Tag Archives: pop of yestercentury

A Stan King Playlist

Photo Care of @onlyapaprmoon

Photo from Timeless CD CBC 1-090 courtesy of @onlyapaprmoon

Like most early jazz drummers, Stan King was not well served by technology. He first appeared on hundreds of sessions with the California Ramblers, including the band’s numerous offshoots for different labels, starting in the early twenties. Acoustic recording techniques at that time limited the equipment that drummers could use and weren’t kind to what remained. King does burst out of the Five Birmingham Babies (a.k.a. the California Ramblers) on “Arkansas” to bang some springy drum rudiments on Ray Kitchingham’s banjo:

Unfortunately outbursts like this one were rare. King didn’t use standard acoustically sanctioned percussion like cymbals and blocks as much as his contemporaries Zutty Singleton, Baby Dodds and Chauncey Morehouse. So despite all the records, it’s hard to hear what or how King was playing early on his career. Either way it got him plenty of work. He must have been doing something worth hearing.

Based on slightly later recordings, it involved plenty of snare drum. Jazz drumming now tends to emphasize metal as the primary beat maker, yet as “Broken Idol” with the Ramblers shows, King could really move a band with drum skins. It’s a pity he was so skilled with what amounted to kryptonite for most recording engineers of the twenties:

Aside from a few cymbal crashes and the faux-oriental blocks and tom-toms, King’s main rhythmic medium here is his snare and bass drums. He keeps up a simple but buoyant bounce alongside Tommy Felline’s banjo and steps out behind Pete Pumiglio’s (red hot) alto sax solo. The brushes are pure momentum, more than compensating for Ward Lay’s slightly ponderous tuba. There’s none of the military-style heft that so many historians associate with prewar, snare-centric jazz drumming.

King’s work with Frank Trumbauer’s orchestra demonstrates his light but propulsive touch on drumheads, while never drawing too much attention to the wheels moving the band. “Futuristic Rhythm” includes a head-bobbing rhythm in the first chorus as well as percolating accompaniment to the leader’s vocal and cymbals behind Bix Beiderbecke:

King’s airtight press rolls and last chorus backbeat on “I Like That” (a.k.a. “Loved One“) are simple, impeccably timed and very effective:

Listening to King nearly sixty years later, renowned drummer Mel Lewis pointed to King’s “clean” style with more than faint praise. A crisp, precise and utterly unobtrusive approach defines King’s style more than any part of the drum set. He was above all an ensemble player who rarely soloed but always made sure that the band was “well fed” (to paraphrase bass sage Walter Page describing the role of the rhythm section).

With the Charleston Chasers, King leaves most of the rhythmic heavy lifting on “Loveable and Sweet” and “Red Hair and Freckles” (what were these guys thinking about on this session?) to pianist Arthur Schutt and bassist Joe Tarto:

Dancers and jazz aficionados may not be listening for King’s sizzling brushes and tapping rims, for how his drums click in with Tarto’s bass and produce a deliciously buzzy sonority or for his simple but firm beat. Listening to those touches reveals how subtly King could color and catalyze a band. It also points to an attention to detail and a knack for musical nuance that might not be heard could be felt. For example while many drummers use press rolls, and King relied on them throughout his career, the way that he loosens his press rolls up behind Tommy Dorsey’s trumpet solo on “Hot Heels” with Eddie Lang makes a difference:

Audio wizard, historian and trombonist David Sager recalls an “old-time drummer” he met at a gig in California years ago “who nearly shouted when he said, ‘Stan King had the best press roll in the business!’” King’s press rolls with none other than Louis Armstrong on Seger Ellis’ “S’Posin” might not impress on their own, but Armstrong scholar Ricky Riccardi explains that “Armstrong liked loud, emphatic drumming and he obviously dug what King was putting down.”

[Listen to “S’Posin” via Riccardi’s outstanding blog here, and subscribe while you’re at it.]

