Sunday, November 30, 2008

First Snowfall at Opus 40

Just a dusting. But snow is here.

Jazz on Jazz

Starting an informal list, with the help of my core of jazz main men, Peter Jones, Mike Kaufman and Larry the Fluff Audette, of jazz composers saluting other jazz musicians.

My first three:

John Coltrane -- Mr. P.C.
Charles Mingus - Goodbye Porkpie Hat
Dizzy Gillespie - Woody 'n you

From Mike:

Thelonious Monk -- In Walked Bud
Benny Golson -- I Remember Clifford
Dave Frishberg -- Zoot Walked In

From Peter:

Charlie Parker -- Billie's Bounce
John Lewis -- Django
Duke Ellington -- Concerto for Cootie
Charles Mingus: Jelly Roll Jelly

and more from me:

Raymond Scott -- When Cootie Left the Duke
Jelly Roll Morton -- King Porter Stomp
Fletcher Henderson -- New King Porter Stomp

Just a Little Further, Father

This is interesting. While most distinctions between words blur with time, further and farther -- at least according to Hubpages -- was always blurred, and it's only recently that grammarians have started clarifying the distinction -- farther refers to miles, further to everything else. I'm not sure why I should particularly trust Hubpages, but at the moment I have no other corroborating source.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Battle of the Decades

No one was happy about it, but Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes, featuring the redoubtable Teddy Penergrass, won out. with 5 votes, with Hammer and Neneh Cherry each getting 2, and The Stripper one. I was the only one to vote for Mickey Mouse.

The new batch:

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone, and we can be thankful for having lived through (to varying degrees) the American Century in Music, one of the most fruitful, varied and innovative eras in the history of music. And you can be thankful for me, filling your ears and minds with some of the best and some of the worst in that tradition. And if, over the last couple of weeks, you've cursed me for some horrible selections, perhaps this one will remind you of how much more painful it is to have to choose between a selection of great and distinctive stylists.

40S ON 4
Glenn Miller
(I've Got a Gal In) Kalamazoo

50S ON 5
Everly Brothers
Devoted To You

60S ON 6
Sam Cooke
Chain Gang

70S ON 7
Baby, What A Big Surprise ('77)

80S ON 8
Debbie Gibson
Shake Your Love

90S ON 9
Black Box
Everybody Everybody

Well, we have three on the lower tier and three on the upper tier, and they divide where the fogey meets the road. None of the lower three are awful, though they all have aspects of awfulness. Chicago had a style and a sound that was considered original at the time -- jazz/rock -- but it was a sound that almost no one did well. Miles did, of course. Chicago blended the wimpy end of rock with the tame end of jazz, to no particular advantage. Does anybody really know what time they're going on for the next show? Does anybody really care? If anyone is interested in hearing what jazz/rock should have and could have become, amd you can find the album, check out Brute Force. Their only album was produced by Herbie Mann, and described by Downbeat as Pharaoh Saunders meets Sly and the Family Stone. The jazz was free and adventurous, the rock was gritty and groove-based. The great Stan Strickland was their tenor player.

Debbie Gibson was awful, but she was young and cute, and she was actually the youngest female artist ever to reach number one with a song she wrote, produced and performed. Needless to say, she didn't do any of them well, but she did in time develop into a pretty solid professional, and it's hard not to have a certain modest affection for someone who could say of her early pop idol career, "You never get a chance to be that cheesy again."

Black Box were Euro-House, which is different from Euro-Disco in that their records misdiagnosed a strange and near-fatal illness each week. They were awful in that they hired a supermodel to lip-synch their vocals on their videos, but otherwise they weren't bad.

OK, on to the good stuff. I'll do them chronologically, since choosing between them is so darn hard, and I'd rather put it off till the last minute.

Give yourself eight minutes of uninterrupted time to watch the Glenn Miller video, because it's that good. They go through the song once with Tex Beneke and the Modernaires. And that's good, though not great. Beneke's voice, like his saxophone, was the perfect vehicle for Miller's arrangements. He was whitebread, but he was the epitome of whitebread, and nobody ever did it better. Larry the Fluff has another opportunity to vote for him, as it turns out, and with another novelty song (I had this sneaking suspicion that we'd done 'Kalamazoo' before, but I can't find it in my files). Anyway, Tex Beneke looks like the archetype for Billy Batson and Captain Marvel, and he makes for a thoroughly enjoyable musical experience. Then, as he finishes, and you think the song si probably finished, the Nicholas Brothers show up. They sing as well as dance here, and I love their singing, too, but the dancing is on a whole other level. If Fred Astaire was the grace, and Gene Kelly the athleticism, the Nicholas Brothers were both. And if Glenn didn't swing like Basie, he swunbg enough to put the Nicholas Brothers into orbit. If you can't get enough of the Nicholas Brothers -- and who ever could? -- check them out with Cab Calloway here --

