Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Twelve Nights Decades Ago

For me, like for so many people my age, Ella Fitzgerald opened the door to the world of jazz. Although she is celebrated for her scat-singing, I fell in love with her more mannered vocals on the Songbook albums that she produced in the late 1950s and early 1960s. I adored the purity of her girlish voice, and I was knocked out by the beauty of the music and the intimacy of the lyrics.

With Ella, it was all about the singing. She was a working singer in the purest sense of the word. If you want to be schooled in how to sing jazz, just listen to her and Mel Torme endlessly. May I suggest that one of your primary texts be the newly released 4-CD set, Ella Fitzgerald: Twelve Nights in Hollywood?

Recorded in May of 1962 at a jazz club, it captures Ella at the height of her powers. Jazz singing is best experienced live: it’s thrilling to watch a singer surrender to a rhythm or a melody, and make decisions about delivery on the run. The interplay among the players is fascinating to follow. That’s one big reason why we must be eternally grateful for pianist Lou Levy’s stewardship on this set. He anchors a drummer, guitarist, and bass player. They set the rhythm in motion, and Ella sends it skyward.

The purity of this recording is astounding. You feel as if you’ve got a front table (and consequently you get quite irritated at the folks at the back of the club who chatter through the ballads). You can imagine watching Ella in the prime of her life. (She was 44, I believe, at the time. The Coke-bottle glasses were to come in the next decade along with the deep lack of security due to the ascendancy of rock-and-roll. My, but this moment was truly the calm before the storm!)

Fred Kaplan describes how the sets eventually got released in The New York Times. It's amazing to think that it took so long for this music to see the light of day!

Ella Fitzgerald was blessed with a girlish voice that never left her. It’s immensely appealing, but the woman’s got soul too. I’d never fully appreciated it until I watched an American Masters special on her called Something to Live For. It is here that you learn about her tough childhood, and her loneliness.

If you read Stuart Nicholson’s Ella Fitzgerald: A Biography of the First Lady of Jazz, you’ll understand how throughout her life Ella struggled with her weight and self-image.

She was not sexy like an Anita O’Day or Julie London. Any other component of who she was could not be visible given the racial attitudes in the world she inhabited. She was black, and that consigned her to an alternate world. I can’t recall any of her albums in my father’s collection. He didn’t really collect jazz singers. Instead he gravitated towards pop singers: Perry Como, Doris Day, and Frank Sinatra being prime examples.

I, of course, found all these people the very definition of being square. They were so out of touch with youth culture, so insincere and glitzy. No, give me the lyrical honesty of the folksingers and singer-songwriters. James Taylor, Carole King, Paul Simon—these people sang from the heart. My father’s favorites were frauds.

I maintained this attitude until my junior year in college. My family’s life was changing dramatically then: they were being uprooted from Pittsburgh to Chicago. Shortly afterwards we learned that my mother had cancer. Learning all of this from afar, I suppose I turned to the old songs to be reminded of my childhood home that had always rang with them.

That’s when I started with Ella Fitzgerald’s songbooks. From there Nat King Cole was a graceful next step. My father was extremely pleased with my appreciation for Frank Sinatra. It was the end of the 1970s.

The jazz and pop world began overlapping during a renaissance that began with the wholly unexpected popularity of Sinatra’s Trilogy album in 1980. (The 3-album set featured his last great hit “New York, New York.”)

Slowly but surely, the singers from a bygone era re-emerged. Mel Torme became a New York nightclub sensation, and his album Live at Marty's recorded the historical moment. Tony Bennett, who had been toiling in relative obscurity after being dropped by Columbia in the early 1970s, returned to begin a new and equally lengthy relationship with the label, thanks to the managerial acumen of his son Danny and the awareness that there was a hunger for the classic pop that predated the era of rock-and-roll. Jazz labels like Verve mined their archives and began re-releasing classic works.

I launched my independent study of Sinatra, memorizing most of his music. I also pursued jazz singers, expanding my record collection enormously with works by Bobby Short, Susannah McCorkle, Lena Horne, et al. I enjoyed making my own way, thinking bemusedly that I was truly listening to “alternative” music, considering my age.

Anyway, Ella Fitzgerald was my launching pad, and I will always love her for that fact. I’m grateful that this new release has re-ignited my admiration for her.

Click here for Ella in 1974. You'll enjoy her introduction to "It Don't Mean a Thing (If It Ain't Got That Swing").

Click here for an outtake from the American Masters special on Ella.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

An Emotional Spectacle

If you love songwriters, then you're undoubtedly pleased to know that Elvis Costello's Spectacle has been renewed and is currently airing On Demand and on the Sundance Channel. Last season had some wonderful moments--most memorable for me were his interviews with Tony Bennett and Rufus Wainwright.

This season is two episodes in (of 7), and already it's hit a peak for me. It occurred in a songwriter's showcase featuring Sheryl Crow, Neko Case, Ron Sexsmith, and Jesse Winchester.

I have loved Jesse Winchester since his debut album in 1970. Costello referred to that release as being equal in stature and achievement to other great albums of the time, such as James Taylor's Sweet Baby James and Neil Young's After the Gold Rush. Ah, Elvis! That statement alone endeared you to me (along with last season's confession that he is a monstrous Bing Crosby fan).

He asked Jesse what went into his decision to flee to Canada to avoid the draft at that time. Jesse admitted that it was a decision made by a young man and, if he had to make it now, he would at least give it deeper thought. Then it was on to the music.

Ron Sexsmith, a round-faced mopheaded Canadian, played "Secret Heart", a song of his that he said resignedly many people confuse as being written by Feist (since she had the hit with it--ah, the damned obscurity of the true talent!). Lovely song, delivered with Sexsmith's signature sweet tenor. (Later he was to duet with Elvis on "Everyday I Write the Book", a song the latter thanked Sexsmith for reviving his interest in.)

Sheryl Crow was seated next to Sexsmith. She was all teeth and bare arms. Don't get me wrong--I think she looks fabulous, and I do enjoy her music. It just doesn't stick in my ear, and the one time that I heard her live I was singularly unimpressed at her stagecraft. (Standing stone still through most of the show and not interacting much with the audience will not win this coffeehouse/nightclub frequenter's affections.) She sang "If It Makes You Happy". I enjoyed her admitting before singing that it's often the songs you like the least as a songwriter that turn out to be the hits!

Neko Case, the youngest songwriter among the five in the circle, was next. She won me over immediately by discussing her deep love of Harry Nilsson. She followed by singing "Don't Forget Me", a lovely ballad that features his strange and bewitching mixture of sweetness and sarcasm.

Then Jesse Winchester was up. Clearly the elder in this group, he was re-introduced by Costello, who mentioned how he was a big fan and adored Winchester's new release, Love's Filling Station. Jesse followed by playing "Sham-A-Ling-Dong-Dong" from that CD. The title refers to a song that lovers recall from their youth.

When we danced was not a dance but more a long embrace
We held on to each other and we floated there in space
and I was shy to kiss you while the whole wide world could see
So "Sham-a-Ling" said everything for me

And all the poor old folks they thought that we'd lost our minds
They could not make heads or tails of the young folks' funny rhymes
But you and I knew all the words and we always sang along
to old "Sham-a-Ling-Dong-Ding, Sham-a-Ling-Dang-Dong"

One of the wonderful things about Spectacle is, well, the spectacle of watching people--especially songwriters--listen. I love how they hunch over their guitars, letting the lyrics pour in and move them. To me, it's as intimate as television can be and with Jesse Winchester, who sings sweetly of kisses and faded youth, that is very intimate indeed.

A close-up caught Neko Case crying while listening to the song, and that sight triggered tears immediately in me. (They come easily--not just because of my faded youth, but my perpetual sleep-deprivation!)

Anyway, Jesse's song proceeds to cover the long course of his subjects' love, and how he bets that the old folks had their own "Sham-a-Ling" moment in their youth. Then he ends by summarizing the sentiment.

