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Posts Tagged ‘Jazz’
22 Dec

Week 241: “It’s De-Lovely” by Sarah Vaughan

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We’re deep enough into the Christmas season that you might be getting a bit tired of the standard grocery-store collection of Christmas music by now. Is Bing Crosby starting to get on your nerves? Is Mariah Carey sapping your Christmas spirit?

Well, I’ve got an alternative for you. He wasn’t known for writing Christmas songs, but if you’re looking for music that will make you jollier, as far as I’m concerned nobody can beat Cole Porter.

Porter’s music has a lot of things that Christmas music should have, but usually doesn’t. The melodies are catchy and happy without being unbearably sweet. The lyrics have a playfulness and cleverness to them that no Christmas classic can touch. And since so many of his songs have been recorded by so many people, you’ll never lack variety.

“It’s De-Lovely” is the perfect example. It’s got nothing to do with Christmas; in fact, the first line references the spring. But like most of Porter’s songs, it brings a smile to my face in a way that no “real” Christmas music can.

What makes this a beautiful song:

1. The opening minute is just a soft piano and Sarah Vaughan’s elegant voice.

2. The little horn stabs that start at 1:20: “The night is young… shwamp!…the skies are clear…shwamp! After the song’s quiet first minute, they’re like little snowballs of joy between each vocal line.

3. The word “de-lovely” is a great creation. The prefix ‘de’ usually implies something negative. Only Cole Porter could have made it so wonderfully positive.

Recommended listening activity:

Putting things on the Christmas tree that have nothing to do with Christmas and seeing how long it takes people to notice.

01 Dec

Week 238: “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat” by Charles Mingus

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Whatever happened to hats?

I mean, people still wear hats. But these days, most hats are worn either to keep the owner’s head warm, or to advertise the owner’s favourite sports team.

It didn’t use to be this way. Hats used to be an essential part of any person’s outfit, and leaving the house without a hat would be as strange as leaving the house without a shirt. Look up old photos of crowd shots, like this one, from the World’s Fair of 1893, and you’ll get an idea of the sea of hats that once formed wherever people gathered. Or how about this photo of fans at a baseball game from the 1950s. People used to dress up to go to the game. Clearly, we used to be a very dapper people.

Even the names of old-timey hats were awesome; the Bowler, the Cartwheel, the Homburg…and my personal favourite, the Pork Pie hat.

It was the Pork Pie hat that saxophone legend Lester Young wore, and it was for Lester Young that Charles Mingus wrote this gorgeous song, after Young’s death in 1959. But when I listen to this track, I can’t help but think of it as an elegy not only for Lester Young, but for the hat itself. I’m not sure when the hat died out, but it probably wasn’t long after 1959.

But hey, fashion is cyclical, right? So maybe in a decade or two we’ll be back to the days of cranial classiness evident in those photos.

What makes this a beautiful song:

1. The melody that opens and closes the song is played by two saxophones, one panned left and one panned right. It gives an interesting stereo effect.

2. The sax soloist does something cool at 2:43. I’m sure there’s a name for the technique, but I don’t know what it is…it sounds like the saxophonist suddenly gets the shivers.

3. The whole thing has a really lazy, slightly-behind-the-beat feeling. If I was cool enough to own a classy hat, I would tilt it down over my eyes whenever I listened to this song.

Recommended listening activity:

Tipping your hat to someone.

17 Nov

Week 236: “Hopopono” by GoGo Penguin

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Jazz has come to an interesting point in the life cycle of musical genres.

It’s old enough that universities teach courses in it, but young enough that some of its pioneering legends are still alive.

It’s gone through all the stages that any genre goes through. In the 1920s, it was an underground scene hated by the older generation, accused of being the source of all society’s problems. By the 1950s it was a mainstream phenomenon filled with huge-selling artists. By the 1980s it had jumped the shark, bloated with hyphenated sub-genres, hopelessly out-cooled by the emergence of hip-hop. By the 1990s many people saw it as an out-of-date style of music only enjoyed by people over 50.

And now, a century after its birth, jazz is settling into a comfortable stage in its evolution. It no longer has to prove anything, it doesn’t have to try to be cool. 21st-century jazz artists are as happy covering the classics as they are melding the genre seamlessly with other styles.

GoGo Penguin has everything that a 21st-century jazz group should have. Musicianship. A wacky name. Cool videos. Sleek album cover design. Critical acclaim. A sound that is different enough to be interesting, but familiar enough to avoid alienating people on their first listen.

This song, especially, manages to sound new while echoing the hundred years of history behind it.

