Posts Tagged ‘Jazz’
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

lady day

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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.

27 Jan

Week 194: “Deep Cold” by Carl Bray


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A few days from now, groundhogs across North America will cheerfully emerge to let us humans know how many more weeks of winter we can expect.

Actually, considering what this winter has been like so far, the groundhogs will probably just jump out, do this, and head right back to their cozy ground holes. That’s definitely how I’ve felt more than a few days this winter.

In previous posts, I’ve already suggested various ways to enjoy winter, and even how to deny its very existence. So today, I’ll assume that your strategy is hibernation, and recommend the following books to keep you company while you’re safely wrapped up in bed:

  • In A Sunburned Country by Bill Bryson. Because it’s hilarious, fascinating, and it’s about Australia, which is probably hotter than wherever you are right now.
  • Never Saw It Coming by Linwood Barclay. Because he writes awesome thrillers, and this one opens with someone dying when their car falls through the ice on a lake. So no matter how bad this winter has been for you, it probably hasn’t been that bad.
  • Frost in May by Antonia White. Because it’s a crazy (and only semi-fictional) look into a young girl’s life at a school run by nuns. And we should probably accept the fact that we might actually have to deal with frost this May.
  • Bossypants by Tina Fey. Because laughter helps keep you warm.
  • Tintin In Tibet by Herge. Because it’s the best winter-themed book of all time.

And of course, no matter what you choose to read, Carl Bray’s “Deep Cold” can be your soundtrack.

What makes this a beautiful song:

1. The drippy opening chords remind me of melting ice.

2. The right-hand craziness at 3 minutes reminds me of rolling down a snowy hill.

3. The way the bassist starts bowing instead of plucking at 4:04 reminds me of letting out a nice big yawn from the warm safety of a heavy duvet cover.

Recommended listening activity:

Making an elaborate book-holding device out of pillows so that you can keep your arms under the covers.

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23 Dec

Week 189: “Skating” by The Vince Guaraldi Trio


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Skating is one of those classic winter activities that I never really got into.  I’m not sure why, really. But along with cross-country skiing, mulled wine, and itchy Christmas sweaters, skating never really seemed enjoyable to me.

I guess it always seemed that skating was a constant struggle against gravity. There you are, trying to keep your footing on a slippery surface, with two pieces of icy metal strapped to your feet. Gravity sees you doing this, shakes its head in disappointment, and inevitably pulls you down to the ice to teach you and your tailbone a painful lesson in physics.

Now don’t get me wrong: I’m glad that other people enjoy skating. There’s nothing like seeing a rink or pond filled with happy skaters to help set the tone for this time of year. It’s just not for me. I prefer activities like tobogganing, where you co-operate with gravity.

Whatever your winter activity of choice, I hope you find time over the holidays to go out and do it. And when you finally make it back inside to warm up, put on this song.

What makes this a beautiful song:

1. The snow-like, fluttering melody in the right hand, followed by…

2. …an unexpected succession of ascending minor thirds. They seem to emulate the long strides of a skater crossing a rink.

3. The brushes that the drummer uses are much more effective in evoking Christmas than the cheesy jingling bells that are so overused in Christmas music.

Recommended listening activity:

Putting egg nog in your coffee instead of milk.

18 Nov

Week 184: “My Little Brown Book” by Duke Ellington and John Coltrane


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Here are some highlights from the early years of Belgian inventor Adolphe Sax:

  • Born in 1814
  • At age 2, he fell out a third-floor window and cracked his skull
  • At age 3, he swallowed a pin
  • At age 6, he almost died after accidentally drinking boric acid
  • At age 9, he fell off a cliff and broke his leg
  • At age 11, he was in a measles-induced coma for nine days
  • At age 14, he broke his arm in a carriage accident
  • At age 19, he was hit on the head by a falling brick
  • At age 23, he drank tainted wine and almost died again
  • At age 26, he was so poor he was living in a shed in Paris
  • At age 29, he invented the saxophone

Other misfortunes suffered in his young life include falling down some stairs, being burned in a gunpowder accident, surviving an unpleasant encounter with a hot frying pan, and almost drowning in a river. After the river incident, his mother had this to say: “The child is doomed to suffer; he won’t live.” Not exactly supportive. But in fairness to her, she was busy raising ten other children at the time.

