El Increible Swing
by Jorgen Larsen
Oscar Marcelo Alemán was born February 20th, 1909 in Resistencia, Province of El Chaco, Argentina. His father, Jorge Alemán Moreira, a guitarist, led a folk troupe touring Argentina and Brazil, in which young Oscar was a dancer. The family soon broke up - Jorge Alemán committed suicide shortly after his wife's death, and Oscar found himself alone in the streets of Santos (Brazil) at 10 years of age. In that city he learned to play by ear - he could never read music. In 1922 he got his first instrument, a cavaquinho (four stringed Brazilian ukulele) he always kept and played, which can be heard in OA 1926 from the album Alemán '72 (Redondel, SL 10508). Soon after he left his bellhop job (prizefighting!) to form a duet, Les Loups, with Gastón Bueno Lobo, a Brazilian guitarist. Both played several string instruments: Spanish and Hawaiian guitars and cavaquinho, in all kinds of combinations.
Alemán later recalled his formative musical background in an interview: " I always liked Brazilian music, but I think even then I liked American harmony better".
This experience is at the basis of Alemán's style. The rhythmic looseness and kind of percussive ness in his jazz solos stems from Brazil. Not that he was a predecessor of later day’s fusion players, but he used elements intrinsic in his musical background; his alphabet was Brazilian. Although he kept playing Latin music up to the end, he never jazzed it, but was always very careful to maintain each genre's authenticity.
Buenos Aires - Paris
By 1927 Les Loups went to Buenos Aires where they played in many places, appeared on radio, and got a recording contract with Victor. That was an achievement in itself, as it was not common then (as now) for a big label to record guitar duets of limited commercial appeal. Between late 1927 and early 1929 they cut at least seven sessions and a couple more with violinist Elvino Vardaro added, as Trio Victor. These old 78's show fine inter-play, virtuosity, good taste, sense of rhythm - but no jazz, though a few fox-trots were recorded besides waltzes and tangos. ( You may hear examples of these recordings on a French released CD on Frémeaux & Associés, FA-020).
But Alemán was assimilating new influences. He later recalled : "My idol in those days was Eddie Lang. I used to buy his records, on which he was accompanied by a pianist and later with Venuti and his group. - I made an important step upwards in my development, with black tap-dancer Harry Flemming. He brought several coloured soloists who showed me the meaning of improvisation, of playing according to the feeling one has at the moment".
Harry Flemming from the Virgin Islands was an entrepreneur-dancer-adventurer-gigolo (and part-time boxer!) who went around a good part of the world leading a revue which included a 15-piece band. When on tour in Argentina during 1928 Les Loups joined Flemming's company, with which they sailed to Europe on February 1929 and worked in several countries (mainly Spain) for the next two years. They were billed as Hawaiian guitarists and wore white clothes and flower garlands.
Early in 1931 Les Loups parted on good terms. Alemán gigged for some months in Spain, with several groups or as a solo act. Near the middle of that year he headed for Paris, France and joined Josephine Baker's company, a job he kept on and off until 1939.
When not on tour with Baker he lived in Paris, where he soon met many of the American musicians who had settled there, in jam sessions and gigs. This was crucial to his development as a jazzman. Exposure to men like Bill Coleman (who Alemán admitted was his main jazz influence) resulted in his definitive take-off as a jazz player. He always had high regard for Freddy Taylor's orchestra, in which he had the guitar chair for some time. He was also featured on BBC broadcasts with Willie Lewis, and he led his own bands at several Parisian venues, mainly the 'Chantilly'.
It was at this time that he met Duke Ellington, during the Duke's historical 1933 European tour, and was actually offered a place in the band, which Josephine Baker opposed. As a souvenir of this episode Alemán kept a picture of the Ellington orchestra dedicated and autographed by all its members.
There was Django Reinhardt, of course. Alemán and Reinhardt are frequently compared in the few references to Alemán in jazz literature. However, such a comparison is most often based on a coincidence of time and space, not on musical reasons.
Anyone who listens with care to the records of Alemán and Reinhardt will notice there is only a superficial likeness between them and that it is not difficult to differentiate them.
