Friday, 19 April 2013

Deja vu in the men's locker room

Today, four days after Jackie Robinson Day, I had a conversation that transported me back sixty-six years.

I was doing my post-swim shaving at the JCC when I noticed that Arnold had returned, after about four months of sightseeing in faraway lands. I was glad to see Arnold again, especially since he still owed me five dollars from a bet we'd made on the U.S. presidential election. (Why didn't I make it a hundred?) He paid his debt manfully, and I, ever the gentleman, didn't even charge him interest.

But Arnold couldn't leave it at that; he had to get in a face-saving dig. "You may have won the bet," he said, "but you have to admit Obama's been a failure as president."

I registered my disagreement in the strongest terms, and the ensuing conversation went something like this:

ARNOLD: Tell me one thing Obama has done.

ME: He passed the most important health-care legislation since Medicare.

ARNOLD: Feh [or something that sounded like "Feh"]. (This, mind you, from a Canadian who has always enjoyed single-payer health care, and has never had to live in the U.S. without coverage.) Come on, tell me one thing he's done.

ME: He got Osama bin-Laden.

ARNOLD: Are you kidding? Come on, what has he done?

ME: He inherited an economy on the verge of collapse, hemorrhaging jobs, and put it on the right course.

ARNOLD: Oh, please. Tell me one thing he's done.

ME: He saved the U.S. auto industry.

ARNOLD: Feh. [That word again.]

By this time, it was clear that nothing I could say to this fellow would earn Obama any credit. Suddenly it was 1947 again, I was eight years old and listening to Bob Feller and certain New York tabloid sportswriters disparaging Jackie Robinson's abilities, claiming he wasn't really of major-league calibre; and I realized (not for the first time) that Obama, like Jackie, would have to be twice as good as everybody else to get the same amount of respect.

I will spend Arnold's five dollars with great pleasure.

[The music, appropriate to the situation, is from the CD shown below: Becky Kilgore, vocal; Dan Barrett, trombone; Eddie Erickson, guitar; Joel Forbes, bass; Jeff Hamilton, drums.]

Tuesday, 26 March 2013


Fritz Wunderlich (1930-1966)
In the late 1960s-early 70s when we were living on Eastern Parkway and Brooklyn Baby really was a baby, I used to listen to a classical disc jockey known simply as Watson. It was Watson who introduced me to the glories of the tragically short-lived tenor Fritz Wunderlich. If I remember correctly, Watson's program on WNCN ran from 10 or 11 p.m. to 6 a.m., so it wasn't unusual to hear him just before going to sleep, then again during breakfast the next morning before catching the subway to work. As "dessert," Watson would often end the program with a memorial tribute to Wunderlich, who'd been killed in 1966, age 36, in a fall from a stairway in a friend's hunting lodge. Nearly half a century after Watson's early-morning "desserts," Wunderlich continues to enrich my musical life.

The Wunderlich repertoire, ranging from the 17th century to the 20th, was not that of your typical superstar tenor. He sang Bach, Gluck, and Handel, Schubert and Schumann lieder, Mahler, Richard Strauss, Alban Berg. Above all, he was the greatest Mozart tenor I've ever heard.

International celebrity is not usually the reward of the Mozart tenor, even a great one. In an aria such as Tamino's Dies Bildnis ist bezaubernd schön from The Magic Flute, you can't hide behind emotive vocal gimmicks, or dazzle with elaborate ornamentation, or bring down the house with a succession of high C's. The unadorned melodic line fully exposes the singer's control, lyrical technique, and purity of tone.

When sung at its indicated tempo, andante sostenuto, Don Ottavio's "simple" aria Dalla sua pace from Mozart's Don Giovanni is a fiendishly difficult challenge -- and a thankless one, as its emotional climax requires the tenor to nail extraordinarily low notes (from 3:45 on). (Pavarotti rarely ventured into Mozart. When he recorded this aria, the tempo was a bit fast, ignoring the sostenuto part, thus slighting the sheer nobility of the melody.)