Perhaps the saxophone’s ability to convey sadness and hardship has something to do with the many hardships suffered by its inventor. Or maybe it’s because the instrument was almost forgotten after Adolphe Sax’s death, only to be revived by the arrival of jazz.

Whatever the reason, few instruments have the ability to convey the pain and raw emotion of jazz the way the saxophone can. And few sax players have harnessed that ability quite like John Coltrane.

What makes this a beautiful song:

1. Ellington’s piano part that opens and closes the song. Sad and reflective.

2. Coltrane’s playing. Smooth and un-hurried.

3. The Coltrane-Ellington combination is awesome. Coltrane had always wanted to collaborate with his idol. Like Adolphe Sax, Coltrane had a bit of a rocky life. Struggling with various addictions, he would be dead within five years of recording this track. But in his brief life (he was only 40) he was able to take Adolphe Sax’s instrument to places he would never have imagined.

Recommended listening activity:

Dusting yourself off and trying again.

30 Sep

Week 177: “Try Your Wings” by Blossom Dearie


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The first time I heard it, one of the things I liked about “Try Your Wings” was its dream-like quality. I figured it was just because of Blossom Dearie’s light, airy voice…but it turns out there’s more to this song’s dreaminess than that.

Dion McGregor, the man who wrote the lyrics, was a sleep-talker.

And I don’t mean that he’d occasionally blurt out some incomprehensible syllables in reaction to whatever he was dreaming. No. McGregor told actual stories; narrated his dreams as he dreamt them, in a normal voice at conversational volume.

Although he’d always known he talked in his sleep, McGregor didn’t know just how much he spoke until the early 1960s, when he started sharing an apartment in New York with his songwriting partner, composer Michael Barr. Like any good roommate, Barr began recording the stories, possibly hoping they would lead to artistic inspiration, but probably just because it was hilarious. Over the years, Barr recorded about 500 of McGregor’s dreams, which were eventually released as an LP called The Dream World of Dion McGregor, released in 1964. A book with full transcriptions of the bizarre stories was released soon after, with spooky illustrations by Edward Gorey.

As you might expect, listening to the recordings is an intensely odd experience. They make sense for a while, then veer off on bizarre unexpected tangents. As long as you’re not alone in a dark room, I highly recommend giving a listen sometime. Alex Behr sums up the experience accurately:

Experiencing McGregor’s dreams in real time, as if crouched next to his slumbering form, was like being cuffed to the crazy guy on the bus—exhilarating and creepy.

So whether or not McGregor drew inspiration for this particular track from any of his narrated dream recordings, I don’t know. But there are several mentions of dreams in the song, and I kind of like the idea of Michael Barr sitting in the next room with the tape recorder on, stifling laughter into his pillow as his sleeping roommate encourages someone to try their wings.

What makes this a beautiful song:

1. Blossom Dearie’s dreamy voice. She sings quietly, like she’s being careful not to wake the neighbours.

2. The guitar and piano poke their heads out between vocal lines.

3. I can’t think of another song that uses the word “hitherto”. The only thing more awesome than a sleep-talker is an articulate sleep-talker.

Recommended listening activity:

Falling asleep with a spoon in your hand.

12 Aug

Week 170: “Blue in Green” by Miles Davis


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Does anyone else find improvisation amazing? Anytime I see a jazz musician come up with a brilliant improvised solo, I’m blown away by the skill, courage, and adaptability that it takes. You have to be able to roll with your mistakes, play off the other musicians, and anticipate what the audience wants to hear before they’ve heard it.

Improvising a solo in a jazz club late at night is one thing; imagine being good enough to improvise a whole album. Now imagine being good enough to improvise a whole album that would go on to become a multi-platinum seller.

This was Miles Davis’ approach to recording on most of his albums, including the legendary “Kind Of Blue”. If you were a musician brought in to record with Davis, you wouldn’t be given sheet music ahead of time, or a rough demo recording to familiarize yourself with. You probably wouldn’t even go in for a rehearsal. Instead, you would be given vague sketches with key changes, and asked to improvise over those changes while the tape rolled.

