Thursday, May 14, 2009

Krishnamurti Thought

I habitually read a daily "meditation" from J. Krishnamurti's The Book of Life - one can take it or leave it, but I usually take it. He was just the sort to get teed off if you accepted anything he said without question and I greatly admire that.
here's the entry for today, May 14.

Remain with a Feeling and See

What Happens

"You never remain with any feeling, pure and simple, but always surround it with a paraphernalia
of words. The word distorts it; thought, whirling around it, throws it into shadow, overpowers it

with mountainous fears and longings. You never remain with a feeling, and with nothing else: with hate, or with that strange feeling of beauty. When the feeling of hate arises, you say how bad it is; there is the compulsion, the struggle to overcome it, the turmoil of thought about it....

Try remaining with the feeling of hate, with the feeling of envy, jealousy, with the venom of ambition; for after all, that's what you have in daily life, though you may want to live with love or with the word love. Since you have the feeling of hate, of wanting to hurt somebody with a gesture or a burning word, see if you can stay with that feeling. can you? have you ever tried? Try to remain with a feeling , and see what happens. you will find it amazingly difficult. Your mind will not leave the feeling alone; it comes rushing in with its remembrances, its associations, its do's and don'ts, its everlasting chatter.

Pick up a piece of shell.
Can you look at it, wonder at its delicate beauty, without saying how pretty it is, or what animal made it? Can you look without the movement of the mind? Can you live without the feeling that the word builds up? If you can, then you will discover an extraordinary thing, a movement beyond the measure of time; a spring that knows no summer."

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

912 Toulouse St. with Ramblin' Jack

912 Greens is the title of a song Ramblin' Jack Elliott recorded on his album Young Brigham in 1968. It tells the story of a trip Jack made to New Orleans in 1953 to visit a banjo player named Billy Faier who lived at 912 Toulouse Street. The song is not sung, but a "talkin'" narrative with Jack accompanying himself with a flatpicked handful of repeated chords ornamented differently each time they cycle around; sometimes lingering and ruminating on one chord in that hypnotic flowing style that Jack had.

His idol and friend Woody Guthrie, (Woody's son Arlo too), had some talkin songs, as did Bob Dylan, who early on was referred too, not entirely in jest, as Ramblin Jack's son.
Jack's talkin narrative in 912 Greens has some similarity to those of the aforenamed but there is a distinct mixture of humour and sad resignation to this one - it's never quite one or the other and it's an odd mix of ordinariness (just friends sitting around getting acquainted) and absurd - "a lady that had once been ex-ballet dancer" dancing in the rain around a banana tree amidst the courtyard of the fenced in apartment pads that Billy and other musicians lived in.

This little sojourn is encircled with a kind of hobo fairytale magic; as far as Jack knew the only entryway to Billy's pad was though a back alleyway and over a fence. The two weeks Jack spent there were entirely under rain and rainclouds; he never saw the light of day in New Orleans and he hadn't returned since. It's the kind of tale told by campfire, or waiting out the rain huddled neath an awning in a train station between ramblers and drifters - and miscast poets - who may never see one another again.

Jack continued (and continues, to this day!) to sing the tune and it changes everytime. But I tend to believe this, the first recorded version of 912 Greens, is closer to the truth - if there is one.
Uh yes, if you listen to the very end you will hear the only sung lines in the tune, which add to ramblinesque proceedings:

"Did you ever
stand and shiver
just 'cause you were lookin'
at a river?"

* To understand better what the ramblin of Ramblin Jack is all about have a look at "The Ballad of Ramblin Jack" a documentary made by Jack's daughter Aiyanna.
A must-see, but, I would hope you listen to this song first.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Let the Right One In

Just a quick "thumbs up" to a movie that is catching a bit of underground buzz, the Swedish-made "vampire" film Let the Right One In.

Having read that there is likely an American version in the works, I am urged to get this recommendation out before this small masterpiece is summarily crapped upon.

I'm not much on gore for gore's sake, but I do like suspense and mystery. Though I generally avoid modern vampire depictions - Shadow of the Vampire with Willem Dafoe is about the only one I've intentionally seen twice - I also think there's something primally attractive to the dilemma and myth of the vampire which appeals to the experience of all of us as suffering beings, caught up in attachments and curses that seem beyond our control.