What makes this a beautiful song:

1. The slow, simple beginning reminds me of Ahmad Jamal.

2 .The fast, fluttering right hand of the pianist reminds me of Oscar Peterson.

3. The range of emotion they get out of three instruments reminds me of Medeski, Martin & Wood.

Recommended listening activity:

Researching your family tree.

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27 Oct

Week 233: “Only Growing Old” by Kate Davis

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I grew about ten inches between my 12th and 15th birthdays. Not exactly a freakish amount of growth, but enough to guarantee that adults were constantly saying things like, “hey, did you grow again?” or “I remember when you were only this tall,” or “quit growing, would ya!”

These comments were often accompanied by a hearty laugh and the kind of man-to-man shoulder-punch preferred by hockey coaches and uncles who have had too much to drink.

I knew that these people meant well, but I never really knew how to respond to such remarks. Was I supposed to thank them for noticing? Apologize for growing? I was so gangly and awkward already that it seemed unfair to shine the spotlight on me for something that was so obviously out of my control anyway.

Years later, I now find myself on the other side of these conversations. With no warning, it starts happening; the toddlers in your life are tiny one day, and towering over you the next. It’s shocking, and it reminds you just how quickly time passes. When I see a kid who surprises me with their rapid growth, I am so genuinely surprised that I find myself tempted to laugh heartily and throw a quick, jocular shoulder punch.

But I don’t. I bite my lip. I complement them on their shirt. I ask what they’re up to these days. I remind myself that as much as I might want to defend myself against the passing of time, teasing some poor kid who’s at the mercy of a growth spurt isn’t the right approach.

What makes this a beautiful song:

1. Kate Davis is a fantastic songwriter. This song takes the topic of aging and somehow manages to treat it with optimism, pessimism, and indifference all at once.

2. Her voice is as comfortable being delicate as it is being big.

3. There’s a children’s choir that hangs out in the background for most of the song, and then joins her for the last lines.

Recommended listening activity:

Getting rid of anything in your bathroom that has “anti-aging” written on the packaging.

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29 Sep

Week 229: “Sleepy Lagoon” by Harry James

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I’m a bit of a sucker for plaques.

I might be late for a meeting, or running to catch a bus, or caught outside in an electrical storm. But if I see a plaque on the side of a house, I’ll read it. I can’t help myself, and it’s getting worse with age.

Seriously, if someone wanted to abduct me, it would be pretty simple: hide up a tree with a big net, put a plaque at the base of said tree, and wait. I might forget to read my emails, but if you put something in tiny letters on an oval-shaped piece of metal, I’ll read it.

I don’t know of many songs that have their own plaque, but “Sleepy Lagoon” is one of them. So hey, the next time you find yourself on the coast of West Sussex near the town of Sesley on the south coast of England, keep your eyes peeled for this one:

(image: wikimedia commons)

You might just see me there.

What makes this a beautiful song:

1. The opening 10 seconds. The official sponsor of flashbacks and dream sequences.

2. The vibrato in the clarinets. The official vibrato of the 1940s.

3. The trumpet solo. The official solo of sauntering with a martini in your hand.

Recommended listening activity:

Imagining what the plaque outside your house might say a hundred years from now.

25 Aug

Week 224: “Gee But I’d Like To Make You Happy” by The Boswell Sisters

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Being a professional entertainer is probably tough in any era, but can you imagine trying to carve out an existence as an entertainer in the 1930s? The world is in the grip of the worst economic depression of all time, and your job is to put on a great big smile and try to bring some joy to an audience who can barely afford the price of admission.

To my ears, American music of the 1930s is pretty similar to the music of the much-more-prosperous 1920s. If anything, it’s even happier. More euphorically upbeat, as if the country’s soaring unemployment rate and bread lines weren’t happening. Not sure if it’s denial or optimism, but I like it.

The Boswell Sisters are a wonderful example of the between-the-wars sound in America, and this song in particular never fails to make me smile. Sure, the lyrics are silly, but there’s just something so gosh-darned wholesome about it all. How could anyone resist a song with the word “gee” in the title?

What makes this a beautiful song:

1. The way they imitate a horn section at the opening.

2. The way they throw in triplets at 2:08.

3. The harmonies are delicious. What is it about three-sister musical acts?

Recommended listening activity:

Looking dapper.

14 Jul

Week 218: “The Laziest Gal In Town” by Carsie Blanton

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Like most of Cole Porter’s songs, there are several versions of this one that deserve a listen.

The original, performed by Marlene Dietrich for Alfred Hitchcock’s “Stage Fright”, is pretty good, but there’s something about Dietrich’s delivery that I find a bit creepy. (To be fair, creepiness might be what they were going for, given that it was a Hitchcock film.)

