Saturday, June 13, 2009

A Unique Sensibility

I was saddened to hear of Kenny Rankin's death this week. He held a special position in my musical memory, largely due to two albums that my roommate and I listened to incessantly in college.

It was the mid 1970s: that quiet time just before disco stampeded the music industry. The singer-songwriters were ruling the Popular roost. I was weened on this acoustic music. Although I began my listening life as a Doors fan (along with the Monkees--hey, I thought Adam West was legit as Batman!), I soon shifted to folk music. My heroes were Peter, Paul, and Mary. I then branched out from them to John Denver, Paul Simon, James Taylor, and Don McLean.

At this time the label "singer-songwriter" didn't even exist. Perhaps that explains why Kenny Rankin's music was able to achieve a foothold. He played an acoustic guitar, but he had a decidedly jazz-based sensibility. But not exclusively so. He was actually quite versatile. Take the selections on 1974's Silver Morning. "In the Name of Love" was eventually recorded by Peggy Lee. "Haven't We Met" became a part of Mel Torme and Carmen McRae's repetoire. But there are also two Beatle covers: "Blackbird" and "Penny Lane". There's soul, with his cover of Curtis Mayfield's "People Get Ready". Then there's the strictly "singer-songwriter" fare, co-written with his wife at the time, Yvonne.

The followup to Silver Morning was 1975's Inside. Kenny is all over the map again, with very pleasing results. He and Yvonne deliver a memorable version of Stevie Wonder's "Creepin'"; he skates easily through Jimi Hendrix's "Up From the Skies"; and he puts his stamp on Randy Newman's "Marie" and John Sebastian's "She's a Lady". Kenny Rankin was in peak form.

In addition to Nilsson's Touch of Schmilsson album (see previous blog), I credit Kenny Rankin's next album, The Kenny Rankin Album, as the work that introduced me to my father's music. Rankin "gets his Sinatra on" just as Nilsson had: on this album he is working with arranger and conductor Don Costa. Only two "standards" on this album, though: "Here's That Rainy Day" and "When Sunny Gets Blue". Still, a faithful liner note reader like me had taken note. I loved his eclecticism.

Kenny would recapture this magic with Costa once more in 1980's After the Roses. The album is incredibly romantic, as all of his material is, and it features two of my favorite Rankin songs: "What Matters Most" (lyrics: Marilyn & Alan Bergman; music: David Grusin) and "Regrets".

I noticed that I have his autograph on my copy of this album. I also see that I have a six vinyl releases of Rankin's along with three CDs. I had forgotten how much I loved him. This probably happened because he fell silent through most of the 1980s while I was stuffing my ears and brains with jazz singers and pop standards.

I reconnected with Kenny when he released 1988's Hiding In Myself. (Don't miss his version of Jimmy Webb's "She Moves, Eyes Follow" on this release!) After that, he would periodically release collections of standards that failed to grab my attention. (I thought this material had been much more memorably delivered by my father's singers--oh yes, the transition was complete!)

If there's one release from the last two decades that I'd recommend, it would be 1997's Here In My Heart. A collection of mostly Brazilian, bossa-nova flavored music, it is a warm and inviting album that puts you in a sweetly contemplative mood immediately. (Kenny works with some masters on this one, using Oscar Castro-Neves on support for several numbers by Ivan Lins.)

Kenny Rankin was destined to have a tough time in the music business. He couldn't be pigeon-holed. He might have been labeled "smooth jazz" if he'd been working more in the '80s (maybe not though, since he hardly ever employed a saxophone in his arrangements). He couldn't strictly be called a jazz artist because he played the acoustic guitar and never stuck exclusively to standards. What label can you apply to artists like Rankin, Michael Franks, Jimmy Webb, and Art Garfunkel? (Please, don't tell me "Easy Listening"—that sounds so dismissive! Makes it seem like music that won't require your mind, which is so far from the reality if you're really listening!)

He gained notoriety as an interpreter of Beatle songs (you'll find them on most of his releases). Helen Reddy had a big hit with his song "Peaceful". As Johnny Carson wrote in the liner notes for his 1968 debut, Kenny Rankin had "unquestionable taste" which he displayed throughout his career. Paul McCartney asked him to represent him and play "Blackbird" at the ceremony in which Paul and John Lennon were inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1987.

It is comforting to think that at the time of his death he was working on an album with 14-time Grammy award winning producer Phil Ramone, who has worked with everyone from Frank Sinatra to Paul Simon to Ray Charles. Kenny Rankin must have felt a deep appreciation of his work knowing that Ramone wished to work with him.

He was special, and I'll be listening to him again in the days ahead. Dip into some of my Youtube links to his work. Follow the links to Amazon and listen some more. I am certain you'll be captivated!

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Melody Takes Hold

It is with great pleasure that I report that my 8 year-old son has developed a taste for the music of Paul McCartney, and that it was developed by listening to him on vinyl!

1984's Give My Regards to Broad Street was "a big snooze" according to Leonard Maltin, and, after viewing it with my family, I'd have to agree. But we regarded it more kindly due to our two boys' enthusiasm for the music.

Some of the set musical passages are well-done in the film. Most memorable is a simple session in a hangar of some sort, where Paul and Wings perform "Not Such a Bad Boy." The delivery of "Ballroom Dancing" is also strangely fascinating, as dancers cavort and two very different musical audiences intermingle.

