Robert Farnon’s arrangement analysed by Robert Walton
The period of the early 1950s when Decca recorded a series of LPs by Robert Farnon’s Orchestra playing some of the top standards of the “Great American Songbook” is now considered more than ever in the 21st century a genuine Golden Era of arranging. Paul Weston was the first to make mood music albums but Farnon took it to another level. Music lovers and professionals alike were astounded by Farnon’s total originality when he borrowed freely from his own compositional idiom, as well as creating something completely unique. But it was much more than that. It was as if he had been waiting for the right moment to introduce his style to an unsuspecting world. Everyone else’s arrangements suddenly seemed sort of average. His gift for giving these songs a new freshness and feeling transformed them into undeniable masterpieces.
I first heard Cocktails for Two in 1946 sent up by Spike Jones and his City Slickers with vocalist Carl Grayson, although it was introduced by another Carl, Carl Brisson in the 1934 film “Murder at the Vanities”. It was also part of the repertoire of cocktail pianist Carmen Cavallaro. Like Carmen I have always preferred the tune in a Latin American tempo. However the original dotted rhythm as in the sheet music sounds perfectly fine in Farnon’s foxtrot arrangement.
So come with me to revisit an old friend, or if you’ve never heard it, allow me to be your guide while we explore the wonders and unexpected pleasures of a Farnon score. It may not be the greatest standard but after Farnon has worked on it, Cocktails for Two was converted into something really special. Duke Ellington tried to give it a face-lift as Ebony Rhapsody but the best he could manage was a jazzed-up version of Liszt’s Second Hungarian Rhapsody.
The introduction of Cocktails for Two is a gem of an orchestral flight of Farnon fancy inspired by squeezing every ounce of emotion out of the melody and leading to a beautiful climax. In just a few short bars we have been transported to another world. Did you hear the tiniest touch of a violin before entering “some secluded rendezvous?” The flute first takes up the actual tune with excellent support from the orchestra and rhythm guitar. Then the oboe solos for four bars before handing back to the flute. The first 16 bars are surprisingly straight; always a sign that Farnon has something up his sleeve but is not prepared to give up its secrets just yet.
Still comparatively straight, the bridge is occupied by a tight, lightly swinging, close harmony muted brass choir with unison lower strings and celeste. When the tune resumes, the oboe is brought in again and for the first time something stirred in the Farnon universe. Underneath, the clarinet plays a slightly discordant series of notes but even more daring is the next chord change, B flat 9,11+ (actual notes B flat, A flat, C and E). He always knows just how far he can go in “clever clever” land.
Time for a second swell. The orchestra expands its horizons into some lovely key changes with a gorgeous surge of string power terminating in a flutter of woodwind. Returning to the middle eight, this time it’s the woodwind in block harmony supported by a string descant climbing into harmonics territory. Lazy lush strings in harmony take over the tune and in a more subservient role the oboe chatters away.
Quite suddenly you get the feeling that the end is nigh as the strings begin to slow down for the woodwind who recall the opening melodic phrase. And adding icing to the cake, a tender violin repeats the same set of notes.
Cocktails for Two from
“Two Cigarettes in the Dark”
Vocalion (CDLK 4112)