JJ 05/82: Oscar Alemán – swing guitarist /2

Forty years ago, Tomás Mooney concluded his densely informative review of the career and recordings of the late Argentinian jazzman. First published in Jazz Journal May 1982

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Oscar Alemán and his Maccaferri guitar

In 1940, because he “didn’t get along well with the Germans”, as he said, Alemán was repatriated with the help of the Argentinian embassy. At about that time a group of musicians from France and USA settled in Buenos Aires, altoist Booker Pittman, tenorist Big Boy Goudie, Ray Ventura’s big band in full, as well as several others less well known. This coin­cided with the coming of age of a brilliant generation of native jazzmen and with economic prosperity, all of which resulted in the period of the greatest achievement and popularity of jazz in Argentina, unfortunately scantily documented on record owing to wartime lack of materials.

Alemán was no stranger to this movement. Soon after his arrival (late 1940) he formed his Quinteto de Swing with violin, rhythm guitar, bass and drums, all in the hands of competent musicians, two of them well above average: violinist Hernan Oliva, an excellent soloist with a full sound, fluent ideas, and phrasing nearer Venuti than Grappelli, and guitarist Dario ‘Johnny’ Quaglia, a great rhythm man. The group sound different from the original Hot Club Of France Quintet, because of the use of drums instead of a second rhythm guitar and it is a significant difference, reflecting the leader’s concept of rhythm. About this time Alemán began to use the amplified guitar, without noticeably changing his way of playing.

This quintet recorded 10 titles for Argentinian Odeon between 1941 and 1942. Only five are jazz – often Argentinian 78s coupled a fox-trot with a Latin tune. In Alemán’s case this was not wholly a commercial concession, as he always took Brazilian music seriously. Besides, to many record buyers the fox­trot was the ‘flip side’ … Among the jazz titles there is Alemán’s signature tune, Man Of Mine (1), a beautiful melody composed in 1932 and christened by Josephine Baker, later recorded again on (13), a version of I Got Rhythm (8) with cascading percussive guitar solos and a nice violin spot, a hokumful In The Mood (5, 8) with vocal comments, tapping on the guitar box, a short sample of OA’s scat, and strong improvising, as well as the first recording of Sweet Georgia Brown (5), one of the tunes he played more often.

In 1943 the quintet was reorganised with new men and instrumentation – piano was added. As sometimes happens it is a quintet of six. The only soloist heard at length besides Alemán is violinist Manuel Gavinovich, again a man deserving attention. He played in a driving, barrelhouse way, putting swing before everything else (even intonation) and had an acid sound very much his own – he is one of those musicians you either like or dislike, no in-between.

Between 1943 and 1948 they recorded (always for Odeon) about 40 sides, three quarters of them jazz. A remarkably consistent series, almost everything I know from it is top class, at least with regard to Alemán’s work. Such a display of quality in quantity is enough to build a reputation on, and makes comments redundant – they should be heard! I will just mention some highlights.

Alemán’s scat, a kind of nasal growling, was very different from his natural talking voice. When he sang lyrics he sounded not unlike João Gilberto

First of all, a monumental Star Dust (8), a delicate guitar paraphrase of the theme. There are also standards that always get original readings, among them I Never Knew (10), Limehouse Blues (1), Cherokee (1), Honeysuckle Rose (9), Lady Be Good (9), Tea For Two (1), Blue Skies (8), Bugle Call Rag (5, 10), some titles one would not expect to find here, like Goin’ To The County Fair (1), Doin’ The New Low Down (5), Sentimental Journey (10), Better Not Roll Those Blue Eyes (1), Darktown Strutters’ Ball (10), I’m Be­ginning To See The Light (10), a couple of Alemán’s originals such as Scartunas (1), a tune very like Django’s and Cómo Te Llamas? (What’s Your Name?) (10), a bouncing swing melody that reminds me of Sid Catlett’s compositions – I would like to hear it played by a combo with horns – and two comic numbers: Besame Mucho (8), a pop ditty broken into pieces in Fats Waller’s way, by stressing the inconsistencies of the lyrics, and Diga Diga Doo (5) which by the accentuation of an Eastern tinge always perceptible in OA’s scat becomes a delirious Arabian farce in a Marx Brothers/Slim Gaillard bag – though the interpolated tune is not Arabic but Jewish, a song called The Scissors. In both cases, the fun does not hinder some no-nonsense improvising. By the way, Alemán’s scat, a kind of nasal growling, was very different from his natural talking voice. When he sang lyrics (which he only did on Latin tunes) he sounded not unlike João Gilberto.