All those sweet old love songs
oh, every word rings true
"Sham-a-Ling-Dong-Ding" means "sweetheart"
"Sham-a-Ling-Dang-Dong" does too
It means that right here in my arms
well, that's where you belong
and it means "Sham-a-ling-dong-ding,

It's a remarkable song from an album that merits wide attention. I hope that Costello's support of Jesse Winchester brings it.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Zito's Zingy Stringy Legacy

Torrie Zito, a musical arranger who worked with a lot of great singers, died last week. Reading his obituary got me thinking about the role of an arranger, and the impact Torrie Zito has had on my listening.

Since I'm a huge Sinatra fan, I can immediately hear Zito's string arrangements on two songs from a long-forgotten 1965 musical (Skyscraper): "Everybody's Got the Right to Be Wrong" and "I Only Miss Her When I Think of Her". The former is a nice swing number; the latter a ballad. Why are these songs planted in my memory? It is due to the combination of Sinatra with his impeccable phrasing and Zito with his arranging. No singer stands alone.

I'm preparing for a musical performance, so I can appreciate the communication that needs to occur between a singer and his or her musical arranger. A song is basically a template, and the pleasure of collecting countless versions of standards is discovering how they can be rethought and experienced anew through the filter of another singer and arranger.

If you're a Tony Bennett fan, you have heard much Zito in your aural pasta. His temperament is similar to Bennett's: although his style must ultimately be branded "pop music", there is always a strong jazz undercurrent. Reading an interview with Zito brought up a name from the 1960s that I hadn't thought about in years: Andre Kostelanetz. Oh, how my father loved his records (along with the Ray Conniff Singers). How I defined them as the quintessence of musical cheese! And how I've come to eat my words over the years! (Well, I appreciate Zito, anyway.)

Troll through a search for Zito on Barnes & Noble and you're knocked out to realize how many great performers he worked with over his career. He was a musical craftsman who honed a style that provided a platform that many singers found attractive.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Is Jazz Still Culturally Relevant?

I love jazz. Like folk music, it's a style that can be hard to define. Many people visualize a horn or saxophone when they think about jazz. If you were in a band in high school or if you play an orchestral instrument, you're a potential audience for jazz. If you love singers like I do, then you are soon pulled into this world.

Loving jazz is like loving cowboys, silent movies, or long train rides. There's a sentimentality to it. Jazz has a small audience. It's typically over 40 and well-off. The music is taught in colleges and universities now (forget the romance of cultivating your love by frequenting nightclubs, like Nat King Cole did listening to Art Tatum). It's perceived as something that you have to "get" (and those who do "get" it are thought of as intellectual).

I was moved to blog this morning by a report on the BBC about a new website where you can hear performances from the Newport Jazz Festival circa 1959. In the report, they discuss how jazz was in its heyday 50 years ago when it was "culturally relevant." That phrase struck with me.

Why is jazz not relevant to our culture today? What made jazz relevant 50 years ago? Let's start with the latter question. 1959 was a "swing year" in so many ways. It was the end of the Eisenhower administration. The conservatism and repression long associated with this cultural time was being jostled by the Beats, and the jazz world was energized by the Bebop style. It was no longer just big-band music--like poetry or folk music (also rising at this time), jazz was highly individualistic and expressive. We were turning the corner politically and culturally in this country.

Are we at a similar juncture today? Perhaps not just yet. Fifty years ago it was much easier to get audiences to listen. Now it seems people are almost discombobulated by all the clamor and appeals for their attention. Jazz is not relevant because it makes demands on listeners. It's not glitz and fog machines on stage. It's a melodic line re-imagined inventively. It's the interplay of silence and sound.

The report concludes with a call to not let jazz become a "fetish about the past". Listeners are urged to go to a club and experience jazz live. It's there you'll capture its essence: how it's a spontaneous and creative music, and how a performance is molded from communication between the players.

Great advice. That's how my love grew. Jazz will have a future as long as there is a need for intimacy. In this clamorous, hyperkinetic world, you'd think the jazz tide would be rising. Maybe all those American Idol viewers and karaoke singers will grow a little older and find their way to the club. Here's hoping they do.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

The Wisdom and Wit of Cheryl Wheeler

If you have musical talent and fortune draws you to the life of a folksinger, you are destined to live quietly. Outside of the early 1960s when Greenwich Village spawned the "folk boom", this style of music has never sold well. The general listener finds it too mellow and uninspiring, and the need to focus on the lyric too burdensome.

I have always loved folk music. Long ago I identified with Woody Guthrie: the image of someone riding the rails and traveling the country with a guitar slung across his back was so romantic to me. Add to that the social consciousness of a Pete Seeger or Phil Ochs, and this nephew of mill-working uncles is totally in.

Folk is played in coffeehouses and churches. Its practitioners are schooled in stagecraft because of the demands of this intimacy. Many folk singers are warm and funny. They're good storytellers. Which leads me to this entry's subject: Cheryl Wheeler.

Cheryl Wheeler has achieved success in the hermetic world of folk music, yet few people know of her. Its partly due to the fact that her music is better known in recordings by luminaries like Garth Brooks, Bette Midler, Kathy Mattea, and Peter, Paul and Mary. It's also due to her undoubtedly meticulous standard of songwriting and the attendant long gap between releases: like Paul Simon or Randy Newman in their heyday, Cheryl Wheeler seems to be on a four-year cycle between albums.

Some of her music demands careful listening but, once you're engaged, you are awestruck at both her poetry and creative musical design. Cheryl Wheeler writes songs that bring succor when you're down. If you're inclined to be morally outraged, she'll produce a politically charged number that will appeal to you. If you just want to laugh, you'll have ample opportunity.

Wheeler's sheer talent makes her stand out from the crowd and her latest release, Pointing at the Sun, provides a glittering example of it.

It begins with the quiet, contemplative "Holding On". Over a rhythmic bass line whose regularity reminds you of a clock or a heartbeat, Cheryl asks her listener to keep the faith.

I won't let you fall. Hear me loud and clear.
I will not let go. I will be right here, holding on.

Later she weaves in some nature imagery.

And when some lonesome wind has hemmed you in
Don't you believe that sound
You will surely rise above these tides
To higher ground

It's a hypnotic number. Her voice is warm and embracing.

Wheeler then switches gears and delivers an orchestrated update of "Summer Fly", a song she first recorded in 1987. Looking back at that record, I noticed that her musical collaborator throughout her career has been keyboardist Kenny White. I also became aware that Jonathan Edwards (remember the song "Sunshine"?) gave Wheeler her start in the music business. On her first album he offered these words about her. Speaking of having her on his tour Edwards said:

..(it) was one of the most enjoyable and rewarding coast-to-coast tours I've ever done featuring, yes, Cheryl playing the bass and singing those high, rich, clear vocals....then came (her) songs. Songs of the here and now: intense, precise, skillfully drawn pictures of the life we all know but rarely appreciate until an artist like Cheryl wakes us up. A fascinating blend of melody and chords and rhythms and phrasing that actually compel the listener to get inside and become part of the stories and vignettes she sings about. Honest, sincere songs written from the heart and sung straight from the soul.

High praise, and richly deserved. My attention to liner notes have also yielded this additional fact: from the start, Cheryl has been hooked into Mary Chapin Carpenter and her players, namely John Jennings and Duke Levine. I love everything they do too!

Anyway, to return to 2009's Pointing at the Sun: this CD doesn't feature any overtly political songs (such as 1993's "Don't Forget the Guns" or 1999's "If It Were Up to Me") and its humor is not in the same vein as her immortal ode to a spud "Potato". Instead, Cheryl ends the CD with a suite of songs dedicated to a passionate interest of hers; the cat.

These songs really end the CD on a high note. It begins with a Calypso-flavored number called "White Cat". Shortly after the start of this piece, Cheryl drops into a rap. Here's a taste of it.

I was in the garden, taking the sun
Checking out the bugs, musta rolled on one
So I got this slug bug stuck to my fur real good
But I didn't really mind, just a little bit o'slime
I'll find it later, you know, scratching my back
Be glad I saved it, make a nice little snack

I simply adore Billy Novick's clarinet playing on this one, as well as Sonny Barbato's accordion.

Next follows a number with a Django Reinhardt flavor to it, "Cat Accountant" and finally we conga out to "My Cat's Birthday". What fun! Here's to Cheryl Wheeler, and to top-quality songwriters everywhere!