Let the Right One In moves at a contemplative pace without dragging, and builds the suspense with a "show, don't tell" approach. The viewer must come to his own conclusions as to the why and wherefore but these questions arise naturally rather than as an intellectual game to be solved. The movie, though mercifully avoiding Hollywood cliches, does not leave us hanging in the non-sequitur, "ok, just another weird slice-o-life" state that many independent or "art" films favor; it has a conclusion that is both liberating and disturbing.
While necessarily tagged as a "vampire" movie Let the Right One In is also a "coming-of-age" story, about friendship and loyalty and, yes, romance.

Rather than detail the plot I submit this link to the synopsis and review.

*Be sure and have the Swedish audio voice/soundtrack with the English subtitles - which are, at least in the version I secured, rendered very clearly.

Thursday, April 30, 2009

Abercrombie's Backward Glance

John Abercrombie is one of the instantly recognizable jazz guitar stylists. His sound and conception have a pastoral elegance attuned to Indian Raga or Persian modal improvisations as much as it does to his precursors in the jazz world such as Bill Evans, Jim Hall, and Miles Davis.

Characters is the only completely solo record Abercrombie ever made, and my personal favorite of his many releases. It was recorded for ECM by Manfred Eicher in Oslo, Norway in November of 1977. The album is distinguished by Abercrombie’s blend of acoustic guitars – primarily as chordal background – with melodies overlayed by the electric guitar, and occasionally, electric mandolin. Together, the acoustic and electric never sound crowded but complement one another like entwined branches of a vine.

The songs, all Abercrombie originals, are at once lyrical and harmonically daring, reminiscent of compositions of Evans like Blue in Green; they seem to be heading for a familiar resolution but pause to take another sidepath that opens out into something else.
Backward Glance from Characters

...(listening now, my take on it)

letting go
the handles
a bicyclist rounds a street corner
dream messenger
voice and touch of fingertips
remembrance of pathways in sunken cities
steps winding down always to a new door
light filtered by waves above
from tears of a thousand burning suns
of long gone galaxies
and curtains of persian night

forgotten the way back

awakened slow
eyelid blinks
flutter of wings
murmur of the heart

Abercrombie in the 70's

* Here is an interesting (at least to the explorative musical types) youtube clip with Abercrombie recently demonstrating the art and discipline of improvising on one string. By restricting the sonic "palette" to a narrower range, the musician finds resources to break out of the box of mechanical playing and away from licks that habitually "fall under the fingers". John starts with a basic Lydian modal thing and then uses the same approach against the chord changes to "Stella By Starlight".

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Oleo, June 1954

The melody for Oleo was, at least partially, composed on the spot by Sonny Rollins for this Miles Davis session, now issued on "Bag's Groove" (this version of the song not to be confused with that on the later Prestige session, "Relaxin").
According to Davis, Sonny would tear off scraps from paper found in the studio to write down his ideas, which also included two other songs that became jazz standards, Doxy and Airegin.

This song, as composition and in this particular performance, broke new ground somewhat analagous to the concurrent infusion of Zen thought and poetry into "Beat" culture. Here, a direct simplicity is achieved by paring down to essentials.

Oleo ia played over I Got Rhythm chord changes, as were countless compositions of the bop era. In most cases the melodies for the typical bop "heads" based on these changes were close to improvisations themselves, but with slight adjustments for compositional continuity. Rollins' melody, by contrast, is based on a shorter offbeat rhythmic "burst" motif, an urgent telegraph popping up from the melody stream - an energy pocket, a musical photon carrying an electromagnetic force. The improviser - or listener - uses this seed motif to fuel his own storyline. There are echoes of the deceptive simplicity of Monk and also the "cool" compositions from Davis' own Birth of the Cool sessions - check out "Deception" (Miles' revamp of George Shearing's "Conception") from there.

Oleo, rhythmically, bears some similarity to Charlie Parker's
Relaxin' At Camarillo - composed and performed not long after his release from the California state mental hospital of that name. Parker's tune, built on blues changes, also carries a threaded rhythmic motif that propels the tune along.

The arrangement of Oleo is also unique; the only constant is Percy Heath's spry walking bass line. In the statement of the "head" Miles Davis' Harmon-muted trumpet and Sonny's tenor in play unison over the bass-line with Kenny Clarke's understated drums and Horace Silver's melodic chordal comping coming in for the bridge. During the solos this arrangement remains basically the same although Clarke's drumming comes in, subtly, during the A sections and with a little more panache in the B.

