166: John Martyn, ‘Bless the Weather’

Posted by jeff on Jul 11, 2019 in New Acoustic, Other, Song Of the week

John Martyn – Bless The Weather

John Martyn – Solid Air

John Martyn – May You Never

Young John Martyn

At the age of 22, I found my life but lost my music. For the love of a woman, the love of a country, and the yoke of a mortgage, I embraced self-imposed exile to a musical Siberia. If the Beatles hadn’t recently broken up and Dylan hadn’t released “Self-Portrait”, I don’t know if I could have done it.

I spent the twenty years from 1970 till the advent of the internet in musical exile, where the local provincial AM radio’s idea of a hip foreign playlist was Johnny Hallyday followed by ‘Greenfields’ followed by Rex Allen’s ‘Son, Don’t Go Near the Indians’. Somehow, on Friday afternoons, when the Kommisars of Kitsch were taking their pre-weekend nap, an hour-long program snuck on the air called ‘Here, There and Everywhere’. It still may be running, for all I know. I stopped listening to other peoples’ playlists the moment the airwaves were liberated.

The theme song of the program was a Jose Feliciano instrumental ‘Pegao‘, a harbinger of good things to come. They played new, interesting, refined music, stuff that was unavailable in the local stores. I was playing a lot of mediocre guitar in those days, and was thirsty for new sounds and materials and directions. I’d sit by the radio with the microphone of my little cassette recorder pointed at the speaker. When a promising intro started up, I’d flick on the tape. And it was thus, boys and girls, that I compiled twenty or thirty compilation cassettes that I loved dearly, tapes now closeted in the back of some drawer but dusted regularly in the nether corners of my musical memory.

One song that struck and stuck with me was a charming, disarming, more-than-ditty called ‘May You Never’ by a John Martin. I enjoyed it for years, and when All Music Guide and YouTube and iTunes finally made their way here, I checked him out.

Bar Room Fight

May you never lose your temper if you get in a bar room fight
May you never lose your woman overnight
May you never lay your head down without a hand to hold
May you never make your bed out in the cold.

It turns out his name is John Martyn, a Scottish dissolute who died of booze and pneumonia and diabetes and excessive indulgence with one leg and many scars in 2009 at the age of 60. He began at 17 as a young adherent of the burgeoning British folk scene which included Davy Graham, Bert Jansch, John Renbourne and others. They started with traditional British/Celtic folk materials, amplified their acoustic guitars, and melded into them American blues and American jazz. Richard Thompson took Fairport Convention towards a new brand of rock. Paul Simon took the tweed jackets and turtleneck sweaters (and Graham’s ‘Angie’ via Jansch’s rendition) back to America. Jansch and Renbourne recorded alone, as a duo, and then together in The Pentangle, creating a riveting but regrettably short-lived acoustic folk-jazz amalgam.

John Martyn at the beginning

John Martyn took his guitar to the pub. After four albums where he honed his craft and many drinks in which he learned to slur his voice, he broke through the constraints of the folk tradition into a remarkable outburst of brilliant, genre-defying folk-jazz in his next two albums, “Bless the Weather” (1971) and “Solid Air” (1973).

Martyn’s music of this period is spare in format – a sliding drunken mush of a voice, more an instrument than a singing voice as such; an expressive, fingerpicked electrically amplified acoustic guitar with a lot of percussive backslapping; backed by double-bassist Danny Thompson (formerly of The Pentangle); and the occasional bongo or ornamental piano. But it’s all Martyn and his guitar and voice backed by Thompson. The subject matter is slippery and elusive, ranging from the whimsical to the passionate to the cosmic. But it’s all a distinctive, unique voice. And hence difficult to describe, lacking all reference. He’s like no one, no one is like him.

