Composed and arranged by Al Cohn.
Recorded by Larry Elgart and His Orchestra for RCA Victor Records in April of 1959 in New York.
Larry Elgart, alto saxophone; other musicians unknown. (*)
The story: Here at swingandbeyond.com, we are always on the lookout for clues that may indicate where inspiration comes from. T.S. Eliot’s poem “The Waste Land” begins: “April is the cruelest month, breeding / Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing / Memory and desire, stirring / Dull roots with spring rain.” Eliot may have had something there. But April has always been my favorite month. Here in the Midwest, April weather is like a wildly swinging pendulum: eighty degrees and sunshine one day, twenty-five and snow the next. But one thing remains constant about April every year: it is a month as Eliot so rightly observed, of stirring.
The beginnings of the annual greening and flowering always occur in April. The size and color of the foliage on the landscape changes almost daily. First buds and nubs appear. Then flowers and leaves, tiny at first, then larger.
This April, spring came a bit earlier than usual with several days in a row of 70 degree-plus temperatures. The various flowering plumb trees, and there are many here, began blooming two weeks ago. Millions of small white flowers were seemingly everywhere. Now they are beginning to fall, replaced by tiny yellow-green leaves which will develop and enlarge over the next few weeks. But then in the third week of April, snow blanketed the trees, flowers and grass. Warm then cold; forward, then backward.
The contrasting weather of April has inspired many songwriters. A partial list includes: Rodgers and Hart’s “April Fool” from 1925. Then there is Burt Bacharach and Hal David’s “The April Fools” from 1969. And Johnny Burke and Jimmy Monaco’s “April Played the Fiddle” from 1940. One of my favorite songs is “April in Paris,” with music by Vernon Duke and lyric by E.Y. Harburg from 1932. That deeply romantic ballad will never have the same meaning for me after the catastrophic fire that almost destroyed Notre Dame cathedral in Paris on April 15, 2019. But the French, with their inimitable and indomitable spirit, are rebuilding Notre Dame. I hope to see it after it has been restored.
April as a month and as an annual renewal of nature stirring has provided and undoubtedly will continue to provide inspiration for musicians, poets, artists and lovers.
The music: The jazz saxophonist and arranger Alvin Gilbert Cohn (1925-1988), was born in Brooklyn, New York. He first became known to a wide public in the late 1940s as a tenor saxophonist in Woody Herman’s “Four Brothers” band. Cohn also played in bands led by Georgie Auld, Alvino Rey, Buddy Rich, Artie Shaw and Elliot Lawrence. By the early 1950s, he began spending more time arranging and composing, though he always also played tenor saxophone in many different settings and with many different musicians. His most felicitous musical partner was tenor saxophonist Zoot Sims. (Above right: Al Cohn – late 1950s.)
Al Cohn’s marvelously floating melody “April” first appeared in the early and mid-1950s on a couple of recordings by pianist Lennie Tristano. Cohn had a working relationship with bandleader Larry Elgart over many years, and his arrangement on “April,” which Elgart loved and performed often, was one of Larry’s many delightful excursions along the musical path less traveled.
Unfortunately, I have very little information about this recording. Larry Elgart co-led various bands with his brother Les through the 1940s and 1950s, however, like many other brothers, they did not get along very well either personally or musically. When this recording was made in early 1959, Larry was leading his own band, and had contracted with RCA Victor to produce an LP. The LP that resulted was New Sounds at the Roosevelt, a reference to the Roosevelt Hotel in Manhattan, where Larry Elgart’s band played a notable residency in 1959.
Larry Elgart was extremely particular about how his band sounded when it recorded. This led him to setting up his own recording studio in Manhattan, recording his band, and then mastering the session tapes himself. When that was done, he delivered one master to whichever recording company he was working with at any given time (there were many), and he retained a master himself. As you will hear when you listen to this performance, Larry Elgart did an excellent job in all aspects of recording his band.(1) (Larry Elgart is pictured in 1960 above left.)
The most prevalent feature heard in this recording is of Larry Elgart’s melodic alto saxophone solo. Larry was a lead alto player who gradually developed a unique and identifiable style as a soloist. His sound was light and clear, and he played with minimal vibrato. That sound, and Al Cohn’s yearning melody, are a perfect match.
Cohn’s arrangement provides an exquisite setting for Elgart’s solo statements. Although the chart is spare and uncluttered, it does contain vivid instrumental colors in its use of open trumpets and the saxophone section in the gentle fanfares that open and close this performance. Softly played unmuted trombones and quiet saxophone lines provide a warm background for Elgart’s alto saxophone. There is also a delightful interlude that spots a three-way dialog between the trumpets, trombones and saxophones. This is lovely, understated music.
The recording presented with this post was digitally remastered by Mike Zirpolo.
Notes and links:
(*) Although I have not been able to find any information about the musicians who made this recording with Larry Elgart, I can say that very often he would tour with younger, less experienced but very talented musicians, and then make recordings in New York with Manhattan studio musicians.
(1) I derived some of the information in this post from Les and Larry Elgart and Their Orchestras, an annotated discography, by Richard F. Palmer and Charles Garrod.
Here is a link to another particularly delightful Larry Elgart performance of a brilliant arrangement by Bill Finegan. Scroll down to the bottom of that post to hear George Gershwin’s “Soon.”