Warming Up

Warming Up

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Album Spotlight: Lester Bowie’s Brass Fantasy “I Only Have Eyes For You”

Before I even start to discuss this album, I have to mention the recorded sound of this album. The year was 1985. The label was ECM. Do you know where I’m going with this? The 80’s weren’t exactly the pinnacle of natural sounding recordings. The technology in recordings studios was getting better and better and most studios, engineers, and producers were going exclusively digital as opposed to analog. The result back then was a pretty sterile sounding product that may have sounded hip at the time, but years later, that stuff sounds severely dated. I don’t need to go into examples of 80’s pop and rock and jazz records to prove my point, right? Now add ECM into the picture. I have lots and lots of ECM records. I like ECM records and the musicians on them. I haven’t heard too many ECM records I didn’t enjoy. That said, there is an ECM “sound.” Often times that sound is “created” with lots of electronically-generated reverb (as opposed to the natural reverb in say, a 500 year old French church). When ECM first began, some of those early records are just dripping in reverb. It’s over the top, really. Then in the late seventies they settled down a bit. Then came the 80’s where just about everybody was guilty of gross over-production. That’s just how it was, I guess. A sign of the times. So why am I mentioning these negative things when I’m about to go off on how much I like this record? Because I have two versions of this album. A vinyl and an mp3 (256 kbps) version. Guess which one sounds way better? Yup, the vinyl. No comparison. Even though both versions feature the same digital recording, the analog product sounds so much better. It takes a little of the unappealing (to my ears, at least – and this is my blog after all, so I’m allowed to have opinions) digital shine off of the recording and makes the recording more listenable. So, if you are going to get this album – and you should because it’s a great one - get it on vinyl. Don’t have a record player? Well, you should get one!! :) They aren’t that expensive and records sound better and are just plain cooler than CDs.

Alright, so now that I’ve made that caveat, I can now extol the virtues of the Lester Bowie Brass Fantasy “I Only Have Eyes For You” album. It was Lester’s first record with his new group, Brass Fantasy, and for my money, this lineup is my favorite. And of all the subsequent Brass Fantasy albums, this first one is my favorite. The basic (and I know it’s not cool to reduce a great concept down to something so basic) premise for the group seems to have been: take some pop tunes and make arrangements for a brass band of improvisers with the lead role going to the great singer of songs, Lester Bowie. So if that’s the schtick with this band, then maybe why I like this first album so much is the fact that this first album only features one pop tune cover; the other five tracks are originals, two of which are Lester compositions. The cover feature here is obviously the title track which dates back to the early 30’s, but the version everyone today knows is the most popular: the 1959 version of “I Only Have Eyes For You” by the Flamingoes. The Flamingoes were a classic doowop group and they had their share of hits, but their version of this tune is one of the classic recordings of all time. It’s just magical. Here, listen. Awesome, right? Now, check out the Brass Fantasy version. It’s longer than the Flamingoes version but it stays pretty faithful to that 1959 arrangement, even down to those amazing “doo bop shoo bops.” I can hear Lester playing the words and I love how he sings that diminished feel coming out of the bridge each time the bands repeats. So many great sounds of Lester’s ridiculously huge arsenal of amazing trumpet sounds come out in this recording. He’s really a vocalist stuck with a trumpet. And dig Vincent Chancey’s French horn. Perfect.

What a great start to an amazing record. Another gem on this record is “Think” by trumpeter Bruce Purce (never heard of him before or after this record! Have you??). Malachi Thompson’sLament” is also pretty special. Lester’s two compositions on this record “Coming Home Jamaica” and “When the Spirit Returns” are also pretty sweet (some classic Lester on these) and indicative of the kinds of tunes he wrote and often played with later versions of the Art Ensemble of Chicago. And then there’s the great tuba monster Bob Stewart who is always the rock of Brass Fantasy albums. His tune “Nonet” is probably the most “avant” on this album. It’s amazing. Wonderful arrangement and spectacular group playing and improvisation. All in all, it’s a really special album from a performance standpoint and fro a compositional standpoint. Although some of the future Brass Fantasy records resort to kinda dialed-in, almost cheesy arrangements of pop tunes, the band never compromises here. There is some adventuresome and powerful playing and writing on this first album.

Have I sold you on this record yet? If you like brass instruments, if you like trumpet, if you like Lester Bowie, if you like The Flamingoes, if you like jazz, if you like good music, then you really should consider adding this album to your collection. A CD version is great, but if you can get it on vinyl you should. 


  1. Thanks for your words. I learned a little more about the album. This is for me one of the best jazz albnus. It is a journey. I love Lester Bowie's Brass Fantasy and the Art Ensemble of Chicago.
    Marco Pinto

  2. Nice writeup! I've always loved this album. Only have it on CD, but the CD sounds terrific. Will have to see if I can find a vinyl copy.