Thursday, January 31, 2008

Les Feuilles Mortes

Jacques Prevert in Paris, with friend

"I like spring,but it is too young, i like summer, but it is too proud. So I like best of all autumn, because it's tone is mellower, it's colours are richer,
and it is tinged with a little sorrow."

- Lin Yutang

"It was one of those perfect English autumnal days which occur more frequently in memory than in life"
- P.D. James

February at last, and here I'm writing something autumn-related!
Yes, I'm a little slow on the uptake at times; it's just that I came upon an upcoming birthday notice (February 4, 1900) for the French poet/lyricist, screenwriter, and - here's the tie - purveyor of the "original" Autumn Leaves lyric, Jacques Prevert. Of course the original title in French for the song was "Les Feuilles Mortes", the English translation resonating with a thud as "The Dead Leaves". those of us with a musical ear, would have hoped for the melodious and visually attractive French word "automne" in the title; not to be! At this point, I would add that the English version of the lyrics, written by Johnny Mercer, are, though exquisite, quite different.

Here, with the introductory verse and the refrain - which accompanies the gorgeous melody known to all, of Prevert's musical collaborator Joseph Kosma - is the French "Les Feuilles" followed by a fairly literal translation into English by Chuck Perrin:

Oh! je voudrais tant que tu te souviennes
Des jours heureux oů nous étions amis
En ce temps-la la vie était plus belle,
Et le soleil plus brűlant qu'aujourd'hui
Les feuilles mortes se ramassent a la pelle
Tu vois, je n'ai pas oublié...
Les feuilles mortes se ramassent a la pelle,
Les souvenirs et les regrets aussi
Et le vent du nord les emporte
Dans la nuit froide de l'oubli.
Tu vois, je n'ai pas oublié
La chanson que tu me chantais.

C'est une chanson qui nous ressemble
Toi, tu m'aimais et je t'aimais
Et nous vivions tous deux ensemble
Toi qui m'aimais, moi qui t'aimais
Mais la vie sépare ceux qui s'aiment
Tout doucement, sans faire de bruit
Et la mer efface sur le sable
Les pas des amants désunis.

Oh I wish so much you would remember
those happy days when we were friends.
Life in those times was so much brighter
and the sun was hotter than today.
Dead leaves picked up by the shovelful.
You see, I have not forgotten.
Dead leaves picked up by the shovelful,
memories and regrets also,
and the North wind carries them away
into the cold night of oblivion.
You see, I have not forgotten
the song that you sang for me:
It is a song resembling us.
We lived together, the both of us,
you who loved me
and I who loved you.
But life drives apart those who love
ever so softly
without a noise
and the sea erases from the sand
the steps of lovers gone their ways.

Unlike his more intricate screenwriting work (eg. my longtime favorite, the brilliant Les Enfants Du Paradis), Prevert's poems were very simple, often reading like surrealist laundry lists or the guileless word-collage of a child; simple sentiments delivered with a twist. In "Feuilles", the rake gathering leaves juxtaposed against the lost love is a very Prevertian touch - an ordinary utilitarian object with no romantic "charge", together with an intangible sentiment - connected by, the more obviously metaphorical, leaves.
My favorite musical version of "Autumn Leaves" is the Miles Davis / Cannonball Adderley take from Somethin' Else. The misterioso introduction, ending vamp and Miles' bare and elegant solo. Most "poetic" of all, his choice to resolve the line on the 6th (E against G minor) of the chord in the 7th bar, rather than the expected minor 3rd. I like to think Prevert tipped his hat to that.

one more poem by Jacques:

Paris at Night

Trois allumettes une à une allumées dans la nuit
La premiére pour voir ton visage tout entier
La seconde pour voir tes yeux
La dernière pour voir ta bouche
Et l'obscuritè tout entière pour me rappeler tout cela
En te serrant dans mes bras.

Three matches one by one struck in the night
The first to see your face in it's entirety
The second to see your eyes
The last to see your mouth
And the darkness all around to remind me of all these
As I hold you in my arms.

