Category: Jazz


Rock of Ages: Mannish Boy

Keith Richards - Hollywood, CA, 1969 (copyright Robert Altman)

I was once told at a party by an aged Mlle that I was too young to know anything about a certain jazz singer.  I wondered out loud whether this also meant that she was too young to know anything, say, about Bach.  I didn’t get into a huff about it then, and I remember it now just to point out that age, in the bigger scheme of things, is a bogus trump card.

“There’s one thing I know, though I’m younger than you.” (Bob Dylan)

On whichever side of the boundary line you may fall – and the boundary line is ever-moving, incidentally – age neither necessarily limits nor guarantees any further insight into music.  Experience doesn’t necessarily lead to wisdom, which marks more than a mere tallying of days.

Yet age is a topic – a prejudice, however empty it may be – that continues to pepper opinion about music of all kinds.  And the views are pretty much conflicting and scattershot: or what the youth of today lamentably (insert winkey face emoticon) call “random.”  The Rolling Stones have been the go-to straw men on the popular music front.  I can remember reading a Mad Magazine spoof on Mick, Keith and company well back in the midst of their “Steel Wheelchair” tour.  The Stones toured that album, properly known as Steel Wheels, in 1989; I was ten.  That’s now twenty-some-odd years ago, and the Stones are still, if not going strong, then at least going on.  And I admire them for it, even if their greatest albums seem forever-destined to remain behind them.

It’s as though people no longer believe that a rolling stone gathers no moss.

Muddy Waters - "Mannish Boy"

I’m reminded of the great bluesmen that the Stones helped bring onto the stage of popular culture: chief among them, Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf.  Blessed with the “luxury” of short-term perspective, it was easy for people to get excited when the rebellious Stones urinated on gas station walls.  It took a little more time to appreciate the ways in which the boys helped to bridge the divide between the youth of their day and the deep tradition of music represented by the great aging bluesmen.  Mississippi John Hurt, Son House, Bukka White: again, only a few of the deeply seasoned blues musicians who were welcomed with open arms in the 1960s – “rediscovered,” so it goes, by a youth that had never discovered them in the first place.  It was accepted that blues musicians should get old – partly because they simply were so (relatively speaking) when they came to the fore of the public imagination.

So why shouldn’t we accept that rock musicians will age?  If ours are the first generations to witness it, then we need to welcome the greying of rock and roll as one consequence of a music that should no longer be understood as bound to an isolated historical moment.  Instead, rock needs to be thought of as part of a rich music tradition that forever changes.  It’s highly unlikely that Pete Townshend still hopes to die before he gets old.  Talking about his generation: If Keith Richards – in my view the only remaining viable argument for personal immortality – ever dies, then let’s let him do so with a guitar on his back.

Nobody’s underwear knotted when it was announced that jazz greats Mose Allison and Dave Brubeck – octogenarian and nonagenarian, respectively – would be highlighting the 2011 Toronto Jazz Festival.  Jazz, aware of its long tradition, forgives its elders.

In some sense, you stop thinking about age when you come to appreciate the depth of music’s roots.  Rock is now as much about those roots as it was formerly – momentarily, but importantly – about rebellion.

Roots, rebellion and youth: they’re all part of the story of rock, that great mannish boy, a rock of ages that forever changes.

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In 1944 Nat King Cole recorded Rachmaninov’s Prelude in C-sharp Minor with his Los Angeles-based piano trio.  What’s special about the moment is that it represents a meaningful meeting of classical and jazz, a convergence of the twain: music of worlds so-called “Old” and “New.”

While branded in the popular imagination for the great “Unforgettable,” it has at times fallen into forgetfulness that Cole was a pianist of prodigious skill.  In fact, in an age of the swinging jazz bands, his early trio of the 1930s was something of a rarity – the very first of its kind, even.  If piano greats Art Tatum and Oscar Peterson were instrumental in establishing the trio as a standard ensemble of jazz performance, then they did so following in Cole’s footsteps.  The vocal works for which he’s most often remembered were produced largely due to popular demand.  Those cuts sold; the market demanded them.

Listen to the trio’s recording of George and Ira Gershwin’s “The Man I Love.”  The interplay of piano, bass and guitar (not, as would later become the standard, drums) is the stuff of magic.  Lest we forget: In the history of jazz, Nat King Cole was also instrumental as an instrumentalist.

There is so much great jazz to be discovered in the King Cole Trio’s output, but I’d like to bang even harder on the doors of forgetting.  For it’s really with his performance of Rachmaninov’s Prelude in C-sharp Minor that we’re invited to consider a side of Cole that’s largely fallen on deaf ears.

