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011: The Idea of North, ‘Fragile’ (Sting)

Posted by jeff on Dec 26, 2009 in A Cappella, Rock, Song Of the week

“Art is a matter of taste.” No one has the right to say what’s ‘good’ and what’s ‘bad’. Everyone’s entitled to his/her/its opinion.

Well, I guess I begrudgingly go along with the idea that everyone is entitled to vote. But I wouldn’t go so far as to say that everyone has a right to an opinion about music.

A goodly number of years ago I had an ongoing informal teaching relationship with a young man, let’s call him Ohad. He was about 16 when we started, a bona fide musical genius, composer/keyboardist. I taught him everything I know about rock music. I mean, everything. The kid was a veritable sponge. We developed a private language, one which I think no one on the face of the globe could have followed. We later employed that empathy in developing music for a number of plays I wrote and directed.

He was no pushover in the opinion department, but we pretty much agreed on everything. I gave him album X, and he came back saying songs 2, 7 and 11 get a 9. The rest 7 and below. And he was right on. Precisely, Watson. Maybe we would quibble about half a point. But on the fundamental perception of the album, we were in violent agreement. That doesn’t mean we shared the same opinions, the same likes and dislikes. One could have more affection for a certain artist, the other less, but we could always get what the other was hooking onto.

Why, you may ask yourself, is that so? I’ll tell you why I think it’s so. Because some musical works are empirically better than others. How do we empirically evaluate that? I have no idea, I just like using the word. Back in the very early 1960s, I was one of the very few people who bought LPs. Everyone was buying the hit 45s. But I achieved compulsion at a young age, and I wanted to make sure that ‘Mr Blue’ and ‘Come Softly to Me’ weren’t the Fleetwoods’ only gems, that God forbid I wasn’t missing anything. And so often, those albums contained that one hit and 11 attendant 2’20” nonentities. Empirically.

How does that happen? What separates the wheat from the chaff? I dunno. I do know. You do. Heaven does. Newton, Einstein. It’s just the way it is, don’t blame me.

The one case where Ohad and I disagreed was Sting. I had nothing against him, especially “Dream of the Blue Turtles”. But Ohad just cringed. What can I say? Ohad, if you’re out there, I love you, but this song ain’t for you.

It is for everyone else, though. It’s by a great Australian a cappella quartet, The Idea of North. Listen to what four unembellished voices can do. I challenge anyone out there (except Ohad) to say that this ain’t a really fine piece of music.

In case you were wondering, the group took their name from a concept coined by Canadian pianist and wacko Glenn Gould for an autobiographical film of that name, maintaining that ‘North’ is an idea as much as it is a physical region, that things can be mapped and measured for ‘nordicity’. What a word, right? Well, TION (as the quartet nickname themselves) are from Australia, which is north of, um, of, um… They have some very lovely videos, in which they sing songs and for which the costume designers should be given a generous cash prize and a place in heaven.

‘Fragile’, like so many of Sting’s songs, displays self-righteous bleeding-heart, we-are-the-world, brainless-pacifist sentiments and a very lovely melody. And TION’s rendition is—well, you just listen and judge for yourself.

 
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007: John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman, ‘My One and Only Love’

Posted by jeff on Dec 24, 2009 in Jazz, Song Of the week, Vocalists

John Coltrane & Johnny Hartman

Oh, am I excited!

A new CD was released last week by my favoritest ‘singer’ – “Dedicated to You: Kurt Elling Sings the Music of Coltrane and Hartman“. So I’m just popping with anticipation.
Kurt Elling is 42, from Chicago, and this is his 8th CD in 14 years. It’s a re-recording (with a few tasteful additions) of the 1963 classic “John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman”. Mr. Elling is an artist of amazing versatility, not just a singer. But he’s also a great crooner, as this CD will undoubtedly prove–when I manage to get my hands on it, here in the wholly holey Holy Land. But in the meantime, let’s revisit the source.

John Coltrane is a monumental figure in modern jazz. He started out as an untried, technically limited tenor saxophonist in Miles Davis’ first quintet in the mid-50s. Eventually Miles had to throw him out of the band for drug abuse. Then he cut his chops for a while with Thelonious Monk and got himself off drugs. Then he rejoined Miles in the late 50s for the “Kind of Blue” period, then went solo. In 1961 he started moving towards spiritual, ‘free’ jazz, developing a commercially disastrous technique of “sheets of sound” and a lot of the most astounding music in jazz ever. To appease the record company, he recorded a couple of more palatable LPs, including an eponymous 1963 collaboration with balladeer Johnny Hartman.

