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261: Kurt Elling/Sting, ‘Practical Arrangement’

Posted by jeff on Apr 28, 2017 in Rock, Song Of the week, Vocalists

Kurt Elling, ‘Practical Arrangement’

Sting, ‘Practical Arrangement’

486226_actualSo I’m listening to Kurt Elling’s newest album (2016), “Upward Spiral”, a collaboration with the quartet of saxophonist Branford Marsalis. And the fourth track there stops me in my tracks. “Practical Arrangement”, a painfully slow, painfully needy, almost spoken monolog by a man proposing to a woman that she marry him, live with him, even though they both know she doesn’t love him. A practical arrangement. Gee, love songs ain’t what they used to be.

The song rivets me. I stop in my tracks and listen to every word, even though it’s so slow that it seems to stand still, just a guy struggling to get out some very difficult words, trying to maintain his poise with the façade of an objectified, logical, contractual proposal; whereas we understand that he’s actually bereft of all dignity, begging, offering her his all in return for virtually nothing.

content_Lucy_and_Ricky_This is new for me. Well, new and familiar. I’m fascinated by the new varieties of couplehood that have been evolving in Western society since I was a kid. I remember when Lucy and Desi slept in separate beds. I remember the first time I heard about a couple living together openly outside the sanctity of marriage. And now I watch a lot of Scandinavian television, where couplehood takes on more fluidity, more new preconceptions and expectations and expressions than dreamt of in my philosophy.

screen-shot-2016-06-24-at-10-00-41-pmBut a man (or woman) openly offering everything in return for nothing? We all know that extreme brand of desperate, unrequited need that trumps all propriety and sends our super-ego negotiating team into a tizzy.

A practical arrangement. A proposition with sex off the table, a proposal with love outside the deal. Wow. That’s new. Let me chew on that.

This song—it’s hardly a song. It has less forward movement than a Gregorian chant. There’s almost no melody, little more than the rise and fall of the spoken word. The word choice is NON-poeticBinding-Financial-Agreement (Am I asking for the moon? Is it really so implausible?/That you and I could soon come to some kind of arrangement?/I’m not asking for the moon, I’ve always been a realist,/When it’s really nothing more than a simple rearrangement.)

Who wrote this calculated, conversational negotiation?

Gulp. Sting. On that 2013 album of songs he wrote for a musical, “The Last Ship”.

Like many others, I stopped following closely Sting’s uneven, late career a long time ago. His previous album of original material was in 2003. “I thought: Maybe I’ve lost my mojo to write. There’s a lot of self-obsession involved in being a singer-songwriter. I’d gotten sick of navel-gazing. I’d gotten sick of putting myself on the couch.”

camerasAfter a hiatus of ten years, Sting rediscovered his mojo, writing a series of sea shanties in a Newcastle accent, vignettes of a gallery of local Northern characters in the small shipbuilding town where he was raised (‘The Night the Pugilist Learned How to Dance’). “Once I came up with these characters, the songs began to pour out. It was such a relief not to write about myself. I had to get myself out of the way.”

The songs are impressively crafted, I said after one listening, knowing I’d probably never go back to listen again.

It’s not happenstance that I’ve never written about Sting. I’d hardly know what to say. One moment you feel like he’s standing between Stevie Wonder and Paul Simon as one of the most talented musicians of our generation; the next, you’re just a little embarrassed by his self-conscious displays of earnestness, the pretence outweighing the presence (the presents?). You know he knows exactly where the cameras are positioned.

beg2I read that ‘Practical Arrangement’ is an outtake from the musical, appearing on the album but not on stage. Okay. Maybe that’s a good sign?

I have a bias, acquired during my formative years from Andrew Sarris’s introduction to his book “The American Cinema: Directors and Directions 1929–1968 (1968)”, an adherence to his ‘auteur’ theory, derived from the French Nouvelle Vague film critics and directors. It refers to the artist who controls all aspects of a collaborative creative work.  In film, it can be a star (if the movie is a vehicle), the head of the studio (if it’s an industry-generated flick), or a writer (if it’s a faithful adaptation of a play or novel). But if it’s true cinema, the auteur, the real creative mind, is the director. Film is a director’s medium. Think Alfred Hitchcock.