Miles' solo is a gem of understatement - the first few bars are dashed off like a child's rope skipping song with a brilliant sweeping bop line here and there; predominately on the turnarounds.
While Miles's phrasing is already sparse and punctuated by empty bars, in Sonny's solo the phrases are more explosive but, in his first chorus, he leaves as much 2 or 3 bars empty. In the second chorus, after short, abstract jabs he pauses in and gathers himself before jumping into an extended line punctuated with accented peaks; picture a childlike figure cut at odd angles on paper folded in layers and then suddenly unfolded, a neo-bop daisy chain with sunlight pouring through each section differently.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Blumenschein's Lake

The Lake - Ernest Blumenschein

I live about three blocks from the Phoenix Art Museum and you would think I was a frequent visitor. Alas, it's a case of jaded convenience; already a procrastinator, I am comforted by the proximity of the Museum and set my intended visits upon the enormous heap labeled, "Things That I Really Want to Do That Can Always Be Done Later".
However, when I do get around to it, I love to go to the permanent collection and ritually soak up the "rays" from a few favorite paintings. One of my favorites is Ernest Blumenschein's "The Lake". Blumenschein captures the mystical, dramatic beauty of the Southwest - in his case New Mexico - but brings a decorative
element to the scene. Decorative, in the sense of using design elements suggested by the natural scene that are not there but that bring a unifying and personal element. Often Blumenschein has a shimmering detail - as of the reflection of the land and sky on the wind-stirred ripples that rake a watery surface - in the foreground and then a kind of sculptural, blocky, background of clouds or mountains that seems art deco.

Eagles Nest Lake

Presently, the Museum is showing a complete exhibit of Blumenschein's work and I have been blessed to see a great many works I never knew of. Though his paintings of Native American figures are impressive in their execution and color, I always have the nagging feeling that this caters to a kind of Eastern tourist fascination of the time. This may have not been Blumenschein's intent but I, as a resident of Phoenix, have seen quite enough of this sort of thing. It's the Blumenschein high desert landscapes, especially the water scenes therein, that speak to me and seem to be entirely unique and non-traditional.

Blumenschein was very fond of fishing, and though he later tended to move away from portrayals of the human figure as his landscapes came to the fore, he often punctuated his lake and river scenes with tiny figures of fishermen, either solitary or in groups.

Before taking up a career as an illustrator and then fine artist, Blumenschein was a musical prodigy on violin. Beginning musical studies in his native Ohio, Blumenschein moved on to New York City to study painting at the Art Students League.
To support himself, he took on a position as first violinist in the New York Symphony, conducted at that time by the great composer, Anton Dvorak. The story goes that Dvorak immediately hired the young Blumenschein for the first violin chair merely after hearing him play a D minor scale!
As Joan Carpenter Troccoli puts it in her masterful, "Painters and the American West; the Anschutz Collection"
"...his paintings seem analogous to music in their rhythm and repetition. One might even say the roundness of tone sought by musician's echoed in his sculptural forms."

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Frank Godwin and Treasure Island

The story goes that Robert Louis Stevenson was on holiday in the Scottish Highlands and one rainy day came upon his stepson Lloyd, applying watercolors to a map he'd made of an imaginary isle. Lloyd described Stevenson's attention;

" I was finishing it, and with his affectionate interest in everything I was doing, leaned over my shoulder, and was soon elaborating the map and naming it. I shall never forget the thrill of Skeleton Island, Spyglass Hill, nor the heart-stirring climax of the three red crosses! And the greater climax still when he wrote down the words "Treasure Island" at the top right-hand corner! And he seemed to know so much about it too —— the pirates, the buried treasure, the man who had been marooned on the island ... . "Oh, for a story about it", I exclaimed, in a heaven of enchantment ..."

Stevenson, who had been in a writer's block of late, dutifully hunkered down and blazed through the creation of Treasure Island.

My father had a hard-bound copy of Treasure Island in the house and it was the first novel I ever read. It bore the signature of my grandfather on the inside cover "From Dad, To Edmund J. Clohessy Jr., - Christmas 1930".

- thanks, Matthew for scanning the book-cover!

By the time the already-worn volume fell into my hands I must have seen the famous 1934 movie version with Wallace Beery as Long John Silver, Lionel Barrymore playing Billy Bones, and Jackie Cooper as the boy Jim Hawkins. My father and I were very fond of such bygone silver-screen gems, and his breadth of knowledge about the stars and their signature roles was a tantalizing thread that fueled my imagination. But, the fact that my father had read the book prior to, even, the 1934 movie version added to the intensity of interest he conveyed to me, to whom, like many 6 or 7 year old boys, a fine tale about pirates and lost treasure was as gasoline tossed on the fire.

