This is the first in a series of posts about songs in The Best Playlist Ever. The overarching theme of the playlist, other than love, is anachronism. I’ve written about anachronism before, because I have an affinity for things that are out of place, out of time. I also like the irony of anachronism in a music playlist since, you know: chronos, time, music, rhythm. There’s an irony there.
I’ll start by looking at the only song that makes an appearance twice in the playlist: Too Close for Comfort. One is an old version from Mel Tormé, and the other is a new version from Jamie Cullum. We will start with Mel’s:
You have certainly heard of Mel Tormé. He got onto my radar in the 1980s because Harry on Night Court was a huge fan. Mel’s voice earned him the nickname “The Velvet Fog,” which, frankly, I never really bought in to. I love his voice, but it’s not foggy. It’s crystal clear. It is velvet, though, on account of him straddling that tenor/baritone range, and having the best tremolo you’ll ever hear. One really interesting thing about this version of the song is that the bass line is being carried by… listen for it… yes: that’s a tuba. What the fuck is a tuba doing in a jazz band? Weird.
Now let’s contrast that with the version from Jamie:
The tempo is a bit faster, giving the song a brighter feel. And the tuba is gone, replaced with an upright bass. Although perhaps as an homage to Mel’s classic, there is a very prominent trombone in the horn section giving it that tuba-ish character. If you go back and forth between these, you will realize that the arrangements are almost identical (slightly different key, to accommodate Jamie’s slightly lower voice). The sax player in Jamie’s band clearly listened to the sax solo from Mel’s version. The notes are different, but the feel is exactly these same. Fast bop licks, but with a lyric quality, like Charlie Parker might have done.
Jamie Cullum is a fascinating character. I heard him interviewed once, and he has this thick English accent; yet his singing mostly reminds me of Harry Connick Jr., who is from New Orleans. He has played around in a bunch of different genres including hiphop and rock, but has had most of his success breathing new life into jazz standards. We will be hearing a few more songs from Jamie as we explore the playlist.
The song itself deserves a little mention, of course. It starts and ends with the same refrain: “Be wise. Be fair. Be sure. Be there. Behave. Beware.” (I like how those last two sound like be-have, be-ware.) I’ve never seen the musical this song comes from, so I’m not really sure of the context. The lyrics are extremely ambiguous. They are an admonition, but against what? Against falling for a woman who will just use you up and leave? Against falling for a woman when you are already spoken for? Against being too eager, and risking having the woman not want you because of that? It really is not at all clear, which makes it versatile, I suppose.
I tried to find out the context of the lyrics, and I learned that the song comes from a musical called “Mr. Wonderful,” which basically had no plot, and was just a pretense to bring Sammy Davis Jr’s Las Vegas act to New York. “Listen here, man, I’ve got this idea. We’ll do a musical. A big production number. Lots of dames. And you, Sammy, you’ll be at the center of it. Your Vegas act. But in a musical. Dig it? It’s gonna be huge!” That’s how I imagine the idea was pitched. And then Sammy says, “Yeah, man. I dig it. That’d be cool. Lots of dames. Yeah.”
A revival of Mr. Wonderful doesn’t seem too likely, so we may never know what exactly the lyrics intended. Perhaps it was just an admonition not to sit too close to the tuba player.