Archive for September, 2007

Getting back to when hard bop was new

September 26, 2007

Clifford Brown & Max Roach

Verve, 2000 [originally released 1954]

Several weeks ago, when I wrote about the passing of drummer Max Roach, I touched on his groundbreaking hard bop recordings with trumpeter Clifford Brown. It suddenly occurred to me that while I’d heard ABOUT these recordings, I’d never actually heard the recordings themselves. Hence, this post.

Which got me to thinking about time travel. A big problem for me in getting inside what made this 1954 debut album by Brown and Roach so, well, groundbreaking is all the jazz that has come since. It was hard to hear what made it so new.

I have a similar problem with Impressionist and Post-Impressionist painting. I mean, I love it, right along with the rest of the world. Ironically, Vincent Van Gogh is perhaps the most popular painter of all time. During his lifetime, he sold a single painting. His work—and that of many fellow Impressionists and Post-Impressionists—was simply too revolutionary for most people of their time. Comparing it to the other styles that preceded it or existed at the same time—Classicism and Romanticism—yes, I can see the difference. But I would love to be able to feel it, in my gut. To see, for instance, what drove author and art critic John Ruskin to accuse James McNeill Whistler [yeah, the Whistler’s mother guy] of having “flung a pot of paint in the public’s face.”

But so much art has happened in the intervening time. The once revolutionary Impressionists and Post-Impressionists are now the comfort food of art, something you’d hang above your sofa—if you were incredibly wealthy, of course.

This is how I would use time travel, if it existed. I would go back in time to see seminal periods in the arts as they happened. To get riled up by Van Gogh’s The Starry Night. To be outraged by Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring [the ballet score is still a challenging, angular piece of music, but at its premiere performance by Les Ballets Russes in 1913 in Paris, the audience actually rioted, with fistfights breaking out in the aisles]. Or to sit in some smoky New York or LA jazz club in 1954, hearing the music of Clifford Brown and Max Roach, brand spanking new.

Unfortunately, time travel doesn’t exist yet [all you conspiracy theorists can just shut up right now]. So to get some perspective on this album, I did the next best thing. I listened to recordings by Charlie Parker [Roach had played after hours gigs with Parker in Manhattan while still in high school], by Dizzy Gillespie [Brown has been called the bridge between Gillespie and all other modern trumpeters]—and by Parker and Gillespie together. Stuff both from the late 40s and early 50s.

Both Parker and Gillespie were blowing some groundbreaking licks of their own, make no mistake. But somehow, due largely to the rhythm section perhaps, much of the music felt rooted in its big band beginnings. There was a bouncy jump jazz quality to the rhythms.

By comparison, the music by these young lions [Roach was 30 at the time of these recording sessions done in studios in Hollywood and New York City, Brown not even 24] was relentlessly forward sounding. No backward glances to big band here. Much has been made of Brown’s fiery, confident trumpet solos and his absolute mastery of his instrument, freeing him up to concentrate on emotion and taste, as one reviewer put it. To my admittedly untrained ear, though, it was Roach’s percussion that turned the corner for me. Fluid, assured and new. No looking back. And above all, melodic. As I said in my previous post, Roach said that if you walked into a club in the middle of a drum solo, you should be able to guess the melody just from the drums. You hear just what he was talking about on this album.

There is one backward glance on this album, a playful one. On the track Parisian Thoroughfare, they quote early and often from Gershwin’s 1928 orchestral work, An American in Paris. Because of this, this track gave me the most trouble the first few hearings. It felt like an out-of-synch moment. But then I realized how they used it to compare and contrast, draw you into the here and now. Well, the here and now that was 1954. In the end, the album feels both rooted in time [in a good way] and fresh and new. I don’t feel it in my gut, exactly, but I hear it. And without time travel, I guess that’s as close as you get.

Wonderful surprises, even on reality TV

September 19, 2007

We saw Ratatouille again last weekend at the little $3 movie theater in our neighborhood. It was just as charming the second time around and all the food details just as dazzling. And Marion and I were both struck just as much by its core message: Anyone can aspire to greatness. Greatness can come from anywhere. A powerful message about expectations, of ourselves and of others.