As in all things, bookwise, artwise - lifewise - "Hunger is the best appetizer".

The book had but 4 colored - painted! - illustrations by Frank Godwin. Godwin is much lesser known than Howard Pyle and N.C. Wyeth whose names are synonymous with vivid swashbuckling scenes of the classic pirate books. Nonetheless, he stands on his own with graceful
rendering, exquisite coloring, and fine characterizations. Godwin also did outstanding work on Stevenson's Kidnapped and Hagedorn'sThe Book of Courage as seen below.

Four illustrated plates from Godwin were just enough to drive me round the bend, imaginatively speaking, and supply my own inner scenery.

to add some music to the proceedings, and forge a link to the previous post, here is a pirate-themed musical sketch ( i couldn't get a copy of his Henry Martin) of Donovan's taken from a live performance;Moon In Capricorn

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Donovan, in Her Majesty's Service

Following on the trail of recent posts about the songs of Donovan Leitch by my pal Relative Esoterica I I want to urge listeners to check out one of his lesser known, though one of my personal favorite, recordings - HMS Donovan. This was recorded after the birth of his first child in 1970, and like "For little Ones" is simultaneously for children but also should appeal to any adult with an ear attuned to poetry set to exquisite melodies and guitar playing with Donovan's particular twist on the folk tradition.

The record is lesser known than most of his others and had poor sales, despite one song that got a good deal of airplay "Celia of the Seals". This has some to do with a change in management and lack of promotion but also with the fact that it does not fit neatly into a "package" theme as some of his records. I personally think that Donovan's pop records at the time were not up to his usual snuff and the "people" were out of phase with him.
For the sake of brevity I include here a summary review of the record I posted in amazon back in 2000 - apologies in advance for my usual overflowery writing;

"While 'For Little Ones' is an intimate journey through the child-like looking glass of Donovan's Scottish Isles, 'HMS' is painted with a broader brush. This is more the loving stumble into childhood via an attic of musicboxes and half-crumbled story books with turn-o'-the-century color leafs. Some things we've outgrown and some things we should never forget.
Some unparalleled, great stuff here: 'Seller of Stars', 'Queen Mab", and 'Henry Martin' - lovely melodies w/ haunting guitar accompaniment somewhere between Bert Jansch and Ramblin' Jack.
The guitar throughout this recording is particularly crystalline and as full as harps in ancient halls. 'The Voyage of the Moon' - who else, I ask you, possesses the musical legerdemain to make you feel the slight pause of the moon with her sail of gauze? 'Song of the Wandering Aengus' - an ending that fades seamlessly into Yeats' celtic Twilight and your heart skips a beat. After hearing Donovan's version it will probably remain the only famous poem I can recite at will. Donovan is the undisputed master when it comes to reviving the vague stirring children have that there IS another world just past the trees and under the hills. (Am I completely nuts on this?) I respectfully differ with Markmatts [here i'm referring to another review] opinion of 'The Walrus and the Carpenter'. For those uninclined towards "folk"-type material, I play this cut first as bait by establishing our man as a visionary in sound. The response is invariably amazement. I find it endearingly Felliniesque - the song of the oysters is a gem and you'll not forget their little legs trotting on..."

"Henry Martin" is a traditional English song about one of Donovan's favorite themes,
piracy, and he employs a wonderful rolling - like the sea - modal pattern on guitar while using his voice to imitate a jew's harp or a hurdy-gurdy; much as one might hear on a sailing vessel of the 18th or 19th century or in some seedy port-of-call. The effect is trance-like and somewhat East Indian.

Here I include his version of the The Song of the Wandering Aengus, the famous Yeats poem set to words that is featured on HMS. In a past post "Hazel Wands, Wells, Wise Fish and Other Irish Fancies" from March 16th of 2006, I wrote a bit about the poem itself which might be of interest.

Many of the songs Donovan plays here are children's poems set to his own, or traditional melodies; here is the Thora Stowell poem, The Seller of Stars

Thanks again to Elizabeth for her fine posts on Donovan!

Sunday, March 15, 2009

From Coleman to Cantors

Sometimes a confluence of events in our lives is like a prophetic dream, preparing us for a new revelation or a forgotten treasure newly revealed. Or, maybe it's just like seeing a color in someones hair and then noticing it everywhere.