The term has gained a lot of currency in a wide range of fields. In music, it has been used to refer to a producer (think Phil Spector or Berry Gordy). I’m told that it can even refer to video games today, such as Hideo Kojima, the creator of the “Metal Gear” series. I’m hoping that you understand that that particular insight is based on hearsay.

sting-2013-650-430In music, this leads me to think a lot about the composer/performer dichotomy. Who is the creative artist here? In classical music, you gotta go for the composer, no matter what. Even if it’s Leonard Bernstein conducting Isaac Stern soloing with the New York Philharmonic in Beethoven’s “Violin Concerto in D Major op 61”– it’s Ludwig’s gig.

Frank Zappa’s ‘Louie, Louie’ notwithstanding, I adhere to that auteur business pretty stringently. My gut always tells me that by default, the writer is the creator. The performer is a tool.

So when it comes to Kurt Elling singing a song written and originally performed by Sting, I’m a bit befuddled. Even his harshest critics have to admit that Sting ain’t Richard Berry. Let’s give a listen. First, the original:

Yeah, it’s interesting. New, surprising. All those nice things I said above. But there’s also something cloying in the self-conscious earnestness of the presentation.

Then you listen to Kurt Elling’s version:

What’s the difference? Same melody, very minor (but crucial) changes in the lyrics, same harmonics, same key (Bm). Same story. But it isn’t.

6a011570bcfeed970b0128756b45b0970cKurt’s last ‘but I think you could learn to love me given time’ (the ‘I think’ is Kurt’s interpolation; his insecurity is so much more convincing than Sting’s self-confidence) – is he just walking through the song, saying to himself, “Ok, here comes the last line, let’s really milk it” while in the back of his mind all he’s really thinking about is the pepperoni pizza with extra cheese waiting for him in the dressing room?

Or is he living the moment, animating in his mind (and in ours) the loneliness in the narrator’s life, the desperation in his need to try to cajole her to begrudge him the merest modicum of warmth?

I can hear one lobe of Kurt’s brain saying, “You can’t perform it that slowly, man. The audience will either fall asleep or walk out.” But thankfully, that other lobe holds sway: “If I sing it with utter conviction, they’ll listen.”

And sing it with breathtaking passion and conviction, Kurt does. Because even though he’s just a singer, he’s a consummate artist. An auteur.

 

Am I asking for the moon? Is it really so implausible?
That you and I could soon come to some kind of arrangement?
I’m not asking for the moon, I’ve always been a realist,
When it’s really nothing more than a simple rearrangement.
With one roof above our heads, a warm house to return to,
We could start with separate beds, I could sleep alone – or learn to.
I’m not suggesting that we’d find some earthly paradise forever,
I mean how often does that happen now? The answer’s probably never.
But we could come to an arrangement, a practical arrangement,
And [perhaps] you could learn to love me given time.

I’m not promising the moon, I’m not promising a rainbow,
Just a practical solution to a solitary life.
I’d be a father to your boy, a shoulder you could lean on,
How bad could it be, to be my wife?
With one roof above our heads, a warm house to return to,
You wouldn’t have to cook for me, you wouldn’t have to learn to,
I’m not suggesting that this proposition here could last forever,
I’ve no intention of deceiving you, you’re far too clever.
But we could come to an arrangement, a practical arrangement,
And perhaps you’d [you could] learn to love me given time.
It may not be the romance that you had in mind,
But [I think] you could learn to love me given time.

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178: The Claudia Quintet +1 feat. Kurt Elling, ‘Showtime’ (“What is the Beautiful?”)

Posted by jeff on Aug 30, 2013 in Jazz, Song Of the week, Vocalists

Thanks to the very talented young musician Eyal Amir for his provocative thoughts about spoken language and music.

What is the beautiful? Well, there’s a stumper of a question for you. Some people would say Mona Lisa, others might go for Courtney Love. We’re going to look at a different model today, that of galvanizing poetry into jazz. Say what?

Soon It Will

Be showtime again. Somebody will
paint beautiful faces all over the sky.
Somebody will start bombarding us
with really wonderful letters…
letters full of truth, and gentleness,
and humility
…Soon (it says here)…

That’s a poem by Kenneth Patchen (1911–1972), an experimental poet, a guiding light for the younger Beat poets (Ginsberg, Ferlinghetti, Snyder & Co).
I’ll bet it didn’t move you.

Here’s what it sounds like as read by the poet.
I’ll bet that didn’t knock you out of your chair.

Here’s what it sounds like as performed by The Claudia Quintet+1 featuring Kurt Elling.
I’ll bet you that will keep your neurons reeling for a while.