Here is a lovely version in French by Yves Montand that starts with a reading of the verse.

Monday, January 28, 2008

Sonny's Lists

Browsing through today, I came upon the "Amazon Earworm" section which features lists created by celebrity musicians/performers, of music, books, or movies they recommend.

I was delighted to find lists by one of my idols, tenor saxophonist Sonny Rollins who is now 77 years old and still performing with great intensity and clarity - witness the show I caught last year.
I had an inkling of some of his choices, having read many interviews, including an exceptional NPR radio interview he gave Teri Gross back in the early 90's - but there were some surprises. Here are his lists of recommended music and recommended films, with some brief commentary by him.

Sonny Rollins' List of Music You Should Hear

1. "The Man I Love" from Ken Burns JAZZ Collection: Coleman Hawkins by Coleman Hawkins
The Great Hawk, and a masterpiece.

2. "Afternoon of a Basie-ite" from The Complete Lester Young on Keynote by Lester Young
This is Lester Young and all he represents.

3. "Cotton Tail" from The Best of Ken Burns Jazz by Duke Ellington & His Orchestra
The Duke Ellington Orchestra in one of its many unforgettable recordings and, of course, the mighty Ben Webster up front.

4. "I Can't Get Started" from I Can't Get Started by Bunny Berigan
There’s something about this record that gets to me. I can’t explain it beyond that.

5. "Unforgettable" from The Very Best Of Nat King Cole by Nat King Cole
My favorite singer and a good enough song.

6. "Lover Man" from Ultimate Billie Holliday: Lover Man by Billie Holiday
I’ve been told that that is Budd Johnson playing the tenor solo. A great arrangement to cuddle the lady.

7. "Billie's Bounce" from Charlie Parker: A Studio Chronicle 1940-1948 by Charlie Parker
Here is the Bird out of Kansas City, and listen to the genius of young Miles.

8. "Ballad for Americans" from Ballad for Americans by Paul Robeson
The great voice, the great man, and again, the great message of this song.

Sonny's List of Movies you Should Watch:

1. Casablanca
Everybody’s favorite for the usual reasons, but Dooley Wilson’s band sealed it for me.

2. Cabin in the Sky
Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Lena Horne, Ethel Waters. . . You get the idea.

3. Swing Time
I saw it when I was 6, and Jerome Kern’s music stayed with me.

4. The Third Man (50th Anniversary Edition) - Criterion Collection
Austria after the war. Intriguing plot, and that great zither music.

5. Foreign Affair (1948)
Berlin just after the war – a great cast, a great story, and Billy Wilder.

6. Laura (Fox Film Noir)
Who can resist Gene Tierney as Laura? The song isn’t bad, either.

Like many great improvisers, Sonny plays a fair bit of standards from the "American Song Book" - but he is also notable for playing many tunes from the the standard repertoire that are infrequently played by the majority of jazz musicians.
Things like "Count Your Blessings", "The Most Beautiful Girl In the World", "To A Wild Rose", "I'm An Old Cowhand", "The Last Time I Saw Paris", and "How Are Things In Glocca Morra" come to mind.

It amuses me that many jazz musicians, and fans, seem to be in denial about Rollins' love of those standards made popular in the great movie musicals of the 30's and 40's. I heard one musician cohort claim that "Sonny is just kidding us when he plays those tunes. He isn't serious." I also recall one young musician writing to Sonny's website, complimenting him on "destroying" such and such a tune.
Get a clue people, Sonny loves this stuff! I recall Sonny telling an interviewer that he had amassed a fair collection of bygone musicals and was currently in awe of the dancing performance of Joan Leslie opposite Fred Astaire in "The Sky's the Limit". I always felt that Rollins' best improvised lines danced and continued to dance in the head and steps down the street long after the initial hearing.

The mind of the greater creative musician is not confined to the narrow box of "hipness" that many lesser mortals find comforting.
End of sermon.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Madame George

Down on Cyprus Avenue
With childlike visions leaping into view
The clicking clacking of the high heeled shoe
Ford & Fitzroy, and Madame George.