There were no new records for several months, until early 1951 when a new Odeon series began, using a different concept. The group is larger – labels now announce Oscar Alemán y su Orquesta (clarinet, three violins and rhythm) and it is no more a jazz unit but a showcase for the leader’s solos, a sort of mini Oscar Alemán With Strings. Alemán kept his orchestra almost without changes until 1959 and recorded about 50 titles with it, most of them quite elaborate arrangements. Alemán himself (the only soloist) plays more or less in the same way as before, at times a shade starker, less ornamented. He was not affected in any way by the emergence of bop, though he did not reject the new forms of jazz. He used to say he just was too sure of the worth of his own music to feel the need for exploring new areas.

Sometimes the orchestra is not as schmaltzy as would be expected. Often on fast or medium fast tempos it is not too offensive, e.g., on Sweet Georgia Brown (8) in which it appears only at the end, after the fast clipped exposition, a solo, and a passage by voice and guitar in unison – one of OA’s greatest. Or, Scartunas (1), 1952 version, faster than the earlier one by the quintet, where the high point is a dialogue between the guitar and the orchestra playing very Alemán-like phrases, Daphne (9), the only Reinhardt composition ever recorded by OA, featuring two guitar solos very unlike Django’s, Ensayo A Las Tres (Rehearsal At Three O’Clock) (1), a swing riff-tune (sounding quite odd with this instrumentation) which begins and ends with hokum patter and has some solid guitar playing in between, as well as others like Crazy Rhythm (8), Rose Room (1), and Avanzando De Costado (Advancing Sideways) (1) with sober arrangements and good solos.

But the strings raise their syrupy head and only Alemán rescues After You’ve Gone (10), Who’s Sorry Now (9), Mr Sandman (8), Vieni Sul Mar (9) (with a strange mandolin-inspired solo – suitably Neapolitan) and, above all, Night And Day (8), in my opinion OA’s best ballad record (though played faster than ballad tempo) together with Stardust. Here the violins are particularly dire and Alemán particularly good – the whimsical bridge he plays is a joy. There are also other titles nobody can save, ugly tunes of the fifties like Moulin Rouge (10) and Limelight (10).

In 1959, after a tour through Spain and Portugal, Alemán disbanded. Not much was heard from him for the next 12 years or so. It was known he had pupils, and there were a few public performances from time to time. The only recordings from the sixties are some radio transcriptions, partly issued recently on (11) and (12). (11) is a rather uneventful set, even though Crazy Rhythm (with a trumpet section reading the violin parts from the old orchestra arrangement) is outstanding, as is the relaxed solo on Lullaby Of Birdland. The remaining tracks, with clarinet and a capable rhythm section (sometimes a violin is added) are not so good. The sidemen take a lot of solo space and they are not up to the task. When Alemán is not playing quality drops – and on some tracks he does not appear at all! His short solos are good, particularly a complex one on China Boy and again on What Is This Thing Called Love.

While this article was being written, (12) was released, and it was a pleasant surprise. It shows OA at his best, very inspired and with an unobtrusive accompaniment (bass and drums). This uncomplicated setting generates ebullient and very personal versions of In The Mood, I Got Rhythm and Alexander’s Ragtime Band, a Jewish flavoured and rather sinister Bei Mir Bist Du Schoen and, in the same oriental vein, Caravan, with a banjo-like solo. Tono No 1 is a strange minor original in which Alemán plays masterfully over the whole range of the instrument. On this LP he is also at his best as a player of Brazilian music. (12) is a complete portrait of the artist and shows how unjustified was Alemán’s absence from the recording studios at this time.

Oscar Blues No 3 is a nice composition without the least blues feeling – Alemán was never a bluesman

With the next decade began the rediscovery. In 1971 EMI released (8), the first reissue of Odeon 78s, still in catalogue now and probably the best Alemán LP available. The next year a small label, Redondel, recorded (13) and from that moment OA’s second career was launched – he worked non-stop until a few days before his death. In (13) Alemán recorded unaccompanied for the first time since the Copenhagen solos of 1938. As with those, the three electric guitar solos on (13) are not strictly jazz, and this applies even to Oscar Blues No 3 which is a nice composition without the least blues feeling – Alemán was never a bluesman.

