Saturday, 27 June 2015

Pictures at an Exhibition


It's a kind of stately and sombre fanfare.  Those first notes of the trumpet draw me in, they pull me in every time, they invite me to the exhibition.  And I know that the exhibits will take me through many different moods before the piece ends.

It's a work that obsessed me when I was younger.  I would never say that classical music is "my thing", but there were a few pieces that just made an impression, that stuck.  And this was one: no, this was THE one.  If I ever found a new and novel recording of this, I would buy it.  If the Cape Town Symphony Orchestra was playing it, I would be there.  Perhaps I liked the conceit of it: a suite made up of representational "programme" pieces.  Or maybe it's a case of familiarity breeding affection. However it happened, the textures, the moods and melodies of this piece entered me, and now claim a place that feels beyond analysis. It's not "classical", it just is.

The origins of the piece can be found here: Wikipedia Link. We are wandering around an exhibition of paintings by Victor Hartmann, and his friend Mussorgsky decides to write ten pieces, inspired by ten pictures.  But we also need to walk around the gallery, and for that we have the linking "Promenade" theme, as in the clip above, from Ravel's orchestration.

But this is a mutable work: Mussorgsky wrote it for piano and hearing that piano original astonished me, showed me how varied and versatile piano can be. So, we come to the first picture:

The Gnome

But I should come clean: this actually all started when at the age of 13, a copied cassette of Emerson Lake and Palmer's triumphant, arrogant, excessive (and yes, ok, pretentious) live album came into my hands and in the words of the day "blew my mind". I had never heard music like this before: I didn't know it existed. It was mad, chaotic, wild and stimulating. Keith Emerson was exploring an entirely new instrument in entirely new ways and it was utterly thrilling. And how daring to release new material as a live album!

Even the album cover was thrilling
(the pictures blank on the outer cover, were revealed when you opened the gatefold - see below.)
Hear their take on "The Gnome".  ELP's Gnome. Ah! the aggression, the precision!


And it wasn't all Keith's wild man antics on the keyboards. Greg Lake was in his prime too.

How young they were, how beautiful, how confident in their abilities. And that sweet melancholy song still evokes within me a yearning, a sense of lost beauty that does not diminish.

The Old Castle

But Keith wasn't the only one having fun with synthesisers. Synthesised instruments and sounds are now taken for granted, both ones imitative of real instruments, and invented, artificial tones and timbres. But in the early 70's we had never heard sounds such as these. We (I) more or less expected that no electronic instrument would ever sound like anything other than a succession of beeps.

But some knew better, and the adventurous ones were texturing these sounds, were layering them to provide depth and richness, both naturalistic and entirely unnatural. And no one did more, and at a very early stage of development, to show what sounds could be made, and how effectively and musically they could be used than Isao Tomita:

Wikipedia: "Tomita created ... polyphony as Carlos had done before him, with the use of multitrack recording, recording each voice of a piece one at a time, on a separate tape track, and then mixing the result to stereo or quad." A labour of love.


Back to the gallery, and more promenading - and another Japanese musician.

(Side story: once in a restaurant I heard some hybrid blues/orchestral music that wanted to get a copy of. I was shown the CD and all I remembered was the conductor "Seiji Ozawa". It took me years, and the invention of the internet before I found it. It's this, and it's great.)

So, on to another picture.


And another:

Bydlo / Cattle

I've not chosen this one for the musical rendition, but I just love the use of graphics to animate and illuminate the music visually. And again, the mood shifts: very dark, very Russian.

And we're back to the:


which leads straight into the outrageous:

Ballet of Unhatched Chicks in Their Shells

... which gives Tomita all the licence he needs to get playful.

I think I have a special regard for those who create works of brilliance with just-emerging technology. As that technology matures, what took them hours of careful craft becomes a trivial exercise. I think that sometimes the importance of their struggles in the foothills can get lost in the looking-back from the heights that are later achieved. But perhaps those struggles result in something more thought-through, more cherished than can be created by those for whom it comes easy.