According to Richard Sudhalter King didn’t read music. His “natural drive and quick ear” were enough to make him one of the most in-demand drummers in New York during the twenties and thirties, performing with Paul Whiteman, Jean Goldkette, the Boswell Sisters, Ben Selvin, the Dorsey Brothers and Benny Goodman among others. A session directed by bass saxophonist Adrian Rollini finds King with the cream of the New York jazz crop at that time on standards such as” Sugar” and  “Davenport Blues”:

On “Somebody Loves Me,” King lays out behind George Van Eps’ solo, which allows his guitar to get heard and changes up the ensemble texture, but digs in behind Goodman’s clarinet and Arthur Rollini’s tenor saxophone while easing back behind trumpeter Mannie Klein and trombonist Jack Teagarden. It’s a model of sensitive, rhythmic jazz drumming (or “dance band” drumming, depending on one’s preferred pigeonhole):

King could also turn up the heat on his own. On “The Man From The South” with Rube Bloom, he locks in with Adrian Rollini, tosses out fast, snappy fills and bears down just a little harder behind Goodman before making room for Rollini’s solo:

On “Here Comes Emily Brown,” again with the Charleston Chasers but without Joe Tarto’s booming slap bass, King add a sizzle to his shuffle behind Tommy Dorsey’s trombone while his cowbell accents practically kick Benny Goodman from behind. Fills and backbeat on the out chorus also boot the ensemble:

King even gets some spotlight in a call and response episode with the ensemble on “Freeze and Melt” with Lang:

Occasionally King would get away from a steady beat and toss out unexpected accents and syncopations, for example early on his career behind Bobby Davis’ alto solo on “That Certain Party” with the Goofus Five (a.k.a. the California Ramblers):

or his offbeat rim “bombs” behind Jimmy Dorsey’s alto on “You’re Lucky To Me”:

Yet it’s all within the context of the band. Record after record shows King to be a clean, precise, utterly musical drummer. While his preferred instrumentation may have limited his recorded legacy, that same unflashy style may have hindered his historical one. Singer Helen Ward, speaking about King’s tenure with Benny Goodman’s band, said “we called him strictly a society type of musician. Everything he played was ‘boom-cha, boom-cha.’ There was no fire there.” Surprisingly enough Benny Goodman, who King not only played with but frequently pushed on record, described King as “merely adequate.”

The entry for King in the Encyclopedia of Popular Music describes “an exceptionally good dance band drummer with meticulous time [whose] jazz work always left something to be desired. Listening to, for example, Goodman’s recordings in late 1934 will reveal how King’s playing never lifts the band in the way Gene Krupa did when he took over as drummer…” John Chilton describes Louis Armstrong’s “I’m Putting All My Eggs In One Basket” as a “typical example of [King’s] somewhat foursquare playing:

King isn’t Krupa, Dodds, Sid Catlett or for that matter Elvin Jones, but it’s easy to imagine any of those players taking the same approach that King does given the thin material, flimsy arrangement and the fact that this is really Armstrong’s show. Riccardi astutely points out King’s “tasty” accents during Armstrong’s opening trumpet chorus, and the fact that “relaxation is the key” here. There’s a difference between playing stiffly and playing appropriately, a difference King was more than experienced enough to understand.

In the stylistic wake of louder, better-recorded and busier drummers, it is easy to overlook someone like King, who performed an essential role seamlessly and without drawing attention to his work. What some overlook, others celebrated. Drummer Chauncey Morehouse would praise King for his solid time years after his colleague’s death (when Morehouse led his own date playing his patented N’Goma drums, he chose King to handle traps duty).  Fud Livingston thought King was “the world’s greatest drummer!” Saxophonist and historian Loren Schoenberg noted how King continued to get work despite his well-known status as a “fall-down drunk.” It didn’t seem to matter; King got the job done.

Jazz historian Scott Yanow, who credited King for his “fresh” sound, explains that King’s alcoholism finally did get the best of him: King eventually took a low-key job with former California Ramblers sideman Chauncey Grey before fading from attention and passing away in 1949. King made his last recordings ten year earlier, with pianist (and fellow victim of alcoholism) Bob Zurke. “I’ve Found A New Baby” wasn’t the last thing King recorded but it provides explosive closure:

Fud Livingston’s arrangement gives King and the rest of the band plenty of room. King is a force of nature, crisp and light as always but distinctly forward in the mix, perhaps the influence of what Krupa and Chick Webb were bringing to the table at the time. King still remains his own man, with press rolls in first chorus and rim shots and backbeats egging on Zurke’s contrapuntal flurries and Sterling Bose’s trumpet. At a time when most drummers were emphasizing cymbals and a steady horizontal flow, King stuck to skins and a charging but tight vertical feel. He had something unique to contribute and put the needs of the band first. That certainly sounds like a jazz drummer or maybe a just a good band drummer, but definitely a drummer worth hiring, and hearing.

