Tag Archives: rhythm ballads

GENTLY, THERE: TWO RHYTHM BALLADS BY MAX KEENLYSIDE (Scott Joplin International Ragtime Festival, May 31-June 2, 2018)

I don’t know what you were doing in 1991, but the young man pictured above — Canadian pianist / composer Max Keenlyside — was busy being born, which makes his remarkable talent even more remarkable.  I had the good fortune and immense pleasure of meeting and hearing Max for the first time at the Scott Joplin International Ragtime Festival in Sedalia, Missouri, just a few days ago, and you’ll hear why I am impressed.  Here you can learn more about Max.

What struck me immediately about Max was his gracious balance of technique and taste.  He can play with incredible dexterity and skill — as fast as you could want, never faltering — but he has something much rarer, which is the understanding that quiet music, sweet sounds usually reach far deeper into our souls than do pyrotechnics.  So I bring Max to you as a subtle wooer, a creator of inviting worlds of sound — specifically, his performances of two “rhythm ballads.” That’s an archaic term, and I don’t know who coined it, but it comes from the Thirties, where musicians played a tender song and made sure to send the emotions to the listeners, but kept a danceable pulse going all the time.

A few words about the music.  IT’S ONLY A PAPER MOON, by Harold Arlen and E.Y. Harburg, is one of my favorite songs, and I wrote about it here.  I invite you to read that post — skip my prose if you’re in a hurry — but listen to Cliff Edwards and Dick McDonough, performing not only the chorus but the verse. But for now, Max, gently proceeding through the song, with a few nods to T. Waller, honoring the melody with delight and amusement:

I’LL FOLLOW YOU, by Roy Turk and Fred Ahlert, might be known to piano scholars and Commodore Records devotees through the 1939 recording by Willie “the Lion” Smith, but I first fell in love with the song through Bing Crosby’s version when it was a new pop hit.

Here’s Max. What could be nicer than the affectionate words about his mother?

The artist Aubrey Beardsley is supposed to have told the young W.B. Yeats, “Beauty is so very difficult,” and we must imagine all the possible tones of voice those words could have been said in — but young Max already knows a great deal about making beauty alive and accessible to anyone with ears and emotions.

May your happiness increase!

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BY THE LIGHT OF LOUIS

LOUIS and ALPHA and dog

I’ve written this before, but when I hear Louis Armstrong, I have great difficulty keeping myself from standing up instantly and putting my hand over my heart.

LOUIS cartoon in Melody Maker Jan. 1933

But I also feel that way about music that reminds me of Louis.  I don’t simply mean WHEN IT’S SLEEPY TIME DOWN SOUTH or THE FAITHFUL HUSSAR, but any music that’s beautifully and reverently played, with emphasis on melodic improvisation in swing.  That happens fairly regularly, thank goodness, with the musicians I follow.  And it happened most beautifully at the end of the 2015 Allegheny Jazz Party (now the Cleveland Classic Jazz Party) during the closing ballad medley.

I know that Norman Granz got the credit for introducing the ballad medley to jazz concerts — that is, rather than have everyone on stage take a long solo on a ballad, thus making for a musical interlude of nearly an hour at a slow tempo, he would have his soloists take one chorus only on a ballad that they’d chosen, with the rhythm section keeping the same slow tempo but changing key — but I wonder if credit shouldn’t go first or simultaneously to Eddie Condon, for whom this was a regular feature in clubs and broadcasts and even recordings.  Condon’s medleys were a bit more brisk — what generations ago musicians and listeners called “rhythm ballads” — but they were delightful interludes.

Joe Boughton, founder of the Allegheny Jazz Party (and Jazz at Chautauqua and other gifts) would have followed the Condon model — I think JATP was anathema to him.  Since he loved obscure show tunes and songs that would otherwise be forgotten, he insisted that his parties close with an extended ballad medley before a final jam tune.

A beautiful evocation of what Riley and Clint Baker call LOUISNESS happened once again at the 2015 Party (September 13, 2015) when all the musicians trooped onstage to play or sing one heartfelt chorus.  Here are six of the best: soloists Scott Robinson, tenor [WAS I TO BLAME?}; Duke Heitger, trumpet [BODY AND SOUL]; Jon-Erik Kellso, trumpet [HOME] with lovely rhythm section support from Rossano Sportiello, piano; Frank Tate, string bass; Hal Smith, drums.

I think of Joe Oliver sternly telling his protege that people wanted to hear that lead . . . and of Louis always embodying that the song was lovely and that one had to play it from the heart.

What music is all about; what music does at its best.

May your happiness increase!