But now we move on to meet:

Samuel Goldenberg and Schmuyle

(Honorable mention for effort in the spirit of Keith Emerson and Tomita here.)

and once again we:


... with a hint of the grandeur to come:

But first we visit:

The Market at Limoges

... with clarinet, bass clarinet, alto and tenor sax:

Before we descend into the:


also called "Cum Mortuis in Lingua Mortua" ("with the dead in a dead language" - see what I mean about mood changes?)

But we're into the glorious home stretch now: from melancholy to mania, in the form of:

The Hut on Fowl's legs

And we're back with Tomita at full stretch (the textures he pulls out of his primitive electronics still make the hairs on the back of my neck stand up):

And now, take me home, Keith, Greg and Carl with:

The Great Gate of Kiev

And finally, here is Victor Hartmann's vision of the Great Gate of Kiev, one of the Pictures at the original Exhibition that started it all off.

"Our reasons are lost in our rhymes."

Sunday, 24 May 2015

Blue Drag

This was going to be a blog post all about Gypsy Jazz, and how jazz fused with traditional European folk music to make something different and rather special.  But I got distracted, investigating just one Gypsy Jazz standard - Blue Drag.

It starts a few days ago, when I stumbled over this clip.  The Smoking Time Jazz Club of New Orleans always bring a smile to my face: this one features some very tasty tenor sax playing:

The tune - unnamed in the title - reminded me a bit of Comes Love, or of Bei Mir Bist Du Schön, with that slightly klezmerish feel (that clarinet!).  The comments gave up its name: Blue Drag, and a bit more digging suggested it was by one Josef Myrow, Russian-born, but, in America, a prolific composer of popular tunes in the early 20th C.  So that explains the slight eastern tinge I was hearing.   

So of course I did what I often do when I find a new tune that intrigues me - I looked for other versions on the web, and that led to a little mystery, and to the discovery of a bunch of musicians I had not come across before.

First the history.  We start in America.  As far as I can work out, the oldest recording of this is by Earl Hines in July 1932.  I think this one is a little later (but of better sound quality), but although there's some nice playing, to my ears the melody is not outlined very clearly.  However, the Washboard Rhythm Kings recorded the tune later that same year, giving a clean rendition of the tune and lyrics:see here.

Now I've learned that fans of Gypsy Jazz regard this tune as one of the standards of that genre. And that means Django Reinhardt enters the picture. So, three years later, and across the Atlantic: Django Reinhardt and Stephane Grappelli (et Le Quintette du Hot Club de France, naturellement) were picking up all sorts of American jazz tunes and making them their own.  So let's hear what the Hot Club (who recorded it in April 1935) made of this:

Hold on! Is that even the same tune?  The main melody (as sung by the Washboards: "Blue drag, It sure is draggin' me down/ I'm almost scraping the ground" etc) doesn't even show up! It has been replaced by a slow "doo-wop doo-wop-wop doo wah" riff on the violin.  If not for the fact that the middle eight ("the rhythm, blue rhythm ..." ) is still there, I'd think it was a completely different tune.  Now I am baffled.  I find the sheet music for this in a collection of "Band In A Box" tunes, and it's definitely the "doo-wop" Django version.  

So I go searching and Youtube gives me any number of other versions (pick of the bunch below) and some use the "Washboard" tune, and some use the "Django" tune.  I am no closer to understanding what's going on here.

Now, let's bring in a character called Freddy Taylor.  Read a mini biography here.  We learn that in the mid 1930's, Freddy was in Paris with his own band and he was also working with the Hot Club de France as a vocalist.  And he too recorded Blue Drag (with His Swing Men from Harlem) in April 1935, also in Paris!  

Here is Freddy's lovely recording. It has the "Django" doo-wop riff as an intro and an outro, while keeping the "Washboard" tune for the main body of the piece. 

Mystery solved? Could this be the missing link?  Could Freddy have introduced this tune to Django, who took the intro/outro and used it for the main melody?  

A bit more digging and I find this in a biography of Django: "...the Quintette [recorded] four more sides: Fletcher Allen's stately Blue Drag ..." Fletcher Allen?  Who he?  It turns out Fletcher Allen was one of Freddy Taylor's Swing Men from Harlem.  I'm guessing that he brought the tune to the party even if he didn't actually write it. 

