Dearly Beloved, We Are Gathered Here Today

Prince is dead. Long live Prince.

We just watched this movie a few days ago, and aside from the rampant misogyny, it’s held up pretty well. Enough that, given the news, I think we ought to watch it again.

I always was a sucker for a New Romantic.

Prince’s music has been a part of the fabric of my life for as long as I can remember. His first album came out when I was five, and by the time I was old enough to have an active interest in the radio (or at least, was old enough to have some say in what station it was tuned to) he was a huge star. He was monumentally gifted, an outsider because he was different, who passionately wanted to be loved, but for who he was instead of trying to be someone else. Yeah, he appealed to me.

He died today at 57, younger than my mother, older than I am now but not by a lot. He was still making music until the end, getting rave reviews for his new tour, and still inspiring. He’ll be missed.

Hang tough, children.

On Vinyl: The Jazz Piano Quartet, “Let It Happen”

(In my ongoing series of “records I own which I think you should hear”. Click here for more.)

thejazzpianoquartet-letithappen

Date: June 10 & 11, 1974
Location: RCA Studio A, New York City
Label: RCA, limited release in Quadraphonic sound
The Jazz Piano Quartet (ldr), Roland Hanna, Dick Hyman, Hank Jones, Marian McPartland (p)

10 songs laid down by a quartet of jazz pianists with no other instruments, without rehearsal, with only the barest of notes written beforehand – usually as a jumping off point – and recorded simultaneously without overdubbing… It could have been a disaster. Instead, Dick Hyman, Roland Hanna, Marian McPartland, and Hank Jones nailed every song on the first take.

The soloists are not identified, other than noting that Hyman and McPartland are playing through the left speaker, and Hanna and Jones through the right speaker.  The record starts with a melodic presentation of “Lover Come Back to Me,” then moves into a lower pace on “Maiden Voyage” and “Let It Happen.” The tempo picks back up again with “Here’s That Rainy Day” before side A ends. The B side is more experimental, beginning with the almost-atonal jazz fragments embedded in “Solace” — though never breaks all the way out of the box on that tune. They push the arrangement of Stevie Wonder’s “You Are the Sunshine of My Life” enough that you might not recognize the song until you get to the chorus line; the whole thing reminds me of a more-melodic version of a Bad Plus variation. The third track on side B is the star of the show, putting on display a fully improvised jam inspired by only a 6-bar fragment of a Erik Satie song. The grand finale is the most intense, dramatically-keyed track on the whole album, and literally ends with a bang.

Overall, the album is so excellently played that it’s hard to believe this is the result of a couple of seasoned pros sitting down, playing for two days, and calling it “finished”. Yet that’s exactly what it is. I love this album for the piano, for the way it pushes without taking the listener so far out of their comfort zone that they get turned off, and because it’s a reminder that we don’t always need to edit/revise/edit/revise our work to death. There’s something to be said for being fully confident of our skills, and just getting it done.

Listen to this if you can find it. You won’t regret it.

Track List:

a-01 Lover, Come Back To Me – 2:22 (Sigmund Romberg, Oscar Hammerstein II) / arr: Dick Hyman
a-02 Maiden Voyage – 3:55 (Herbie Hancock) / arr: Dick Hyman
a-03 Let It Happen – 4:21 (Ettore Stratta) / arr: Dick Hyman
a-04 Watch It! – 3:03 (Dick Hyman) / arr: Dick Hyman
a-05 Here’s That Rainy Day – 4:43 (Jimmy Van Heusen, Johnny Burke) / arr: Dick Hyman
b-01 Solace – 3:38 (Scott Joplin) / arr: Dick Hyman
b-02 You Are The Sunshine Of My Life – 3:45 (Stevie Wonder) / arr: Dick Hyman
b-03 Improvviso – 6:48 (Marian McPartland, Dick Hyman, Hank Jones, Roland Hanna) / arr: Dick Hyman
b-04 Warm Valley – 3:38 (Duke Ellington) / arr: Dick Hyman
b-05 How High The Moon – 3:00 (Nancy Hamilton, W. Morgan Lewis) / arr: Dick Hyman

Notes: All titles on: RCA LP 12″: CPL1-0680 — Let It Happen (1974) “Solace” listed as “Variations on Scott Joplin’s ‘Solace'” and credited to Scott Joplin and Dick Hyman. “Improvviso” is based on a fragment by Erik Satie.

On Vinyl: BENNY GOODMAN – The Famous 1938 Carnegie Hall Jazz Concert – Vol. 2 (1956)

(In my ongoing series of “records I own which I think you should hear”. Click here for more.)

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The oldest record I currently own is BENNY GOODMAN – The Famous 1938 Carnegie Hall Jazz Concert – Vol. 2, though the music in it is slightly preceded by The Swing Years Collector’s Edition, 1936-1946 (not pressed ’til 1966). I have other records which contain music written earlier (performed by Nat King Cole, BB King, etc), but the actual tracks weren’t laid down until the ’60s or later.

