The Forgotten Sauter-Finegan Orchestra
[This piece, written in September 1999, overlaps my review of the first CD released by Sauter-Finegan more than I like, but includes a complete, if somewhat perfunctory, list of the S-F albums originally released.]
It’s time to dig out that box of LPs from the closet. It’s time to thumb through them with an eye to the current collectors’ market, which is growing – and seeks out record albums not originally highly valued by the critics, as often as not.
One band which had enormous popularity in the Fifties but has all but vanished from public consciousness, is the Sauter-Finegan Orchestra. Too clever to be pop music, but too popular to be considered jazz, the records released between 1952 and 1958 by this band were very much a product of their time.
In April,1952 two well-known big-band arrangers, Bill Finegan and Eddie Sauter, linked up to form the Sauter-Finegan Orchestra. As composer-arrangers they'd individually worked for everyone from Benny Goodman and Glenn Miller to avant-boppers like Boyd Raeburn. But little that they'd done before then prepared their audience for what they'd do with their own Orchestra. It was basically a studio band, with fluctuating personnel, but they did sometimes play live dates – I saw them in 1954 or 55 at Washington D.C.'s National Guard Armory, where Finegan led the band from a small podium on which he had a primitive mixing board to mix the individually-miked musicians. The band's music straddled a number of fences. Nominally dance-band jazz, it ranged from popular songs ("Love Is A Simple Thing") to standards ("April In Paris," "Autumn Leaves"), to polytonal jazz, covers of classical or marching band pieces, modern woodwind quartets, and original suites of music. It was not your typical dance-band fare.
Sauter-Finegan were known as a "hi-fi" orchestra in the era when high fidelity was still a very new concept, but LP records were starting to merit that description. Sauter-Finegan used instruments of unusual timbre (such as a close-miked tenor recorder), and at the upper and lower ranges of audibility (piccolos to bassoons), as well as a broad range of percussion instruments (one album, Adventure In Time, was largely devoted to percussion). Their arrangements (impossible to tell without a scorecard who did which) were rich in unusual harmonies. And their musicians! The roster included most of New York City's top jazz session musicians, including some, like trumpeteer Doc Severinsen, who went on to fame of his own as Johnny Carson’s bandleader.
Their first album, following on the release of several singles, was the 10-inch New Directions In Music (LPM-3115) on RCA Victor in 1953. And it was a new direction for popular music, mixing as it did catchy novelty pieces like “Doodletown Fifers” with freshly interpreted standards like “April In Paris” (which used a wordless female vocal), and light-classical works like Prokofiev’s “Midnight Sleighride.” A copy of this album in good condition can bring up to $125.00.
The next few years were busy and productive for the Sauter-Finegan Orchestra. In early 1954 they released their first 12-inch LP, Inside Sauter-Finegan (LJM-1003). This album is packaged with a gatefold cover of a sort peculiar to RCA Victor at the time: The record is removed from an opening at the inside spine of the spread-open cover. There was no danger of a record falling out of one of these covers. In good condition this album can fetch as much as $75.00.
Later in 1954 The Sound of the Sauter-Finegan Orchestra (LPM-1009) was released. This came in a conventional jacket. Like the earlier albums, it was a mixture of singles and album-only cuts, but it also included two tracks from Sauter-Finegan’s “Extended Play Suite.” One of the things Sauter-Finegan did was to take advantage of emerging technology. They recorded for RCA Victor, and that company was, in the early fifties, pushing 45s as an alternative to the (33-1/3) LP. Whole albums were issued on 45s, and the 45 EP was introduced -- a 7-inch record that would hold six to eight minutes of music a side. So Sauter and Finegan wrote an "Extended Play Suite," consisting of four pieces, each of which occupied one side of a 45 EP, and each of which averaged about six minutes in length. “Child’s Play” and “Horseplay” were included on this LP. “Dream Play” and “Holiday” were not. Good copies of this album also can bring up to $75.00.
By 1955, when Concert Jazz (LPM-1051) was released – also in a conventional jacket – Sauter-Finegan were making whole albums of new material rather than collections which mixed new material with previously-released singles. Good copies of this one can go for as much as $50.00.
Also in 1955 The Sons of Sauter-Finegan (LPM-1104), devoted to showcasing some of the band members, was released. It too had a conventional LP jacket, and in good condition can be worth up to $50.00.
In 1956 New Directions In Music was reissued as a 12-inch LP (LPM-1227) with the addition of two tracks to each side. It was also given a rather ugly two-color abstract cover for its conventional jacket, and if in good enough condition can command up to $50.00.
There was a new album in 1956 as well, Adventure In Time (LPM-1240). This one featured percussion instruments, and it too was conventionally jacketed and can be good for up to $50.00.
Sauter-Finegan’s last two albums, both released in 1957, were attempts to restore slipping sales. The band, made up of jazz session musicians, never played mainstream jazz. Their early success was based on a bright and unusual sound and several catchy novelty tunes. But they moved away from that and into less accessible and less “popular” music, and Adventure In Time may have gone too far in that direction. So they did Under Analysis (LPM-1341), a perhaps misguided title for an album of old favorites like “Star Dust” and “I Get A Kick Out Of You,” as reinterpreted by Sauter and Finegan. This album was followed by Straight Down The Middle (LPM-1497), “a superior set of standards (some well known, some on the off-beat side) and pulsating originals that are at once perfect for dancing and perfect for listening…” according to the unsigned album notes. The album opened with “The Surrey With The Fringe On Top” (from “Oklahoma!”) which was perhaps a bit “off-beat,” but basically this was an album of dance music, as the notes suggest – and as such the weakest album Sauter-Finegan made, unfortunately, since it was to be their last. Both came in conventional LP jackets and each, in good condition, can bring up to $50.00.
In 1961 RCA issued Inside Sauter-Finegan Revisited in mono (LPM-2473) and stereo (LSP-2473). The mono version is slightly more valuable, and can sell for up to $40, while the stereo version gets ten dollars less.
There is only a single CD of their music, Directions In Music (Bluebird 6468-2-RB), issued late in the Eighties and it's a spotty collection, weighted in favor of their pop singles. But the 19 tracks cover the full range of the band’s recorded career from 1952 on. [After this was written I acquired the second CD of S-F’s music, reviewed elsewhere here.]
After the breakup of Sauter-Finegan in the late fifties, Finegan sank out of sight, while Sauter went to Germany to work with a symphony orchestra there, and then in the mid-Sixties scored strings for a Stan Getz album, Focus, which gathered much praise at the time. The notes for the CD mention a 1986 reunion concert, but there have been no new recordings. More's the pity. Sauter-Finegan were completely unique.