DERBY 728; JANUARY 1950

 
 

 

In 1692 the first offical postal service America came into being and ever since – as the saying goes – “Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds”.

Lately it seems Freddie Mitchell, a tenor saxophonist not a mailman I assure you, must have had that saying tattooed across his chest.
 

 

Ready For Take Off
You gotta hand it to Freddie Mitchell and Derby Records, as they seemed bound and determined to fill in any gaps in listeners education by using his records to document the history of the United States Postal Service.

Their first effort in this mission came with Pony Express, an ode to the short-lived overland service provided by intrepid horses and their vainglorious riders around 1860 who carried letters to homsteaders on the prairies of the west, their saddlebags stuffed with the usual junk mail advertising from shady businesses touting their sales on plug tobacco, wax for their mustaches and wagon wheels (Buy Three, Get One Free!).

Now they’re back at it with Air Mail Boogie, taking us into the Twentieth Century method for delivering catalogs from Montgomery Ward and Sears & Roebuck. Just be thankful Derby closed its doors before Mitchell got around to hyping the E-Mail Shimmy or something in the 1990’s.

Today’s record wasn’t an original song however and therefore it’s not hard to see that it was chosen specifically because of the title to give listeners a sense of continuity from one single to the next. But even here the title was altered slightly to reflect the new age, taking what Benny Goodman had done back in 1941 as Air Mail Special and pepping the engine up by affixing a boogie to it.

Unfortunately though, while much more powerful than Goodman’s ancient big band biplane (itself a reworked version of his own Good Enough To Keep from that same year featuring a smaller sextet highlighted by co-writer Charlie Christian’s guitar solo), this new rendition by Freddie Mitchell is still not quite a jet age record by any means and Mitchell may need to stop to refuel so he doesn’t run out of gas before he gets to his desired destination.
 
 


 
 

Check Your Altimeter
As befitting a remake of a record from a bygone era the sounds that open this are ten years out of date, but what’s interesting is that while it’s definitely Goodman’s song they’re basing this on, the way in which they open it shows how Goodman had subtly lifted his own ideas from Glenn Miller’s immortal In The Mood, released a year earlier in 1940.

Goodman either hid it better, or more likely Mitchell and crew just chose to highlight those similarities more blatantly in their introduction via the band’s construction and the more overt melodic touches they inject once the bass and piano subside and the horns kick in.

The problem with that approach though is that it’s now 1950, not 1940 and not only has there been a huge generational turnover since then but the musical requirements for reaching this new audience have changed with the times. The general rule of thumb with these things is: The closer you get to something that conjures up images of the past the less chance you have to satisfy those in the present.

So we’re forced to confront the fact that the tight horns that open Air Mail Boogie are archaic sounding by nature, even with the more rhythmic piano lead-in to their appearance, and while Mitchell himself provides a little bit of a modern edge with his sax out front as opposed to trumpets (though they’re here too), the song can’t help but have the patina of hazy memories affixed to it.

Things begin to shape up a bit when Mitchell launches into his solo, his tone appropriately gritty and harsher sounding than anything either Miller or Goodman would’ve allowed a decade earlier. From this point forward the glaring similarities to its source are increasingly lost thanks to the differing personnel. Mitchell is taking the role of Goodman’s clarinet and of course those two instruments are pretty far apart in their sonic foundations so the connection between the song versions can’t help but seem more tenuous.

But while Mitchell’s a good sax player he’s still not quite ostentatious enough to be at the forefront of rock’s saxophone debauchery. Granted in comparison to what was offered on the Goodman record he sounds light years ahead, but when weighing him against his own peers in rock he still is falling a little bit short, though this is actually one of his better efforts to date.

To his credit he’s been effectively learning on the job and from one session to the next you can see him start to adapt his playing to rock’s much cruder requirements. He’s coarsening his tone more, varying the sounds to provide a more extreme contrast from one line to the next, even eschewing melody for rhythm at times, all to ensure that the energy level doesn’t lag.

Unfortunately that last task he leaves to his bandmates who still haven’t quite gotten the message and as a result are more than willing to have that energy lag when they take the spotlight.
 


 

Hitting Turbulence
It’s hard to fault the arrangement of the mid-section of the song as it deviates from the Goodman model which went to the trumpets at the midway point and then saxes before all the horns closed it out, whereas this finds Mitchell’s sax yielding the floor to the piano instead.

The change in instruments is a good move here in theory, and the early playing is pretty decent as he limbers his fingers on the treble keys in an engaging manner. But as we’ve mentioned before with all of Mitchell’s work, his pianists seemed to have an unusual aversion to any key even approaching middle C, choosing instead to stick to the far right of the ivories, thereby largely eliminating any suggestion of power or rhythmic thrust that songs like this need to keep things humming.

Harry Van Walls is the one manning the stool on this one and he’s a legendary figure in early rock whose chops are not in doubt so this tendency to veer right as it were was clearly by Mitchell’s own design and it reaches its nadir when Van Walls skirts the edge of a dog’s hearing at the two minute mark, picking out the last keys on the horizon as the poor bassist is left trying to drag the song back onto firmer territory.

From there however we get a more dramatic transformation as the baritone sax takes over and the shift in sound is like a whipsaw effect, snapping your head back to deeper – yet hardly more melodic – notes from what the piano was laying down.

Again, in theory all of this is fine, you’re highlighting drastically different sounds so the arrangement doesn’t get mundane, but in practice it’s obvious this doesn’t work as intended because the extremes of ANY instrumentation are purposefully incompatible with one another.

Considering how long this goes on before Mitchell jumps back in for a belated coda that tries cramming in both a sudden ramping up of the excitement and an even more abrupt dialing down of that excitement for an extended fade out, the second half of Air Mail Boogie has you wishing you saddled up the horses for another ride through the wilderness rather than trying to leave the ground in this rickety old crop-duster.
 

Touching Back Down On Solid Ground
In rock’s first three years the sax instrumental wasn’t just one of the surest ways to get a hit – or to get noticed for that matter, hit records or not – thanks to the flamboyant style and its relentless focus on maximizing energy and excitement among its listeners, but it was also a way to bridge the gap between the past and the present.

Rock’s primary early practitioners, at least among its musicians, were jazz refugees in one form or another. Some were old hands from bigger ensembles looking for a way to weather the downturn in jazz’s commercial outlets, while other younger artists, like Freddie Mitchell, were guys who had apprenticed in those bands before setting out on their own to make a name for themselves in this new style.

Mitchell has managed to do that fairly well so far, showing few signs of being aesthetically repulsed by these edicts to blow and honk like crazy, something many of the older guard found off-putting even as they consented to do so out of a sense of survival, but Mitchell’s willingness to wade into the fray hasn’t meant he’s lost all of those earlier instincts altogether.

Air Mail Boogie is the perfect case in point. Thanks to its origins its framework is an odd, and not always easily reconciled, mixture of old and new, and as is often the case that combination doesn’t always come together as seamlessly as they’d like.

The best advice for Mitchell would be to start looking forward rather than looking backwards – or if you want to tie it in with the theme, for him to pick up the telephone rather than writing letters – and once they do that they should be able to stay airborne for a lot longer.
 
 
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT:

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

 
(Visit the Artist page of Freddie Mitchell for the complete archive of his records reviewed to date)