Sunday, December 13, 2009

Ira Ironstrings plays Santa Claus (1959)

This Christmas post will celebrate a personal favorite Christmas album and a wonderful series of recordings by the infamous Ira Ironstrings on Warner Bros, Records.
This series featured great jazz playing and clever swinging arrangements with a touch of Spike Jones' comedy. For years the identity of Ira Ironstrings was unknown but now we know that it was Big Bandleader/Guitar Great Alvino Rey doing some moonlighting. Rey was under contract to Capitol records and created the Ironsides persona as a way to make these fun, swinging albums. (Alvino had a great sense of humor). Alvino plays banjo on these sides , the rest of the players are unknown but have to be a core of the Hollywood studio pros-the musicianship is superb! Warren Barker handled much of the arranging and I suspect guitarist Jack Marshall might have also had a hand- some of the charts sound like his work for other albums.

There's a lot of dixieland, swing ,banjo and plenty of slap-mallet vibe work.(Whoever the player was, he got a workout on the sessions-Emil Richards, a top studio pro has been suggested) . The comedy is subtle but still in the Spike Jones' style-It really comes into play on the Christmas album.(Subtitled-Christmas Music For Those Who Have Heard Everything). I first discovered this album during a stint at a local music store. The owner loved this album and played it during the holidays-I borrowed it and made a cassette copy and now am delighted to have the CD from Collector's Choice Music. Dave Kapp's exellent liner notes echo his own childhood fascination with this album.

The original cover is reproduced with Santa tied down ala Gulliver by irate citizens! The original liner notes are also here-they were always a highlight of the Ironsides series. Despite the humor and bogus persona we get a lot of great jazz and amazing playing by Alvino and his studio pros.
I'm sure some of the usual suspects would include Mannie Klein, Shorty Sherock and John Best-trumpets , Si Zenthner,Abe Lincoln and Moe Scneider-trombone , Skeets Herfurt, Babe Russin, Matty Matlock (who also contributed some of the arrangements) and Gus Bivona-reeds , Ray Sherman or Lou Busch,piano(Lou produced this album-better known as Joe "Fingers" Carr, he guested on another Ira lp) , Morty Corb, bass and perhaps Nick Fatool or Alvin Stoller, drums. If anyone has info. on the personell (especially the mystery vibes man) I'd love to hear from you.

Now on to some of the many musical highlights:
Let it Snow-We get off to a swinging start with a neat riff on the familiar melody. Next is a Dixieland passage (the soprano sax sounds a bit like George Probert from the Firehouse 5) followed by the vibes (a fixture of the Ira sound) , with swinging backround, some growl trumpet, bass clarinet , back to the unison and a dixie ending.

Jingle Bells Stomp-The dixie group opens up followed by bass clarinet backed by sleigh bells, slap vibes, more dixie and back to the bass clar. and bells.

Skater's Nightmare (Waltz)-This is one of the wildest cuts and has popped up on Music Choice on Cable channels. We start with trombone lead backed by tricky piano noodling and growl trumpet. Alvino's banjo handles the verse , a band interlude brings on the vibes(always swinging in 4/4) , unison banjo/vibes on the verse with more trumpet growls and a wild drum break. An all-out band chorus brings back Alvino for the verse, a touch of tympani and dixie finish. All in 2 and a half minutes!.

I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus- Shuffle Rhythm opens with trombone lead and wa-wa trumpet. Next is the dixie band and vibes followed by a mellow trumpet (or flugelhorn) solo. A bit of growl trombone, soprano and dixie finish with a Lawrence Welk ending!

Christmas is for the Birds!-An original , probably by Alvino and/or Barker. Lots of sleigh bells, flutes and bird calls. Banjo takes the bridge with some Spike Jones effects , some dixie , a chimes interlude incorporating other Xmas tunes then back to the theme , a unison bridge , touch of banjo and dixie finish with a birdcall coda. Lots of Fun!

Deck them Halls- Two guitars in harmony open with the theme (probably Alvino) backed by bells. Some dixie follows , chimes lead to banjo/vibes unison with some dirty Spike Jones-ish trombone (perhaps Abe Lincoln?). More vibes , dixie and back to the 2 guitars for a fugue ending. A real clever chart.

Over the River (And thru the Woods)- We open with dixie and the familiar vibes followed by a cute unison riff ,more dixie a chimes break and dixie to the coda. A neat twist on a real Christmas oldie.

Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer- Bass clarinet states the melody with cute band answers , a banjo bridge , touch of flute then into the dixie chorus with some honky tonk piano(probably Lou) and soprano sax. Back to the Bass Clar. and the vibes ride out the coda.

Frosty the Snowman- A dixie intro followed by more honky tonk piano , the dixie band (vibes and banjo on bridge) and a neat unison passage by the band. Some more hokey trombone and back to the piano and dixie band with a neat modulation.

Sleigh Ride- The Leroy Anderson favorite gets a swinging ride by Ira and pals. Banjo/vibes state melody with trombone playing the counter melody with growl trumpet on bridge. On the second chorus the next theme is played in unison with some banjo licks , more drum breaks and a dixie finale with banjo on the bridge and coda.

Santa Claus is Comin' to Town- We wrap things up with a mellow version of this perennial. Bass clarinet has a clip-clop figure while banjo/vibes state melody backed by bells with wa-wa trumpet. Next is dixie with vibes on bridge and back to unison melody with bas clar. having the last say.

We hope this review inspires you to pick up this very special and un-traditional Christmas album. Hopefully we will see more Ironstrings albums reissued. There are great titles such as Ira Ironstrings plays for People with $3.98 , Destroys the Great Bands , Plays with Matches and Meets Joe "Fingers" Carr-Together for the Last Time Vol.1.
These albums are a testament to the musical talents and humor of Alvino , his arrangers and top sidemen.

Happy Holidays.


flagstaff said...

The slap mallet vibes work might have been done by Larry Bunker, who played that instrument on the Jack Marshall LP "Soundsville," also released in 1959.

Anonymous said...
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Anonymous said...

My dad, Dale Anderson, was one of the percussionists on the album, however, he did not play vibes. I'm glad this has been re-released.