That message was driven home again this week when my coworker Matt introduced me to Paul Potts. Well, introduced is one way to put it—another way to put it is Matt barged into my office and insisted I look at a YouTube video. I’ve done the same to him, so I’m not complaining. Especially not after watching Mr. Potts.

Paul Potts is a thirysomething mobile phone salesman from Cardiff, Wales. He’s a shy, unassuming man, a bit on the pudgy side with bad teeth, even by English standards. So imagine the surprise [with more than a slight undercurrent of dismay, I’m guessing] when he told the judges on Britain’s Got Talent that he planned to sing opera.

I don’t watch reality TV, but I understand how much of it works—it’s hard to escape when it passes for news on morning news programs. I’m sure the judges and the audience expected this to be one of those comic relief moments that they all secretly crave: The earnest salesman in a bad suit falls flat on his face.

Instead, this happened. This first video was Potts’ first appearance on the program. Watch the judges and the audience reaction shots. And watch the contestant’s own reaction later backstage—so touching. Whatever your thoughts on opera, watch this. It will make you feel very good.

After that wonderful moment, I had to see more. And YouTube was only too happy to comply, with more than two dozen videos. Next is his final appearance on Britain’s Got Talent. The judges are effusive in their praise, even the famously snarky Simon Cowell. And Paul Potts deserves every bit of it. He has since appeared on the Today Show in New York and is making his first recording back in Britain.

Anyone can aspire to greatness. And greatness can indeed come from anywhere. Thank you for reminding us, Mr. Potts.

Sad days for opera and punk music

September 12, 2007

Legendary tenor Luciano Pavarotti died last week. The New York Times called him “the great male operatic voice of his generation” in their thoughtful obituary. Quite simply, he set the standard for male operatic singers with his clear, ringing voice—his nickname was “King of the High Cs.”

More than that, though, he is credited with bringing opera to the masses, as some have put it. I think more accurately, he made many, many people who might not have otherwise, care about opera.

Partly he did this with a winning personality and natural charm. Partly he did it because he felt it was important to do so. Not everyone approved of how he went about it, least of all music critics. In the 1980s he began his Three Tenors projects with fellow tenors Plácido Domingo and José Carreras, a wildly successful franchise that sold millions of recordings. Later, he performed with a bewildering array of rock and pop stars—Jon Bon Jovi, Lou Reed, the Spice Girls, Barry White, Celine Dion and even the Godfather of Soul himself, James Brown. It didn’t matter to critics that many of these rock performances were charity concerts—he was still seen as cheapening his talents. Of course, his rock starlike fame also brought tabloid journalists out, with tales of missed concerts, his ongoing weight loss struggles and his dietary extremes when he failed.

Many wrote him off with the kind of dismissal that the apparent “wasting” of such a great talent often inspires. I’m afraid I bought into it—well, as much as I paid attention to opera at the time.

Thinking about it now, I realize that Pavarotti’s rock star adventures and popularity were key to his bringing so many unlikely candidates to opera. He made opera approachable, made it likable, by being that himself.

Ultimately, though, it comes down to that amazing, singular voice. Without that, nothing else would have come together. As I said, by the time I got around to embracing opera [thanks largely to following Marion’s lead], I had already dismissed Pavarotti as someone who had pissed away a considerable gift. Imagine, then, how humbled I was to hear the incredible recordings that have filled the airwaves since his death. Currently on his website is a quote of his, both in Italian and English: “I think a life in music is a life beautifully spent and this is what I have devoted my life to.” It was a life beautifully spent indeed.

 

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The music world lost another great recently, although this passing occurred with much less fanfare. Hilly Kristal, the founder and owner of the legendary New York Bowery punk rock venue CBGB, died August 28 of complications of lung cancer. He was 75.

He started the club in 1973 as a country, bluegrass and blues club called CBGB & OMFUG—“Country, Bluegrass and Blues” and “Other Music For Uplifting Gourmandisers.” The name stuck but the music format didn’t. Instead, it became the birthplace and epicenter of the mid-1970s punk movement. The band Television persuaded Kristal to let them play the club and thus became the first rock band to do so. CBGB went on to serve as a launching pad for the Ramones, Patti Smith, Blondie, the Talking Heads and so many others.

