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105: The Boswell Sisters, ‘Crazy People’

Posted by jeff on Mar 20, 2018 in A Cappella, Jazz, Song Of the week, Vocalists

Whoopee, new discovery!! I returned from jaunt to the US with a treasure chest of CDs. I’ve been slogging through them slowly and methodically and thematically and chronologically (as is my compulsive wont). This week I got to the pile of Vocal Jazz Groups.

There have been remarkably few really important vocal jazz groups, and a couple of the more popular ones don’t speak much to me. I have touted here the a cappella jazz scene, (The Real Group, The Idea of North, Pust) especially the Scandinavians, but I’ve been trying to expand my horizons backwards. Among the CDs I’ve been studying are The Four Freshmen (1960s–snore) and The Mills Brothers (too tame).

Eureka! The Boswell Sisters!!

Raised in New Orleans, Martha Boswell (1905–58), Connee (1907–76), andHelvetia”Vet” (1911–88), they achieved local success in the mid/late 1920s. By 1929 they were appearing 5 nights a week on radio inLos Angeles. From 1930-35 they recorded in NYC with support of the leading jazz luminaries of the era (Glenn Miller, the Dorsey Brothers, Benny Goodman), appeared in movies (The Marx Brothers, depression-era extravaganzas), had 20 hit records, and inspired a street kid named Ella (who made her stage debut at17 in1934 singing two of their songs).

In 1936, all three sisters got married. Martha and Vet retired from show biz, leaving wheelchair-bound (some sources say polio, some say childhood accident) lead singer Connee to follow a reasonably successful solo career for the next 25 years.

They have been called one of the very best vocal jazz groups ever, maybe THE best. I’ve been listening for a week now, and I’m of the mind that that’s no exaggeration. Their vocals were often so hot that the girls were assumed to be black. They scat with the best of them, and do some knock-out imitations of instruments or nonsense sounds. But most important, their 3-part harmonies are tighter than Aunt Bertha’s girdle. They make CS&N sound like YY&Y. Their arrangements are constantly chock full of unexpected shifts in tempo, major/minor mode, key, and tone, flipping cheekily from dead serious to insouciant comic and back. They have a wicked and sometimes rather racy sense of humor.

Here are the Mills Brothers, also early 1930s, ohsobland in comparison.

Here are The Andrews Sisters, who started their careers in the mid/late 1930s as Boswell Sister imitators. As charming as they are, and with all their stage presence, the Andrews Sisters’ music is unspectacular, predictable in comparison to our Boswells. Well, and while we’re on the Sister Act page, here are the incredible Ross Sisters, whose vocals are certainly respectable, but whose fame lies elsewhere. Check them out, a hair-raising experience is guaranteed.

Enough talk, let’s give you some fine music to listen to.

Here’s one of their most famous songs, ‘Crazy People’. It’s fun, it’s fine, it’s very, very impressive technically.

Crazy people, crazy people
Crazy people like me go crazy over people like you
Goofy people, daffy people
Daffy people like me go crazy over things you do.

The Boswell Sisters with Bing Crosby

First of all, it’s a very cheeky song. Using derogatories in a positive sense was, to my mind, an invention of the 1960s. There’s nothing ironic about ‘hip’ or ‘cool’. But ‘freaks’ and ‘bad’ are ironic. Our sisters here are praising a state of frenzy (in love). It seems to me that this is a loosening of corset restraints that only occurs in the 1920s, especially in dance and jazz music.

What else do we have here? The airtight harmonies. Connee’s solo at 17″. The vocal instrumentals at 30″. The syncopation at 45″. The cut-time section starting at 1’00″—if you listen closely, you’ll hear at least two more shifts in tempo within that section! Connee’s scat at 1’20”, leading into a magical shift on the chorus from major to minor. Some very dark, soulful harmony singing towards the end, then a precise wah-wah finish.

