188: Imogen Heap/Vocal Line, ‘Let Go’

Posted by jeff on Jan 31, 2014 in A Cappella, Rock, Song Of the week

Frou Frou — ‘Let Go’
Vocal Line — ‘Let Go’ 

I remember the time I knew all the music.

Well, at least all the music that I cared about, which was Rock and Roll, from Paul Anka to Jackie Wilson (there were not yet musicians whose names began with X, Y or Z in those days). It was 1963 to 1964. I began listening to the Top 40 in 1962, when I was 14. It took me a year to learn all the Oldies (1956-1961), and there you go. Me and Leonardo DiVinci, possessors of all knowledge. He had less of a challenge, since there was so much less to know in 1500. I do realize that I hadn’t mastered painting, sculpture, architecture, musical composition, mathematics, engineering, inventing, anatomy, geology, cartography, botany, or the fastball. But Leo didn’t know bubkes about Chuck Berry, so it kind of evens out.

It’s all been downhill since then. I chose to live my 20s, 30s and 40s in Foreign Land with Bad Radio, so I was patently out of the game by ideological choice. But now in my twilight years, with MTV and the interweb and iTunes, there’s no excuse. All them kids out there making music, a lot of it well worth listening to. The quantity grows exponentially every Saturday night, while my mastery shrinks to infinitesimal levels.

Jeff, circa 1963

I can’t keep up with everything, so I fall back on being a historically significant relic (“Hey, you whippersnapper, I was at Woodstock!”, my hands tremoring on the knob of my cane) and dealing in obscure but curiously edifying niche genres. Like the Beach Boys “Unsurpassed!”, a 300-CD archive of all 400 takes of ‘409 (She’s real fine my)’ and its ilk. Or the pretty cool Finnish surf jazz combo Dalindèo that my buddy KK turned me onto yesterday. Or modern a cappella.

There’s this scene that I belong to. Some of you may be familiar with its Amirkin version via the film Pitch Perfect and the TV series The Sing-Off. But I’m a cult member of the European version. (I just returned from the Swingle Singers’ London A Cappella Festival, where I shot up a double dose of my babies’ love.) Specifically, northern Europe. More specifically, Scandinavia. More specifically, Denmark and Sweden, although Finland, Norway, and Iceland have a lot to offer as well.

Girls of Vocal Line

One of the luminaries of our growing cult is the Danish “rhythm choir” Vocal Line, under the baton of Jens Johansen. I’ve written about them a few times, and will continue to do so in the future, because my admiration for them is rajaton (that’s ‘boundless’ in Finnish, and I’m just showing off the one word I know in that bizarre language, because it’s also the name of one of the finest a cappella groups performing today).

Vocal Line is composed of 32 trained young singers centered in Aarhus, Denmark. The fact that all of the females of the group are stunningly beautiful has nothing to do with my interest in them whatsoever. My interest is purely musical, and very deep. I’ve been riveted by them since I first heard them (in Västerås, Sweden) in 2008. Actually, I’ve been so inspired by them that I founded a rhythm choir, Vocalocity, half a year ago. Our musical director is Kevin Fox, but while he’s busy Swingling around the world, we’ve been bringing in some of the finest AC folks in the world to impart to us some of their wisdom, experience, talent and inspiration. In two weeks, Vocal Line’s assistant conductor Line Groth is coming to our little corner of the world to workshop and rehearse with us, and I’m pretty darned excited about it. She’s a great singer, arranger, conductor and teacher, and we’re planning on learning a lot from her.

Jens Johansen, Jeff, Line Groth

What, you may ask, is Vocal Line’s repertoire composed of? Well, Jens and I are from the same doddering demographic (notwithstanding that he’s in a whole different league of cool), and in addition to a lot of fine Nordic singer-songwriters, he’s covered old-timer old-favorites such as Joni Mitchell (‘Blue’, ‘Both Sides Now’), Paul Simon (‘Still Crazy After All These Years’), Sting (‘I Was Brought to My Senses’), and Leonard Cohen (‘Hallelujah’). I’m very proud to say that I’d heard of every one of those fine artists. But Vocal Line has also forced me to pay more attention to some significant artists that I was insufficiently familiar with, such as Kate Bush (‘Wuthering Heights’), Prince (‘Kiss’), Bjork (‘Isobel’, ‘Hyperballad’) and Peter Gabriel (‘Don’t Give Up’, about which I wrote an entire SoTW) .