Now, I don't think there's anything particularly magical or special about this tune: it's a simple enough piece of popular music, that happens to have been taken up as a vehicle for all sorts of musicians.  What is special is how this tune exemplifies the connections that music creates between people, places and times, how the cultures cross-fertilise each other. And on a personal level, how it leads me to discover all sorts of new things.

Oh, and one of the things I discovered was what a shotgun shack is.  As in the Talking Heads lyric. See?  Everything connects.

Manouche will have to wait for another day.

I promised you the pick of the bunch:
  • Tcha-Badjo in Mexico:
    They start off singing 16 bars of the Django "doo- wop" and then head straight into the "Washboard" - in fact very true to the Freddy Taylor song structure. 
  • Danube's Banks (on the banks of the Danube, presumably From Hamburg):
    Very cool, very middle-Europe.  Classy.
  • The Wiyos:
    Western-style kazoo insanity. Trust me, you won't regret playing this clip.

  • Allen Toussaint from New Orleans
    Who plays it with great finesse - why have I never heard this great R & B pianist before?
  • New Orleans Jazz Vipers

And, if you've stuck with me this far, how about this bizarrity? In my imagination this was recorded after a boozy afternoon in Paris; Freddy Taylor and Fletcher Allen have just left, and Django and friends, somewhat the worse for wear, are trying to remember how that tune went: Django sings, (click on the link.  Go on, I dare you. How bad can it be?)

Saturday, 18 April 2015

When Somebody Thinks You're Wonderful

Consider Mr Thomas "Fats" Waller:

When I started a journey of discovery through the world of "Jazz Standards" the name of Fats Waller kept on cropping up, in two specific ways:

  • beautifully crafted tunes that seemed to epitomise the best of the popular music of the 20's, 30's and 40's; and 
  • swinging piano performances, the easy sprung rhythms disguising his virtuosity. 
Luckily, we have recordings. Try this, his own tune, played and sung by himself.

The relaxed tempo, the elastic propulsion and the sweetness of the melody (underpinned by a great chord progression) make this a fantastic tune to play in our jazz group.

It's an ongoing theme of this blog that good tunes have staying power, and are taken up by successive generations. In other words they become standards for good reasons: in the case of Fats' tunes, I reckon it's because they are simply great fun to play.

The number of tunes he wrote is disputed - numbers range from 300 to over 500.  (The reason for the uncertainty seems to be that he sold the rights on a very casual basis, sometimes for very little money).

His too-short life is well-documented and full of incident.  But this blog is about the music: so here are a bunch of his tunes, from artists ancient and modern:

Susie Arioli, a modern Canadian musician (definitely worth exploring in her own right) with "Honeysuckle Rose" (and the guitar solos on this are superb):

And here's the man himself, and his "Rhythm Band", with "Ain't Misbehavin'".


Louis Armstrong doing justice to the rather more serious "Black and Blue"
(My only sin / is in my skin / What did I do / to be so black and blue?):

Well, we could easily get stuck on "Louis Plays Fats". His version of "Blue Turning Grey Over You" is a classic, but this George Melly version is worth a listen, not least for (John Chilton's?) trumpet.

Playfulness abounds.  "Jitterbug Waltz" seems like a joke, but also a very successful musical experiment.  Charlie Byrd:

And how about this from the Wiyos:

And then there are the disputed songs:  some say that he sold the rights to "On the Sunny Side of the Street" for a pittance just before it became a hit.  Who knows, it certainly has that Fats feel, and playability.  How could I resist this Rod Stewart rendition?

One could go on and on (and maybe I already have gone on too long). There's an ease and a grace here that I find very comfortable: a remarkable talent, and a remarkable legacy.

And I love that artists keep recording these tunes.  Sometimes "covered" tunes change to fit into whatever style the artists choose.  But Waller's standards seem to resist this, and instead drag the artist back to Fats' time.  Well, sometimes they don't need much dragging:  here is Brian Ferry.

The wonderful Fats Waller.  Long may we play his melodies.

Friday, 28 November 2014


Sometimes I think that we who grew up in the 60's and 70's are a cursed generation. Cursed and blessed, in that we grew up in the most amazing period of creativity in popular music, ever, and nothing that has come after has ever been quite as good.

