Daily Archives: December 12, 2014

WHAT DOES THE CAMERA SEE? LEE WILEY’S LOVE LIFE IN PHOTOGRAPHS

The endearing singer Lee Wiley was said to have legendary erotic energies, but they are not my subject.

Rather, I present to you two public photographs just encountered on eBay — each one oddly evocative, both presenting and concealing.

The first finds Miss Wiley with the composer Victor Young — a publicity shot from the early Thirties (circa 1934-6) for Al Jolson’s radio program SHELL CHATEAU:

LEE WILEY VICTOR YOUNG large

and the slip glued to the photograph’s back:

LEE WILEY VICTOR YOUNG large backThat photograph has an understandable stiffness: two musicians caught in the act of pretending to rehearse.  Everything is too neat: the “informal” clothing; the way that they are both looking at the camera while trying not to — not at each other.  I can hear the photographer: “Look like you’re singing, Lee.  Victor, don’t look down at the piano.  Look as if you’re accompanying her but don’t look at her.”

From this photograph, one wouldn’t know that Lee and Victor were “an item,” lovers for a long time.  There was a Mrs. Young, but the Wiley-Young affair was known among musicians.  The photograph of “Lee Wiley . . . and her old maestro” doesn’t even look as if they knew each other before this session. The truth of Lee and Victor — one of the possible truths — would not have been captured for the public eye.  Is it fitting that Lee and Victor made music together most frequently for records and radio broadcasts, where they would have been heard but never seen?

Slightly less than a decade later, another uncomfortable photograph freezes a present moment and accurately forecasts a less happy future:

LEE AND JESS 1943 largeGranted, wedding pictures do not always catch the moment in authentic ways, but the body language of this couple is less than ardent: their hands barely touch, their gazes are remote.  Even the text of the press release is more concerned with Lieut. Boettcher than with Jess Stacy, a great artist and a gentle man but hardly a “member of a wealthy Denver family.”  (Was this Charles Boettcher II, who had been kidnapped in 1933 and a $60,000 ransom paid?)

LEE AND JESS large back

The back of the picture tells its own story.  The marriage did not last five years.

These photographs come from the files of J. Walter Thompson.  Years later, an administrative assistant went through the files with a rubber stamp, noting the DECEASED — a job with certain melancholy overtones.  (I think of Bartelby in the Dead-Letter Office.)  Someone on eBay will buy these as cheerful nostalgic artifacts.

Music, Maestro, please?

CARELESS LOVE is from 1934 — Lee, with Victor directing.

SUGAR is from a 1944 Eddie Condon Town Hall concert / radio broadcast (Ernie Caceres, clarinet).

And — since I can’t see it too often — here is Joe Rushton’s home movie of Lee and Jess, newly married, walking down the street.  Is it the same day as the press photograph? Lee has on a different outfit; Jess wears what seems to be the same double-breasted suit.  Consider what this shows of their marriage.

Does the camera capture only a moment of staged reality or does it show more than we know at the time?

May your happiness increase!

THE TRUE SPARK: MARIANNE SOLIVAN’S NEW CD

MARIANNE SOLIVAN

Thanks to the splendid pianist Michael Kanan, I am very proud that I was captivated by the singer Marianne Solivan as far back as the spring of 2011. Here are Ms. Solivan and Mr. Kanan in performance then:

Notice her delicate intensity, her strength of conviction — authentic rather than put-on-for-effect — her witty tenderness, her elastic yet perfectly respectful phrasing . . . Marianne is a model of joyously inventive improvisatory singing, her sweet candor transforming any song.

Her belief in the lyrics, her immersion in the emotions of the song, her courageous yet friendly bending of the original melodic line — all of these virtues make her singing entrancing.

Here is a later Solivan-Kanan medley about enduring romance:

I followed Marianne to a number of gigs at Smalls and Iridium in those years, and I continue to take pleasure in her first CD, PRISONER OF LOVE.  Here is the title track (a song I love, thanks at first to Lester Young and Russ Columbo):

You might not initially notice that the “new” verse, perfectly appropriate and deeply felt, is Marianne’s own composition — which points to another talent.

Hearing these venerable songs, treated as if they were new, one might be tempted to assign Marianne her own little cubbyhole: “She sings the Great American Songbook with a twist.”  But she is and does more than that.  (Although I have heard her perform Annie Ross’ TWISTED, which may count for something in the imagined taxonomy.)

