Monday, February 20, 2006


I lived in Santa Cruz for about 6 years in the 70's; a middle California coastal town of rolling hillsides and inlets, whose overcast mornings only a hardcore surfer or devoted brussels sprout farmer could love. Formerly a turn-of-the century boardwalk resort it was still a tourist getaway with the San Lorenzo River flowing down from the redwoods into town winding along the (then) funky remnants of the beach hotels, victorian houses, and emptying beneath an old roller coaster into the Monterey Bay. During my stay, the place was saturated with students, foodstamp-funded street-people, retired hippies, crackpots, writers, a gamelan orchestra, bright orange banana slugs, laidback dreamers, idealists, feminists, LA escapees, former mental patients on the street directing invisible traffic, and an older layer of fishermen, loggers, and ordinary cranky oldtimers who'd seen it all and had enough. Oh yeah, and a great crepe place whose memory still sets me to slobber.
I spent way too much time in Cafe Pergolesi (lost to the earthquake of 1989), hanging out and listening to some great live traditional musicians in league with the espresso steam bursts. There were Irish bands, uillean pipers, and an old saw-player in a black bowler hat and suspenders who had been a Wobblie back in 1919 named Tom Scribner.
In particular, there was an older Italian gentleman who played traditional mandolin accompanied by his long-haired son (?) on guitar. After I left town, for years I tried to recapture that particular sound, looking for a good recording of Italian music on mandolin but I usually came up with some kind of over-orchestrated schlock-fest or something vocally dominated.
...and now at last!

Traversata: Italian Music In America is a collaborative musical effort by Carlo Aonzo, David Grisman, and Beppe Gambetta featuring exclusively mandolin, mandola, and harp-guitar. Sto da favola!
Traversata comes from the Italian term for "ocean crossing" used at the turn of the 20th century when immigration and travel to and fro in search of opportunity was at its peak.
The record is a mix of trad, popular, and classic Italian and Italian-American music that was either composed for, or is ideally suited to, mandolin, mandola, or harp-guitar. Besides works by virtuoso native Italians who visited America, there is (my personal favorite) the lovely "Oh Mio Babbino Caro" from Puccini's Gianni Schicchi that seems to have been created for this version. Another favorite is the Godfather's Waltz that Nino Rota composed for the famed film. The version is pared down from the original orchestration to the absolute, haunting essentials.
The cd is supplemented with evocative pictures and well-researched liner notes describing the music, the composers all of whom had a simultaneous link to America and Italy.

highly recommended!

Sunday, February 19, 2006

Nino Rota

I was watching Fellini's Le Notti Di Cabiria (Nights of Cabiria) many years back and marvelling at the "color" in the musical soundtrack. There was a haunting melody in particular that might have been straight from the shores of Sicily or Calabria: it had a touch of an Arabic scale, echoes of Scheherezade - minor-sounding but with a twist of ginger that rescued it from somberness, wistful without sentimentality. Aside from this tune there were other odd musical turns; a bit of mambo, jazz, circus, and operatic overture all of which enhanced the tragi-comic, bittersweet tone of the movie.
Though Fellini's movies have been a hit-or-miss affair for me, my favorites like Amarcord, Cabiria, The White Sheik, and La Strada were very much enhanced by the musical scores. After finding out that these films were all scored by Nino Rota, I was all a-fire and off on an information/recording rampage - got hold of a cd "Omaggio a Fellini" which is a collection of themes composed by Rota for Fellini during his career as the maestro's musical-director-in-residence from 1952 to 1979. This record has been a popular food-prep, party, what-have-you "background" cd in our household for years - i'm sure the Italian-circus-sophisticated/numbskull mix has been "harmonious" with the environs.