Now maybe it's true that every generation thinks the same, that it was the growing up that was so fantastic, and whatever music would have been around at the time would have been imprinted on impressionable adolescents.

Maybe any generation is predisposed to think that whatever they discover for themselves is going to be better than anything that came before, and better than whatever comes after. When we become immersed in work and family matters, maybe we no longer pay so much attention to the music around us.

Fair point, but still ... but still, has there ever been such time of eruption of popular music as we grew up in?

Take just one year, 1972:  Jazz was not really on my horizon, Prog Rock very much was ...  And of course this was pre-punk, which was again an explosion, and led to many good things, some of which I came to value, but it never really gripped me. So maybe this is a just a personal, biased, self-indulgent perspective of what was sinking into my brain when I was aged 14.   

Or maybe, just maybe, this was an utterly fantastic year for rock music.  See what you think ...

To pick just a few, it was the year of :
(links more or less randomly chosen)

(What, no Led Zeppelin?!  No, LedZep IV was released in Nov 1971, and Houses of the Holy, March 1973, so, sadly, no.  Similarly, The Who were between Who's Next and Quadrophenia.)

Folk/Soft Rock
  • Neil Young: Harvest
  • Joni Mitchell: For the Roses
  • Moody Blues: Seventh Sojourn
  • Steven Stills: Manassas
  • Eagles: Eagles
  • Carly Simon: No Secrets
  • Cat Stevens: Catch Bull At Four
  • Don MacLean: American Pie
  • John Denver: Rocky Mountain High
  • Neil Diamond: Hot August Night

Glam Rock
  • Bowie: Ziggy Stardust
  • Elton John: Honky Chateau
  • Roxy Music: Roxy Music
  • T Rex: The Slider
  • Alice Cooper: School's Out
  • Slade: Slayed?

Prog Rock
  • Genesis: Foxtrot
  • Pink Floyd: Obscured By Clouds and the movie Live at Pompeii
  • Yes: Close to The Edge
  • Emerson, Lake and Palmer: Trilogy
  • Jethro Tull: Thick as a Brick and Living in the Past
  • Wishbone Ash: Argus
  • Uriah Heep: Demons and Wizards and Magician's Birthday
  • Focus: Focus III

AND ...

It wasn't a bad year for pop in general either ... hits that year included these memorable tracks (not always memorable for good reasons, but memorable nonetheless) ...

- Horse With No Name - Amazing Grace - Puppy Love - I'd Like to Teach The World To Sing - Mouldy Old Dough - My Ding-a-Ling - American Pie - Vincent (Starry Starry Night) - School's Out - Mama Weer All Crazee Now - You Wear It Well - Sylvia's Mother - Rockin' Robin  - Brand New Key - All the Young Dudes - Mother and Child Reunion - Long Haired Lover from Liverpool - Meet Me on the Corner - Layla (rerelease as single) - You're So Vain - Morning Has Broken - The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face -    

All of that in ONE year! (And these lists barely scratch the surface.)  Is it any wonder we grew up obsessed with rock and pop?  It was a full time job just keeping up.

And now I come to think of it, 1973 wasn't too shabby either ... Dark Side of the Moon, Houses of the Holy, Quadrophenia, Tubular Bells, Band on The Run, Goodbye Yellow Brick Road (I shouldn't have started).

Saturday, 9 August 2014

Tea for Two

A little preamble: Vocalist Kiki Ebsen recently released an album "The Scarecrow Sessions", funded by a Kickstarter project. There's a lot of interesting stuff around that: you can find all the details here.  I'll just say that it's an album of songs for her father, Buddy Ebsen, who was an actor and song-and-dance man.  His story too is a very interesting one (he would have been the Tin Man in the movie of the Wizard of Oz, but for an allergic reaction to the makeup.  Nonetheless his voice appears in some songs).

Here's Buddy Ebsen with Shirley Temple.  All eyes are on the tiny Miss Temple, of course, but look at the how the lanky Buddy partners her with wit and grace, and (it seems to me), great kindness.  You can't but like him:

So Buddy's daughter, Kiki, 10 years after her dad's death, records an album of deliciously jazzy tunes for him (including Codfish Ball of course).  Park that thought, click on that link and have a listen while I take you in a different direction.

