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273: The Necks, ‘Sex’

Posted by jeff on Nov 3, 2017 in A Cappella, Jazz, Nordic, Other, Rock, Song Of the week

The Necks, ‘Sex’

Rachael Price, ‘They All Laughed’  (the whole song)

Tarzan and Jayne

When I was 11, I wanted to be The Lone Ranger.
When I was 12, Mickey Mantle.
When I was 13, Mickey Hargitay (Jayne Mansfield’s husband).
When I was 14? A disk jockey on WSAI.
When I was 15? A disk jockey on WSAI.
When I was 16? A disk jockey… Well, I’ll leave it to you to extrapolate.

But I’ve matured. I no longer want to be a DJ on a Hit Parade station. I want to have a late-night slot on a very hip FM station, where I can wear shades (sunglasses) On Air and pick songs not by teeny-bopper sales (or by the $ of the distributor’s gift to the DJ) but by my very meandering rivulet of semi-consciousness.

So I’m going to fulfill my little fantasy this week, and present you with my personal Top Ten of the past fortnight or so, the best of the music that tracked its dirty little feet across my virtual turntable. In ascending order, just like at WSAI, to keep suspense at its peak.

Necks

[If you click on the What’s New tab on this page, you’ll see a chronological list of all SoTWs]

#10 Laura Nyro, ‘Stoney End’ (Seattle bootleg, 1971)

Yes, we dedicated SoTW 270 to this very cut, and SoTW 271 to a wider sampling of bootleg covers by Laura. I’ve been binge-ing on her bootlegs, and you’ll probably be hearing more about this inspiring music. But for a month now, I just can’t get enough of this thrilling, chilling treatment of a superb song I had previously not appreciated sufficiently.

#9 Barbra Streisand, ‘I Think It’s Gonna Rain Today’

I’ve listened to BS’s version of ‘Stoney End’ a couple more times, trying to figure out why that was a hit instead of Laura’s original, but to no avail. The world is not a fair place. I wrote a posting a long time ago (SoTW 20) about why I admired Barbra Streisand until she became famous at the age of 22, and never since. I listened to the “Stoney End” album. It’s not embarrassing, just a waste of vinyl. Or bytes or whatever. Barbra trying to be hip. She should just be Barbra.

Necks

But I did trip over this little gem—Randy Newman’s stunning ‘I Think It’s Going to Rain Today’, recorded for the “Stoney End” album (1971), released only in 2012 on her “Release Me” CD. It’s just Streisand with Randy accompanying her on piano. It doesn’t have a single electron of the sincerity of the original, from Randy’s masterpiece first album, which had its own posting in SoTW 85. But still. The girl’s got pipes.

#8 Cilla Black, ‘Alfie’

While we’re on the subject of chanteuses shouting, I happened to hear the original version of Burt Bacharach/Hal David’s ‘Alfie’, by Cilla Black, orchestrated and conducted by Burt himself. Coincidentally, this song also had its own dedicated SoTW 220.

There’s a great clip of that session, mucho recommended. And here’s the two of them reflecting back on that recording session years later.

Cilla Black (nee Cilla White) was born in Liverpool (1943), a pal of The Beatles, managed by Brian Epstein. They gave her ‘Love of the Loved’, ‘It’s For You’, and ‘Step Inside Love’. Like many non-Brits, I was surprised to learn that Cilla became a major media ikon in the UK, hosting her own TV variety shows and whatnot. You might enjoy the rather charming and unpretentious TV biopic, “Cilla”.

Värttinä

#7 Värttinä, ‘Lasetus’

Flowing along the ‘women singing strongly’ stream, Värttinä is a Finnish world music band that’s been around for 30 years. They started out as a youth group collective, and have morphed into a successful group with floating membership, which “revived the unique polyphonic music of the Finno-Ugric people of Karelia”, eschewing ‘the long-accepted cultural notion that women should sing unaccompanied’. Oh, those Finns!

Come on, give it a chance!. No dedicated SoTW to these gals (yet), but we have explored the Finnishish band Folk‘Avant in SoTW 264, Nordic Roots music in general in SoTW 71 about Lyy, and their cousins The Bulgarian State Radio and Television Women’s Choir (Le Mystere des Voix Bulgares) – SoTW 30.