Rota is more famously known here in the States as the composer of the Godfather soundtrack for Francis Ford Coppola. At least one of the melodies has passed into a popular kitsch theme when gangsters are referenced but, even the most jaded of listeners has got admit (i chance it) that this is a gorgeous melody nevertheless. The same could be said for Rota's soundtrack to Zeffirelli's Romeo and Juliet. The Love Theme has gained elevator music status, and yet, listening to the original Rota orchestral version....a palms up, eyes heavenward, shrug is all I can come up with. What can I say, the guy's a genius. If you're in doubt, forget the Love Theme and check out "A Renaissance Timepiece" from the same score. Beautiful! THATS what i'm talkin about!
Rota was, aside from a composer for film, a prodigious serious composer of operas ballets and instrumental works. He was born in 1911 in Milan and was a child prodigy, studying piano, and soon composing at the age of 8 as well as conducting soon after! He studied renaissance music in depth and it is a thread throughout his film scores.
As described in a bio; "Well acquainted with new musical developments from his youth (during which he enjoyed a long personal friendship with Stravinksy), Rota followed a quite different path in his own music, retaining the supremacy of melody, a tonality free of harmonic complexity, established patterns of rhythm and form, and a concept of music as spontaneous, direct expression." His lifelong passion seemingly knew no bounds and his death in 1979 has been attributed to 20 hour workdays.

Aside from Fellini, Zeffirelli, and Coppola, Rota was the author of scores for Visconti's The Leopard and even Lina Wertmuller's Love and Anarchy.
Coincidentally, yesterday I was in a to-remain-anonymous "restaurant" having a bite of the unmentionable while I poured, Italian dictionary in hand, over some Italian text about Rota that I'd copied from a website about him. After finishing, I got into the car and turned on NPR and lo 'n behold the very first thing I hear is (it's a Radio 360 interview with award-winning film composer Rachel Portman) an interviewer asking, "Are there any scores that you particularly look to as the 'Gold Standard' for film music?"
answer from Portman "I'd have to say Nino Rota's music for the's music that stands on its own, really not 'background music' at all".
...please maestro, cue the Twilight Zone theme!

a brief Nino Rota discography:

Omaggio : A Homage to Federico Fellini (actual excerpts from the movies)
Film Music of Nino Rota - piano arrangements by Rota of much of his film music
The Essential Nino Rota Film Music Collection - performed by the Prague Philharmonic Orchestra
Amarcord Nino Rota - a collection Rota's themes from Fellini movies played by a variety of stellar jazz musicians. The most effective and evocative of Rota's spirit are the solo or near-solo performances by pianist Jaki Byard and vibist Dave Samuels

...and last but not least, a great record called;
Traversata - featuring mandolins of Carlo Aonzo and David Grisman with harp-guitar by Beppe Gambetta. It contains one not-to-be-missed piece of Rota's, The Godfather's Waltz....more on this later

Thursday, February 02, 2006

Tales of The Rube

Davy Jones was one of many old-time ballplayers interviewed by Lawrence Ritter in the 60's (for his marvelous oral history book, The Glory of Their Times) about their lives in turn-o-the-century baseball;

"Oh. the game was very different in my day from what it's like today. I don't mean just that the fences were further back and the ball was deader and things like that. I mean it was more fun to play ball then. The players were more colorful, you know, drawn from every walk of life, and the whole thing was sort of chaotic most of the time, not highly organized in every detail like it is nowadays.
Back at the turn of the century, you know, we didn't have the mass communication and mass transportation that exist nowadays. We didn't have as much schooling either. As a result, people were more unique then, more different from each other."

George Edward "Rube" Waddell was unarguably one of the top 5 pitchers who ever lived, leading the American League in strikeouts 6 YEARS IN A ROW between 1902 and 1908 (349 in 1904 which stood as the record until Koufax broke it in 1965), with an incredulous lifetime ERA of 2.16! Now keeping in mind the 20 million dollar salary of today's superstar Alex Rodriguez; Rube's top salary was about $2500 and in consideration of Rube's "odd" behavior and unpredictable attendance to scheduled pitching stints with the Philadelphia Athletics, his manager, the venerable Connie Mack, took it upon himself to distribute Rube's salary to him in one dollar increments.