Poetry (and Jazz)

What is poetry? According to Archibald MacLiesh (in Ars Poetica), “A poem should be palpable and mute/As a globed fruit”. According to my father, it was “When the hell are you going to stop wasting your time with that drivel and prepare yourself for The Real World?”

I spent a lot of years (and a couple of academic degrees) trying to get some sense of what poetry is, to no great avail. I did achieve one understanding, though. Poetry is made of words. Poetry is the art of crafting words precisely. A poem is an artistic construct made from words.  Most of the people I know would call Bob Dylan the Poet Laureate of Our Generation. Well, I don’t think so. He’s a songwriter, and his lyrics are a thing of beauty and craft and profundity. But his creations are songs, and they have melody and rhythm and production and performance built in to their being. A poem is made from words.

One of the iconic images of the Beat Generation (see SoTW 065 for some of my musings on Beat), was a goateed/sweatshirted/sandaled guy (watched by a skinny girl with long black hair and a long black formless dress with lots of black eye-liner) reading incomprehensible verse to the accompanied by but unrelated to an incomprehensible free-form jazz trio.

Astonishingly, some things have changed since the 1950s. Three of my very favorite contemporary jazz musicians have been caught with their hands in the poetry jar, with some pretty earopening and mindbending results that I greatly enjoy and value and am pleased as punch to have the opportunity to share with you here.

Luciana Souza – “The Poems of Elizabeth Bishop” and “Neruda”

Luciana Souza (b. 1966 in Sao Paulo, Brazil, residing many years in the US) is the only singer I’ve flown halfway around the world to hear. She’s released a dozen albums in the US in almost as many distinct styles, each one a unique work in and of itself. Her second album, “The Poems of Elizabeth Bishop and Other Songs” pays homage to Ms Bishop (1911–1979), a New England proto-lesbian poet laureate and compadre of Marianne Moore and Robert Lowell. Luciana wrote the music for the album, singing Bishop’s poetry as lyrics, mixed with (non-word) vocalese, as a front-line instrumentalist together with the sax. It’s a very fine album, cut from the same cloth and almost on a par with her tragically underappreciated “An Answer to Your Silence”. Here’s ‘Insomnia’ (the poem, the song). (“The moon in the bureau mirror/looks out a million miles/(and perhaps with pride, at herself,/but she never, never smiles)/far and away beyond sleep, or/perhaps she’s a daytime sleeper”). And just for fun, here’s a non-Bishop cut from the same album, ‘In March, I Remember’.

One of Luciana’s most intriguing albums is “Neruda”, in which she sets the poetry of the Chilean communist Nobel laureate (in English translation) to her own music – here only the very fine Venezuelan-born pianist Edward Simon and herself on percussion. Much of the material is Neruda’s (1904–1973) highly-charged love poetry. As performed by Luciana with impeccable restraint and precision, it’s one of my very favorite albums.  Try, for example, ‘House’ (here’s the poem). Or, and I’m just so honored to share this with you, ‘Sonnet 49’ (here’s the poem, from “100 Love Sonnets”). This video shows Luciana recording the song, accompanying herself on the kalimba. To my taste, this video/song/poem is divine, one of the most perfect works of art I’ve had the fortune to know and love. “No one can stop the river of the dawn.”

Maria Schneider – “Winter Morning Walks”

Maria Schneider (b. 1960) kept us waiting for six long years for the release of her brand-new CD, “Winter Morning Walks”. It’s no small departure from her six previous albums, in which her compositions were written for her orchestra of about 20 instruments. Technically it’s a big band, brass with a small rhythm section, but the sound is all the ephemeral, dreamy aural cloud of her mentor Gil Evans. Here Ms Shneider (from rural Minnesota) has composed works employing the poetry of Ted Kooser (rural Nebraska) and Carlos Drummond de Andrade (rural Brazil, translation by Mark Strand) sung by Dawn Upshaw (also b. 1960), a MacArthur-fellow soprano who works in both opera and contemporary classical music.

Maria Schneider: “In setting poems to music, the poems themselves speak the rhythm, etch the melodic contour, and emotionally elicit the harmony.”  Here’s her beautiful composition of Kooser’s ‘Walking by Flashlight’: Walking by flashlight/at six in the morning,/my circle of light on the gravel/swinging side to side,/coyote, raccoon, field mouse, sparrow,/each watching from darkness/this man with the moon on a leash.

