Tag Archives: YouTube

Bennie Moten’s Got (His Own) Rhythm

Bennie Moten’s band impresses me every time I hear its distinct soloists, room-shaking ensembles and above all its singular rhythm. If Moten’s piano player Bill Basie (yes, that Basie) defined “swing,” then Basie’s first job in Kansas City was with the quintessence of “stomp.”

“Somebody Stole My Gal” offers a lesson in jazz physics:

The Moten beat is tense and chunky, with uneven, at times jerky accents and steamroller momentum. It’s far removed from the relaxed, steady stream approach that would characterize jazz rhythm through the modern era. Some jazz scholars might label the Moten beat “vertical” rather than “horizontal,” a distinction that often ignores the sheer visceral drive of such motion. It swings, just more like a wrecking ball than a ride cymbal.

It’s probably no surprise that with all that rhythm there’s little need for the actual song. Yet while contemporary jazz listeners are used to music barely hinting at the melody, this was 1930, and then as now most listeners wanted to hear the tune proper. Instead, Jack Washington leads the reeds (on baritone sax!) through half a straight chorus before taking the main theme loose and dirty in his solo. From there, it’s never heard of again.  Even the vocal (by Count Basie!) consists of scatting independently of Leo Wood’s chart-topping lyrics.

It’s hard to imagine contemporary pop straying so far from the melody. It’s easier to imagine today’s jazz doing so, yet still harder to think it would ever channel the thick, stomping groove heard here. Like I said, truly unique music.

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Domenica con Vivaldi: Vivaldi, Meet James Joyce…No?

Antonio Vivaldi (March 4, 1678-July 28, 1741) composed over five hundred concertos, yet Stravinsky joked that Vivaldi actually wrote the same concerto five hundred times. Many of the Venetian composer/violinist’s concertos display similar traits, making them instantly recognizable as the work of the same artist. Yet how each performer (and listener) approaches Vivaldi’s concertos makes all the difference. “Sundays with Vivaldi” will take Il Prete Rosso’s concertos one at a time, and see whether each of these things is in fact like the others.

Concerto Number 9 in F Major
RV 284
Solo Instrument: A Violin or Two
Published as Part of: Opus 4, “La Stravaganza
Soloist: Fabio Biondi
Ensemble: Europa Galante, dir. Biondi

Yesterday was Bloomsday, the annual celebration of James Joyce, his seminal novel Ulysses and the exploits of its protagonist Leo Bloom in Dublin on June 16, 1904.  Joyce’s dense prose and deluge of consciousness, filled with “…enigmas and puzzles [to] keep the professors busy for centuries…” doesn’t just preclude immediate understanding but much like the characters, situations and emotions it portrays, escapes the very notion of  “understanding.”

Ulysses is deep.  It’s complex.  It’s thoroughly “modern.” It’s the type of thing Vivaldi would have hated, at least judging by this concerto:

Comparatively speaking, the ninth concerto in Vivaldi’s Opus 4 might be the collection’s most uneventful (or as close to uneventful as Vivaldi can get).  The first movement centers around a rhythmic motif and dueling violinists.  Ravishing harmonic meanderings occupy the central Largo, and the final movement seems bound up in the very conventions Vivaldi himself popularized: rapid-fire drills from the soloists between snappy orchestral responses.  It’s not bad or even boring, but the listener has “been there, done that” during the rest of La Stravaganza.

At the same time this concerto’s clearly defined structure, immediacy of form as well as feeling and expression of the composer’s style in such personal, direct gestures also make it perhaps the most distinctly Vivaldian work in the set.  Vivaldi’s fingerprints are all over it, without any inferential haze or oh-so-smart, so damned subtle allusions to cover them up.  Vivaldi wasn’t afraid to put himself out front and center, or to give his audience something they could understand (even when he was pushing musical or dramatic envelopes).

Of course no one knows for sure what Vivaldi would have thought of Joyce’s book, and since Vivaldi’s works were still collecting dust in Joyce’s time, we’ll never know what the author would have thought of Vivaldi’s music.  It’s safe to guess they would have agreed to disagree.  The erudite, open-minded Joyce might have even conceded that “form” isn’t always a dirty word, and sometimes it’s harder to personalize conventions rather than simply ignore them.

(Rim Shot)

And a very happy Father’s Day to all the dads, grandpas, papas, paters, patriarchs and anyone else reading this post, plus my own father, who thinks “blogging” is a form of pirate-era torture (or maybe an exotic dessert topping).  Love ‘ya, Dad!

