February 16, 2021

Happy Birthday Alec Wilder

On this day, February 16, 1907 composer and doyen of the Great American Songbook, Alec Wilder was born.

Click the link to hear my take of some of his wonderful music.

I had been a fan of Alec Wilder many years before I even knew his name. He is one of those composers whose tentacles have reached deep into the great American song book while remaining a mystery to all but the most avid audiophile.

As a Sinatra fan, with a soft spot for a ballad, I was well aware of his 1955 album, In The Wee Small Hours and the heartbreaking track I’ll Be Around. Sinatra knew the writing was on the wall for his marriage to his greatest love, screen goddess Ava Gardner, and this song was prescient on what lie ahead. Wilder wrote the tune in 20 minutes but the lyric, he said, took much longer.

Ten years before that, Sinatra was already a Wilder devotee. In 1945 he persuaded Columbia to record some of Wilder’s solo wind works with string orchestra for an album. Sinatra conducted the orchestra himself and the two men became life-long friends. Sinatra went on to recorded many of Wilder’s songs, including Where Is The One, in 1948.

Wilder was a stylish composer whose work was always cliché free and full of sweet surprises. Maybe this is why he never enjoyed the kind of popular recognition of his better-known peers. Nevertheless, he was greatly admired by musicians and performers alike. The list speaks for itself: Mabel Mercer, Mildred Bailey, Peggy Lee, Tony Bennett, Stan Getz, Clark Terry, Marian McPartland and Keith Jarrett to name a few. One of my favourite Wilder albums is the brilliantly named Neurotic Goldfish, a collection of his chamber music incorporating harpsichord which includes the achingly beautiful Air For Saxophone.

The more I listen to his music the more I love it. There are so many beautiful songs that deserve to the heard and hear you find four of my favourites: Where Is The One? Crazy In The Heart, That’s My Girl, It’s A Fine Day for Walking Country Style (released in 2008 on my Swingin’ On Broadway album) and I’ll Be Around (released in 2004 on ‘Alone Together with the John Wilson Orchestra’). The rest were recorded back in 2006 but never released. I came across the master recently and thought it was time they were heard. I was inspired by the albums Ella Fitzgerald recorded with guitarist Joe Pass. Just the two of them letting the music breath and the words speak for themselves.

Phil Lee played guitar and wrote the arrangements for all these tracks. I’d first met Phil through his work with John Wilson and his orchestra when we recorded ‘Alone Together’ at Abbey Road in 2004. He’s also worked with legends like Benny Goodman, Lena Horne, Marian Montgomery, and Annie Ross. Such proximity to greatness must mean something, as you can tell when you listen. I love his playing: tasteful, uncluttered, self-assured.

This was one of my first collaborations with bassist Joe Pettitt and he’s been my go-to guy since. We recorded these songs in one session at Howard McGill’s London studio. Howard, being one of the countries most tasteful saxophonists, was finally roped in to add some colour to two of the tracks. Mastering for this release, the every brilliant Chris Traves suggested we had drummer Elliot Henshaw add some cool brush work to That’s My Girl. The result, I think, is a simple yet stylish tribute the one of the great forgotten writers of the American Songbook.

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