Sleeve Notes by Rob Geller
When Gary Williams approached me to pen some notes to accompany Wild About Wilder, his tribute to singular American composer Alec Wilder, I was overjoyed that someone of Gary’s prestige, skill and aesthetic would be lending his time and vocal cords to such a project. Those lucky souls in the know are aware of Alec Wilder’s rich contribution to 20th century music, and know that his work is everywhere, if you know where to look. Mention him, however, to your average music consumer and the inevitable response is “Who?” Alec was the man who could not be categorised, and thus fell through the cracks into near-oblivion. Wild About Wilder compiles five of Wilder’s popular songs, recorded by Gary at various sessions.
Gary’s smooth take on I’ll Be Around comes from his fine first CD Alone Together. With lyrics scrawled by Wilder on the back of an envelope in a Baltimore taxi, I’ll Be Around was his first song to dent the popular consciousness, albeit in a hit version by the Mills Brothers the composer detested for having meddled with his melody. Thankfully, hundreds of recorded versions that adhere faithfully to the gorgeous melody line have followed.
Three of the songs here were composed by Alec with my late friend, wordsmith Bill Engvick, who had the unique honour of hearing Frank Sinatra sing about his very life, about the year in Oakland High when he was 17, in I See It Now from Frank’s September of My Years album. Here he’s getting the urbane Mr. Williams to sing about “walking country style,” a gratifying activity engaged in by a gaggle of human-sized chickens in the 1953 national television broadcast of Wilder and Engvick’s comic opera Miss Chicken Little, one of their many tours de force. Crazy in the Heart, first popularized by Peggy Lee on a Decca 45 in 1956, is Wilder and Engvick at their cheeriest. “Though I’m daffy as a hatter / Baby, please don’t let it matter,” sings Gary, imploring the object of his affection to ignore the manifestations of mental imbalance mere love has wrought.That’s My Girl began life as a film cue entitled Dance Tune #1 from the soundtrack of Jerome Hill’s obscure 1964 art film Open the Door and See All the People, for which Alec wrote the score. From this richly melodic score were eventually carved a good half-dozen songs to which Mr. Engvick applied his typically witty and incisive words. Here Gary’s vocal/sax/guitar unison arrangement lends a jaunty air.
Alec wrote the lyrics to Where is the One?, with music by his pal and co-conspirator Eddie Finckel, arranger of note for such bandleaders as Boyd Raeburn and Buddy Rich. Though first recorded by quite capable warblers Dick Haymes and Patti Page, it wasn’t until Sinatra’s (first) take, released in 1949 on a slab of Columbia Records shellac, that the perpetually insecure Wilder came to believe in his own wistful words. “I only know when Sinatra recorded it he made me believe they were [worthy]. But he was always making miracles,” said the man aptly nicknamed by Sinatra “The Professor” for his musical ken. Gary delivers his own miracle here, turning Alec’s words into an intimate conversation, the band lending a spare, refreshing pulse to a tune often rendered as a lush orchestral ballad.
As thousands of happy ears will agree, there’s something about Gary Williams’ consistently breezy way with a song that never fails to elevate me into a place where smiles abound and the world is replete with possibility. His singing on Wild About Wilder is no exception. Much like the eclectic Mr. Wilder, Gary draws not just from the deep well of American Popular Song –about which Wilder literally wrote the book – but from many sources and genres. That Gary is Wild about Wilder makes perfect sense, and I suspect were Alec to hear this loving tribute he would beam, call it life-affirming and declare himself wild about Williams!
Editor of the Friends of Alec Wilder Newsletter
The always surprising Alec Wilder by Gary Williams
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.
“Together the five songs – all stylishly presented – should help restore Alec Wilder to the songwriters’ Pantheon.” Bill Buckley, Jazz Soul and Funk
“British vocalist Gary Williams has dipped his toe into the catalog of songs by Alec Wilder on his digital only release, Wild About Wilder. Williams, who is a familiar figure in clubs and concerts in Great Britain and also a frequent performer on cruise ships, is a straight-ahead, jazz-influenced pop vocalist with a smooth sound and a fine sense of phrasing. There are three tracks, “Where Is the One,” “Crazy in the Heart” and “That’s My Girl” with a saxophone, guitar, bass and drums quartet. On “It’s a Fine Day for Walking Country Style,” the accompaniment is sax, guitar, piano, bass and drums. “I’ll Be Around” finds Williams in the midst of the John Williams Orchestra. This tasty EP whets one’s appetite for a full album of Williams doing Wilder.” Joe Lang, Jersey Jazz