Posts Tagged ‘Kurt Elling’

season of mists and mellow fruitfulness

August 16, 2010

First touches of autumn in Huntington, VT

On the way home last week I noticed the first dry brushstrokes of color in the maple trees on my road. (I can hear the “oh NO!” rising even as I write this. But why? It’s natural! And none too soon, if we’re honest with ourselves – we’ve had highs topping 90 since the first weekend in May. It’s time.)

Sure as the calendar said August, there it was.

Right now I’m listening to Autumn Serenade, from Kurt Elling’s outstanding Dedicated to You release from last year: “Let the years come and go, I’ll still feel the glow that time can not fade…when I hear that lovely autumn serenade…”

I listen to this album year-round but tonight it seems especially significant as I think about the irrationally beautiful, fiercely change-minded season about to unfold and take us with it in the spinout of another year. A little later on this same recording, we find My One and Only Love: “When shadows fall and shed their mystic charms…”

I’ve always loved autumn and winter. There was a wide sycamore tree in the yard at the corner of the street where I grew up. It belonged to the Brannens and then the Chavez family, who moved in around 1976. In an update of the existing 1960s pink and brown color scheme, they painted the small bungalow house with a much more contemporary earthy palette of brown and ochre. I remember crunching past the sprawling tree in the Chavez’a front yard on the way to and from school in the fall, kicking my way through wildly colored paper leaves that were as big as the Pee-chee I carried . (Remember Pee-chees?) And the leaves smelled good, warm and woody. As close as a city kid was likely to get to nature.

The fuzzy golden balls that clung to the barren autumn branches of the neighbbor’s sycamore made me sneeze, with their thick profusion of furry seeds. You could pick them bald, and the center revealed a hard, brown, much smaller spherical core dangling from the stem as some kind of  a useless ugly organic omen of the Christmas ornaments in the season yet to come.

Best of all were the frosty mornings of late October. They quickly neutralized the brilliant splashes of color in the leaves to the subdued, dull resolve of November – but the patient observer (or school-bound little girl) could get up early enough to see the contours of the curled, fallen leaves laced with a delicate icy stitchery that outlined every vein and glowed in the first morning light. Magical.

Autumn’s coming. Even if the first changes I’m seeing now are anomalies, the real thing isn’t that far off. Let’s enjoy it for all it’s worth. And remember those opening lines from Autumn Serenade: “Thru the trees comes autumn with her serenade, melodies the sweetest music ever played…”

2009 in the rearview: what’s to love in music, part 1

January 1, 2010

Happy New Year!

I’ve been thinking about the fact that year-end “best of” music lists usually leave me wanting because of how tunnel-visioned they can be. When you come across a list described as “Best Songs” or “Best Albums of the Year” you can guess without even glancing at it that it will more than likely focus on pop or indie releases. They contain no jazz, no world music, not even any country or folk music “songs” – and classical or opera are definitely out of the question.

This much I know of indie/pop music from the last year: Death Cab for Cutie, Wilco, the Decemberists, Neko Case and Jonatha Brooks all have recent recordings and make for fine listening. If you’re into more adventurous sounds, you’ll enjoy the latest from XX, Animal Collective, Grizzly Bears, and the Dirty Projectors. Likewise, I’m told the new Lady Gaga recording really represents a new sound; a genuinely fresh and creative vision. I haven’t heard much of it myself yet but I’m curious, always on the lookout for a unique voice, and I will certainly check it out at some point.

For anything besides pop or indie offerings you need to move past the popular “best of” lists and find less mainstream, more specialized sources if they exist. That’s alright, I suppose, I’d rather have a good list from an expert than a few token offerings from someone who doesn’t really love the music they’re listing.

Consequently, this look back at 2009’s music may come off as somewhat unconventional. It contains music from several different genres. I don’t feel like I can call it the “best of 2009” because I didn’t hear everything that came out last year. And I’m not going to limit the list to a number: this isn’t the ‘top 10’ or the  ‘top 50’. In fact I’m not sure right now how many recordings there will be on the final list. I’m just going to share with you some of the sounds that caught my ear over the last year, with the one provision that the recordings listed here all warranted repeated listening. In no special order, these are the recordings I loved and listened to the most in 2009:

