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.