Imogen and her Magic Gloves

But my point here (believe it or not, in my befuddled mind there is one), is that it is through them that I’ve been introduced to some younger artists whom I just hadn’t gotten around to or might have missed. Like Coldplay (‘Viva La Vida’). And like our featured Song of The Week, ‘Let Go’ by Imogen Heap.

Imogen Jennifer Heap (b. 1977) is one of those young ‘uns that I don’t begin to understand but sure do enjoy listening to. She’s made three solo albums – “iMegaphone” 1998, “Speak for Yourself” 2005, and “Ellipse” 2009; and one (“Details”, 2002) as part of the duo Frou Frou. ‘Let Go’ is the opening cut of this riveting album, made famous through the teen flick Garden State, starring the heart-breakingly charming Natalie Portman.

I’ve listened to all four CDs maybe a hundred times altogether over the last year, and there’s almost nothing about them that I understand. I don’t get the sound, a mix of “alternative pop/rock, Euro-pop, and electronica”, none of which mean anything to me; and I don’t get the attitude, which is Pinteresquely threatening and utterly creepy.

The attitude. Imogen frightens me. She’s a new breed of female, a breed I’m not wired to deal with. She speaks in imperatives, and they ain’t “Take out the garbage, honey.”

Pay close attention. Snap out of it. Do just what I tell you/And no one will get hurt/Don’t come any closer. Don’t try that again. Don’t make a sound/shh/listen/Keep your head down. Listen up/Hear me out. Come here, boy. From ‘Let Go’: “Jump in/Oh well, what you waiting for?/ You’ve twenty seconds to comply/It’s all right/’Cause there’s beauty in the breakdown”. (“Beauty in the Breakdown” is the title of the Vocal Line CD which houses the song.) Whatever happened to Venus in Blue Jeans?

The sound. Imogen does a lot of the recording in her basement. She’s a wiz on all that electronic equipment that, if I understand correctly, is plugged into the wall and runs on electricity. She’s also invented a pair of magical musical gloves. If you have the courage, or if you’re under under 30, watch this 20-minute demo. There’s a pretty good chance that, like me, you’ll never forget it. If you’re a baby boomer, you may also (like me) be made to feel very, very old.

But she creates a pastiche that’s utterly riveting. I’m guessing that’s what inspired Line Groth to write her stunning arrangement of Imogen’s ‘Let Go’. The sound palate of a large rhythm choir is perhaps an arcane subject to some, but it’s been the most engaging subject I’ve had rattling around the hardening arteries of my ageing brain in recent months. Listen to ‘It’s Good to Be in Love’. To ‘Psychobabble’ (I especially love the instrumental break from 3’20”). To ‘The Dumbing Down of Love’.  (Don’t miss this a cappella gem from “Speak for Yourself”, ‘Hide and Seek’.) Actually, every single cut on the album has a rich, evocative, intriguing orchestration that keeps me going back over and over, understanding nothing, enthralled with it all.

I’m entranced by Imogen Heap/Frou Frou’s ‘Let Go’, and I’m hypnotized by Line Groth/Vocal Line’s reading of it. Over the last year I’ve listened to both cuts hundreds of times, and I still don’t know nuthin’ ‘bout nuthin’ at all. Perhaps when Line gets here she’ll explain it to me. Or not. ‘Whatever’, as the kids say. In any case, I’m guessing the young singers of Vocalocity don’t need any explanations. Young people know everything.

Drink up baby doll/Are you in or are you out?
Leave your things behind/’Cause it’s all going off without you.
Excuse me, too busy you’re writing your tragedy.
These mishaps/You bubble-wrap/When you’ve no idea what you’re like

So, let go, let go/Jump in/Oh well, what you waiting for?
It’s all right/’Cause there’s beauty in the breakdown
So, let go, let go/Just get in/Oh, it’s so amazing here
It’s all right/’cause there’s beauty in the breakdown.

It gains the more it gives/And then it rises with the fall.
So hand me that remote/Can’t you see that all that stuff’s a sideshow?
Such boundless pleasure/We’ve no time for later.
Now you can’t await/your own arrival/you’ve twenty seconds to comply.