Ballads are to Coltrane as political protest songs are to Dylan–they constitute the backbone of his popular reputation, while actually constituting a rather insignificant place in his corpus. In subsequent years, Trane’s playing became so intense and his development as an artist so rapid that enthusiasts track his growth by the month, even by the week. He died in 1967 at the age of 40.

Johnny Hartman had a respectable though not brilliant career as a crooner contemporaneously with and then beyond Coltrane. His voice is so smooth it makes Billy Eckstine sound like Mick Jagger, Nat Cole like Joe Cocker. He recorded sporadically, and his acknowledged masterpiece is their joint venture, “John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman”. Only 30 minutes long, it’s enough of a classic to warrant an homage by as fine an artist as Kurt Elling.

Of the six songs on the LP, each one a gem, I’ve chosen the lovely standard ‘My One and Only Love’. The performance here is the epitome of elegance and warmth, yet intelligent and musically substantial. So lower the lights, put on your smoking jacket, take a brandy glass in your hand, and enjoy.

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005: Glenn Gould, Toccata in Cm (J.S. Bach)

Posted by jeff on Dec 23, 2009 in Classical, Song Of the week

Gould-Toccata in C minor BWV 911

After last week’s visit to The Beach Boys, it’s now the turn of another of the great B’s, J.S. Bach, for a piece from a rather obscure work of his, the Toccatas for keyboard (BWV 910-916).

Most of Bach’s works for solo instruments are composed of six units. These toccatas are seven, and they’re not widely performed. Two good reasons why they’re a favorite of mine. Oh, and the fact that they’re so great.

(BTW, don’t confuse these obscure keyboard toccatas with the famous Toccata and Fugue in D Minor BWV 565 for organ, which some of you may know through Garth Hudson’s expansive introduction to The Band’s ‘Chest Fever’, especially in concert versions).

I always think of these toccatas as Old Jack Bach’s jazz pieces, because of their very improvisatory feel, meandering from section to section, no rigorous structure. In the one we’re featuring here, BWV 911 in C minor, he starts out with a doodle, then seems to find a bit of a melodic groove with a counterpoint, then seems to lose interest and return to his doodling, then a pause where he seems so be wondering what to do next. And then he rrrrrrrrips into a mad, take-no-prisoners fugue, one of the longest he ever wrote, 4 pages in the score. Then he starts to unwind it, slow it down. You think the race is over, and – boom, right back to the whirlwind. Then a playful, elegant elaboration, with the main theme alternating between minor and major. Right on, Johann.

Serious musicians enjoy arguing about whether to perform Jack’s keyboard oeuvre on the clavichord or harpsichord (the keyboards of his day), or its well-tempered successor, the pianoforte, aka the piano.

I have a hard time getting all twisted up about that (gee, could that possibly mean that I’m not serious?). I go for the particular performance. And for me, almost every time, that’s Glenn Gould.

In a Social Skills school, Gould would be placed in a class with Howard Hughes and Bobby Fischer. You might not want to go on a camping trip with him. Serious musicians (them again) have a lot of reservations about him—he hums along with his playing (okay, not a great attraction), and his interpretations are ‘willful’ (i.e., eccentric, off-the-wall, wacko). He doesn’t adhere to the traditional tempi. Oy.

I have a problem with a lot of the performing arts, such as acting and classical music. So often, the performer performs the score—plays the notes, reads the lines—rather than portraying a living version of what underlies it. And it all goes right past my ear. I loved hearing John Barton, the legendary founder of the Royal Shakespeare Company, say that he can rarely hear Shakespearean actors, that it’s usually just ‘words, words, words’ that fly past him. What I (and I think he) need is 100%, full-time, total engagément. Play no note, speak no line, dance no step, until you understand why it has to be. That kind of intensity is crazy. That’s why I listen to Glenn Gould.

And I find his performance here wild and wonderful, full of humor and passion and humanity, and I’m tickled to have the opportunity to share it with you.

More SoTW posts on J.S. Bach:

077: J.S. Bach, ‘The Art of The Fugue’ (The Emerson Quartet, ‘Contrapunctus 9′)

084: Dmitri Shostakovich, Prelude & Fugue No 16 in B-flat Minor (Tatiana Nikolaeva)

113: J.S. Bach, ‘Prelude to Suite #2 for Unaccompanied Cello’ (Casals)

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004: The Beach Boys, ‘Kiss Me Baby’

Posted by jeff on Dec 22, 2009 in Rock, Song Of the week

The Beach Boys — ‘Kiss Me, Baby’

There are two kinds of people in the world: those who get the Beach Boys and those who don’t. By ‘The Beach Boys’, I don’t mean Al Jardine and Mike Love and ‘Surfin’ Safari’ or ‘Be True to Your School’; I mean of course Brian Wilson, and the stunning music that he created before his mind went mush.