(14) from 1973 finds Alemán accompanied by Jorge Anders’ orchestra on six tracks and a contingent from it (clarinet plus rhythm) on the remaining four. Reedman and arranger Anders had a well-drilled and swinging Basieish band with considerable solo strength and fine original charts. (These qualities of his Buenos Aires unit also apply to the band he is leading now in NYC – readers from The Apple should check it, I have heard an exciting tape featuring Lew Soloff, Burt Echols and veteran Mousie Alexander among many other fine musicians). Anders admired and respected Alemán, something remarkable considering their generational and stylistic differences. To record them together was a good idea; the sound of the guitar over a big band in a Solo Flight way is beautiful in itself and rarely heard. However, I find the results disappointing. In my opinion Alemán’s solos are rather bland, overcautious and there is lack of rapport as well, particularly on chases between Alemán and another soloist. It seems as if the guitar had been dubbed over previously recorded band parts and Alemán had not been able to adapt to this way of working. That was not the case, however, as both Alemán and Anders have confirmed. My lukewarm reaction to this record seems to be atypical. Many people who know their jazz think this is one of the best (or the best) of Alemán LPs.

Alemán’s final recording was (15) from 1974. It does not intend to be a jazz LP but a sample of his versatility. There are only three jazz tracks, China Boy, Whispering, and Joe Louis, by Alemán’s regular working group, again saddled with an unswinging rhythm section, besides a very cold clarinet player. Guitar solos are good, nearer old (young!) OA than the other records from this time, but they have an air of something learned by heart, often repeated. The same group cut also a Brazilian tune, Carinoso, played straight in a further demonstration of Alemán’s reluctance to jazz Latin music, even after bossa nova.

As I said before, Alemán kept working up to the end. One of his last public appearances was on a TV programme on 30/9/80. He died in the early hours of 14/10/80. The sad news was front-page material, something unusual for a jazz musician, anywhere.

I think Alemán deserves a place among the great swing guitarists. No doubt he would be generally acknowledged if his records were more widely known. I encourage anyone interested in jazz guitar to get acquainted with his music, though his LPs are not easy to find outside Argentina. If British EMI could be persuaded to acquire the rights to some Odeon masters from their Argentinian counterpart, a couple of great LPs could be compiled – and the legend made reality.

See part 1 of Oscar Alemán – swing guitarist

Discography and bibliography
(1) Not on LP
(2) Harrison K
(3) Parlophone PMC 7104, EMI (F) CHTX 240.328 – Bill Coleman
(4) Parlophone PMC 7105 – Bill Coleman
(5) TOM31 – Oscar Alemán
(6) TOM 41, Swingfan 1008 – Danny Polo
(7) Pathé CO54-16022 – Swing Sessions
(8) Odeon (Arg) 4120 – Oscar Alemán ‘Ritmo Loco’
(9) EMI (Arg) MFP 4645 – ‘El Increible Swing De Oscar Alemán’
(10) Odeon (Arg) 4338 – ‘El Increible Swing De Oscar Alemán – vol 2’
(11) Tonodisc Impacto (Arg) IMP-14014 – ‘Otra Vez, Oscar Alemán’
(12) Tonodisc Impacto (Arg) IMP-14068 – Oscar Alemán
(13) Redondel (Arg) SL-10508 – ‘Alemán ’72’
(14) Redondel (Arg) SL-10511 – ‘Oscar Alemán Con Jorge Anders y su Orq.’
(15) Redondel (Arg) L-809 – ‘Oscar Alemán En Todos Los Ritmos’
(16) Jan Evensmo, ‘The Guitars of Charlie Christian, Robert Normann, Oscar Alemán’. Brian Rust – ‘Jazz Records 1897-1942′ Walter Bruyninckx – ’60 Years Of Recorded Jazz’
Willy Oliver, Abel Deusebio – Unpublished interviews with Alemán and others. Several interviews with Alemán published in Argentinian journals and periodicals.