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“Sincerely, Bill Rank”

Here’s part three of an insightful documentary on YouTube about Bill Rank and his performances in Holland. Rank is best known as a sideman with Bix Beiderbecke, but “Santopec” comments on a confident, unique trombonist who continued to grow long after Beiderbecke’s Goethe-esque early passing:

The incredible technique is still there after “all those years,” even more well integrated into a highly personal (though clearly indebted to Miff Mole) style based off of wide intervals and suspended harmonies.  The difference is a surer, more rounded sound and suppler sense of construction, which allows those leaps and notes to color Rank’s inventions rather than anchor them (as they occasionally do on earlier records). Hearing Rank’s music on its own terms, without any legendary colleagues surrounding it, is the real find.

As for the “modest and captivating” person playing these solos, he confesses to embarrassment at the privileged treatment by his Dutch fans, and he still pronounces the name of an admired colleague with a Midwestern clip (“Adrian Roll-IN-e“).  Not much to do with the music, but sometimes the brain and heart behind the notes matter.  Who’d have thought?

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Sudie Reynaud and Pure Music

In case any producers were wondering, “The Complete Sudie Reynaud” would fit on one compact disc.

A whole CD devoted to an obscure Jazz Age bassist might require some snappy marketing, and many collectors already own this collection via reissues under Reynaud’s more well-known collaborators.  Sudie Reynaud will undoubtedly, and thankfully, remain unknown in every sense of the word.

“Maybe Brass Bass, or Bass Sax, On My Next Album…”

His discography lists him as playing both string bass and tuba, which evidences a basic, and therefore all the more impressive, skill needed to gig in Reynaud’s time.  “Bass” meant both “string” and “brass” varieties during this transitional period in jazz and American pop, so “bass player” meant someone who could double both instruments.   Steve Brown did so reluctantly, preferring his bull fiddle and the chance to unleash a signature slap technique.  Cyrus St. Clair on the other hand preferred to puff rather than pluck: he stuck to brass bass well into the forties, developing jazz tuba into an art decades before Howard Johnson or Bill Lowe.  John Kirby split the difference through clean, fast and clever bass lines on both instruments.  Chink Martin doubled without drawing too much attention to himself on either instrument, yet his foundation and lift can be heard on dozens of recordings.

Reynaud cut just sixteen sides in his life, recorded sporadically between 1926 and 1933 in Chicago.  Like Martin, he serves a functional but spurring role (except for two barely audible sessions on tuba with Fess Williams that can be heard here).  On “High Fever” with Doc Cook’s band, Reynaud catches all the ensemble hits and resonates under the band without overwhelming it, even through a stomping final chorus:

While Freddie Keppard‘s ranging cornet dominates this side as well as “Sidewalk Blues,” Reynaud’s part is simple and well-defined: provide ground rhythm and outline the harmonic skeleton (while doing so musically, as Tom Smith’s comment below explains).  That role doesn’t allow any insight into Reynaud’s influences, his style, or his personality.  All that’s left is pure music, which makes the strutting atmosphere on Jelly Roll Morton‘s tune possible:

If Reynaud were known for nothing other than contributing to “Here Comes The Hot Tamale Man” he’d have an enviable legacy.  It remains one of the most rhythmic, confident examples of “hot” artistry from this or any other era, and it’s hard to imagine without those roots and fifth punching away underneath:

Five years later Reynaud was back in the studio under the direction of trumpeter and would-be Louis Armstrong rival Reuben Reeves.  The antiphonal lines of reedman Franz Jackson‘s arrangements and the loose, declaratory, Armstrong-inspired language of the soloists illustrate the evolution from hot jazz to nascent big band swing, as do the four steady beats of Reynaud’s string bass, which never steals the show but does make it possible.

He’s felt rather than heard through the swirling darkness of “Zuddan.”  He nourishes the stream of solos on “Mazie” and “Screws, Nuts and Bolts” (which includes the simply dirtiest growl imaginable, courtesy of Reeves).  Only on “Yellow Five” does Reynaud peek out from the curtain, with thwacking strings and a strong four beat slap towards the end of the side:

[Click Here to Listen to “Yellow Five,” by Reuben “River” Reeves and His River Boys]

There’s no way now to understand him as an artist, no recorded innovations or theatrics to shed some light on him as a human being as well as a sideman (for this listener, his tone isn’t even as distinct as that of Country Washburne, Pete Briggs or John Lindsay).  There aren’t any memoirs, interviews or even biographical entries pertaining to Reynaud, either because no researchers have bothered to look or he died without leaving any to find.  Whoever Sudie Reynaud was, he did his job.  In other words, “Sudie Reynaud,” historical enigma, biographical cipher and musical everyman, is now pure music.  There are far worse fates.