Click here for Cheryl's TV appearance with fiddler Mark O'Connor and fellow songwriter Michael Johnson:

"Is It Peace or Is It Prozac" provides an example of Cheryl's wit, stage presence, and rapid wordplay.

"Estate Sale" from 1990's Circles & Arrows (on Capitol Records!) is a favorite Wheeler tune of mine.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Nellie McKay: The Complete Musical Package

Nellie McKay (pronounced Ma-kye) has all the trapping of what's regularly called "a gay icon". She has a high-pitched voice that on certain notes is eerily reminiscent of Blossom Dearie and immediately puts you in mind of Betty Boop. Her appearance is often decidedly retro.

She writes eccentric lyrics, as in a song about answering the door when you're sloshed because your cat died ("Ding Dong") or the following about performing at a gay club.


Saturday night in the men's ensemble dressing room
Watchin' the fight in the men's ensemble lair
You may escape the cage
But then you have to share a stage, and tell 'em I'll be there
(It's Saturday night)

And now back to our new high school
And they got me wrong
Yeah, they got me wrong again

And although you're all talentless fools
Can't we get along
Can't we get along, my friends

I got to be free
I got to for me
And if you can't see, well, that's enough
That's all that I need to see you're all insecure, pedicured f**cks
(It's Saturday night)

(It's Saturday night)
And now's the time to vindicate
Tomorrow's just a matinee
And then we settle scores
(It's Saturday night)

She has dueted with Cyndi Lauper.

I suppose if you're cynical, you'd say that she's courted her demographic.

But there's another demographic she appeals to: anyone who loves jazz singing and smart lyrics. Witness a late night TV appearance on YouTube, and you instantly understand why fans of Dave Frishberg or Bob Dorough would take to her immediately.

NPR, on its "Project Song" series, explores the creative process for songwriters, and Nellie McKay's session with host Bob Boilen is a wonder to behold. Try carving out the time to enjoy it.

Anyway, it's clear that she is a phenomenon, like Melody Gardot. Blonde and lovely like her and a jazz singing/songwriting prodigy. Any song she writes is sure to include clever language play, often choosng just the write word for its meaning and musicality.


Just pour me a drink
Cuz I need a lie
I don't wanna think
I just wanna die

David don't you hear me at all
David don't you hear through the wall
Waitin' here not makin' a sound
David come around

Chaos pervades the world outside
Days offer spades of hurled outcries
Gone is the fair and five and dime
But he is there
He's so fine

Listen to her play
Has somethin' to say
Even has a rap
Clap clap clap
But click there goes the lid
Sorry 'bout the fib
I ain't got a grip on nothin'

Nellie McKay is a very funny person, but in her music she explores her darker moods. It ain't easy loving musical styles from yesteryear, wearing antique fashions, and playing multiple instruments (piano, ukuele, cello) at a young age. It's a recipe for an outsider.

"Real Life"

Cause if I had a real life
I could break the rules
And maybe feel life
Instead of foolish
As if I had a real life
Not a cruel and choking false reality

Nellie is a vegan and a political activist. This gal will not be pigeon-holed! Take this song about war.

"Toto Dies"

Yeah I'll have my coffee black
Hey look we're bombing Iraq
I guess that's the only way
Oh did I tell you we got Fifi spayed?
And when they get to work they hear drums
The boom fills all the empty space
They file papers lada-dee-dum
Trimming their shoebox with lace

Oh-ee-oh but there's somethin' a growin'
Oh-ee-oh through the bustle and hiss
Oh-ee-oh fuck the lawns that need mowin'
Oh-ee-oh there is somethin' amiss
Oh-ee-oh oh-ee-oh oh-ee-oh

Like most vegans, in addition to becoming one for environmental reasons, she chose to be one because she loves animals. Consider the following song.

"The Dog Song"

My life was tragic and sad
Yeah I was the archetypal loser
I was a pageant gone bad
Then there was you on time
And wagging your tail
In the cutest mime
And you was in jail
I said woof, be mine
And you gave a wail
And then I was no longer alone
And I was no more a boozer
We'll make the happiest home
And I said lord I'm happy
'cause I'm just a walkin' my dog
Singin' my song
Strollin' along
It's just me and my dog
Catchin' some sun
We can't go wrong
'cause I don't care 'bout your hatin' and your doubt
And I don't care what the politicians spout
If you need a companion
Well just go right to the pound
And find yourself a hound
And make that doggie proud
'cause that's what it's all about
That's what it's all about
That's what it's all abow-wow-wow-wout
That's what it's all about

Given this background, it's not surprising that Nellie's road led to Doris Day. Her latest release (Normal As Blueberry Pie: A Tribute to Doris Day) is the reason that I've fallen in love with her music.

First of all, this CD does not dip into the familiar suspects for a Doris Day tribute. No "Que Sera Sera" or "It's Magic" here. Instead Nellie chooses Doris Day vocal renderings that speak to her and inspire her. So, once again, a listener is treated to the well-worn standards like "Sentimental Journey", "The Very Thought of You", and "Mean to Me". Her take on these songs is refreshing: sprinkling organ, synthesizer, and tympani certainly helps. Witness the use of her ukulele on Antonio Carlos Jobim's "Meditation".

What's terrific is that she broadens the tribute to take in great songs I've never heard before. There's Bacharach and David's "Send Me No Flowers"; Rodgers and Hammerstein's "Wonderful Guy"; Johnny Mercer's "Dig It"; and "Black Hills of Dakota" (hauntingly delivered with just a drums).

Then there's Nellie's take on some lesser-known Gershwin ("Do, Do, Do") and "Crazy Rhythm" (which sounds like Gershwin, but isn't). I've been playing this CD repeatedly in the car, and I can testify that my 7-year old has taken to these songs!

You really should buy this CD rather than download it. The booklet's design is such fun to look at. It harkens to the 1950s, and features Nellie in a variety of couture from the period. Get this gal a guest appearance on Mad Men! Also included are quotes from prominent writers and thinkers on animals and vegetarianism. Plus there's the most delightful dog.

You'll also be reaching for the booklet regularly to figure out what instruments you're hearing in a song. Her musical skill and creativity is truly breathtaking.

I hope you'll take the time to navigate my links and fall in love with Nellie--and with the great Doris Day.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Kate & Anna: A Dynamic Duo

I check music out of the library a lot. Recently I had a chance to visit the best library in my system for music. I had no "wish list" (I have failed to maintain that indispensable guide in my wallet), so instead I just meandered in Hingham's incredible collection. It was like I was in a used record shop--except the consequences of picking up all those CDs wouldn't be expensive!

How thrilled I was to discover two old favorites of mine by Kate and Anna McGarrigle! I'd like to focus in this blog on Dancer with Bruised Knees, a 1977 release that I know by heart and love dearly.

Dancer was the duo's second album after their critically acclaimed debut. They were signed to Warner Brothers at the time. Linda Ronstadt had brought popular attention to them with her recording of Anna's "Heart Like a Wheel". This sophomore effort is lighter in spirit than their debut. I recommend it as an introduction to them.

The title track is a lovely harmonious ride with a distinctive chorus.

For years we had been one with the stars
A pas de deux of renown
I'd leap and he'd catch me on the fly
And gently he'd put me down

This song opens with a spoken passage, and ends with vocal "whoops". It's very catchy.

Kate McGarrigle was married to Loudon Wainwright--she is the mother of Rufus and Martha. I've always found it remarkable how similar her comic sensibility is to her ex-husband's. Take the ballad "Southern Boys".

Buttered grits is fare for breakfast
And if you like and your aim is good
Maybe a squirrel
Ten around nine we tap that moonshine
And it's on out to the porch for a moonlight swing
With me, your Northern girl

In this song the humor is tinged with melancholy (a hallmark of Loudon's writing). "I don't mind the hurt/cause the feeling's worth the fall" Kate later sings. Her contributions to this album are stunning. I love the gentle rocking pace of "Walking Song":

Wouldn't it be nice to walk together
Baring our souls while wearing out the leather
We could talk shop, harmonize a song
Wouldn't it be nice to walk along

As I type those lyrics I can feel the rhythm of Kate's piano playing. It goes on about all the subjects that Kate and her walking partner could discuss, and ends cleverly.

