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259: Chris Thile & Brad Mehldau: ‘Marcie’ (Joni Mitchell), ‘Don’t Think Twice’ (Dylan)

Posted by jeff on Mar 24, 2017 in Jazz, New Acoustic, Rock, Song Of the week

122815-r4-f3_wide-3f58a2451f6181b363e9f119d2fe83033cd14290-s900-c85Chris Thile & Brad Mehldau — ‘Marcie’

Joni Mitchell — ‘Marcie’

Chris Thile & Brad Mehldau — ‘Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright’

Bob Dylan — ‘Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright’

I’ve made it a guiding principle of this blog to focus on music I love. Hence, you only know the jolly, positive, coddling Jeff.
Alas, there’s an alter ego lurking in the nether depths of my Critic’s Psyche: the censorious, condemnatory, disparaging, judgmental Jeff, the one those near and dear to me have the misfortune of suffering through.

maxresdefaultSo this week I’m going to share with you not one but two! new covers of great songs from not one but two! artists I greatly admire. Except I’m going to step on some toes and sour-milk some sacred cows along the way. Bear with me, I promise there will be a happy ending.

Chris Thile (b. 1981) and Brad Mehldau (b. 1970) just released a double CD. I have great admiration for the former, the preeminent jazz pianist around today; immense respect for the latter, a certified MacArthur wunderkind. But I find it a mediocre disk, even boring. I’ve listened to it maybe 25 times in the last two weeks, and most of it still just wafts past my ears.

Perhaps it’s something in the sound of the mandolin. Say what you want, it sounds to me like a toy guitar from the Ozarks, no matter how brilliant the notes are.

Perhaps it’s the fact that Mehldau tends to disappear in collaboration, displaying excessive modesty when he should be leading the band.
That’s why I always prefer listening to him solo. Nowhere to hide, Brad – it’s all painfully vulnerable, exposed, grave and seriously profound, whether he’s playing Bach or Radiohead.

However, there are two cuts on the album that made my head spin. Both are covers of great songs by great artists. And in one way or another, both improve on the original.

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11e499000e1ae934ee0afb385d9863ca‘Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright’, from Dylan’s first real album (of originals).

I don’t say that lightly. The very idea of someone improving on Dylan’s treatment of his own song is fundamentally questionable. “No one sings Dylan like Dylan.” In one of our first SoTWs we wrote about exactly such a case—Fairport Convention singing ‘I’ll Keep It with Mine’. But there, if you’ll pardon the hairsplitting, it’s more Dylan’s fault than Sandy Denny’s achievement. He wrote a gentle, intriguing song and shouted it out, banging on the piano. Fairport just laid back and gave it a suitable, straightforward reading.

Not so with ‘Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright’, one of Dylan’s first ‘hits’ (popularized by the fine Peter, Paul and Mary cover from late 1963, half a year after the release of “Freewheelin’”). Dylan “borrowed” a lot of the song from fellow folkie Paul Clayton’s ‘Who’s Gonna Buy You Ribbons’, but the scathing, caustic dismissal of the girl (in retrospect, of course) and the relationship they did/didn’t have is all Dylan aged 22 par excellence. Dylan raised snide, furious, finger-pointing name-calling to a Nobel Prize-level art form.

Dylan’s ‘Don’t Think Twice’ is ironic. He doesn’t mean that she shouldn’t think twice. He’s beating her up verbally, machine-gunning her with his esprits de l’escalier, getting in all the last punches beneath the belt after the bell has rung. It’s all condescension and self-righteousness. He means that he’s going to leave her with a pummeling that will make her regret losing the wonderful Him 10,000 times a day while she’s recuperating.

Thile-Chris-07Chris Thile tells a very different story. It’s all insouciance, nonchalance, cool. What we adults call indifference. There’s no recrimination, no great regrets, because, really, who cares? Who needs a real relationship? Who wants commitment? We were together, it’s getting messy, I’m out of here before I get anything sticky on me.

