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094: Brad Mehldau, ‘Martha, My Dear’ (“Live in Marciac”)

Posted by jeff on May 4, 2017 in Jazz, Song Of the week

Brad Mehldau has just released a new solo double-CD, “Live in Marciac“, and that’s reason to prick up our ears and take a good listen, because he’s one of the most interesting young musicians around. To put it in full blasphemy, I find him more engaging than any of the Jarrett/Hancock/Corea triumvirate. To tell the truth, I listen to him more than to any pianist since Bill Evans.

I rarely listen to Brad Mehldau without thinking about Bill Evans, a habit I wish I could break, because it’s really unfair to the young Brad. It’s not his fault that the late Mr Evans is so monolithic, nor does it diminish his significant achievements. Brad Mehldau is no Bill Evans. No one is. For most of his career, Bill wasn’t himself.

What Brad Mehldau is is an extremely intelligent, sharp, focused, ballsy young artist who speaks with an individual voice. Not just an individual technique or a musical style (in fact, he has adopted more musical personae than your average schizophrenic), but a world view that’s uniquely his. He’s an artist whose works express an entire take on the universe around us, and a very interesting one at that.

He’s young (he’s got a big tattoo on his forearm). He’s eclectic, blending standards, newer pop and originals into one coherent voice (Beatles, Nick Drake, Radiohead, in addition to the Great American Songbook). He’s handsome and shy and spiritual and articulate and spooky intelligent. Some songs he’s composed: ‘Fear and Trembling‘ (a la Swedish Christian existentialist Søren Kierkegaard), ‘Trailer Park Ghost’, ‘The Falcon Will Fly Again‘. Oh, yeah, and he plays with two different hands. I mean, they’re independent of each other, connected by chance to one torso. His left hand alone can play what most fine jazz pianists can do with both. Leaving his right hand to explore another alternative tonal world. Check out this solo treatment of ‘Alone Together‘.

Brad Mehldau is 41, raised in Connecticut, and since 1994 he’s put about 25 albums. He’s best known as leader of his trio, but he’s made some successful CDs as co-leader (Pat Metheny, Renee Fleming and most notably with Lee Konitz and Charlie Haden) and recently a great one (“Highway Rider“) that defies genre-ization, where Mehldau did all the orchestration.

“Live in Marciac” is only his third solo CD, and it’s worth getting excited about, because that’s where Mehldau really opens up and struts his vision. I’m not the only person to notice how differently he plays in his trio compared to on his own.

Joseph Vella asked him in a recent interview about the ‘challenge and thrill’ of playing solo? “The challenge and the thrill are one and the same – there is no net; there is absolute freedom. When jazz musicians improvise in a group setting, they are often following some sort of schema – often it’s variations on the initial theme of whatever they are playing. When you are playing solo, you don’t have to correspond to what someone else is doing. So you might take that approach, but you might decide to chuck it out at a certain point and go off on a tangent that doesn’t formally adhere to what you’ve just been doing. That can be exciting and rewarding. The challenge there though is to make something with integrity – something that has a story to tell.”

Brad Mehldau makes so much intriguing music in so many contexts that it’s really quite impossible to single out any one exemplary style. I’d really like to cajole some of you non-jazzers into trying him out, so we’ll start with our SoTW selection, “Martha, My Dear” (a love song Paul McCartney wrote for his sheepdog). Give a listen. This isn’t some aging jazz musician pathetically attempting to be young and cool, pandering to a wider audience. It’s a wholly sincere, wholly hip guy who grew up on The Beatles, dissembling one of their great songs in a wholly new context, in an absolutely convincing treatment. Brad’s been playing ‘Martha’ for years (here’s one from about 10 years ago), as one of the lighter peaces in his program, what might be called an ‘entertainment’ or a ‘divertissement’. Give a listen, please. Betcha you’ll find it as witty and wise and charming as I do.

Here are a couple more treats from the DVD of “Live in Marciac” (2011):

  • A complete transcription of his original composition ‘Resignation’, note-for-note as he improvises it on stage. A treat, I promise, for those of you who read music.
  • And his completely improvised ‘My Favorite Things’
    I have several ideas before I go out on the stage, and I usually stick to around half of them. “My Favorite Things” was not something I had played before – the Coltrane version is sacred to me. But I was going out for an encore and thought of it at the last moment, and it turned out to be for me anyways, one of the more compelling performances in the set – it had that story to it; it just kind of unfolded. Sometimes you find that and sometimes you don’t; sometimes you find it with no preparation or context at all and those moments are always great for me. I suppose there is a broader context – there’s the context of the Coltrane version that I heard when I was 13 for the first time and really changed my life; there’s the context of the original from the movie, The Sound of Music, that I grew up watching as a kid. There’s probably some sort of harkening back to childhood going on in my performance.