John Martyn at the end

The only thing that comes to mind is that other unique Celtic jazz-rock masterpiece, Van Morrison’s “Astral Weeks” (1968). Way back in SoTW 38 I wrote:

What is unique about “Astral Weeks” is how unique it is. It comes from no tradition and left no legacy. Stylistically, it stands absolutely alone. Spiritual blue-eyed Celtic soul acid acoustic jazz-rock. It’s gorgeous and sumptuous and moving and transcendent. No one else even tried to go there. It is literally inimitable. Probably the closest album to it in its musical frame of reference is The Pentangle, their first, an album I quite admire. Listen to this, and you’ll hear how many light years beyond its contemporary surroundings “Astral Weeks” was. Its impact, if not its influence, has been indelible.

I wrote that a few years ago, and I’ve learned since then that John Martyn did some fine work in that very vein. Van Morrison drafted jazz masters Richard Davis (bass) and Connie Kaye (drums) for “Astral Weeks”. Thompson was a significant partner for Martyn. Folk-jazz, the genre that almost never was.

John Martyn

Van never repeated the experiment back then (and I refuse to listen to the 2009 revisit), but he went on to a long, restless and energetic career. John Martyn spent the rest of his life degenerating personally and musically. John Martyn was a singular talent, tragically wasted. Many friends collaborated with him over the years, attempting unsuccessfully to resuscitate his career: Clapton, Phil Collins, David Gilmour, and Levon Helm. Back when I was discovering him, I dutifully plowed through his dozens of albums and innumerable live performances. Trust me, he flamed brilliantly for a short time, and you’ll do better avoiding the stench of his decline.

I made myself a Favorites compilation of 33 Martyn songs, all of them 1970-1980. Not a single song from the subsequent 30 years of sloppy, self-indulgent recordings. And to tell you the truth, 30 of the songs are really fine, admirable, enjoyable. But there are three that outshine the others. Heck, they outshine just about everything. There’s the aforementioned ‘May You Never’, a charmer, witty and wise and loving. Listen to Clapton mistreat it. Gives you some respect for Mr Martyn, doesn’t it? Here’s Martyn singing it live in 1973, when he was still holding himself together.

Solid Air

And then there are these two transcendent, breathtaking cuts. One is a paean to pain, soul bared, nerves exposed to the ‘Solid Air’. Martyn wrote it as a tribute to his buddy Nick Drake, who had the tragic good taste to end his misery in one fell swoop rather than dragging it out.

You’ve been taking your time
And you’ve been living on solid air
You’ve been walking the line
And you’ve been living on solid air
Don’t know what’s going wrong inside
And I can tell you that it’s hard to hide when you’re living on
Solid air.

Here’s the studio version from 1973. And here’s a live version from 1978, in which his dissolution is palpable. It’s not just his string that’s broken.

And then there’s our Song of The Week, ‘Bless the Weather’. It’s a love song by definition, but how often does a popular artist invoke the elements as the impediment to love’s fulfillment? Oh, those Scots. It’s just John, his voice and his guitar and his bassist. And the elements, and his love, and the pain of her absence.

The Weather

Time after time, I held it
Just to watch it die
Line after line, I loved it
Just to watch it cry.

Bless the weather that brought you to me
Curse the storm that takes you away
Bless the weather that brought you to me
Curse the storm that takes you home.

Wave after wave, I watched it
Just to watch it turn
Day after day, I cooled it
Just to watch it burn.

Pain after pain I stood in
Just to see how it would feel
Rain after rain I stood in
Just to make it real.

If you enjoyed this post, you may also like:

071: Lyy, ‘Giftavisan’
092: Béla Fleck, Edgar Meyer, Zakir Hussain, ‘Babar’ (“The Melody of Rhythm”)
110: Mongolian Throat Singing (The Occidental Tourist)
 

 

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7

075: João Gilberto, ‘Chega De Saudade’ (Jobim)

Posted by jeff on Jul 6, 2019 in Brazilian, Song Of the week

I occasionally take advantage of this forum to wax rapturous about the lilting beauties of Brazil, Brazilians (both male and especially female), and Brazilian music, especially in SoTW 22, where I went completely overboard about Roberta Sá and Chico Buarke’s, ‘Mambembe’.