This song like this walk I find hard to end
Be my lover be my friend
In sneakers or boots or regulation shoes
Walking beside you
I'll never get the walking blues

Kate & Anna are Canadians, and their early years are satirized by Rufus and Martha on a You Tube birthday greeting. Setting is a strong presence throughout their music. Their sound is clear and clean, and their emotions baldly honest, as in Kate's song "Come a Long Way", the album's last track. It begins:

We've come a long way since we last shook hands
Still got a long way to go
Couldn't see the flowers when we last shook hands

At this point the listener might be thinking, "Oh, this is a relationship that's just starting out. Couldn't see the flowers? Well, that's because they're in the other hand and hidden behind the giver's back. Flower-giving. Another step on the road." But then the zinger quickly follows.

Couldn't see the flowers on account of the snow

Perhaps this song is describing a meeting with Loudon. Especially when talk of bearing a cross comes up.

What did you do with your burden and your cross
Did you carry yourself or did you crack?
We both know that a burden and a cross
Can only be carried on one man's back

This song was actually first recorded by Loudon on 1973's Attempted Mustache. Kate, in speaking about this marriage, talked about how their artistic competitiveness fed into the breakup. It must have rankled Loudon at the time because he was known as the singer of the novelty song "Dead Skunk" while his wife and sister-in-law were acclaimed as such terrific writers.

But talk about melancholy! Here's a passage later in the song.

Give me your hand for the parting touch
Fare thee well and thanks a lot
I know we promised to keep in touch
But you and I know that we both forgot

The music counteracts these dour sentiments. It's sweet and moves at a rapid clip. (Anna harmonizes and plays the button accordion while Kate plays the banjo.) As a listener, you sing along and it's enjoyable just on that level. It is only now as I analyze the lyric that I realize what an artistic triumph it is.

If you're a Rufus fan, you must get this CD for "First Born", a darling dedication to him written by his mother. It will also appeal to you if you know French, because any Kate & Anna album features songs in their native language. (This album features four!) If you're a lover of stellar songwriting they must be appreciated!

The album was produced by the infamous Joe Boyd. I love his work on Warners with Geoff and Maria Muldaur. Boyd has also worked extensively with Richard Thompson, a good friend of Loudon's and the McGarrigles.

Dancer with Bruised Knees probably marked the commercial apex for the McGarrigles. They released two more works on the Warner Brothers label, The French Record and Pronto Monto (featuring the terrific science song "NaCl") and then moved to Polydor for Love Over and Over. Linda Ronstadt continued to record their work, and Emmylou Harris has long been an admirer.

Their recording pace has slowed considerably, but whenever they do release something new, it's an event worth celebrating. Their music is fresh and timeless, and a deep listening pleasure.

Click here for a clip of Kate & Anna with a very young
Rufus and Martha.
Click here for a lovely song, "Better Times Are Coming", from the soundtrack to Ken Burns's Civil War series

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Basia Is Back!

What musical artist always gets you feeling good? For me, it would have to be Basia. She is a pop-jazz singer who hit it big in this country in the early 1990s. Her sound was distinctive--as I researched what to say in this blog about her, I culled some critics. Here are their adjectives to describe Basia's music:

an absorbing blend of R&B, jazz, classic American soul, and Latin flavours

global pop/jazz sound

Latin-tinged, effortlessly funky jazz-pop

Yes, all that, and simply put--it's music that you can't help dance or strum your fingers to. I'm not usually inclined to like material that might be classified as "smooth jazz", but Basia is much more than that. Kinda Gloria Estefan-like, but more expansive.

I've heard that her lyrics are good, but I can't get off the music long enough to focus upon them. Maybe it's her singing. It doesn't matter, though--there's that beat, and those chord progressions that are so memorable.

Take a look at some of her hits: "Cruising for a Bruising", Baby You're Mine", "Until You Come Back to Me", and "Time and Tide".

Reviewing these videos on YouTube, I couldn't help thinking how much she resembled a dancer in a Robert Palmer video with that exaggerated lipstick and porcelain skin. And yet, unlike the Palmer video dancers whose hair is slicked back, Basia's is flowing, and her face has a strong Eastern European physiognomy. Listening to the music, I recall another singer who broke about the same time Basia did, a Brit named Lisa Stansfield. Both singers have R & B underpinnings that undoubtedly appealed to an old Motown lover like me.

Basia has a new release out (It's That Girl Again), and it's only her second in the last 15 years, so it's time to celebrate. I had forgotten where I left my happy pills! She has the same hair and lipstick that she had all those years ago, but the face is more weathered (as all ours are, I suppose). The sound is miraculously the same.

Printed on the CD itself are these words: "Basia: It's That Girl Again. Saying All Is Good and Well. But Why Is She Looking So Pleased After All That Has Happened." I searched for the trauma on-line, but couldn't find anything but a nice nine-minutes of promotion. Ah, what's it matter! Welcome back, Basia!

The promo will give you a taste of her latest release, as well as a 2-part interview that she have to a "Smooth Jazz" station somewhere. If you are unfamiliar with Basia, I highly recommend this release. It is irresistible!

Friday, October 30, 2009

Boffo Bye Bye Birdie!


Inspired by its inclusion in one of my favorite shows (Mad Men), I recently watched the musical Bye Bye Birdie with Jason Alexander, Tyne Daly, and Vanessa Williams. I'm so glad that I took the time to do so. (Many is the the time I check a title out of the library and never get to it.)

This 1960 musical is the masterwork of Charles Strouse and Lee Adams. It originally featured Dick van Dyke and Chita Rivera as the music industry managers of an Elvis Presley-inspired singer named Conrad Birdie. The show was inspired by Presley's 1958 departure for a hitch in the Army. It depicts his time in the town of Sweet Apple, Ohio, where he's engaged in a publicity scheme: he's going to bestow a last goodbye kiss on a contest-winning acolyte before leaving the country.

Memorable songs from the score include "Put on a Happy Face" and "A Lot of Livin' to Do". I think the film version of the film is fondly remembered also--it memorably featured Paul Lynde as Ann-Margaret's father singing "Kids".

The 1995 version showcases the musical talents of Jason Alexander and Vanessa Williams. Directed by Gene Sacks, it perfectly captures the look of the time. I found my eyes engulfed in period detail, and completely impressed with how subtly it was captured.

You must find this movie and enjoy Jason Alexander twirling around a rail station lobby with his partner as he sings "Put on a Happy Face". (Or just click on my YouTube link!) He doesn't look like a dancer, but you'll revise your opinion after viewing this scene. He's perfect for the role as a Momma's boy trying to break free at the age of 39. Forehead slaps and rolling eyes abound--and George Costanza looks like he's from another time. I loved how his eyes looked longingly at his Latin spitfire and his mugging in general.

Vanessa Williams as the spitfire is a revelation. With her raven hair and deep dark eyes, she is hypnotic, as perfectly communicated in her main number performed at a men's club, "Shriner's Ballet". I was struck by the staging of this one. The adoring faces of the men as they hoist Vanessa and carry her down a dance line is hilarious, and her dancing--well, all I can say is I've put more Vanessa Williams movies on hold at the library. If you love her in the TV series Ugly Betty, you're going to fall head over heels for her here.

One last word. Tyne Daly as Jason Alexander's mother is an absolute hoot. With her long fur coat serving as a metaphor for the burden she's always been for her son, she delivers her lines with such verve and humor. This role could have been simply annoying in someone else's hands, but she nails it. I can't erase the image of her at the end of the film, falling over backwards into a pond as she realizes that her "little" boy is leaving her.

The show is currently being restaged on Broadway. I doubt that they can top what I watched!

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

An A+ Project

Charlie Poole in 1930

There is no other singer/songwriter quite like Loudon Wainwright III. I've never heard anyone as baldly confessional as he is in song. His wry observations are always laced with wit and humor. You listen to Loudon's life story and continually marvel at how he crystallizes an emotional moment: losing your anger with a child, feeling sheepish at a playground with all the mothers there, preferring your solitude, and (for all you fame-seekers) groveling for notoriety.