It’s hard to sell the Beach Boys, even to people with good taste–there are lots of legitimate reasons to dismiss them: years of silly, pandering music (throughout their career); whiny, white-bread voices; the stupidest lyrics this side of Nashville.

But three gazillion fans can’t be wrong, right? And TBB had a string of hits from 1962 to 1966 (and onwards) rivaled among American pop groups only by the Four Seasons and the Motown stable. Then in 1966, right on the heels of their tenth straight hit LP, “The Beach Boys Party! (Live)”–came their first commercial flop. It was called “Pet Sounds”.

Go find a rock critic who doesn’t rank it in the top five greatest rock albums. But what do rock critics know? Paul McCartney said he and John were so blown away by it that “Sgt Pepper” was made as a conscious attempt to go “Pet Sounds” one better.

Brian Wilson (my transcription from a taped interview): After the Beales her Pessounds, they wand make a greyr album, so they id Sharzhin Peppersh Lowly Harsh Cluband. And it was a very, very, very great album. Right up there with Pet Sounds, And it was, like, really good. Well, that was obviously well into mush-hood. I belong to the camp that believes that “Sgt Pepper” was ‘overproduced and underwritten’, whereas “Pet Sounds” is one of the most beautiful works of any genre or medium I know. Books and movies and podcasts and probably macramé patterns have been made in tribute to “The Making Of”. So I’ll let you explore that territory on your own.

What I’m offering up this week is a cut from “Beach Boys Today!”, an album that riveted me back in 1965 when it was released, over a year before “Pet Sounds”. Side One contains 4 hit singles (enough to ensure the commercial success of the album): the dumb-out ‘Do You Wanna Dance’, the brilliant pap ‘Dance, Dance, Dance’ and ‘Help Me, Rhonda’, and the audacious ‘When I Grow Up’. But there are another seven songs in which Brian was creating music on an entirely new level of complexity, sophistication—and beauty. I feel a bit uncomfortable touting cuts with titles like ‘Don’t Hurt My Little Sister’, ‘I’m So Young’, ‘She Knows Me Too Well’ (the last including the lyric ‘When I look at other girls, it must kill her inside, but it’d be another story if she looked at the guys’). But listen to them. And to the masterpiece of the album, ‘Please Let Me Wonder’. And to this week’s song, ‘Kiss Me, Baby’.

The song intrigued me in 1965, fascinated me for decades afterwards, and continues to haunt me today.

Try, please, I urge you, to filter out the cloying obstacles. I promise you, there are treasures within: unspeakably beautiful, angular, floating melody lines, an instrumental palette of colors and shades that offer deep, wondrous pleasures, and a symphonic tapestry of six or eight simultaneous musical lines bobbing and interweaving, stunning harmonies within the vocals, all of them playing off and with each other.

Several weeks ago I discovered the 58-CD series “The Beach Boys’ Unsurpassed Masters”. Yes, 58 CDs of Brian Wilson in the studio, rehearsing his music, hits and obscurities, layer after layer, first the instrumental track (with studio musicians–TBB might be his brothers and friends, but he wasn’t going to let anyone mess with his music), and only then the vocals (which The Boys did do). Here’s the voices:
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Listening to him work in the studio, for me, is akin to watching a video of Michelangelo sketching out and then filling in the Sistine Chapel. The greatest thrill is being able to hear the threads. “Today!” is much influenced by Phil Spector. One big monaural glob of sound, impenetrable, inscrutable and hypnotic. There are those of us who spent many hours scrunching our ears to the hi-fi speaker trying to peek inside, to hear what was going on in there. No way. A wall of sound.

They say Brian is deaf in one ear, which is why he insisted mixing many of his masterpieces in monophonic, so that he could hear the precise sound palette that was being presented to the listener. But apparently in recent years he’s figured out (through the fog of sticky goo that remains of what was once his brain) that there’s gold in them thar archives. He’s allowed himself to be taken back into the studio, and remixed “Pet Sounds” in a beautiful, clear stereo.

Hearing the Unsurpassed Masters of “Kiss Me Baby” was a Rosetta Stone experience for me. Decades of gook removed. You can actually hear that counterpoint line being played by a bass clarinet and ukulele in unison. That’s a real example, I promise you. It’s a miracle dissected:

If I ever win a lottery, I’m going to try to commission the Copenhagen jazz choir Vocal Line to record this song a cappella. I’ve already tried to convince both their director and assistant director to do so, succeeding only in convincing them that I have an acute obsessive disorder. Well, they may be right about that. But that’s another story. And I think this cut really is uncommonly beautiful.

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