SPARK

This year, she created and produced her second CD, SPARK (Hipnotic Records) — compelling yet light on its feet.  Here’s a video that will give you a taste of the disc’s riches.  One of the songs is THE HUMDRUM BLUES, but nothing about this effort is in the least monotonous.

Although I’ve heard Marianne favor dark, pensive songs, SPARK is lively and energized.  She has power, but it’s never being wielded against an audience.

SPARK starts off immediately at a high level — with the title song, which Marianne created, words and music.  Unlike many singer-songwriters, she is not attempting to fit words and notes into a conventional box.  Her songs sound much more like conversations with an audience — or the listeners — or someone being wooed.  Her lyrics might use conventional phrases, but they are always arranged in new ways, without formal reliance on end-rhymes.

The song SPARK depicts the heady beginning of a romance; FIRST DESIRE (Marianne’s setting for the Lorca poem) is a rumination, full of images and evocations, music and lyrics evoking exalted states.  IF I WERE TO LOVE YOU is a paean to love’s magic in the natural world, although voiced in the subjunctive.  ON A CLEAR NIGHT meditates on a love affair tenuously balanced between past happiness and present erosion. THE DOVE, a collaboration between Marianne and pianist Xavier Davis, seems a twisting, intense carpe diem — don’t neglect love!  Marianne’s compositions do not reveal themselves immediately, but each re-examination offers new levels of emotion and intelligence.

The other songs on this disc are wonderfully varied. There’s Oscar Brown, Jr.’s sharp-edged HUMDRUM BLUES (which has a touch of hope if one gets through the complaints of the lyrics); Francesca Blumenthal’s darkly ambivalent THE LIES OF HANDSOME MEN.

Marianne also gives her own singular transformation to songs associated with others: the sardonic modern folk song TENDER AS A ROSE (Abbey Lincoln), which sits somewhere between an unwritten PORGY AND BESS song and FRANKIE AND JOHNNY; I WANNA BE AROUND (Tony Bennett) which has a violent swinging energy, suggesting that Marianne could be dangerous if crossed, although she’d never diminish her rhythmic energy in the midst of taking revenge; a very brisk THIS IS NEW, rescued from those singers who have turned it into a moony dirge in opposition to the exultant lyrics.  Ruben Blades’ EL CANTANTE (THE SINGER) is beautifully sung in Spanish — truly evocative — and Marianne explains the lyrics in part in the video.

Singing Loesser’s WHAT ARE YOU DOING NEW YEAR’S EVE? she rescues this song and brings a tender sweetness to the title — making the question vibrant yet fragile.  OOH, WHAT’CHA DOIN’ TO ME, by Timmie Rogers, is a Forties trifle that offers Marianne the opportunity to play — she never copies Billie, early or late, but I think of WHAT A LITTLE MOONLIGHT CAN DO as the only parallel to Marianne’s evident delight.

SPARK is buoyed by Marianne’s joy in the music, but also by the evident joy in the studio, as Marianne and her working band take pleasure in creating together. They are Xavier Davis, piano; Matthew Parrish, string bass; Gregory Hutchinson, drums.  The instrumental settings are fresh: one never thinks of “singer plus rhythm trio,” but rather of four musicians on an equal footing.  The CD is splendidly recorded by Joe Marciano and Max Ross, with excellent liner notes by drummer Lewis Nash.

SPARK is never formulaic, but it is not oddly or whimsically “innovative” in offputting ways.  Marianne’s inventiveness is refreshing throughout, but her music will not scare anyone off.  She always sounds like herself, which is delightfully reassuring.  I am happy to experience her blossoming creativity, and I look forward to more surprises.

SPARK is available in all the old familiar places: CDBaby, Amazon, iTunes, but I suggest you begin your investigation here — you can learn more about Marianne, keep up with her schedule, perhaps take a class with her (she is a most respected and beloved teacher of singers), and more.

Here and here are Facebook pages where you’ll find Marianne . . . but the best way to experience her magic is to buy her CDs and meet her at a gig.  Whichever comes first or is more convenient is the one I recommend to you.  Don’t wait until she is booked into huge concert halls and the security prevents your getting close to the stage . . . catch her now.

May your happiness increase!