Wednesday, 19 December 2012

Two Salt-Water Ballads

John Masefield 1878-1967

In the days immediately following the senseless carnage in Newtown, Connecticut, I found myself returning to this song, probably because its mood of uncomprehending desolation approximated my own. The poem is John Masefield's Vagabond, part of his 1902 collection Salt-Water Ballads. Masefield's Vagabond is a far cry from Robert Louis Stevenson's The Vagabond of 1896 ("Give to me the life I love, / Let the lave go by me, / Give the jolly heaven above / And the byway nigh me."). No romance of the open road for Masefield, especially in this haunting musical setting by John Ireland, composed in 1922. The singer is Bryn Terfel.

Dunno a heap about the what an' why,
Can't says I ever knowed.
Heaven to me's a fair blue stretch of sky,
Earth's jest a dusty road.

Dunno the names o' things, nor what they are,
Can't say's I ever will.
Dunno about God - he's jest the noddin' star
Atop the windy hill.

Dunno about Life - it's jest a tramp alone,
From wakin'-time to doss.
Dunno about Death - it's jest a quiet stone
All over-grey wi' moss.

An' why I live, an' why the old world spins,
Are things I never knowed.
My mark's the gypsy fires, the lonely inns,
An' jest the dusty road.

To end on a brighter note, a Bryn Terfel encore: Masefield's Trade Winds, beautifully set by Frederick Keel in 1919. Keel's lulling melody and the legato shaping of the phrase "the steady trade winds blowing," especially its extension in the third verse, evoke the scene - a fine example of musical picture-painting.

In the harbor, in the island, in the Spanish Seas,
Are the tiny white houses and the orange trees,
And day-long, night-long, the cool and pleasant breeze
Of the steady trade winds blowing.

There is the red wine, the nutty Spanish ale,
The shuffle of the dancers, and the old salt's tale,
The squeaking fiddle, and the soughing in the sail
Of the steady trade winds blowing.

And o' nights there's the fire-flies and the yellow moon,
And in the ghostly palm-trees the sleepy tune
Of the quiet voice calling me, the long low croon
Of the steady trade winds blowing.


Initially I thought I'd adorn this post with appropriate scenic photos to help set the mood. Then I thought: How unimaginative. How unnecessary. All that's needed is that you close your eyes and listen, and you'll "see" these songs in mind-pictures more vivid than anything Google Images has to offer.

Saturday, 15 December 2012

Flit-man, spare that fly!



'Tis the season for universal compassion, extended even to the wee beasties among us. Hence this musical excerpt from the 1930 film Just Imagine, a science fiction fantasy in which a fellow wakes to find himself fifty years in the future, in 1980. (Imagine that!)

The song is Never Swat a Fly by DeSylva, Brown & Henderson, performed by Frank Albertson and Marjorie White aboard a wondrous, state-of-the-art mode of travel called... a dirigible! Why Frank and Marjorie are ruminating on this particular subject is unknown to me; I've not seen the complete film. If the verse is to be believed, love explains all, but one suspects they've been reading Robert Burns, or studying up on Buddhism. I've heard this sermon before, delivered in 1992, sans verse, by those eminent theologians Marty Grosz, Keith Ingham and their Hot Cosmopolites, but here it is in its original incarnation:


FRANK:

Love has made me tender, I now appreciate
Ev'ry little creature on this Earth that has a mate.
Once I hated crickets, I couldn't stand a bee,
Now here is the motto that I follow faithfully:

Never swat a fly,
He may love another fly,
He may sit with her and sigh the way I do with you.
Never harm a flea,
He may have a favorite she
That he bounces on his knee the way I do with you.
Never stop a bee if he is going anywhere,
You may be concluding some terrific love affair, be careful!
Don't step on an ant
In the middle of a pant,
He may want to, but he can't the way I do with you,

MARJORIE:

I'm the same as you are, tears come to my eyes
When I see professors chasing helpless butterflies.
Fishermen are hateful, they lead a wicked life,
Why, ev'ry day they separate the husband from his wife!

Never swat a fly,
He may love another fly,
He may sit with her and sigh the way I do with you.
Never spray a nit
With a great big can of Flit,
He may think some nit has "It" the way I do with you.
Never stop a moth as he is gliding through the air,
He may have a date In someone's flannel underwear, be careful!
Don't you dare to slay
Two skeeters while they play,
They may want to make hey-hey the way I do with you!

Two questions arise:

(1) How exactly does a bug, when making hey-hey, evince that sexy quality known as "It"? With flirtatiously fluttering ganglia?

