July 25, 2012

Songs of Summer

The summer season has provided inspiration for both popular and classical compositions for centuries. One of the earliest examples, circa 1260, is the English Medieval round “Sumer is Icumen In.” The translation from Middle English shows us that thirteenth century songwriters were motivated by the activities of summer. Sly Stone was similarly inspired in his 1969 hit “Hot Fun in the Summertime,” and a verse from each song seamlessly spans the centuries:
From “Sumer is Icumen In”:
            Summer has come in, loudly sing cuckoo
            The seed grows and the meadow blooms and the world springs anew
From “Hot Fun in the Summertime”:
            Boop boopa boop when I want to, out of school
            County fair in the country sun and everything is cool.
Instrumental music has its share of summer songs as well. Vivaldi had his 1723 “hit” with the Summer movement of “The Four Seasons,” and two hundred plus years later organist Walter Wanderley gave us “Samba de Verao,” (“Summer Samba”).
The Internet is rife with lists of the hundred best summer songs, and at present they are in heavy rotation on the oldies stations. My vote for one of the most outstanding summer songs is rarely heard on the radio, and never makes the lists.
In the late 1950s, Dave and Iola Brubeck started to collaborate on a musical production to be called “The Real Ambassadors.” Their lofty aspirations were to bring together some of the greatest musical talent in existence and show the world through music that humanity could live together in peace. Louis Armstrong was to be the focal point, and the whole production was built around his irrepressible voice and trumpet. Amongst the songs from “The Real Ambassadors” was a beautiful ballad entitled “Summer Song.” The music was by Dave Brubeck, and the lyric was by his wife, Iola. Iola managed to combine lyrical poetry, with homespun Americana. Her first line offers a beautiful simile:
            Love to me is like a summer day
            Silent ‘cause there is just too much to say
And later in the song:
            I hear laughter from the swimming hole
            Kids are fishing with a willow pole
“The Real Ambassadors” was recorded in 1961 and performed only once, at the 1962 Monterey Jazz Festival. The festival was mostly filmed but “The Real Ambassadors” debut was not, reportedly due to a lack of $750 that would have kept the film crew working. The Brubecks had always hoped that it could be turned into a Broadway production, but at this date it has only been reissued on CD. Check out Louis’ rendition of “Summer Song.” The Brubecks certainly could hear his voice when they wrote the tune. Louis made the song his own, just as he did a few years later with the hit “What a Wonderful World.” The song can also be heard on CD on the Columbia release “Dave Brubeck/Vocal Encounters” where Dave and his quartet are matched with the likes of Carmen McCrae, Jimmy Rushing, Tony Bennett and Louis Armstrong.

I came through the back door with my association with “Summer Song.” As so often happens, the first version of a song you hear is not the original. I became enchanted with “Summer Song” from the 1972 LP “Time and Love” by Jackie and Roy. Along with arranger Don Sebesky they cleverly combined their version of “Summer Song” with the Gershwin classic “Summertime,” entitled Summer Song/Summertime. To make the connection with the Brubecks one layer deeper, they invited saxophonist Paul Desmond to guest on the cut. He weaves “Summertime” in and out of his improvisations, and the lush arrangement by Don Sebesky make this version the equal of the original.
I had the privilege of interviewing both Dave and Iola Brubeck on separate occasions in their Connecticut home and I took the opportunity to play the Jackie and Roy version for them. They were both enamored of the recording; in fact Dave actually jumped out of his seat at a moment in the song (at 2:25). After Desmond’s gorgeous solo, Jackie and Roy sing an overdubbed four-part harmony that made the composer of this song sit up and take notice.
No one sits at a higher pinnacle in the music pantheon than the Brubecks, but in true humble musician fashion, both Dave and Iola separately mentioned the significance of Louis Armstrong’s participation in their “Real Ambassador” production. They both made mention of Pops’ inscription on their original score of “Summer Song,” which read: “To Mrs. Brubeck, I am very happy, Satchmo.”
Check out both of these recordings of Summer Song. I think you’ll have a new favorite for the season.