Alemán had a style less baroque than Django's, more paused, with more silences - a kind of stateliness, as well as a marked preference for the low register, a very personal vibrato, a 'hammered' way of phrasing, alternating (often within the same solo) with elaborate traceries. Alemán's solos seem to be more thought out than Django's. They are full of surprises, but nonetheless they have an air of premeditation, unlike Django's, which suggest something fully spontaneous.
When asked about his relationship to Django, Alemán said: "I knew Django Reinhardt well. He used to say jazz was gipsy - we often argued over that. I agree with many Americans I met in France who said he played very well but with too many gipsy tricks. He had very good technique for both hands, or rather one hand and a pick, because he always played with a pick. Not me, I play with my fingers. There are things you can't do with a pick - you can't strike the treble with two fingers and play something else on the bass string. - But I admired him and he was my friend. He was my greatest friend in France. We played together many times, just for ourselves. I used to go to his wagon, where he lived. I've slept and eaten there - and also played! He had three or four guitars. Django never asked anyone to go to his wagon, but he made an exception with me. I appreciated him, and I believe the feeling was mutual".
- When asked who was his favorite guitar player Alemán always mentioned without hesitation Charlie Christian, and in second place Oscar Moore.
Essential European Recordings.
With Josephine Baker, Alemán sang, danced, and played string and percussion instruments, often as a special feature. He also directed the orchestra, something remarkable for a non-reading musician. Strangely enough, he did not record regularly with her, though he is listed as possibly present at three sessions by Josephine Baker & Le Melodic Jazz du Casino de Paris on French Columbia (30/6/31; 10/7/31 and 17/12/32). However, these records do not have any audible signs of Aleman's presence, the scene is all set for the vocal of Md. Baker and full orchestra.
One of Alemán's earliest Parisian recordings as a sideman was with accordionist Louis Ferrari. Only two sides were cut c. November 1933 by Ferrari & Son Ensemble with Alemán on guitar and issued on a 78 by the Sedoem label. The music is typical French musette with the accordion as lead instrument, but Fox Musette No. 301 has a jazz feeling added due to a competent rhythm ensemble and a short solo statement by Alemán's guitar. This is the first recorded solo by Alemán during his stay in Paris, and you may hear it on the FA-020 CD.
At about the same time, also in Paris, he had a career for some months as a studio guitarist, recording with artists such as the vocal trio Jean, Jac & Jo and Lina D'Acosta on the Pathé label. Examples of the recordings with Lina D'Acosta may be heard on CD FA-020, while the records by Jean, Jac & Jo haven't been reissued, yet.
Between March 1935 and April 1939 Alemán cut several jazz dates both as a sideman and under his own name. Most are fine examples of Euro-American swing of the thirties. Sometimes Alemán solos very little or not at all, as in Freddy Taylor's March 1935 date (no solos on neither Viper´s Dream nor Blue Drag). A session date by Eddie Brunner of 13/6/38 has only one Alemán chorus on Montmartre Blues. Most rewarding are Bill Coleman's 31/1/36 session where Alemán solos on both recorded tunes (Joe Louis Stomp and Coquette). Furthermore, there is a Danny Polo date of 30/l/39 where four sides were cut. One of the recorded tunes was China Boy, which has an excellent and memorable guitar solo by Alemán (again, you may hear this recording on the FA-020 CD).
There are also a few memorable solos by Alemán on the 1939 recordings released as Orchestre (Musette) Victor or Gus Viseur Et L'Orchestre Victor on French Columbia (sic!)with accordionist Gus Viseur as leader (i.e. the March 1939 Joseph! Joseph and Valse de Minuit have great guitar work by Alemán; both reissued on the FA-020 CD).
Aleman's records as a sideman display two aspects of his musical personality rarely heard on the sessions made under his own leadership. Firstly, his ability to make a complete and meaningful solo statement in a few bars. Secondly, his interesting work as a rhythm guitarist - his full and precise chords make a great contribution to rhythm section swing, and his way of varying the accompaniment behind each soloist helps to color the performances.
