“Pop Art” does refer to a very specific visual arts movement of the mid-twentieth century, but I thought I’d abuse the term and apply Hamilton’s criterion to some of the music bandied about on this blog (just click to enlarge):
As far as the scores go, Vivaldi comes out as the most “pop” while Mozart gets the lowest score, which should satisfy most professional music historians. King Oliver and the California Ramblers tying is sure to irritate jazz purists; Oliver would probably just be happy, and surprised, to know that people are still listening to his music.
I’m happy to justify these scores and be proven wrong in the process. The scoreboard also includes a few blank columns so you can do your own critical introspection (or vivisection) at home!
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much easier and cheaper to experience than classic automobiles, it remains just as esoteric, and for many, just as outdated.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.
Though known for his humbleness, Domenico Cimarosa was probably proud to never accomplish the same feats as his contemporary Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.
Cimarosa didn’t compose a variety of complex, emotionally probing works. He wasn’t misunderstood or criticized for his music. He didn’t even inspire passionate stories about dying sick, young and penniless. Instead, Cimarosa’s comic operas made him immensely rich and popular, and were still well-known after he passed away ten years later and seventeen years older than Mozart.
Cimarosa’s Il Matrimonio Segretoactually received the most famous encore in operatic history, when Leopold II requested the whole work be repeated directly after its premier. Tuneful, catchy and a little bawdy (even without the risqué stage direction below), no wonder His Majesty couldn’t get enough:
In addition to a Holy Roman Emperor and the Austrian wunderkind himself, Cimarosa’s other fans included Haydn, who staged several of Cimarosa’s operas for his own patron, French realist writer Stendahl, who actually preferred Cimarosa’s music to that of you-know-who and Rossini, who apparently couldn’t stop whistling the Cimarosa arias he heard as a boy. Yet aside from Il Matrimonio Segreto, most of Cimarosa’s works are rarely if ever performed. At some point in history Cimarosa’s modest goals and immense success came to be classified as shortcomings.
While the current critical script is that even second-rate Mozart is preferable to the best efforts of a composer like Cimarosa, fresh listening is never a bad idea. For starters, it’s helpful to hear Cimarosa as Cimarosa, rather than “not Mozart” or some other composer i.e. as a musician who enjoyed straightforward harmonies, rounded melodies and bright textures, with a lot of woodwinds thrown in for added color. Atene Edificata doesn’t offer any intricacies in terms of music or story: the “characters” (really just allegorical mouthpieces for Cimarosa’s onetime employer Catherine the Great) praise god and country in lyrical phrases [just click “Play” below to listen]:
and runs that fall easily on the ear, with good momentum and without chromatic surprises [skip ahead to 2:40 in the following clip]:
Cimarosa was best known for his comedies, but tense drama and psychological insight were never really priorities in any of his works, nor were they as important to his contemporary listeners as they are for current operagoers. Cimarosa’s opera seria graft his bright style onto the vocal acrobatics and highfalutin stories eighteenth century audiences craved. “Superbo Di Me Stesso,” from Cimarosa’s setting of Metastasio‘s warhorse L’Olimpiade does provide a novel musical treatment for this well-worn text [starting at 0:39 in the following clip]:
The minor chords and wide intervals proclaiming “Superbo di me stesso, andrò portando in fronte” (“I’ll proudly go, bearing in front”) and the sweeter curlicues for “quel caro nome impresso, come mi sta nel cor” (“that beloved name, as it’s written in my heart”) convey how seriously this speaker takes the task of competing under a friend’s name to earn that friend a prize, and how dear that friend’s name is to the character. The skipping variation on “quel caro nome impresso” just reinforces his sentiments. Not a bad bit of character painting, especially for a libretto that had been set dozens of times previously and a composer now known for his “short, bubbly, and easily digestible” music.
On the other hand many of L’Olimpiade‘s arias are pure vocal exhibition. “Mi sento, O Dio, Nel Core” (“I feel, oh gods, in this heart”) for soprano with obbligato oboe is a magnificent traffic jam of an aria [which starts at 1:38 in the clip below], with an overly long, tacked on introduction, an impossibly high tessitura (even for a pro like Patrizia Ciofi) and gratuitous (even for eighteenth century audiences) coloratura. It also seems to go on forever, but makes for a hell of a show. In Cimarosa’s time, even serious opera was rarely “drama,” and “high art” only well after the final curtain: it was was vocal showpiece, spectacle, an athletic event and even a competition, a night of ” can they make it?”
As for that “short, bubbly, and easily digestible” sound, YouTube user Thrax1982 (who posted the above videos and whose dedication to lesser known operas is invaluable) offers the best analysis of Cimarosa’s music as “often (not [always]) seem[ing] like it’s put together of Lego blocks.” While that description might imply simplicity, sameness and a lack of emotion, it also suggests the use of familiar materials to create vivid, recognizable structures. Cimarosa’s compositional process is pretty transparent; no advanced theories or formal curveballs lurking under all those glistening surfaces. That might just be artistic choice on the composer’s part. Besides, Legos are fun, and they can make some pretty impressive stuff.