(2) Even more puzzling: What was the dialogue leading up to this number? This question has me so flummoxed that I'm throwing it open to my readers. A valuable prize awaits anyone who can create a believable exchange connecting Never Swat a Fly and a futuristic flight in a dirigible. For the sake of this contest, we're assuming that the song was logically integrated into the plot, and not just randomly interpolated. (The latter is far more likely.) The best I can do is this:

"Oh, look, honey! We're flying so high the people on Earth look just like ants!"

"Funny you should mention ants. I've been thinking..."

No, that won't fly.

This contest is open only to those who've never seen the complete film. That's probably 99.44 percent of my entire readership (in other words, optimistically speaking, roughly nine people). Each entry must be accompanied by two box-tops from Kellogg's Pep. In case of a tie, duplicate prizes will be awarded.


Saturday, 3 November 2012

Home




Our hearts, and donations, go out to all those devastated by Sandy, in New York City, Long Island, New Jersey, and Connecticut. New Yorkers are a very special breed, no matter where they come from; and New York is a place we'll always call home, no matter where we're living.

Hang in there.



(The music: Home, 1944, with Jack Teagarden, trombone and vocal; Coleman Hawkins, tenor sax; Joe Thomas, trumpet; Hank D'Amico, clarinet; Herman Chittison, piano; Billy Taylor, bass; George Wettling, drums.)

Thursday, 18 October 2012

When Irving met Mildred



[Unfortunately the YouTube clip I describe from the film On the Avenue is no longer available.] No, that's not Irving and Mildred in the clip; it's Dick Powell pitching ardent woo and singing You're Laughing at Me to a certain "Miss Hasenfeffer" in the 1937 movie On the Avenue. The Irving of my title is the songwriter, last name Berlin.

You're Laughing at Me is one of Irving Berlin's most ingenious creations. Despite its interesting features -- maybe because of them -- it's not among his most memorable or beloved songs, certainly less well-remembered than four other Berlin songs from the same movie: He Ain't Got Rhythm, This Year's Kisses, I've Got My Love to Keep Me Warm, and Slumming on Park Avenue.

The verse is simple, conventional, leading to the highly unusual opening phrase of the chorus ("You're laughing at me"). It begins on the sixth note of the scale, dips a half-tone, then rises four tones to three repeated notes, a forlorn little phrase leaving the first-time listener momentarily adrift, not knowing where it's headed next -- a fleeting moment of uncertainty suggesting the state of mind of a wooer unsure of where he stands vis-à-vis the wooee. The tonality is quickly clarified with the long phrase, "I can't be sentimental for you're laughing at me, I know," ending in a pleading, chromatic descent. Then a surprise: with the words "I want to be romantic, but I haven't a chance," the key-change sounds exactly like the bridge in a conventional A-A-B-A song, except that the B section has arrived eight measures too soon! Four bars later, another unexpected modulation ("You've got a sense of humor...") leading us back to a repeat of "You're laughing at me..." We've been fooled; turns out it's one of those "half-and-half" songs -- call it A1-A2 in form. Berlin's musical sleight of hand isn't cleverness for its own sake. The sudden shifts in tonality in bars 9 through 16 mirror Mr. Powell's inability to sustain a romantic mood in the face of heartless Hasenfeffer laughter. It's a brilliant example of form reinforcing meaning, as deft as it gets in melding words and music.

How this musically unschooled songwriter did such subtle things is one of life's great mysteries. On his compositional methods Berlin shed remarkably little light, hiding his creative struggles behind a matter-of-fact facade:

I get an idea, either a title or a phrase or a melody, and hum it out to something definite. When I have completed a song and memorized it, I dictate it to an arranger..... It's not a matter of inspiration with me at all. Generally I decide in a very prosaic way that I'm going to write something, and then I sit down and do it..... Writing both words and music, I can compose them together and make them fit.

Of You're Laughing at Me he'd probably say, "It just sounded right that way."

In his Victor recording of You're Laughing at Me, Fats Waller sings it with a light touch but surprisingly straight, in the original tempo, taking few liberties apart from some verbal asides (and, near the end, getting the lyrics wrong).

I can't imagine Mildred Bailey singing it at this tempo; apparently neither could she. Although she was capable of expressing great vulnerability in ballads (Mildred could sing any kind of pop song, superbly) she reinvents You're Laughing at Me as a medium-tempo swinger, stripped of all self-pity. Of course when it's 1937 and you're in a recording studio with Roy Eldridge on trumpet, Scoops Carry and Herbie Haymer on alto and tenor saxes, Teddy Cole, piano, and a rhythm section of John Collins, guitar, Truck Parham, bass, and Zutty Singleton, drums, swinging will be high on your agenda.

