The Comedian Harmonists
Six guys. Five voices. One piano. That's all the Comedian Harmonists needed to make music that absolutely hits the bull's-eye on every level. Technically beyond belief, stylistically diverse, perversely hilarious yet deadly serious, all at the same time, The Comedian Harmonists is both a massive dose of fresh air and a pure pleasure. In fact this is one of the only records I can think of that will appeal equally to fans of the Mills Brothers and Frank Zappa's Mothers of Invention.
In Weimar-era Germany, the Harmonists were stars. They performed a wide range of material, including American and European popular songs and jazz numbers. As their name suggests, the Comedian Harmonists did plenty of funny material, though the humor is remarkably subtle. You have to read the translations to get the multiple layers of double entendres that lurk in the apparently hokey lines. Like other '30s artists such as filmmaker/choreographer Busby Berkeley, the Harmonists walked a fine line of randiness, cleverly hiding some obvious declarations of lust ("Veronika, the asparagus is sprouting" is my favorite) behind youthful joyousness and vocal wizardry. What set them apart from the average Ivy League glee club were their staggeringly complex arrangements (which they executed with pinpoint Germanic precision), and their twisted sense of humor. In a typical Harmonist arrangement, the melody might be plainly stated, while in the background, the other singers execute bizarre glissandi in perfect harmony. Or maybe the melody will be boldly harmonized in front of a perfect imitation of a string bass walking. Or maybe they'll just imitate the entire Duke Ellington Orchestra with mind-boggling accuracy, as in their version of "Creole Love Call." Or maybe they'll gargle (yes, gargle) in perfect harmony as in "Can You Whistle, Johanna?" All the while the pianist stoically oompahs in the background. But perhaps even more bizarre is that amid all of this wacky stuff, the Harmonists sound utterly relaxed. There is never the slightest hint that any of what's going on required the tiniest bit of work, though it's obvious their material is painstakingly well rehearsed. In fact even though their music is insanely virtuosic, the arrangements actually sound restrained, as if they're saving the real fireworks for later and this stuff is just their easy material. Then, when singing a darker, less brazenly ornamented piece, like "In einem kühlen grunde," their perfect intonation and immaculate phrasing are devastating even without any special vocal effects. Scary.
Unfortunately the ending to the Comedian Harmonists' story is not happy. After the Nazi Party's rise to power in Germany, the 50-percent-Jewish group's days were numbered. Blacklisted by Joseph Goebbels, who proclaimed their music to be "Judeo-Marxist caterwauling," the Harmonists were forced to split up. Today's listeners are lucky that the Harmonists left behind such a wealth of recordings, with remarkable sound quality, and that Hannibal's Joe Boyd is finally bringing them to the United States. -- Ted Reichman