Wunderlich was also the definitive interpreter of lighter, more popular European fare, including operetta favorites by Lehár and Kálmán. Here, mit schmaltz, is a beautiful example: Leo Irwin's Ich küsse Ihre Hand, Madame.

Leo Fall's O Rose von Stambul.

Now if you're wearing socks, grip them tightly lest they be knocked off by the Wunderlich version of Agustin Lara's Granada.

Sunday, 10 February 2013

Got a penny, Benny? Not in Canada.

The Canadian government has eliminated the penny. From now on, all prices will be rounded up or down to the nearest nickel. Since it costs 1.6 cents to manufacture each penny, this sounds like an eminently sensible step to take.

I won't miss the coin. When pennies accumulate in your pocket -- and they do -- the results are unsightly and unwieldy; they bulge, weigh a lot, and make more meaningful coins more difficult to find. Eventually the pennies get transferred to a desk drawer, where with the passing years the collection grows ever larger.

When the penny's demise was announced, Brooklyn Girl and I lugged our weighty sack of coins of the realm to a supermarket, where we dumped them into a huge penny-counting machine and wound up with about forty bucks. I felt as if a great weight had been lifted from us. I was right. Now I can shop with a light heart, and pockets to match.

I wonder what you benighted, penny-laden souls south of the border -- you with the holes in your pockets -- think of this development. A nickel for your thoughts.

(The music: Nat King Cole, piano and vocal; Oscar Moore, guitar; Johnny Miller, bass; 1943.)

Thursday, 7 February 2013

Swing along with Oscar

Because of Brooklyn Baby's love of guitar wizardry (which on this blog constitutes "overwhelming popular demand") it's time to revisit Oscar Alemán, last showcased here.

The producers of this excellent two-CD set have included in the booklet the above transcription of Alemán's solo on Sweet Sue, recorded in 1938 -- your chance to read along or play along or, if you're Annie Ross, sing along with Oscar. As interesting as it is to see the shape of his improvisation, a transcription conveys just a fraction of a great jazz performance. What you won't see in black-and-white is that wondrous Alemán sound, vibrato, and sense of swing.

Svend Asmussen

Alemán's playmates on this occasion were Svend Asmussen, violin; Henry Hageman, tenor sax; Helge Jacobsen, rhythm guitar; Alfred Rasmussen, bass; Bibi Miranda, drums. If ever there was proof that jazz is the quintessentially American music, this is it: an Argentinian guitarist, Danish violinist, Brazilian drummer, plus four other musicians of Scandinavian origin, recorded in Copenhagen.

Wednesday, 9 January 2013

"I really love that music... i don't know why, I'm 15 years old!"

The Boswell Sisters: Helvetia ("Vet"), Martha, and Connie.

We were still living on Eastern Parkway in Brooklyn when I bought my first Boswell Sisters LP, so my love affair with them goes back at least forty years. The Boswells recorded in the early 1930s, but age cannot wither, nor custom stale their infinite variety (as some fellow once said). The Boswells didn't just sing songs; they interpreted, reinterpreted, and audaciously reinvented them, usually accompanied by the likes of the Dorsey brothers (then young, unknown studio musicians), Joe Venuti, Eddie Lang, Bunny Berigan, and Manny Klein. Each Boswell performance is a musical adventure, a suite in miniature with changes of tempo and mood, soulful solos by the incomparable Connie, shifts from major to minor and back again, and unexpected forays into the blues, all presented with unfailing musicianship and swing.

For decades many fans and historians, obsessed with categories like "pop" and "jazz," didn't know quite what to say about the unclassifiable Boswells - and not knowing what to say, they said very little. Happily, this situation, customarily known as "shameful neglect," has been changing for the better. Devoting seven insightful pages to them, Richard Sudhalter is the first jazz historian I've read to give the Boswells their just due. More heartening news: in a lovely interview, here, with Vet's granddaughter Kyla Titus, we learn that a Boswell Sisters documentary and book are coming. I can hardly wait.

This renewed interest in the Boswells would be meaningless, solely the domain of specialists and nostalgists, if their music didn't still have the power to charm and thrill and delight us. To me the most moving testimony to the Boswell Sisters' enduring appeal can be found in the spontaneous comments from viewers -- most of them Boswell newbies -- accompanying this YouTube clip of Crazy People from the 1932 movie The Big Broadcast.