The most striking piece of '80s memorabilia is "Silly Love Songs". The number begins with Wings arising on a hydraulic lift, surrounded by smoke. They're all decked out in caked white faces and Mohawk wigs. As the song progresses, out comes a single dancer to perform a Michael Jackson shtick. He's ridiculously tall and thin, and he moves robotically as he glides in front of the band. My boys loved it.

Remembering all the abuse that Paul has taken over the years for being too commercial and unsubstantial lyrically has given me a greater fondness for "Silly Love Songs". It really is a direct response to that criticism, and the song is durable. It's got the elements of his musical virtuosity--the composing and the arranging of harmony, horns, and strings. Its message is undeniable--we will never have enough of "silly" love songs! Rhapsodize on, romantic moptop!

Watching and listening to Give My Regards to Broad Street helps you recall the era when McCartney and Wings were a popular stadium act. It's moving to see Linda, and to think about what a terrific marriage she and Paul had. One is reminded that the film was released only a few years after John's assassination. Perhaps it was an effort to relive the zany movie energy of Help!

It failed to recapture the magic, but it still makes for a great curiosity piece. Listening to my boys sing along to the Beatle songs, I think, "Man, wouldn't Paul be pleased to hear their song? There is no deeper satisfaction."

Like Porter, Gershwin, Berlin, et al, McCartney will be carried on. It's a tribute to someone who always ambitiously pursued his art. Yes, he was/is commercial--he wants the broadest audience, because that's a measure of the power of his melody, and his ability to reach people's heart and minds.

In a way, he has always been traveling "broad" street.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Harry's Roots Music

Harry Nilsson was one of the finest songwriters and singers in American Pop in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Only Lennon and McCartney could match his skill in terms of melody, and his vocals were unsurpassed. The song "Without You" catapulted Nilsson to fame in 1971, and "Coconut", the follow-up single from Nilsson Schmilsson, prolonged his notoriety. Unfortunately, he was never able to match this success again—although not for a failure at trying.

I love Nilsson because his music springs directly from the songcraft of previous generations. Listening to him sing, your ear cannot help but be arrested. His voice soars and swoons, and the listening experience is personal and direct. I'd like to write in some other entry about his songwriting. I'm here to celebrate what some might think was a career killer for him—1973's A Little Touch of Schmilsson in the Night.

In terms of being a head-scratcher, this album is akin to Don McLean's Playin' Favorites (released the same year, oddly enough). At the peak of their fame, both artists chose to expose their audiences to the source of their inspiration.

Playin' Favorites was McLean's second release since American Pie made him famous. He is shown playing a banjo on the back cover--in the inner sleeve, the banjo is sitting on a rocker. McLean's album features work by Hank Williams and traditional folk music. Why, he even sings "Happy Trails", the Roy Rogers song, to close the work. I imagine that this release confused and alienated many listeners who, although they adored his acoustic meditations, may not have been "roots music" fans.

You can't deny it, though--it was authentic and straight from the heart.

So was A Little Touch of Schmilson in the Night undoubtedly. This was Harry's second (!) release after "Without You" brought him fame. The album's back cover announces its content: it features an array of sheet music-style art, with copious notes on the germination and history of the song. I am certain that I spent much time in my youth poring over this information!

Among the songs are the familiar ("For Me and My Gal"; "It Had to Be You"; "Always"; "You Made Me Love You"), the songs slightly deeper in the recesses of pop music memory ("I Wonder Who's Kissing Her Now"; "What'll I Do"; "Nevertheless"; "This Is All I Ask"; and "As Time Goes By"), and the obscure ("Lazy Moon" and "Lullaby in Ragtime").

The music is conducted by Gordon Jenkins—who had worked most of the great singers of the Great American Songbook, most notably Frank Sinatra on The September of My Years. Jenkins leads an orchestra composed of musicians primarily from the London Philharmonic. The sound on this album is akin to his work with Sinatra. The string section makes sweeping jumps with the crescendo liberally employed.

This is a "theme" album like The September of My Years. Nilsson intended the song cycle to reflect the arc of a romantic relationship. It all works beautifully. This is the album that got me interested in my father's music so many years ago. What a magical combination: Jenkins, who deplored the Beatles, was taken by Nilsson's music and agreed immediately to work with him and Nilsson—a songwriter's songwriter and a singer's singer.

It's one for the ages, and the 2006 Sony Legacy Recording is enhanced by terrific liner notes excerpting interviews about the session with Derek Taylor, Gordon Jenkins, and Nilsson. Plus there are 6 bonus tracks from the sessions: even though they had wrapped up early, the orchestra hung around to lay down more tracks. (Evidently enjoying the experience and sensing its historical significance.)

I am greatly moved whenever I think of Harry Nilsson. His music never fails to get me to hum and sing along and feel contented. I am saddened that his talent was not more widely recognized. And, as I watched him on Youtube, I am disheartened at his physical decline and almost complete silence during the last dozen years of his life.

But we have A Touch of Schmilsson to always remind us of when he was at the top of his game. Recorded six years before Carly Simon put out Torch (her first collection of standards) and a good decade before Linda Ronstadt hit the jackpot with her Nelson Riddle albums, this record deserves your attention. I assure you that it will be in constant rotation once you dig into it.