Thursday, December 6, 2007

Singing Straight, No Chaser

Along with his friend Tony Bennett, Freddy Cole is the one of the most romantic singers practicing today. No wonder, really—I mean, the man is Nat King Cole’s brother!

I recently heard Freddy for the second time, and I marvel at his musical chops. Even at 76, the man can infuse a lyric with verve, and his musical arrangements are classy and immediately pleasurable.

During the set I heard Freddy do this marvelous medley of songs about Paris, drawing the listener in with some familiar Porter (“I Love Paris”), but then shifting to an obscure, clever song (“Where You Are Is Paris”), following with Porter’s underappreciated “I Am in Love,” and ending with “How Do You Say Auf Wiedersehn?” The emotion he created was so tangible that—in the words of another song on his latest CD Music Maestro Please—“You Could Hear a Pin Drop.”

Writer Ted Panken skillfully attempts to summarize what makes Cole unique in the liner notes to Music Maestro Please:

"No conventional virtuoso, Cole with a minimum of affect conveys oceanic emotions on material . . . loosely organized around love and loss and the ambiguities and longueurs therein that would sound bathetic and sentimental in lesser hands. The crooner is a mid-register man, with a voice that neither soars to cathartic heights nor lows through dark subterranean depths. He doesn't scat, doesn't wear his heart on his sleeve, never condescends to lyrics with archness or irony. He sings them straight, no chaser, with cool timing that hews to a personal inner clock . . ."

Freddy Cole favors a bossa nova beat in his playing. I never tire of it. I highly recommend Rio De Janeiro Blue for your listening pleasure. It showcases his talents both as a romantic balladeer (“Invitation” will immediately cast a languorous spell upon you) and as an upbeat celebrator of romance itself (“Something Happens to Me” and “Wild Is Love” always rekindle my inner passion!)

By the way, Freddy recently cut a tribute CD to Tony Bennett, and I also urge you to give it a try. At the show I attended he performed “What Are You Afraid Of?” from Bennett’s 1986 comeback album on Columbia. I’m so glad he’s keeping this song in circulation—it’s quite the crowd-pleaser. (Think of another turn on the sentiment expressed in “Baby It’s Cold Outside” and you’ll get the song’s concept.)

Check out Freddy Cole’s discography on his website. He’s been one of the hardest working jazz singers of the last 20 years. Scan his touring schedule and mark your calendar. Treasures like Freddy are worth making an effort to see. Let's end with you enjoying Freddy asserting himself in "I'm Not My Brother, I'm Me."

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

My Two Ellas

My love for standards was ignited by Ella Fitzgerald. When I first sought out music to call my own, I gravitated to the singer-songwriters. In my youthful self-righteousness I declared them the avatars of emotional sincerity and depth. You want phony? Then try my father’s music. Sinatra, Dean Martin, all those Vegas types. YECCCH!

I bought my first Fitzgerald songbook my junior year in college. I was astounded at the beauty of the lyrics of Rodgers and Hart, and in Ella’s interpretation of them. Now, all these years later, I have a dog named after her.

Like Ella Fitzgerald, this dog is graceful. You should hear her rhythmic clitter-clatter as she glides across our wood floors! I’ve read that Fitzgerald had a little-girl quality about her and here, too, my dog connects with the legend. She is so bright and enthusiastic—Ella is always looking to play.

I won’t discuss scat, because that connection should be apparent.

Let’s see—how else are these two Ellas alike? Well, the singer was a lonely woman—married only once, and that for a short time. (I think this longing really gives her singing much of its power.) One only has to release my Ella from her crate to appreciate how lonely she gets.

The main thing these two Ellas share is the ability to touch my heart. I love both of them deeply. Ella Fitzgerald was the First Lady of Song and my Ella—well, she’ll be my top dog and First Canine Lady for years hence.

You can’t take that away from me!

My heartfelt thanks go out to Julie Zickefoose, a woman with a key eye for beauty in the natural and musical world, and her very own musical, stuffed babeh-killing terrier.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Perfectly Tony

I recently enjoyed an American Masters program on Tony Bennett. What I especially liked about it was that Bennett discussed how he came across some of the musical numbers associated with him.

Singers from Bennett’s generation all dipped into the Great American Songbook—these songs filled out the brunt of the musical program on their albums and gave them a canvas upon which to stamp their particular style. But inevitably a singer was forced to search for original material.

Frank Sinatra was famous enough not to have to search long. But even he had to place his faith in a couple of songwriters—namely Sammy Cahn and Jimmy Van Heusen—who’d consistently give him fresh material with hit potential. Think of “All the Way,” “High Hopes,” “Call Me Irresponsible,” and “Love and Marriage.”