What’s especially cool to hear in this performance is the weight of the Russian soul reconceived by the freer, improvisatory spirit of jazz.  (Just listen to Oscar Moore’s guitar solo!)  There are inumerable great classically-oriented performances of the prelude.  (You can listen to Rachmaninov himself perform it here, in three separate recordings from 1919, 1923 and 1928.)  But that there are so many strong performances in the classical tradition of interpretation gives all the more resonance to this particular King Cole Trio session.  If unorthodox, I consider it as viable an interpretation as any other, but one of many legitimate ways of interpreting Rachmaninov.  Though not entirely faithful to the letter of the score, there’s no question to my ear that he’s true to the spirit of Rachmaninov’s music.

Let me push a bit more and say that Rachmaninov himself would agree.

To get concrete: Rachmaninov emigrated to the United States in 1918 and lived there intermittently until his death in 1943.  In those years he tirelessly toured America’s cities.  In a recent article by James Bash of the Oregon Music News, it’s said that Rachmaninov performed in Portland, Oregon, no fewer than five times between 1923 and 1933.

I mention Portland in this case because it was in a 1931 issue of its newspaper, The Spectator, that Rachmaninov spoke to the subject of the interpretation of his music:

‘To be quite honest, no,’ he replied.  ‘You see when it comes to the average pianist, I am perfectly willing to let him play my pieces just as he chooses – especially if I am not there to hear him.  As for a master pianist, he is justified in finding his own interpretations and in putting his own personality into the rendering of the composition.  I indicate my own feeling about tempo, phrasing, and dynamic shading in the music itself, and this is the outline of my own conception.  But some great pianist may play my piano pieces with many differences of detail, with nuances and shadings I might not use myself; and yet his conception of the piece as a whole will never be wrong because his own good taste and musical instinct would guard against it.

‘It is certainly most interesting, at times, to see how some other pianist will give a piece you have written yourself an entirely different musical color, or present it from quite another angle of interpretation than your own.’” (*See below for source information.)

It is with an eye to the composer’s open view of artistry and musical interpretation that I think he would have approved of Nat King Cole’s playful take on his work.  Cole’s is a freer approach to this music, of course; but that freedom is the spirit of jazz itself.  It is the very voice of the New World.

The King Cole Trio’s performance of Rachmaninov’s Prelude in C-sharp Minor is both a place for the jazz fan to encounter the riches of the classical tradition, and an occasion for the classical devotee to think more freely about jazz.

Given that Rachmaninov and Cole both lived in Los Angeles, I wonder if each had heard the other in concert.  Could they have met? (Readers please jump in!)

The Trio’s Rachmaninov session dates from January 1944, ten months after the composer’s death.  I don’t think it’s a stretch to see Cole’s recording of the Prelude in C-sharp minor as his small way of remembering, of paying homage to Rachmaninov.  That’s just one more way of remembering this forgotten side of Cole.

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Recommended Recording:

  • The King Cole Trio: That’s What (1943-47) (Naxos Jazz Legends 8.120826; originally recorded for Capitol Records)

Personel: Nat King Cole, piano, vocals; Oscar Moore, guitar; Johnny Miller, bass

*The Rachmaninov quote from the 1931 Portland Spectator is taken from James Bash’s “When Bartok, Ravel, and Rachmaninoff came to Portland,” (The Oregon Observer, July 12, 2010).

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Claudio Arrau plays Beethoven's opus 111.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Opus 111 is the publication number given to Beethoven’s last piano sonata (no. 32 in C minor).  Outwardly, the sonata is unique in that it’s in two-movements: Beethoven had begun sketches for a third, concluding movement, but eventually scratched convention and left us with a searching sonata in two parts.  A music professor in Thomas Mann’s Doctor Faustus suggests that this signals the end of the sonata form itself.  And my impression is that Debussy said something similar some thirty-plus years before Mann’s novel.

The sonata’s first movement is a restless pronouncement; it urges forward in darkness.  The gorgeous second movement, the Arietta, changes course: a set of variations that take us per aspera ad astra, from darkness to the stars, from struggle into light.

Now I don’t want to romanticize the sonata.  Musicians and critics of the nineteenth century did enough of that: Slaves as they sometimes were to a general state of aesthetic heat, it didn’t take much to set them reeling in fits of poetic adulation.  But it would be a mistake to see the sonata as incomplete, or to take away from its mysterious quality.  If it lacks a third movement, if the feeling is sometimes one of open-endedness, it is only because the sonata searches, probes mysterious regions often left uncharted in music.  I’m reminded of Wittgenstein’s comment that mysteries, unlike puzzles, are deepened, not solved.