It's fascinating to me how tunes can be malleable in the hands of different performers, and before the age of singer-songwriters, this was the norm:  that the songwriting was one thing, the performance another.  Since the 1960's we strongly identify tunes with the original performers.  We talk of originals and cover versions. Go back a bit though and it wasn't like that.

Take the tune Tea for Two.  I was a very small boy when I first came across it.  This version: a track on an album of my big sister's: Cliff Richard ("Britain's answer to Elvis") - "21 Today" (1961). How odd  it seems to me now, that a pop album like that would include songs written, well almost 4 decades earlier.  Because by that time, Tea for Two already had lived many lives.

Written in 1924 for the musical No No Nanette this is an early recording: pleasant enough, but really I won't blame you for not listening all the way through.  Who would have thought it promising material?

But then this tune started getting a life of its own.  From Wikipedia "In October 1927, the conductor Nikolai Malko challenged Dmitri Shostakovich to do an arrangement of a piece in 45 minutes. His "Tea for Two" arrangement, Opus 16, was first performed on 25 November 1928". Here's what he came up with: Shostakovich version.

Then the jazz crowd got hold of it, most famously Art Tatum, in this performance.  And he wasn't the only one.  Here is bopper Thelonious Monk's version.  And Tommy Dorsey's somewhat heavy handed cha cha cha ...  Smoothly from Lester Young (Nat King Cole on piano).  And swingingly from Mr Thomas "Fats" Waller.  And for fans of Gypsy Jazz, the incomparable Django Reinhardt had his go at it too.  It almost feels that you could structure a history of jazz around just this tune.

And ... It was a hit for Doris Day ... And if the obsession takes you (and it took me), you can even find a recording by Harpo Marx (sadly not on youtube).

I suppose what strikes me most is that none of these is a pastiche or a perversion of some perfect "original" performance - indeed the original seems almost the weakest.  And no one would say that the tune itself is any sort of masterpiece.  But artist after artist has chosen it as a theme, an inspiration. And each of these versions seems to me equally valid, and in each performance the tune is both entirely and recognisably itself, and still, entirely and recognisably the artist's.  I find this a wonderful thing.

But if you click on just one link here, choose this one.  A more recent recording, which I find utterly charming: Cuban father and son, Bebo and Chucho Valdes, a piano duet.

And what about father and daughter, Buddy and Kiki Ebsen?

Well of course on her album, Scarecrow Sessions, she includes this song.  Here is a link.

And why would this be on an album for her father?  Well here is Buddy in later years, but still just as light on his feet:

Made me smile ....

Thursday, 19 June 2014

The Great Intoxication

Picture the scene:
2001, me aged 43, doing the washing up, new David Byrne CD, paying a little more attention than usual to the lyrics ....

He sings: "Who Disco? / Who Techno? / Who Hip-Hop? / Who Be Bop? / Who's been playing records in his bedroom?"

Those words suddenly draw a visceral reaction: "who's been playing records in his bedroom?" and I sharply remember the intensity of my younger self, the way I would listen to records, obsessively poring over album artwork and lyric sheets, absorbing, responding, trying to make sense of it all, and all the while the music is shaping me.


1996, age 38, driving a 2-hour commute, revisiting old C90 cassettes, among them King Crimson's "Larks Tongues in Aspic". Listening with profound attention, the sheer power of the music coupled to an equally powerful wave of memory. Understanding for the first time how this one, almost forgotten piece has all unknowingly shaped my musical tastes: the rawness, the invention, the minimalism, the discordance, the slow build - this album left those doors wide open.


2013, again driving to a work meeting, again revisiting 70's prog rock.  This time Golden Earring - Eight Miles High.  Again that tug, the music that drags you back to who you once were, back to boarding school with a clapped out old woofer speaker that we attached a 15 foot length of string to and saw how the bass notes made standing waves in the string.


Walking through London, my Android phone playing Jethro Tull's "Thick as a Brick" in my ears, and, fully forty years after first hearing I still marvel at the tightness and polish of the performance, and even though I know the lyrics are a pretentious spoof of an epic poem by a fictional pretentious eight-year-old, still I am moved by them.