Gli Orazi e I Curiazi, a tale of political duty, romantic love and familial loyalty set in ancient Rome, leaves lots of room for big choruses, lush eroticism and deadly serious situations. Cimarosa flexes his theatrical chops at several key moments (including an unusually grim ending) and the second act’s oracle scene is as far removed from Cimarosa’s comedies as possible [Thrax’s commentary in the following clip is especially informative]:
Yet Cimarosa’s musical instincts for a sheerly beautiful effect enhance even stock scenes. Three-part harmony between the heroine, her Roman brother and an enemy of Rome that she just happens to be in love with depicts a brief truce as a moment of peace and celebration between siblings, lovers and nations [skip ahead to 3:44 below]:
It’s not dramatic verisimilitude or advanced music theory, but it does make for some great music. Shortly after, the brief duet between the couple, “Ti giura il labbro e il core amore e fedeltà” (“My lips and heart swear love and fidelity to you”), is so pure it brings the narrative to a halt:
Taken on its own terms, this simple, perhaps “superficial” writing works for Gli Orazi, due in part to Cimarosa’s knack for a distinct melodic hook. The lovers’ quarrel that opens Act II features some particularly juicy strings in the accompanied recitative, expressing this scene’s intensity in a highly stylized but effective manner:
The violins behind the ensuing duet “Se Torni Vincitor” (If You Return Victorious,” starting four minutes into the above clip) are touching, memorable and in musical terms, just plain gorgeous. Occasionally “beautiful” is enough, as is building with blocks rather than marble or watercolors. Cimarosa, as well as other musicians stuck on the historical unemployment line, remind us that it might be time for some prepositional reversal to the old adage “good, but not Mozart.”
The music business is difficult, but music history can be murder. Just ask any of a hundred composers laying dead and buried under the immortality of Bach, Mozart and other innovators. In case they’re not around, give Cab Calloway a read:
You hear about the Duke Ellingtons, the Jimmie Luncefords, and the Fletcher Hendersons, but people sometimes forget that jazz was not only built in the minds of the great ones, but on the backs of the ordinary ones.
Sour grapes? Perhaps, but the fact remains that history books don’t pay as much attention to the artists who did what they did well without breaking barriers or spawning a school of influence. Unfortunately Calloway‘s energetic singing and swinging bands were “merely” exciting music that was played incredibly, but which didn’t build the foundations of big band jazz like Henderson, reinvent jazz orchestration along the lines of Ellington or even define an iconic rhythm a la Lunceford.
Yet even Calloway has enjoyed a modest degree of historical attention compared to many of his other Swing Era colleagues. If Calloway’s back and Ellington’s mind helped build the house of jazz, they did so with the Mills Blue Rhythm Band’s legs running to all the gigs they couldn’t make.
Managed by impresario Irving Mills, the Mills Blue Rhythm Band was a New York based outfit designed as a third tier cash cow underneath Mills’ other two clients, Duke Ellington and Cab Calloway. The Blue Rhythm Band would cover Ellington/Calloway fare such as “Minnie the Moocher” and “Black and Tan Fantasy” along with their own swinging originals, without ever being allowed to compete with Mills’ star operations. What short shrift the MBRB does receive in jazz history texts frequently reiterates that given a revolving door of musicians fronting the band, and absent a distinct book, the band was never able to establish a singular identity or distinguish itself from other swing groups.
The group’s discography reveals a variety of big band sonorities, roof-raising soloists (many drawn from the star-studded ranks of Fletcher Henderson’s band after it folded) and the type of innately danceable rhythm that defined “swing” as a musical adjective, verb and noun during the thirties.
“Harlem Heat” pulls all of these elements together. The cut opens with Edgar Hayes’ crystalline piano wrapping around a trio of baritone, tenor and bass saxes, followed by JC Higginbotham punching into his trombone’s upper register and Buster Bailey’s deliciously tinny clarinet acrobatics. Between it all there’s an assortment of simple, infectious riffs:
“Dancing Dogs” intersperses the brass barking thoroughly modernistic chords between Gene Mikell’s soprano sax, Red Allen‘s vicious trumpet growls, Joe Garland (of “In the Mood” infamy) on husky tenor, Buster Bailey’s reed seesaws and and more great piano from Edgar Hayes. Five soloists, a world of contrasts and less than three minutes in hot music heaven [just follow the arrow to listen]:
Here’s the band under Baron Lee’s banner and vocals, in a stoner-iffic number made popular by Calloway. Potential identity crises aside, they sound like they’re having a ball. Their snappy rhythm and Harry White’s snarling trombone more than compensate for some comedic misfires:
The rhythm is a little chunky but not stiff, and it rides forward, never up and down. Pianist Hayes, along with bassist (and future Ellington alumnus) Hayes Alvis and drummer O’Neil Spencer aren’t doing anything groundbreaking as a rhythm section, just laying down an addictively steady beat in solid four. There’s none of the percussive color of Sonny Greer, the dynamic technique of Jimmy Blanton or the world-altering glide of the Basie rhythm section. Like Al Morgan and Leroy Maxey, Cab Calloway’s bass and drum team, the MRBB’s rhythm section provided an assembly line of groove: steady, reliable, and easy to take for granted. Calloway’s back may have been sore by the end of his career, but the Mills Blue Rhythm Band needed corrective surgery.
Irving Mills has been discussed, debated and demonized, but there’s no denying he had an impressive portfolio of talent under his wing. Here’s some footage of Irving promoting all three of the bands mentioned above, with period marketing rhetoric and an accent not unlike a few of my uncles: