Tag Archives: listening

LISTENING, ACTUALLY

Ear-FX

Music is so pervasive that I wonder that we ever hear any of it.  For this post, I am even ignoring the phenomenon of everyone-wearing-earbuds-all-the-time.

But when we tell ourselves we are listening to music, what are we really doing?

The act of listening — immersing myself in — a particular recording has been a salvation for me for the past five decades.  And people who were dead years before I was born, people whom I never got to encounter, have become familiar friends.  Sitting down and doing nothing else but hearing what’s there is a deep pleasure.

But even I have to remind myself to slow down and focus on the sound, rather than playing the CD while driving, while writing emails, while cooking.

Even when we get rid of the pretense of multi-tasking (for the neurologists tell it is nothing but pretense) listening is not something we are accustomed to.

When I sit down to listen to a cherished recording — say, the 1940 Benny Goodman – Charlie Christian – Cootie Williams – Count Basie – George Auld – Artie Bernstein – Harry Jaeger ROYAL GARDEN BLUES — all sorts of unrequested associations come into my mind.

Personal: recalling the feel and heft of the original recording; what it was like to be in my upstairs bedroom listening to this; memories of discovering Charlie Christian’s music.

At the same time, there is a clamor of anecdotes and personalities: Goodman, scrambled eggs and catsup; Christian, tuberculosis, the rumor of odd clothing, eyeglasses; John Hammond, and so on.

Then there is the mind classifying and “analyziing”: how this ROYAL GARDEN sits in the long history of performances of this blues; its tempo; how Basie shapes it into one of “his” performances; Auld’s absorption of Ben Webster, and more.

It’s remarkable that the music — remember the music? — has a chance of getting through this amiable mental clamor, the “thought” equivalent of the puppy room at the animal shelter.  Can we actually hear what Charlie Christian is playing, given the amount of yapping and frisking around that the mind is doing at the same time?

So I would propose an experiment.  It isn’t a Down Beat Blindfold Test, because so much of that “test” was based on Being Right, as if listening was a quiz show.

I would ask JAZZ LIVES readers, whenever they can, to actually do the unfamiliar: to take a recording that they believe they know well and sit down and listen intently to it as if they had never heard it before.  If what we call “thoughts” come in, push them away and start the recording over.  I think I can guarantee that the experience will not simply be familiar, but deep and in some ways new, that layers and aspects of that recording, subliminally taken in but never really heard before, will spring to life.

Here’s ROYAL GARDEN BLUES, if you’d like to try it out:

(I purposely picked the video of the spinning red-label Columbia 78 for sentimental reasons.  Of course you can listen to it in the highest fidelity possible . . . )

If we could actually listen to the music we so love, as opposed to trotting out our familiar associations, what wonders might we hear?

May your happiness increase!

NOW HEAR THIS: Hal Smith and “OH, KATHARINA!”

 I’d posted this YouTube clip of the JAM SESSION AT COMMODORE (1943) on OH, KATHARINA! in my recent tribute to Sidney Catlett, who would have been one hundred years ago on January 17, 2010.  Here it is again, for a different reason.  Listeners like myself have spent their lives drinking in the sounds — as a child I would put my head against the cloth of the speaker grille — but I know that we don’t listen in the same way musicians do. 

So it’s a particular pleasure to be able to reprint drummer and jazz scholar Hal Smith’s “close reading” of this performance, with special emphasis on Sidney’s playing within and through it.  The piece was published in the Bulletin of the Hot Club of France, and it’s a joy:

OH, SID!

By Hal Smith

 A majority of jazz fans would probably agree that Sidney “Big Sid” Catlett was one of the greatest drummers of all time—if not the greatest! Many of Sid’s recordings have been written about at length, but one of his masterpieces is seldom mentioned: “Oh, Katharina” (recorded for Commodore 2 Dec. 1943 with Eddie Condon’s Band). Sid’s playing is so exemplary on this side that it cannot be ignored.