Kristal was a folk music fan at heart and pretended not to care for some of the bands he booked, but in the New York Times’ excellent obituary, Patti Smith remembers it differently. “There was no real venue in 1973 for people like us. We didn’t fit into the cabarets or the folk clubs. Hilly wanted the people that nobody else wanted. He wanted us.”

Indeed, his musician-friendly approach to running his club served as the model for countless venues around the country. Here in Chicago, two venues that spring immediately to mind are Empty Bottle and the Fireside Bowl back when it booked all-ages shows.

In doing this, Kristal shaped rock music as much as any musician who graced his stage. Perhaps even more so. Some might say it was him being at the right place at the right time. But it was more than that. Despite his protestations, he understood that this music was important. And as a business owner, he knew that there was money to be made. Crowds poured in, drawn by punk’s irresistible energy. Record label execs soon followed. Careers and fortunes were made. Music changed.

By the time I finally made it to CBGB for the first time, it’s time had passed. They still had music every night, but the scene had moved on to other clubs. But you could still feel the energy, the history, the ghosts in this long, narrow, divey joint that had remained as resolutely scruffy as its now gentrifying Bowery neighborhood had been when it opened. And that was as it should be. Rock music needs to feel subversive and at least a little bit dangerous. So do its venues.

Thank you, Hilly. Rest in peace.

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Little rituals and simple pleasures

September 5, 2007

turntable.jpg

In recently promoting What’s on the kitchen boombox? and WTF? Random food for thought. from mere pages to their own separate blogs, I’ve been going over some of the deleted posts from the page days and finding some things that bear reviving. This originally ran as a WTF entry, but makes more sense as a boombox post.

 

I’ve often said of the vinyl in our music collection that if I could wave a magic wand and convert it all to CDs or mp3s, I’d do it in a heartbeat. Well, while there’s no magic wand, the technology exists to do just that. And I own it. But what with everything going on and my own natural inclination to procrastinate, I haven’t gotten around to doing anything with it.

So recently, with a song stuck in my head that we only have on vinyl—and that in fact may only exist on vinyl—I gave my turntable its first workout in a long time.

I’m a lover of little rituals. I love making martinis, for instance, even though I don’t much care for drinking them. The cocktail shaker, the martini glasses chilled in the freezer, a well chosen gin [the French brand Citadelle is a current favorite], the slightest splash of vermouth… all too grown up and elegant for words. Luckily for me, Marion does like the occasional martini, so I do get to make them for her once in a while.

And then there’s vinyl. Once pretty much the only way to hear recorded music, turntables and records have now become another cozy ritual for me. I tend to forget that, though, until some remembered piece of music forces my hand. Such was the case this weekend.

Just the act of removing the album from its sleeve, placing it on the turntable and swinging the tone arm over to cue up the track [imperfectly, I might add] all felt so comfortably familiar. As did the minor pops and crackles, somehow less irritating than I remembered them being.

Soon I found myself flipping through albums, hauling some out to play and promising myself to come back to others another day. And yes, occasionally wondering what the hell had possessed us to make some purchases. I ended up keeping the turntable going much of the afternoon, spinning through rare Coleman Hawkins, followed by Charles Mingus, followed by Randy Newman and Stan Getz and Devo and even a best of Patsy Cline album, a bargain bin find from who knows where.

As much as I enjoyed hearing these old friends, I enjoyed the ritual of the turntable just as much. Maybe even a little more so. In an age of CD changers, universal remotes and impossibly tiny, impossibly hip hard drives serving as portable private jukeboxes, there’s something nicely old school and physical about the act of putting a record on the record player and dropping the needle into the groove.

No, I’m not going to start buying vinyl again. There’s too much I like about digital. But once I’ve converted my vinyl to digital—so I can take it in the car, load it into my iPod, create tapeless “mix tapes”—I won’t be in any rush to get rid of it.

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