I don't know what Irving Berlin thought of Mildred's version, or if he ever heard it, but I doubt he'd be crazy about it. Most egregiously, from the songwriter's viewpoint, she changes the tempo. For Berlin, tempo and rhythm were of primary importance. What's more, she recomposes the first eight bars of his chorus, as well as the ending. Mildred's new melody line is streamlined, its predominant feature the descending chromatic phrase, which makes perfect dramatic sense in its own way. (It's also possible that, as written, the melody was too range-y for her.) Dispensing with the verse, the record is solid from the start, with Roy's muted trumpet leading the way. I like the feisty quality imparted to the song at this tempo, propelled by Mildred's marvelous feeling for time and the tasty figures played by the accompanying horns. One gets the feeling that the next time Mildred pitches woo and gets laughed at, she'll find herself a different catcher.





P.S. I recently learned, by accident and to my surprise, that Mildred's Says My Heart, recorded with the Norvo band and a particular favorite, was one of her biggest commercial successes, staying atop the pop charts for four weeks in 1938. I'm not sure why this should make me feel good 74 years after the fact -- a ton of junk records also were #1 -- but it does.

Sunday, 30 September 2012

Chicken and waffles and corn muffins and the Fort Hamilton Philharmonic

So it's absurdly early of a Sunday morning, Brooklyn Girl is still sleeping, The Little One is coming over for a visit in a few hours, and what am I doing? Naturally, I'm making corn muffins, my favorite complement to the daily caffeine fix (except when there's a cheese danish lurking somewhere in the vicinity).

As per custom, my culinary labors are accompanied by the iPod merrily shuffling its way through a jazz playlist -- softly, so as not to waken BG. And just as I'm giving the finished muffins "the toothpick test" (they passed with flying colors), what should come up in the shuffle but Bunny Berigan's Chicken and Waffles, a 1935 side with Bunny in dazzling mid-season form on trumpet; Eddie Miller, tenor sax; Edgar Sampson, clarinet; Cliff Jackson, piano; Grachan Moncur, bass; Ray Bauduc, drums.


Needless to say, the sight of my eighteen perfectly puffed-up muffins, combined with the record's evocative title, got the gastric juices flowing at a rapid rate, requiring a supreme effort to quell. (It's considered extremely bad form for the chef to gobble up half the meal before the guests have arrived.) Meanwhile the nostalgia was also flowing thick and fast. Sixty years ago, a Bunny Berigan memorial album on Decca -- including Chicken and WafflesBluesYou Took Advantage of MeI'm Coming VirginiaThe Buzzard, and Tillie's Downtown Now -- was one of the cornerstones of my tiny collection of jazz 78s. It was the early 1950s and I was a high school freshman. Inspired by Bunny and Pops, I was taking trumpet lessons while holding the second chair in the trumpet section of the Fort Hamilton High School orchestra under the baton of the kindly Mr. Chelimsky. Actually I did more than hold the chair; I played some, too.

Of course I couldn't improvise, but I knew Chicken and Waffles so thoroughly that I was able to replicate Bunny's coda (from 2:52 to 2:57), an effort that taxed my technique to the limit but was highly satisfying nonetheless. I taught this little coda to my trumpet section-mate and it became part of our warm-up ritual before rehearsals, a running gag that soon spread to the other orchestral sections. (It amuses me to think that dozens of Fort Hamilton graduates with absolutely no interest in jazz probably still remember Bunny's coda to Chicken and Waffles.)

I wish I could report that my Berigan-inspired warm-up exercise bore musical fruit, but in truth my trumpet career didn't last long. As soon as triple-tonguing reared its ugly head, I was a goner. (The syllables "tu-tu-ku" still strike terrror in my heart.) But the memory of the Fort Hamilton Philharmonic's rendition of Wagner's Rienzi overture, especially its crashing climax, still brings a smile to my lips, followed closely by guffaws. I'll never forget the sight of Mr. Chelimsky, arms waving frantically as the strings, woodwinds, brasses, and timpani lumbered noisily -- and almost in synchronization -- toward the overture's conclusion. The expression on the maestro's face strongly resembled that of some unfortunate chump who finds himself standing on the railroad tracks face-to--face with an onrushing train.

On a more positive note, today's corn muffins were delicious.

Tuesday, 21 August 2012

"Nothing is missing and nothing is superfluous"


Federico Mompou (1893-1987)

In the 1920s, the Spanish composer Mompou was part of a group of artists, writers, and musicians called Noucentistes ("Twentieth-centurists") whose aesthetic aim was a return to clarity and simplicity. Inspired more by the French impressionists than by the modernism of Stravinsky or Hindemith, Mompou declared, "My only desire is to write works in which nothing is missing and nothing is superfluous."

