There isn’t as much improvisation, and the blues notes are few and far between, but the rhythm sections really move and there is plenty of collective ensemble playing. I like to think of it as the hot jazz of the eighteenth century. If you’re interested, check out my coverage of some outstanding Baroque music in Early Music America online.
Like British rockers in America during the sixties or Latin pop stars in the nineties, throughout the eighteenth century major European opera venues clamored for Italian composers (as well as singers, librettists and instrumentalists). Yet France seemed to make their imports work harder than anyone else.
Unlike in most countries, Italian musicians in France had to adapt to the language and style of their adoptive land. Learning a foreign language is one thing, but writing it, singing it and setting it to music is another. Piccinni didn’t speak a word of French when he was brought to Paris to work on Roland. With just some coaching from his librettist Marmontel and his own musical instincts, Piccinni made a suitably French, singularly Piccinnist work, for example taking the heroine’s somewhat verbose preaching about love and grafting on his own rich melody and orchestration:
Later on, Piccinni even even sneaks in a very Italianate “storm simile” aria:
French opera in general, with its big choruses, grand ballets, talky plots and emphasis on refinement and artifice rather than virtuosity and immediacy was very different from the Italian style. Musicologist Mariateresa Dellaborra summarizes the French aesthetic as art that sought to “…touch the soul and do so with grace, [while] always (emphasis mine) giving pleasure.” If the Italians had fire in their veins, the French had perfume running through theirs.
Setting aside things like truth, naturalness, complexity or excitement in favor of polish, escapism, unrelenting pleasantry and detachment, listeners can get closer to appreciating (if not liking) this music. Add the idea of immigrant composers, assimilating a foreign style and maintaining the Italian spirit that made them so popular, while also forging an individual sound to compete with their fellow expatriates, and these works become something more than a sugary diversion for the elite. The music turns out to be as challenging for the listener as the composer.
For example, how to portray and absorb disturbing moments using only elegant and lovely sounds? When Ceres hears that her daughter Persephone has been kidnapped and brought to Hades (remember: escapism), Paisiello paints her shock in melancholy but plush colors, without the crushing chords or rhythms contemporary listeners might associate with these feelings:
Paisiello’s music is all about beautiful surfaces and introverted, reserved charm. Neither the composer or his audience were seeking psychological insight (a very modern value). He does gives Ceres a chance to lash out with an air of rage and dissonance, but places beauty above urgency or verisimilitude. Ceres’ anger is expressed in the most stylized terms possible, the aural equivalent of Canova making a sculpture out of Guernica:
Ceres’ lyrical, even hummable fury exemplifies Paisiello’s touch: it’s hard not to get the music accompanying the line [at about 0:40 in the above clip] “Why did you steal something so sweet from me?” stuck in your head. It’s easy to hear why composers across Europe envied the Italians’ knack for a clean, gorgeous theme. Dido’s air “Hélas! Pour nous Il Exposé…” (Alas, For Us He Exposes Himself To Risk…”) is a suspenseful portrayal of her fears for Aeneas’ life, but it uses a catchy motif to drives the sentiment right into the audience’s memory (and it’s vaguely reminiscent of Verdi’s famous motif in La Forza del Destino):
Yet Dido’s climactic end is thoroughly French: she says her last words, stabs herself with Aeneas’ sword and the people of Carthage swear vengeance on Rome in perfectly restrained, stately and gorgeous cadences. No big disturbing chords spelling death, no excessive displays of emotion. The final chorus might even sound triumphant if it weren’t for the lyrics about “eternal war”:
With the onset of Romanticism and an emphasis on broader emotions and flashier harmonies, these operas as well as those of other paisan in Paris like Sacchini, Salieri and Cherubini might seem a little vanilla. Yet they display more than craftsmanship, tunesmithing or the skill needed to reach beyond national and cultural borders. These operas are entirely unique aesthetic modes. Travel writer Rick Steves advises that “if something’s not to your liking, change your liking.” It might be enough to just consider other forms of “liking” and go from there.
This is a continuation of an earlier post, which I hope will encourage further discussion. Comments are welcome, greatly appreciated and humbly requested…
The earliest examples of any musical style, whether it’s hot jazz, Baroque or Bill Haley, live and die by history. The historically-minded listeners comprising classical and jazz audiences readily admit that “early music” got things to where they are now, just like the Model T made the Lamborghini possible. Yet most of them don’t like to drive anything that’s too old. Despite classic music being much easier and cheaper to experience than classic automobiles, it remains just as esoteric, and for many, just as outdated.