"I really love that music... i don't know why, I'm 15 years old!"

"Beyond great!!!!!!!!!!!"

"Wow! This is good. I'm 13 years and i think todays music industry sucks. If i ever be a singer, which i hope, then i would like to be like the boswell sisters or andrews sisters. Not like todays talentless singers."

"No one can pull off something like this today as there is TOO much 'affectation' and trying to sound rock-ish or like soul singers with lot's of vocal tricks. Don't get me wrong, there are amazing talents today, but, THEY ARE ALL ALIKE! It's like it's either gangster rap or pop poop. LOVE the old gems like this where folks just got into the real music and wow'd ya! Very cool!"

"I listen to this way too many times a day! :)"

"I wish we listened to more stuff like this... i mean this is REAL talent! :)"

"crazy people like me love this....thank you for the best trio ever."

"Im in highschool and i luv this and no one else does..."

"You know, rap isn't the only kind of modern music."

"These ladies were so cool!"

"They sound incredible! What ever happened to this music? Now it's about killing people and getting high. So sad. I love the '20's and '30's music!"

"This is much sexier than the music videos they make nowadays - because them girls who drag themselves nekked on the floor don't nearly have as much talent, so you're not gonna feel any affection towards them"

"what a cute song. i'm a really new bozzies fan, i mean i just literally got into them yesterday. i love that's how rhythm was born and the object of my affection. and THIS."

"Damn, wish I was born 80 years earlier... incredible stuff and real musicians who can actually sing and aren't just eye candy."

"This is just insanely good. I'm staggered by the technicality and ease with which they pull it off every time I watch it."

"i love this song sooooooo much and this is coming from a teenager, they sure could rock it out for it being 1930 somethin'. But that connee sure could belt on out"

"I'm only 15 years old, but I love music like this."

"usually i listen 2 hip hop but dats sum good music."

"i cant hold back the tears. It is sad that beautiful music like this doesnt exist anymore.The music industry just goes down hill from year to year..... I will forever love the Boswell Sisters and the Andrews Sisters!! BTW...I aint old people. I am still young and only 23yrs old."

"Christ in Heaven this is the greatest two minutes of my life. This humbles all of rock n roll, it is so daamn funky. Jesus Joseph this could beat The Devil in a song contest."

"I've watched this video every day for the past 5 days and i still can't get enough of it. Perfect in every sense of the word."

"Really enjoy there style and I just found out about them. So many years I didn't even know they existed! Wow!"

 The ending was awesome! oh and they're gorgeous too"

"So amazing, I want to scream! They sing together like one instrument - brings tears to my eyes!"

"Why? Dear GOD, Why? Can`t People Sing Like This Today? So Many Times Singers Today Use Unnessary Voice Tricks, And Have No Soul. These Girls Had IT All."

"wowza - can't get this brilliant tune outa my head! thanks so much for sharing it - i'd never ever heard it before..."

"Damn! They are SO GREAT!!! SO tight, SSSOOO in tune, GREAT arrangement!"

Here's the only comment I felt compelled to edit. One YT viewer of Crazy People looked at the total number of "likes" (many) and "dislikes" (one) and said:

"1 dislike!!?? what m************* piece of s*** disliked this song!!!!!!"

Finally, this plaintive request:

"i want theyr autograph."

You want? You got.

If you're hearing the Boswells for the first time and find yourself hooked, my advice is simple. Sample them on YouTube, then buy or download their records. All of them. Read all you can about them. Your next forty years will be enriched, just as my last forty years have been.

To get you started, here's Sentimental Gentleman From Georgia. I love the introduction led by Larry Binyon's flute. (Is this the first recorded jazz flute solo? Inquiring minds want to know.)

Duke Ellington's Mood Indigo in which Connie reinvents the second strain as a 12-bar blues.

River, Stay 'Way From My Door, with Tommy Dorsey's trombone deliciously quoting Swanee River as a counter-melody.

Finally, the Boswells' theme song, Shout, Sister, Shout.