When Dylan sings “We never did too much talking anyway”, the subtext is ‘little you wasn’t capable of entering a dialogue with wonderful me.”
When Thile sings “But we never really did that much talking anyway”, the subtext is ‘What’s the big deal? It’s not like we talked or anything.”

When Dylan sings “I gave her my heart by she wanted my soul”, he’s accusing her of predatory rapaciousness.
When Thile sings it, with a wonderfully expressive squeal, he’s saying ‘Hey, she tried to scratch my Teflon, man! I’m out of here!’

Now, the question is whether the song holds the potential for both readings. Admittedly, Chris has the distinct advantage of coming from a generation that doesn’t give a fuck about anything.

Want to hear my opinion? I have a lot of respect for Chris’s reading. Dylan’s is a perfect example of why I admire him so much and have no affection for him. He’s really quite obnoxious in his self-righteousness. Chris? He may be as uncommitted as a jellyfish, but at least there are no pretentions about it.

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joni&doug

Photo: Rod Pennington

‘Marcie’, from Joni Mitchell’s first album

I’ve written a series of postings about Joni’s early albums: ‘Cactus Tree’ from the first album; ‘I Don’t Know Where I Stand’ from the second; ‘For Free’ and ‘Woodstock’ from the third; ‘Blue’ and ‘River’ from the fourth. Someday I’ll get to the enigmatic, elusive ‘For the Roses’.

The first album occupies a place in my heart for a number of reasons, as I wrote in SoTW 106: She was unknown, she was mine. It was the first collaboration of David Crosby (producer) and Stephen Stills (bass), a harbinger of things to come. It was the music she was singing when I met her in Nashville with Bob Dylan on the Johnny Cash show.

It’s a groundbreaking album. Together with Laura Nyro (who released her first album in February, 1967, and her masterpiece “Eli & the 13th Confession” the same month as Joni’s first, March 1968) they gave a new voice to the nascent new womanhood.

But most of all, it’s just a very fine album. Every song on Joni’s first album is a perfectly crafted gem of a vignette from her first taste of independence as a newly liberated woman, Greenwich Village.

I sat up straight and smiled broadly when I first heard Chris Thile’s ‘Marcie’. It was for me an utterly refreshing look at an old friend. It’s a fine example of the justification for covers, shining new light on great music. Not a revelation, perhaps, but certainly a revealing of truths I had previously not seen.

hqdefaultIf ‘Don’t Think Twice’ is all about Thile’s plinky mandolin, here it’s Brad’s elegant, legato accompaniment that carries the arrangement. Even Thile’s vocal is serving the tone set by Brad.

Thile/Mehldau’s reading isn’t so different from the original. It’s the same girl with the same predicament – living her life, but thinking only of the man not calling. But it does shed light some of the limitations of Joni’s music. That’s not a criticism – Joni’s reading is full, convincing, unassailable, memorable. But you’ve always got the road not taken – every choice you make means passing on the alternative, never to be explored. At least until someone comes along and covers your song.

Chris’s treatment is so much more intimate, fraught with so much empathy. In contrast, Joni sounds removed, distant. As painfully confessional as Joni is at her best, the exposure is in the lyrics. Her carefully controlled tremelo sounds just a little standoffish in comparison with Chris’s candor. She is here at her most precious –just a little too delicate, too refined. She’s presenting a finely crafted portrait. Chris is lamenting the predicament of a Marcie he feels for.

Still, he’s singing Joni’s song. It’s the difference between a creative artist and a performing artist. You gotta give the nod to creator. You just got to.

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You don’t need “Chris Thile/Brad Mehldau” to justify the standing of Bob Dylan or Joni Mitchell. People will be singing their praises and their songs “somewhere ages and ages hence”. But they are not the end of even their own story. They’ve given us – and Brad and Chris – a legacy to explore, to build on, and maybe even here and there to serve as an inspiration for genuine and new readings that amplify and enhance the originals.