Unlike machines (or medicine, the law and late-night comedians), music doesn’t do anything better or worse over time; it just approaches melody, harmony, rhythm, form and other musical considerations differently. For example when it comes to instrumental interplay and tonal organization, Beethoven wrote more intricate chamber works than his predecessors, and Mozart more circumspect operatic works than his contemporaries. Them Austrian boys’ music is “better” for those seeking complexity or dramatic depth.
Boccherini and Paisiello, writing before Beethoven’s innovations and without the blessing or mutation that created Mozart, concern themselves with melody and directness. Using just the meager notes they know, they still manage to make music:
Boccerhini: Sextet, Op. 23 No. 1 in E flat, 1. Allegro (Ensemble 415):
Paisiello: “Mi Palpita Il Cor” from ‘Il Mondo della Luna’ (Gloria Banditelli):
Similarly, Charlie Parker’s rhythm section handles their job in a very satisfying and very sophisticated, very specific manner:
Parker’s band epitomizes a concept of jazz rhythm that can be traced back to the revolution in swing started by Count Basie’s All-American rhythm section, was developed and deconstructed following the bop era and which has influenced jazz through to the present. The texture is spacious and airy, with accents that both support and pull at a smooth, even and relaxed beat. The musicians also interact with and respond to soloists, varying their patterns to add color.
Parker’s group does light and interactive really well, but what if the listener is looking for something else? They could check out The Missourians for some jazz that’s really different:
Pianist Earl Prince, banjoist Morris White, tuba player Jimmy Smith and drummer Leroy Maxey, like so many pre-swing rhythm sections, take their name very literally: they lay out the chords, bass line and ground rhythm, sticking to a punchy background role. Their goal is to create a stage of rhythm for the ensemble and soloists to play over, rather than an accompaniment that’s interesting in and of itself. Musicians who continue to play and find inspiration in this approach explain that supporting the band is the interesting part; locking into a groove and keeping it going for their partners is how they express themselves. That particular groove is not the smooth swing normally associated with jazz. Instead, it’s intense and earthy, based on a very uneven beat, with a chunky feel that give the listener something to bob their head to (sort of like late twenties funk).
In other words, The Missourians have a unique approach to rhythm, just as unique as the Parker rhythm section, or the Basie rhythm section, or the rhythm sections backing Bix Beiderbecke, Albert Ayler or Vijay Iyer. The Missourians’ approach only seems simple, “outdated” or “corny” when judged against a later standard, the equivalent of driving a Model T and expecting a V12 to kick in.
This is meant to be the first part of a series of posts dealing with several topics that this writer has wanted to discuss here. Comments are not only welcome, but kindly requested.
Roman Engraving of the Plebeian Class Waiting to Buy Tickets for Kenny G, or Maybe Mantovani
I’ve always had a love/hate relationship with “theory.” As a student of philosophy and history, “theory,” a.k.a. literary theory or French theory, broadened (and occasionally complicated) matters, while as a music lover, “music theory” explained and simplified its subject, often to the point of reductionism. Apply theory to Moby Dick and it becomes something more than a dense story. Apply theory to Vivaldi’s concertos or King Oliver’s blues, and they might seem like something far less than the sum of all their vivid parts.
While popular wisdom states that an appreciation for jazz and/or classical means a refined ear, over the years many theory experts, in both print and in person, have pointed out how most of the examples of “good music” that this blogger enjoys aren’t very musically sophisticated. For example, Vivaldi is just repeating the same thing over and over again. There are no interesting modulations in his music, just tonic and dominant with an occasional relative minor. King Oliver is just playing what any other trumpeter could play, over a simple (read, “simplistic”) three-chord progression, no fast runs or innovative chord substitutions to be found. “It’s just a…” is a common phrase, as in “it’s just a ii-V-I,” or “it’s just a Phrygian cadence,” whittling down countless musical moments to their barest, most unremarkable essentials.
There’s no arguing with taste, but mocking it remains fair game. Without outright calling anyone a plebian, clever theory-lovers suggest that everyone is free to listen to what they want in the same way that people are free to enjoy reality television, fast food or tap water.