Necks

#6 The Real Group, ‘Li’l Darling’

Scandinavian singers. And in two weeks, Maestro Peder Karlsson is coming to our shores, so you know who I’m going to be listening to: the young The Real Group. Here they are in a favorite of mine, written by Neil Hefti for Count Basie’s seminal album “Atomic Basie”. Here’s SoTW 168 on ‘Girl Talk’, another great song by Hefti. And here’s SoTW 101, featuring Kurt Elling’s version of ‘Li’l Darling’.

The Real Group in its young days made a lot of pretty perfect music. I’ve written about them a lot, including SoTW 59 ‘Joy Spring’ and SoTW 209 ‘Waltz for Debby’.

The human voice. The only instrument created by God. You listen to the young The Real Group, and you know He really knew what He was doing.

Vocalocity

#5 Vocalocity, ‘Nueiba’

Well, that’s easy. The Real Group inspired the entire genre of Modern A Cappella, of which I’m a proud devotee. Four years ago, together with my partner and buddy Ron Gang, I formed Vocalocity, a 40-voice rock choir/power vocal ensemble. I’ve written about us in SoTW 207.

One of the many aspects of the group that I’m very proud of is that we sing pretty much only scores that were custom-written for us by the greatest arrangers of this genre in the world. We also get a big kick out of commissioning foreigners, especially them Nords, to revisit classic Israeli rock-pop standards.

So here’s a brand-new studio recording of Vocalocity singing ‘Nueiba’ by Shlomo Gronich. It’s arranged by the wonderful Ms Line Groth Riis. Here’s Gronich’s original.

The song is from 1982, when Israelis were feeling isolated and threatened militarily, politically, economically. Young people would take off for Nueiba for a few days, an oasis in the Sinai desert on the shore of the Gulf of Aqaba. It was an ultimate escape, an isolated, idyllic getaway from all the world’s stress (the first 8 bars of Line’s arrangement). I was there in 1971, the week before my wedding. Sand, sea, surf, quiet, peace. Unspoiled, peaceful, natural beauty (all the rest of the song).

Touché

#4 Touché, ‘But Beautiful’

Paddling along the a cappella stream, Jesper Holm is a great conductor of Modern A Cappella. We in Israel just brought him to teach a group of conductors as part of a course given by the Royal Academy of Music from Alborg/Aarhus, the only institution in the world (I believe) to offer a degree in conducting this music. His group, Touché, is the closest I’ve heard to vocal perfection. You hear a cut and say, ‘Okay, they gave it a face-lift in the studio’. But I’ve heard them live, twice. They’re perfect live on stage as well.

‘But Beautiful’ was written by Jimmy Van Heusen and Johnny Burke for Bing Crosby to sing to Dorothy Lamour in the movie ‘The Road to Rio’ in 1947. I think Jimmy and Johnny would be pretty darned pleased to hear what Jesper and Touché have done with it.

#3 Jacob Collier, ‘Human Nature’

If you want to know what’s new in music, listen to what Jacob has done in the last two months. Here’s a new live performance of his treatment of the Michael Jackson song. I think it’s pretty great.

I’ve sung Jacob’s praises in SoTW 236 and will probably continue to do so in the future. He’s been working with a singer I admire, Becca Stevens (I had the opportunity to ask her all my geeky questions.) Here’s their brand new clip together. They seem to be having a lot of fun.

I have some reservations. He’s an overwhelming genius, everyone agrees. But he has yet to touch my heart. Is he freakishly talented, but merely a millennial with a digital personality? Or is he being expressive, just in a language I don’t perceive, let alone understand? Ah, Jeff, why spoil the party?

Ooh-ooh-ooh

#2 Rachael Price, ‘They All Laughed’

Guesting on Chris Thile’s “Prairie Home Companion” (PBS) just two weeks ago. On the site you can find links to a whole bunch of really outstanding videos which I recommend highly.