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Bennie Moten’s Sax Soloists

Here’s the second and final part of my discussion of Bennie Moten’s pre-1930 sax section…

naturalsaxdotcom

The range of ensemble colors is directly proportional to the sum of instrumental voices, so that more players equal more instruments and therefore more orchestral possibilities.

At first glance it seems like simple musical mathematics, borne out by jazz history: big bands developed from Jazz Age tentets to the fifteen-piece plus ensembles that are now industry standard. The saxophone section alone started as a three-man operation. Now five players (two altos, two tenors and a baritone) is the norm. The math says that three horns can’t produce the same variety as five, and history paints these changes as a natural and inevitable evolution. Usually the underlying assumption here is that twenties bandleaders were either bad at orchestral arithmetic or good with a bottom line. The idea that musicians just chose the right sidemen and did a lot with what was only later deemed “a little” rarely enters the equation.

For example, Bennie Moten’s sax section does usually stick to the two altos plus tenor arrangement that was standard for most twenties bands. Yet whatever this section may lack in terms of variety as a concerted unit, it more than makes up for in solo permutations. Harlan Leonard, Woody Walder and Jack Washington each play with distinct, contrasting styles. Factor in different approaches to different types of musical material as well as instrumental doubling, and you get a surprisingly broad musical palette.

Leonard plays both bright lead alto and bluesily rococo solos with a delightfully nasal edge. He tosses in fills between the ensemble on “When Life Seems So Blue,” while “Oh! Eddie” and “Mary Lee” include tantalizingly short but hot bridges:

Leonard’s soprano sax is a refreshing alternative to Sidney Bechet’s towering presence as well as the brass clarinet approach many of his contemporaries took to the instrument.  On “Boot It,” he plays with a with a joyous hoedown feel, recalling early jazz’s intersection with country and other folk art forms:

Clarinetist Woody Walder is often demonized for his novelty solos on the earliest Moten sides. Walder’s arsenal of whinnies, pops and barnyard onomatopoeia might be an acquired taste (personally I think he was just anticipating the Art Ensemble of Chicago) but his clarinet solos with the late Moten band deserve more attention. He plays some simple but direct blues in a sandy low register on “That Too Do,” with a few inflections thrown in as a type of musical signature:

Walder interpolates more passionate blues on the non-blues form of “New Vine Street Blues” and plays jittery, high-octane clarinet on faster numbers such as “Sweetheart of Yesterday” as well as shouting obbligatos to close numbers such as “Oh! Eddie.”

Doubling tenor, Walder seems hell-bent on sounding just as massive and brawny on the larger instrument as he is fleet and piercing on the smaller one. On “Everyday Blues” and the jerky, tongue-in-cheek “New Goofy Dust Rag”, he smears notes in a sweaty, agitated style. There are traces of Coleman Hawkins, but none of his harmonic sophistication. This is greasy saloon stuff without any hint of the conservatory:

Jack Washington is best known for anchoring Count Basie’s sax section, but as a younger man he played second alto with Moten and got much more solo space on baritone sax. He displays a burnished, gargantuan sound on baritone that’s closer to a bass saxophone, even pumping out effective bass lines for “That Too Do.” Washington’s unique tone is already put to effective use at this early stage, for example creating dark contrast behind the flashy trumpet on “Rit Dit Ray” and playing lead on baritone for a few tunes. This effect can be heard in other bands from the time, but Washington adds his own unique density:

Washington’s solos are all bottom and darkness, subterranean parties in a delightfully archaic vein. He takes slap tonguing to a whole new level, for example on “New Vine Street” but never forgets to swing; take his solo on “Mack’s Rhythm” or the way he dances all over “Mary Lee”:

“Mary Lee” also includes another Leonard bridge as well as Walder’s percussive clarinet and tenor honks.  Given its sheer range of colors, Moten’s sax section could have been its own band, a front line unto itself. It’s not a Gil Evans affair but neither is it just three players, or five instruments, or even eight if you include the fact that everyone doubled clarinet. It is simply incredible that this was just one section of a band. Then again, who’s counting?