And here are some samplings from the not-exactly-jazz “Highway Rider” (2010):

Some very, very exciting news for me about Brad Mehldau. In 1996, he was invited to join two jazz legends twice his age, Lee Konitz (alto sax) and Charlie Haden (bass). Two CDs of my favorite music in the whole world resulted from those two evenings. They took a free-jazz look at a number of standards, and the product is breathtaking—floating through the air with no net. I had the wonderful fortune to be able to discuss that session with Lee Konitz, which I wrote about here. Here’s ‘Round Midnight‘ from that meeting. So what’s the news? In 2009 the trio reunioned with the addition of no less than drummer Paul Motian, and the resulting CD will be released next month. Who’s excited, me?

All you ‘I really don’t like too much jazz’ folks out there, do yourselves a favor – youtube Brad Mehldau, listen to him playing anything at all–Jerome Kern, John Lennon, Cole Porter, Paul Simon, Radiohead, hell, Brad Mehldau!–betcha you’ll have a great listen.

If you enjoyed this post, you may also enjoy:

037: Lee Konitz, ‘Alone Together’ (w. Charlie Haden & Brad Mehldau)
060: The Bill Evans Trio, ‘Gloria’s Step’ from “Live at The Village Vanguard”
026: Andy Bey, ‘River Man’

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091: Herbie Nichols, ‘House Party Starting’

Posted by jeff on Apr 6, 2017 in Jazz, Song Of the week

Herbie Nichols, ‘House Party Starting’

Here comes the story of the most universally respected unknown jazz pianist from the 1950s. If you think there’s a heady mix of oxymoron and rarified obscurantism there, you might just be right. But there’s also some pretty fine music hiding in Herbie Nichols’ miniscule oeuvre.

Herbie Nichols (1919-1963) grew up in Harlem, studied a bit of piano at CCNY, served in the army (where, unable to play music, he turned his attention to reading and writing poetry). After the war he bounced around musically, playing in everything from Dixieland to Rhythm and Blues settings in order to pay the bills. He liked to hang out in public libraries and died at 44 from leukemia, a bachelor.

His only public exposure worth mentioning was when Billie Holiday added lyrics to his song ‘Lady Sings the Blues’, making it a signature song of hers and title of her autobiography. But I’m guessing that didn’t pay a lot of Herbie’s bills. By the time Diana Ross got to it, he was long gone. Here’s Lady Day’s version, and here’s Herbie Nichols’ original.

After years of pestering Alfred Lion at Blue Note, they finally agreed to let him record a couple of sessions in 1955 and 1956. They were trio sessions (it’s widely assumed that Nichols envisioned a richer setting for his very complex music), but he did have the gift of excellent bassists (Al McKibbon and Teddy Kotick) and legendary drummers (Art Blakey and Max Roach) accompanying him on these sessions. He recorded once more in 1957 with a smaller label, backed by George Duvivier (b) and Mingus’s Danny Richmond (d). This session has the best title of anything ever: “Love, Gloom, Cash, Love”.

His music is ambiguous, filled with warm dissonances and subtle rhythmic twists and harmonic turns. There’s a pervasive sharp intellect tempered with great warmth and a lot of resigned humor.

He saw himself not as a jazz player but as a composer. “My earliest ambition was to become a Prokofiev, but later decided to become an Ellington.” Jazz is widely perceived to be a fundamentally improvised medium, but there’s a rich tradition of composed jazz, which I frequently find riveting and to which Nichols belongs. The guy even scores the drum parts!

He’s as much influenced by primitive African rhythms as he is by Bartók’s harmonic aesthetic. “I keep remembering that the overtones of fifths created by the beautiful tones of any ordinary drum was surely the first music, the precursor of the historic major scale, no less, which was built on the same principles. That is why the cycle of fifths is so prevalent in elemental jazz.” Hmmm.

This guy knows what he’s doing. “Rhythms and patterns seem to be endless and I find them in boxing, architecture, literature, vaudeville, the dancing art of [Pearl] Primus, [legendary tap dancer Teddy] Hale and [Katherine] Dunham [pioneers of Black dance during the New Deal]. All the world’s a stage for the jazz pundit.”