I had been reading a biography of the composer Harold Arlen and noted with some interest that his father was a cantor; dictionarily defined as, applicable in this case, "in a synagogue, the person who chants the liturgy and leads the congregation in prayer" - really a "singer" of Jewish liturgical song. I had a strong emotional pull towards this type of song, and a vague memory of it stirred inside of me, filed within as "things I've got to look deeper into one of these days".

The night after I had read that passage about Arlen's father, I was having a break at the bar of a restaurant where a group of us play a kind of experimental jazz, not so much songs as "happenings into song" or "sound evolvements" or, (as it may appear to some) how about "mindless doodlings"?

Steve Jansen, one of my musical cohorts, who creates "soundscapes" from odd items, is also a journalist who has interviewed a fair number of jazz artists. We got to chatting about Ornette Coleman, whom we both dig musically, and the absolutely unfathomably perplexing explanations and declarations that come out of his mouth. I remarked that it would be interesting to "loop" some of these statements into a creative musical patchwork as they stand alone as wondrous ciphers. I mean, what does one make of;
"It's impossible for you never to have existed at all, because when you didn't know that you existed, you did exist." ? And so forth...

At work in the library the following day I happened upon a book by Ben Ratliff called "The Jazz Ear" , a series of his ruminations and interviews with jazz players and composers. This book was of particular interest because Ratliff asks the artist to choose some recordings - not their own work - to play and discuss at the interviews.

In the book I found an interview with Ornette Coleman. Curious about the records Ornette would choose, I was pleasantly surprised that he had asked Ratliff to bring something by Cantor Joseph "Yossele" Rosenblatt. Ratliff brought a 1916 recording of Rosenblatt singing "Tikanto Shabbas" a psalm put to song. Also, what Ornette had to say was, for him, very direct.
Ornette on Rosenblatt;
"I was once in Chicago, about twenty-some years ago. A young man said, 'I'd like you to come by so I can play something for you.' I went down to his basement and he put on Joseph Rosenblatt and I started crying like a baby. The record he had was crying, singing, praying, all in the same breath. And none of it was crossing each other. It was all separate. I said, 'Wait a minute. You can't find those notes. Those are not "notes" They don't exist." Yossele Rosenblatt

As I listened to Rosenblatt myself, (this recording and others are available on youtube and elsewhere), I remembered where I had heard a cantor's song that moved me to tears and had sown the seed of curiosity about this music; it was in the Italian movie The Garden of the Finzi-Continis, based on a novel by Giorgio Bassano, and brought to fruition on film by Vittorio De Sica in 1970.
The story centers on the story of two Jewish families in Ferrara (the movie was filmed on location), Italy who have very different views on the events surrounding the rise of Mussolini, Hitler, and the fate that awaited them with the advent of war.
It was De Sica's last major film. Having been lauded early on for the "neo-realism" of The Bicycle Thief, and Umberto D he subsequently had fallen out of grace with critics for his "lighter" work and, after almost 15 years, The Garden was agreed to be a fine, though different, return to his former glory.

Unavailable from any existing cd recording, on youtube I was able to find on a trailer clip (?) for "The Garden of the Finzi-Continis" the beautiful, incomparable recording of Cantor Sholom Katz singing "El Male Rahimim" or "Keil Molei Rachamim" It comes in about 52 seconds into the clip and should not be missed!

From I did find this bit about Sholom Katz, acknowledged as one of the greatest recorded cantors;

"Sholom Katz was born in Grosswardein, Hungary. At an early age he was already displaying his unique ability before vast audiences. When he was only twenty years old, he won the post of cantor at the famed Kishinever Shul, with a three year contract. His next position was in the Hecker Shul where the renowned Shlomoh Zalmon Razomne once officiated as Cantor.
In 1942 in a Nazi concentration camp, Sholom was among 1600 Jews scheduled for mass execution. He received permission to sing the Keil Molei Rachamim (Prayer for the Dead) while the prisoners were digging their graves. The Nazi commandant, impressed with his voice, spared him to sing for the officers, and the next day he was allowed to escape, the only one of 1600 spared a brutal death."(italics are mine)

What can one say after that?

* The picture at the top of the page is of the Synagogue in Ferrara, Italy.

Friday, February 27, 2009

I Gotta Right to Sing the Blues

Billie's version * of I Gotta Right To Sing the Blues was waxed on April 20,1939 for Commodore Records.