What's especially interesting about Loudon's latest, and perhaps most ambitious, release (High Wide & Handsome: The Charlie Poole Project) is how he steps back from the confessional and turns to the sentimental. Even while doing so, his feet are still firmly planted in both approaches.

Charlie Poole, a banjo player from the early 20th century, was a rambler, a rascal, and a drunk. He hailed from Spray, North Carolina, a cotton mill town. During Charlie's life, thousands of people from the hill country around Spray improved their existences marginally by coming to work in the mills. The hours were long and the work backbreaking. After punching the clock, these folks were ready to party, and Charlie and his group often provided the entertainment.

He had a magnetic style. Driven by a passion for music, Charlie made his first banjo out of a gourd. He would sneak out of the mill and play his banjo on a bridge nearby. So many of his co-workers poked their heads out of the mill's windows to hear and see him, he got fired. And then, because he continued playing outside and getting the same reaction, he was rehired and told to play inside the mill!

Charlie was a busker. (Weren't most folk musicians before they had festivals?) When Poole performed he would sometimes do somersaults, and leap over a chair, landing on his back, then continuing his dance on his hands with his feet up in the air.

One can appreciate his attraction to Loudon Wainwright. There is the attitude of devil-may-care recklessness evinced in the music associated with Charlie Poole. A big theme in Loudon's life story is his celebration of being divorced and alone--coupled with the guilt of disappointing the families he's left behind.

Loudon is also a terrific live act. Although he doesn't leap over chairs, he has facial and vocal mannerisms that keep you rapt in addition to the power of his singing and lyrics.

So Loudon can inhabit Charlie's spirit, and he does so brilliantly. This 2-CD set is structured like a play. If only Loudon, who acts professionally, were still in his 30s and could star in it! (Charlie Poole drank himself to death at 39.)

What's marvelous is that the most confessional singer-songwriter of his generation celebrates a man who didn't write much music at all. In fact, not one of the 28 tracks on this project are written by Poole. When searching to express his life story, the barely literate Charlie mined Tin Pan Alley and the traditional music of his fellow country folk. That's what makes this release such a lovely evocation of an era.

About three-quarters of the project are a labor of musicology. What wonderful songs are revived, and how beautifully presented they are! There's "The Letter That Never Came", written by Paul Dresser, the brother of Theodore Dreiser and author of "On the Banks of the Wabash, Far Away", the second-best selling song (in terms of sheet music) of the nineteenth century. It is haunted by a simple question, so quaint to hear today: "Is there any mail for me?" There's a number by Harry von Tilzer ("Wait Till the Sun Shines Nellie", "Only a Bird in a Gilded Cage" and "And The Green Grass Grew All Around") called "Moving Day" in which sweet harmonizing is done by Loudon's second family, the Roches. The lyrics of this one resonate today:

Landlord said this morning to me,
"Give me your key, this flat ain't free.
I can't get any rent out of you
Pack your rags and skidoo."

No, this song is not a blues. The attitude is more, "All right, well, let's sing as we pack." I love it!

Loudon, who was extremely close to his mother (his grieving memorably chronicled on 2001's The Last Man on Earth), is clearly moved by an era in which motherhood was often celebrated in song. "My Mother & My Sweetheart", which features just a violin, piano, bass, and Loudon's guitar, will move you to tears, I'm warning you.

The project is handsomely packaged to resemble a book. (Trim size of the case looks to be around 5.5 inches by 6.5 inches.) The interior of the case is festooned with photographs of Charlie and his family, along with images of sheet music and old music contracts. Included is a terrific booklet which surely will be nominated for a Grammy this year. In addition to the lyrics, it features liner notes by famous music critic Greil Marcus (whose 1975's Mystery Train placed rock and roll in a larger context of cultural archetypes like Moby Dick and The Great Gatsby).

The project was produced by Dick Connette (who had also produced Loudon on The Last Man on Earth and Geoff Muldaur on his remarkable 2003 tribute to Bix Beiderbecke, Private Astronomy). He co-wrote four of the songs with Loudon, and wrote two others on his own, and they all seamlessly blend into the mood.

There is a warmth here that's absent from music-making and life in general right now. I expect this CD to be up for a Grammy this year, and, oh, if Loudon could only then go on stage and realize a dream he first sang of in "The Grammy Song" from 1982's Fame and Wealth.

Last night I dreamed I won a Grammy
It was presented to me by Debbie Harry
I ran up on stage in my tux
I gulped and I said, "Aw, shucks,
I'd like to thank my producers
and Jesus Christ."

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Happy Birthday, Freddy!

If you search through my archives, you'll find an entry in which I rhapsodize about Freddy Cole. Today is his 78th birthday. If you ever have an opportunity to hear and see him, seize it. His phrasing and timing are so smooth. A decade ago his voice would have reminded you very much of his brother Nat's. Now it's much huskier, but he still makes great romantic listening. Here's a link to a story about him from 3 years ago.

Long may your run, Freddy!

Monday, October 12, 2009

The Rich Soul of Williams and Rawls

I'd like to celebrate two sensational jazz/blues singers in this entry: Joe Williams and Lou Rawls. By happy accident, they both wound up in my listening rotation recently. While I listened, I enjoyed comparing the arrangements and the vocal attack of each artist.

Both singers tackle a rich variety of material. On the Joe Williams albums, reissued by by Collectables Jazz, he sings standards like "Sleepy Time Gal" and "My Romance" as well as popular songs of the day ("People", "That Face"). But he also stirs in the blues upon which he acquired his fame with the Basie Orchestra in the 1950s. He sings "Rocks in My Bed" and "Kansas City". The orchestrations are energetic, and Joe swings effortlessly through, backed by top-notch musicians such as Clark Terry, Phil Woods, and Hank Jones.

The Lou Rawls collection--again, two albums on one CD issued by Capitol Jazz--features songs that Williams undoubtedly sang earlier with Basie: ""Goin' to Chicago Blues", "Everyday I Have the Blues", as well as a song that would soon become Rawls' signature: "Tobacco Road". In these sessions from 1962-1963, the orchestra positively cooks throughout. There is no way to sit still when listening to this music.

To think that the albums were issued just before the British Invasion. What a turn the musical world was soon to take! These albums were Rawls' third and fourth albums on Capital. He was 30 years old and still making a name in the business. A childhood friend of Sam Cooke, he had survived a car crash after an engagement (despite being declared dead on the way to the hospital!)

Both singers were from Chicago. It was Lou Rawls's birthplace, and Joe Williams moved there from Georgia when he was 4. When they were young both were trained to sing gospel, and both were exposed to the jazz influences of the time. For Williams, 15 years older than Rawls, that meant going to hear Louie Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Ethel Walters, and Cab Calloway. A young Lou Rawls would be influenced by Billy Eckstine, Arthur Prysock, and Joe Williams (!)

I first became aware of Joe Williams by listening to A Man Ain't Supposed to Cry, an extremely powerful set of torch songs and ballads that he recorded in 1958 after leaving the Basie band. His voice is so satiny smooth on this album. It's absolutely gorgeous, and reminiscent of Sinatra's best sides with Gordon Jenkins.

I have gradually developed a taste for the substantial blues in his repetoire, but I am more enthusiastic whenever he swings on uptempo numbers. Joe Williams's voice was so deep and rich. There was such complete command and authority. If you've never listened to him, you MUST!

People my age might remember Lou Rawls for his hit "You'll Never Find". Or perhaps as spokesperson for Anheuser Busch beginning in 1976. This association led to their sponsorship for Lou's efforts to raise funds for the United Negro College Fund. For years he would host a telethon to raise money for the Fund, even though he had never attended college.

I guess I'd always thought that Lou Rawls was a little cheesy, but when I dug into his tracks from the 1960s I completely revised my opinion. This man rocks and rolls with the best of the swingers! He's a terrific storyteller (in fact, his website claims he was "pre-rap" thanks to his talking/singing songs like "Tobacco Road") plus his phrasing is always inventive.
His vocal decisions always display nuance and subtlety, and he brings something new to everything he sings. (I especially love his swinging version of "Ol' Man River".) No wonder Frank Sinatra declared that Lou had "the classiest singing and silkiest chops in the singing game."

