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  • Writer's pictureNeil Rajala

CRATE DIGGING: Lawrence Welk & Johnny Hodges

I've been feeling like Mr. Teflon for the last month or so. I’ve been listening to my weekly batches of new releases and none of them are really sticking. Which is not to say I haven’t liked some - the new Willie Nelson, I Don’t Know a Thing About Love, is admirable, I took a few dives into Haken’s Fauna, an impressive Yes-meets-Metallica mash-up, and I’ve enjoyed the ultramodern take on Sade of Kali Uchis’ Red Moon in Venus - I just haven’t had any land solidly enough in my personal rotation to think they’re still gonna be around in another week or month as new releases continue to flow out.

Some of the bigger, highly anticipated March titles failed to stick, too. I thought I’d be raving about U2’s Songs of Surrender (too dreary), Depeche Mode’s Momento Mori (too stiff), and boygenius’ the record (too carefully p.c.). Even the new Long Ryders, September November, is too much of what they used to do well and not enough of what they used to do great. And if you want to hear what a modern pop-rock record created by robots using AI sounds like, check out Fall Out Boy’s So Much (for) Stardust. That one just made me feel old. So I took another dive into the LP stacks for oddities and came up with this one. Don’t laugh, Lawrence Welk & Johnny Hodges has a perfectly legit reason to exist.

• LAWRENCE WELK & JOHNNY HODGES (Dot, 1965) – I’ll keep the backstory to the little I know about the record, not a whole lot of info is available. Welk was a Duke Ellington fanboy, and was especially enamored with the sweet alto sax of Duke’s featured soloist of 40 years, Johnny Hodges. He was self-aware enough to understand that the music that made him and his TV show a success was a version of big-band jazz watered down and sanitized to appeal to listeners who had no taste for adventure. As much as he admired and wanted to record with Hodges, Welk, according to contemporaries, was too intimidated to reach out.

The story gets especially vague about how this 1965 L.A. recording session came to be, but it did. Say what you will about Welk’s music, he had the ability to recruit talented musicians and whip them into a well-oiled saccharine machine. Given detailed arrangements, his guys and gals could play anything. The LW orchestra had one job on this record - to provide a melodic, unobtrusive background for Hodges to solo over, and they do it very well. Nobody but Hodges takes a solo on the record, the band was there to lob softballs and let the “artist” knock them out of the park. Even the songs chosen were the smoothest, most recognizable jazz ballads known to mankind.

Hodges, for his part, plays magnificently throughout, and is a pure joy to listen to from start to finish. It'll never take the place of Blues-A-Plenty when I want my Hodges fix, but Lawrence Welk & Johnny Hodges gives me the same feels as the classic Charlie Parker with Strings. In some ways, I find this one more listenable. It has a (tiny) bit of bite to it that the great washes of sugary strings on Parker’s record doesn’t. The tradeoff is that Hodges’ playing, while impressive, isn’t as boldly creative as Parker’s. Jazz fans would do well to give both a listen.

Side One:

1. “Someone to Watch Over Me”

2. “Misty”

3. “Fantastic, That’s You”

4. “Star Dust”

5. “I Can’t Get Started”

6. “Haunting Melody”

Side Two:

1. “When My Baby Smiles at Me”

2. “Blue Velvet”

3. “Sophisticated Lady”

4. “Canadian Sunset”

5. “In a Sentimental Mood”

6. “I’m Beginning to See the Light”

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Apr 18, 2023

I'd never heard of this. It sounds fascinating. You're right about the recent new releases being so-so but you're over looking the big metal monkey in the woodpile. Metallica's "72 Seasons" has to be one of the biggest new release roll outs in eons. I'd love to hear your studied take on the record PRECISELY BECAUSE I perceive it to be so far outside of the Neil wheelhouse. Gauntlet thrown down :-)

Neil Rajala
Neil Rajala
Apr 19, 2023
Replying to

Challenge accepted. They're on my list of someday topics anyway, so maybe now's the time. You're right that I'm not a diehard fan, but I've heard everything and my hands-down favorite's in the vinyl collection. It gets frequent spins and no, it's not Lulu.

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