Sinatra latched onto Nelson Riddle, and their association propelled his career into its Golden Age. Earlier in the ’50s, Sinatra and his label (Columbia Records) had parted ways and one reason—aside from his poor record sales—was that Sinatra deplored working with Mitch Miller. He felt that Miller and the label were offering him only novelty songs (like “How Much Is That Doggie in the Window?” or “Come on-a My House,” hits for Rosemary Clooney at the time).

A young Tony Bennett was at Columbia at the time, and his association with Miller is warmly recounted in the American Masters special. Turns out that Tony had a burning passion to sing, and since he was younger than Sinatra and unknown, he carried no baggage into his relationship with Miller.

Miller hit upon a salient characteristic of Bennett’s singing at the time—Tony had a lovely warm voice that carried a lyrical line seamlessly from start to finish. He clearly enunciated each vowel and consonant, so the story in the song was well understood upon one listening. Bennett recalled a classical musical singing style called bel canto. Wikipedia tell us that—

Bel canto singing characteristically focuses on perfect evenness throughout the voice, skillful legato, a light upper register, tremendous agility and flexibility, and a certain lyric, "sweet" timbre.

Miller steered Bennett toward material that suited this style, and Tony scored big with songs like “Because of You” and “Boulevard of Broken Dreams.”

It was Miller who suggested Hank Williams’s “Cold Cold Heart.” The song is a charming anachronism, and it illustrated Bennett’s greatest talent—his passionate respect for a lyric, wherever it may originate from. This man always had a strong sense of what he wanted to accomplish as a singer.

Bennett soared again in the early ’60s with a little ditty about San Francisco, but his hit-making days for him and his compatriots came to a resounding end soon after John, Paul, George, and Ringo hit the tarmac at JFK.

But that strong knowledge of his own skill would sustain him through the 1960s, and, in the early 1970s when Columbia dropped him from the label, it would lead him to the confirmation that jazz and a simple, direct accompaniment was the next step.

I’ll be writing more about Tony Bennett because his singing is such an inspiration to me. In the meantime, though, may I suggest an album from his oeuvre that has seized my attention recently? It features just Tony and a piano, and I suggest you settle back and listen to those long, lovely, lyrical lines from Perfectly Frank.

It’s a tribute to Sinatra, the other unforgettable pop male vocalist of his generation. Arrivederci!

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

The Curse of the Versatile

Teresa Brewer died last week at the age of 76. Best known for her novelty song "Music, Music, Music" ("Drop another nickel in/in the nickelodeon . . .") Brewer had great substance as a singer that many people missed.

Perhaps it was because she hit her stride in the 1970s—a time when singers in general were marginalized as rock took complete hold of the popular audience. It was during this period that Brewer recorded a series of songbooks that make a nifty companion to those of Ella Fitzgerald.

She and Fitzgerald both becames sensations because of their novelty songs (Ella's was "A-Tisket, A-Tasket"), but while Ella honed her craft in the realm of jazz, Brewer navigated a variety of forms. Scanning her albums, I appreciate the variety of material she sang—ragtime, blues, pop, and jazz.

When she settled into jazz in the '70s, her artistry blossomed. My favorite album of hers was dedicated to Fats Waller. It was recorded with Earl "Fatha" Hines and features a knockout version of "Black and Blue." If you search for one album by Brewer, this is the one to get.

Brewer also recorded with Count Basie and Stephane Grapelli. She also worked with rock and country musicians into the 1980s and 1990s.

Really, to see a prime example of how to sing with VERVE, give Teresa Brewer a listen! You'll be delighted to add her to your iPod!

Here's a link to a video of Teresa Brewer singing a song called "Willy Burgandy" on YouTube.

Friday, October 19, 2007

John Denver Part I

Last week marked the anniversary of the death of John Denver—an important singer-songwriter (at least in terms of the popular consciousness).

Liking John Denver always seemed like a guilty pleasure. His music is so innocent and sincere. For someone who was as popular as he was, Denver now seems an obscurity—except for anyone around my age. Reflecting upon John Denver stirs thoughts about how ephemeral fame is and motivates me to rescue his legacy.

There IS a significant legacy. Let’s begin in 1970. That is the year that Earth Day was established in this country. At the time, we were embroiled in the Vietnam War, so the conservation message had serious competition for space in the public mind.

John Denver was unknown—he’d only recently finished his tenure with a folk group called the Chad Mitchell Trio and set out to establish a solo career. RCA, a label specializing in folk/country pop crossovers, had Denver on its roster, largely because of his promise as a songwriter—Peter, Paul, and Mary had scored a tremendous hit with his “Leavin’ on a Jet Plane” a couple of years earlier.

His initial release—1969’s “Rhymes and Reasons”*—is such a product of its time. The photography features Denver as he’d be shown on all his albums—outdoors, and loving it. (The guy was all teeth when he smiled, which was often.) On the back is a poem that Denver wrote about how “the children and the flowers are my sisters and my brothers” followed by the label’s declaration that

“JOHN DENVER—born—lives—cares—believes!”

Doesn’t the salability of this sentiment seem so quaint today? The public had an appetite for it, though—in the early part of the last decade, singers like Bob Dylan and Phil Ochs had struck a chord with what was dubbed “protest music.” The “Movement” —which, broadly speaking, represented peace and social justice—was fatigued by the continuing prosecution of the war, the assassinations of King and the Kennedys, and the ascension of Richard Nixon. This appetite was soon to be awakened by Henry John Deutschendorf Jr.

That’s right—John Denver named himself and, looking back, one finds the audacity truly remarkable. In a few years, Denver was destined to make Colorado and Montana paradise in the public mind. This was a singer with a vision, and a desire to be famous.

Listen to John Denver today. I’ll continue to pay homage and make my case in subsequent posts.

* The album title doesn't actually spell out "and" but Blogger won't seem to allow an ampersand.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Homeless Brother

Don McLean established himself in the early to mid-1970s. His output was remarkable, and it’s not surprising that he couldn’t sustain it. But when he was in flight, McLean was a brilliant and completely idiosyncratic singer-songwriter. Among his peer group—Paul Simon, James Taylor, Jackson Browne, Joni Mitchell, et al—he stood out because of his voice and musical versatility.

His 1974 album Homeless Brother really marked his creative peak. All of his influences are on display here. Pete Seeger provides vocal backing for the title track, a tribute to the hobo or “Whitman wanderer” –this descendant of the cowboy for McLean who is “livin’ on good fortune” not “dyin’ on his knees.”

McLean even, in classic folk music topical fashion, pens a song inspired by a news story—“The Legend of Andrew McCrew.” It’s about a hobo (again) who gets mummified and turned into a circus attraction.

There’s a doo-wop influence on “La La Love You”—a snide, lascivious appeal wrapped in sweet harmonious coating. (“Well I like the way you’re moving/and I like the way you go/I like the way you let your/locomotion show/’Cause my drivin’ wheel is driving/and my piston’s working good/so if your motor gives you trouble, baby/I’ll take a look underneath your hood.”) McLean also pulls in the a cappella group the Persuasions for Elvis Presley’s “Crying in the Chapel.”

The romantic ballad receives strong play also. “Did You Know” is one of McLean’s best: absolutely gorgeous lyrics supported by a strong melodic line. (Sample: “Ev’ry place and ev’ry face/casts a spell and leaves a trace…with you in mind/and with you near/the myth is gone/the past is clear…and here with scars of now and then/so you and I begin again.”) McLean also adds what can only be called a torch song—“Winter Has Me in Its Grip.” Simple lyrics here, with Yusef Lateef playing flute to layer the sentiment wistfully. Rounding out his romantic output in 1974 was “You Have Lived”—a ballad addressed to someone McLean loves for his/her “courage in this frightened atmosphere.”

Pessimism pervades this work—it is in some ways keenly a product of its time. Written in the throes of the Watergate scandal and the end of the Vietnam conflict, there are constant allusions to the mistrust that had filled the body politic. What’s known today as “the man” gets addressed by McLean directly in “Great Big Man,” a rolling, heavily orchestrated assault on a figure who the writers sees as having “rust on your fingers . . . rubble at your feet.”

One of McLean’s proudest accomplishments from this release was the lullaby “Wonderful Baby.” It was recorded a couple of years later by Fred Astaire—as a songwriter, to have the same man the Gershwins favored recording your material must have been an incredible thrill. The song is sweet, but the sentiments are slightly askew, as when the singer tells the “wonderful baby” that “the world has gone crazy/I’m glad I’m not you.” Can’t shake off that Watergate ennui!

In addition to “Crying in the Chapel,” the only other number on this album not written by McLean is George Harrison’s charming “Sunshine Life for Me.” It’s delivered via banjo and its theme neatly fits the album’s overarching concept of the freewheeling, drifting life of the road.

Take it from someone who specializes in Don McLean. Homeless Brother is the second work that you must have by this terrific singer-songwriter.

After this album, McLean’s output slowed considerably, but there’s much more to say about his musical journey. I’ll be writing again soon.

As Pete Seeger would say, “Take it easy—but take it!”

Monday, October 8, 2007

Don McLean and Me

Don McLean crosses borders with his music. What makes him so substantial as an artist is his familiarity and comfort with a variety of styles. He started as a folk musician (sailing with Pete Seeger on the Hudson), but “American Pie”—which thrusted him permanently in the spotlight—is mainly a rock song. Coupled with this hit was “Vincent”—a romantic ballad that stunned audiences with its pure poetry.

During the fuss surrounding these songs, McLean released an eponymous album adorned with a black and white photograph on the cover. The winter scene depicted unfortunately reflected the album’s lack of commercial appeal. On this release McLean continued writing in a romantic vernacular with the lovely “If We Try”, “Birthday Song”, and “Oh My What a Shame.”

With “Bronco Bill’s Lament” he paid tribute to a show business cowboy: “I could have been most anything/I put my mind to be/but a cowboy’s life was the only life for me.” The song is a longing for a simpler time, when a handshake sealed an understanding and there were no lawyers “who could pull a fountain pen/and put you where they choose/with the language that they use/and enslave you till you work your youth away.” Coming on the heels of a poem about Hopalong Cassidy that McLean wrote in his liner notes on the American Pie album, the song translated well to the time of its release (during the height of Watergate and continuing revelations of Nixon’s paranoia).

How fitting to recall the chastity and moral purity of movie/television cowboys at this time. Don McLean was born in 1945, and as a child he was deeply influenced by these cinematic heroes. Coming of age with television, this young boy in New Rochelle dreamed of being atop his horse, guitar in hand, and silver spurs a-jinglin’. It’s a peaceful, powerful dream—fueled by a soundtrack provided by Crosby, Autry, Sons of the Pioneers, and so many more.

The cowboy is a loner and—most important to McLean—an individual, but in the dawning TV age it’s impossible to stay on your saddle, given the hyperintense pressure of the mass audience. (McLean hits this theme directly when he sings about the fate of George Reeves in 1987’s “Superman’s Ghost.”)

McLean’s follow-up guaranteed that he’d remain outside mainstream commercial boundaries. 1973’s Playin’ Favorites back cover shows him in a rocker with a banjo—take that rock audiences! It’s a terrific collection of songs from the traditional (“Bill Cheatham = Old Joe Clark” and the hauntingly gorgeous “Mountains O’Mourne”) to songs associated with some of McLean’s idols—Buddy Holly (“Everyday”), Hank Williams (“Lovesick Blues”), and Roy Rogers (“Happy Trails”).

With this release McLean shows the breadth of his musical capability. Now he’d played folk, rock, and country. He’d displayed great skill with romantic balladry, and even a penchant for old novelty numbers like Ivor Novello’s “On the Amazon.” (This New Rochelle native was no stranger to the cabaret music emanating from the Big Apple.)

By 1973 his major themes were established. I’d write more about Don McLean in future blog. Give him a try—or revisit him once more.

Monday, October 1, 2007

Leaving Port

I come from a musical family, although none of us play an instrument.

I'm mostly Irish, and a love of language seems programmed genetically for me (and my children as well, I'm discovering). My father was taciturn, but he would come to life when playing a record or watching a variety show on TV. It was quite a spectacle to admire his smile and observe him reaching out to our mother for a twirl. What was this strange power that a song had?

As a baby, I could be quieted by singing a popular song of the day--"True Love" by Cole Porter (from the movie "High Society.") I can't hear or sing that song now without getting teary.

I'm glad my wife pushed me to blog. I need a vehicle for pouring out all my thoughts about songwriting and music in general. I know a lot of music and I sing a lot, so lyrics are always in my head, and I'm always admiring a muscular melody or a memorable turn of phrase.

I'm also pleased that the name of my blog turned out to swiped from a title of a Loudon Wainwright III CD. Great songwriters like Loudo are rare (although there are many very good ones). I'll be sharing with you why I love his work, as well as the songs of Randy Newman, Don McLean, Paula Cole, Nellie McKay, Joni al. And let's not forget the masters, who you should always refer back to--Berlin, Porter, Gershwin, Kern, et al.

I'm obsessed with good singing too, so expect many posts on singers that I admire.

Oh, it will be pleasant cruise! Recline in your deck chair, close your eyes, and let your thoughts curl around a well-written and well-delivered lyric. I promise I'll post links so that you can see and hear what I mean when I write about my heroes. Bye for now!

Friday, September 28, 2007

Happy Birthday Jeff!

This is Jeff's wife, Lisa, writing the first post of this blog. I set up the blog for Jeff's birthday. His passion is music, and he's a great writer—able to analyze and synthesize his thoughts more clearly than most people I know. He thinks a lot about the music he listens to, and I believe his thoughts are worth sharing with other like-minded music fans. So I'm hoping that in those early morning hours, when he has the quiet house to himself, he'll be compelled to write a paragraph or two about the music he's been mulling over.
Now I better start thinking about a cake. I doubt he'll want a "Starry Night" cake or an "Army" cake, which is what our summer babies each had this year, but perhaps I'd better do something to go with the music theme. A round cake is easy—LP or CD—but how do you do a cake as a download?