If this isn't the very best of the Everly Brothers, it's right up there close. The Everlys were as musically tight as Glenn Miller, and they were perfectionists to the same degree. I somewhere have a CD of Everly Brothers outtakes for those first Cadence sessions, and the versions of "Wake Up Little Susie" and "Bye Bye Love" that hit the charts were between their 15th and 20th takes -- these two young kids, trying to explain to seasoned professionals like Chet Atkins what they wanted, and finally getting through to him. The outtakes -- even up to the final outtakes -- are wonderful, and a lot of artists would have been satisfied with them. But they were wonderful in the way that earlier family harmony groups like the Delmores and the Louvins were wonderful. The final takes were a new sound, and it was all theirs.

Is this the best of Sam Cooke's songs? Who knows, who cares? Sam Cooke was such a triumph over his material. These mostly dumb little novelty songs that no one else could have made into great records. Or a chain gang song that's so clearly not out of any chain gang experience. If you want an actual great song, it's "Touch the Hem of His Garment." None of it mattered. It was Sam Cooke, and that's all that mattered, and our experience of his voice caressing those lyrics almost makes us believe that they were great songs.

I was pretty sure I was going to end up voting for Sam. But it's Glenn Miller and the Nicholas Brothers.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Battle of the Decades

Many complaints over the last BOTD -- a general attitude that this was a weak competition. It's my belief that anyone can vote for a good song -- it takes real musical acumen to choose between lesser tunes. And it wasn't even such a bad group. If Joni Mitchell backed by Pat Metheny and Michael Brecker can only finish third, that should tell you something. But Joni only picked up three votes.

The Madonna-loving whippersnappers were insufficiently impressed by La Isla Bonita to give it more than four, although it's certainly not Madonna at her worst.

So the Forties picked up this round, even though I couldn't link to the actual recordings. Some voted for Jimmy Dorsey's soaring sax, some for the melodic charm of "Jersey Bounce," and some out of loyalty to New Jersey. Jimmy and "Jersey Bounce" picked up six votes, and the laurel. thought the last batch was bad -- wait'll you see this one. Actually, I didn't think the last group was so bad. There was merit in all three of those selections. OK, there was no merit at all in any of the others. But since I have a finely honed death wish, I'll post it, especially since I'm heading down to see Charis and Wendy, and I can be attacked by them in person. And don't forget, the real test is voting when you have nothing to vote for.

We almost had another Eastern Seaboard tribute this time around -- I'd just C&P'd a new list, when my computer froze, and I had to reboot, and we lost, among other numbers, Harry James and Helen Forrest doing "Manhattan Serenade."


40S ON 4
Dick Haymes
It Can't Be Wrong

50S ON 5
David Rose & His Orchestra
The Stripper

60S ON 6
Mickey Mouse March

70S ON 7
Harold Melvin
Bad Luck ('75)

80S ON 8
Neneh Cherry
Buffalo Stance

90S ON 9
MC Hammer
U Can't Touch This

We surely would have done better with Harry James than with Dick Haymes -- he was everything that was boring about the 40s, so much so that I can't find this on YouTube or anywhere else, and you're not missing anything. But the rest of this crop is so bad, they almost make Dick look good. "The Stripper" is pure kitsch, and dumb kitsch at that. MC Hammer is cookie cutter rap.

Neneh Cherry is better, but when you're a fogey, rap is rap.

Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes had Teddy Pendergrass, and he was one of the great romantic voices of soul, and he'd be a worthy vote.

What is "Mickey Mouse Club March" doing in the Sixties? Annette had already left by then. For that matter, what is "The Stripper" doing in the Fifties? That doesn't seem right to me either. Well, after a moment's research, it is and it isn't. "The Stripper" was originally released in 1958, as the B side of Rose's version of "Ebb Tide," but it didn't become a hit until it was on the sound track of "Gypsy" in 1972.

Does anyone ever wonder who all those orchestra leaders from the 50s were? The ones who had one or two hits on the charts? Who was Ralph Marterie? Frank Chacksfield? David Rose? Hugo Winterhalter? Percy Faith? Ray Anthony? Frank Weir? Russ Morgan? What were they all doing with orchestras? What did they do with those orchestras the rest of the time? Play proms and debutante balls? If the classic big bands of the 30s had all had to disband because of economic hard times, what was the economic story for these bozos? I know some of them, like Les Brown, had radio gigs for people like Bob Hope, but that doesn't explain the whole phenomenonlet.