 

If you enjoyed this post, you may also like:

Brad Mehldau SoTWs

Chris Thile SoTWs

Bob Dylan SoTWs

Joni Mitchell SoTWs

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225: Brad Mehldau, ‘The Falcon Will Fly Again’/Luis Bonfa, ‘Manha de Carnaval’

Posted by jeff on Oct 9, 2015 in Brazilian, Jazz, Song Of the week

Brad Mehldau – ‘The Falcon Will Fly Again’ (2nd part)
Luis Bonfa – ‘Manha de Carnaval’ (2nd part)

Brad Mehldau – ‘The Falcon Will Fly Again’ 
Luis Bonfa – ‘Manha de Carnaval’ 

I’ve long intended to write about ‘The Falcon Will Fly Again’, a favorite track from a favorite album, “Highway Rider” by Brad Mehldau (2009). But I’ve been stumped, as a while back I wrote pretty much all I have to say about Brad in SoTW 094 about his ‘Martha, My Dear’ from “Live in Marciac”. But then I tripped over something very old, which became a very new and fresh and pleasing surprise.

Mehldau plays in numerous settings, and plays markedly differently in each. In the past decade he’s recorded four trio outings; one trio + guitarist Pat Metheney; one as pianist in a quartet with three jazz monoliths (he was 41, the average age of Konitz/Haden/Motian was 80); a duo with a saxophonist; two accompanying a classical soprano in ‘modern art songs’; one solo; one prog-rock piano/drums duo; and one ‘combo’ effort, “Highway Rider”.

Jobim, Bonfa

Jobim, Bonfa

The latter employs a full orchestra and features Joshua Redman on soprano and tenor sax. Mehldau composed, arranged and orchestrated the double CD. Most of the music is in a floating variety of combo settings. Mehldau is constantly probing, reaching out into new sound realms, but never seeking to impress or straining to create new sounds. It’s always about the music itself.

What does he do in ‘The Falcon Will Fly Again’? In both sections the instrumental setting is rhythm piano playing a clear, repetitive riff in some extraterrestrial time signature; soprano playing the wiry, conceptual lead, music for geeks; a supportive bass; and an intriguing rat-a-tat drum, a vaguely Brazilian stream of rim shots—one single tone, lifting the entire ensemble forward effortlessly, gracefully. Brazilian.

61+9wVjRg5L._SX425_But then at 5:42 the piece switches into a different section–again the rhythmic pattern is in π/4. But the melody is the sweetest thing north of Roraima. The same sweet soprano, the same superhumanly complex, lilting drum. Joining in to sing the lead line is a man (Mehldau?) and a charming, grainy children’s chorus.

Why am I struggling so to describe this? Because there’s nothing else like it (I thought). It’s just sweet and captivating in and of itself. It’s ‘just’ beautiful.

And then yesterday I was wandering through my library and took off the shelf “Orfeu Negro”, blew off the dust and put it on the figurative turntable.

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Redman, Mehldau

In 1959, French director Marcel Camus filmed “Orfeu Negro” in a Rio de Janeiro slum during Carnival, a reworking of the Orpheus myth (the archetypical inspired singer who charmed his wife Eurydice out of the clutches of the netherworld) as based on a play by Vinícius de Moraes, who was also a musician in the then-emerging bossa nova scene in Brazil. The film opens with ‘A Felicidade’, a song by a young Brazilian musican (Antonio Carlos Jobim) in a new style, ‘bossa nova’ – a synthesis of ‘samba’, the traditional dance music of the Rio slums, and ‘jazz’. ‘Bossa’ was popular among students and quickly ignited a stylistic fire that is still burning brightly today.

“Orfeu Negru” also includes two iconic bossa nova songs written by Luis Bonfa, ‘Manha de Carnaval’ and ‘Samba de Orfeu’. Both, as well as Jobim’s ‘A Felicidade’, have been recorded thousands of times each.

1268757484_brad-mehldau-highway-rider-2010I walked through my understanding of this period, and the origins of this captivating style, in SoTW 075: João Gilberto, ‘Chega De Saudade’. As I said there, I knew the soundtrack and film of “Orfeu Negro” back in middle school in middle America. How? I guess I had restless tastes even as a kid.

The soundtrack is hardwired in my soul and brain and ears, so much so that it’s not an album I rehear often. But yesterday I did. And listen to this, the latter section of Bonfa’s ‘Manha de Carnaval.