If you enjoyed this posting, you may also like:

173: The Real Group, ‘Nature Boy’
139: The Swingle Singers, ‘On the 4th of July’ (James Taylor)
167: James Blake, ‘Lindisfarne’

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174: Vocal Line, ‘Don’t Give Up’

Posted by jeff on May 24, 2013 in A Cappella, Nordic, Song Of the week

Vocal Line – ‘Don’t Give Up’

Jens Johansen

Here I am back on earth, still floating, not yet fighting the decompression blues, after 5 days in Denmark at the Aarhus Vocal Festival, a celebration of contemporary a cappella pop, jazz, folk and beyond. Members of this community (some call it a cult) gather mostly from Northern Europe, but as far afield as Taiwan, Brazil and San Francisco, for a fete of concerts and workshops led by world luminaries. And an incredible amount of communal love.

There’s a strong connection between singing and communality. Ask anyone who’s sung in a choir. You may not love all the members of the choir, but there’s an electric charge in joining together in an aesthetic group effort, with 10 or 20 or 200 people joining to create one voice that can reach the skies.

These Scandinavian a cappella festivals exude love. It’s a young people’s genre, mostly in their 20s, but embracing even us antiquarians. The music is fun, surprising, joyful, all over the musical map. There’s little money or media fame involved, and the stars take pride in their non-celebrity. I was at Woodstock. Believe me, there’s a lot more communal warmth (and less mud) here.

I met a guy on the train who was coming from Belgium to hear Bruce Springsteen in Denmark. They say Bruce is a really nice guy, but you’re watching him with 20,000 strangers from 3 kilometers away, with 500 armed guards in between you and him. Here, an hour after the show, you share a beer with the artist and hug him and thank him for the fine show, and he tells you how excited he was… Who de boss now?

Kate Bush urging Peter Gabriel, ‘Don’t Give Up’

Aarhus boasts the only university in the world, I believe, where one can study for an advanced degree in ‘rhythm choral direction’, i.e., this new and growing genre. You may know its American cousin from Glee and Sing-Off. I’m talking about something wholly other. The contemporary a cappella centered in Scandinavia is the paragon of purity, the quintessence of refinement. It’s an aesthetic I was first exposed to about seven years ago via The Real Group and haven’t ceased obsessing over since.

I’m often accused of being blindly biased towards Scandinavia, but there’s little fear of me converting to Nordicism. My hair is unfair, my skin isn’t pure as fallen snow, my nose doesn’t have that cute little pert upturn, my mind isn’t generous and accepting, my demeanor isn’t relaxed, my temperament isn’t tolerant. Among the Nords, I feel that much more analytical, neurotic, uptight, and judgmental. It’s my genes, my upbringing, my inborn nature, my cultural conditioning. But I do love them and their music.

Jens Johansen conducting Vocal Line

We in the west are accustomed to resonance as a fundamental vocal coloring. These Nords developed a different sound, expressed at its extreme in kulning, a sort of yodel they use to call in the cows from several valleys away. Here’s a clip from a workshop at my first festival in 2008, The Real Festival, in which Morten Kjaer pulls a group of singers in this direction. If you listen carefully, he first reflects the resonant sound the singers are making, then changes it to the more muscular version he’s seeking.

The Real Group

At first this sound may seem to us Westerners flat, metallic, loud, shouting, angry. But that’s all tempered by the Scandinavian cool, reserve, discretion, modesty. In my last SoTW, I presented an example of this anti-vibrato style as it sounds in a gentle context: The Real Group’s ‘Nature Boy’.

It was at their The Real Festival in 2008 that I first encountered Vocal Line, the 32-voice choir led by Jens Johansen. They sang a primarily pop repertoire in English, from ‘my’ songs (‘Blue’, ‘Still Crazy After All These Years’, ‘Brought to My Senses’) to songs a bit newer or more Danish than what I was familiar with (‘Crucify’, ‘Audition Day’, ‘Viola’, ‘Viva La Vida’). There were also songs I should have known but didn’t, like Kate Bush’s ‘Wuthering Heights’, Björk‘s ‘Jóga’, and especially Peter Gabriel’s ‘Mercy Street’ and ‘Don’t Give Up’. I would later become infatuated with their treatments of ‘The Garden‘ and ‘Say Ladeo‘ from Bobby McFerrin’s “VOCAbuLarieS”, written and arranged by Roger Treece.

Jens Johansen

Their music was jarring for me – familiar but profoundly ‘other’, demanding a new sort of listening. It’s taken me years of listening, and my love for and admiration of Jens’ music continues to grow and grow. Their music is pure, unadulterated beauty. It’s what all art should aspire to, not just contemporary a cappella choirs. Not necessarily their chosen style, but their commitment and seriousness and utter respect for their materials.