Much of Mompou's set of Cançons i Danses for piano draws on Catalan folk themes, but this one, No. 6 -- my favorite  -- is entirely original. You can go to YouTube and hear the song section played by the legendary pianist Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli, but the dance is omitted. You can hear the complete No. 6, song and dance, played by the composer himself, but Mompou's aging fingers were regrettably past the dancing stage when he recorded it. (It's no disrespect to Mompou to say that someday I'd love to hear this music in the hands of a great jazz pianist/improviser -- a Rossano Sportiello, for example.)

As usual when it comes to Spanish piano music, Alicia de Larrocha's recording is definitive, the song section memorably lyrical, the dance rhythms beautifully articulated.

Enjoy.


Tuesday, 7 August 2012

Serenade to a bed quilt


It's the biggest, most beautiful present I've ever received: a king-size bed quilt, lovingly made by Brooklyn Baby over many months. BB has become a quilt-making whiz (just one of her many whizbang qualties) but this project eclipses all others in complexity, detailed craftsmanship, and sheer humongosity, which may explain why it arrived six months after my birthday. If ever a gift was worth waiting for, this was it. (The making of this epic production is chronicled here.)

The quilt is called "Bear Pa" (bear paw) and as you can see, it's a model of harmony and balance, its patterns and colors a source of unceasing interest and delight. Now examine the photo above using a high-powered microscope. You'll find exquisite hand stitching around each paw and "free-motion" quilting in the shape of little leaves in the outer borders, making the quilt as pleasing texturally as it is visually. Incredible.

Mom would take one look at this quilt, shake her head in awe, and say, "Imagine, all that work!"

As the adage says, the proof of the quilt is in the sleeping. I've lived with "Bear Pa" for well over two weeks now, and can report having copped many soothing z's beneath it. Nor did the quilt's tactile appeal go unnoticed by our two pussycats, who are expert in the matter of finding good napping places. Upon the quilt's arrival, they promptly pencilled "Bear Pa" into the late-afternoon slot on their daily itinerary. I've been told that, given the choice between hand-made and mass-produced, pussycats will choose hand-made every time. I believe it. When it comes to comfort and pleasure, cats have unerringly good judgment.



How to celebrate and give thanks for such a gift? I consulted my memory-bank (otherwise known as iTunes) for an appropriate song title. Rejecting such obvious, mundane choices as Thanks a Million and other thank-you songs, I settled on Under a Blanket of Blue. Okay, so it's a quilt, not a blanket, and it's not blue, but the title comes close enough, and the mood of the melody is right on the money.

Naturally I thought first of the 1944 Keynote version with Coleman Hawkins, Buck Clayton, Teddy Wilson, Slam Stewart, and Denzil Best. It's a great record, but Hawkins' intense, probing improvisations produce a feeling of agitation not appropriate here.

Taken at a more placid tempo than the Hawkins, this less well-known 1947 version of Under a Blanket of Blue perfectly captures the mood of repose induced by my new quilt. It's a Red Norvo group including Red on xylophone, Benny Carter, alto, Dave Barbour, guitar, Arnold Ross, piano, Billy Hadnott, bass, and Jesse Price, drums, but the highlight for me is the opening chorus, which does not stray far from Jerry Livingston's lovely melody. The theme is stated simply and eloquently by Eddie Miller's tenor sax in a manner aptly described by one perceptive critic as "melting," with Bobby Sherwood taking the B section on cornet, carressing each phrase with Bobby Hackett-like delicacy.

As the "pa" in the quilt's name (and the "bear," too, for that matter) I can't thank BB enough for this precious gift. Imagine, all that work!

Saturday, 21 July 2012

Visiting Mom



Tomorrow we're off to visit Mom to help celebrate her one-hundred-and-first-and-a-half birthday. Still fresh are the memories of her one-hundredth birthday party. The "surprise at 3:00" mentioned on the invitation was a concert by Rebecca Kilgore, Dan Barrett (with trombone), and Dave Frishberg.




That day's musical highlights are indelible in our memory. Becky sang Mom's request Laughing At Life (wise words to live by). Dan played a slyly humorous, slow-tempo Margie (which happens to be Mom's name), a performance that would have delighted Vic Dickenson as much as it delighted us. Mom has always been a big Frishberg fan, and Dave played and sang her favorite Frishberg song, I Want to Be a Sideman. (A one-hundred-year-old requesting I Want to Be a Sideman? How hip is that?)


To honor Mom this year, I turn to another version of Margie, this one recorded in 1938, featuring the great Bill Coleman at his nimble best on trumpet, Alix Combelle, tenor sax, Eddie Brunner, clarinet, and Herman Chittison, piano. If you're wondering why this side swings so fiercely, consider the soloists and the rhythm section: Tommy Benford, drums, and Oscar Alemán, guitar.