Goodman’s January 16, 1938 concert at Carnegie Hall in New York City was called “the single most important jazz or popular music concert in history: jazz’s ‘coming out’ party to the world of ‘respectable’ music.”(1) Put together by his publicist, Wynn Nathanson, Goodman’s performance made him the first jazz bandleader to perform at Carnegie Hall. Goodman was nervous about doing it, but his latest movie, Hollywood Hotel, had lines of fans waiting outside the Paramount lot to see him, so he went ahead. Why was he nervous? At the time, the Hall was considered “An import house of Old World traditions where snobby smirks toward American culture had a way of making status-sensitive Yankees feel like Babbitts for comparing Gershwin to Wagner or Tatum to Horowitz….”(2)

It’s important to know that this was one of the first public concerts to feature a racially integrated group, which helped to convince white audiences that jazz could be an “elevated” form of music, though they were aware of its beginnings with mostly-black bands. The show sold out, even with a higher than usual ticket price. It started with a couple of contemporary songs, segued into a history of jazz, including some guest appearances by Count Basie (his Hall debut) and members of the Duke Ellington band, before heading into the songs that had made Goodman famous. Lionel Hampton and Gene Krupa, shown in the photo below, were there, as were Buck Clayton, Johnny Hodges, Walter Page, Lester Young, Harry Carney, and Freddie Green.

The event—one of the first public concerts to feature a racially integrated group—helped elevate the status of swing music, and included some of the brightest jazz luminaries of the day. Count Basie, making his Carnegie Hall debut, appeared as a guest, and members of Duke Ellington’s orchestra also participated. Lionel Hampton and Gene Krupa, shown in this photo, were there, as were Buck Clayton, Johnny Hodges, Walter Page, Lester Young, Harry Carney, and Freddie Green.

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“Give Me The Banjo” 2011

I like a lot of different kinds of music. Different styles for different moods. In general, though, I like my piano lively instead ponderous, prefer fiddle music to violin classics. And a fine trumpet player has always moved me. While the banjo doesn’t catch my breath in the same way, I always thought of it as a fun instrument. Quick and clever, requiring a lot of skill and dexterity–I appreciate the technique. Plus I grew up with a fair amount of bluegrass; one of my mom’s best friends was, and still is, a bluegrass fiddler (you can watch a video of her band here).

So when I saw that “Give Me The Banjo” was streaming on Netflix, I threw it on. I am a sucker for both documentaries and American music history. Background music, I thought, while I got other things done. It turned out to be too good to half-watch, and I ended up putting everything else aside. 6 minutes into the movie, it was clear that they meant to truly explore the banjo’s history, with this introduction:

You can’t talk about the history of the banjo if you can’t talk about racism, slavery, misogyny, appropriation, exploitation–all of the things that run counter to what we love about the banjo. – Greg Adams, Ethnomusicologist

Then straight into clips from a minstrel show. Blackface. Newspapers proclaiming a “Much-Admired Nigger Melodist” was playing. The white Southerner, Joe Sweeney, who learned the banjo from his black neighbor, and then took both the knowledge of how to build one and his neighbor’s music with him to New York. Turning an African folk instrument into a white American musical staple. “Elevating” the instrument with fancier building designs, reinventing the music into the new “classic” style… purposely reminding audiences that they’d stolen from the people they considered themselves better than, with a style of music they called “Coon Songs”… This look at the past is simultaneously embarrassing and enlightening.

The interviews with experts–historians, musicians, and banjo builders–along with photos, songbooks, and recordings of the popular musicians from different eras, make this a documentary worth watching if you care at all about musical history, or the racial and cultural history of the US. (Even if the banjo itself doesn’t matter to you.) Steve Martin gives excellent narration, and they’ve got an impressive breadth of interviewees. Find the movie here: Give Me the Banjo (83 min.)

The Jazz Solo; or, What Writers Do When We Compose Intertextual Dialogue

A quick thought to start the (writing) day:

To the unaccustomed listener, a jazz solo, particularly a solo that strays far from an easily recognizable melody, can seem abstract, formless, linear. Yet most jazz performances take place over a repeated sequence of chords, the chords that underlie the piece the group is performing. A composer might write an attractive song, as George Gershwin wrote “Embraceable You,” and a jazz group will begin by playing a loose version of the 32-bar melody together. (Most songs that began in Broadway musicals have an introductory verse which jazz musicians rarely perform. Jazz musicians simply repeat the chorus over and over.) Then a soloist will create his or her own melody while the rhythm section essentially repeats an accompaniment to that 32-bar chorus. Experienced listeners will be able to “hear” the song, even when no one is playing the original melody, by following the chord progression. In fact, the procedure of most jazz is based on one main principle – that a nearly infinite number of melodies may fit any song’s chord progression. The jazz musician’s traditional task is spontaneously to compose new melodies that fit the chord progression, which is repeated over and over as each soloist is featured, for as many choruses as desired.” – Jazz, From Its Origins to the Present, Porter, Ullman, Hazel

In music we call that an “improvisation”. In writing, it’s an “homage”. Sometimes we admit outright that’s what we’re doing, sometimes it’s “inspired by” or a “retelling of.” Umberto Eco calls it “inter-textual dialogue” and I think that’s the most accurate term. A piece of writing quotes another piece of writing in a stylistic or thematic way, and the impact of a story on the reader is heightened when the reader understands what’s being quoted.

The key to understanding the similarity is this line:

Experienced listeners will be able to “hear” the song, even when no one is playing the original melody

How often do you read a story and think, “Oh, I recognize this fairy tale!” even when it isn’t the original telling of the story? Revamped and reconstructed fairy tales are quite popular at the moment, and range from subtle barely-there mentions to stories which wrap themselves in the original tale like a cape, only differing in setting or dialogue. (Read Kelly Link’s “Swans” for an example of this.) You’re supposed to have enough knowledge of the first version of that story to recognize all of the elements in the modernized tale. In fact, a good author can remove the details which are commonly known so that you don’t see them, but you recognize their absence and your mind fills in all of the missing pieces anyway.

Just like in jazz.