Condon had some exceptional musicians on the session. Joining the guitarist/leader and Catlett were: Max Kaminsky-cornet; Benny Morton-trombone; Pee Wee Russell-clarinet; Joe Bushkin-piano; and Bob Casey-bass. (Catlett had worked with Russell, Kaminsky and Condon since 1933. He knew exactly what to play to bring out the best in all three).

 The other tunes recorded on 2 December were jazz standards—“Rose Room,” “Basin Street Blues” and “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down And Out.” “Oh, Katharina” was definitely the odd number. Supposedly it was a favorite of Bix Beiderbecke’s. That must be the reason it was included on this date, for it has little to offer as a vehicle for swinging or improvising. The melody is uninspiring and the lack of melodic or chordal movement makes it difficult to keep one’s place in the song.

On the master take, the full ensemble plays the first chorus. The chosen tempo is edgy and despite Condon’s strong 4/4 guitar, Casey’s powerful bass and Sid’s wide-open hi-hat and rim shots the band sounds uncomfortable. Bushkin plays the second chorus and the leader temporarily drops out. Almost instantly, the tempo seems to float downward, gently. (Perhaps Sid made eye contact with Bushkin or Casey?) However it happened, the tempo change brings a collective sigh of relief and the proceedings begin to swing. For the first half of the piano chorus, Sid varies the hi-hat beat from what he used on the first chorus. Instead of open and ringing, he plays the cymbals open-and-closed, gently accenting the second and fourth beats. A stinging rim shot launches the second half and a move to ride cymbal, with rim shots in unexpected places.

With the tempo now settled, Condon re-enters the rhythm section in time for Pee Wee Russell’s chorus. Sid tightens things up, playing closed hi-hat, acting as interested listener in a conversation with Russell. However, some well-placed rim shots act as a safety net in the most abstract moments of the dialogue (bars 15-16).

Next, Kaminsky and Morton split a chorus, which also has a conversational quality. Max seems to be telling a story and Sid’s perfectly-timed rim shots (bars 8-9, 11-12) are the approbation. Benny Morton was another old friend of Catlett’s. By 1943, the drummer knew instinctively how to back the great trombonist and actually anticipates Morton’s phrasing on bar 24.

Finally, it is Sid Catlett’s turn to solo and what a solo it is!!! With Bushkin providing discreet stoptimes, Sid begins with solid quarter notes, leading into a barrage of double-stroke rolls (bars 1-4). There is a double-time feel, but Sid feints doubling that meter for just an instant (bars 5-8). Next, his incredible hand-to-foot coordination is displayed by his use of bass drum accents and rhythmic patterns on a choke cymbal (bars 9-12). The virtuoso solo takes on a dense texture, redolent of Chick Webb (bars 13-16) then comes a sudden release of tension and eighth notes between rim shots and bass drum (bars 17-18). Bars 19-20 call to mind Catlett’s early inspiration, Zutty Singleton. Sid keeps Zutty’s style going through bar 27, with accented rolls and bass drum “bombs.” The solo comes to a magnificent climax in a crescendo of accented triplets.

Kaminksy, obviously inspired by what he just heard, tears into the final chorus even before the end of the drum solo! With the tempo in just the right spot, the band is on fire! The final ensemble is underpinned by Sid’s ringing hi-hat and on bar 12 he adds the perfect touch—solid afterbeat rim shots—played to the conclusion of the rideout chorus. The proceedings end with a wide-open cymbal crash and a bass drum “button.”

Sid Catlett’s monumental drumming on “Oh, Katharina” is a genuine work of art. In this writer’s opinion it ranks with “Steak Face,” “Rose Room,” “46 West 52,” “Hallelujah,” “Sleep,” “I Never Knew” and “Afternoon Of A Basie-ite” as one of Catlett’s greatest recordings. It should be heard by every jazz enthusiast!