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Cimarosa Rediscovered: Giving an Eighteenth Century Star His Groove Back

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 Segreto actually 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.”

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Rethink This…Music

Is It Ever a Bad Idea?

The second annual Rethink Music conference wrapped up yesterday here in Boston, though the ideas behind the event are meant to keep going.  Presented by Berklee College of Music in association Harvard University’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society, the two-day program and “Impact Weekend” brought together “the strongest minds from across all facets of the music industry to examine current challenges and formulate paths forward.”  If it affects the present and future of music performance and business, Rethink Music means to cover it.

This blogger wasn’t able to attend Rethink Music (darned rent-paying, emotionally fulfilling day job!), and due to my affiliations with the higher education community, chose to opine about the event after the fact.  Yet something tells me that as a devotee of jazz reissues, small classical labels and other specialized outlets for “old” music, there wasn’t much there for me anyway.

Then something else tells me I’m wrong.

The fact is that Rethink Music should have something (if not everything or exactly the right thing) to say to anyone who cares about any form of music as something more than a diversion.  Panels such as “Music and Technology” and “Building an Artist Brand” might seem better suited for Justin Bieber or P. Diddy’s clientele, but those topics deal with marketing and utilizing today’s resources to grow audiences, issues that even Louis Armstrong and Mozart’s current “handlers” need to consider.  Every niche label owner, audio restorer, record collector, local orchestra manager and purveyor of the pop of yestercentury should be listening.

Talented Teenager with Personal Issues? Get This Guy an Agent!

YouTube, blogs, digital downloads and other online platforms have revolutionized the way listeners find and hear music.  They’re not perfect, but they certainly have their advantages (unless we all have the time and money to shop for 78’s, or fly to that opera we want to hear).  As for “branding,” has anyone ever thought to publicize “Satch” and “Wolfie” as anything more than historical objects, or suppliers of medicine that’s good for audiences even if they don’t like the taste?

In short, Rethink Music is talking about access and adaptation, two words which are too often criticized by aficionados of “good music.”  Discussions about the death of classical music and  jazz often come down to a lack of new audiences, or degenerate into sweeping generalizations about the banality of popular taste.  Yet the fault, as well as the hope, is in our hands: if we want to keep hearing the music we love, and if we want our children to hear it all, we’ll start paying attention to what meetings like Rethink Music have to say.

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Meet My New Favorite Music Critic!

And he loves Cab Calloway.  The man knows his stuff.

Ask him if he knows the date of the recording, or if there are any alternate takes.  Find out if he thinks the arrangement used any interesting techniques, or if the soloists were innovators.  Ask if he wishes the lyrics were more political, or if he remembers Calloway’s skin color.

Those are all important, often enlightening facts this person may not have access to at this time in his life.  Yet his suddenly open, instantly joyous eyes somehow seem far more important.

A good weekend and happy listening to all.

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Play It Again, and Again and Again and Again

A picture might be worth a thousand words, but apparently the right lick can inspire infinite performances. Just listen to the countless variations of “the” particular lick featured in the YouTube sensation “The Lick”:

Readers can also “like” that lick (speaking of phrases that flow easily!) on Facebook, and hear it pop up in many more settings.  Plenty of musicians, composers, music historians and theory scholars have commented, expressing everything from giddiness to ennui at hearing, “just another ii-V-I progression.”

Whether it’s a lick, “the” lick, the twelve bar blues form, cadences, a pentatonic scale or the ubiquitous ii-V-I, even the most original music relies upon familiar devices. In case that makes the music seem derivative or effortless, so do our favorite books, plays and paintings: turns out that boy meets girl, chiaroscuro and biblical references have been around for quite a while.

This common musical syntax can seem unremarkable or boring to musicologists and other erudite ears, dismissed as “just modulating a fourth” or “simplistically voicing the chord with the root in the bass.”  Thinking about how a musician might view these well-known techniques, Glenn Gould’s observation that musicians appreciate musicology the same way bird do ornithology might be a good place to start.

As for us poor slobs without a music degree or professional chops who can never get enough (incidentally the original title for this blog), it’s never “just” another blues, ii-V-I, “standard” riff tune or arrangement of “Stardust.”  Ignorance or imagination, there’s always a reason to listen, and therefore to celebrate.

And speaking of birds, “the lick” makes a brief appearance as part of the opening bars of Charlie Parker’s “Ornithology”:

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