Nelson Riddle is best remembered as the arranger who helped re-invent Nat King Cole, Frank Sinatra and many other great Capitol recording artists of the 1950s. Riddle's genius rested with his ability to construct intricate instrumental textures and mount them delicately atop a swinging big-band beat. To establish a song's mood, Riddle was not above pairing, say, a bass clarinet and baritone saxophone with a Hammond B-3 organ and flute. The result of this and countless other instrumental collages was pure ear candy. To this day Riddle's charts sound so simple, yet even the most knowing listeners often find they are hard-pressed to decipher exactly what instruments were used. They're like giant magic tricks, and it's no wonder the best singers of the 1950s and beyond adored his sweet-and-power touch.
In addition to being a much in-demand Hollywood studio, TV and movie arranger, Riddle also was a composer. One of his finest albums in this capacity was Cross Country Suite, which won a Grammy in 1959 for Best Original Instrumental Composition. Recorded with 36 musicians over three days in the
summer of 1958, the album features 11
tracks, each one a different impressionistic portrait of America. According to the University of Arizona, the orchestrations were by Bill Jones, one of three ghostwriters Nelson used to help meet project deadlines. What makes the album particularly special is that it showcased the cool, knowing clarinet of Buddy DeFranco.
In retrospect, Cross Country Suite is Riddle's love letter to America. The music is pastoral and panoramic, and the recording may well be one of the first symphonic folk-jazz albums, akin to Ferde Grofe's Grand Canyon Suite and Aaron Copland's Rodeo and Billy the Kid. With Buddy soloing, the album becomes the musical equivalent of a Thomas Hart Benton mural.
Long out of print, Cross Country Suite recently was re-issued on CD by the Nelson Riddle estate and released by Universal Music. Each track runs between two and five minutes and was meant to capture the feel of the region it's named after. Taken together, the suite is a flurry of "Wish You Were Here" postcards, a sentimental soundtrack that brings America's wide-shouldered beauty to life. Each time you listen to this album, you feel as if you are gently crossing the country in the basket of a hot-air balloon—with Buddy pointing out the sites on his clarinet.
"I remember when my Dad brought the album home," said Rosemary Acerra, Nelson Riddle's daughter, when I spoke to her yesterday afternoon. "I knew he was working on it when I was 8 years old, and I started to listen to the album intently when I was 10, I became infatuated with his compositions and what they made me think of and the pictures they painted. This album was my Dad's concept of what this country looked and felt like, musically. I've always loved listening to it."
The album's opener, Tall Timber, sounds mighty, with French horns and trombones sawing away to tease out the impressions of a redwood forest. Smoky Mountain Country sounds like the rolling green hills and cabins of the rural South. The Rockies is explosive and captures the scale and magnitude of the peaks. The Great Lakes takes a jaunty approach, capturing the mood of a flatter landscape and a more distant horizon.
The Great Plains makes you think of golden wheat rustling in the wind, while Gulf Coast is three parts Bourbon Street, one part blues. On The Mississippi, you feel the slow chug of a riverboat, and a harmonica is added for a laid-back, Huck Finn flavor. Down East delivers a folksy, two-step riff, and El Camino Real offers a Latin touch. Metropolis is pure New York City, with the xylophone conjuring up images of people coming up out of a subway and skyscrapers with setbacks.
Finally, Longhorn is a tribute to Texas and Texans. As a bonus, there's a male chorus driving home the point with a vocal line dance. In unison, the voices chant: "We're much bigger than... stronger than... handsomer than... richer than... smarter than... braver than... any-one (clap-clap-clap)." It's pure Texas, big, tall and boastful.
All of these compositions provide Buddy DeFranco [pictured] with a massive continental canvas on which to create his own impressions. His clarinet is relaxed, swaying and always digging deep to create just the right regional touch. He moves in and out of Riddle's orchestrations and brings the entire suite together. There's bop, swing and everything else in between.
I've found that one of the most enjoyable ways to listen to this CD is with your eyes closed. You wind up seeing exactly what Nelson, Bill Jones and Buddy had in mind.
So who came up with the idea for Cross Country Suite? How was it recorded? Who sang those Longhorn vocals? Who played harmonica? And why was Buddy photographed on the album's cover wearing white bucks?
JazzWax tracks: Cross Country Suite has been remastered and reissued by the Nelson Riddle estate. It can be found here. Be sure to click on the "1 new & used" link, where you'll be able to order the album directly from Nelson Riddle Music. Rosemary Acerra tells me she has plenty of copies in stock, despite Amazon's claim that only one remains.
A special thanks to New York Sun jazz critic and author Will Friedwald, who brought this album to my attention and put me in touch with Rosemary. It was gratifying to finally tell her how much Nelson Riddle's work means to me and so many JazzWax readers.