There are two other European recording dates on which Alemán can be heard at length in very distinctive solos. The first was cut in Copenhagen on 5/12/38 and was released as '(Danish) Jam Session' on a HMV 78 rpm. by a group of two Latin Americans (Alemán and excellent Brazilian drummer Bibi Miranda) and four Danes. The tunes chosen were Sweet Sue and Limehouse Blues, and both swing like mad. The two Danish soloists (violinist Svend Asmussen and reedman Henry Hagemann) play very well, but Alemán is the star. He can be heard continuously in solo, accompanying, or in ensemble, and the arrangements may be his, too, as they sound very much like his later groups. All of his solos on both tunes are very good and typical of him, particularly the chorus on Sweet Sue, rhythmically loose (he plays hide-and-seek around the beat) and sporting his personal 'crying' vibrato. (Both tunes may be heard on the two CD-set by Acoustic Disc, ACD-29). - On the same date two unaccompanied guitar solos by Alemán were cut, too. They are examples of the kind of features Alemán had with Josephine Baker. 'Jazzy' rather than jazz, they are showcases for Aleman's fingerpicking, with no improvisation but ornamentation around the melodic line. They also point back to Les Loups. Whispering has a clear Latin American tinge, its mood reminiscent of a Brazilian choro. Both this tune and its coupling Nobody's Sweetheart are full of Latin American guitar licks such as false harmonics and tremolos, not usual at all in jazz. (You may hear both on ACD-29). - These four sides from the Copenhagen date condense the main aspects of Aleman's art.
The other especially interesting date is the one by Oscar Alemán Trio of 5/4/39. Four sides were cut in Paris with Alemán on lead guitar, John Mitchell on rhythm guitar and Wilson Myers on bass and vocal. Bassist Myers almost steals the show on three of the four tunes, but especially Just A Little Swing (a nice Alemán original) has great solo work by Alemán. Jeepers Creepers also has great solos by Alemán besides quite funny lyrics and jivin' by Myers. Russian Lullaby and Dear Old Southland are more uneven, but well up to the standard when it comes to Aleman's solo efforts. All four tunes are reissued on ACD-29.
Essential Argentinean Recordings.
As Hitler's German forces occupied France in 1940, Alemán decided to leave the country and was repatriated with the help of the Argentinean embassy. Soon after his arrival to Buenos Aires in late 1940 he formed his first Quinteto de Swing with violin, rhythm guitar, bass and drums, all in the hands of competent musicians, two of them well above average: violinist Hernán 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 is 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.
The quintet recorded 10 titles for Argentinean Odeon between 1941 and 1943. Only five are jazz - often Argentinean 78's coupled a fox trot with a Latin tune. In Aleman's case this was not wholly a commercial concession, as he always took Brazilian music seriously. Among the jazz titles there is Alemán's signature tune, Man Of Mine (Hombre Mio), a beautiful melody composed in 1932 and christened by Josephine Baker, a version of I Got Rhythm with cascading percussive guitar solos and a nice violin spot, a hokumful In The Mood with vocal comments, tapping on guitar box, a short sample of Aleman's scat singing, and strong improvising, as well as the first recording of Sweet Georgia Brown, one of the tunes he played more often and also recorded later again. (All mentioned tunes have been reissued on ACD-29).
In 1943 the quintet was reorganized 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, who played in a driving, barrelhouse way, putting swing before everything (even intonation) and had an acid sound very much his own. Between 1943 and 1948 this group recorded - always for Odeon - about 40 sides, three quarters of them jazz. The recorded output represents a remarkably consistent series, as almost everything is top class. To mention some highlights there is a monumental Stardust, a delicate guitar paraphrase of the theme. There are also standards that always get original readings, among them I Never Knew, Limehouse Blues, Cherokee, Honeysuckle Rose, Lady Be Good, Tea For Two, Blue Skies, Bugle Call Rag, Twelfth St. Rag. Some unexpected titles such as Paper Doll, Goin´To The Country Fair, Doin' The New Lowdown, Swinging On A Star, Sentimental Journey, Better Not Roll Those Blue Eyes, Darktown Stutters' Ball, I'm Beginning To See The Light. Some Alemán compositions such as Scartunas, Cómo Te Llamas (What's Your Name) and Swing En La, furthermore popular tunes such as Bèsame Mucho and Diga Diga Do. (Most of the mentioned tunes are reissued on ACD-29).