A friend recently stumbled over the Portuguese word ‘saudade’. So as we helped her up, we took a look at the word, which is a term, which is a concept, which is a whole emotional world. Wikipedia describes it thus:

…a deep emotional state of nostalgic longing for something or someone that one was fond of and which is lost. It often carries a fatalist tone and a repressed knowledge that the object of longing might really never return. …a “vague and constant desire for something that does not and probably cannot exist…a deep longing or yearning for something which does not exist or is unattainable. Saudade was once described as “the love that remains” or “the love that stays” after someone is gone. Saudade is the recollection of feelings, experiences, places or events that once brought excitement, pleasure, well-being, which now triggers the senses and makes one live again. It can be described as an emptiness, like someone

(e.g., one’s children, parents, sibling, grandparents, friends) or something (e.g., places, pets, things one used to do in childhood, or other activities performed in the past) that should be there in a particular moment is missing, and the individual feels this absence. In Portuguese, ‘tenho saudades tuas’, translated as ‘I have saudades of you’ means ‘I miss you’, but carries a much stronger tone. In fact, you can have ‘saudades’ of someone you are with but have some feeling of loss towards the past or the future.
In Brazil, the day of saudade is officially celebrated on January 30.

A national holiday of heartache. Oh, how I want to be there for that celebration.

If ‘saudade’ has a whole world of associations for Brazilians, for this Levantine transplant it conjures the song ‘Chega De Saudade’, and for good reason – it was the first Bossa Nova song. Let me try to make some sense out of this, for both you and myself.

Samba is a Brazilian musical and dance genre originating in Africa, typically arising from rural areas and slums, and frequently associated with football and the Carnival. Not surprisingly, I guess, it also has a national day (December 2). It includes a whole wealth of dances and musical styles. During the 1950s, a new style of music evolved from it, Bossa Nova, influenced by jazz and performed by students and artistes, more sophisticated and lyric-oriented, more personal and idiosyncratic musically, less percussive. Music to be listened to quietly, rather than danced to raucously.

Stan Getz (left corner); João Gilberto (back); Antônio Carlos Jobim (standing, center)

‘Chega De Saudade’ is credited as being the first bossa nova song. It was written in 1958 by composer Antonio Carlos (Tom) Jobim and lyricist Vinicius de Moraes, and became a hit for singer/guitarist João Gilberto. We’ll return to the song in a moment, but let’s follow for a moment the bossa nova waves.

In 1959, French director Marcel Camus made a Brazilian film called “Black Orpheus” (“Orfeu Negro“), an allegorical treatment of the Orpheus myth set during Carnival in a shanty town. The film featured music that ranged from samba to bossa nova, written mostly by Moraes (who also wrote the screenplay) and Jobim, and included a couple of songs by Luiz Bonfá, including the famous ‘Manhã de Carnaval’.

The movie was a big hit in Brazil, and even made some impact in North America. I bought (and devoured) the soundtrack in about 1964, when I was a mere lad of 16. Sometimes I impress myself in retrospect.

But the big impact occurred with two bossa-inspired American jazz LPs. The first was “Jazz Samba” (1962) by saxophonist Stan Getz and guitarist Charlie Byrd. Its most famous tracks are ‘Desafinado’ (‘Slightly Out of Tune’) and ‘Samba de Uma Nota Só‘ (‘One Note Samba’). Then the LP that really took the world by storm, and still maintains a central role as progenitor of a legitimate, fruitful style half a century later, “Getz/Gilberto”. The music was Getz on sax, João Gilberto on guitar and vocals, and Tom Jobim (piano and composition of almost all the songs), helped out on vocals on a couple of songs (‘The Girl from Ipanema’, ‘Corcovado’) by Gilberto’s wife Astrud, who wasn’t really a singer but was the only one of the Brazilians present who knew enough English to get through the songs. Her recording sold several trillion records, and inspired her to divorce João and have an affair with Stan. Boy, what goes on behind that laid-back music!

