strongly for a few bars, urged on by Cliff Leeman’s marvelous drumming. At this point, trumpeter Baker returns with his own high-note bell tones. A short solo by Bus Etri on his electric guitar (yes, acoustical guitars were still widely used in big bands in the early 1940s), sets up more high-register bell tones by Cy Baker, and then his explosive upward leap at the finale. This beautifully paced arrangement allows the ensemble and solo virtuosity of the Barnet band to be showcased to great advantage.
Charlie Barnet was from a wealthy family, and he demonstrated early on that he was interested in being a bandleader, and playing jazz. One of these would be enough to cause concern to his staid parents. But both of them!!! I think it safe to speculate that the Barnet family was writing a lot of checks throughout the 1930s as young Charles was finding his way through the pest-infested jungle of the music business then to support his various bands. By 1939, Barnet had his first hit record, a colorful romp through Ray Noble’s “Cherokee,” scored by one of Barnet’s first top-notch jazz arrangers, Billy May. Over the next decade, Barnet continued to lead swinging big bands with considerable success, though he never achieved the preeminent status of leaders like Glenn Miller, Artie Shaw or Benny Goodman. Nevertheless, when one examines the recordings Barnet made throughout those years, there is much of very high musical quality. In addition to Barnet’s fascination with Ellington’s music, he liked and played some music in the style of Count Basie.
Along with Billy May (who joined Glenn Miller’s band in late 1940), the arranger who contributed the most outstanding charts to the Barnet band book in the early 1940s was Andy Gibson (pictured at left with Barnet), who was also a frequent contributor to the Basie book. His arrangement of “Harlem Speaks” is a perfect example of his great skill in writing swinging jazz, and Barnet’s band brings that writing vividly to life.
Sonic restoration and digital remastering by Mike Zirpolo.