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 Orchesta de Swing (clarinet, three violins and rhythm) and it is no more a conventional jazz unit but a showcase for the leader's solos, a sort of Oscar Alemán With Strings. Alemán kept this orchestra almost without changes until 1959 and he 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.
Sometimes the orchestra is not as schmaltzy as would be expected. Often on fast or medium-fast tempos it is not too offensive, eg on Sweet Georgia Brown, 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 Alemán's greatest and first recordings on amplified guitar. Or the 1952 version of Scartunas, 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, the only Reinhardt composition ever recorded by Alemán, featuring two guitar solos very unlike Django's, Ensayo A Las Tres (Rehearsal At Three O'Clock), a swing riff tune with some solid guitar playing, as well as others like Crazy Rhythm, Hombre Mio, I Got Rhythm, Rose Room and Just A Little Swing with sober arrangements and excellent solos. But the strings raise their syrupy head and only Alemán rescues After You've Gone, Who's Sorry Now, Mr. Sandman, Vieni Sul Mar, Tea For Two and, above all, Night And Day, probably Alemán's best ballad record (though played faster than ballad tempo) together with Stardust by the quintet. Here the violins are particularly dire and Alemán particularly good. There are also other titles nobody can save like Moulin Rouge and Limelight. (Some 10 titles by this unit have been reissued on ACD-29).
In 1959, after a tour through Spain and Portugal, Alemán disbanded. Not much was heard from him 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 on a LP by the Impacto label (IMP-14014). However, this LP 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.
With the next decade began the rediscovery. In 1971 Argentinean EMI/Odeon released a LP, Ritmo Loco (Odeon, 4120), the first Argentinean reissue of Odeon 78's on 12" 33 1/3 long playing vinyl by Alemán. (Later Argentinean Odeon released two more LP's with reissues of Alemán 78 rpm's, El Increible Swing De Oscar Alemán, Vol. 1 & 2, MFP-4645 + Odeon 4338). The next year a small Argentinean label, Redondel, recorded the LP Alemán '72 (Redondel, SL-10.508) and from that moment Alemán's second career was launched - he worked nonstop until a few days before his death. In this session Alemán recorded unaccompanied for the first time since the 1938 Copenhagen solos on four tracks. The three electric guitar solos on Alemán '72, however, 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. The last unaccompanied track is a solo on cavaquinho, OA 1926, which points back all the way to his younger days in Santos, Brazil. The remaining tracks of the LP are with support by a rhythm section; Alemán is the only soloist and solos excellent on Honeysuckle Rose and a very tricky reading of When The Saints Go Marchin' In. Another Alemán composition, Tono No 1 , is presented and there is a reading of his signature tune, Hombre Mio.
The next album from 1973 (again on the Redondel label, SL-10.511) finds Alemán accompanied by Jorge Anders' orchestra on six tracks and a contingent from it (clarinet plus rhythm) on the remaining four. However, the result of this collaboration is disappointing, as Alemán's solos are rather bland, overcautious and there is lack of rapport as well, particularly on chases between the guitar and other soloists. It seems as if the guitar had been dubbed over previously recorded band parts, though that was not the case, and that Alemán had not been able to adapt to this way of working. Worth mentioning, however, are Aleman's solos in I Can't Give You Anything But Love, Baby and I Found A New Baby with clarinet and rhythm.
Alemán's final recording for the Redondel label was En Todos Los Ritmos (L-809) from 1974. It does not intend to be a jazz LP but a sample of Alemán's 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 the young OA than the other records from this time, but they have an air of something learned by heart, often repeated. From a guitar player's point of view, however, the highlights of this album are Alemán's five unaccompanied solos of Latin tunes played straight. Aspiring solo guitarists with interest in how to play tango should lend their ears to Alemán's incredible rendition of the well-known tango, La Cumparsita!
The last recordings by Alemán are from c.1975, released 1981 by the Impacto label on a LP (IMP-14068). As with the first LP of Alemán material on this label (IMP-14014) these recordings are radio transcriptions. However, IMP-14068 shows Alemán 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 flavored and rather sinister Bei Mir Bist Du Shoen and, in the same oriental vein, Caravan, with a banjo-like solo. On this LP he is also at his best as a player of Brazilian music; it is a complete portrait of the artist and remains a worthy sortié by this guitar legend.