Meanwhile, back at da fazenda. Success has many fathers, and we’ve tried to make some order in the beginnings of this very successful musical style. But it really has only one acknowledged father, Antonio Carlos Jobim. He is the one who is called the George Gershwin of Brazilian music. It is with him that singers such as Frank Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald collaborated extensively. And it is after him that the Rio de Janeiro international airport is named. I’m sure we’ll pay him a dedicated visit in a future SoTW, so for right now we’ll just say ‘Muito obrigado, Tom’.

The song, ‘Chega De Saudade’ has had more treatments than a Beverly Hills facelift clinic. Here are a few native Brazilian versions worth getting to know better:

The Gilbertos, with Stan Getz in the middle

  • The legendary Caetano Velaso, including a peek at the song’s origin

Jon Hendricks wrote the well-known English lyrics for it, ‘No More Blues’. But they can’t hold a vela to the original. Trust me for two minutes—read the speak lyrics while you listen to the song. I speak no Portuguese, but the beauty of the lyrics speaks gently and clearly, right to my heart. It gives me great saudade for the Brazil that I hold in my imagination and in my heart. Apertado assim. Colado assim. Calado assim.

Chega De Saudade

Vai minha tristeza e diz a ela que sem ela não pode ser
(Go, my sadness, and tell her that without her it can’t be)
Diz-lhe numa prece
(Tell her in a prayer)
Que ela regresse, porque eu não posso mais sofrer
(To come back, because I can’t suffer anymore)
Chega de saudade
(Enough missing her)

João Gilberto, Antonio Carlos Jobim

A realidade é que sem ela não há paz, não há beleza
(The reality is that without her there’s no peace, there’s no beauty)
É só tristeza e a melancolia
(It’s only sadness and melancholy)
Que não sai de mim, não sai de mim, não sai…
(That won’t leave me, won’t leave me, won’t leave…)
Mas se ela voltar, se ela voltar,
(But if she comes back, if she comes back)
Que coisa linda, que coisa louca
(What a beautiful thing, what a crazy thing)
Pois há menos peixinhos a nadar no mar
(For there are fewer fish swimming in the sea)
Do que os beijinhos que eu darei na sua boca
(Than the kisses I’ll give you in your mouth)
Dentro dos meus braços os abraços hão de ser milhões de abraços
(Inside my arms, the hugs shall be millions of hugs)
Apertado assim, colado assim, calado assim
(Tight like this, united like this, silent like this)
Abraços e beijinhos e carinhos sem ter fim
(Infinite hugs and kisses and caressess)
Que é pra acabar com este negócio de você viver sem mim
(To end this “living-without-me” business)
Não quero mais esse negócio de você tão longe assim.
(Don’t want this “far-away” business)
Vamos deixar esse negócio de viver londe de mim.
(Let’s end this “living-away-from-me” business.)

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8

158: Paul Simon, ‘Surfer Girl’

Posted by jeff on Jul 4, 2019 in A Cappella, Rock, Song Of the week

Paul Simon, ‘Surfer Girl’

Paul Simon, All-Star Tribute to Brian Wilson

Paul Simon, All-Star Tribute to Brian Wilson

I first heard a piece of music this week that touched me very deeply, Brian Wilson’s ‘Surfer Girl’, as performed solo by Paul Simon in “An All-Star Tribute to Brian Wilson” from 2001.

I’m guessing we all pretty much agree that the original ‘Surfer Girl’ is a pretty schlocky song. The lyrics couldn’t be more callow. The melody and vocal harmonies are Brian Wilson clawing his way out of the gooey larva of his California pubescence.

It even takes a back seat to ‘In My Room’, the other slow song from the Beach Boys’ third album (1963). And we all know what happens in the back seat of a Little Deuce Coupe.

Beach Boys 1962

California pubescents: (clockwise from top right) Mike (Don’t Fuck with the Formula) Love, Dennis Wilson, Al Jardine, Carl Wilson, genius Brian Wilson

Brian on the genesis of ‘Surfer Girl’: “Back in 1961, I’d never written a song in my life. I was nineteen years old. And I put myself to the test in my car one day. I was actually driving to a hot dog stand, and I actually created a melody in my head without being able to hear it on a piano. I sang it to myself; I didn’t even sing it out loud in the car. When I got home that day, I finished the song, wrote the bridge, put the harmonies together and called it ‘Surfer Girl’.”

