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KING 4302; JUNE, 1949

 
 

 

As we’ve reiterated many times over the course of our run-ins with alto sax maestro Earl Bostic, his career is shaping up to be either remarkably diverse or alarmingly schizophrenic, take your pick.

We’ll respectfully go with the former, that of an incredibly diverse musician who was never content to remain situated with any one style too long. Either way you look at it though Bostic was most definitely the cat for whom the term not letting the grass grow under their feet was coined.

Now on one hand that makes his output over a twenty year career always interesting, if only to see what direction he headed in each time out. But on the other hand when trying to make sense of his musical development it has the unfortunate tendency to cause you to want to get into bullfighting or base jumping, you know, something comparatively tranquil that’s not as likely to frazzle your nerves quite as much as trying to keep track of Bostic’s latest stylistic indulgence.
 

 
It’s an indulgence that hasn’t always benefitted him either, commercially or critically. Audiences never knew what to expect out of him which meant each time out they needed to be convinced of a record’s appeal for their tastes before forking over the cash for it, unlike other artists who’d built a reliable reputation for always delivering something in line with their musical interests. The other side of the coin saw his fellow musicians, those he came up with in the jazz kingdom, look down upon the many stylistic side streets he ventured down, particularly his forays into rock which they thought of as a crude non-musical bastard child of a thousand and one illegitimate fathers.

But of course what we at Spontaneous Lunacy prefer to hear are those rock excursions, especially since his initial forays into the idiom were so galvanizing. But that very reason, the high standards he set from the start, is why From Midnight To Dawn is so exasperating to encounter at this stage when the blazing sax instrumentals he helped spearhead were proudly wearing the crown of commercial success, validating his original conception.

This isn’t something that was going to vie with those visionary sides even if it could (depending on how lenient you wanted to be) fit within these borders and be called a rock record.

Yet just as easily it could be called something else as well. That was the Faustian bargain you always made when choosing an Earl Bostic record off the shelf. For every idea in it that fit your preconceptions he’d toss in another half dozen to upend those same preconceptions and leave you scratching your head.
 

The Clock Is Ticking
The truth of the matter is this is a record that comfortably fits no genre exclusively. It has elements that tie to into multiple different realms which as we know all too well from other records by other artists attempting to straddle the fence doesn’t always work out so well.

But Bostic is talented enough to tie it all together if he so chooses, though oftentimes he chooses to do no such thing when playing the mad scientist role he made his name on.

From Midnight To Dawn might just as well be a description of how wide a swath of territory this covers, but Bostic does do his best to keep it from getting out of hand. The problem is in doing so he might just curtail some of the bolder ideas he was harboring.

The intro to this, played by a full horn section over a piano, is a sleepy sound, which I suppose is fitting for the “Midnight” found in its title which serves as the theoretical starting point of the path he’s taking us on. But it’s not the kind of thing that will have anyone jumping up to follow along. In fact the first forty seconds are so slow as to be called plodding, not to mention uninspiring and inconsequential.

They finally start to ramp things up but even that process takes a full fifteen seconds to build to a crescendo. When the spell breaks it’s not Bostic that grabs your attention, it’s the trumpet, an instrument that has been maddeningly intrusive on many early rock records, completely unsuited for the sonic construct of the form. Yet at least here it serves as a wake up call (dawn must’ve come early on this particular day) which thankfully also rousts Bostic out of bed at the 1:05 mark.

At last Bostic is at the controls and considering that it’s his name on the marquee, his reputation at stake and his career that may hang in the balance we can only say that it’s about time. But his appearance alone doesn’t mean Earl Bostic has suddenly decided to hunker down and be responsible about his commercial goals, nor does it mean he’s acquired a more well honed sense of direction for his playing here is as close to the definition of “wandering” as you’ll find.

He’s playing well – he ALWAYS plays well, that much we never have to worry about – but he seems aimless in his intent. From Midnight To Dawn sounds like little more than an indulgent warm-up exercise, giving his lungs a good workout at times with the more enthusiastic passages without actually giving you a sense of anticipation or excitement that something noteworthy was going to come of it.