Billie's singing here typifies all that I love about the early years of her recording career; when speaking of her voice/tone as a trumpet this is not to take away from her humanity - she conveys the lyric sentiment perfectly but she brings to it the beauty of something purely musical. You can feel the blues for her but you can enjoy the ride as you accept that certain things in life are a given.
Where most singers would have "torched it up" with Billie you've got a subtler resignation that doesn't deny the pain - as if to say, "Life is a bitch - so, what else is new? I gotta find a way to live with it."
While the rhythm section lays down the beat in Basie style, heart-beat SOLID (one can imagine the strums of guitarist Jimmy McLin springing OFF the beat, buoyant, like Freddie Greene) Billie floats over it all like a golden cloud.
To quote drummer Specs Powell;
"She was one of the first singers that did not emote, no bouncing around, sang very quietly, snapped right hand, holding it close to her side. Snapped her fingers and tapped her feet very quietly, head tilted slightly to one side. The opposite to most jazz singers [of that time], who seemed to be choreographed. Her whole attitude was very cool."

The song has a wonderful stoptime bit at the end of a verse; she sings on beats 1 and three with band answering on 2 and 4 "All I SEE...FOR...ME...IS...MIS...ER...Ree-EEE!" and when they all lock back in to the solid time it's total swinging joy.

Frankie Newton with Billie at the session

A fine addition the record is Tab Smith's wail of a solo on alto sax; I would have personally preferred someone like Lester Young or even Kermit Scott on tenor or Irving Fazola on clarinet, but I must admit that Smith's rather ornate 20's style glide upward gives a nice contrast to Billie's even swing.
To my ears, the high point of the record is Frankie Newton's muted trumpet obbligato
entwining Billies vocal. The more I hear it the more I'm amazed at the choice of notes that seemed to push Billie's phrases to the fore rather than merely ornament.
Newton was an anomaly, more of a Miles Davis for the swing era, with minimal lyric solos.
"Frank" as he preferred to be called, made an auspicious debut with Bessie Smith in the early 30's but virtually dropped out of the recording scene by the mid 40's; apparently his independent spirit was at odds with the music business. An avid reader, and painter who loved to play tennis he nevertheless continued to play the odd gig in Boston and remained a legend to those who recalled him. Jazz writer Nat Hentoff befriended Newton in his youth and relates how the older, athletic, father-figure walked protectively behind him and his girfriend through a dicey neighborhood to make sure he wasn't "jumped".

Frankie Newton with Sidney Bechet

The band for the session was the house band for the newly opened Cafe Society Uptown club on 58th Street between Park and Lexington in Manhattan. Barney Josephson, a jazz lover, was the son of Latvian immigrants, and had witnessed better treatment of black performers in Europe. He opened the club, partly to provide an integrated environment and also to showcase black performers as well as cabaret and comedy. It was Josephson who introduced Billie to her most famous song "Strange Fruit" - the thinly veiled portrayal of racist lynching in the south. The irony is that it was recorded at the very-same session as "I Gotta Right..." and would lead Billie down a very different road.
I would agree she became typecast in the following years as a "hard-luck" tragic chanteuse as much for this song as for the sordid details of her growing addiction to heroin and abusive men. Ironically (a situation much like Lester Young's), as her voice deteriorated, she was able to make more records under her own name - it always saddens me that so many listeners are ONLY familiar with the latter-day (of the 50's and late 40's) recordings and have no inkling of the golden-toned Billie.

Finally a word of praise should go out to the composer/melodist Harold Arlen and lyricist Ted Koehler who wrote "I Gotta Right to Sing the Blues". The stunning array of melodies written by Arlen include Over the Rainbow, Let's Fall In Love, Stormy Weather, Get Happy, I've Got the World On a String, One For My Baby, Come Rain or Come Shine among others!
No accident that Arlen was the son of a Jewish cantor who also loved secular music; especially operatic singers like Enrico Caruso and John McCormack. Harold Arlen stepped beyond his family phonograph and enveloped himself in the sounds of ragtime, jazz and the powerful blues of Bessie Smith - Billie Holiday's prime influence along with Louis Armstrong.

Harold Arlen >

For a fascinating in-depth comparison of Billie's "I Gotta Right..." with Louis Armstrong's equally wonderful take from 1934, see Lori Burns' Feeling the Style: Vocal Gesture and Musical Expression in Billie Holiday, Bessie Smith, and Louis Armstrong.

* Billies "I Gotta Right .." can be found by scrolling down to the bottom of the link page - next to The Complete Commodore recordings.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

The Best Things In Life Are Free

"The moon belongs to everyone
The best things in life they're free
Stars belong to everyone
They cling there for you and for me

Flowers in spring
The robins that sing
The sunbeams that shine
They're yours and they're mine
Love can come to everyone
The best things in life
Are free."