Thanks for sharing that, Brian. Go to your room.

Ok, so Brian may not be competing with Ludwig Wittgenstein, but I am among those who consider him to be THE musical genius of contemporary popular music.  Admittedly, ‘Surfer Girl’ ain’t the one I would choose to have played at his wake. The works of his fully-fledged genius begin to trickle out a year (two albums) later, with ‘Don’t Worry Baby’ and ‘Warmth of the Sun’ on “Shut Down, Vol. 2”. And then bloom a year after that (1965) on the legendary Side B of “Beach Boys Today!”: ‘Please Let Me Wonder’, ‘I’m So Young’, ‘Kiss Me Baby’ (see also SoTW 004), ‘She Knows Me Too Well’ and ‘In the Back of My Mind.’). Not to mention, of course, “Pet Sounds” (1966), the musical opus magnum of our generation.

Surfer Girls circa 1966, © Bob Weeks

Surfer Girls circa 1966, © Bob Weeks

What the song ‘Surfer Girl’ does offer us musically is an early hint of what I call Brian’s Cubist melody lines. He’s doing an arpeggio on familiar chords (‘Little surfer, little one’), but then it opens up (‘Make my heart’) into a new context, and then follows this beautifully shocking line even further afield (‘come all undone’). If you’re into chords, it goes like this: C Am F G (ok so far), but then Cmaj7 C7 F Fm6! Huh?? WTF? What’s wrong with this kid?

I’m not going to talk here about how much the world wants brilliant reworkings of some of Brian Wilson’s unexplored works of genius. I have enough self-awareness to realize that I get obsessive on the subject and cause people (like the very fine Danish choral arranger/conductor Jens Johansen) to carefully edge away from me to another room.

Brian Wilson Songs

Brian Wilson Songs

No one (until Paul Simon here) has succeeded in unlocking the Brian Wilson treasure chest to my satisfaction. I won’t even mention the Billy Joels and Ricky Martins from the “All-Star Tribute”.  Here’s a pretty typical example of a competent a cappella group, Rockapella, missing the point of how to cover ‘Surfer Girl’. Even some artists I greatly admire have been daunted by the original material. Here are my friends The Real Group, and here are my friends The Swingle Singers, both covering ‘God Only Knows’. I think neither really master the material. It’s hard to blame them. Paul McCartney’s called ‘God Only Knows’ the greatest song ever written. Here’s Paul making a mess of  ‘God Only Knows’ with Brian. ”We were doing a benefit together, and at the sound check I lost it, because it’s very emotional, this song. I think ‘Oh my God, I’m singing it with Brian’, it just got me. I couldn’t do it.” I give both TRG and The Swingles credit – they do a better job than Paul and Brian himself. But there’s so much more still to be mined.

Woodie, including back seat

Woodie, including back seat

The one and only cover I’d heard before that to my ears really showed how much gold there is in them thar hills is that by a not-yet-fully-appreciated young artist, Kat Edmonson. She’s a knockout songwriter, and does great covers as well. On her 2012 album ‘Way Down Low’, she tackles ‘I Guess I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times’ with taste and intelligence and talent, and comes up with a gem of a gold nugget.

When I talk about covering a work of substance, I believe it should be a piece that deserves to be revisited, that has musical value beyond that which earlier versions have found and which deserve to be explored. The original ‘Knocking on Heaven’s Door’ is great, but would have been better served left alone.  All of its value was right there in the original. More is less.