I still believe the world would be a better place if Jens would arrange Brian Wilson’s undiscovered gem ‘Kiss Me, Baby’ or one of the acknowledged masterpieces from “Pet Sounds.” I won’t tell you the lengths to which I’ve gone to try to make that happen—it’s embarrassing and bordering on the lunatic. Maybe Jens will vindicate me some day.

I have never been a fan of Genesis or Peter Gabriel. I don’t dislike them, I just somehow never got familiar enough with them to cuddle up to them. But Vocal Line’s ‘Don’t Look Back’ has entranced me for years. I listened to it over. And over. And over. Reveling in the symphonic tapestry, the haunting harmonies, the subtlest of rhythmic movements.

Roger Treece and Jens Johansen–a meeting of giants

One of the many highlights of the Aarhus festival was that I had the honor to learn the song from the score and sing it under the baton of Mr Johansen himself. It’s challenging choral music, stretching me to the extremes of my limited abilities. My feeling of inadequacy was made no better by the 17-year old kid standing next to me in the choir who was handling it all flawlessly, without blinking.

Singing a choral arrangement is different from listening to it. It’s the difference between seeing pictures of Manhattan from a helicopter and walking the streets. The difference between looking at a picture of your loved one and embracing her. The difference between smelling a fragrant soup and eating it. It’s the real thing. It’s loving it from within.

Even now, I listen to Peter Gabriel’s original version of ‘Don’t Give Up’, and find it–well, okay. Kind of appealing, kind of annoying. But then I listen to and follow the score of Jens’ Vocal Line version, and I know that the utter beauty that entrances me is in his arrangement.

The verses are in the voice of a man suddenly unemployed, grappling with disillusionment and fear and the loneliness of abandonment: No fight left or so it seems/I am a man whose dreams have all deserted/I’ve changed my face, I’ve changed my name/But no one wants you when you lose. The chorus is the comforting Woman (sung by Kate Bush): Don’t give up/’cos you have friends/Don’t give up/You’re not beaten yet/Don’t give up/I know you can make it good.

I’d like to focus on the first phrase of the chorus, the “Don’t give up”. Here’s the original. And here’s Vocal Line’s treatment of the same phrase. Here’s what it looks like on paper, described to the best of my unprofessional ability, probably with numerous mistakes:

The word “don’t” is sung by the males in a rhythmically uneven three-step/four-note arpeggio, a rising Fm7+9 chord (in the key of E flat, i.e., IIm7+9), F>C>G+Aflat (I>V>IX+IIIm, with a strong half-step dissonance at the top). The rhythm, I believe, if we count it on 16th notes is 1/3/4. This is all followed by all the female voices singing in harmony “Don’t give up”, starting on E flat+F+A flat. Oh, hell.

If I read that paragraph, it would be utter gibberish to me, too. But I can follow the notes, sing them (with some effort). I consider myself blessed to have the ability (and the opportunity, with Jens Johansen standing in front of the choir) to look at those notes, sing them, feel the profound beauty in them, and be moved.

I apologize for any technical blunders I’ve made in my attempts to describe this singing style and the music itself. I realize I’m talking above my own head. But I won’t be denied the profound respect, admiration and affection I feel for the music, however far north it is from my native aural landscape.

Thanks, Jens.

 If you enjoyed this post, you may also like:

059: The Real Group, ‘Joy Spring’
071: Lyy, ‘Giftavisan’
063: Pust, ‘En Reell Halling’
Aarhus Vocal Festival, 2013
173: The Real Group, ‘Nature Boy’
172: Anúna, ‘Jerusalem’
047: Bobby McFerrin, ‘The Garden’ (“VOCAbuLarieS”)

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Aarhus Vocal Festival, 2013

Posted by jeff on May 23, 2013 in A Cappella, Writings

Dear Florian,

Morning Warmup

AAVF 2013 is chronologically over, but still pumping in my veins and breathing in my soul.

It was a wonderful, educationally enriching and communally loving experience. It would be impossible to give you an overview, but I’ll try to relate to you some of my personal experiences, in hopes that the subjective view will give some sort of representative impression of what went on.

It was all pretty well organized, user-friendly. My hotel was only a five-minute walk from the site, which was a big advantage. The biggest problem was not enough hours in the day—wanting to simultaneously attend all the workshops, watch the small group and large group competitions, hear the midday concerts in the foyer, grab some food, and schmooze!!