Times being what they are, it's only fitting to pull out an old nugget that has been given fine, if very differing, treatments by two of my favorite musicians, singer Jo Stafford and tenor saxophonist Hank Mobley; The Best Things in Life are Free. Of course, the sentiment of the lyric is timeless in hard times or good times. Furthermore, one can drop the lyric - though the sentiment bleeds through - and just enjoy the music.

This tune was penned by Bud De Sylva, Lew Brown, and Ray Henderson (who also composed the melody for Bye bye Blackbird) for the musical Good News back in 1927 when Babe Ruth was slamming 60 home runs on a moderate regimen of beer and hot-dogs and without steroids, flappers were flapping, The Jazz Singer with Al Jolson opened at the movies, bootleg whiskey fueled the Jazz Age parties, and Bix Beiderbecke was in full swing with his golden toned cornet recording Singin the Blues and Way Down Yonder in New Orleans.
Either side of the road was the Sunny Side of the Street.

Jo's version from 1948:
Jo always stays close to the melody and lets the band swing it behind her but each phrase is HER phrase and is, when she's got a good song, almost always THE phrase that fits the song.

From Chris Albertson's interview with Lester Young, the poet of the tenor saxophone who spent the bulk of his listening time digging singers.

ALBERTSON Jo Stafford is your favorite singer?
YOUNG Yeah, and Lady Day [Billie Holiday]. And I'm through.
ALBERTSON But Jo Stafford does not sing jazz, does she?
YOUNG No, but I hear her voice and the sound and the way she puts things on.
Enough said.

Hank's version - 1961
Hank has always taken a backseat to Coltrane, Rollins, Getz and the other great tenor players of his generation..... and yet -
When the song was right (and he was right) he does something else, a certain flow and a subtle warm tone that no one can touch. Along with This I Dig of You and Remember I think of this solo, especially the first chorus, as a prime example of what he was all about; the way he rolls off of the the intro break unfolding in a gentle bop wave to come out like Errol Flynn, sword in hand down the staircase, cutting and jabbing, eliminating all obstacles to deliver the beautiful line and win Olivia de Havilland's hand; or at least secure some bread for the Merry Men.

Monday, February 09, 2009

Alone Together, Dancing In the Dark

Arthur Schwartz, self taught on piano, was encouraged by Larry Hart and George Gershwin, to ease out of a career in law, follow his passion, and become one of the greatest "Broadway" composers - these days lesser known than Porter, Kern, Rodgers and Gershwin etal; well loved, nevertheless, by singers and jazz instrumentalist artists alike.
Schwartz created elegant song melodies in minor keys that also intimated sunlight and exuberance, and melodies in major keys that allowed more than a few rainclouds over head and reveries of loss.

William Zinsser (who wrote On Writing Well, a wonderful book extolling direct, uncluttered writing that I obviously had more fun reading than ingesting!) gets almost rhapsodic on Schwartz in his book Easy To Remember The Great American Songwriters and Their Songs:
"Nobody wrote melodies as sensuous as 'Alone Together' and 'You and the Night and the Music', with their rich minor-key coloring, or 'Dancing in the Dark' and 'I See Your Face Before Me'. They are grandly constructed songs, soaring at exactly the moment when they need to take flight and then returning to earth, all musical issues resolved."

Appropos of flight-taking, soaring, and returning (serenely) to earth - in this case to a horse drawn cab of Central Park - is this famous scene from The Bandwagon where Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse provide lyric flight to the orchestrated Dancing in the Dark"
Again, seductive shifts of major and minor move under the basic motif.

Schwartz' perfectly matched lyricist partner, Howard Dietz, sets the layered emotions of the song in the first lines:

Dancing in the dark Till the tune ends,
We're dancing in the dark and it soon ends,
We're waltzing in the wonder of why we're here,
Time hurries by, we're here and gone;

"Haunted Heart" is another gem from Schwartz. Closing my eyes to listen I climb up through mountain paths, through trees covered in mists that open out finally into a clearing looking west over the ocean where a woman gazes out, singing as the sun begins to set (whaddya mean, I'm living in a musical?); once again subtle shifts laid out by the chord changes. Here sung by the immaculate, subtle and warm Jo Stafford (that must be her singing to the setting sun) - someone said she was Lester Young's favorite singer and that says much considering how he felt about Billie Holiday. Many thanks to Elizabeth of
Relative Esoterica for introducing Jo to me via her informed and passionate litanies!