Hall of famer and contemporary of the Rube, Sam Crawford, puts it like this:
"How good he'd have been if he'd taken baseball seriously is hard to imagine. Like I say, it was always just a game with Rube. He played 'cause he had fun playing, but as far as he was concerned it was all the same whether he was playing in the Big Leagues or with a bunch of kids in a sandlot."
Rube was more than once delayed in making his appearance to the mound because he was found in a marbles match with kids under the grandstand.
For weeks at a time, Rube might be out fishing, tending saloon (Rube certainly wouldn't neglect to serve himself), appearing in vaudeville skits, subduing villains on the theatrical stage, or wrestling alligators.

Rube was a Big Kid (in marquee-sized capitals) who managed to blaze his way to glory with a hopping fastball, and an unhittable curveball that apparently could only be caught by one catcher, Rube's partner in crime, Ossie Schreckengost - "Schreck". Alas, even Schreck had to draw the line somewhere with Rube. He approached Connie Mack and demanded that if he were to room with Rube there had to be a clause written his contract that the flakey inhabitant of the upper bunk would not be permitted to eat Animal Crackers in bed. And so it came to pass...
Rube chased after women, entering into marriages with a meteoric zest and exiting that institution just as quickly. Whether animal crackers entered the picture...only the Sphinx knows. We know he was once brought to trial for heaving a flat-iron at his in-laws. (hmmmm...)

Sam Crawford shares an "opposing player" memory of Rube:
"The main thing you had to watch out for was not to get him mad. If things were going smoothly and everyone was happy, Rube would be happy too, and he'd just go along, sort of half-pitching. Just fooling around, lackadaisical, you know. But if you got him mad he'd really bear down, and then you wouldn't have a chance. Not a chance."
"Hughie Jennings, our manager in Detroit, used to go to the dime store and buy little toys, like rubber snakes or a Jack-in-the Box. He'd get in the first base coach's box and set them down on the grass and yell, 'Hey, Rube, look.' Rube would look over at the jack-in-the-box and grin, real slow-like, you know. yeah we'd do everything to get him in a good mood and to distract him from his pitching."

Waddell was particularly fond of fire engines and fires. He would leave a game midway, dashing out of the dugout and out of the park in pursuit of a fire engine.
Connie Mack related this to the Saturday Evening Post in 1936:
"I had to keep an eye on him to keep him from joining up with the fire department in any town we happened to be playing in. He always wore a red undershirt, so that when the firebell rang he could pull off his coat, thus exposing his crimson credentials, and gallop off to the blaze, where he would try to direct operations by ringing commands, whether anyone obeyed them or not." There were times though, when Rube would throw Mack a curveball in the dissapearance arena.
"Another time when he was missing during a train trip, he returned to us as the drum major of a band marching up the main street, a look of ineffable bliss on his face. He(then in the heat of glory?)posed in a show window as an automoton."

Rube was never one to shirk from danger and sincerely meant well despite neglecting such formalities as "credentials". Again, from Connie Mack's reminiscence: "Danny Hoffman always gave the Rube credit for saving his life. ...Tannehill threw a ball that hit Danny on the temple, and he fell to the ground like a pole-axed steer. Someone went for an ambulance, and the players crowded around in aimless bewilderment. Somebody said that Danny might not live until the doctor got there. Pushing everybody to one side, (Waddell) placed Danny over his shoulder and actually ran across the field. And Danny was no lightweight, and was unconscious to boot.
The Rube found a carriage outside, commandeered it with ferocious threats to the driver, and rushed Danny to a hospital. The Rube sat by Danny's bedside the greater part of the night, still in his uniform holding ice to Danny's head to ease his suffering."

After a decade in the majors, alcoholism and erratic behaviour drove Rube out of the league. He met his end in 1913, falling ill to pneumonia contracted from volunteer work piling sandbags in an icy river that threatened a Texas community with a disastrous flood.
Shortly before his death some ballplayers located him in the sanatorium where he was a patient. Barely recognizable and thin as a rail, Rube told them,"I'll be over there tomorrow to show you guys how to run. I've got my weight down to fighting trim."
Ossie Schreck saw to the epitaph on his headstone: "Rube Waddell had only one priority, to have a good time."