Happy one-oh-one-and-a-half, Mom!




Thursday, 12 July 2012

Batgirl defies science!




According to the findings of physicists at the University of Leicester, published in the university's Journal of Special Physics Topics and reported in Wired Science:


Clearly gliding using a batcape is not a safe way to travel, unless a method to rapidly slow down is used, such as a parachute.”
The proposed parachute would surely diminish the impact of Batman’s stylish flourish when he flicks the cape aside on landing — not to mention, detract from the terror it instills in enemies when he goes for the full wing span, narrow-eyed bat impersonation, pre-attack.
Nevertheless, the physics is undeniable.
After accounting for the drag and lift forces acting on Bruce Wayne in flight, the doomed trajectory was calculated. The 15.4-foot wingspan is just half that of an ordinary hang glider and, when launching off an 492-foot-high Gotham city skyscraper and gliding (successfully, the team predicted) for around 1,150 feet, Batman’s velocity would peak at 68 mph before levelling off at a life-threatening 50 mph descent.
The paper does admit that variations in the angle of the glide were not taken into account, and could contribute to a safe landing. However, Batman would need to slow significantly to avoid becoming a messy afterthought for Gotham city’s road sweepers.
The paper also does not take into account Batgirl's fearlessness and dedication to justice. You can see it in her eyes.



Wednesday, 27 June 2012

Lucky Day


This one's dedicated to Brooklyn Girl, Brooklyn Baby (who loved this record when she was little), Miriam, Tina, Legrand Sidney Doggett, and the acai berry. The Revelers' skillful close-harmony singing and the arrangement may be as dated as a 1926 Victrola, but the sentiment expressed is as genuine today as ever.

Friday, 22 June 2012

Where Corals Lie

When the glorious mezzo-soprano Janet Baker and conductor John Barbirolli recorded Elgar's Sea Pictures in 1965, it was one of those rare moments when the right music found its ideal interpreters at the peak of their powers. With the stars thus in proper alignment, magic happened.

First performed in 1899, Sea Pictures is a cycle of five songs, with texts by five different poets. I don't love the five equally. In Haven, with words by Caroline Alice Elgar, the composer's wife, is a beauty. Where Corals Lie is my favorite. I hope your computer speakers are good enough to pick up Elgar's orchestral touches as brought out by Barbirolli, especially the woodwind accents and the luminous way the cellos double the vocal line in the second stanza.

The poem Where Corals Lie was written by Richard Garnett. Here's the text, with Elgar's repeats:

The deeps have music soft and low
When winds awake the airy spry,
It lures me, lures me on to go
And see the land where corals lie.
The land where corals lie.

By mount and mead, by lawn and rill,
When night is deep, and moon is high,
That music seeks and finds me still,
And tells me where the corals lie.
And tells me where the corals lie.

Yes, press my eyelids close, 'tis well,
Yes, press my eyelids close, 'tis well,
But far the rapid fancies fly
To rolling worlds of wave and shell,
And all the land where corals lie.

Thy lips are like a sunset glow,
Thy smile is like a morning sky,
Yet leave me, leave me, let me go
And see the land where corals lie.
The land, the land where corals lie.

Tuesday, 29 May 2012

Eine kleine cementmusik

They've been working on our street and sidewalks for weeks now, tearing up the old ones and laying down new ones. The noise has been constant, but it's okay -- that's what backyards and headphones are for. The job is nearing its end; a big truck like the one shown above has just pulled up in front of our house. The workmen have been toiling like mad in unseasonable midsummer-type heat and humidity, and I feel for them; hence this small musical tribute by Slim Gaillard, abetted by bassist Bam Brown. This record was a minor hit in the 1940s. As kids we tried to sing it and sound like Slim and Bam, but we couldn't duplicate their unique brand of verbal nihilism.

Thursday, 24 May 2012

"...il neige! Brrrrrrrrrrr!"

The snow ballet from Offenbach's Le Voyage dans la Lune.

As movie buffs know, filmmaking pioneer Georges Méliès wrote and directed a short film in 1902 called Le Voyage dans la Lune, based loosely on Jules Verne's novel De la Terre à la Lune. With its innovative use of animation and special effects, Méliès' film (viewable here) was a sensation.


Georges Melies' moon.

Theatrical adaptations of Verne's novel were nothing new. In 1875 Jacques Offenbach, "the Mozart of the boulevardiers," composed Le Voyage dans la Lune, an opéra-féerie in four acts. Opéra-féerie was a sub-genre of operetta, featuring fantastical plots, lavish staging, and stunning visual effects. For the theatre-going public, Le Voyage was the science fiction of its time.