I want to tell you, sports fans, you listen to The Mills Brothers, Lambert Hendricks & Ross (admittedly a different bag, not close harmony), Manhattan Transfer and The Real Group (okay, they come close), you don’t find that kind of value for your money all in 2’01”.

Here’s another one of big hits of The Boswell Sisters, ‘Everybody Loves My Baby‘, cut from the same cloth as ‘Crazy People’. Try to count the number of different tempi they employ here. It’s like counting jellybeans in a jar.

Here’s another cut, ‘I Hate Myself (for Being Mean to You)‘. Note the bouncy opening, followed by the mock-tragic intro. Check the lyrics: “I slap my face for saying the things I do…”, “I’m gonna send myself a telegram and tell myself what a fool I am”, “If you stay away another day, I’ll kiss myself goodbye…” And the pastiche of wild, incongruous elements (instrumental and vocal) in the middle of the song, each one a gem in and of itself.

Here are a few more of my favorites, for your listening edification:

‘Shout, Sister, Shout

‘Was That the Human Thing to Do?

‘What’d You Do to Me?

We’re in the Money‘, a Great Depression anthem

‘Shuffle Off to Buffalo‘, with lyrics as subtly suggestive as an Ernst Lubitsch film

Here’s an interesting trailer for a yet-to-be released documentary about The Boswell Sisters.

Listen to what they do with a well-known standard, Irving Berlin’s ‘Cheek to Cheek‘. According to Wikipedia, “They were among the very few performers who were allowed to make changes to current popular tunes during this era, as music publishers and record companies pressured performers not to alter current popular song arrangements.” Change it they do. Not as adventurous as some of the other cuts here, it’s still an education in itself for vocal groups 80 years later. (By the way, HaBanot Nechama, a very talented young Israeli chick trio also with very tight harmony and lots of humor and lots of shifting gears, do sound to me like they’ve been doing their homework here.)

Here’s another one, albeit light, but we can’t not mention it, ‘Rock and Roll’. I admit I thought Alan Freed had coined the term in the early 1950s to describe the new music. But it turns out that early in twentieth century the phrase was used to describe the movement of a ship on the ocean, but it carried connotations of both sexual fervor and the spiritual fervor of black church rituals.

I assume a lot of very serious, politically conscious ladies and gents will find ‘Coffee in the Morning (Kisses in the Night)‘ objectionable, but I think there were three tongues in three cheeks when The Boswells were singing this:

I’ve got a mission, it’s just a simple thing
I’ve only one ambition, to have the right to bring you
Your coffee in the morning
And kisses in the night

It’s my desire to do as I am told
To have what you require, and never have it cold, dear
Your coffee in the morning
And kisses in the night 

Though wedding bells sound sad and dirgy
Though wedding ties may spoil the fun
Without helping hand of clergy
Oh, I’m afraid it can’t be done

It isn’t formal, but with a wedding ring
It’s natural, it’s normal to give you everything from
From coffee in the morning
To kisses in the night

If you enjoyed this post, you may also like:

032: Duke Ellington, “Take the ‘A’ Train” (Billy Strayhorn)

045: Julie London, ‘Bye Bye, Blackbird’

057: Anita O’Day, ‘Tea for Two

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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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The Origins of The Real Group and Modern A Cappella — Interview with Peder Karlsson

Posted by jeff on Oct 2, 2016 in A Cappella, Writings
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Peder Karlsson