King Oliver and Vivaldi at least get historical street cred as stepping-stones to the advanced, intelligent music any smart listener should appreciate: in Oliver’s case, anything Louis Armstrong recorded before 1931 and in Vivaldi’s case, all the transcriptions Bach made of his music. Yet for many authorities (whether they have a book deal or not), listening to Buster Bailey, Cimarosa, Red Nichols, Salieri, the California Ramblers, Telemann and many other second-stringers is like ordering the meatloaf in a gourmet restaurant: they just never approach the pleasure and refinement of the other items on the menu. Some people may simply like meatloaf, but more importantly, perhaps the connoisseur is missing out on what those other dishes have to offer.
In case my little blog about hot jazz and eighteenth century classical music seems unusual, here’s “Autumn Leaves,” arranged as a French air for period instrument orchestra:
In the end, they’re all just tunes.
Incidentally, I’ve been enjoying Patrick Cohen-Akenine’s work with his phenomenal orchestra Les Folies Françoises for years, even purchasing full-length works just to hear the ensemble’s gutty, tense and completely transparent strings. For more on Cohen-Akenine’s meticulous attention to those strings and his latest project, check out this article here.
Bob Zurke at the Paramount Theater, New York City, 1939
Bob Zurke collapsed while playing his regular gig at the Hangover Club in Los Angeles sixty-seven years ago today. Alcoholism and the worst excesses of life on the road had taken their toll on the pianist, culminating with pneumonia and his death the following day. While most photographs show a much older man with a worn down face, Zurke had just turned thirty-two.
What photographs don’t highlight are the hands behind the wild pianism Zurke left behind on records. Born to Polish immigrants on January 17, 1912 in Michigan, by sixteen Boguslaw Albert Zukowski was professional pianist “Bob Zurke,” whose small hands and short fingers didn’t lend themselves to the wide intervals of stride piano. Blessed with talent, imagination and a genetic dispensation to go his own way, Zurke would spin wildly intricate independent lines on the keyboard, as though separating both hemispheres of his brain and then instigating a fight between the two of them.
Gunther Schuller describes a “dynamic hurricane-like force…light years removed from the polite babbling of most 1930s band pianists.” To be fair, when compared to the swinging polyphony on “Diga Diga Doo” with the Bob Crosby orchestra, any pianist would sound reserved:
The bulk of Zurke’s all-too-brief career was spent with like-minded musical individualists in the Crosby band, which brought the warmth and stomp of New Orleans into the Swing Era. Zurke’s best work with the Crosby group combines brassy exclamations reminiscent of Earl Hines, the rich counterpoint of the Baroque and the sheer “wow” factor of virtuosos and athletes alike. On the usually twee “Tea for Two,” Zurke adds a childlike sense of mirth, like a kid superimposing dirty limericks onto a nursery tune:
Features with the Crosby band such as “Little Rock Getaway” and “Yancey Special” show him to be a uniquely room-rumbling boogie woogie stylist. Yet ironically Zurke’s most impressive, and personal, boogie on record (and coincidentally his last recording) is the accompaniment for the 1944 cartoon “Jungle Jive” (enjoy the music and avert the eyes from the dated, offensive visuals):
Zurke’s solos would occasionally start to ramble, and his intricate lines weren’t always well served by the recording techniques of his time. Musically that was about all all he had in common with most of his colleagues. Unfortunately Zurke did share many musicians’ taste for living hard and fast. After leaving Crosby and briefly leading his own big band, Zurke gigged around Chicago and Detroit before settling, and falling, in Los Angeles.
Bob Zurke, Detroit, 1937
Crosby bandmate Bob Haggart recalled “You could hear only a bar or two, and you’d know it was Bob Zurke.” The late George Shearing admitted “He always amazed me,” and Dick Sudhalter said Shearing was capable of an “uncanny” imitation of Zurke’s piano. Yet an early death, modest discography and idiosyncratic style don’t always allow much of a legacy or influence beyond collectors and specialists. Unlike some other alcoholic martyrs of jazz, Zurke’s story just seems sad, not romantic: a one-of-a-kind voice, destroyed by his vices and largely forgotten.
And then there’s the music. Is there anything those hands couldn’t do?
For more about Bob Zurke, check out Bill Edwards’ well-researched, loving biography of Zurke here.