Level Eleven

Pre-FestivalSono and Naura were both new for me, young Danish groups of about 20 singers, both really high quality, interesting repertoire, flawless performance, charming appearance, setting the bar high for the rest of the festival.

Friday – The Mzansi Youth Choir and the Boxettes gave two very different examples of how far contemporary a cappella can go and still knock out the crowd. The Girls Choir of Mariagerfjord were ‘just’ another one of those perfect Danish choirs.

Saturday – Since first hearing them in Vasteros in 2008, I’ve become an impassioned devotee of Vocal Line, so it was of course a really great thrill to hear them again. The combination of Vocal Line, VoxNorth and Eivør wasn’t easy for me. It was a new aesthetic, speaking in a musical language I was less familiar with. It sounds fascinating to me, and I plan on exploring it in the future (in the present, actually—I’m listening to Eivør as I write!)

SundayWeBe3 was a totally new treat for me, improvisation at its purest, and you know I’m a purist ;-). The Real Group and Rajaton both gave short but absolutely first-rate sets, showed why they’re the acknowledged leaders of our cult. It’s the third time I’ve heard both, and maybe the best. Level Eleven had some high points, and promises more to come in the future. Read more…

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173: The Real Group, ‘Nature Boy’

Posted by jeff on May 10, 2013 in A Cappella, Nordic, Song Of the week, Vocalists

The Real Group — ‘Nature Boy’

A cause for celebration

The Real Group, 2013

Four Swedes and a Dane recently climbed up on bar stools in a living room with a few friends in Södermalm, Stockholm. What the big deal? They’re The Real Group, the best singing group in the world; they sang ‘Nature Boy’ breathtakingly, with an exquisite lead by Emma Nilsdotter in an inspired arrangement by Anders Edenroth; it was filmed with impeccable taste; and the result is just a little perfect.

The Real Group and Contemporary A Cappella

The Real Group honed their a cappella jazz skills in the late 1980s as five buddies doing their academy studies together in Stockholm. They invented their own academic program, and a whole new take on group jazz singing. Inspired more by Bobby McFerrin’s restrained virtuosity than by Manhattan Transfer’s brash, brassy showiness, they reworked Count Basie arrangements in a five-voice context and sparked an entire musical movement, Contemporary A Cappella, with luminaries such as Rajaton (Finland), Vocal Line (Denmark), The Swingle Singers in their current very hip incarnation (UK), The Idea of North (Australia), and even obliquely Take Six (US). Here’s a SoTW I wrote about The Real Group a while back, with lots of links to their music.

The Real Group, 2013

Contemporary a cappella may be a small movement compared to hip-hop or trance, but its devotees are passionate and growing in numbers. And we all know what passionate cults are capable of. I’m flying this week to my third congregation of cultists, the second this year, at the Aarhus Vocal Festival in Denmark. As unique an experience as Woodstock was (yes, I was there—the Forrest Gump of musical fests), we hippies tended to stare at each other in bewilderment. Here it’s all hugs and grins and a sincere sense of brotherhood in harmony.

Much of this warmth is due to The Real Group themselves, because they’re warm, personable, down-to-earth people. Remember how everyone copied The Beatles’ mop tops? TRG’s modesty has become the currency of our genre.

After twenty-eight years, The Real Group is still going strong (albeit with two changes from the original line-up). In recent years they’ve moved more towards original material – for example, ‘Pass Me the Jazz’ (the next clip to be released from the same session as ‘Nature Boy’); fine as it is, it’s a special pleasure to return to the Great American Songbook and one of its more unusual luminaries, ‘Nature Boy’.

Nat ‘King’ Cole

Nat ‘King’ Cole, eden ahbez

In 1947, a short, barefoot man with shoulder-length hair on a bicycle pushed a tattered score into the hand of Nat ‘King’ Cole’s manager, Mort Ruby, backstage at a theater in LA. Cole liked the Yiddish flavor and intriguing lyrics of the little song and began playing it in his shows. It went over very well, so he wanted to record it. Go find the composer in order to get the rights to the song.

Nat Cole (1919-1965) led a very successful jazz trio in the 1930s and 1940s as the pianist. The apocryphal story is that one night a rowdy drunk insisted that Nat sing ‘Sweet Lorraine’, it caught on, and he began singing more and more. His first hit was in 1943, ‘Straighten Up and Fly Right’, which Bo Diddley credited as being a precursor of rock and roll. And Bo Knows!!