direct proportion

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Bennie Moten’s Sax Section

library-umkc-edu

This is the first of a two-part post on one of my favorite musical experiences. As usual, it’s probably not most listeners’ first choice for a good time, but think of it like the first time you tried sushi, or whiskey…

Jazz lovers can debate their picks for “best saxophone section,” but chances are their selections share some similarities: tight unison playing, rich harmonies with the ability to turn creamy smooth or biting at the drop of a dime, and a distinctive sound both as a section and via soloists spinning out of the unit. There is a certain idea(l) of “saxophone section” in place after decades of well-oiled, multi-hued saxophone sections. Given that tradition, Bennie Moten’s three-man, pre-1930 reed team may sound more like a gap in the chain than a link.

For starters, its modest size comes from an earlier and supposedly developmental stage of big band arranging (with the five-man sax section viewed as the final step in the inexorable evolution of the jazz orchestra). Moten’s saxes also play more like a combination than a section, with a less-than-airtight blend and everyone’s part clearly audible. Finally, the Moten section’s lush sound would simply never pass in the modern age of more cutting sax timbres.

Harlan Leonard, Woody Walder and Jack Washington’s ensemble work is actually quite successful, in its own sweet way, because of their inability (refusal?) to ever jell. The Moten sax section sounds like three people playing, in both the musical as well as recreational sense of the word, rather than reading a part or letting muscle memory rehash what they practiced. The ragged sax soli on “That Certain Motion” would probably have most band directors turning red, but it’s hard to imagine such a deliciously gooey, lazy feel arising after hundreds of rehearsal hours:

Moten’s saxes are also incredibly transparent, perhaps to a fault. Missteps are out there for all to hear. Yet they’re also completely earnest and anything but stiff. “When Life Seems So Blue,” is slightly neater, but as if to avoid the monotony of cohesion, lead alto Leonard pipes in some ecstatic filigree between the full ensemble’s statements:

“Small Black” and “Won’t You Be My Baby?” sound much tighter, but the section’s lush, honking sound makes them seem like one of Botticelli’s zaftig figures compared to today’s lean, mean supermodel sax sections:

It’s easy to hear their sound as some vestigial element, but Moten’s saxes provide as unique a reed aesthetic as anything by the World Saxophone Quartet, Bob Mintzer or Dead Cat Bounce. Sound is never old or new; it’s always in the present and has no expiration date. Whether or not the Moten sax section belongs in the pantheon of great saxophone sections, they make room for themselves as a completely unique experience. That has to count more than playing every note at exactly the same time.

More on the Moten sax section, specifically the Moten sax soloists, next time…

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Beauty, Rhythm and Paychecks with Ben Pollack’s Boys

Here’s a case for all the popular music that jazz musicians had to record just to make ends meet during the prewar era.

The following session includes some of the best players in New York at that time, regulars in Ben Pollack‘s band and performing here in one of the many studio groups organized by impresario Irving Mills. Young Benny Goodman sticks to reading alto saxophone parts, and Jack Teagarden’s trombone is barely audible, yet it’s not just commercial dross:

Scholars and purists will probably fast-forward to Jimmy McPartland’s cornet solo. Some might even mention criminally underrated saxophonist Larry Binyon. Yet McPartland is as rich, penetrating and warm on straight lead as he is in his Beiderbecke-inspired improvisation.  A typical prewar sax section (two altos and a tenor) has a bright, buttery sound that’s a refreshing change of pace from more modern reeds. Even the unknown, operetta-inspired crooner sounds more than bearable with Dick McPartland’s banjo, Harry Goodman’s tuba and Ray Bauduc‘s drums guarding the beat behind him.

Despite the simple tune and small space given to improvisation, a group of talented musicians makes it beautiful as well as rhythmic.  There’s no way to tell if heroes are happy, but these professionals certainly sound good.