“Modern A Cappella” is a burgeoning genre: an explosion of small groups, large groups, workshops, festivals centered in Scandinavia and quickly spreading throughout Europe and through the entire world; in America, the collegiate scene, Smash and Pitch Perfect and The Sing-Off.
The masters of the style are The Real Group, a Swedish quintet founded in 1984 and still growing in popularity. They’ve recorded 17 albums and appeared over 2000 times worldwide. TRG are also the widely acknowledged leaders of the scene, combining their status, engaging personal teaching style, and exceptionally warm personalities to inspire this rapidly growing activity.
Modern a cappella is a young person’s genre, singers typically in their 20s, the music an innovative amalgam of pop/jazz. It is distinguished from older styles of a cappella and vocal jazz groups by ‘singing the arrangement.’ A core attribute is ‘groove.’
At the time of writing, members of The Real Group were tenor Anders Edenroth, bass Anders Jalkéus, alto/soprano Katarina Henryson (founding members), baritone Morten Vinther and alto Emma Nilsdotter (replacing soprano Margareta Bengtson). Founding member Peder Karlsson became a ‘non-performing member of TRG’ in 2010, focusing his activities on teaching and conducting. Since then, Anders Jalkéus was replaced by Janis Strazdins, and Katarina Henryson has announced that she will be replaced by Lisa Östergren in coming months.
Jeff Meshel interviewed Peder Karlsson at the Aarhus Vocal Festival, May 2013.

The Real Group Meet in School

Jeff Meshel : I think The Real Group invented modern a capella.

Peder Karlsson: Well, I’m not sure I agree.

Jeff: Okay. So let’s explore it. What was your musical background, of all the five members? When you got together, what was in your ears? Is that a good place for you to start the story?

Peder: It is. And I think it’s part of the story, too. I think one interesting thing about our musical backgrounds was that it was kind of two things at the same time. We had very different backgrounds, yet very similar at the same time. We all went to the same school, which is the name is Adolf Fredrik’s Music Classes. It’s a primary school, junior high school and high school.

Jeff: You grew up together?

Peder: Yeah, but different ages. And I was kind of the black sheep. I didn’t come to the school until high school. But the other four were there from grade four. They are four years apart. So they were not in the same classes. And in this school, you have a choir class every day. And every two classes is a choir and they do concerts all the time. It’s really high quality stuff. And you have to be a really good singer to get into that school.

That school is one of the reasons Sweden is one of the major choral countries in the world. You know, when you go to a choir concert in Stockholm it’s just top class. And many of these singers come from Adolf Fredrik’s. So we have that in common, that type of choir singing that they do there. At the same time, as individuals, we had other things.

Jeff: The material there would have a traditional…

Peder: Basically, the songs that we sing on the album Stämning. That was what we sang at that school. So that was tough, some of us were just 11 years old. Those are standard Swedish choir arrangements. Every Swedish choir singer can sing those songs. It’s like “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star,” but for a chorus. Eric Ericson, of course, also always conducted that music. So it was also something we had in common with him. He recently passed away, by the way, you did know that?

Jeff: Yes.

Peder: I was a guitar player, I played jazz fusion, Weather Report-influenced stuff in one of the bands I had.

In another band I had at one point was together with Anders Edenroth, that was more like funk, more West Coast. He was a keyboard player. He also had another band that was also kind of funkish West Coast type stuff. And we were a little bit like competing bands. There were always these gigs and it was a fantastic time at this particular school. We had like 10 or 15 bands in the school.

Jeff: This is in high school?

Peder: In high school, yeah. And so I played in like two or three of those bands, Anders Edenroth played in two other bands.

I was always checking out what other people were doing. And in one of those bands, the best band that I played with, Margareta Bengtson was the lead vocalist, who sometimes would sing three-part arrangements together with our tenor saxophone and trumpet player.

So Anders Jalkéus, he is a choir singer. He sang in all the choirs, including the Ericson chamber choir, everything.

He also plays several instruments, initially folk music and classical. Margareta Bengtson is a harp player and her mother is a vocal teacher. So she went to the Academy of Music to play harp. But she always sang and I think she also enjoyed quite a lot singing in the band that we had. Plus she had a vocal trio, with Carola and Annelie Berg. That was before Carola became a huge star in Sweden.

Katarina Henryson is a jazz and blues singer. Initially, she didn’t want to study at the Academy, because she wanted to learn another way, the live way. So she sang with jazz bands and blues bands, and she also had her own band where they played her music. Katarina started a vocal group, at age seven, called “Humlorna” (Bumble Bees). I think she fired the other singers pretty quickly because they couldn’t sing the way she wanted. Even at that age she totally knew what sound she wanted.