There’s a moment towards the end of Milan Kundera’s Book of Laughter and Forgetting where the author speaks about Beethoven’s late music.  He suggests that while Beethoven’s symphonies represent an epic journey outward, the variation movements of the late sonatas draw us inward.  They mark a progressive unfolding of the inner life, the search after the elusive goal of the creative process.

I don’t think it’s a stretch to stress the searching quality of Opus 111’s variations.  The Arietta is an instance of music that is meditative rather than heroic, reflective rather than epic.  As the variations unfold, they give way to increasingly unexpected and inventive music.  It is a case of Beethoven, within the apparent confines of a traditional classical time signature, pushing the rhythmic pulse of this music to something that hints at jazz of the next century.   (You can hear for yourselves here.)

Even Stravinsky heard in this music the emergence of the “boogie woogie.”  And though the Hungarian pianist Andras Schiff might protest such a view in this insightful clip (which I highly recommend checking out) there is something compelling in the idea – again recalling Mann’s Doctor Faustus – that “there are already movements of a rhythmic freedom foreshadowing things to come.”

In the second half of the variations movement, where radiance ultimately counters the darkness of the first movement, we have one of the many meditative moments of Beethoven’s late period.  This is music that can capture the imagination.

Opus 111 is by no means a work of jazz, but it does manage to create the illusion of jazz.

Its journey hints at the shape of music to come.  And I will sometimes catch myself thinking of it as the first birth of the cool.

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Recommended Recordings:

  • Claudio Arrau – Beethoven: The Late Piano Sonatas (recorded in the 60s, Phillips; reissued in 2001)
  • Anton Kuerti – Beethoven: The Complete Piano Sonatas (I am in love with this 1974-75 set, reissued on Analekta in 2006.  It has since been discontinued, though Kuerti has recently rerecorded the last five piano sonatas for the same label.)
  • Maurizio Pollini – Beethoven: The Late Piano Sonatas (recorded in the late 70s, Deutsche Grammophon; reissued in 1997)
  • Mitsuko Uchida – Beethoven: Piano Sonatas Op. 109, 110 & 111 (Phillips, 2006)

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Ike Quebec - Soul Samba (1962)Ike Quebec’s Soul Samba is a remarkable record.  Jazz and bossa nova meet in the air of these sessions, and the result is an album that I don’t hesitate to recommend to friends and music lovers who might not consider themselves fans.  It’s stuff to lose yourself to on summer nights, and a place to discover one great jazzman’s take on the sounds of Brazil.

Some context: Ike Quebec recorded this in the fall of 1962, just months before his death to lung cancer at the age of forty-five.  After running stints with a number of established jazz bands in the 1940s Quebec spent most of the next decade lost in a haze of heroine addiction.  He was silent until the summer of 1959, when he was hired on as assistant music director at Blue Note.  It was in the Englewood Cliffs studio that Quebec recorded all of his Blue Note long players, including Blue and Sentimental in ‘61 and the bossa nova’d Soul Samba in ‘62. 

One thing worth noting is just how much the sound of those two outings is affected by Quebec’s decision to substitute guitar for piano: Grant Green brings his bluesy magic to Blue and Sentimental, while Kenny Burrell’s more restrained style carries much of the day on Soul Samba.  Burrell leaves his imprint all over these sessions, and, from the start of the opening track, “Loie,” we can hear how well-suited he is for music of this kind.

This is music with swing: soulful jazz carried by the bossa nova shuffle.  And, yes, it moves: “That’s why this album came out sounding like dancing late at night,” Quebec says in the liner notes.  “We were moanin’ more than most of the others who play bossa nova.  We made it soft — and soulful.”

But the album represents more than the happy convergence of bossa nova and jazz.  Quebec even goes out of his way to bring classical music into the conversation.  On “Goin’ Home” he borrows the theme from the gorgeous Largo of Antonin Dvorak’s New World Symphony.  And here you can listen to his bossa nova treatment of Liszt’s Liebestraum (“love dream”).  On albums such as this, music becomes a place where traditions meet.

While this is in no way an experimental jazz record, Soul Samba embraces the openness, the spirit of exploration common to so much jazz of that era.  Here, jazz becomes a meeting place for the music of Liszt, Dvorak, and Brazil. 

Sometimes, like Dvorak’s symphony of the same name, great music will dream of, and search for, a new world.

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Blue Note Records: Rudy Van Gelder Edition 0946 3 92783 2 9

Personel:

Ike Quebec, tenor sax
Kenny Burrell, guitar
Wendell Marshall, bass
Willie Bobo, drums
Garvin Masseaux, chekere

Recorded on October 5, 1962 at the Van Gelder Sudio, Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey

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