With this particular track, Davis handed pianist Bill Evans a piece of paper with two chords scribbled on it and asked him what he’d do with them. The result was the album’s standout song. And though Evans wasn’t given a proper songwriting credit until 2002, I think the real credit goes to all the musicians in the room, who turned scribbled key changes into a beautifully serene five and a half minutes.

What makes this a beautiful song:

1. None of the solos are technically complicated.

2. The instruments that don’t take solos (the bass, the drums) stand patiently in the background, content to watch the others.

3. It could easily have been longer – it’s the shortest song on the album by several minutes – but it wraps up modestly, with a final little cadence by Evans.

Recommended listening activity:

Inventing a sandwich based on whatever happens to be in the fridge.

05 Aug

Week 169: “Dawn Patrol” by Portico Quartet


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Here’s an instrument you may not have heard of: the Hang.

Part steel drum, part UFO, the Hang was developed in Switzerland in the early 2000s. It has since become a favourite of hippies, street performers, street performers who are hippies, and an innovative British jazz band called Portico Quartet.

Watching someone play the Hang is captivating. I saw a street performer on one in Paris last year, and it was truly hypnotic. It helped that the busker’s hippie girlfriend was sitting next to him, balancing a crystal ball on the back of her hand. But mostly I was intrigued by the ghostly sound of the instrument.

So I was very happy when, after a reader suggested I give a listen to Portico Quartet, I found that they regularly feature the Hang in their songs.

What makes this a beautiful song:

1. The Hang, of course. Even though it spends the first minute of the song hanging (sorry) on one note, it gives the song a great atmosphere. (The plural of Hang, by the way, is Hanghang, which strikes me as a strange way to pluralize something. Not sure if that pattern continues if you’re talking about three or more of them.)

2. The great bassline that kicks in at 1:36.

3. It goes from nervous to frantic to completely bonkers. To hear what a soprano saxophone sounds like when played on a roller coaster, skip to 3:41. It all comes down to earth in the end, of course, but it’s a wild ride.

Recommended listening activity:

Learning how to do a magic trick.

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01 Jul

Week 164: “Ballad to the East” by Oscar Peterson


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In 1964, Canadian jazz legend Oscar Peterson released “The Canadiana Suite”, a record as beautiful and diverse as the country to which it was dedicated. Unfortunately, at the time of the album’s release, Canada was in the middle of a bit of an identity crisis.

The problem was that although the country was nearing its 100th birthday, it didn’t really have a flag. It kind of did, but the version that had been unofficially used for decades didn’t do much to give Canada its own identity. As a flag, it didn’t exactly scream, “We are Canada!” In fact, its message was more along the lines of, “property of Great Britain – if found, please return to the Queen”. Canada needed something that looked…more Canadian.

So in 1964, while Peterson was recording his Canadiana Suite, then-Prime Minister Lester Pearson appointed a committee to come up with something new to symbolize Canada. The search for a new flag yielded some wild proposals, not to mention plenty of opposition. Former PM John Diefenbaker was viciously opposed to it, and when the new flag was finally raised in 1965, he famously wept as the old flag was replaced in front of the parliament buildings. Today, it’s hard to imagine anyone not liking the maple leaf. It became so familiar so quickly that it seems like the flag has been around forever, but it’s younger than Canada’s current Prime Minister.

To me, Peterson’s music stands the test of time just as well as the flag, and this song, the opening track on “The Canadiana Suite”, makes a great soundtrack to a Canadian summer afternoon.

What makes this a beautiful song:

1. Peterson’s playing, famously frenetic, is fairly subdued here, though he still finds spots to throw in little flourishes.

2. The drums come in so sneakily at 1:30 that it’s easy to forget they’re there.

3. The upright bass, finger-picked for most of the song, is bowed at the end, giving the final cadence that extra richness.

Recommended listening activity:

Anything, as long as you’re in a canoe while doing it.

10 Jun

Week 161: “Natural Green” by Blazo

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You’ve been inside too long. Go outside.


Go take a walk.

Bring this song with you.

What makes this a beautiful song:

1. The opening laid-back jazz sample turns into a full-out groove. The musical equivalent of a long winter turning into a sudden spring.

2. After the drums come in, you can still hear the brushes of the original jazz drums in the background.

3. It’s shorter than you want it to be, begging you to put it on repeat all morning.

Recommended listening activity:

Practising the ancient art of dance-walking.