Wednesday, April 28, 2010

April 28: Lionel Hampton, "Midnight Sun"

Artist: Lionel Hampton
Song: "Midnight Sun"
Album: Hamp
Year: 1947


**Sorry, no recording link...I could not get a clean rip from my vinyl...you can find a number of versions all over the internet.**


Obviously, it goes without saying that every song has some sort of beginning, a point where it became known to the world.  Even the most oft-covered song has some moment of origin, and in many cases, these first incarnations occurred so early in the history of recorded music that they have been forgotten over the decades.  During these early years of the "recorded era," it was largely the single singers and the big bands that were responsible for bringing music to the masses, and due to this, many of the most significant songs in history were birthed by these artists.  While names like Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong remain dominant to this day, when it comes to a true musical visionary, one cannot overlook the amazing contributions of the one and only Lionel Hampton.  Unquestionably the finest jazz vibraphonist in history, "Hamp" spent more than six decades making records, and he is responsible for not only some of the most significant recordings in history, but also for singlehandedly moving both the jazz and big band sounds forward.  Lionel Hampton is also credited as the first musician to ever formally record the vibraphones when he sat in with Armstrong for a session in 1930.  Easily one of the most open minded musicians in history, Hampton constantly sought new and exciting ways to fuse his signature sound into the new musical forms that emerged over the decades.  With a massive catalog of fantastic recordings from his entire career, it was one of his first recordings that stands as his most significant.  Since covered by countless artists across nearly every musical genre, there are few cover versions that can compare to the phenomenal musical experience that is Lionel Hampton's 1947 masterpiece, "Midnight Sun."

While there are a massive amount of cover versions of "Midnight Sun" that have been recorded over the years, Hampton himself also cut a number of different takes of the composition.  While it was a shorter, three and a half minute version that would become the standard for covers, it is the full, six minute take that stands as the definitive version.  Recorded with his full band in tow, it is very much Lionel Hampton's show, yet the manner in which his backing musicians move around his stunning playing must be noted.  While he rarely takes a break during the six minute run of the song, he does step back and let his pianist vamp on the songs' key phrase.  This brief solo proves to be perfectly timed, and the contrast between the soft, almost muted piano in comparison to Hampton's bright, almost aggressive vibraphone playing is truly fantastic.  Keeping things light and airy throughout, Lionel Hampton's rhythm section is able to perfectly walk the line between jazz and big band, as they keep things in a subdued mood over the course of the song, yet there is an unquestionable sense of swing that runs underneath their playing.  This ability to present a contrast in sound is not only what makes each of these musicians so fantastic, but it serves as a testament to the musical brilliance of Hampton, as well as his ability as a band leader.  As the song moves through the various sections of Hampton's composition, it quickly becomes one of the most unforgettable instrumentals in history, and along with its longevity, it is similarly one of the most beautiful pieces ever committed to recorded tape.

Throughout the original recording, Lionel Hampton himself quickly proves why he is such a unique talent, and also why there has never been another jazz vibraphonist that even comes close to his amazing abilities.  In many ways, his performance on "Midnight Sun" perfectly encapsulates the word "slinky," as he slides and jibes around the song, creating an absolutely amazing musical texture.  Dancing all over the instrument, Hampton is clearly "in the zone" throughout, and his performance music be experienced firsthand to be properly understood.  It is also "Midnight Sun" that solidified the vibraphones as a "legitimate" jazz instrument, and without Hampton's work, and more specifically this recording, one can easily make the case that the instrument would never have found fame via a number of later players.  However, while each of the musicians found on this instrumental version are truly fantastic, "Midnight Sun" stands as a bit of an oddity in the history of music, as there are lyrics to the song, but they were not revealed until later in the songs' history.  Artists from Ella Fitzgerald to Mel Tormé recorded versions of the song, and it was almost unrecognizable when compared to the original, mostly due to the addition of the lyrics penned by Hampton, along with writing partners Sonny Burke and Johnny Mercer.  Truth be told, the lyrics to the song take "Midnight Sun" to an entirely new level of sonic beauty, and one would be hard pressed to find finer words than, "...was there such a night, it's a thrill I still don't quite believe...but after you were gone, there was still some stardust on my sleeve..."  This combination of unguarded emotion and true elegance is a rarity anywhere in music, and this final touch is what makes "Midnight Sun" a song like no other.

As songs are covered and reworked over the decades, many of them take on such unique forms, that they barely show any resemblance to the place from which they originally came.  From alterations in tempo or instrumentation, as each artist puts their own spin on a song, it often makes the original become nothing more than a relic of the past.  However, in a handful of cases, this first recording is so unmatched in terms of musical brilliance that it simply cannot be surpassed.  Adding on the fact that it was the song that is largely responsible for the relevance of vibraphones as a jazz instrument, one cannot overstate the importance of Lionel Hampton's first recording of his song, "Midnight Sun."  The fact that this song remains so important, yet the original lacks the fantastic lyrics, makes it even more surprising that it has persevered over the decades, and it serves as a testament to just how amazing a performance one finds in this early recording.  Pianists from Oscar Peterson to Art Tatum have all taken shots at interpreting the composition, yet none come close to the amazing tone and performance that Hampton presents on his original.  Combining the swing of the big band sound with the more open and loose approach of jazz, "Midnight Sun" is very much an early example of "musical crossover," and it is yet another reason why the song is so significant.  Though his name is often an afterthought to the so-called "greats" of the early jazz and big band era, one need look no further than his 1947 masterpiece, "Midnight Sun" to understand why Lionel Hampton remains an artist like no other in music history.

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