In January 2004 I wrote a short article on Oscar Alemán in Scandinavia, the following entry is excerpts of this article, which is previously unpublished. Hans Koert's article on Oscar Alemán in Copenhagen from September 2005 has additional info regarding the subject discussed here. I encourage readers to consult Hans' article for further info and details, the article is available online clicking here ---Svend Asmussen estimated Alemán very high as a guitarplayer and as a person, and Asmussen was the key person, who took the initiative to organize a recording session featuring Alemán during the 1938 Josephine Baker tour of Scandinavia.
A Jam Session with members of Asmussen’s and Leo Mathisen’s regular bands featuring drummer Bibi Miranda and Oscar Alemán from the Baker staff was scheduled at Dec. 5. The recording took place at HMV’s studio in Copenhagen, and regarding the circumstances of the recording session Svend Asmussen has told that, “Nobody was on top form, as the session was scheduled at 12 o’clock in the morning, which is the same as deep night, when you are in the night club entertainment business".
JAM SESSION: Svend Asmussen (v), Henry Hagemann (ts, cl), Oscar Alemán (solo g), Helge Jacobsen (g), Alfred Rasmussen (b), Bibi Miranda (dm). Copenhagen, 5. December 1938.
OCS 1083-2 Sweet Sue HMV X 6212
OCS 1084-2 Limehouse Blues HMV X 6212
The record of course was a 78’ rpm. and it sold 565 copies (!). The low sales rate, however, does not reveal the very high standard of the recorded music, indeed. Many jazz critics estimate this specific record as one of the best by Asmussen – and by Alemán, even so. Norwegian jazz critic and writer, Jan Evensmo writes a comment on the recording regarding Alemán’s participation:
"This jam features Oscar Aleman at his very best, and the record may be considered one of the great guitar records of the late thirties. “Sweet Sue” is a masterpiece without any doubt and his 32 bars’ solo is one of the most beautiful and personal I know. It is perfect in its melodic construction, made as one complete piece, almost as one long phrase. The intro, the brief solo and the coda are equally impressive, and this record alone is enough to give eternal fame to Aleman. “Limehouse Blues” is also an extremely important piece. From the very beginning he creates an atmosphere together with Hagemann’s clarinet. His solo starts, quite surprising when you hear it for the first time, with a typical Aleman device, a quickly repeated tone against the rhythm. And then he takes off with no technical problems, the result is a very fine solo. Note particularly the opening phrase of the bridge. However, the highlight is the 8 bars which conclude the record. Unforgetable!”
No doubt Mr. Evensmo rates the Jam Session recording of 1938 with Alemán very high! He also writes about the recording of the two guitar solos by Alemán which was done at the same date. The sales rate of this recording ran even lower than the Jam Session – only 91 copies (!) were actually sold.
OSCAR ALEMAN (g solo), Copenhagen 5. December 1938
OCS 1085-3 Nobody’s Sweetheart HMV X 6213
OCS 1086-1 Whispering HMV X 6213
Jan Evensmo writes regarding these two solos:
“These guitar soli are formidable contrasts to the two preceding sides recorded on the same day. Being completely unaccompanied they are not jazz records in the ordinary sense but rather a guitar virtuoso playing some popular songs. They do not contain the masterly economic solo lines of “Sweet Sue”, nor the overwhelming swing. Instead they contain all the tricks of a master of the Spanish guitar, and every chorus is different with delightful details. They do not give so much the picture of Aleman the jazz musician as of Aleman the guitarist. Together these pictures are very important and show a very interesting personality, which is not by far “discovered” by many otherwise well informed jazz and guitar enthusiasts.”
Evensmo stresses the fact that Alemán is alone with his guitar in the setup of the recording – the reading of the two tunes is in fact guitar soli without other accompanying musicians besides the guitarist himself. This makes the recording rather unique, as it was not usual at all at the time of the recording to issue solo guitar records, at least not featuring a guitarist playing popular repertoire favoured by jazz musicians and their audience. This may perhaps also explain, why the actual record only sold 91 copies – the potential market simply was not prepared for and used to a solo guitar record of popular songs, at least not without a singer to interpretate the lyrics. Nevertheless, the record is outstanding in Alemán’s recording career, too, as he had not been recording solo before, and the next time he did solo guitar recordings was not untill 1972 in his homeland, Argentina.
Another aspect concerning the recorded guitar solos is highlightet in the quoted comments above. Evensmo states that the music is not jazz in the ordinary sense and that the record is lacking the overwhelming swing compared to the Jam Session recording of “Sweet Sue”. Instead he stresses Alemán’s mastering of the technique usually used by guitarists playing the Spanish guitar, which most often means classically trained guitarists. This is crucial to understanding and appreciating Alemán’s efforts as a guitarplayer on this particular recording. However, most interesting and surprising is in fact, that Alemán was not a classically trained guitarist! He was self taught, an autodidact, and he could not read written music, either, which usually is demanded of classically trained musicians playing an instrument alone or in ensemble. Thus, the 1938 solo guitar recordings by Alemán are otherwise unique, too.
Regarding Alemán’s guitar technique this short survey is not the spot for an analysis in detail. Enough to tell is that he uses his fingers on both hands when playing, the right hand technique is as crucial as the one by the left hand. This style of playing is often called fingerpicking guitar style, and a master of this style can manage to play melody, chords and rhythm at the same time by alternating the approach of the right hand fingers to the strings. Alemán uses the fingerpicking technique throughout on both recorded tunes, and no one before him had done the same in a jazz recording setting, even though early masters of the jazz guitar, i.e. Lonnie Johnson and Eddie Lang, had applied a right hand fingerpicking teqhnique on some of their recordings, too. Compared to these early efforts, however, Aleman’s definitely are quite different and may perhaps be best explained in connection with the musical heritage of Latin America guitar tradition, which Alemán brought with him as a crucial experience even before performing as an entertainer, musician and guitar virtuoso in various settings around Europe on tour with the Josephine Baker company.
Jan Evensmo: The Guitars of Charlie Christian, Robert Normann, Oscar Aleman (in Europe). Oslo, c.1976 (Jazz Solograhy Series, vol.4)
Erik Wiedemann: Jazz i Danmark – i tyverne, trediverne og fyrrene, vol. 1-3 (Copenhagen,
1982); vol. 1, p. 422, note 188/06; vol. 2, p. 79, p. 84, vol. 2, p. 98, vol. 2, p. 143
Hans Koert: Oscar Alemán In Copenhagen (2005)