Anyway, I vote for Mickey Mouse Club. It meets Jon's criterion of iconicity. And if anyone else cares to join me on this, you're as welcome as can be.

Opus 40 Thanksgiving Weekend

If the weather is good, we will be open.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Opus 40, Fall Foliage

A recent visitor, Mr. John Hubbard of Hamilton, NY, sent us a bunch of pictures he took during a visit at the height of the fall foliage season. I loved them -- I'd never seen the fall colors here captured so well. Mr. Hubbard has allowed us to use them, so I've posted a slide show.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Battle of the Decades

No surprise on the last one (which I didn't get around to posting here) -- it was a walkaway for the Beatles with very tough competition. Nine votes for Let it Be, 3 for Fortunate Son. Glenn Miller, REM and Sarah M. all pulled down one each, and all had great songs.

Here's the new batch, and I predict a wide spread.

40S ON 4
Jimmy Dorsey
Jersey Bounce

50S ON 5
Trini Lopez
If I Had A Hammer

60S ON 6
Jan & Dean
Dead Man's Curve

70S ON 7
Joni Mitchell
Free Man In Paris ('74)

80S ON 8
La Isla Bonita

90S ON 9
Janet Jackson
Black Cat

Trini Lopez in the 50s? That can't be right. Well, at least it wasn't "Lemon Tree." But it displaced some actual 50s song that might have been good.

I never loved Jan and Dean, but the song does have nostalgic appeal. Janet Jackson is all flash and no substance. She has about as much sex appeal as Mary Lou Retton, and a particularly ordinary voice. It's good flash, but that ain't enough. So these two go out together.

So we move on to the finals. Madonna has flash and substance to spare. And I actually had not heard this song before, and it's wonderful. I love the Spanish guitar. Jimmy Dorsey gives us another white swing guy. Glenn Miller had a sound all his own, but Jimmy was the better jazz musician (although I do have a recording of Coleman Hawkins' first session, with the Mound City Blowers, featuring Miller on trombone). I couldn't find Jimmy's version of Jersey Bounce on the Web, but has a bunch of other waxings The classic Benny Goodman version, a great one by Gerry Mulligan, and an unbelievably great one by Django Reinhardt and Stephane Grappelli. There's also a version by Glenn Miller, in which he shows that when he's up against the jazz greats, he can't compete.

And I'm going with Joni Mitchell, Pat Metheny, and the recently departed and mourned Michael Brecker. I don't think Joni Mitchell is a great lyricist. Her lyrics are always a little pretentious and forced for my taste. But she's a great singer, and a great composer, and boy, can she put together a band. Michael Brecker kicks ass here, and Joni kills.

A Walk Through Opus 40

A lovely video tribute on YouTube by 1Pablo247:

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

David McDonald on Opus 40

Who's the real Marxist? Unsurprisingly, it's Woody Guthrie. And the song about the lady and the gypsy is not necessarily promising material. The Clancy Brothers' Gypsy Rover wimps out completely. In the first place, she doesn't have a husband to leave. She has a fond lover, but he wins the election for upper class twit of the year -- he doesn't even compete. It's left to her father to chase after her -- score one for the patriarchy! The father loses...sort of...but not really. The ersatz gypsy turns out to be the lord of the land all over, and if there's a message there, it's that the poor man can't win. Not only is the aristo going to get the woman, he's going to co-opt the poor man's rough-hewn charm.

The Gypsy Davey is a real gypsy, and not a sly whistling singing seducer like the Gypsy Rover, either. She just feels his magnetism -- the magnetism of the proletariat -- and goes.

In a way, though, the wraggle-taggle gypsies are an even better paradigm, because the rejection of the soft life of the aristocracy doesn't even depend on sex appeal. And this is a wonderful lyric -- it's basically the same story, but look how it begins:

There were three gypsies a come to my door,
And down stairs ran this a-lady, O.
One sang high and another sang low
And the other sang bonny bonny Biscay O

Then she pulled off her silk finished gown,
And put on hose of leather, O
The ragged ragged rags about our door
And she's gone with the wraggle, taggle gypsies O

It was late last night when my lord came home,
Inquiring for his a-lady O
The servants said on every hand
She's gone with the wraggle-taggle gypsies, O

Why does the lady throw herself headlong into the life of the wraggle-taggle gypsies? What is the strange harmony the gypsies sing? Is she bewitched, if not seduced? They are gypsies, after all. And who's the narrator here? It's not the lord. Is it a servant, a major domo? Or some sort of weird Mercedes McCambridge-type lord's sister?