Anders Edenroth was always a band leader and a songwriter. He was very young when he started. I think he had his first band when he was nine years old and he tried to write scores for saxophone and trumpet. But he didn’t know that they transposed. So then he learned that they transposed. And when he was in his first year in high school he was in Texas as an exchange student, and ended up in a big band writing stuff for them.

And then when we started at the Royal Academy of Music in 1984, Anders Edenroth and I just found ourselves in the same class. And you know what, I’ve been following this guy. We’d been following each other for then already for several years. And we were like, then, Okay, maybe it’s time that we do something.

And there was a subject on the curriculum that was called Independent Study, you had to make an ensemble, but without a teacher. It was a requirement that you’d get ensemble experience. So we talked to Anders Jalkéus, ‘what do you want to play?’, because he can play basically any instrument. So if we needed a bass player, he could play the bass or something.

Early Musical Influences

But then there were so many other good bands. And we felt, shit, we don’t want to compete with those great players. I mean, we were good, but we were not the best players. So okay. And that was when Bobby McFerrin came out, in 1982 or 1983. He was pretty early on in his career, and he came to Sweden. He had a television program in Sweden. So Anders Edenroth and I think Jalkan [Anders Jalkéus] might have been in that conversation also. We were like, ‘Yeah, this Vocal Summit thing that Bobby McFerrin does when he does his improvisation, we can do that. But perhaps we want to do it more avant garde.’

And we needed female singers and then I said, “We have to have Margareta from my band.” And Anders Edenroth said “We have to have Katarina,” they had done projects before. She was the lead vocalist of a musical that Anders Edenroth had written, composed and conducted two years earlier.

So we booked a rehearsal room and the material we had, I think that was an arrangement of “Jingle Bells” or something. Just whatever. But it sounded great.

Jeff: There was no model here, you walked into the room, it wasn’t “Let’s do Beatles stuff, but…”

Peder: No, there was no if there was a model for me, it was Bobby McFerrin and Vocal Summit. And maybe Swingle Singers. But it was, ‘We don’t want to do that. We want to do something else.’

Jeff: I don’t know what Vocal Summit is.

Peder: That was a group that Bobby McFerrin had for a short time with three European female vocal improvisers [Lauren Newton, Urszula Dudziak, Jeanne Lee, Jay Clayton].

Jeff: I don’t remember that.

Peder: They made one LP, I still have it in my home [Sorrow Is Not Forever]. It’s a record that stretches in many directions. But they don’t bring it to a home run. Of course we had listened to the Swingle Singers and Singers Unlimited. But we didn’t particularly listen to those groups for inspiration. Of course we knew about it and we had probably sung some of that type of stuff. But, I mean, our role models would have been Stevie Wonder, Aretha Franklin, Joni Mitchell, Count Basie Big Band, Frank Zappa. Plus all kinds of classical music. And folk music. And Latin. And rock’n’roll. You know, curious people.

Jeff: I interviewed Frank Zappa.

Peder: You did? He’s like my major, major… we have to talk about that, then. I’m a total Zappa fan. Totally.

Jeff: Nice guy. Sweetheart.

Peder: I heard so from Jon Lord, you know, Deep Purple. I had an evening when I got to hang with Jon Lord. And I knew that he knew Zappa, so my first question was, “How was he?”

Jeff: Shocking, it was very early in his career. I was the first person in the Midwest to discover Mothers of Invention, very, very early, I think 1967. And the show that I went to, it was a small audience with maybe 500 people. And he was very frightening. They called themselves freaks. “Freak” wasn’t a word that you used then. It was a negative word. And he called himself a freak. What is this? It’s almost pre-hippie. Just when the hippies were starting. And I walked into the room and his appearance – I was shaken. He just says, “Hi, my name’s Frank Zappa. Pleased to meet you. What’s your name? Please, sit down.” A sweetheart.

But I want to talk about The Real Group. You said you had heard Singers Unlimited.

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.”

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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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