Herbie Nichols’ music is often compared with that of Thelonious Monk (1917-1982). They’re roughly contemporaries, both with strong roots in the bebop movement, sharply angular, brilliant, humorous, inimitable. But whereas Monk was quirky, self-absorbed in his personal life and in his music, Nichols comes across as a really nice, normal guy who never got the break he deserved, the prototypical neglected genius. His music, for all its complexity and intricacy, is really quite fun. Monk finally achieved his recognition as a bona fide genius after languishing in obscurity for decades.

Herbie continues to languish, despite a rabid cult following struggling to keep his musical legacy alive.

One musician on whom Herbie clearly has had a great influence is another favorite of mine, Andrew Hill (1937-2007), to whom I promise to devote his very own SoTW. Check out ‘Pumpkin’ from “Black Fire”. Strong melody line, enticing but elusive. The big difference is Herbie’s good nature and warmth, as opposed to Hill’s very dark, lunar landscape.

“Laughter is like a religion to me. Sometimes I may seem low…so low nothing will lift me up again…but really, I’m laughing like hell inside. This music is something to live for…something to be taken seriously, but not serious. Those musicians who get up on the stand and look they’re undertakers bother me. If I want to cry, I’ll cry in a corner, and cry to myself. Music is joy, and living—not death.”

In the early 1980s, Dutch avant garde pianist/arranger Misha Mengelberg got together a bunch of like-minded musicians (including Roswell Rudd and Steve Lacy) to cast some Nichols compositions in a medium-sized group. Here’s their stellar take on ‘House Party Starting‘, from their album “Change of Season”. And here’s Duck Baker, a real fine acoustic fingerpicker, doing his version of ‘House Party Starting‘ from his 1996 album of solo guitar Herbie Nichols covers, “Spinning Song“.

Here’s Steve Lacy (soprano sax) and Mal Waldron’s (piano) 1994 version of the song from the album “Hot House”. I’ve written about this duo before. They’re incredible – intense, lyrical, brilliant, passionate, and I just love them both to death for making such beautiful music. This cut, Lacy’s mournful soprano sax the perfect voice for Nichols’ grin-through-it-all irrepressibility, just bowls me over. The way his straight horn elicits the melody, the sweetness from the original. Oh, my my.

In 1994, pianist Frank Kimbrough and bassist Ben Allison formed a floating group of highly respected avant garde jazz musicians called “The Herbie Nichols Project” to promulgate his ‘lesser-known compositions’ (yes, they really said that) and to couch them in a setting with horns, which the composer never had the opportunity to do in his lifetime. They’ve recorded three albums, titled after the Nichols’ songs “Strange City”, “Dr. Cyclops’ Dream”, and “Love Is Proximity” (they deserve a prize for album titles).

But we’re not going to deny Herbie a chance to stand in the spotlight. So here you go folks, Mr Nichols himself playing his composition ‘House Party Starting’, backed by McKibbon and Max Roach. It’s a wonder of ebullience, wit, panache and taste. Ladies and gentlemen, a moment of your attention please for the most famous unknown jazz pianist of the 1950s, the wonderful forgotten but unforgettable Mr Herbie Nichols. Heck, you could even invite some of your friends over to listen to him. You could start a house party.

Here are some more YouTube clips of Herbie for your further listening edification: ‘Sunday Stroll, ‘Infatuation Eyes’, ‘The Third World’, ‘Applejackin‘, ‘Love, Gloom, Cash, Love‘.

If you enjoyed this posting, you may also like:

021: Mal Waldron & Steve Lacy, ‘Snake Out’
027: Lennie Tristano, ‘Wow’
073: Erik Satie, ‘Gymnopédie No. 1′

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259: Chris Thile & Brad Mehldau: ‘Marcie’ (Joni Mitchell), ‘Don’t Think Twice’ (Dylan)

Posted by jeff on Mar 24, 2017 in Jazz, New Acoustic, Rock, Song Of the week

122815-r4-f3_wide-3f58a2451f6181b363e9f119d2fe83033cd14290-s900-c85Chris Thile & Brad Mehldau — ‘Marcie’

Joni Mitchell — ‘Marcie’

Chris Thile & Brad Mehldau — ‘Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright’

Bob Dylan — ‘Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright’

I’ve made it a guiding principle of this blog to focus on music I love. Hence, you only know the jolly, positive, coddling Jeff.
Alas, there’s an alter ego lurking in the nether depths of my Critic’s Psyche: the censorious, condemnatory, disparaging, judgmental Jeff, the one those near and dear to me have the misfortune of suffering through.

maxresdefaultSo this week I’m going to share with you not one but two! new covers of great songs from not one but two! artists I greatly admire. Except I’m going to step on some toes and sour-milk some sacred cows along the way. Bear with me, I promise there will be a happy ending.