Now listen to this, the latter section of Mehldau’s ‘The Falcon Will Fly Again’.

What to make of this? Damned if I know. Brad listened to Luis, apparently was paying homage to the soundtrack. No one would ever accuse Brad Mehldau of being derivative. He’s so damn original that you want to kiss him when he actually offers you a point of reference.

So, yeah, I’ll give him a sloppy, juicy kiss for all the musical pleasure he’s given me, in heart and in mind, body and soul. And for Mssrs Bonfa, Jobim, Moraes, Gilberto et al – a big obrigado. And may that bossa continue to be nova for another half century and more.

 

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096: Bill Evans (solo), ‘Easy To Love’

Posted by jeff on Apr 22, 2011 in Jazz, Song Of the week

In SoTW 060, I talked about one of the very finest pieces of music I know, the 1961 live performance of Bill Evans’ first trio, “Live at the Village Vanguard”, with Scottie LaFaro on bass and Paul Motian on drums. I wrote there that ‘this is as beautiful as music gets, and no words can rival that’. This album is also widely acknowledged as being the invention of the modern piano trio. The recording was made on June 25, 1961. Ten days later, on July 5, LaFaro ran his car into a tree and was killed instantly.

He and Evans hadn’t been buddies. LaFaro harped at Evans frequently to give up his voracious heroin habit, to no avail. But LaFaro’s death had a debilitating effect on Evans. He lost interest in playing for half a year. Evans: “Musically everything seemed to stop. I didn’t even play at home.” His only recording sessions were unenthusiastic efforts, done only to earn a few bucks to support his habit. Bill’s brother remembers him wandering around NYC wearing some of LaFaro’s clothes. It was a bleak time.

On April 4, 1962, Evans made his first attempt to record a solo album. He recorded four cuts and aborted the session. The recordings were shelved until they were released in 1981without fanfare on a posthumous hodgepodge album of outtakes, “Conception”.

Read more…

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094: Brad Mehldau, ‘Martha, My Dear’ (“Live in Marciac”)

Posted by jeff on Apr 7, 2011 in Jazz, Song Of the week

Brad Mehldau has just released a new solo double-CD, “Live in Marciac“, and that’s reason to prick up our ears and take a good listen, because he’s one of the most interesting young musicians around. To put it in full blasphemy, I find him more engaging than any of the Jarrett/Hancock/Corea triumvirate. To tell the truth, I listen to him more than to any pianist since Bill Evans.

I rarely listen to Brad Mehldau without thinking about Bill Evans, a habit I wish I could break, because it’s really unfair to the young Brad. It’s not his fault that the late Mr Evans is so monolithic, nor does it diminish his significant achievements. Brad Mehldau is no Bill Evans. No one is. For most of his career, Bill wasn’t himself.

What Brad Mehldau is is an extremely intelligent, sharp, focused, ballsy young artist who speaks with an individual voice. Not just an individual technique or a musical style (in fact, he has adopted more musical personae than your average schizophrenic), but a world view that’s uniquely his. He’s an artist whose works express an entire take on the universe around us, and a very interesting one at that.

He’s young (he’s got a big tattoo on his forearm). He’s eclectic, blending standards, newer pop and originals into one coherent voice (Beatles, Nick Drake, Radiohead, in addition to the Great American Songbook). He’s handsome and shy and spiritual and articulate and spooky intelligent. Some songs he’s composed: ‘Fear and Trembling‘ (a la Swedish Christian existentialist Søren Kierkegaard), ‘Trailer Park Ghost’, ‘The Falcon Will Fly Again‘. Oh, yeah, and he plays with two different hands. I mean, they’re independent of each other, connected by chance to one torso. His left hand alone can play what most fine jazz pianists can do with both. Leaving his right hand to explore another alternative tonal world. Check out this solo treatment of ‘Alone Together‘.