In researching this post, I was tickled to trip over three tributes that I hadn’t been aware of. The ‘All-Star Tribute to Brian Wilson’ (2001) is a pretty embarrassingly lowbrow affair, our SoTW itself excluded. More interesting is the 2000 ‘Caroline, Now!’ CD, but the material is obscure, the artists mostly unknown to me, and the results unengaging. Most successful for me is ‘Wouldn’t It Be Nice’, a jazz tribute to Brian Wilson from 1997, even though it takes Brian’s perfected edifices into the playing field of improvisation and thus doesn’t really deal with the essence of the material itself. The exception was a serendipitous discovery, five lovely, short a cappella cuts by ‘The Clark Burroughs Group’, L’Arc. And listen to this folks! Clark Burroughs is the original tenor of the Hi-Lo’s!! And not only that, he wrote the vocal arrangements for The Association’s ‘Windy’ and ‘Never My Love’!!! That connection has my head spinning, and you can bet your booties I’ll be pursuing it. Take a listen to what Mr Burroughs has done:

Surf’s Up – by L’Arc, by The Beach Boys

Can’t Wait Too Long – by L’Arc, by The Beach Boys

‘Til I Die – by L’Arc, by The Beach Boys

Cabinessence – by L’Arc, by The Beach Boys

I Went to Sleep – by L’Arc, by The Beach Boys

If I have a reservation, it’s that Mr Burroughs chooses material from the ‘Smile’ era, when Brian was in full control of the studio and free of the fetters of Top 40 considerations. That’s not mining, that’s plucking gold from the surface. Still, it’s gold, and I just discovered this. Give me a few thousand more listens to coalesce my opinion.

Angst on the Beach, Surfer Girl, Beach Boys

Angst on the Beach

Brian Wilson’s early masterworks have so much still untapped that it breaks my heart to not hear this treasure appreciated anew. Jens Johansen reworked fully realized jewels such as Joni Mitchell’s ‘Blue’ and Paul Simon’s ‘Still Crazy After All These Years’. How much more fitting that he apply his great talent and that of his marvelous Danish rhythm choir Vocal Line to treat unrefined treasures such as those of Brian Wilson before he had his run of the studio with “Pet Sounds”. Or perhaps Clark Burroughs.

Paul Simon has recorded very few covers of other artists. With Art he did ‘The Times Are A-Changing’ (before he knew any better) and a couple of Everly Brothers just for fun (‘Wake Up, Little Suzie’ and ‘Bye Bye Love’). Much later he did a more respectable job on ‘Here Comes the Sun’, here singing backup to George himselfhere solo and here with David Crosby and Graham Nash. But none are really revelatory. More successful is the collaboration with James Taylor and Art Garfunkel on Sam Cooke’s ‘Wonderful World’, but that’s really James’ work rather than Paul’s.

Paul Simon is a remarkable artist. He can sing a phrase that’s so poignant and emotionally precise that it will echo in your heart for weeks. He’s also a perfectionist. He gets oodles of credit for his songwriting and even his singing and guitaring, but I think he’s too seldom recognized for his production and arrangement abilities, even from the old days of Simon and Garfunkel.

Paul Simon, All-Star Tribute to Brian Wilson

Paul Simon, All-Star Tribute to Brian Wilson

For his live performance of ‘Surfer Girl’, he clearly did his homework. The melody line is lovely and just a bit challenging. Paul employs it as a springboard for his own unique, affective talent and thereby both pays due respect and enriches the original. Listen to the beginning of the second verse. He sings ‘I have seen you on the shore’ in falsetto up an octave, and you’re saying ‘Oy, the melody goes up, he’ll never make it!’ But with a feat of inventiveness, ‘the sound of surprise’, he creates a beautiful new descending line, moving seamlessly from the head voice to chest voice.

He looks the line ‘I would drive you in my woodie’ right in the eyes, without flinching, and delivers it with compleat sincerity – neither pandering to the shlockiness nor pretending that it’s anything other than what the song really is: a beautiful, heartfelt ballad of unrequited teenage love, performed impeccably. What more could we ask for?

Little surfer, little one,
Made my heart come all undone.
Do you love me, do you surfer girl?

 I have watched you on the shore
Standing by the oceans roar.
Do you love me do you surfer girl?