Chris Thile is a great musician (see SoTW 131), and I saw a side of him I hadn’t seen before on clips here such as ‘Calvin and the Ghosties’ and Your Lone Journey / Hell Among the Yearlings , by Chris and Rachael and an all-star band. This (and a bunch of other clips from the show) are knockout music.

But it’s Ms Price who steals the show with the Gershwins’ standard ‘They All Laughed’. By all rights, this should be #1, but I wrote about Ms Price in collaboration with Vilray in my very last posting, SoTW 272, and previously about her band Lake Street Dive (SoTW 206), and you gotta give someone else a break with the headline.

She does the Peggy Lee ‘I Love the Way You’re Breaking My Heart’ and Simon’s ‘American Tune’.

But it’s ‘They All Laughed’ that’s been keeping me awake at night. I’d like to tell you what Rachael Price does to me when she does that thing with her shoulders and her hands on “Ooh-ooh-ooh, who’s got the last laugh now?”—it’s like… it’s like… Well, there might be kids reading this, so I’m not going to write it.

Isn’t the suspense killing you? Drum roll, fanfare, and–

Necks

#1 The Necks, ‘Sex’

Some of my friends and I have been listening to The Necks pretty much non-stop for the last few weeks. They’re an Australian jazz-rock minimalist piano trio that’s produced about 20 distinguished but indistinguishable albums over the past 20 years.

Most of the albums, like “Sex”, contain one single hour-long cut droning along timelessly on only two chords, or even one, with miniscule changes. It’s hypnotic, it’s a trip. I really enjoyed writing SoTW 86 about Steve Reich and Minimalism, because I learned an awful lot doing the research.

The Necks “Sex”

One needs music like this. Intelligent entertainment. I need music all the time. But you can’t listen to ‘Visions of Johanna’ or ‘Crescent’ when you’re just waking up, or when you’re trying to fall asleep. Or when you’re trying to concentrate. Yeah, sometimes The Real World raises its ugly little head and demands the focus of our attention. Like Work, or Wife, or just mental Weariness. But I still need music. And The Necks are so darned useful for sharp, convincing, meaty background music.

All of The Necks’ albums sound pretty much alike (and I’ve been listening to all 20, over and over). Full disclosure: I chose “Sex” just to catch your eye, because I’m pleased to promulgate obscure music which deserves to be heard. I admit, they’re not the most inspiring music I’ve ever heard, but one can’t be inspired all the time.

They keep me going. But when I’ve caught my breath, I keep going back to #2, Rachel (‘Ooh-ooh-ooh, who’s got the last laugh now?’) Price. She takes my breath away. She tries harder.

That’s all for now, folks. See you again next week, same time, same imaginary station.

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264: Folk’Avant, ‘9th of August’

Posted by jeff on Jun 9, 2017 in Nordic, Song Of the week

Folk’Avant – ‘9th of August’

Folk’Avant – ‘Gryningsland’

Folk’Avant – ‘Toivo’

One disc has monopolized my virtual turntable now for 12 days consecutively, non-stop. It has the sound palette of a magical kingdom hidden deep within an endless forest, replete with intrigues and yearnings and 21st century relationships.
It’s “Gryningsland”, the debut album by the Swedish-Finnish ‘folkmusik trio’ Folk’Avant.

Wait! Do not X me! Watch this! Trust me.

Is that not magic?

Folk’Avant – ‘9th of August’
FolkavantSilently, so that no one could hear us, we sneaked into a house where everyone else was asleep. Staying awake all night, until you finally packed your bag, closed the door, leaving a resting body behind.

I just keep playing the disc over and over and over, 12 days now. And I’m not getting tired of it. That sound. The girls (sorry, that’s a word I still use, with all the respect and affection in the world) tell me that that’s what the trio actually sounds like live.
That warm, resonant fiddle. It feels like the strings being played are still in my own gut.
Those magical bell-like tones. Fantasy and fancy, pristine and elegant, precise and timeless.
That Swedish contralto voice – strong, knowing, uninflected, unflinching.  Confident and independent. Unafraid of being vulnerable.

A gossamer walk through an endless, enchanted forest. 2017.