I recommend these CDs highly. They are representative of that last flash of jazz heat in popular music before rock and roll buried it completely. After listening, you will be inspired to investigate both singers much further, I assure you!

Thursday, October 8, 2009

The Day the Music Died?

I've experienced a strange concurrence of musical and cultural events lately that I'm still trying to come to peace with. Perhaps writing about it will.

Recently my wife and I were cleaning our basement. Spying my uncle's stereo, I impulsively decided to get it repaired and take it to my classroom. So I lugged the behemoth to THE store for stereo repairs (Audio Lab in Harvard Square) and, since the cost of the repair wasn't bad, went ahead with the deal.

I was all set afterwards to play my vinyl as I worked in my classroom, but I discovered I needed speaker wire. It necessitated a 20 minute or so drive north to a place called U Do It Electronics. What an anachronism! From its 1960s signage clearly visible from Route 128 to its salesmen in their shirts and ties, this store is a wonder. Aisles and aisles of cables and electronic gizmoes. How reassuring to know that my past is still alive in more than just my head!

What makes this experience strange is that the whole time I'm going through it I'm wondering about what music and memories are worth. I'm acting my age, for sure, as I stay wedded to the physical reality of a recording. Why can't I just move on? If I need music, just go to Rhapsody and play it from my computer, or download the album from ITunes. Why do I still need to touch the record, and to open up the CD booklet?

I need to have booklet in my hand. I want to read the liner notes, look at who wrote the songs, and check out the personnel. I probably could get this information online, but it's just not the same. Does the fact that young people are getting their music delivered digitally these days mean that fewer of them are looking up the background that liner notes provide? Ah, probably not--if they love the band/singer, they'll read about them online and discover much more than liner notes.

Yes, I'm entering senior citizenville. I feel an overwhelming emptiness when I shopped recently at an area Borders. I walked through their aisles, and I could not feel any excitement. The front of the store was devoted to display upon display of vampire books (the Twilight tie-in). Forget about literature being proudly trumpeted! Their music department had shrunk to what seemed like 10% of the floor space. They no longer seemed interested in making it look attractive. I noticed that they weren't even carrying Barbra Streisand's new CD, of which much ado was made in The New York Times. C'mon--the senior set will be looking for their Babs in the brick and mortar!

It's tough sledding finding a "new release" these days. The only music stores with any vitality in my area are the Newbury Comics outlets and, given my pedantic tastes, it's a crap shoot whether or not they even have what I'm looking for. But at least they have aisle upon aisle of music, much of it shrink-wrapped and fresh. At least in these environments, and in stellar second-hand music shops like Planet Records (Harvard Square), I can still feel the love--and feel the comfort that there's still a place for people like me who like to acquire their music in this way.

But time's winged chariot is picking up speed. Our dour economy may deliver the knockout punch to these retail outlets. Probably for the best--it'll lower my carbon footprint, and Lord knows I have enough liner notes to reread!

Monday, September 28, 2009

Audacious O'Day

Anita O'Day at the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival

I'm an enormous fan of jazz singers. I aspire to be one myself. My music collection is testimony to this passion. I caught the singing bug in the early 1980s. It was during this period that I devoted myself to studying the Great American Songbook. Drawn to this emotionally powerful music by my mother's death, I've never let go. I began by completely familiarizing myself with the repetoire of Sinatra, Bennett, Nat King Cole, Ella Fitzgerald, Mabel Mercer and Bobby Short. Over the years I've enjoyed many more singers, and I'm constantly on the lookout for ones I've neglected or didn't know about. Put Anita O'Day in the former camp.

Until I fell in love with her by watching the recent documentary Anita O'Day: The Life of a Jazz Singer, I kept her at a distance because she struck me as a jazz critic's favorite, but not the People's Choice. From what I'd heard of her, she had a pleasant tone reminiscent of Chris Connor or June Christy, but she departed from the melody too freely for my taste, either by scatting or making her voice like an instrument. I never found it good storytelling, which to me is the sine qua non of excellent singing.

But now that I've heard her story, it will enrich my listening to her considerably. What a life! The documentary chronicles O'Day's rise as a singer for Stan Kenton and a soloist in the 1950s. The television clips from this period make compelling viewing: she is so completely in charge as a singer, giving color to songs and providing fascinating tonal interplay with the musicians accompanying her. The pinnacle of her career--an appearance at the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival captured gorgeously on film--has her tearing up the song "Sweet Georgia Brown". Oh, to look out at the audience digging her that day. A total Mad Men moment!

You'll learn that Anita O'Day had a 40 year or so drug-and alcohol-besotted relationship with her drummer, John Poole. You'll see her interviewed by Dick Cavett, Tom Snyder, and Bryant Gumbel and through it all looking and sounding marvelous despite her troubles. She is so completely no-nonsense and real. Lord, I'd have loved to slam down a few while talking to her!

The documentary is fast-paced with shifting and colorful graphics to compensate for the occasional grainy archival footage and the inevitable talking heads. I found it all mesmerizing. If you do too, may I also recommend a DVD showing O'Day at peak performance during the 1980s: Anita O'Day--Live at Ronnie Scott's in London.

I'll be looking for her vinyl in my used record stores. She was a treasure!

Thursday, September 17, 2009

My First Big Musical Group

Sure, the guys have suits on, but check out those goatees!

The last of Mary's four solo albums from the 1970s.

It is 1969, or perhaps 1970. I am 15 years old. My musical taste is still unformed. I had a weird period in sixth grade where I listened to the Monkees as well as the Doors and the Strawberry Alarm Clock. (My girlfriends and I used to buy strawberry gum so that we could cut out the strawberry images and paste them all over our notebooks.) But now I'm casting about, looking for a direction.

I have two older sisters with record collections. The oldest wasn't that much of a musical buff--I recall that she enjoyed the Beach Boys. But she's gone off to college. The one nearest to my age likes Barbra Streisand and some of my father's musical soundtracks (that's why to this day I have the scores of Fiddler on the Roof and Roar of the Greasepaint, Smell of the Crowd committed to memory).

It is that flash in time right before Carole King's Tapestry hits. The singer/songwriters have yet to storm the scene. My oldest brother has joined the Marines. I recall the night before he headed off to boot camp. The song played repeatedly on our turntable that night was Peter, Paul and Mary's "Leavin' on a Jet Plane".

I was drawn by their vocals, and I love the songs on Album 1700. There's "I Dig Rock and Roll Music", a jibe at the popular rock of the day and "I'm in Love with a Big Blue Frog", a song about an interracial romance. And then there is the haunting "Great Mandela" sung by Peter. I'm attracted to their songs because they seem to be about something. Their politics resonate with the times. I become a fan.

Loving Peter, Paul and Mary leads me directly to Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger. (I study the record label, and note who's written every song on the disc.) I buy some of their other records, and my love deepens. They are so strident, so authentic--oh, it hit my adolescent heart in the bull's-eye! I sing along to every song, harmonizing with them. I admire Peter and Paul's appearance--how I want to grow a Van Dyke when I'm older, and have an artsy beatnik look! I trust their taste in material completely. Although I can't bear to listen to Bob Dylan, their covers of his songs lead me to the library to read about him, and to try to understand why others think he's so great.

I am crestfallen that shortly after I've developed this love, they break up as a group. Paul goes off to explore religion, and Peter loses his bearings with an indiscretion with a young fan. So I'm thinking I'll never see them. All I have is a program that one of my sister's friends gave me. How sacred this book was to me. Turning its pages over and over as I continued to listen.

Each member pursues a solo career. Their debut albums are all sterling. I go to see them each individually in concert. I love them all for different reasons: Peter, for his amazing songwriting skill and musicianship; Paul, for his silky smooth voice and Bing Crosby-like composure and humor; and Mary, for her impeccable taste in what to sing, and for her completely unique voice. They continue to be my soundtrack into the 1970s.

Disco hits, and their careers quiet down. They decide that it's best to reunite, and I finally get to see my heroes in together in concert later in the decade. My musical tastes are soon to shift dramatically, but in the years that follow I still keep in touch and buy all of their releases.