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A Long Time Ago In A Record Store

CDTime was that recorded music needed to be stored on some type of circular object (with rectangular objects briefly, and in hindsight laughably, substituted at a few points). If a listener wanted to hear their favorite band, they could insert one of these circles into a machine specifically designed to spark music from out of the circle. Over the years the circles changed in appearance, size, material, sound quality and how much music they stored. As the circles grew more sophisticated, so did their packaging: they might include the names of the musicians providing music for the circle, insight into the music beyond what its promoters had to say or some image that listeners would forever associate with that circle and its music. The principle always remained the same: a physical object that made music possible.

220px-EdisongoldmouldedTo keep hearing recorded music, a listener had to purchase more circles. Entire stores were devoted to selling circles, with aisles of them organized according to labels that weren’t perfect but still gave a general sense of where to look for a particular artist. The circles usually cost money but most listeners didn’t seem to mind; the right circle could provide joy, intellectual stimulation, inspiration, reminiscence or something else that made any price seem like a steal.

Many circle-buyers had a favorite store, a place where they found the circles they wanted or discovered new circles, sometimes a circle that changed their life. It might be some essential building block of a collection (for example The Hot Fives or The Well-Tempered Clavier), something recommended by friends (such as the Luis Russell band or Teresa Berganza singing Rossini) or something completely new to them (maybe Fats Waller playing the organ, perhaps Handel’s violin sonatas). Circle shops combined commerce, personal choice, education, hope, and the thrill of the hunt, with every flip of a cardboard cover or click of plastic cases bridging whole aesthetic universes.

J&R Music World was my favorite source for circles. Its sheer variety for even most esoteric musical tastes and its constantly growing store of music awaiting discovery will never be surpassed. Yet if pressed to explain why J&R really stood out, it would have to be for the train ride home following a shopping spree. The distance between lower Manhattan and southeast Brooklyn isn’t substantial in terms of geography, but the subway warps time in unusual ways. Waiting to switch from the R to the Q at DeKalb Avenue alone could seem like a Chaucerian journey. Yet the anticipation of getting home to hear those circles, packed tightly inside one of J&R’s signature light blue bags, made the wait blissfully unbearable.

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After moving out of New York City, trips to J&R became more sporadic but my appreciation for the experience grew. Aside from nostalgia, going to J&R was a chance to bump into something new rather than simply ordering what I already knew I wanted. Rather than reading a list of new releases cherry-picked by some editor at a magazine, I discovered them on my own, thumbing through them on the rack, browsing covers and often hearing them over the store’s speakers. And of course there was still that ride back home, which changed locations over the years and grew further from J&R, but which always seemed more rewarding after another good haul.

Recorded music slowly began to need circles less and less, and my favorite circle outlet began to change. On my first trip back after starting college, I was surprised that the jazz section was no longer surrounded by car horns and chatter coming from the street on the first floor, but was moved up to the second floor.  Yet the change allowed me to hear the new releases and employee selections over the store speakers that much better, as well as the staff’s answers to my questions and their suggestions based on my inquires. Regardless of what floor housed the circles, there was still ample ground to cover. Poring through the jazz section alone could easily take a few hours.

Over the years the few hours needed to cover the stacks started to diminish. The classical and opera rooms in the back became two parts of the same section, awkwardly squeezed next to other sections (Vivaldi’s vicinity to the karaoke section may not have inspired the same degree of outrage for all consumers). I also began to notice fewer and fewer circles in the overstock cabinets underneath.

IMG_0853On my last trip to J&R, I learned that their entire row of stores (including their electronics, appliance, computer, photography and other divisions) have now been condensed into one building. A sign outside the former spot of the music department directed me to the new omnibus location, where music now occupies two floors. The space is much smaller but things don’t seem very tight. Based purely upon the thumb and pluck method of stock analysis and an overwhelming sense of “is that it?” it seemed like there were fewer circles than ever. I haven’t researched J&R’s sales or plans for the future, and no one sends them more well-wishes than I do, but if the writing isn’t on the wall, it’s only because the download has to finish.

Progress has liberated music from its physical trappings. It has also ensured that future generations will never feel artistic possibilities gliding on their fingertips, or learn music history from a deluge of album covers while a former drug connection for Miles Davis and a retired Metropolitan Opera coach discuss their favorite albums across the aisle. In lieu of circles, music is now this weightless, formless, costless thing, as easy to find and forget as the air we breathe. One person missing his circles might be sad (in several senses of the word), but an entire generation never enjoying those circles seems unfortunate.