Brad Mehldau is 41, raised in Connecticut, and since 1994 he’s put about 25 albums. He’s best known as leader of his trio, but he’s made some successful CDs as co-leader (Pat Metheny, Renee Fleming and most notably with Lee Konitz and Charlie Haden) and recently a great one (“Highway Rider“) that defies genre-ization, where Mehldau did all the orchestration.

“Live in Marciac” is only his third solo CD, and it’s worth getting excited about, because that’s where Mehldau really opens up and struts his vision. I’m not the only person to notice how differently he plays in his trio compared to on his own.

Joseph Vella asked him in a recent interview about the ‘challenge and thrill’ of playing solo? “The challenge and the thrill are one and the same – there is no net; there is absolute freedom. When jazz musicians improvise in a group setting, they are often following some sort of schema – often it’s variations on the initial theme of whatever they are playing. When you are playing solo, you don’t have to correspond to what someone else is doing. So you might take that approach, but you might decide to chuck it out at a certain point and go off on a tangent that doesn’t formally adhere to what you’ve just been doing. That can be exciting and rewarding. The challenge there though is to make something with integrity – something that has a story to tell.”

Brad Mehldau makes so much intriguing music in so many contexts that it’s really quite impossible to single out any one exemplary style. I’d really like to cajole some of you non-jazzers into trying him out, so we’ll start with our SoTW selection, “Martha, My Dear” (a love song Paul McCartney wrote for his sheepdog). Give a listen. This isn’t some aging jazz musician pathetically attempting to be young and cool, pandering to a wider audience. It’s a wholly sincere, wholly hip guy who grew up on The Beatles, dissembling one of their great songs in a wholly new context, in an absolutely convincing treatment. Brad’s been playing ‘Martha’ for years (here’s one from about 10 years ago), as one of the lighter peaces in his program, what might be called an ‘entertainment’ or a ‘divertissement’. Give a listen, please. Betcha you’ll find it as witty and wise and charming as I do.

Here are a couple more treats from the DVD of “Live in Marciac” (2011):

  • A complete transcription of his original composition ‘Resignation’, note-for-note as he improvises it on stage. A treat, I promise, for those of you who read music.
  • And his completely improvised ‘My Favorite Things’
    I have several ideas before I go out on the stage, and I usually stick to around half of them. “My Favorite Things” was not something I had played before – the Coltrane version is sacred to me. But I was going out for an encore and thought of it at the last moment, and it turned out to be for me anyways, one of the more compelling performances in the set – it had that story to it; it just kind of unfolded. Sometimes you find that and sometimes you don’t; sometimes you find it with no preparation or context at all and those moments are always great for me. I suppose there is a broader context – there’s the context of the Coltrane version that I heard when I was 13 for the first time and really changed my life; there’s the context of the original from the movie, The Sound of Music, that I grew up watching as a kid. There’s probably some sort of harkening back to childhood going on in my performance.

And here are some samplings from the not-exactly-jazz “Highway Rider” (2010):

Some very, very exciting news for me about Brad Mehldau. In 1996, he was invited to join two jazz legends twice his age, Lee Konitz (alto sax) and Charlie Haden (bass). Two CDs of my favorite music in the whole world resulted from those two evenings. They took a free-jazz look at a number of standards, and the product is breathtaking—floating through the air with no net. I had the wonderful fortune to be able to discuss that session with Lee Konitz, which I wrote about here. Here’s ‘Round Midnight‘ from that meeting. So what’s the news? In 2009 the trio reunioned with the addition of no less than drummer Paul Motian, and the resulting CD will be released next month. Who’s excited, me?

All you ‘I really don’t like too much jazz’ folks out there, do yourselves a favor – youtube Brad Mehldau, listen to him playing anything at all–Jerome Kern, John Lennon, Cole Porter, Paul Simon, Radiohead, hell, Brad Mehldau!–betcha you’ll have a great listen.

If you enjoyed this post, you may also enjoy:

037: Lee Konitz, ‘Alone Together’ (w. Charlie Haden & Brad Mehldau)
060: The Bill Evans Trio, ‘Gloria’s Step’ from “Live at The Village Vanguard”
026: Andy Bey, ‘River Man’

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