 We could ride the surf together
While our love would grow.
In my woody I would take you everywhere I go.

So I say, from me to you
I will make your dreams come true.
Do you love me, do you surfer girl?

If you enjoyed this post, you may also like:

142: Kat Edmonson, ‘Champagne’
139: The Swingle Singers, ‘On the 4th of July’ (James Taylor)
047: Bobby McFerrin, ‘The Garden’ (“VOCAbuLarieS”)
Brian Wilson Songs of The Week
Paul Simon Songs of The Week

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12

139: The Swingle Singers, ‘On the 4th of July’ (James Taylor)

Posted by jeff on Jun 26, 2019 in A Cappella, Rock, Song Of the week, Vocalists

Hey, America, happy birthday! Two hundred and forty-three, right? That’s a lot of candles dancing on the head of one cake, but I trust you’ll manage. We just want to wish you all the best—sorry, what’s that? It’s not the birthday of the United States? Huh? So what is it? Oh, it’s the independence of the Colonies from Great Britain that took place in 1776. So when was the US born? Thirteen years later, in 1789, when George W. the First took office? First independence, then coming into being. I get it. It’s like starting with your bar mitzvah, then 13 years later getting born. That makes sense.

Well, Happy Whatever it is you guys are celebrating. July 4th mostly connotes Entebbe for me, but I’m always willing to join a party.  And Momma taught me you don’t come to a party without a gift, so here’s ours – a very lovely James Taylor song as performed a cappella by The Swingle Singers, ‘On the 4th of July’.

In August, 1963, I was spending my summer vacation before the tenth grade staring at the albums in Neumark’s Record Store in Westsomething Shopping Center across the street from Woodward HS in Cincinnati. This is what I saw on the Bestsellers rack:

I yawned (having slept only 13 hours that night). Then I saw this:

I stopped yawning. “’Bach’s Greatest Hits’. That’s funny.” Then I peered more closely and saw that the Baroque musicians in the engraving were wearing shades. Cool, man. And I read the blurb “A unique vocal jazz treatment of Johann Sebastian Bach by the creative Swingle Singers.” Wow, really cool. So I shelled out my $2.99 (plus 12¢ sales tax) and spent the next few years listening to that album about as much as I listened to The soon-to-appear Beatles.

It was a revelation, eight voices swinging Bach note for note, accompanied by string bass and a brush of drums. The album was for me both a revelation and an education. I learned to sing bass by listening closely, hour after hour after hour. I literally wore out the album. It was the beginning of my lifelong love of Bach, and it still sounds fine to me today. When I played it for Mr. Lang, he immediately fell for it, brought us ‘Choral No.1‘ to sing, and gave me as a reward the finger cymbal solo (Ding!).

The Swingle Singers evolved from a group of singers formed by the fine cool jazz chanteuse Blossom Dearie (her real name). Working in Paris under the direction of tenor Ward Swingle (of Alabama and Cincinnati) and soprano Christine Legrand (Michel’s sister), they stumbled on a style that would open the ears and minds of many, leading in the short range to children such as Switched-On Bach (by Walter>Wendy Carlos, the first widely heard electronic music) and Jacques Loussier (piano jazz improvisations on Bach). In the long range, their style had a paradigmatic impact on crossover experimentation, the fun potential of classical music in popular contexts,  vocal jazz and so much more.

Here are two of my favorites from “Bach’s Greatest Hits”: Aria from Orchestral Suite No.3, a luscious, embracing recording I love dearly; and the soprano virtuoso piece Sinfonia from Partita No.2, with Christine Legrand reminding us just how much of a genius JSBach was. I won’t tell you how often I try to sing this soprano solo when I’m alone in the car.

The Swingle Singers recorded and performed extensively and successfully for the next decade, always impeccable, but never reaching the excitement levels of that very first album. In 1973, the original French group disbanded. Ward Swingle formed a new group in London called Swingle II, then The Swingles, then The New Swingle Singers, then simply The Swingle Singers, aka The Swingles, and they’ve been swingling ever since. They’ve recorded a million albums–the old classical formula, folk songs, Christmas albums, a Beatles tribute, more Christmas albums–all of it faultless, blandly perfect, none of it groundbreaking.