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Finding Bill Moore

Bill Moore. The name seems like a joke on itself, a homophone inviting literally “more” to be said about it, while resisting that urge through its own frequency. The number of birth certificates, census records, coroners’ reports and gravestones for “William Moore” or “Bill Moore” makes a daunting prospect when it comes to research. I’m interested in the trumpeter Bill Moore, but there are several players with that name, playing different instruments and kicking up more hay around my desired needle.

Irving Brodsky - Piano  Left to Right: Ray Kitchingham, Stan King, Bill Moore and Adrian Rollini

Irving Brodsky – Piano
Left to Right: Ray Kitchingham, Stan King, Bill Moore and Adrian Rollini

What I find says little and repeats it often: that Moore worked with the California Ramblers in all of their pseudonymous forms as well as with Ben Bernie, Jack Pettis and many other bandleaders. His unique position as a light-skinned African American “passing” in White bands also comes up frequently, without any insight into whether that fact mattered as much to the man himself as it does to history. Discographies confirm that he played with a variety of bands through the Swing Era, with a 1950 Billboard review praising his “Armstrong-inspired” trumpet. There’s not much more to learn about the man, even less when it comes to the musician. Bill Moore is very hard to find.

The sound of Moore’s trumpet during the twenties takes us past the realm of historical cyphers and gigging sidemen. At that time Moore was a distinctly pre-Armstrong player. His tone is far removed from the rich, brassy sound now virtually synonymous with “jazz trumpet.” It’s narrower and more piercing, like a needle rather than a sword, well suited to tying an ensemble together rather than cutting its own path.

Even through the haze of acoustic records, Moore’s trumpet has a buzzy edge to it, different than the cool quality of his contemporary Red Nichols, the broad, warm tone of Paul Mares or Johnny Dunn’s crisp flourishes.

Moore also frequent played with a mute. Brass players often point out how mutes can be used to hide intonation problems (with King Oliver a favorite example) but the possibility of expressive choice is worth considering in Moore’s case. Moore’s pinched sound was put to good use on a series of sessions throughout the late twenties.

Moore also chatters rather than blasts, maybe to hide an uneven tone, maybe to show off fast fingers. Either way, he lets this brash instrument; seemingly designed for sweeping bursts, speak in tight, concentrated patterns.

Armstrong experimented with what Brian Harker called a clarinet-like approach early on his career. Nichols used clever, clipped lines throughout his long career. Jabbo Smith and Roy Eldridge frequently employed double-time, with the boppers later adding their own phrasing and harmonic ideas.

Moore’s chattering is more disjointed, based in a pre-Armstrong aesthetic that emphasized contrast and variety over continuity and flow. It’s also more of an ornament, as Moore sticks closer to the melody than most modern jazz musicians would ever care to (Moore knows how to have fun with even the silliest tune, rather than simply throw it out). The emphasis on contrast, paraphrase and mutes indicates that Moore might have been listening to “novelty” trumpeter Louis Panico.

Listening to Moore reveals more than session dates and personnel listings. It points to influences, musical choices, textures and a vocabulary. In other words, a distinct musical voice at work. Neither a genius granted immortality nor a hack deserving complete neglect, after generations of brash, brassy trumpeters in the Armstrong mode, Moore’s style might seem like a wholly “new” experience (even if it originated decades before most readers were born).

from The Reading Eagle, November 7, 1929

from The Reading Eagle, November 7, 1929

Jazz purists might dismiss Moore based on his lack of swing, his limited improvisational skill or some other interesting but ultimately illogical bit of teleology. Given his post-ragtime, pre-Armstrong soundscape, criticizing Moore (and his contemporaries) for not sounding like later players is like chastising Renaissance paintings for having too many religious references: rather than admiring the work in its historical context, or a part from the critic’s context, everything is measured up against one stylistic endpoint, with all “great” works leading up to or issuing from it.

Not that many even take the time to dismiss Moore based on his playing.  As is often the case with the earliest chapters of music history, discussion beyond the session cards and matrix numbers and right to the sound of the music appears infrequently. Maybe reacting to the music itself seems too subjective. Maybe now that Moore and his colleagues are no longer around, maybe the only thing left to do is ensure an accurate record of the past. Hopefully when the record is complete we’ll remember why it was assembled in the first place.

