KING 4550; JULY 1952



We’ve been down this road so many times with Earl Bostic that nothing would surprise us by now.

We look at the title of one of America’s most revered standards and know that he might do anything with the song from playing it completely straight and treating it like the venerated classic it is, to blowing it up with dynamite in his saxophone until the resulting pieces that fall to the ground are all but unrecognizable.

Rock, jazz, pop or some combination of those genres are always on the table with Bostic which in a way has its advantages.

Unlike other artists, like say Wynonie Harris, where we more or less know what to expect heading into a record and can take it or leave it based on his artistic reputation alone, with Bostic you really need to listen to each and every side with an open mind and let the performance tell you what to think.

Or let US tell you what to think if you’re short on time or hard of hearing.


Heavenly Songs Seemed To Come From Everywhere
Since it first appeared in 1933 this song has rarely been off the radar. Jazz musicians in particular go back to durable familiar melodies and put their own spin on them and since the twenty years preceding this release also happened to be the time of adult pop music’s reign there was a natural doubling-up on this material in the public sphere.

Benny Goodman, Ethel Waters, Art Tatum, Duke Ellington, Artie Shaw, Vaughn Monroe, Harry James, Errol Garner, Lionel Hampton… that’s pretty good company and there are even bigger names – and bigger versions – still to come.

But none of those – and few to follow – were rock acts. In fact there wouldn’t be another rock sax player to tackle it until King Curtis, the only saxophonist to rival, and maybe surpass, Bostic on a technical level, who cut a sappy pop version not indicative of his genius in 1966.

So what are the odds that Bostic is going to even approach a rock styled arrangement of Moonglow in 1952… with a young John Coltrane on tenor no less?

One in a hundred? More?

Well, this IS Earl Bostic we’re talking about which means if you get those odds for something that seems far fetched musically, always… ALWAYS… take them.

Though you’d lose you shirt if you wagered it on the flip side, a swinging but not quite rocking version of Ain’t Misbehavin’, you’d win it all back and then some on this side which turns out to be far more aligned with rock ‘n’ roll than jazz and yet still remains tethered to the jazz tune at its core.


Led Me Straight To You
We know that Earl Bostic has the ability, as well as the inclination, to play his alto sax with the rough texture of a tenor, but on a song that is generally as well-heeled as this one, you think maybe he might tone it down and soft peddle it, focusing more on the daintiness of the melody rather than the rhythm grit that is lurking under the surface.

But no, the latter is precisely what interests Bostic the most here and his tone, his texture and his intensity in the opening refrains sets the mood for the record, even as he naturally pulls back on that for portions of the song.

The arrangement therefore has two or three different aims but they’re pulled together nicely. The main thrust of Moonglow of course is Bostic’s lead and how navigates it from the harsher sounds his horn can produce to the slightly more laid back and whimsical tones you’d be more likely to associate with the song’s origins. Yet he never goes more than a few bars before tapping into the lung searing sound, even if the notes themselves aren’t played to knock you back in your seat, the presence of them are designed to grab your attention, giving this the edgy atmospheric façade it requires to pass muster as a rock record.

But then there are the other musicians who have to be incorporated into the arrangement in a way that softens that approach enough to intrigue jazz or pop listeners without completely subverting what Bostic is doing.

The first half consists mainly of two contributors, the drummer (either Specs Wright or Ike Isaacs), and Gene Redd playing vibes. The former adds enough of a backbeat to give Bostic’s lines the platform they need to connect, while the latter give it that spacy dream-like quality that sounds as if it’s drifting from a cocktail party through the many potted plants that tower over the people on their way to passing out.

Once we hit the halfway mark the sonic palette is opened further as other horns start playing a lazily intoxicating riff of their own behind Bostic’s more emphatic lead. Redd takes over on vibes for a solo and while it’s a pleasant sound and doesn’t stick around long enough to get tedious, it nevertheless reminds you of the record’s dual objectives in a way the rest of it doesn’t.

But Bostic soon returns for the home stretch, wrapping it up without necessarily taking sides in the debate. After all, he’s got a home in each zip code, no need to rile the neighbors on either block by definitively choosing one over the other… but let it be said, when it comes his horn overall, he’s getting his mail delivered from the rock post office for sure.


Float Right Through The Air
As welcome a performance as this is, two things stand out that you might not have anticipated going in.

The first is that the melodic attributes aren’t quite as distinctive as other songs from that era and milieu. It’s not so much that Bostic turns the melody on its head, but it’s almost as if you’re waiting for something more memorable to kick in… that hook where you say, “Ohhh, NOW I know this!”.

It’s a perfectly fine melody, but compared to some of the standards we’ve seen not quite as iconic on its own.

The other aspect of Moonglow that jumps out at you is how despite Bostic’s commitment to keeping the rock fan fully engaged… not caving in to any outside pressure, or for that matter any internal conflict over what he’s doing to this song and dialing it back too much out of respect for the esteem it’s held in… that it still can’t transcend the source and become something shocking different.

Maybe if he’d been determined to blow up a storm he could’ve shocked, horrified – and in our case delighted – listeners with a more radical re-invention, but you can see that if he’d chosen that route it would’ve almost ceased to be the same tune.

In the end what that means is his rendition is certainly the most rock-centric version of the song we’re likely to get, but that the composition itself has built-in limitations no matter what he had in mind.

As such it’s a testament to his skill that he was able to find the right balance to make it well worth hearing, yet at the same time a let down for him that it could never be anything more than just a decent rock instrumental that was almost interchangeable with a few dozen others of supposedly “lesser” origins.


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