Marching with the soldier boy behind
He's much older now, with hat on, drinking wine
And that smell of sweet perfume comes drifting through
on the cool night air like Shalimar oil

And outside they're making all the stops
Kids out in the street collecting bottle-tops
Gone for cigarettes and matches in the shops
I’d be taken Madame George

That's when you fall
Whoa, that's when you fall

Yeah, that's when you fall

When you fall into a trance
A sitting on a sofa playing games of chance
With your folded arms in history books you glance
Into the eyes of Madame George

And you think you’ve found the bag
You're getting weaker and your knees begin to sag
In the corner playing dominoes in drag
The one and only Madame George

And then from outside the frosty window raps
She jumps up and says Lord have mercy I think it's the cops
And immediately drops everything she gots
Down into the street below

And you know you gotta go
On that train from Dublin up to Sandy Row
Throwing pennies at the bridges down below
And the rain, hail, sleet, and snow.

Say goodbye to Madame George
Dry your eye for Madame George
Wonder why for Madame George

And as you leave, you'd be laughing, you'd be
dancing, music goin all around the room
And all the little boys come around, walking away from it all
So cold

And as you're about to leave
She jumps up and says Hey love, you forgot your gloves
And the love to love she loves to love the love
to love to love she loves to love the love to love.

To say goodbye to Madame George
Dry your eye for Madame George
Wonder why for Madame George
Dry your eyes for Madame George

Say goodbye in the wind and the rain on the back street
In the backstreet, in the back street
Say goodbye to Madame George
In the backstreet, in the back street, in the back street
Down home,

down home in the back street….

Say goodbye, goodbye
Get on the train

Get on the train, the train, the train...
This is the train, this is the train...
Whoa, say goodbye, goodbye....
Get on the train, get on the train...

Van Morrison sings out the first line of Madame George and, with the descending phrase that tumbles down and curls up with "Avenue", I'm transported to a place not quite physical but voiced into being verse to verse a narrative that gradually disassembles into feeling; and looking up from the street below a flash of a woman pausing in the third floor window frame, before closing the drapes on a scene that flickers in the mind of a man looking back in his memory with longing and regret, upon an event that will never be quite digested because the coincidences of time that brought him to that place will never be retrieved.

Madame George carries a mystery; no one can quite fathom who Madame George is. Lester Bangs, best known for his in-depth reviews in Rolling Stone Magazine, wrote a compelling piece about Morrison's Astral Weeks, focusing in particular on Madame George whom he, naturally with a line like "caught up in a corner playing dominoes in drag, the one and only Madame George", deduces to be a drag queen. He starts out;

" 'Madame George' is the album's whirlpool. possibly the most compassionate piece of music ever made, it asks us, no, arranges that we see the plight of what I'll be brutal and call a lovelorn drag queen with such intense empathy that when the singer hurts him, we do too."

Van Morrison, in various interviews, denied the drag queen theory:"Oh no. Whatever gave you that impression? It all depends on what you want, how you want to go. If you see it as a male or female or whatever, it's your trip." Later he said,

"Madame George was about six or seven people who probably couldn't find themselves in there if they tried."

Perhaps Cyprus Avenue itself is a way station in Van's memory for a number of people and happenings that he gives form to in this song.

The writer Tom Nolan recently wrote an article in Wall Street Journal (a likely place!) positing that Morrison's Madame George was actually "George" Yeats (originally Georgie Hyde Lees) the wife of William Butler Yeats, the Irish poet. "George", who was about 30 years younger than W.B. when they married, was a psychic medium and fellow member with her husband-to-be of the mystical Order of the Golden Dawn. Most importantly, she introduced Yeats to automatic writing. If the assumption of George Yeats as our "Madame" seems too loopy to consider, especially given the setting of the song, there are some odd connections, if only coincidental.