In the late 1940s, Nat cemented his move from jazz piano to popular vocals – ‘The Christmas Song’ (Chestnuts roasting on an open fire), ‘Mona Lisa’, ‘Unforgettable’, ‘Too Young’ and of course ‘Nature Boy’. But first we have to find that long-haired guy.

eden ahbez

The Family ahbez

Alexander Aberle was born in Brooklyn in 1908 to a Jewish father and Scottish mother, grew up in a Jewish orphanage till he was adopted at age 9 by a couple from Chanute, Kansas, who changed his name to George McGrew.

He worked in obscurity as a pianist and dance band leader till he got his breakthrough gig in LA in 1941— playing at a small health food store and raw food restaurant owned by a couple of German immigrants, adherents to the Lebensreform lifestyle of health food/raw food/organic food, nudism, sexual liberation, alternative medicine, and abstention from alcohol, tobacco, drugs, and vaccines.

Alexander/George renamed himself eden ahbez (‘only the words God and Infinity are worthy of capitalization’), but his friends called him ahbe. Together with wife Anna Jacobsen, their son Tatha Om and another dozen ‘tribesmen’, ahbe and The Nature Boys (recognize that name?) lived off the land in Tahquitz Canyon near Palm Springs, slept in caves and trees, and bathed in waterfalls. They prided themselves on subsisting on under $3 a week.

The Nature Boys

The Nature Boys are today widely perceived as the precursors of the Hippie movement. Except for the bathing part.

One of the other notable Nature Boys was Gypsy Boots, aka Robert Bootzin. His health food store “Health Hut” was the first of its kind in the world, a celebrity hangout in the early 1960s. He invented his own renowned garlic cheese, the natural smoothie and the organic energy bar, cheered wildly at all USC football games, marched in parades, and swung from a vine on network TV shows – Groucho Marx, Spike Jones, and (25 times) The Steve Allen Show. His non-nature buddies included Marlon Brando, Jay Leno, Paul Newman and Muhammad Ali.

Meanwhile, Nat Cole’s people finally tracked down the ahbez family, living underneath the first ‘L’ of the HOLLYWOOD sign, and acquired the rights to record the song. Nat Cole’s ‘Nature Boy’ became a megahit, eight weeks at #1 on the charts, but it turned out that ahbe had given a half dozen people different shares of the publishing rights, and he ended up with virtually nothing. (After Cole died, his wife eventually gave the rights back to ahbe in toto.)

Here’s a fascinating clip from a 1948 TV show, in which ahbe explains how he came to write ‘Nature Boy’ and then meets Nat Cole for the first time, live before the cameras. Well, kind of.

ahbe lived in relative obscurity (I guess under that “L”), eating nuts and being healthy. Incredibly (or maybe not, when you think about it), he’s shown in this photo with Brian Wilson during the recording of “SMiLE”, just before Brian’s breakdown. ahbe recorded a couple of albums including songs like Eden’s Cove, which is somewhere between Martin Denny and Wild Man Fisher. If you listen to the break at 1’10” you may really grasp the key to Brian Wilson’s mind and the meaning of the universe. As well as the taste of the garlic smoothie.

He died in 1995 at the age of 86 in a car accident.

‘Nature Boy’—The Song

eden ahbez

The structure of ‘Nature Boy’ is quite unusual—AB:

There was a boy,
A very strange, enchanted boy.
They say he wandered very far,
Very far, over land

and sea.
A little shy and sad of eye
But very wise was he.

And then one day,
One magic day he passed my way
While we spoke of many things
Fools and kings, this he said to me:
“The greatest thing you’ll ever learn
Is just to love and be loved in return.”

It’s really not much more than an extended introduction. To tell you the truth, it’s hard for me to explain its tremendous appeal.

Is it the melody? Anders Edenroth, tenor extraordinaire of The Real Group and arranger of their stunning version, says “I like to see it as a hybrid between jazz and the elastic approach of the Yiddish tradition.”

When those icy Swedes start talking about that Yiddish kvetch, I just melt. In Anders’ arrangement, after the initial AB, at 2’26”, the group opens the song into a Nordic expedition into the Heart of Yiddishism, an immaculate union of the pristine and the passionate.