Einujuhani Rautavaara: “12 Concertos” – I do believe that native landscape and culture can have a tangible effect on a music’s sound, and not always intentionally. The simultaneous compositional austerity and warmth of Finland’s Einojuhani Rautavaara is found nowehere more evidently than in his concertos, recently collected in the 2009 anthology 12 Concertos from Ondine Records. In each work, his great skill at manipulating a pre-determined tonal palette gives the music the lumonisity and transparency of masterful, muscular watercolors. The set includes the three piano concertos along with the concertos for harp, for flute, for violin, for cello, and – my two favorites, the Clarinet Concerto and the Concerto for (Arctic) Birds and Orchestra. There is so much to love in this rich anthology, and just when you think you’ve experienced all the 4-CD set has to offer, you can listen again and make more new discoveries.            Kailash Kher & Kailasa: “Yatra – Nomadic Souls” – If you lived in India the following sentence wouldn’t be necessary: Kailash Kher is the most popular singer in India today. His familiar beaming smile, powerful voice, supreme musicianship and magnetic personality have given him a place on the stage (leading his group, Kailasa); in Bollywood (as a top film composer); and on Indian television (as a celebrity judge on the show, Indian Idol). So why, in America, is this introduction necessary? It’s crazy to me that people around the world know who Madonna, Beyoncé, and Brittney Spears are: even if people have never heard the music from these artists, the personalities are an inescapable international pop culture ‘presence’. Conversely, American audiences are often in the dark when it comes to the superstars (not to mention the equally talented, lesser-known artists) of other countries. If you don’t already know Kailash Kher, then please let the outstanding 2009 recording Yatra – Nomadic Souls be your introduction to this fascinating musician and the fine ensemble Kailasa. The songs are traditional in many ways like their instrumentation (including tablas, oud and santoor) and their form (Sufi qwaal and Hindustani ‘classical’), and yet equally contemporary in others, like their length (shorter) and rhythmic, melody-driven lines. Yatra is an endlessly rewarding recording that balances genuine soul with popular appeal.

Kurt Elling: “Dedicated to You” – Let’s see: One of today’s most gifted and stylish singer/arrangers decides to pay tribute to monster talents John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman, by re-interpreting the songs from their iconic eponymous collaboration. (Along with a few bonus tunes from the Hartman-less Coltrane Ballads release). We’ll call the result, Dedicated to You, a win/win/win with a solid chalk mark in every column. Elling does not trawl through the original lineup, track for track, note for note, nuance for nuance, in the kind of misguided “tribute” that so often comes off much more like an overly reverent excercise in faithful recreation. Elling revisits the original songs by inhabiting them, with his signature exquisite phrasing, his soaring vocal technique, and his own personal warmth as a singer. It is obvious he truly loves these songs, he loves the Coltrane/Hartman versions of them, and he loves being able to bring them to audiences in his own, fully-invested way. Understanding and appreciating your source material is a great place to come from as an artist. And it’s a great place to visit with this special, very personal recording, which as far as I am concerned can Say It Over (and Over and Over…) Again.

The Very Best: “The Warm Heart of Africa” – I was introduced to this recording by a friend, late in the year – many months after Warm Heart had been released (and more than a year after the first excited buzz about it had begun circulating on the web). My first reaction was dismay, in thinking “how did I miss this one?” and then I put that aside and let myself be carried away by the ride. And what a ride! Warm Heart lives up to every bit of its name with groovy, light-spirited funky tunes that rely on the feel and tradition of African vocals, rhythms and musical styles (highlife, in particular) fused with Western pop sensibilities. Great fun, but happily not to the detriment of quality music-making.

Renée Fleming: “Verismo” – I’d be hard put (and flat-out wrong) to describe Renée Fleming as a verismo soprano. She’s just too nice. But do I love her singing verismo arias? Yes I do! Even when she’s not given to the full range of hysteria, sobbing, and frequently guttural, more earthy sounds that characterize the style at its most fully realized. The one aria on Verismo I found myself returning to repeatedly is the hauntingly sad Sola, perduta, abbandonata (“alone, lost, and abandoned”) from Puccini’s defining opera, Manon Lescaut. Fleming gets all of that one. Along with the familiar verismo arias are several rarely heard selections, like those from Giordano’s Siberia (you’re not the only one saying “Giordano’s WHAT!?” right now), and Cilèa’s Gloria. Fleming completists will want to add this one to the collection because it’s Fleming. And, it’s good. If you’re more into the faithful rendering of the repertoire at its verismo brightest, this recording may not be the one you want. Bottom line is, this is a very nice recording with Fleming at her smoky, emotive best – verismo perfect or not.

Brad Paisley: “American Saturday Night” – Remember Brad Paisley’s “Ticks“? That’s a song that got play far beyond its targeted country music audience. The reason was its novelty, of course, but it goes beyond that. Paisley is a top-flight songwriter (and guitarist, for that matter) whose abilities shine through in funny, insightful and often poignant observations on the common things of everyday human life. He’s bold and adventurous, and his style offers a fresh perspective in an increasingly discouraging formulaic landscape of pre-fab country music hooks and hits. I’ve been listening to country music longer than any other style. I grew up on Marty Robbins and Jim Reeves and Charley Pride and Hank and Johnny and Roy and Elvis and Dolly and all the other country greats known best by a single, iconic name. With over 40 years of listening to country music (and, yes, liking it too –  if that needs to be said) I’m telling you, Brad Paisley is the real deal. American Saturday Night represents something of a change for Paisley as he moves away from catchy novelty songs and the clever rhymes to offer reflections on everything from raising kids in the 21st c. world of internet and iPods (Welcome to the Future), to the tender ballad about mature love, Then. And if you listen to country music for a flat-out good time, not to worry, American Saturday Night isn’t only about Deep Thoughts and Grown-up Perspective: the title track will be enough to keep your pointy-toed sh**-kickers tapping for a long time to come. This country girl sends up an enthusiastic “yeee-HAW!” for Brad Paisley!

