Life, as you may have noticed, can be quirky. For example, have you ever noticed that phenomenon where a small detail in your distant past becomes a crucial focal point many years on?
N.R. was a girl in my 8th grade home room class whom I never spoke to, never thought of speaking to. Years later, on the other side of the physical, mental and spiritual world, her older brother became my guru and close friend.
That lady I worked with for a year or two way back when? Thirty years later, in a whole different place, my son would house-sit for her and write his dissertation there.
They say “What goes around comes around”, which I’ve never really understood beyond “Watch out for pigeons shitting on you when you walk under a ladder to avoid being crossed by a black cat.”
I was once shat upon three times in a single day. Some say that’s very good luck. Some say I should have figured out more quickly not to sit under a ledge where pigeons were roosting.
But what I did figure out is that you’d better let that girl next to you go ahead of you to throw the baseball at the bowling pins, because you just might wind up married to her, and if you didn’t let her cut in, you’re going to hear about it from here to eternity.
I admit, those are fairly feeble phenomena for flouting the fickle finger of fate. But they’re taken from real life, where I’m always on shaky ground. I do much better within the confines of my record collection.
It’s the late 1960s, I’m a college student, and I’ve got the best record collection in the Midwest, I think. It started with me beg-borrow-and-stealing every nickel I could get my hands on as a tweenie to stockpile 45s, and then LPs from the cutout bin. If you looked hard enough, among the “101 Strings Plays Liberace” and “Lawrence Welk Goes All Bubbly” you could find an early Roy Orbison or “Bobby Rydell’s Greatest Hits Vol. 6”.
For four summers I worked in a Pepsi Cola factory. On Friday I’d get my paycheck ($35, a kingly sum for me) and head straight for this one K-Mart out in the boondocks that for some reason kept getting the most extensive stock of new records in the entire metropolitan area. There was no love among the stockboys for the LPs. They’d just stuff ‘em into whatever bin had room. Which necessitated me lying on the floor for half an hour every week to finger through the nether recesses of the back bins on the bottom (floor) level.
LPs cost $2.99 a piece back then. Most weeks I’d buy two or three or four, digging, dusting, exploring and piecing together shards of information. I should have become a musical archaeologist. Or maybe I did.
Then I started writing record reviews for the college paper. There were over 20,000 students, a record-buying public, and I soon learned that the record distributors were more than happy to ply me with their goods and their goodies (prime tickets for shows of visiting artists, interviews). So I accumulated one heck of a record collection. It took up about 20% of the floor space of my little pad and about 80% of my waking hours (hey, a guy’s got to eat, doesn’t he?).
I used to spend two to three rigorous hours a day reclining on my bed with headphones a-set, eyes a-closed, and mind a-focused, rotating my position between prone, prostrate, recumbent and supine. I didn’t believe in stacking records, so I would actually stand up once every twenty minutes or so to flip the disc or engage in some other necessary technical task.
At first glance, you (and my parents) might ask, “Exactly how did this prepare you for life, Jeff?”
Well, here we are, almost half a century later, mining that very same compressed coal seam. If I ran into my wife at that fair, I sure hope I was polite.
I ostensibly listened to rock, rock and roll. Certainly not jazz. Yet it happens that I occasionally trip over a piece of music that I knew from my record collection of back then, something so obscure, so off-my-beaten path, that I ask myself how in the world I had the fortune, prescience or just plain dumb blind circumstantiality to have gotten exposed to it.
I just tripped over a lovely clip of my main man Bill Evans playing with guitarist Kenny Burrell. Had a Kenny Burrell album. I knew “Kind of Blue.” I listened to Ravi Shankar even before I knew who his daughter would be. I had stolen two Israeli albums (the Dudaim and Yaffa Yarkoni) from my sister which I still remember well and have served me in good stead over the years. Hell, I even listened to the soundtrack from “Orpheu Negro”.
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 partly by Antonio Carlos 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. 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), with help 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 have an affair with Stan and divorce João. Boy, what goes on behind that laid-back music!