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Bom Chicka Wah Wah, Circa 1727

Even if The Borgias, The Tudors, and Boardwalk Empire have established that people have been getting “nasty” for centuries, Vivaldi’s “Sol Da Te” from Orlando Furiso had to have steamed a few collars and corsets in eighteenth century Venice.

The aria takes place right after the knight Ruggiero swallows a love potion and instantly fixates on the sorceress Alcina. Nothing too racy there, so Vivaldi leaves it up to the music to scandalize his audience:

It’s that dark minor key, combined with a tense, palpitating but teasingly slow momentum, that makes the listener feel like they’re in on a very intimate moment. Flute over muted strings now seems like something for the Easy Listening set, but here the flute alternates between Vivaldi’s seductive melody and rapid bursts, as thought it’s having trouble concentrating. The Italian poetry, sung in cultivated operatic tones (originally written for a castrato!), only seems more “romantic” than “sexy;” don’t treat these lyrics too literally:

Sol da te, mio dolce amore,
Questo core
Avra pace, avra conforto.
Le tue vaghe luci belle
Son le stelle,
Onde amor mi guida in porto.

(In loose English translation:
Only from you, my sweet love,
Does this heart
Find peace and comfort.
The beautiful lights of your eyes,
Are the stars,
That guides my love to harbor.)

It’s beautiful, but it doesn’t take a dirty twenty-first century mind to read into all that talk about “comfort, peace” and being “guided” into the harbor. Barry White wasn’t the first one to use “love” as a code word for a variety of feelings and actions. There’s a long history of guys using the right lines and music to get what they want. So get to happy hour tonight, keep the music of a dead Italian priest in mind and have a happy Valentine’s Day!

Give Him a Powdered Wig and a Harpsichord, Then He Can Sit In

Get That Man a Powdered Wig and Electric Harpsichord!

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Get To Work and Do It Our Way: Italian Composers In France

ha2Like 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.

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A Contender for John Coltrane’s Favorite Tuba Player

Released in 1963, and even with its rhythm section and harmonic sensibility soaked in modern jazz, John Coltrane’s album Ballads may be one of the best examples of the prewar jazz aesthetic:

Coltrane’s reliance on pure tone and straightforward lyricism speaks to a style of jazz that can paraphrase melodies (even fast ones) as well as deconstruct them.  The “tune proper” isn’t thrown out after the first chorus, but partnered with throughout the performance, channeled to make something recognizable but personal.

Do yourself a favor and click on the following hyperlinks.  You will not be sorry.

Coltrane, the symbol of boundary-pushing, technically advanced modern jazz, keeps company with Louis Armstrong and Bix Beiderbecke, as well as Phil Napoleon, Manny Klein and Joe Smith. Trumpeters were usually the ones playing lead in the twenties, thirties and forties, but saxophonist Frank Trumbauer and his way of paring down a melody to its essentials also comes to mind, as does trombonist Kid Ory.  Don Murray, with a gorgeously burry sound and distinct personality on baritone sax, also understood that the expressive potential of straight melody.  Even Guy Lombardo’s sax section, hated by jazz scholars and beloved by Armstrong for their clean melody statements, might have appreciated Coltrane’s approach on Ballads.

Coltrane’s glistening tenor sax even brings to mind tuba player Clinton Walker on “Frankie and Johnny” with King Oliver:

Walker provides a rich lead for the leader’s punctuations, and while he doesn’t get all of his notes out, its an admirable solo.  Modern ears may hear it as a novelty, but the tone, the attempt to control the sound and the refusal to harrumph reveal a player giving both the melody and his own voice their due.  Differences of chops, decades and octaves notwithstanding, these musicians were all about the tune.

Wonder If He Ever Heard Alberto Socarras?

Wonder If He Listened to Alberto Socarras?

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How (Not) To Listen To Early Jazz

All About Jazz has been very supportive of prewar jazz coverage, so I’m thrilled to see my column published on their website. In its latest article, I discuss some of the perceptions that make the music’s early sounds seem so removed from the jazz continuum. Hopefully it’ll inspire some open ears, and maybe a few stuffed stockings.

I also hope you’ll give it a read, right here. Thank you!

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