Consider Morrison's further descriptions of the song in an interview:

"The original title was 'Madame Joy' but the way I wrote it down was 'Madame George'. Don't ask me why I do this because I just don't know. The song is just a stream-of-conciousness thing, like 'Cyprus Avenue'.

It may have something to with my great aunt whose name was Joy. Apparently she was clairvoyant...that may have something to do with it. Aunt Joy lived in the area mentioned in connection with Cyprus Avenue. She lived on a street just off Fitzroy Street which is quite near to Cyprus Avenue."

"Madame George" begins with the simple 3 chord turnaround pattern that Morrison uses for the duration of the song. The singing commences together with Richard Davis' jazz double bass line which grounds the proceedings while Connie Kay on drums, John Payne on flute, and a violinist float in and out - an unconventional line-up that gives it a feel that defies labels.

I'll give the final word to Van the Man himself:

"I didn't even think about what I was writing. There are some things that you write that just come out all at once....'Madame George' just came right out. The song is basically about a spiritual feeling."

While somewhere out there or in the hereafter "six or seven people" are wandering about in a state of unknowing as regards their contributions to the person that is Madame George, I'll be kicking back and relishing this song again and again just i did that first day some time in 1969. I leave the solving to some other sleuth, admitting that really, like a great jazz improvisation or beautiful painting, there's no need for a solution.

* For those who haven't the record I've copied a clip from youtube which I've posted here
The video has nothing to do with the tune, and my version keeps stopping about a 2 or 3 minutes near the end (which is an area that shouldn't be missed) , but I'm grateful, nevertheless, that the poster posted it!
There is another earlier, still formative, version posted of it from hitherto unreleased tapes but i heartily do not recommend it.

* there is a nice myspace site on the album Astral Weeks that has some complete versions of a few great songs . check it out here

Friday, January 04, 2008

Mexican Blue

My favorite song in the universe is...... (drum roll please, Jo Jones....)

Mexican Blue, as written and performed by Jolie Holland on Springtime Can Kill You.
The song is dedicated to Samantha Parton of the Be Good Tanyas. Jolie started out with the Tanyas in Vancouver but left to due to creative "differences" and moved to San Francisco where she started her solo career and resides to this day.

I don't profess to know the exact relationship of Jolie to Sam but doubtlessly this about the most affecting love song I've ever heard. Perhaps, a plea for her friend to simply take care of herself and not let hard times to press her down.
The song begins simply, stepping lightly, with Jolie's voice and a simple 4 chord sequence that continues to cycle through to the end. As it moves along, the underplayed coloring of the drums and bass fill it out and the magnificent tonal colors of Brian Miller's guitar bring just the right touch to the mood. Jolie's verses shift from poetic allusions to direct plea and back again and she rearranges the melody to fit the pictures her words paint; reaching high and plaintive or warm and settled.
If nothing else the song offers the listener an opportunity to relish, intimately, the beautiful glowing tones of Jolie's voice and the way she takes a word and ever so slightly draws it out and spins and flutters it, and let its melt off her tongue. Just the way she says, in her lovely drawl, "hydrangeas" is enough for me to hop the nearest train to SF and lay bouquets at her door. Ahh, but one must let go of what can never be and appreciate what's been given!

The song is the last on the album; number 12, and i wouldn't doubt that those flicking about, perusing the cuts, might never make it that far. Here is the Jolie recording of Mexican Blue as posted on myspace - thanks to the poster and long may it stay!

You're like a saint's song to me
I'll try to sing it pure and easily
You're like a Mexican blue
So bright and clear and pale in the afternoon
I saw you riding on your bike
In a corduroy jacket in the night
Past the hydrangeas that were blooming in the alley
With a galloping dog by your side
When I was hungry you fed me
I don't mean to suggest that I'm like Jesus Christ
Your light overwhelmed me
When I lay beside you sleepless in the night
And when you dreamed my guardian spirits appeared
And the moon stretched out across your little bed
They said they'd started to get worried about me
They were happy we had finally met
We had finally met