The Claudia Quintet +1, featuring Kurt Elling

John Hollenbeck (Photo ©Tomas Ovalle)

The Claudia Quintet (bass, drums, vibraphone, accordion and clarinet!) is the brainchild of progressive percussionist/composer John Hollenbeck (b. 1968). Here’s his pretty darned funny story about the group’s name. The “+1” here is a piano, a large, keyed percussion instrument occasionally employed in jazz settings. He’s worked with such luminaries as Bob Brookmeyer, Fred Hersch and Meredith Monk.

In his obscure (even for him) 2011 album “What is the Beautiful”, nine of the twelve cuts feature a vocalist singing Patchen’s poetry – four by Theo Bleckmann, five by Kurt Elling. The other cuts are ‘simply’ inspired by it. ‘Showtime’ is a tour de force creation, both in Hollenbeck’s conception and composition as well as in Elling’s over-the-top head-spinning knockout performance (what he calls ‘enlarged reality’). Just for fun, here’s another Patchen/Hollenbeck/Elling, the riotous ‘Opening the Window’ (can you imagine how much Tom Waits would enjoy this?).

Kurt Elling (Photo ©Adrian Korsner)

I think ‘Showtime’ is a real lesson in how to work poetry into music. If poetry is charged language, this cut is a model of extracting every last drop of meaning out of the source – not adapting the poem, not riding on its back, but honestly and humbly eliciting its very essence. It reminds us how much poetry demands from the reader. It’s not prechewed, it’s raw and autonomous and challenging. Hollenbeck and Elling, I believe, here do the work for us of interpreting or grasping the poem, and thereby demonstrate a truly innovative approach to exploring what the human voice is uniquely capable of.

I recently tripped over a truism: ‘The best things in life are acquired tastes’. Boy, do I subscribe to that.

I can’t help juxtaposing this material with Kurt Elling’s last album, “The Brill Building Project” – lyrics by Hal David, Mike Stoller, Gerry Goffin, et al. That album will hopefully sell a trillion copies and should have won a gaggle of Grammies. “What is the Beautiful” has probably sold two copies so far – to Hollenbeck’s mother and me.  Lest you think I’m being a snob here, I’ll readily admit that I’ll probably listen to “Brill” more than to Patchen/Hollenbeck. But if you catch me at my best, at my most curious and my most energetic, and you ask me: “Hey, Jeff, to your mind, what is the beautiful?”, I know what I’ll answer.

 If you enjoyed this post, you may also enjoy:

SoTWs on Luciana Souza

SoTWs on Kurt Elling

SoTWs on Maria Schneider

 

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101: Kurt Elling, “Li’l Darlin'”

Posted by jeff on Jun 10, 2011 in Jazz, Song Of the week, Vocalists

Kurt Elling -- the best male jazz vocalist ever

Last week I had the distinct pleasure of taking my favorite singer in the world, Kurt Elling, to my favorite spot in the world, the underground tunnel that runs along the western wall of the Temple Mount in the Old City of Jerusalem, and talking music with him all along the way. The day is described in exhaustive detail in the article “Going Up to Jerusalem with Kurt Elling“. For our SoTW, I’d like to try to pin down just why I think Kurt is the finest male jazz singer ever. Well, who’s competing for the title? Kurt (b. 1967) and I discussed the leading lights in the field, and by general consensus the outstanding male jazz vocalist, at least since Louis Armstrong, is Mark Murphy (b. 1932). Here’s how Kurt describes Mark: Mark recreated songbook classics and hipped up bop through his phrasing, arranging and unique vocal ingenuity. Mark shows us all that the singers’ art is never done evolving. He showed how moving and dramatic an evening of Jazz singing could be. I also became aware of Kerouac and the whole Beat/Jazz connection through Mark. He has made a lifetime of innovative, truly great vocal Jazz records.

Mark Murphy

Read more…

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Going Up to Jerusalem with Kurt Elling

Posted by jeff on Jun 7, 2011 in Writings

June 5, 2011

The Fantasy

Perhaps a person can be defined by his fantasies. There was a time when my wildest dream would have been Petula Clark asking me to come up to see her etchings. And there was a time when it was Phil Jackson asking me for advice on defensive strategy. And for quite a while (at an age I’ll refrain from admitting) I was seriously hoping to be reincarnated as Buddy Holly.

In recent years, my greatest fantasy would have been to spend the day talking music with my favorite singer in the world, Kurt Elling, while taking him to my favorite spot in the world, the underground tunnel that runs along the western wall of the Temple Mount in the Old City of Jerusalem. Hey, guess what I did this week? Read more…

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