I’ve always been a fan of Nina Simone, and her version of this tune is nice too, but with all respect to Nina, her rendition just doesn’t sound lazy enough.

So I’m happy to announce that Carsie Blanton’s recent recording of Porter’s classic gets everything right: it’s lazy, it’s lilting, it’s lovely.

What makes this a beautiful song:

1. The way she takes her time with the lyrics, especially on words like “laaaaaa-ziest”.

2. The way the brushes shuffle along quietly on the drums, like slippers along the kitchen floor on a lazy morning after a long sleep-in.

3. The way the clarinet yawns its way through the solo. The clarinet was a great choice; there’s something about the tonal quality of the clarinet that has always sounded lazy to me.

Recommended listening activity:

Cancelling something to make room for doing nothing.

05 May

Week 208: “Conference of the Birds” by Dave Holland Quartet

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There’s a group of pigeons who sit on a telephone wire that I walk past each day, and every time I see them, they look less like birds and more like a line of old men sitting on a porch talking about the weather. Sometimes I pause for a few seconds to look up at them (being careful not to stand directly beneath them, of course).

I make up names for each pigeon/old man. The one with the bum leg is Rufus. The fat one is Milt. The energetic one is Cliff. I imagine them sharing stories about how the grandkids are doing, how the neighbourhood is changing, how young pigeons don’t appreciate what they have.

Then I realize I’m late for work, and I move on.

What makes this a beautiful song:

1. The wandering bass line at the opening. The first six notes remind me of the guitar riff from this song. And at 0:47, it reminds me of this song.

2. The way the flutes interact. A great way to get the listener to imagine a group of chatting birds.

3. At 3:08, the percussionist stops drumming and moves over to the vibraphone.

Recommended listening activity:

Sitting in a rocking chair on your front porch.

07 Apr

Week 204: “Sarah’s Song” by David Downing

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According to a friend of mine who has spent most of his time around classical musicians, different instruments in the orchestra attract different personality types.

Violinists tend to be temperamental. Bassoon players are quirky and intellectual. Percussionists are good dads. Trombone players are sweet but depressed. Oboists are suicidally uptight. Trumpet players are egotistical. Tuba players are egotistical too, but also chubby.

And then there are the cellists. These are the charmers. The sexy ones. Real stylish.

Like most stereotypes, these characterizations probably aren’t entirely accurate, but if there’s any truth to the cellist personality, then David Downing must be pretty popular with the ladies, because he’s quite the cellist.

What makes this a beautiful song:

1. David Downing does with the cello what Bobby McFerrin does with his voice, using all the sounds and textures and tones the cello has to offer, creating an orchestra out of one instrument.

2. The delay at 1:58. If U2 had a cellist, it would sound like this.

3. The whole song has a very suave feel to it. I don’t know who Sarah is, but she’s probably the envy of all her friends.

Recommended listening activity:

Ordering food at a French restaurant…in perfect French.

03 Feb

Week 195: “You Go To My Head” by Billie Holiday

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Billie Holiday’s 1952 recording of this song is the one that’s usually included on her “best-of” compilations, but this recording, made in 1938 when Holiday was just 22, is the version I like best.

The later version is great, but in a very different way. Listening to the two versions side by side, you get a sense of what 14 years’ worth of hard living can do to a singer’s voice. Not that her voice sounds bad in the 1952 recording – it’s full of the colour and character and soul that Holiday was always known for. But it does sound weighed down. Troubled, maybe.

Nobody could have guessed it at the time, but when Holiday made this recording in 1938, she was already halfway through her life. Plenty of people have wondered where her career might have led if she had lived a bit longer, and maybe that’s why I like the earlier recording. It sounds like it’s full of possibility and promise.

What makes this a beautiful song:

1. Holiday’s unmistakable voice. Not just its tonal quality, but the way she enunciates. At 1.19, the word “temperature” comes out as if she’s not just singing it, but stirring it with an olive-tipped toothpick.

2. The lyrics, by Coots & Gillespie, do a nice job of comparing the effects of love with the effects of drink. Not exactly deep, but fun and clever. (Side note: Coots & Gillespie are the same songwriting team that gave us “Santa Claus is Comin’ To Town”.)

3. The more I read about Holiday’s difficult life, the more I hear this not as a love song, but as a tragic biography of the singer herself, blessed with incredible talent, but haunted by her past and cursed by a relationship with alcohol that would eventually kill her. I’m certain that this heart of mine/Hasn’t a ghost of a chance/In this crazy romance.

Recommended listening activity:

Drinking water out of a wine glass.