A mysterious bird flies away
Seemed to be calling your name
And bounced off the top of a towering pine
And vanished in the drizzling rain
There's a mockingbird behind my house
Who is a magician of the highest degree
And I swear I heard him rip the world apart
And sew it back again with his fiery melody, melody

When you were mad at me I didn't care
And I just loved you all the same
And I waited for the wind to push the hurricane
Out to sea, and the sun could shine again
Oh I don't mean to give you advice
Its just like Delia said, "oh, Jesus Christ"
Just don't get so high you leave the ground
Everything is so much better when you're around
Just don't float so high you drift away
Stand tall, with your feet on the ground
I love your songs, I love your sound
Everything is so much better when you're around

When the moon is as clear as an opal
And the amethyst river sings a song
I'll remember all your dreams and the mysteries
You have borne in your crystalline soul
That you sing from your golden throat
That you shine from your sparkling eyes
That you feel from the goddess in your thighs

You're like a saint's song to me
I'll try to sing it pure and easily
You're like a Mexican blue
So bright and clear and pale in the afternoon
In the afternoon

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

The Candle is All Flame

One late spring day around 1934 Jan Yoors, a Belgian boy of twelve, overcome with curiosity from his father's stories, wandered up to the grassy periphery of a gypsy camp on the edge of town. Boys from the kumpania approached him, and engaged him in conversation, showing him their horses. Though they barely could understand a word between them, a natural ease set in - they were at an age when such things were possible. Jan would gradually realize that he had freely slipped through a door between cultures rarely traversed and if he had been older or much younger, there wouldn't have been the ghost of a chance.

The pull was so strong that Jan seemingly forgot that he had a warm,well-furnished home and two loving parents to return to - one night with the gypsy kids out under the stars led to another and soon he was accepted by the elders and traveled freely with the caravan. It took a great deal of time for Jan to shed the veneer of "civilization", and adjust to the constancy of travel:

"On a few occasions I was distressed when we left a particularly pleasant or convenient camping spot...Rupa chided me for this, in her gruff way; she said I would, by losing it, cherish the memory of this place even more, with the tenderness reserved for incompletely satisfied longings. She said in time I too would learn to possess the single passing moment more passionately, more fully, without regrets. She tried to tell me that the Rom lived in a perpetual present: memories, dreams, desires, hungers, the urge toward a tomorrow, all were rooted in the present. Without now there was no before, just as there would be no after.
She said that 'to the Lowara (their Gypsy branch) a candle is not made of wax, but is all flame'. In the stories they told, the Rom praised extravagant lavishness and most of them practiced this all consuming generosity, at times to the extreme of outright squandering. In their language thriftiness, or any other word denoting carefulness, was translated as stinginess. They strongly disapproved of saving, with the result that between red-letter days, worthy of legend, there were hollow ones, more frequent than bargained for."

Fortunately, his parents were a liberal-minded pair; his mother Magda, a human rights activist and his father Eugene, a renowned stained glass artist. When Jan finally returned home they reached an agreement that he could live with the Rom half the year and live at home, attending to his studies.

Yoors wrote "The Gypsies", describing his life with the Gypsies and also a connected book "The Crossing" which deals with his work - in tandem with the Gypsies - as a resistance fighter in World War II. He was arrested twice and narrowly escaped execution by some paperwork foul-up by the Nazis. A majority of his dear traveling companions were less fortunate, and perished in the death camps.

Amongst the companions lost to him was his Gypsy "father" Pulika.
This from Jan's son Kore's reminiscences of his father's stories in the introduction to "The Heroic Present: Life Among the Gypsies" a compilation of Yoors photos and writings:

"One day in the 1930's, as winter approached and Jan was preparing to return to his parent's home, he asked Pulika to pose for a photo. Pulika asked, "Why do you need a photo of me? Are you going to betray me to the police?" Jan replied that he wanted the photo to remember him by.
Pulika responded, "If you need a piece of paper to remember me by, forget me!"

Jan Yoors is the tall, very white, teenager second from left in the top photo.