Chris Thile (b. 1981) and Brad Mehldau (b. 1970) just released a double CD. I have great admiration for the former, the preeminent jazz pianist around today; immense respect for the latter, a certified MacArthur wunderkind. But I find it a mediocre disk, even boring. I’ve listened to it maybe 25 times in the last two weeks, and most of it still just wafts past my ears.

Perhaps it’s something in the sound of the mandolin. Say what you want, it sounds to me like a toy guitar from the Ozarks, no matter how brilliant the notes are.

Perhaps it’s the fact that Mehldau tends to disappear in collaboration, displaying excessive modesty when he should be leading the band.
That’s why I always prefer listening to him solo. Nowhere to hide, Brad – it’s all painfully vulnerable, exposed, grave and seriously profound, whether he’s playing Bach or Radiohead.

However, there are two cuts on the album that made my head spin. Both are covers of great songs by great artists. And in one way or another, both improve on the original.

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11e499000e1ae934ee0afb385d9863ca‘Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright’, from Dylan’s first real album (of originals).

I don’t say that lightly. The very idea of someone improving on Dylan’s treatment of his own song is fundamentally questionable. “No one sings Dylan like Dylan.” In one of our first SoTWs we wrote about exactly such a case—Fairport Convention singing ‘I’ll Keep It with Mine’. But there, if you’ll pardon the hairsplitting, it’s more Dylan’s fault than Sandy Denny’s achievement. He wrote a gentle, intriguing song and shouted it out, banging on the piano. Fairport just laid back and gave it a suitable, straightforward reading.

Not so with ‘Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright’, one of Dylan’s first ‘hits’ (popularized by the fine Peter, Paul and Mary cover from late 1963, half a year after the release of “Freewheelin’”). Dylan “borrowed” a lot of the song from fellow folkie Paul Clayton’s ‘Who’s Gonna Buy You Ribbons’, but the scathing, caustic dismissal of the girl (in retrospect, of course) and the relationship they did/didn’t have is all Dylan aged 22 par excellence. Dylan raised snide, furious, finger-pointing name-calling to a Nobel Prize-level art form.

Dylan’s ‘Don’t Think Twice’ is ironic. He doesn’t mean that she shouldn’t think twice. He’s beating her up verbally, machine-gunning her with his esprits de l’escalier, getting in all the last punches beneath the belt after the bell has rung. It’s all condescension and self-righteousness. He means that he’s going to leave her with a pummeling that will make her regret losing the wonderful Him 10,000 times a day while she’s recuperating.

Thile-Chris-07Chris Thile tells a very different story. It’s all insouciance, nonchalance, cool. What we adults call indifference. There’s no recrimination, no great regrets, because, really, who cares? Who needs a real relationship? Who wants commitment? We were together, it’s getting messy, I’m out of here before I get anything sticky on me.

When Dylan sings “We never did too much talking anyway”, the subtext is ‘little you wasn’t capable of entering a dialogue with wonderful me.”
When Thile sings “But we never really did that much talking anyway”, the subtext is ‘What’s the big deal? It’s not like we talked or anything.”

When Dylan sings “I gave her my heart by she wanted my soul”, he’s accusing her of predatory rapaciousness.
When Thile sings it, with a wonderfully expressive squeal, he’s saying ‘Hey, she tried to scratch my Teflon, man! I’m out of here!’

Now, the question is whether the song holds the potential for both readings. Admittedly, Chris has the distinct advantage of coming from a generation that doesn’t give a fuck about anything.

Want to hear my opinion? I have a lot of respect for Chris’s reading. Dylan’s is a perfect example of why I admire him so much and have no affection for him. He’s really quite obnoxious in his self-righteousness. Chris? He may be as uncommitted as a jellyfish, but at least there are no pretentions about it.

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joni&doug

Photo: Rod Pennington

‘Marcie’, from Joni Mitchell’s first album

I’ve written a series of postings about Joni’s early albums: ‘Cactus Tree’ from the first album; ‘I Don’t Know Where I Stand’ from the second; ‘For Free’ and ‘Woodstock’ from the third; ‘Blue’ and ‘River’ from the fourth. Someday I’ll get to the enigmatic, elusive ‘For the Roses’.