Offenbach's version of Le Voyage dans la Lune opened in Paris at the Théâtre de la Gaîté, complete with a huge, illuminated model of the moon outside the theatre. Despite accusations of plagiarism by Jules Verne, the show was a big success, thanks in part to Offenbach's scintillating music, in part to its over-the-top staging which included a gigantic cannon blasting off a spaceship, and a spectacular snow ballet. The cannon can be seen below in the programme for the London premiere in 1876.



The popularity of Offenbach's works in London ignited an English operetta craze, which made Gilbert & Sullivan possible, necessary, and -- to G & S and impresario Richard D'Oyly Carte -- highly profitable. Iolanthe, more satiric than Le Voyage and one of G & S' best, is a toned-down, cross-Channel cousin to opéra-féerie.

Jacques Offenbach (1819-1880)

Offenbach often took impish delight in assigning his singers with odd-sounding words or phrases. In the Final de la neige from Le Voyage de la Lune, playable below, he makes an unsingable syllable the centerpiece of a sparkling ensemble number.

As the clip begins, the space-travellers from Earth have captured the moon princess, prompting her father, the moon king, to order his subjects to capture the invaders. At 0:40 the Earthlings are shocked, shocked to discover -- it's cold on the moon. What an extraordinary country, says one. Cast and chorus are frozen to the bone. What's more, to their horror, the snow is falling thick and fast ("il neige!"). General panic. You'd think a people clever enough to devise a cannon-propelled spaceship would have thought to bring overcoats and galoshes.

The falling snow is deftly described in the orchestra's descending strings starting at 1:34, leading us to the Act Two finale at 2:07, a delightful rondo in which the shivering Earthlings bemoan the appalling turn in the weather and the cruelty of nature, singing long, graceful runs on the word "Brrrrrrrrr!" (in harmony yet!) -- a surefire show-stopper.

Monday, 21 May 2012

I hear music. No, it's an air-freshener!


The New York Times' online paywall policy has severely restricted my access to bad writing about jazz and pop music. I had resolved not to return to this topic, but I can't help myself; it's one of my guilty pleasures. Some people are fascinated by demolition derbies. Some enjoy watching people humiliate themselves on reality TV shows. I enjoy reading music reviews in the Times.

With the political season in full swing, I had already squandered my monthly allotment of free articles on campaign news and not-so-penetrating political analysis, which is why I missed this latest howler from the music department. Fortunately it was spotted and sent to me by jazz scholar Legrand Sidney Doggett. In the words of Eddie Condon, it's too good to ignore:

Half of the album’s 10 tracks date to the Thornhill era, and it’s striking how fresh they sound: even amid the swinging brio of a tune like “How About You,” there are piccolo parts made to lodge a citrusy dissonance.

"Made to lodge a citrusy dissonance" -- now that's Hall of Fame material.

The only antidote to such aromatic writing is a musical breath of fresh air, in the form of You Smell So Good (playable below) sung by Rebecca Kilgore, accompanied by Dave Frishberg -- two artists for whom the run-of-the-mill adjective "superb" will suffice.

As for the Times' music reviewers, I want to help. I really do; so let me lodge a curative suggestion, laced with calming undertones of sandalwood and ylang-ylang. The next time you feel the urge to be a prose stylist, make this your mantra and keep repeating it until the urge goes away: "I am not Whitney Bailliett, I am not Whitney Bailliett..... "

Monday, 14 May 2012

The curious case of Sir Christopher Kyrle


Such is our faith in the internet as the repository of all human history and knowledge that when it falls short of encyclopedic completeness, the shock is profound.


The other day I was thinking about 1959, senior year at Cornell, Nehemiah Klein, and days we spent reciting seventeenth-century Cavalier poetry. (English majors did that sort of thing for fun in those days). My particular favorites were the verses of Sir John Suckling and his friend (or rival, I never learned which) Sir Christopher Kyrle.


Sir John Suckling (1609-1642)


Suckling was an attractive figure. He's been described as "one of the most vivid personalities of his age.” "[H]is gay trifles have remained current in the language as some others have not; he is the prototype of the Cavalier playboy."

Here's Suckling's most famous trifle:

Why so pale and wan, fond lover?
Prithee, why so pale?
Will, when looking well can't move her,
Looking ill prevail?
Prithee, why do pale?

Why so dull and mute, young sinner?
Prithee, why so mute?
Will, when speaking well can't win her,
Saying nothing do't?
Prithee, why so mute?

Quit, quit, for shame! This will not move;
This cannot take her.
If of herself she will not love,
Nothing can make her:
The devil take her!