Peter, Paul, and Mary were always classy, and one of a kind. Several years ago, when I'd learned Mary needed a bone marrow transplant, I sent a handwritten note to her expressing my love for her work. I was so relieved that she survived, and that I could see them one last time together with my wife.

I played Peter, Paul, and Mary to each of my 6th grade classes as they came in today. "It's a sad day for me today, kids," I said, and went on to tell why they are such an indelible and important part of musical history. I played "Don't Laugh at Me" and I could feel tears welling up as I thought about how they always stood behind the underdog. I sang along to "Wayfaring Stranger", feeling the power of its time-honored lyric. Oh, it was a regular hootenany!

"You know, " I said to my classes, "you probably aren't aware that you already know some Peter, Paul, and Mary songs." I invited them to raise their hands if they recognized the choruses I sang to "Puff the Magic Dragon", "If I Had a Hammer", and "Leavin' on a Jet Plane". Scattered hands went up--never a majority, but it was still reassuring to know that some kids would be carrying on. And heck, who knows what impact their brief exposure today might have!

Mary Travers was a wonderful singer and stylist, and I urge you to check out her solo work from the 1970s in which she skillfully bridges the gap between folk and pop music. I'll miss her enormously. She helped me develop my musical taste! God bless her because of all the pleasure she brought into this world!

Monday, September 7, 2009

Pay to Play

Interesting story on NPR's Here and Now recently about how some musicians are mining their fans directly in order to bankroll production and marketing costs for new releases.

I don't know what to think of this phenomenon. At first sight, it all seems innocent and fun. But there's a claustrophobic tinge to it also. When an artist turns directly to the fans for financing, it seems as if the circle has closed. Sure, it's a passionate group ("the base") but what about expanding your audience? Is it all word-of-mouth from here on in because you can't afford the publicity that a major label would afford you?

Of course, one could argue that fan financing puts the pressure where it should be: on creating something that draws on your strengths, whatever it is that made you appealing to listeners to begin with. No more advice on image from the label, and stress to sell enough "units" to please a corporation.

It's a story that's still unfolding. At the end of the NPR piece, it's revealed that Erin McKeown's Internet fundraising stopped short of releasing her latest work on her own label. Instead, she chose to go with Ani DeFranco's Righteous Babe imprint. Smart move probably--there is much to be gained by association with a stable of artists and the market presence an established label has.

I am impressed with imprints like Appleseed Records, who have managed their company well enough to provide a vital stream of folk releases over the last dozen years. It was inspired by Pete Seeger's work, and in its catalog are several outstanding collections of Pete's work. But it also keeps issuing new releases by seminal figures like Tom Rush, Donovan and Buffy Sainte-Marie as well as promoting the more contemporary careers of artists like the Kennedys and John Wesley Harding.

I must admit, one criteria that I use to judge whether or not I'll purchase the CD is the label. If I have enjoyed their judgments before in whom they sign and promote, I'm willing to take a chance on someone new.

Yep, "brand" matters. It's just that when artists become their own label, they are the brand, and they'd better be distinctive enough to be one, or they won't sell enough units to stay in the game.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Looking Back at Jesse Winchester

Jesse Winchester is one of my favorite singer-songwriters. He emerged in the early '70s and quickly grabbed listeners' attention with the song"The Brand New Tennessee Waltz" on his eponymous debut. Jesse had a compelling backstory too, having relocated from Memphis to Montreal to avoid the draft. Deeply respected by many singers and musicians, his songs have been well-covered.

His first album was produced by Robbie Robertson of the Band and engineered by Todd Rundgren, who got Winchester signed with Bearsville Records for the brunt of his output in the 1970s. His released one jewel after another. Third Down, 110 to Go in 1972 (featuring "Isn't That So?" a driving spiritual); Learn to Love It in 1974 (memorable for "Mississippi, You're On My Mind", gospel-inflected numbers like "Wake Me" and "I Can't Stand Up Alone" as well as the terrific traditional song, "Tell Me Why You Like Roosevelt"); Let the Rough Side Drag in 1976; Nothing But a Breeze in 1977 (with the lovely "Bowling Green", "My Songbird", "You Remember Me" as well as the funny "Twigs and Seeds" and "Rhumba Man"); A Touch on the Rainy Side in 1978 (besides the title song, I also recommend "Little Glass of Wine"); and finally, his last release on Bearsville, 1981's Talk Memphis.

He himself never gained much notoriety. Perhaps that was due to the fact that he didn't start touring the States until 1977. By that time he had a wonderful catalog to draw upon but unfortunately musical styles had changed radically. He continued to record regularly until 1981.

I heard him a concert a couple of times when I lived in Chicago. The first time, at a bar directly across from Wrigley Field (the Cubby Bear), I chatted with him before he went on stage. I recall asking him what he preferred: performing or writing songs. Jesse told me that if he had his druthers he'd rather just be a songwriter, and mail his stuff out for others to record. It seemed to fit with his personality: he comes across as a shy guy.

I recall seeing him one more time in Chicago at a folk club called Holstein's. There wasn't much of a crowd for him that night, and I got the distinct sense that the management was taking a financial bath on his appearance. I felt bad for Jesse, because I admire him so much and think he deserves to be known more wide.

Anyway, the '80s and the '90s saw only one release each decade. They were fabulous--you can expect nothing but perfection from him. (Check out the lovely "I Don't Think You Love Me Anymore" from 1988's Humor Me.)Over the last decade he's released two albums, and he promoted his latest, Love's Filling Station, recently on NPR.

In the interview, he described himself as a "traditional" songwriter. That's absolutely true: his songs fit the classic verse-chorus structure that's found in most pop music. His roots are folk, but his sound can be gospel and country and rhythm and blues flavored. Jesse has a sweet soft high-timbred voice and his lyrics are impeccable. He has an intensely personal style: he does talk about himself in his songs, often self-deprecatingly, but he displays an almost Old World respect for women and he paints stories of small towns that seem to arise from his Southern youth.

I hope that you'll introduce yourself to Jesse Winchester. He'll win your affection quickly.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

That Summer

NPR's All Things Considered has a feature this summer in which they ask different musicians what their favorite song of summer is. This week they asked Tony Bennett. He chose a French song that he'd recorded in 1963, "It Was Me". I have always been struck by this song. It begins with a question.

Who's the one you would find on the beach every day?

Quickly the tension is established. Turns out the narrator is in love with someone at the beach.

Lying there on the shore while his friends swim away
Lying there on the sand only inches from you
Watching you everyday till the summer was through
It was me

A relationship gradually develops. The second stanza begins like the first, except with three questions instead of one.

Who would help gather shells for the bracelet you made?
Who would find you the cups for the pink lemonade?
Who was always beside you whenever you'd swim?
When you sat by the sea as the daylight would end
It was me, it was me

But was the love consumated? The song keeps you engaged as we enter the bridge of the song. Now suddenly summer is ended.

Now that summer is gone and the warm skies are cold
And the soft winds are crisp with their wintry chill
Do you ever think back on the night when we kissed?
Can you ever forget? I know I never will

All right, there was a kiss. It meant a lot to the narrator, of course. He's seeking confirmation that the feeling was mutual. The last stanza, describing perhaps an end-of-summer picture at the beach, provides the answer.

Who's the one next to you in the group photograph?
Who's the one with the face too unhappy to laugh?
Standing there looking down so uncertain and shy
Like a boy who's in love, so in love he could cry
It was me, it was me

And then, the zinger of a last line.

Me finding out it was you.

"Me finding out"--did all these questions begin upon the narrator's discovery of the photograph? "It was you"--yes, now I see you in this picture and I remember how young and smitten I was with you, I'd forgotten after all this time. As I gaze at the picture, memories return of being so in love and so young.

A fabulous song that I hope you'll give a listen. I'm glad that Tony Bennett chose a number that he discovered and recorded. This is a tremendous source of pride to him, as well it should be. He has always had the best taste in material.

The summer song that occurs to me that is equally as beautiful was recorded by Nat King Cole: "That Sunday, That Summer". Nat sometimes chose material of dubious quality as he sought a hit (cue "Lazy Hazy Crazy Days of Summer"), but with this song he gives some imagery for a listener to luxuriate in.