The first album occupies a place in my heart for a number of reasons, as I wrote in SoTW 106: She was unknown, she was mine. It was the first collaboration of David Crosby (producer) and Stephen Stills (bass), a harbinger of things to come. It was the music she was singing when I met her in Nashville with Bob Dylan on the Johnny Cash show.

It’s a groundbreaking album. Together with Laura Nyro (who released her first album in February, 1967, and her masterpiece “Eli & the 13th Confession” the same month as Joni’s first, March 1968) they gave a new voice to the nascent new womanhood.

But most of all, it’s just a very fine album. Every song on Joni’s first album is a perfectly crafted gem of a vignette from her first taste of independence as a newly liberated woman, Greenwich Village.

I sat up straight and smiled broadly when I first heard Chris Thile’s ‘Marcie’. It was for me an utterly refreshing look at an old friend. It’s a fine example of the justification for covers, shining new light on great music. Not a revelation, perhaps, but certainly a revealing of truths I had previously not seen.

hqdefaultIf ‘Don’t Think Twice’ is all about Thile’s plinky mandolin, here it’s Brad’s elegant, legato accompaniment that carries the arrangement. Even Thile’s vocal is serving the tone set by Brad.

Thile/Mehldau’s reading isn’t so different from the original. It’s the same girl with the same predicament – living her life, but thinking only of the man not calling. But it does shed light some of the limitations of Joni’s music. That’s not a criticism – Joni’s reading is full, convincing, unassailable, memorable. But you’ve always got the road not taken – every choice you make means passing on the alternative, never to be explored. At least until someone comes along and covers your song.

Chris’s treatment is so much more intimate, fraught with so much empathy. In contrast, Joni sounds removed, distant. As painfully confessional as Joni is at her best, the exposure is in the lyrics. Her carefully controlled tremelo sounds just a little standoffish in comparison with Chris’s candor. She is here at her most precious –just a little too delicate, too refined. She’s presenting a finely crafted portrait. Chris is lamenting the predicament of a Marcie he feels for.

Still, he’s singing Joni’s song. It’s the difference between a creative artist and a performing artist. You gotta give the nod to creator. You just got to.

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You don’t need “Chris Thile/Brad Mehldau” to justify the standing of Bob Dylan or Joni Mitchell. People will be singing their praises and their songs “somewhere ages and ages hence”. But they are not the end of even their own story. They’ve given us – and Brad and Chris – a legacy to explore, to build on, and maybe even here and there to serve as an inspiration for genuine and new readings that amplify and enhance the originals.

 

If you enjoyed this post, you may also like:

Brad Mehldau SoTWs

Chris Thile SoTWs

Bob Dylan SoTWs

Joni Mitchell SoTWs

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254: Vince Guaraldi/We Five, ‘Cast Your Fate to the Wind’

Posted by jeff on Jan 13, 2017 in Jazz, Rock, Song Of the week

img_5183Vince Guaraldi — ‘Cast Your Fate to the Wind’

We Five — ‘Cast Your Fate to the Wind’`

Vince Guaraldi — ‘Samba de Orfeo’

Vince Guaraldi — ‘Manha de Carnaval’

Vince Guaraldi — ‘Moon River’

Vince Guaraldi — ‘Since I Fell for You’

We Five — ‘You Were On My Mind’

We Five — ‘Make Someone Happy’Let’s Get Together

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?

funny-wind-umbrellaMy wife and I figured out we were at the same local fair in the city where she lived, the day the Beatles first appeared on Ed Sullivan – years before we met.

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.

fateBut 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”.

Enugu-Nigeria-voodoofunk-recordsFor 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.

sleeping-with-headphoneThen 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.

9316773jpgAt 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”.

vinceAnd I guess that all started from Vince Guaraldi’s album, “Jazz Impressions of Black Orpheus”, later retitled “Cast Your Fate to the Wind” (1962).

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’.

MTM0MjU0NTg1Nzk4NzMyNDE5The 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!

IMG_4217At 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.

Vince Guaraldi — ‘Samba de Orfeo’

Vince Guaraldi — ‘Manha de Carnaval’

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.

fate2But how did I get to that Vince Guaraldi album? you may ask (I am aware of the fact that you may not actually be asking that question, but I’m going to tell you anyway, just in case).

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.

pic_27-Red-RebelI’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_FiveWe Five began to juice up folk music—precursors of what would become folk-rock – just like contemporaries The Byrds, Jefferson Airplane, the Mamas and the Papas, and Spanky and Our Gang.

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.

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