While Suckling's poems lack depth, they have an insouciant quality which appealed to a decidedly non-insouciant undergraduate. Thomas Crofts has written: “Suckling's verse, of course, smacks of the court: it is witty, decorous, sometimes naughty; all requisites for the courtier poet. Suckling had his own voice, a deft conversational ease mixed at times with a certain hauteur or swagger, which qualities were not incompatible with his high birth and military occupation."

Suckling is said to have invented the game of cribbage (another point in his favor). Unfortunately he wasn't very good at it, losing large sums of money, much of it his sister's, to his friend (or was it rival?) Sir Christopher Kyrle, one of the now-forgotten versifiers with which the court teemed.

The amply proportioned Kyrle, an avid trencherman, cut not quite so dashing a figure as his friend (or rival) Suckling, but he certainly wasn't lacking in the vanity department. Kyrle wrote a lengthy verse called, I think, A pretty conceit upon the morning shaving, full of battle imagery, in which his razor was the Sword of Justice making righteous war against the invading hordes of black stubble. I can recall just half of the triumphant concluding couplet:

Da-dum da-dum da-dum da-dunn,
The War for Beauty has been won!

I remember reciting Kyrle's most popular poem, Song: To his guilty mistress, replete with trial-by-jury imagery. Only the final quatrain remains fixed in my memory:

O coy defendant, where art thou?
Art thou devoid of sense?
Of thy alleged love show now,
Conclusive evidence!

The only "conclusive evidence" I retain of our 1959 poetry readings is this Kyrle poem, typed out on my old Underwood typewriter and discovered just last week among my souvenirs (cue music):


Now here's the curious part: when I google Sir Christopher Kyrle, I come up with nothing. Zero. Zip. Nada. It seems Kyrle has been virtually erased from history. It's as if he never existed. I remember reading that his name appeared on one of his works as "Sir Ch. Kern," so I try googling Kern. Still nothing, except for the Kern family crest and the clan's early origins in County Mayo. But if those Irish Kerns had any connection to Sir Christopher, they're not talking, at least not on the internet.

It's not Kyrle's (or Kern's) poetry that's so important. The world will not suddenly be a better place having rediscovered his modest, sub-Suckling set of versifying skills. It's the principle of the thing that bothers me.

Why were Kyrle's (or Kern's) poems, as well as information about the man, available to us in 1959 but not now? Cavalier poets, especially portly ones, aren't supposed to vanish in thin air. I could understand a google-search being imperfect or incomplete. To allow a few odd bits of data to slip through the cracks is forgivable, but how do you misplace an entire poet, especially one who was as colorful a personage as Kyrle (or Kern)?

I have little time or aptitude for literary research, so I leave it to qualified sleuths to solve this vexing riddle. For the time being, Suckling's friend (or rival) Kyrle (or Kern) remains the Cavalier poet who wasn't there.


Thursday, 10 May 2012

Thanks a lot, mister moon


For many years now, I've had trouble sleeping whenever there's a full moon. I won't get into the harrowing details of the sleepless nights, mainly because I don't want to relive them, but believe me, I'm talking serious trouble. Brooklyn Girl and our longtime friends never tell me when a full moon is coming. I don't want to know. On my computer I could summon in seconds the date of the next full moon, and of full moons for years to come, but I don't. My unwavering policy is willful ignorance. It doesn't prevent "the trouble," but it spares me a lot of anticipatory angst.

A couple of days ago (they tell me) we had a full moon of historic proportions, and I had a sleepless night to match. This time I couldn't avoid seeing articles about it on the internet. I read none of them. Whenever MSNBC reported on it, I switched channels. Sure enough, when The Big One hit, I experienced the most hideous sleepless night of my life. All it lacked was Béla Lugosi and Lon Chaney Jr. Fortunately, unlike the hapless victim in a 1943 Monogram Picture, I had Brooklyn Girl, the best life's companion one could have, for help and solace throughout the ordeal.

Years ago I mentioned my full-moon syndrome to our family doctor, an intelligent, caring, open-minded fellow. He scoffed. It wasn't a nasty scoff; more of a facial tic, but it was definitely there. He then politely dismissed my hypothesis. Yesterday, in a pitiable, post-ordeal state, I was in his office again. This time, no scoff; just compassion, and the right pill.

The internet is full of anecdotal evidence of full moon-related anxiety of one kind or another, but the all-knowing great god Wikipedia says:

The theory that there is correlation between specific stages of the Earth's lunar cycle and deviant behavior in human beings that cannot simply be explained by variation in light levels. There is no good reason to expect this to be the case, and in spite of numerous studies, no significant lunar effect on human behaviour has been established. Scholars debunking the effect sometimes refer to it as the Transylvanian hypothesis or the Transylvanian effect to emphasise its fanciful nature.