At the time I was of course aware of ‘The Girl from Ipanema’ and probably the whole “Getz/Gilberto” album. But the really quirky part was the Vince Guaraldi connection. Vince (1922-76) was a well-respected jazz pianist from San Francisco whose earliest claim to very modest fame was as a collaborator of vibraphonist Cal Tjader. His maternal uncle was whistler Muzzy Marcellino, just in case you were wondering. In 1962, Vince recorded one side of “jazz impressions of Black Orhpeus”, a very tasteful attempt to hop on the bossa bandwagon, contemporary with Mr Getz and everyone else in the world.
Those four cuts eventually made such a deep impression on me that I delved into the soundtrack the “Orpheu Negro” soundtrack when I was a mere lad of about 15. Sometimes I impress myself in retrospect.
Vince had one side of “Black Orpheus”, and filled out Side B with lovely covers of Mancini’s ‘Moon River’ and Buddy Johnson’s 1945 blues ballad ‘Since I Fell for You’ (soon to be a #4 pop hit in 1963 for Lenny Welch), subsequently covered by the likes of Van Morrison, B.B. King, Dr. John, Bonnie Raitt, Barbra Streisand, Tom Waits,Brad Mehldau!, Dinah Washington, Etta James and many others.
But Vince was still lacking a filler, so he composed “Cast Your Fate to the Wind”, released as the B-side of ‘Samba de Orpheus’, inexplicably becoming a jazz song on the pop charts (#10) and a Grammy winner as Best Original Jazz Composition, beating out stellar works that year by Art Blakey, Dave Brubeck, Bill Evans, Andrew Hill, Charles Mingus and Thelonious Monk.
I admit it might not rightfully replace ‘Take the A-Train’ or ‘Giant Steps’ in the jazz pantheon, but it was a lovely tune back then, and still is today. Unlike many songwriters who grow weary of their biggest hits, Guaraldi never minded taking requests to play it when he appeared live. “It’s like signing the back of a check”.
Of course, Vince went on to sign a lot more checks from his Charlie Brown projects. They’re charming, inoffensive, but we’re going to be taking a road ‘less traveled by’, which of course makes all the difference.
I’d like to take this opportunity to note that my copy of “Jazz Impressions of Black Orpheus”/”Cast Your Fate to the Wind” was a transparent red vinyl LP, the only one in my record collection (I can’t remember where my passport is, but I do remember that). I’m not sure what the significance of that is, but if I every have that 0.9-second “my life flashed before my eyes” experience, that record may well have its very own frame there.
‘Cast Your Fate to the Wind’ has had a few covers—a diluted pop success by Sounds Orchestral, a clunky closer for Scorcese’s “Wolf of Wall Street” as covered by Allan Toussaint, a decent if uninspired one by Quincy Jones, and a vocal (with lyrics by Carel Werber) by Mel Torme with a pretty embarrassing arrangement by Marty Paich, who should have known better.
But there was one which made an indelible impression on me, that by We Five. They have been called the first electric group from San Francisco. They were five young folkies led by excellent vocalist Beverly Bivens and singer/guitarist/banjoist Mike Stewart, brother of Kingston Trio member John Stewart (‘Gold’, ‘Daydream Believer’ for the Monkees). We Five’s big hit, ‘You Were On My Mind’, was written by Sylvia Fricker of (husband and wife Canadians) Ian (Tyson) & Sylvia, early stalwarts of the folk movement of the early ‘60s. Here’s their original. And here’s We Five’s version.
We Five’s first album (1966) was a seminal one for me. In addition to ‘Cast Your Fate to the Wind’, it included covers of ‘My Favorite Things’ (associated in my mind with “The Sound of Music” more than with Coltrane), ‘Small World’ (Johnny Mathis in 5/4), ‘Let’s Get Together’ (to become a hippie anthem by Jefferson Airplane and The Youngbloods), ‘High Flying Bird’ (good old Richie Havens) and a really lovely ‘Make Someone Happy’.
They were cast in an electric, eclectic folk setting with a beat, with focus on the vocals. I’ve remembered the album fondly for many years. I recently took a relisten to it. What can I tell you? It hasn’t aged all that well; finer stuff was done by others (look no further than the Mamas and the Papas). But credit where credit is due—a mix of jazz and pop covers recast in a vocal setting, with a pinch of a rock sensibility—this became the sonic world from which my current passion of modern a cappella drew no little inspiration.
What’s the moral of this very strange narrative? Beats me. Cast your listening habits to the wind, because you never know who’s going to turn up decades later to bite you on the ankle. Or kiss you on the neck.