Sprezzatura was coined by Castiglione in THE BOOK OF THE COURTIER (a Renaissance how-to book for upwardly mobile professionals of the time). It meant the ideal of making difficult things look easy, hiding your art behind a sweetly convincing nonchalance. I think of Bing Crosby, pretending that he was just naturally singing, concealing just how much skill went into every note, and other masters. Consider Eddie Condon, Sidney Catlett, Lee Wiley, Lester Young.
Fortunately for us, the concept didn’t die out in the Renaissance, nor is it an abstraction known only to English majors. The most gratifying musicians now playing and singing embody sprezzatura, even if they do not aspire to be successful courtiers.
Here are Rebecca Kilgore and Raymond “Duke” Heitger, brought together last September at Jazz at Chautauqua for a playfully reverent tribute to Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong.
Becky and Duke don’t show off; they don’t “imitate” in some coarse, effortful way. There’s no mugging, no virtuosic displays of scatting. Rather, they subtly shine their own light through the music, lightly embodying all the virtues of Ella and Louis — their love, amusement, affection, and swing — while remaining themselves.
And John Sheridan (piano); Jon Burr (string bass); John Von Ohlen (drums) help Becky and Duke convey their swinging nonchalance to great effect.
Here’s Irving Berlin’s ISN’T IT A LOVELY DAY? — an easily answerable (rhetorical) question, when the song is performed with such gliding grace:
And one of the high points of Jazz at Chautauqua and perhaps (for me) of 2011 — the Kilgore / Heitger evocation of YOU WON’T BE SATISFIED . . . a performance that hides how thin the original song is behind their essential warmth:
I’m more than satisfied!