Who are these "scholars"? I know who they are: a bunch of sound snoozers, that's who. Transylvanian effect? Well, just call me Wolfman Boy. One of our best friends already does.



Monday, 30 April 2012

Losers and winners


WASHINGTON -- Mitt Romney's privileged background and personal wealth will not prevent Americans from voting for him in November's presidential election, Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) said on Sunday morning.
"The American people do not want to vote for a loser," Boehner told CNN's "State of the Union with Candy Crowley." "They don't want to vote for someone who hasn't been successful."
How about a failed haberdasher?
Or a country lawyer?





Saturday, 28 April 2012

"The unconquerable doing the impossible"



In a recent post I related my radio memories of Jackie Robinson's unphotographed, untelevised, unfilmed, season-saving catch and game-winning homerun on the last day of the 1951 season in Philadelphia. Here's part of Dick Young's report in the New York Daily News, October 1, 1951:

Before he could win the game with his no. 18 seat-smasher, Robby had to save it. He did it with as self-punishing and spectacular a money play as the 31,755 attending fans, thousands of whom had poured down from Brooklyn, will ever see... Eddie Waitkus shot a low, slightly looped liner to the right of second. It seemed ticketed for the hole, labeled Hit..... Game....Pennant.....But Robby diving face-first speared the ball an instant before he hit the ground. As he struck, his elbow dug into his stomach and he lay there in a crumpled heap. Many fans failed to realize he had held the ball until, in his pain, Robby rolled on his side and flipped the pill clear... And here he lay, for several minutes, while trainer Harold Wendler administered to him, trying to restore Jack’s breath, and clear his dazed head. Finally Robby wobbled to his feet and walked off the field to an ovation...

The photo above was taken moments after the catch. Pee-Wee Reese is ministering to Jackie, soon to be joined by Gil Hodges (14). Pitcher Don Newcombe described the scene:

[Robinson] dives after the ball, he catches the line drive in the webbing of his glove, and then hits the ground. His elbow hits him in his stomach. He rolls over, and then Pee-Wee runs over, and Gil runs over and then I run over from the mound to see if Jackie is all right... We don’t see the ball. We don’t see the ball at all. The umpire hasn’t yet made the out call. Jackie is laying on his stomach with the ball in the glove. When Pee-Wee got there and I got there, Jackie said, ‘I’ve got the ball.’ He was hurting because his elbow hit him in the stomach and he held onto the ball. God bless him... We worried about him whether or not he was unconscious. It could have been at least a minute before the umpire made the call. The umpire had to find the ball. Nobody could see it. It didn’t ricochet off Jackie. There was a roar from Dodger fans when Jackie got up, he had the ball.

As usual, Pulitzer Prize-winning sportswriter Red Smith said it best:

The ball is a blur passing second base, difficult to follow in the half light, impossible to catch. Jackie Robinson catches it. He flings himself headlong at right angles to the flight of the ball, for an instant his body is suspended in mid-air, then somehow the outstretched glove intercepts the ball inches off the ground... Of all the pictures left in memory, the one that will always flash back shows Robinson stretched at full length in the insubstantial twilight, the unconquerable doing the impossible.

Sunday, 22 April 2012

Is there a doctor, or a Latin scholar, in the house?



I don't know what to say about this item from this morning's New York Post sports section, except that medical diagnoses sure are a lot more detailed than they used to be.

BOSTON — There are legitimate concerns in the Yankees’ hierarchy about Michael Pineda’s right shoulder. Pineda’s first minor league rehab start was cut short Saturday after 15 pitches because of weakness and pain in the hinge.

Of course I am concerned,’’ said general manager Brian Cashman, who sent Jesus Montero and Hector Noesi to Seattle for the 23-year-old Pineda and 19-year-old Jose Campos with the idea that Pineda eventually would develop into a top-of-the-rotation starter. Pineda was examined in Tampa Saturday and was sent to New York, where he will undergo a dye contrast MRI exam MonLorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipiscing elit. Integer eu dolor. Integer aliquam, ipsum a lobortis vestibulum, metus libero fermentum sapien, auctor faucibus dolor justo nec dui. Nunc ultrices volutpat ipsum. Aenean velit felis, fringilla ut, tempus sit amet, tempus a, arcu. Aenean quis neque tristique ligula ornare hendrerit. Quisque ac ante. Duis fringilla massa at nisl. Quisque a velit. Donec in tortor. Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipiscing elit. Donec nec lacus. Aliquam erat volutpat. Nam placerat. Proin eget mauris in augue consectetur dictum. Cras aliquam consequat diam..day.