Myra Melford & Satoko Fujii: “Under the Water” – I am a Myra Melford devotee. I hang avidly on her every keystroke. I devour everything she records, and follow obscure fan blogs and websites for any whiff, any unsubstantiated rumour about upcoming projects or comments on her recent performances. If you’re lucky enough, every so often an artist comes along who speaks to you on such an intense and complete level that every encounter, however brief, is a completely satisfying experience. John Coltrane and Myra Melford both do that for me. But even without that connection, I think I would have enjoyed this unusual recording for the ambition of its scope and fulfillment of that vision. Under the Water is a live collaboration between Melford and a kindred creative spirit, the Japanese pianist Satoko Fujii. Piano duos are uncommon, and that fact becomes exponential when the two performers in the duo are such uncommonly extraordinary artists as Melford and Fujii. The spontaneous, free-form recital runs the spectrum from delicate, melodic runs and lively duo interplay to dark, thumping tone clusters that act as the aural equivalent of the blackened, heavy-bottomed Cumulus of summer thunderstorms. Melford’s solo exploration, Be Melting Snow, is an inspired joyride in adept pianistic effect. Five tracks in all on this CD, it’s a journey. Prepare yourself accordingly. Under the Water isn’t an easy recording to find, but you can listen to a few samples and get a copy here at the Squidco website. (Recorded live in recital, Sept. 14, 2007 at Maybeck Studio in Berkeley, CA)

2009 in the rearview, part two coming up…stay tuned…and tell me about your 2009 favorites! Leave a comment here.

cruelest month

April 3, 2009

It happened rather quietly, maybe you haven’t even noticed yet. April arrived midweek without much more notice than Carl Sandburg’s fog gave as it crept in on cat’s feet.

2009 Nat'l Poetry Month Poster

2009 Nat'l Poetry Month Poster

With the new month comes the beginning of National Poetry Month30 mellow days set aside every year to encourage reading, writing, reflecting upon, and – most important of all – sharing your own creative expressions of the written word.

There are too many music/poetry connections to list…from Orsino’s “If music be the food of love, play on” (Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night ), to Kerouac’s gritty bop-infused musings to the 700+ (!)  songs written by Franz Schubert on verse by contemporaries including  Goethe, Byron, Heine and Rückert. (And that’s just Schubert: now think about the thousands of other works by musicians in all genres through the centuries, inspired by poetry of one kind or another.)

If you aren’t familiar (and even if you are) with Kurt Elling’s recent read on “The Waking”, treat yourself to a special experience and take a few minutes to check it out.  Elling’s tribute is nothing short of breathtaking in its fresh, spare (voice + string bass duet), passionate and perfectly metered interpretation of the classic Roethke poem. Elling is one of our finest living jazz vocalists, and he’s a devoted poetry fan. It’s evident in every thoughtfully nuanced note he sings.

brilliant-corners-winter-08Collections of poetry on musical themes can also make for fun reading,  “What Sweeter Music” (Everyman’s Poetry, 2000) is a nice one and so is “The Music Lover’s Poetry Anthology” (Persea Books, 2007).

Some of my favorites in this genre are actually collections of poetry written about jazz. Something about the raw, visceral roots of this music inspires poetry of equal power. For one of the best anthologies look no further than the ongoing series “Brilliant Corners” (named after the Monk tune, edited by Sascha Feinstein). 24 issues to date and counting, with contributions from names that resonate deeply with the bebop beat: Billy Collins, Amiri Baraka, Hayden Carruth, Philip Levine.

And you don’t have to live in NYC or Philly, or have a standing reserved table at Baker’s or Tippitina’s to be hip to today’s jazz and jazz lit. Right here on the homefront, Vermont poets like Major Jackson, David Budbill (who also has credits on several spoken-word recordings), David Huddle and many others give the music new dimension in their writings.

Not a poet yourself? Not everyone is. You don’t have to write poetry to read poetry and appreciate it, in one form or another.

If you have written poetry about music and you’d be interested in sharing it, click on “Comment”, below. Include your poem in the note and let me know if it’s OK to make it public and post it. (When you send me a comment here your poetry will not go directly on to the world of music site, it will only be posted if you tell me it’s alright to share it.)

Every ‘slam‘ starts with an offering from a sacrificial poet. I’ll volunteer myself this time, though in doing so I’m not exactly claiming to live up to the title! In the spirit of Nat’l Poetry Month, here’s one I wrote about a year ago. It struck me how ludicrous it was to be driving home in a blinding ice storm when I couldn’t even see the road, jamming to Willie Colón’s hot salsa grooves turned up LOUD. The music made for such a seductive contrast to the Vermont winter raging on all around, impassive and oblivious.

Ice Storm

Drove off the road
to Willie Colón
– floated, more like it.

Sliding aside
‘bones and bongo
a two-step glide
with San Juan’s favorite son.

All alone on the bodega floor
the flowered dress
wants more.
She sways,
perfumed counterpoint
to the grey gringo suits,
grim and cool
from the smoky corners
of a Nor’Eastern winter.

Only their eyes move.

Left, to right, to left.

Got one to share? Send it on over.  And, cheers to April!

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