Sure enough just as quickly as he accelerated and got your hopes up he downshifts into something quieter and more modest, yet just as nicely delivered which prevents us from cursing his name for being some sort of talentless hack. Yet the fact it’s credibly executed doesn’t let him off the hook for failing to satisfy any of the potential listeners for this sort of exercise. The jazz fan that abandoned him awhile back when he dove into rock would turn his nose up at much of this, while we the rock fans in the crowd aren’t getting our shoulders grooving or hips moving enough to care what becomes of him or the record itself.
 

Pre-Dawn Hours
It’d help of course if there was a memorable melody we could at least latch onto, something to help us get our bearings and return to something familiar without stumbling around in the dark looking for the doorway. Instead it comes across as an aural recreation of sleepwalking, not that they’re sleepwalking through the performance but rather that none of them really seem to care that there’s no destination in mind, they’re just enjoying the nocturnal stroll through the darkened corridors of the mind.

I suppose the fact they all make it back to bed – or the breakfast table or wherever they start their morning – without stepping on the dog’s tail, knocking over a lamp or banging their shins on a coffee table is admirable, but it’s hardly something we care to have recounted to us the next day when we’re all wide awake and presumably have more to talk about than someone’s aimless jaunt around the house before the sun came up.

That’s what is so disappointing about Midnight To Dawn, the fact it has at least the potential to be a fairly credible mood piece, a hazily seductive mellow trip, one that seems real while you’re dreaming it, yet which floats effortlessly away once you wake up leaving you with only fleeting images you desperately try and cling to because it seemed magical as it was happening, and yet they aren’t choosing to emphasize those aspects enough to make it work.

They could certainly have done it if they had just a bit more focus. Of course the first thing they’d have to do is fire the supporting horn section for playing in a style far too reminiscent of a mediocre assemblage left over from the big band era. Their lethargy isn’t just confined to the tempo they’re asked to play but also from the sound they get from the construction of the horn section itself, which is far too light and airy. There’s no bottom to speak of, no baritone sax to give it some heft, instead they’re all residing in the mid-to-upper regions of the brass section and by playing in unison at a dirge-like pace it puts you to sleep.

But if they’d given something for Bostic to play OFF of instead of merely stepping in front of while keeping the same barely chugging tempo it’d have opened up the possibilities and raised his game considerably. You could either have the backing musicians drop out altogether, or let the piano handle the slow churning riff underneath him, letting him improvise more, which of course is what he specialized in.

As it is he’s locked into their pattern far too much for this to gel. When he does dig deeper it picks up slightly but he’s playing with his feet bound together, unable to race ahead or zig-zag because if he did he’d clash with them and send them all crashing to the ground.

Since it was Bostic who wrote and arranged this the blame has to fall squarely on him no matter how little the others contribute alongside him. Let’s face it, there’s no style of music, be it jazz or polka, that rewards the kind of featureless components that overwhelm this performance.
 

 

Wake Up Call
As a result this was a record we could’ve easily skipped over at no loss to anyone, least of all Bostic’s reputation. But to do so would’ve been to merely put off the question of his shifting allegiance for another day.

We NEED to see the conflict at play within his approach and since we can’t do so when he completely abandons rock for jazz or pop or supper club records then we need to take advantage of songs like From Midnight To Dawn in order to try and analyze his thinking.

Or merely to ask: What the hell was he thinking?

The theory I’m settling on with is that he’s thinking TOO much. He’s trying to come up with things that are substantially different each time out rather than honing a few tried and true approaches. That creative yearning is admirable in theory but in practice it results in a lot of misfires when those ideas are lacking in the basic building blocks needed to connect with an audience.

Here as they’re trying for a late night mood piece they do themselves in by ingesting handfuls of Ambien before starting to play and the result is just lethargic. As a result From Midnight To Dawn is not enjoyable enough to draw our interest, nor creative enough for him to get some satisfaction out of it all.

It’d be one thing to be able to criticize him for hitting bum notes, or trying too hard to whip the crowd into a state of pandemonium and lose his way in the process, going off the rails completely. But he’s too good of a musician to do either of those things. Instead it always seems that Bostic is at his most unbecoming when he merely tries to be modest in his attempts.

Rather than attempt to dazzle us, to challenge himself and the listener, he finds himself paired with an over-matched band and an uncertain objective and the result is something that may never sink to the level of unlistenable but is so dishearteningly underwhelming that we wonder why he even bothered.
 
 
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT:

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

 
(Visit the Artist page of Earl Bostic for the complete archive of his records reviewed to date)