Artie Shaw version analysed by Robert Walton
Whenever I play Frenesi in public, I normally get absolutely no reaction whatsoever from anyone in the audience. I don’t know what that says about my playing or indeed about one of the catchiest Latin American melodies ever. Surely you would think Artie Shaw’s fifth million seller of 1940 would have left some sort of impression. The problem could be that the actual tune is not exposed enough in the William Grant Still arrangement but gets drowned in too much improvisation. So if you weren’t a big band fan, it wouldn’t mean a thing. Mind you, Latin tunes have always tended to appeal to the jazz fraternity. You hardly ever hear Frenesi these days on radio but when you do it’s often mispronounced as “Fren-acey”. Just to set the record straight the correct pronunciation rhymes with “Tennessee”.
Here in Galway in the Republic of Ireland there are two recent exceptions to the lack of response I was experiencing, proving that multiculturalism is alive and well. The first at this year’s Claregalway Garden Festival occurred while I was playing a piano purposefully left out to encourage people of all ages and standards to tickle and tackle the ivories. As I went into Frenesi out from the crowd popped a Spanish lady who immediately began singing this classic in her own language. I couldn’t believe my ears! After so many years of silence I was completely bowled over and thrilled by this unexpected turn of events and welcome intrusion. And luckily the key of C seemed to suit her perfectly. I demanded a rerun and without hesitation she instantly obliged. I was in heaven. Now I understood why Frenesi meant “frenzy” in Spanish!
The second occasion was in Ballinrobe at a local care home when I got the shock of my life on hearing someone whistling Frenesi as I was playing it. He turned out to be a Cuban and a new member of staff - not a million miles from Mexico where it was originally composed for the marimba. Must be something to do with the genes or DNA. Again I was totally taken aback. Reveling in the opportunity of having a soloist I continued forth in my new found role as accompanist. Incredibly not one person seemed to notice this unusual musical partnership!
If it hadn’t been for Shaw’s health problems caused by pressure of work, Frenesi might never have surfaced. For it was while recovering in Mexico that Shaw, looking for new material, heard the song played by a mariachi band. It proved to be one of his biggest hits.
So let’s take a closer look at this million selling record that most of the world has apparently never heard of. Basically it’s a series of improvisations by various members of the orchestra with very little Shaw. In 1940, Artie returned with a brand new 33-piece band including 13 strings that were still something of a novelty in the world of swing. The touch of a light orchestra with a dance band was irresistible. Farnon in embryo. If an introduction makes me smile like this one does, I know I’m in for something really special.
Lovely soothing strings lead straight into Shaw’s gorgeous clarinet tone and unique vibrato. The first 8 bars are played straight enough but thereafter Artie goes his own way. So if you were interested in the tune for its own sake, now’s the time to digest it before it gets lost in the rainforest of the arrangement. At least the middle 8 is played straight by Jack Cave on flugelhorn. Clearly swing is now the name of the game, as Shaw proceeds to jazz-up the melody, although to be fair you can still make out the tune. At the end of the first chorus there’s a delightful string quote from the 91-year-old Manhattan sounding as fresh as the day it was born.
The brass swing along nicely for 8 bars, changing key and leading to a 16 bar section featuring strings and flugelhorn. A bar of woodwind decoration harks back to the musical style of Laurel & Hardy, while in the next break we get two bars of Latin American rhythm sounding like Spike Jones invading the middle of a foxtrot. Then a whole chorus is delivered by a tenor sax, followed by a piano playing the middle 8 with flute support. Manny Klein gives us a classy 8 bars of muted trumpet as only he can. Then the band takes us back to Shaw for his final fling for one of the most sudden endings in Big Bandom. The quiet tune descends six notes down the scale to a tango-like finish featuring the single note of the flugelhorn dying away.
Could it be possible that the arranger had a mental block and ran out of ideas? Maybe there was a deadline for getting Frenesi finished? Perhaps the copyist had been screaming for the score? Or even more bizarre, could the time limit on the actual making of the recording in the studio have run out? Whatever the reason, I have to say against all odds it somehow comes off. And after all this analysing, I have to admit it’s beginning to grow on me.
Starting with the sensational Begin The Beguine in 1938, Shaw’s discs sold like hot cakes clocking up eight million by 1941. Surely this must have constituted some sort of record!
My father had the opportunity of actually seeing Artie Shaw’s US Navy Band live in New Zealand during WW2. Before that the band had seen plenty of action in the Pacific Theatre playing jungles, aeroplane hangers, ship decks and even in remote areas camouflaged for protection from enemy attack. My father’s verdict on the music - absolute bilge! Obviously Dad didn’t dig these newer fellas!
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