Know what it keeps reminding me of? ‘Guinevere‘ or ‘Legend of a Girl Child Linda‘, 50 years old—Scottish psychedelic folk. Donovan, from the very wonderful 1968 album “Sunshine Superman”. Separated by 50 years, 2000 miles, and millennia of disparate folk traditions. Welcome to the internet. Welcome to the human soul.

1-13-av-32I think I’ll call “Mellow Yellow” Cembalo Rock. I guess that makes “Gryningsland” cembalo rock without any rocks.

Although ‘Budapest’ sure has some rock sensibility deep inside, doesn’t it?
You say you’re a simple, roving person traveling with only your backpack and big words. Always on the run. You say I’m brave, beautiful, loving, independent, dangerous and strong. You say we only exist on this earth for a little while, yet nothing you said was true. But we will always have our Budapest.

1-12-av-32And as far as I remember, Vikings didn’t have the ‘Instagram’.
I sold myself cheap and paid a high price. But you don’t own me. You have to move, there is no room for my words. You’re last in line, we are no longer in use.

Folk’Avant’s music is all original, written by the three lovely young ladies themselves. Brave, beautiful, loving, independent, dangerous and strong.

Swedish Anna Rubinsztein still plays classical violin alongside her traditional fiddle.
Swedish Anna Wikenius comes from the worlds of contemporary a cappella and jazz.
Finnish Maija Kauhanen plays pop music when she’s not weaving enchanting tapestries on the concert kantele.
The what??

KanteleThe kantele is a Finnish folk instrument that starts with a 5-string zither-ish thingie and works its way up to a 38- (or 39- or 40-, depending on which version you believe) stringed instrument which is held on the lap and plucked with both hands, like a harp (its first cousin once removed), except when you use the left hand on the stops to dampen the tintinnabulation. Gosh, I love using that word.

The girls say there are classical influences in the seriousness with which they approach the material and the focus on structural details.
They say there’s a big difference in the the melody/beat connection in Finland as opposed to Sweden. “In Sweden we stretch the melody a lot, while in Finland you play quite straight on the beat. That’s been very interesting in Folk’Avant.” Full disclosure: that kind of talk really gives me a very certain kind of thrill.

09-06-2017 11-02-32For us non-Nords, the border between Sweden and Finland ain’t always clear. But for them: “Of course traditionally folk music has had a function. The music has been used in every aspect of life– weddings, parties, funerals, calling in the cows, lullabies and so on. In Sweden the tradition of dancing has lived on and there’s dancing at almost every folk music event. That’s not the case in Finland, where the dancing is usually only on stage on different special occasions!”

I’ve written in the past about Nordic roots music and about my ever-growing fascination with all things Scandinavian, especially Nordic Noir TV mini-series, the best stuff on camera in the world today. Best known are The Killing and The Bridge (the originals, not the US or European remakes). Typically, a damaged female detective and her male partner (who has lost his wife and is trying to raise a trouble-prone teenaged daughter while the bodies are dropping like prehistoric flies by the hand of a deranged perp).

MG_3754That’s the convention, the default premise. But you also get glorious landscapes, the best cinematography and set design and production values in the world, searing human interactions, and a real insight into the most highly evolved sense of womanhood and ecological responsibility in the world. The style has spread around the world: Iceland (Trapped) Belfast (The Fall), rural New Zealand (Top of the Lake), Dorset (Broadchurch), even the Louisiana Bayou (True Detective).

Some of the best of the breed – especially the second Swedish Wallander and my personal quirky favorite Annika Bengtzon – I’ve watched 3 or 4 times over the last couple of years. If you’re satisfied with House of Cards and Walking Dead, I wish you well. My wife, who is not an effete snob like her husband, recently said, “Jeff, you’ve spoiled me. I just can’t watch American TV anymore. It just can’t hold a candle to that dark Scandinavian stuff.” Nicest thing she’s said to me in many a decade.

FE1jpgI’ve read 6 of the series of 10 Martin Beck novels by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö. I’m in the middle of “The Long Ships”, a 1944 picaresque Viking novel by a Swedish professor of old literary forms, a adventure story the likes of which I haven’t read since I was 15.