As mentioned before, Alemán kept working up to the end. One of his last public appearances was on a TV program on 30/9/80. He died in the early hours of 14/10/80, and the sad news was front-page material, something unusual for a jazz musician, anywhere.
Oscar Alemán certainly deserves a place among the great swing guitarists. No doubt he would have been generally acknowledged if his records were more widely known. Luckily, reissue of a great part of both European and Argentinean material on CD has now made his recordings available to a new generation.
You may find additional discography information on the recordings of Alemán in the following:
Lord, Tom: The Jazz Discography, Vol. 1 (pp A114-A119), West Vancouver, 1992
Evensmo, Jan: The Guitars Of Charlie Christian, Robert Normann, Oscar Alemán (in Europe) Jazz Solography Series, Vol. 4, Oslo, c. 1976
Haederli, Freddy: The Hot Guitar Of Oscar Alemán, Tentative Discography (Geneva, 1999) NB! Unpublished, but can be obtained by writing to the author on the following Address: 2, rue Faller, CH-1202 Geneva, Switzerland.
Here is a selected listing of LPs and CDs by Alemán:
The Guitar Of Oscar Alemán 1938-1944 (The Old Masters, TOM 31) (U.S.A., c. 1970)
The Guitar Of Oscar Alemán, Volume 2 (The Old Masters, TOM 56) (U.S.A., c. 1975)
Oscar Alemán, Swing Guitar Legend (Rambler, 106) (U.S.A., 1982) (NB! Same as TOM 31)
Oscar Alemán: Ritmo Loco (Odeon (Arg), 4120) (Argentina, 1971)
El Increible Swing De Oscar Alemán (EMI (Arg), mfp 4645) (Argentina, 1972)
El Increible Swing De Oscar Alemán, Vol. 2 (Odeon (Arg), 4338) (Argentina, 1979)
Oscar Alemán: Alemán '72 (Redondel, SL 10.508) (Argentina, 1972)
Oscar Alemán con Jorge Anders y su Orchesta (Redondel, SL 10.511) (Argentina, 1973)
Oscar Alemán: En Todos Los Ritmos (Redondel, L 809) (Argentina, 1974)
El Inolvidable Oscar Alemán (Redondel, SEL 20001) (Argentina, 1981)
Oscar Alemán: Si … Otra Vez! (Tonodisc Impacto, IMP 14014) (Argentina, 1979)
Oscar Alemán (Tonodisc Impacto, IMP 14068) (Argentina, 1981)
Oscar Alemán: Buenos Aires-Paris-Buenos Aires (1928-1943) (Frémeaux & Associés, FA 020) (France, 1994)
Oscar Alemán: Swing Guitar Masterpieces (1938-1957) (Acoustic Disc, ACD 29) (U.S.A., 1998)
El Inolvidable Oscar Alemán (Redondel, CD 45001) (Argentina, c. 1994)
El Inolvidable Oscar Alemán Vol. 2 (Redondel, CD 45025) (Argentina, 1996)
Oscar Alemán: Swing Guitarist, by Tómas Mooney, Jazz Journal International, Vol. 35, No. 4 + 5.
For more information on Oscar Aleman visit the Oscar Aleman web site at Keep Swinging
Jorgen Larsen makes his home in Aabenraa, Denmark. He has a degree in Philosophy and Danish Literature and works as a secondary school teacher. Jorgen has a general interest in jazz guitar, especially the pre-Christian pioneers (Lang, Kress,
McDonough, Smeck, Mairants/Harris, Van Eps, Volpe, etc.
He has a specific interest in Oscar Alemán and the Scandinavian pioneers of the jazz guitar, Normann, Stiberg, Eriksberg, and Jacobsen. Jorgen has been researching Oscar Alemán since 1980.
Jorgen, who is self taught, plays finger style jazz guitar just for the fun of it.
He likes to listen to contemporary finger style guitarists, especially Ton Van Bergeyk,
Guy Van Duser and Pat Donohue.
Jorgen can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
©Copyright 2001 - 2006 Jorgen Larsen