One of my favorite jazz standards is The Night Has a Thousand Eyes. The melody line is so sensual and beckoning that it's pretty hard for a jazz artist to mess it up. Yet plenty have in the past and many still do. To deliver a version that makes listeners' arm hairs stand on end (the test of any song, really), an artist has to linger in the right places, play delicately in others, and watch the tempo. Too fast and it's like a rushed meal. Too slow and it's plodding and saccharine.
Interestingly, many listeners assume that the standard and the one Bobby Vee recorded in 1963 are the same song. They're not. Though the two sound oddly similar, they are quite different. The pop hit by Vee was written by Benjamin Weisman, Dorothy Wayne and Marilynn Garrett. The standard interpreted by jazz artists dates back to 1948, to the movie of the same name starring Edward G. Robinson. This song was written by Jerome Brainin and Buddy Bernier. Also interesting is that the standard sounds remarkably close to Benny Carter's Key Largo, which Benny first recorded in 1947 with Anita O'Day and Ralph Burns.
The Robinson film depicts the life of a fortuneteller whose act turns real when he starts seeing the future. Hence, the night and all those hundreds of eyes. The arrangement and score for the movie was by Victor Young.
Why the Vee hit has the exact same title and similar build and release device remains a mystery to me. Same with Carter's Key Largo. There's a story here, I'm sure, and I'll circle back to get to the bottom of it at a later date. For now, here are my favorite versions of The Night Has a Thousand Eyes, in order of preference. All are available as downloads at iTunes or Amazon and, when assembled, make for a fabulous music folder:
1. Horace Silver—Silver's Blue (1956). Recorded for Epic, this was a Silver leadership date that came on the heels of his famed 1956 session with the Jazz Messengers for Columbia. The tempo here is perfect, and Hank Mobley's interpretation on tenor sax is the big surprise. It's about as tasty a rendition as you'll find and the one to beat. Donald Byrd was on trumpet, Mobley was on tenor sax, Silver was on piano, Doug Watkins was on bass and Art Taylor was on drums. Interestingly, Taylor's Latin beat at the opener is close to a bossa nova, though the Brazilian beat hadn't yet been coined or popularized.
2. Sonny Rollins—What's New (1962). This album is the lesser-known and friendlier follow-up to Sonny's The Bridge. What's New features Sonny with Jim Hall on guitar, Bob Cranshaw on bass and Ben Riley on drums. Though Sonny's version came two years after John Coltrane's, his reading for me is more engaging, with his working of the lower register channeling African instrumentation. You also can hear Sonny listening intently to Hall and playing off the guitarist's ringing chords. Though technically a bossa nova, the track has a fascinating series of beats all mixed together.
3. Sonny Stitt—My Main Man (1964). This gem was recorded with Bennie Green on trombone and featured Bobby Buster on organ, Joe Diorio on guitar and Dorrell Anderson on drums. Everything about this track is fabulous, from the organ-guitar intro with the bossa beat to the exchanges between Sonny and Benny. The entire Prestige date was smartly thought out by producer Esmond Edwards, a photographer who was hired by label owner Bob Weinstock to produce albums.
4. John Coltrane—Coltrane Sound (1960). Coltrane struggled a bit with this tune. His first attempt, at the December 1959 Coltrane Jazz session, was rejected. Coltrane tried again on October 21, 1960 during the My Favorite Things date. But it, too, was tossed. Finally, four days later, while recording tracks for Coltrane Sound, Coltrane produced a master take. What makes the version so interesting is the cyclic feel that's reminiscent of Giant Steps and Coltrane's powerful attack on the standard.
5. Kenny Burrell—Lotus Blossom (1995). This entire album is a must-own. Burrell offers a tasteful, soft approach that patiently teases out the beauty of the song. On some tracks, Burrell plays solo. On others he's joined by Ray Drummond on bass and Yoron Israel on drums. On The Night Has a Thousand Eyes, Burrell, Drummond and Israel play a rendition that allows Burrell's chord choices to linger and shine.
6. Paul Desmond—Bossa Antigua (1964). Jim Hall appears twice on my list, the first time above on the Sonny Rollins session. Here, Hall plays off Desmond perfectly, and Desmond's playing on this album is nothing short of miraculous. I've always thought the album was the best of their collaborations. You simply can't stop listening to their version of The Night Has a Thousand Eyes, and Desmond's approach to the standard is tender and feathery.
7. Bud Shank—Taking the Long Way Home (2005). Bud takes a completely different approach to the standard. Rather than execute it as a bossa nova, Bud and his big band handle the track as a blowing session. The band featured Roger Ingram, Dennis Farias, Pete DiSiena, Ron Stout and Carl Saunders (trumpets); Andy Martin, Mike Barone, Charlie Morillas and Craig Gosnell (trombones); Bud Shank (alto sax); Lanny Morgan, Keith Bishop, Doug Webb, Brian Williams and Jack Nimitz (reeds); Bob Florence (piano, arranger and conductor); Christian Jacob (piano); Joel Hamilton (bass) and Kevin Kanner (drums).
8. Pharoah Sanders—Moon Child (1989). Sanders picks up where Coltrane left off, adding a slightly more pensive feel to his interpretation. A much underrated tenor saxophonist, Sanders' spiritual effort is often overlooked. Sanders was joined by William Henderson, III (piano), Stafford James (bass) Eddie Moore (drums) and Cheikh Tidiane Fall (percussion).
9. Stan Getz—Didn't We (1969). This song, like Luis Eca's The Dolphin, was tailor-made for Getz's sound and breezy phrasing. A fabulous strings and brass arrangement here was crafted by Johnny Pate, and it frames the tune's mood perfectly. Getz also recorded two Johnny Mandel standards on this album, The Shining Sea and Emily, that are absolute classics. Interestingly, Getz also recorded The Night Has a Thousand Eyes on The Dolphin, a live album from 1981. I think this one is a little finer.
10. Harry Belafonte—Deep as the River (1949). In general, The Night Has a Thousand Eyes doesn't lend itself well to a vocal. I'm not sure whether it's the lyrics or that the jazz solos over the years have rendered the words meaningless. There is one exception, and it's Harry Belafonte's version. Before you start groaning, you need to know that vocalist Belafonte was a 52d Street regular back in the late 1940s with a cool Jackie Paris sound. Belafonte actually recorded The Night Has a Thousand Eyes on his very first record session for Jubilee. And before you question whether this is truly jazz, let me hip you to the musicians on the date: Zoot Sims (a great solo), Al Haig, Jimmy Raney, Tommy Potter and Roy Haynes (on brushes!). Trust me, it's a beaut.