Yesterday I posted two clips of Roger Williams, the most successful of the so-called ‘easy listening’ pianists of the 1950, 60s and beyond. But before Williams came several other influential and ground-breaking pianists in this highly specialized and often unfairly derided field of music. Chief among them was Carmen Cavallaro, a native New Yorker (yes that was his real name, not a stage name) who jumped to fame in his early twenties when he became a member of Rudy Vallee’s radio orchestra. Apparently he eclipsed the maestro in popularity and was soon on his own (AKA out on his ass), making semi-Latinesque ‘sweet music’ (as the hipsters sneeringly referred to it) as well as a fortune. Others playing in that genre at the time, like Eddy Duchin and Freddy Martin, had yet to pick up on the emerging Latin sound that Cavallaro made his trademark. Cavallaro–who quickly was dubbed ‘the poet of the piano’–developed a piano-playing style of glittering and rippling arpeggios to augment his melody, which was often arranged in thick and lush triple- and quadruple-octave chords. In addition to Latin rhythms and tangos, his musical interests and arrangements included dance music as well as pop and jazz arrangements of classical melodies. Liberace was greatly influenced by both Cavallaro, once going so far as to say that he owed ‘everything I am’ to Cavallaro’s influence. Above are two videos. The first is a clip of Cavallaro appearing with Bing Crosby in a short World War 2 propaganda entertainment called ‘Hollywood Victory Caravan’. The second is a complete Cavallaro LP, the 1961 ‘Cocktail Time’.

As I said yesterday, some may mock my enthusiasm for ‘light piano’ or perhaps even think I’m kidding–after all, how can a jazz pianist really listen to this stuff with a straight face? My answer is: my face isn’t straight, it’s suffused with joy and awe (and turns me into the pile of mush who would write that last sentence). I love Cavallaro’s trills, runs and rich romantic touch. Just to show you that I’m not alone among jazz musician admirers, here’s a link to an episode of Marian McPartland’s NPR show ‘Piano Jazz’. McPartland, a giant jazz pianist, has Cavallaro on as a guest, expresses great admiration for him and even plays a duet with him. Listening to the duet, it’s quite obvious (perhaps even painfully so) who is soloing at what point. McPartland’s inventive be-bop piano lines contrast sharply with Cavallaro’s more stiffly delivered and less harmonically interesting ones. But that’s who he was–much like I pointed out with Roger Williams yesterday, Cavallaro’s technique and approach eschewed improvisation and adventure; he was all about delivering a thick, fat, luscious few choruses of a popular tune of the day. Cavallaro’s many LPs are now retro classics–Martini’s, moonlight, seductive late night assignations in apartments with city views–and an unironic and straight-forward reassessment of his legacy is well in order.


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