I’ve organized myself a whole playlist of the new old Nordic music, with the kanteles and the accordions and the hurdy gurdies and the beautiful blonde singers. It’s going to keep me cool all summer. Check this. Or this. Or this.

What’s the connection between Folk’Avant and all these serial murder TV series and novels? Well, it’s got all that modern Scandinavian sense of style and panache and sophistication, and roots as deep as an eternal, enchanted forest. I don’t pretend to understand it. Hell, I don’t even have the letters on my keyboard. But I’m perfectly contented to settle for being enthralled.

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063: Pust, ‘En Reell Halling’

Posted by jeff on Apr 3, 2016 in A Cappella, Nordic, Song Of the week

I like to think I’m neither completely stupid nor wholly detached from reality. So if our Song of The Week is by a Norwegian a cappella sextet that prides itself on a synthesis of folk, jazz and ethnic music, I do understand that we’re not pushing mainstream fare here. Or that if the song itself is billed as ‘a melodic battle’ between Irish and Norwegian folkdance music styles, even I get that this isn’t the most commercially appealing middle-of-the-road music you may encounter this week.

But it is among the finest and most exciting music I’ve heard in a long time.

Just so you realize I’m not alone in enthusing over this music, let me quote some other critics: “Something that has never been heard before.” “Musicality is superb, blend amazing.” “Everything an a cappella fan could want: beauty, emotion, and wonderfully sung music. Even to the English listener, it is a treat. Now if only the a cappella scene would gain as much traction in the US as it has in Northern Europe.” “Spellbinding. Groups wishing to push the boundaries of a modern cappella would do well to listen.” “Their creative folk music is sure to drop more jaws than just mine.” “Be prepared for a very unique experience. Kudos to Pust for boldy pushing the envelope for a cappella music.”

Read more…

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209: The Real Group: ‘Monica Vals’ (‘Waltz for Debby’)

Posted by jeff on Dec 12, 2014 in A Cappella, Jazz, Nordic, Song Of the week, Vocalists

The Real Group, ‘Monica Vals’

Margareta Bengtson

Margareta Bengtson

I was hanging with some musical friends this week, watching an old video of theirs, relaxed and routine, when – boom! – four minutes in heaven.

The Real Group. Margareta Bengtson. Monica Zetterlund. Bill Evans. Let me explain. But I’ll probably get all historical and detailed way beyond what any normal person would care about. So unless you have the patience of a stone, feel free to listen, watch, and be transported. The Real Group, ‘Monica Vals’.

In 1953, Bill Evans (1929-80) was released from the army. He’d finished a degree in classical piano at Southeastern Louisiana College and was trying to decide which direction to pursue, classical or jazz. So he took a year off, living in his parents’ home and practicing. He would visit his brother Harry (who eventually became a music professor and a suicide; here’s an mind-opening interview by Harry of Bill from 1964, very much worth studying) and his three-year old niece Debby.

Bill Evans & Monica Zetterlund

Bill Evans & Monica Zetterlund

‘Waltz for Debby’ has become a jazz classic, written mostly in ¾, not a common jazz signature. It’s charming, disarming, lovely and tender. It’s the genius that is Bill Evans at his best.

Evans included it on his first album, “New Jazz Conceptions” (1956), a solo performance. Perhaps his finest treatments of it were on his masterpiece recording “Live at the Village Vanguard” (1961), with Paul Motion on drums and the immortal (but fated to die 10 days later) Scott LaFaro on bass. Here’s Take One and Take Two. Here’s a posting dedicated to that session, one of the most sublime pieces of music I’ve encountered.

The Real Group then

The Real Group then

Evans played ‘Waltz for Debby’ throughout his career, right up to the end – here it is from 1980 (with Joe LaBarbera on drums and Marc Johnson on bass), exactly one month before his tragic but inevitable death. Well, aren’t all tragic deaths inevitable? The song is usually performed gently (1956, 1961). Here in 1980, on the edge of the abyss, he invests in it a frightening passion that I discussed at length in a blog post about another signature song of his, ‘Nardis’.

