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.