I still like Woody for working class hero. I like that it's the boss, rather than his lordship -- this is a solid anti-capitalist message.

After that, they're all co-opted to one degree or another. Conway Twitty's cowboy is the macho stud who can give the lady what she needs. She'll go back to her rich guy husband, but she'll never be his again, and you know she'll be putting on those tight fitting jeans and going out prowling for the cowboy, or some cowboy, again. But although he protests his credentials too much -- he's a cowboy, he's a good ol' boy, he's a peasant -- he's never a real egalitarian. He feels just like a peasant who just had met a queen, in his mind she's still a lady. There's more awe than class warfare.

And John Denver is just a wimp, a hands-acr0ss-the coffee table wimp.

Saturday, November 01, 2008

Clean Hands

A student wants to write a paper on “Lay Lady Lay,” but she’s supposed to be writing from a political perspective, and she doesn’t see how you can possibly approach “Lay Lady Lady” with a political interpretation. I tell her I’ll give her a lot of leeway -- maybe there’s no chance. But on my way home, all I can think of are political interpretations of “Lay Lady Lay.” And that just with the few lines I can remember.

I generally figure I can write anything I want in this blog under the safe assumption that my students don’t read it. I generally figure I can write anything I want under the safe assumption that nobody reads it. But Skye, if you happen to find this, I guess it’s a gift.

“Lay Lady Lay” is powerfully erotic charged – it exists in an erotic moment, and it’s easy to see why no would wanna step back and consider its political implications. You wanna be her, about to tumble into that big brass bed. You wanna be him, aflame with desire.

But who are these people? She’s a lady. And who is he? Just from the couple of snatches I remember of the song, his hands are clean. Who comments on the cleanness of his hands? Not an aristocrat. He’d take it for granted. So he’s a workingman, a peasant. He’s the Gypsy Davy. He’s the Cowboy and the Lady, the cowboy and the lady in tight fitting jeans. It’s class warfare – the aristocrat who can’t give his wife the earthy delight that she needs (I find myself assuming the Lady is married). It’s the basis of racism, and all class snobbery – the fear of losing our women to them, the fear of the conqueror that the soft life of the ruling class has robbed them of their virility.

The reverse of that – the aristocrat and the milkmaid – can play itself out in one archetype as the Cinderella story – poor girl uses her sexuality to raise herself in class, but she’s still the loser in gender politics, she’s still subservient. The other reversal, in the traditional gender archetype – the cowboy gets the lady to say yes – his earthy sexuality brings her down to his level, and she loves it, The milkmaid gets to say No to the aristocrat. She leaves him unsatisfied…she keeps the upper hand. Sarah Palin – in her scenario, at least – says No to the foppish, white wine-and-brie-loving Obama. You want me, but you can’t have me. I’m fucking Grandpa instead.

If there’s an element of class anger here, there’s sexual politics too. She’s Milady; she’s Madonna. And he’s there to turn her from Madonna to whore, the two archetypal roles. He’s going to lay her across the brass bed of a New Orleans whorehouse.

But the Gypsy Davy, like Jody in the army archetype, has got the girl and gone. Gone for good. Even here, there's a hierarchy. Jody's a bottom feeder, the Gypsy Davy represents freedom, escape from the whole capitalist trap, as well as the sexual virility that comes with it. The cowboy, on the other hand, doesn’t get to keep the lady, but she’ll never really belong to the rich rancher again.

None of this is the case with Clean Hands. He’s still begging. He is, in the terms of the other stories we’ve read this semester, the supplicant student of Isaac Babel’s “Guy de Maupassant,” not the jolly coachman-seducer of Maupassant’s “Confessing.” He’s Keats’s bold lover – all of which makes the song so erotic. Desire is erotic. The Gypsy Davy, the Cowboy, Jody – they really are about power. The erotic moment is past for them. And we know what happens if the Bold Lover wins his goal. The Madonna doesn’t become the whore; the fairy becomes the demon. The sexual conqueror becomes the sex slave. La Belle Damn Sans Merci has him in thrall.

It’s Clean Hands’s vulnerability that gives him the intensity of desire. He can’t know what colors the aristocrat has on her mind. He can tell her that, like Marie Antoinette, she can have her cake and eat it too, and the magic of the moment of desire allows us to forget that Marie Antoinette couldn’t have that either.

But getting back to the political, by pleading for the lady, Clean Hands is buying into the capitalist system, the hierarchy of power. He wants her because she's a lady, because she's the unattainable, because she's a step up the ladder.

OK, Skye -- that's a start. Next time I'll actually look at the rest of the song.