In 1963, Evans asked his friend Gene Lees to write lyrics for the song. Some people think they’re precious and wonderful, some think they’re painfully kitsch and demean a perfectly restrained song. Me? I’m so caught up in the music I don’t even hear them.

The Real Group now

The Real Group now

I’ve found no evidence of why Evans asked for lyrics. The first version I can find a recording is a respectable treatment by Dutch singer named Rita Reyes, recorded for Dutch TV in 1964. In contrast, Johnny Hartman croons it to death in the same year (the follow-up album to his legendary collaboration John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman). Unfortunately, I couldn’t find the divine Sarah Vaughn’s version from 1966. Also unfortunately, it’s easy to find the 1975 Tony Bennet/Bill Evans duet collaboration. As my friend ML put it so well: “Tony Bennet doesn’t sing on that album, he shouts.”

3153057_2000_1451

Bill Evans & Monica Zetterlund

In the summer of 1964, Evans made his first trip to Europe, with his second trio – Chuck Israels on bass, Larry Bunker on drums. In Sweden he met a young singer named Monica Zetterlund (1937-2005), who had made a recording of ‘Waltz for Debby’ with lyrics by Beppe Wolgers, ‘Monica Vals’. They cut a wonderful album together, a paragon of passionate restraint (Evans) meeting icy perfection (Zetterlund). Here’s the recording, and here’s a TV video of that visit. While we’re here, here’s a beautiful ‘Some Other Time’ video from the same program. And here they are doing a beautiful, relaxed rehearsal of ‘Monica Vals’ two years later, with Eddie Gomez on bass and a Swedish drummer.

In 1984, five Swedish friends were at studying together at the Royal Academy of Music. They felt that other friends played all the instruments and styles better than they did, so they decided to try something different – singing jazz classics a cappella. Thus was born the genre I love so well, ‘modern a cappella’. They began by listening to classic jazz such as Count Basie/Quincy Jones and replicating it vocally, each voice singing a different instrument/part, resulting in a pure, breathtaking polyphony.  A couple of their earliest efforts were arrangements by Peder Karlsson of early Evans’ tunes: ‘Very Early’ and ‘Monica Vals’. Here’s an extensive interview I had with Peder describing the riveting metamorphosis of the group.

Margareta Bengston

Margareta Bengston

And finally – our Song of The Week, our Performance of The Week, our four minutes of heaven of the week: The Real Group performing ‘Monica Vals’, live in Stockholm, 2005. The soloist is the original soprano, Margareta Bengtson, who left the group in 2006.

Scott LaFaro’s bass part written by Peder for Anders Jalkéus; the intricate, marvelous tapestry of Katarina Henryson, Anders Edenroth and Peder – this is as good as it gets. And Margareta’s solo is a simply a wonder of the world. Such precision, such love, such delicate charisma.

Here’s their reunion performance of ‘Monica Vals’ from The Real Group Festival in Stockholm, 2012, which I was blessed to be present at. If you hear someone in the audience crying from utter bliss, that just might be me.

Monica Zetterlund

Monica Zetterlund

I’ve been fortunate enough to get to know all the members of The Real Group to varying degrees. Some are warm acquaintances, some dear friends. It’s a unique experience for me to know people to whom I both feel close personally and also admire so profoundly as artists.

Hey, Margareta, how are you? When I heard and saw you singing ‘Monica Vals’ this week, in my mind I gave a slight bow and kissed your hand. I don’t know how else to thank you for touching my ears and my mind and my heart so wondrously.

When they say ‘The voice is the only instrument made by God’, this is what they’re referring to. I just can’t imagine anything more perfect.

 

If you enjoyed this post, you may also like:

Aarhus Vocal Festival, 2013
173: The Real Group, ‘Nature Boy’
The New A Cappella
059: The Real Group, ‘Joy Spring’
124: Bill Evans, ‘Nardis’
096: Bill Evans (solo), ‘Easy To Love’
060: The Bill Evans Trio, ‘Gloria’s Step’ from “Live at The Village Vanguard”

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