ALO5 - "Softly, As In A Morning Sunrise"
A List of Five: Ballads II
"Softly, as in a Morning Sunrise" is a song with music by Sigmund Romberg and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II that was featured in the 1928 operetta The New Moon. The song was again featured in the two screen adaptations by Jack Conway, director (MGM, 1930), and Robert Z. Leonard and W. S. Van Dyke directors (MGM, 1940). This song first spoke to me introducing the Modern Jazz Quartet's Last Concert (see below). Bobby Darin's performance knocked me out (also below).
Nat Shilkret and the Victor Orchestra, vocal by Franklyn Baur, 21775-B. Victor Records (1928)
Songs composed and included in Broadway shows and those from operettas (an opera not fully grown) are not created equal. Early on featured songs from operettas were considered commercially dicey when making a move into the popular and jazz arenas. Nat Shilkret was a popular bandleader in the 1920s, He was a child prodigy growing up in New York City and playing clarinet in many local orchestras including the New York Philharmonic and the New York Philharmonic Society (under Vasily Safonov and Gustav Mahler). In 1926, Shilkret became "director of light music" for Victor, where he directed thousands of recordings, including this first recording of "Softly." This performance is a faded antique in the very best sense of the word.
Artie Shaw And His Orchestra, B-10054-A, Bluebird (1938)
The New Moon did not find wider success until it was committed to film by MGM in a film adaptation released in 1931 starring Grace Moore and Lawrence Tibbett, changing the setting from late-18th century New Orleans to Russia. When MGM redid the film in 1940, the locale was changed back to the original. The 1940 version featured the singing team of Nelson Eddy and Jeanette MacDonald from the original operetta. Two years previous, bandleader Artie Shaw transformed it into a swing standard, as he had "Begin the Beguine" recorded three months before "Softly."
Abbey Lincoln - Abbey Is Blue (Riverside Records, 1959)
Jazz Vocalist Abbey Lincoln shows how less is more in her performance of "Softly" which was included in her 1959 release, Abbey Is Blue. Lincoln uses the slimmest of support, introducing the song over the brushes of Philly Joe Jones, with bassist Hank Jones sneaking in before being joined by pianist Phil Wright, underpinning trumpeter Kenny Dorham's tart and encapsulated solo. As Lincoln approaches the coda, the band drops out in the reverse order of their entry. A classic in understatement.
Bobby Darin - That's All (Atco Records,1959)
Where Abbey Lincoln approaches "Softly" with a quiet determination and grace, Bobby Darin comes in hot, blowing the doors off with a big band ready to lay waste to the sensitive ballad of bitter loss. Darin, with boyish swagger, notes at the end that the song is called "Softly." Addressing arranger and conductor Richard Wess, after a noisy interlude and bridge, Darin says, "Say, Richard, I don't want to be a drag or anything, but the title of this tune is 'Softly,' so, could we do it that way, please." Instead of growing quiet, Darin pours on the gas, finishing the song off in his inimitable style.
The Modern Jazz Quartet - The Last Concert (Atlantic Records, 1975)
Only pianist John Lewis could compose a Baroque canon introduction to this light opera tune and only vibraphonist Milt Jackson could have delivered the three-chorus solo coming over the steady 4/4 of bassist Percy Heath and the tasty accents of drummer Connie Kay. The MJQ was one of those bright diamonds in the jazz constellation. The Last Concert was performed in New York City's Avery Fisher Hall (now the David Geffen Hall) in 1975 before the band went on a seven-year hiatus. The fact that this recording made neither my "Ten Best Live Jazz Recordings" nor "Best Jazz Recordings: The Best Of The Rest" remains a mystery to me.