Another Nature Boy

Bernard Malamud, one of my favorite authors, said “All men are Jews, though few men know it.” He explained this famous statement as “a metaphoric way of indicating how history, sooner or later, treats all men,” meaning I think that the default experience of Jews is suffering, that all individuals at some point in their lives are touched by the same suffering that has been the fabric of Jewish history. This is the background that informs Yiddish melodies.

When ‘Nature Boy’ became a hit, a Yiddish musical composer, Herman Yablokoff claimed that the melody to “Nature Boy” came from one of his songs, “Shvayg mayn harts” (“Be Still My Heart”). ahbe retorted that he “heard the tune in the mist of the California mountains.” They settled out of court for $25,000. No recording of Yablokoff’s song is known, but here’s another Yiddish song with the same title, about a blind Jewish orphan boy selling cigarettes and matches in the ghetto of Grodno during WWII to stay alive. If you look at a map, Grodno in Belarus really isn’t that far from Sweden.

ahbez et Wilson, January 1967

Or perhaps, as Anders suggests, “the enigmatic meaning of the lyrics has puzzled and attracted quite a few listeners.”

There’s something riveting about “The Little Prince”, that small, unblemished, all-knowing innocent, imparting the wisdom of the world to the rest of us. Ironically, ahbe himself later had some reservations about his own lyric: “To be loved in return is too much of a deal, and that has nothing to do with love.” He wanted to correct it to: “The greatest thing you’ll ever learn is to love, just to love, and be loved.”

It’s also interesting to note that the first two measures of the melody of ‘Nature Boy’ parallel the melody of the second movement of Antonín Dvořák’s Piano Quintet No. 2 in A, Op. 81 (1887). What do you have to say about that, Mr Yablokoff? Are you going to sue Dvořák?

‘Nature Boy’ – Recordings

‘Nature Boy’ clearly strikes a resonant chord. Following Nat Cole’s hit, it immediately became a fallback vehicle for unbridled emotion in the Great American Songbook.

Here’s Nat Cole’s hit version of the song, but the orchestra gets a bit carried away, and I’d recommend this live version from 1948.

Some of the notable early treatments of the song from the 1950s are those by Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan (in a rare dud) and Miles Davis.

The Real Group, 2013

But the song has proven to be immensely popular in a wide variety of settings, sometimes more successfully, sometimes less so. Interesting versions that I recommend skipping are those by David Bowie (bombastic), James Brown (unfortunately I could only find an audio version), Grace Slick (in her pre-Airplane incarnation, The Great Society), and Lisa Ekdahl (no Yiddish pathos there). The great jazz singer Mark Murphy starts out great but inexplicably chooses to take the song to Trinidad (no Yiddish pathos there, either).

Two excellent vocal groups, Singers Unlimited (1975) and Pentatonix (2012), show by contrast just how fine an accomplishment is that of The Real Group.

A few versions that are worth checking out for their own distinctive merits are that by Nataly Dawn, a very talented young indie artist; and Radka Toneff, who’s always fine, but who doesn’t squeeze the song the way The Real Group’s Emma does. Perhaps the most pleasant surprise I discovered is Lizz Wright, a singer I’ve long admired, in a drum duet. I don’t know how much it has to do with the essence of the song, but it’s one fine, intense piece of music.

Two singers get special mention. Surprisingly, Cher. She sang it in a 1998 TV tribute to her late husband Sonny Bono, calling her grief “something I never plan to get over.” She’s clearly singing from the heart of her heart, and ‘Nature Boy’ is clearly a chillingly apt tribute to him.

And, unsurprisingly, the great Kurt Elling. ‘Nature Boy’ is a signature song of his. He goes through the song once in a traditional take, then flies off into spheres of unparalleled scatting virtuosity, egged onwards and upwards by pianist Laurence Hobgood, an utter tour de force. Here’s his studio version, and you can find many fine live versions here.

And just in case you’d like to join the list, here’s a karaoke version. Send in your recordings to SoTW, we’ll be glad to post them.

For my money, with all the credit to all the fine artists who’ve recorded the song over the years, I’m going to stick with The Real Group. This is what our contemporary a cappella can be: just a little perfect.

If you enjoyed this post, you may also like:

033: Radka Toneff, ‘The Moon’s a Harsh Mistress’ (Jimmy Webb)
063: Pust, ‘En Reell Halling’
147: Frank Sinatra, ‘It Was a Very Good Year’


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