If I had to choose just one day
To last my whole life through
It would surely be that Sunday
The day that I met you

Newborn whippoorwhills were calling from the hills
Summer was a-comin' in but fast
Lots of daffodils were showing off their skills
Nodding all together I can almost her them whisper
"Go on and kiss her, go on and kiss her"

If I had to choose one moment
To live within my heart
It would surely be that tender moment
Recalling how we started
Darling, it would be when you smiled at me
That way
That Sunday
That Summer

This song charted in 1963, reaching a peak position of #12 on the Billboard charts. ("Hazy Lazy Crazy Days" peaked at #6 the very same year--geez, what a year for summer songs!)

Anyway, two lush songs of summer that are favorites on my turntable!

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Remember Gilbert O'Sullivan?

Gilbert in 1971. O'Sullivan is his actual last name; Gilbert is a stage name referring to Gilbert & Sullivan. An apt choice, given his lyrical songs that are dense with words. Note the collegiate look inspired by a Buster Keaton film!

Gilbert's top-selling album of 1972. Although chest hair dominates on the cover, on the back he's shown in his "G" sweater again.

Still sporting the chest hair, here's his 1974 release with the notorious song "A Woman's Place"

Peggy Lee, an admirer of Gilbert!

Gilbert O'Sullivan was an oddity in a screwball time. When he struck gold in the States with "Alone Again (Naturally)" in 1971, it was not only his weird and verbose song that struck a listener. There was his clean-scrubbed appearance on the album cover: wearing a collegiate V-neck sweater with a "G" emblazoned upon it, he seemed to harken back to a more innocent time.

Hailing from Ireland, Gilbert washed ashore on the wave of the singer-songwriter craze of that era. It was decidedly uncool to like him or his music, but there I was, proudly bucking the trend. I found his approach to a song completely idiosyncratic and refreshing. He had a memorable way of writing lyrics. For example, on his second album Back to Front, he celebrates Spring by comparing himself to a mole.

Everytime a bird sings
Everytime a bell rings
I go beserk
I climb into my hole
And sit there like a mole
Playing in the dirt
Contradicting people who think of me as being
So soft and gentle
Very clean

This album, which features his second U.S. hit "Clair", is one of his best. As I scan the lyrics, the melodies jump into my mind--each one is distinctive, and pleasurable to experience over again. You can't help but be amused by how goofy Gilbert is, especially when he introduces Sides 1 and 2 of his album by singing:

Side 1 ("Intro")

For those of you leaving to join the hunt
The name of this album is "Back to Front"
And those of you staying the whole way through
The name of this song is
(seque immediately to first track...)

Side 2 ("Outro")
I'm not quite finished yet
I'm not quite finished yet
There's another side to go before I go
Thought I'd let you know...

Gilbert plays the piano, and his signature seems to be a rhythmic striking of chords that goes "chunk-chunk-a-chunk-chunk." This is not to say that his music lacks sophistication. He almost always has other instrumentation to power his melodies along--mostly a drum, some strings, and wind instruments. He is never boring.

His songs tell simple stories. Usually they're about loving someone, as in "That's Love" from Back to Front:

Once in a while out of the blue
I might appear somewhat rude
But don't be alarmed or get upset
Just say to yourself this I'll forget
And when I come home from being away
It might do me good just to hear you say
Darlin' don't move an inch, keep perfectly still
Now do with me what you will

Can you sense those lyrics' inherent musicality just by reading them aloud? Gilbert O'Sullivan is fun to sing along with, and I think he's a terrific writer because his words get planted in my mind when I hear them. Like a truly professional pop tunesmith, he weds music and lyrics well. The song's subject is not that interesting on its face, but how he expresses the sentiment can be striking.

In Gilbert's lyrical world, there's always a girl that you're courting. He often creates clever little dramas. For example, in "Matrimony" he and his bride are trying to get to the church on time; in "Clair" he's babysitting; and in "I'm Not Getting Any Younger" he's explaining his feelings about a gulf in age to a lover.

He achieved international fame in the early 1970s. In the U.S. he had a hit with "Get Down" in 1973 but after that his star fell quickly. (His recording of "A Woman's Place" in 1974 certainly didn't help out matters. Check out these lyrics: "I may be old-fashioned/so what if I am/I'm not any different/from any other man/I'm not one of those who look for blood from a stone/but I believe/a woman's place is in the home".) Gilbert only toured the States once during this time (although his website reports he's working with promoters to return after a 35 year absence!).

In the late 1970s and periodically in the 1980s Gilbert was entangled in court with his producer, Gordon Mills (whose daughter was "Clair"). He recorded less frequently, with none of his work being issued in the States after a contract with Epic expired. I've imported some of his albums from this time. I recommend Sounds of the Loop from 1993. It features a duet with Peggy Lee (Who'd have thunk she'd be an admirer of his work?) and also contains a song I promise you'll be unable to get out of your head after one listen. ("Are You Happy?")

Gilbert O'Sullivan's website is fun to cruise. You can watch video of his early years when, at the height of the rock's popularity, he appeared on stage wearing a tweed cap and high stockings. You can watch five different stagings of the song "Matrimony". (I was impressed with how he pulled off a version that required him to circulate around a crowd as he sang.) I recommend his radio interview in Israel this year. Gilbert's articulate about his craft, and you have to respect someone who continues to write out of the pure pleasure of being fulfilled artistically and entertaining people.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Melodious Maia Sharp

Presently I'm filled with the enthusiasm that only an outstanding concert can bring. Maia Sharp, who is touring currently to promote Echo, her latest CD, gave a performance at Club Passim won't be forgotten. It was an awesome display of musical skill on so many levels.

Let's start with the songwriting. Most of Maia's songs follow a classic structure: verse to chorus to verse and then back again. She constructs choruses with words and harmonies that seize your attention. As you sing along, you're admiring her unique turn of phrase. Here are a few examples.

from "Willing to Burn"

Now we're living in a tinderbox
hosing down the roof
It's raging all around us
and we still refuse to move
There's a lesson we're desperate to learn
and we're willing to burn

from "The Reminder"

Get ready for the riot act
you so deserve to hear
you made lies of all your promises
then you disappeared
you took a heart so innocent
shattered it like glass
then you had the nerve to think
that you could leave that in your past
when you forget I'll be there every time
I'm the reminder

Maia is a terrific and supremely confident singer. You hear every word she delivers and, because she's so often telling the story about some romantic travail, you are captive. Her sound displays many colors. Mostly it's a country-rock feel, but you can detect a strong blues and jazz undercurrent. It's rhythmic and inventive. Last night she was accompanied by another guitarist and truthfully, that was all that was necessary to do justice to her work.

For the most part, Maia Sharp co-writes her songs. Prominent co-writers you might recognize are Kim Richey, David Batteau, and her father, Randy Sharp. It seems now, after 4 albums in over the last dozen or so years, that she's destined not to become a star, but to provide the music for the stars. It's become the Sharp family tradition.

Why she is not a star herself is completely beyond me. From her first release, Maia Sharp has been completely in charge and developed as a performer. If it were the early 1970s, there's little doubt that she would have shot into prominence along with Bonnie Raitt (who Maia has opened for, and who recorded three Sharp songs--"Crooked Crown", "I Don't Want Anything to Change", and "The Bed I Made"-- on her last release, 2005's Souls Alike).

I love listening for the "hooks" in Maia's songs. I don't play the guitar, but I can hear inventive chord changes, and she knows just where to put them in to distinguish one song from another. All her music has a dramatic structure that's backed up sonically. I love how she always returns to the chorus, and it's always sung with great feeling.

Her voice is very full and robust. She never seems to strain for a note. She's quite funny on stage, and spontaneous. Her intelligence shines like a beacon, as well as her authenticity. She is dynamic.

I was anxious for her in terms of how many people would show for her gig. I mean, it was the first stop of her tour, and she had flown across the country for it. Fortunately the club was about three-quarters full. Their applause was robust, and she left feeling as if she'd gotten off to a great start.

I'll leave you now with some choice cuts from YouTube.

from Echo: "Polite Society"; "John Q. Lonely"

from the Dixie Chicks: "A Home"

Interview with Maia on "All Things Considered"