"In the clear white circles of morning wonder / I take my place with the lord of the hills /
And the blue-eyed soldiers stand slightly discoloured / (in neat little rows) sporting canvas frills."
Listen here:

Spoof it may be, but with Ian Anderson you are never sure - he has a way of finding the profound in the banal, and then slyly teasing himself for his pretension, and you for buying into it.  Just look at the way in which he sets up this mythic feel in the first two lines, and then punctures that with the gently mocking second two lines.  I take delight from every time I hear this, and I want to point it out to someone, to share it.  I don't expect you to get it - I know it's just me, but still I want to share it.


As a father to two young boys, wanting to share with them something of my childhood, finally finding this Burl Ives tune, and hearing it, becoming a very small boy again.

"In San Francisco town there lived a whale / She ate porkchops by the pail / By the pillbox, by the suitcase / By the bathtub, by the schooner.

Her name was Sarah and she's a peach / But you can't leave food within her reach / Nor nursemaids, nor airedales / Nor chocolate ice-cream sodas

She eats a lot, but when she smiles / You can see her teeth for miles and miles / And her adenoids, and her spareribs / And things too fierce to mention.

So what can you do in a case like that? / What can you do but sit on your hat / Or your toothbrush, or your grandmother / Or anything else that's helpless?"


What's going on here?  These are none of them peerless masterpieces, but every one of these pieces feels somehow integral to my being.  I don't think I could fully explain to any one person exactly why each of these pieces of music (or any of a hundred others I could have chosen) key into some deep part of me, and bring out such strong feelings. But they do: somehow this is important.

I know that this reaction to music like this is intensely personal.  I have a deep desire to explain to someone what is so insanely great about each one, but actually I know they will never get it, not the way I get it.  Because I know that what makes these special is that the original experiences of listening over and over to these actually changed me, and in some small or not so small way, made me who I am.

And now ...

My musical tastes have grown and matured, and new pieces and new discoveries come along and in their own way, they continue to influence and shape me, but perhaps not quite so much.  And I still want to share with others these discoveries, and what makes them seem special to me.  And I want to understand why music can do that ...

Indeed, a Great Intoxication.

David Byrne continues:

"The great intoxication / Mental generation / Sound effects & laughter / Stupid ever after
Hopin' it was cranked up loud enough for you to hear"

Spot on ... I am still that teenager (stupid ever after), and I am still hoping this is cranked up loud enough for you to hear.

Thursday, 16 January 2014

Gimme a Muskrat!

For a bunch of boarding school boys in South Africa in the early '70's, the showing of the movie "Woodstock" in the school hall was unmissable.  The projectionist was also a hi-fi nut, so we had great (and loud) sound.  And of course one of the most memorable performances (well maybe second to Joe Cocker's With a Little Help From My Friends) in that movie was Country Joe McDonald singing the "Feel Like I'm Fixing to Die Blues". He introduced the tune by inciting the crowd to "Gimme an F, Gimme a U, Gimme a ..." well, you get the message.  How deliciously wicked that seemed!

Well, many years later in 2003 Country Joe was taken to court for copyright infringement by Babbette Ory, daughter of Kid Ory, who claimed it owed an awful lot to her father's tune "Muskrat Ramble".  In fairness, she had a point: the first strain is pretty similar, the second is unmistakeable.  Here is the original recording, Kid Ory playing in Louis' Hot Five.

Sadly for her, she lost the case: the court ruled that she had waited over 30 years to sue, and that was too long.

But who'd'a thunk it? Woodstock, the musical event that defined a generation, included a 54-year old tune!  You really can't keep a good tune down, and it pops up in so many different styles and manifestations.  Here are a few:

and for sheer joy:

Whoever wrote it, that's a song with some staying power. And in the end who did write it? Looking deeper we learn that Louis claimed "I wrote Muskrat Ramble. Ory named it. He gets the royalties. I don't talk about it.".  Who knows? There are even suggestions that it's based anyway on a Buddy Bolden tune called "The Old Cow Died and the Old Man Cried".   So maybe justice would not have been served by Babbette Ory winning her case after all.


It seems the original "Gimme an F" chant was a little more innocuous: take a peek here.