Once again, your Chicago Jazz Examiner presents his annual reflection on the odd marriage of jazz and Halloween.
Or maybe it’s not so odd: news reports indicate that Americans now spend more money on Halloween decorations and accoutrements than they do for Christmas (a fact that has probably sent the entire Fox Network into a tizzy each time it comes up). Perhaps the longstanding affection shown by the jazz world for Halloween-appropriate tunes, some of which date to the 1930s, is simply a case of artists anticipating the currents of the larger society – if not actually influencing the development of such trends in the first place.
Or maybe, as I’ve often conjectured, it just comes down to the fact that jazz musicians live after dark, going to work when most of the world is going out. Maybe it’s just that for them, the concept of “Children of the Night” is less a matter of vampiric lore than just punching the clock.
In any case, I’ve dug up 13 tracks and sequenced them so you can easily stake your claim – or whatever else might need staking – on a spirited playlist for All-Hallow’s Eve.
VINCE GUARALDI, “Great Pumpkin Waltz”: Thanks to his hit recording of “Cast Your Fate To The Wind” (his own composition), the San Francisco pianist was a hot commodity in the early 60s – and that was before he got the call to score the first “Peanuts” TV special. “A Charlie Brown Christmas” debuted in 1965 (followed by 16 more programs with Guaraldi’s music); Guaraldi died a decade later at the age of 47, leaving us with, among others, this ode to Linus’s gourdian angel.
LOUIS ARMSTRONG, “Old Man Mose Is Dead”: It starts out in a brisk minor key but ends up a raucous rollick, with Armstrong romping on the “spooky” lyrics of this 1935 novelty hit. (The plot: Old Man Mose, a hermit “with a very crooked nose,” has kicked the bucket, and the narrator, having discovered him, is mildly traumatized. It’s not Faulkner.) For some reason, the song engendered a slew of covers, including one version sung by a young Betty Hutton, whose over-the-top mugging is scarier than the song could ever be.
NAT KING COLE TRIO, “Old Man Mose Ain’t Dead”: The song about Mose’s demise was such a hit that by 1939 it had inspired this song in response – an equally goofy narrative bringing the old guy back to life. (It seems the original reports of his death were exaggerated.) Nat Cole’s brilliant piano technique trio, along with his effortless vocal phrasing, come as close to redeeming this ditty as you could hope.
GLENN MILLER, “Swingin’ At The Séance”: This minor-key gem features a cheery vocal about “a medium in trance,” “horns that start to dance,” and an assortment of other-worldly spirits with very good rhythm. It was recorded in early 1941 – about four years before his fans started holding séances for Miller himself.
DEXTER GORDON, “Lullaby For A Monster”: It’s an odd title, and even odder concept, for the long, tall tenor man Dexter Gordon; thanks to his natural lyricism and wonderful sense of melody, it was all but impossible for him to play anything remotely ugly or distorted. He recorded this with just bass and guitar, and he swings so hard you hardly notice the lack of a drummer.
DAVID SANBORN, “Spooky”: In 1996, when alto man Sanborn recorded his album “Songs From The Night Before,” he had just started returning to his post-bop roots, but had yet to leave his smooth-jazz success completely in the dust. As it turns out, the genre’s lush textures and overpacked rhythm tracks make a nice cushion for Sanborn’s big, blowsy tone as he covers this Classics IV hit of 30 years earlier.
MARCUS MILLER, “Frankenstein”: Yep, it’s the one you’re thinking of – guitarist Edgar Winter’s slashing blues dedicated to the real Bionic Man (identified in the original novel as “the creature,” to distinguish him from Dr. Frankenstein, his creator). The big guy literally caught lightning in a bottle; Miller, the multifaceted bassist and composer, did the same (and surprised everyone) by including this cover on his 2005 album “Silver Rain.”
KURT ELLING, “Pleasant Valley Sunday”: When The Monkees (!) recorded this Gerry Goffen-Carol King gem, it already offered a jaundiced (though not quite nightmarish) view of suburbia circa 1967. Elling’s update, from the brand-new album “1619 Broadway,” dresses it up with to better fit our modern dystopia, with a raft of special effects that would be welcome at any costumed blowout.
MILES DAVIS, “Rated X”: Nothing obscene here – but this 1972 track is still not safe for children or the fainthearted. If anything, the title refers to the voodoo intensity of the rhythms, the manic push of the electric organ (played by Miles himself), and the way in which one stereo channel drops completely away when you least expect it – an effect akin to falling off a cliff, into a snakepit, with zombies on the march, and any other really scary image you’d care to pile on.
SUN RA, “Rocket Number Nine”: I can never pull one of these lists together without something from Sun Ra, the visionary bandleader who claimed to have been born on Saturn and to travel interstellar space through his music, practicing a philosophy – “Space Is The Place” – that blended jazz, astronomy, and Egyptian mythology. (Take away Sun Ra, there’d be no Earth, Wind and Fire; there, I’ve said it.) And with the band’s colorful capes and homemade headgear, pretty much every Sun Ra performance looked like a Halloween party.
VIJAY IYER, “Little Pocket Size Demons”: Among the most lionized musicians of the last decade, pianist Iyer has moved beyond the component parts of his music – his love of mathematics, his ancestral legacy of Indian music – to create a startlingly powerful and seamless body of work, marked by spiky intelligence and jagged lyricism. And this tune – from his latest widely acclaimed disc “Accelerando” (featuring the trio he brought to his sold-out show at Mayne Stage earlier this month) – lives up to its title, with prickling rhythms that pack a delicious sting.
THELONIOUS MONK, “Misterioso”: It’s just a minor blues, but in the hands of Monk, that grand iconoclast of the bop years, it becomes an inside-out puzzle, quite eerie enough to make this list. Monk wrote quirky and indelible songs of joy and humor, but compositions like this (along with “Friday the 13th” and “’Round Midnight”) make you think that for him, Halloween was always on next week’s calendar.
KAY STARR, “The House Is Haunted (By The Echo Of Your Last Goodbye)”: This ode to lingering memories first appeared in the early 1930s and carried a wistful lilt, even when sung by sappy crooners. But when Kay Starr got hold of it 25 years later, she belted it out of the park, with a vibrato to shame Merman; more brass than you’d find at a meeting of the Joint Chiefs; and enough purifying power to put the Winchesters out of business.