In 2007 they began to metamorphose into a ‘New A Cappella’ group with the CD “Beauty and the Beatbox”, applying hip new vocal percussion to a mix of classics and modern pieces. Here’s their take on the Mexican standard Cielito Lindo. In 2009 this new approach ripened into “Ferris Wheel”, a charming collection of their own arrangements of pop songs. It includes songs from those artists most frequently recorded by New A Cappella groups – Bjork, Stevie Wonder, Brian Wilson (some other time I’ll tell you about my obsession about Brian Wilson being sung a cappella), Joni Mitchell, Sting, John & Paul, Nick Drake and James Taylor.

The Real Group Festival

‘New A Cappella’ is a world I’m deeply involved in. It was more or less invented 25 years ago by the Swedish quintet The Real Group, who elevated vocal jazz from singing harmony above the accompaniment (Hi-Lo’s, Singers Unlimited, Lambert Hendricks & Ross) to ‘singing the arrangement’ a cappella. It’s a fascinating world of music, most highly evolved in Scandinavia. I’ve written about it lots of times and participated in a Modern AC festival every year for the past decade (Sweden, Denmark, Italy, London). For me, these festivals are a life-changing experience musically, and even personally to no small degree–lots of lovely people from around the world embracing each other through music. C’mon Cindy, c’mon Sue, get on a plane and join us. You’ll be glad you did, I promise you.

What’s so good about The New A Cappella? Well, here, I’ll show you. There are a couple of songs from The Swingles’ “Ferris Wheel” that are among the very best of what the genre has to offer. Here’s their version Nick Drake’s ‘River Man’. It’s been recorded often–I even wrote an entire SoTW about it. The Swingles’ version shows just how effectively an AC treatment can elicit from a well-known pop song new understandings, new beauties. And here’s our SoTW, the oh-so charming James Taylor song ‘On the 4th of July’.

Ain’t it sweet? It’s from James’ last album of originals, “October Road” (2002). Here’s the original. It’s such shame that James has stopped recording new original material, but we don’t begrudge him. We appreciate what he has done. Like this one, a love song for mature audiences. It’s about a man in his mid-50s starting up with a lady he’s known for a long time.

It’s full of the irrepressible anticipation of a new relationship tempered by the wariness born of a lifetime of bumps and bounces and disappointments. It’s a jolly, inexplicable mix of Colonial America and music on the radio and the sly grin of still getting aroused by what may happen when she comes down for the fireworks. Love and and independence and rebirth, the sort of story James tells so well. So happy 4th of July to everyone, everywhere.

 

Shall I tell it again, how we started as friends who would run into one another now and again
At the Yippee Cai O or the Mesa Dupree or a dozen different everyday places to be?
I was loping along, living alone, we were ever so brave on the telephone.
“Would you care to come down for fireworks time? We could each just reach, we could step out of line.”
And the smell of the smoke and the lay of the land and the feeling of finding one’s heart in one’s hand
And the tiny tin voice of the radio band singing “Love must stand,” love forever and ever must stand.

Unbelievable you, impossible me, the fool who fell out of the family tree
The fellow that found the philosopher’s stone deep in the ground like a dinosaur bone
Who fell into you at a quarter to two with a tear in your eye for the Fourth of July
For the patriots and the minutemen and the things you believe they believed in then
Such as freedom, and freedom’s land and the kingdom of God and the rights of man
With the tiny tin voice of the radio band singing “love must stand”
Love forever and ever must stand and forever must stand.

Oh the smell of the smoke as we lay on the land, and the feeling of finding my heart in my hand
With the tiny tin voice of the radio band singing “love must stand,” love forever and ever must stand
On the fourth of July.

 

If you enjoyed this post, you may also enjoy:

SoTWs about a cappella music

SoTWs about J.S. Bach

SoTWs about James Taylor

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