EDELHAGEN PLAYS THE HITS OF JIMMY WEBB
At first glance, Kurt Edelhagen and Jimmy Webb would appear to be a most unusual combination. But one listen confirms that such an odd pairing yielded a most successful collaboration; one demanding discovery or, for at least a select few, requisite rediscovery. There is no doubt that commercial interests motivated the established German bandleader to record a collection of songs by the then 23-year old American wunderkind, yet the result is one of the most appealing products of its time.
Music was in a state of flux in 1970 when this clash of cultures came to be. The preceding decade brought about drastic changes in music. The advent of the Beatles and rock music quelled much of the interest in jazz and adult music the world over. By the early 70s, rock had taken over almost completely. Many artists who stuck to their guns were sucked in by the wave. Some disappeared and many more adapted by recording albums featuring more contemporary repertoire. Most of these hybrids vanished in a sea of embarrassment, but a certain few magically transcended the fusion to bring out the best in both the respective artist and their uncommon repertoire.
Kurt Edelhagen was born on June 5th, 1920, in Herne, Westphalia, and studied piano, clarinet and conducting. He was called to the army in 1939 and served until the end of World War II. Returning home - and to music - in 1945, he set up his own combo, playing jazz for British and American soldiers in army clubs. At the piano was Edelhagen himself and on drums was young Gerhard „Bobby“ Schmidt, who would 25 years later produce an album called „Kurt Edelhagen plays Jim Webb“. Edelhagen and Schmidt, both fans of the American big bands, soon had the idea to build up a larger musical ensemble. On June 11, 1945, they founded the first German big band after the war, which quickly became popular through concerts in larger cities such as Heidelberg and Mannheim.
From 1947 to 1957 the Edelhagen orchestra was under contract with Stuttgart Radio, Bavarian Broadcast Nuremberg and Südwestfunk Baden-Baden, and recorded for several labels, including Polydor Records. The bandleader, admired for his well-crafted and modern arrangements, became internationally known as „the German Stan Kenton“ and successfully toured Italy, the Soviet Union and many other countries. In the 1960s, after the Baden-Baden radio orchestra had been suspended, Edelhagen, relocated to Cologne, where he assembled a new orchestra for WDR radio that included quite a few international jazz musicians working in Germany at that time.
In the meantime, Bobby Schmidt had gone on to become a successful producer for Polydor, where he supervised German recordings of such American stars as Connie Francis and Brenda Lee, looked after pianist Fritz Schultz-Reichel and bandleader Max Greger, and also composed songs for pop singers. When their paths crossed again at the label, Schmidt reunited with Kurt Edelhagen; this time as a producer. Schmidt‘s sense for pop music gave him a keen insight for fresh repertoire for the band.
Interestingly, it was Claus Ogerman, the German-born arranger working successfully at the time in the United States, who introduced Schmidt to the compositions of Jimmy Webb. Ogerman had also been briefly in Edelhagen‘s band during the 50s, and suggested that Webb, whose music was sweeping the American charts at the end of the 60s, made complex, interesting music that was worth exploration in a jazz context.
Born the son of a Baptist minister in Elk City, Oklahoma, on August 15, 1946, Webb was only in his early 20s by the end of the 60s. But by this time, he‘d already scored such platinum-selling hits as „Up, Up And Away“ (for the Fifth Dimension), „By The Time I Get To Phoenix“, „Wichita Lineman“, „Galveston“ and „Where‘s The Playground, Susie“ (for Glen Campbell), „MacArthur Park“ and „Didn‘t We“ (for Richard Harris), as well as many others. Webb seemed not to belong to the rock scene of the time. His sophisticated compositions, thoughtful lyrics and rich orchestrations seemed to suggest one of the great composers - not one of the long-haired hippies writing three-chord odes to drugs or free love. He‘d certainly earned the title of „young genius“. Songwriter Sammy Cahn, one of the all-time greats, compared „MacArthur Park“ to George Gershwin‘s „Rhapsody in Blue“, while Frank Sinatra, one of the countless artists that covered Webb‘s hits, declared „By The Time I Get To Phoenix“ as „the greatest torch song ever written“.
Webb‘s songs work amazingly well as instrumentals, especially when interpreted by first-class musicians as those heard here. The Edelhagen band doesn‘t „swing“ the songs but translates them into an orchestral jazz language, preserving their yearning, melancholic quality and elegant melodic lines, adding a touch of Teutonic bombast here and there. Somehow, Quincy Jones agreed to provide the sophisticated orchestrations for this occasion. Jones, a friend of Ogerman‘s, may or may not have done the actual work. By the end of the 60s, „Q“ had already developed a full sense of a producer‘s metier, overseeing the production of overall sound. He often brought other creative people into complete his projects. While there‘s little doubt that Jones is a brilliant arranger, one need only read the fine print to realize that he often delegated arrangements to the likes of Bobby Scott or Billy Byers. On the Edelhagen project, Jones collaborated on the arrangements with trombonist J.J. Johnson, saxophonist Tom Scott and West Coast arranger Pete Myers.
Despite all of its qualities, „Kurt Edelhagen plays Jim Webb“ did not turn out to be the commercial success it deserved to be and soon disappeared altogether from the Polydor catalogue. It’s likely that the album‘s concept was too challenging for listeners who enjoyed the simpler pleasures of Edelhagen’s labelmates, James Last or Max Greger. But now listening to the music today, one can enjoy this unique recording without any preconceived notions or biased prejudice.
Liner notes by Matthia Künnecke with Douglas Payne