"You and the Night and the Music" has been a longtime favorite of jazz musicians. Here is a great hard-swinging jazz version of the song by Anita O'Day. I completely flip hearing Anita, in the song's final go-round, taking a complete downward dive off the melody path and climbing back up singing a walking bassline in the final verses. Utterly Anita-esque devil-may-care drop-dead swinging.

Bill Evans does another great version of this tune on "Interplay" with Freddie Hubbard, Jim Hall, and Percy Heath, capped off with the wonderful drive of Philly Joe Jones on drums.

There is one "kick" Philly Joe delivers on the head statement that I always anticipate with delight. One of those definitive moments in jazz history!

Last but not least I offer you guitarist Pat Martino's take on "Alone Together" from The Visit, re-issued as Footprints.

Martino gives a hint here of the formative influences of Johnny Smith, Wes Montgomery, but soon enough, hold on to your hats and hear a true original. He starts off the melody statement with a loping swing enhanced by Billy Higgins and Richard Davis and then the tsoulful, tentative descending line
in the pick-up break and he's off and running. With Martino, no matter what the speed here, every line is a pearl.

In his book Singers and the Song Gene Lees offers this reminiscence;

"One day I was descending from the ASCAP New York office in an elevator. A tall, dark-haired, and strikingly handsome man in - I later realized - his seventies struck up a conversation with me. We got on to the subject of songs, and as we left the building found we were both walking north. The conversation continued. The man was elegant, poised, vigorous, articulate, and spoke with a voice of such gorgeous baritone resonance that I can still hear it in my head.
Finally, as we waited for a stoplight to change, he asked my name and i told him. He put out his hand and said, "I'm Arthur Schwartz."

Friday, January 30, 2009

John Martyn - "Every Bird that Sings is Born to Fly"

One Day Without You
I was saddened to hear of John's passing yesterday - but even then the thought of him brought a smile and "for-the-life-of-god!" shake of the head. I was glad to know he'd made it this far and hope he was content with his legacy; he certainly he lived wild and hard and brought some great music into the world.

I first saw John Martyn perform at the Troubadour in LA back in the 70's. My friend Alan and I had come to see the featured act -Incredible String Band - whom we had long admired and seen previous but they were in the midst of personnel and style change; Martyn however was an unexpected delight and, for me, a life-changing influence.
May You Never

It was the perfect intimate venue for him to play, accompanied by only his (predominately) acoustic guitar and warm smokey voice. It took about 20 minutes to comprehend what he was singing about, and chattering on exuberantly about through the thick lilt of a Glaswegian accent. The paradox of him was that most of his songs were unchecked soulful and emotional outpourings, in that sense very much like Van Morrison, and his music layered with gorgeous altered minor ninth chords and lovely intricacies but his in-between chatter was hilarious, self-deprecating, and bubbled forth with spontaneity. I think most of us were savvy enough to know exactly what he was singing about whether or not a few decipherable words swam their way to the surface.

A live rendition of You Can Discover on John Peel's BBC show. One of my favorites in the sweet melancholy twilight that John dished out.
Here another later live, less nuanced, version of the same tune but entered here for a taste of John's between-song rambles.
John would often cap off a set encore with one of these snippets of classic old-time American popular song:
Singin in the Rain
and Glory of Love

Though his major influences were recognizable - Davy Graham, and Skip James amongst others - John had a unique guitar style. He had a popping, slapping/dampening technique that he would often lay down on beats 2 and 4 that gave his tunes a jazz-like lift. He chose a variety of tunings but never played with the droney cliches many oft settle for but he also equally held forth expressively in standard tuning - it was all about the song.
One more I always loved - live with Danny Thompson;
Sweet little Mystery

Whenever and wherever I went out to see him I managed to say hello and he always had a humble but eager thanks to offer in return. He is still transmitting through the ether!

The following clip has John paired together with his friend and collaborator, the double-bassist Danny Thompson. The two were, seemingly, not always the models of sobriety; once they dared one another to do a concert set in the buff and followed through. Another tale of the road has Thompson, after a night of inebriation, nailing a hotel rug over Martyn while he snoozed oblivious on the floor. I'm sure John awakened thinking he was either buried alive or had finally met his Judgement.

John, we Couldn't Love You More

I can't resist one more simple favorite, as a goodbye. I like to blow some floating tenor sax lines over this one....
All For the Love of You