Tag Archives: Yip Harburg

MUSIC WITH FRIENDS (Part One): MICHAEL KANAN, GREG RUGGIERO, NEAL MINER (The Drawing Room, January 8, 2018)

Michael Kanan prizes friendship very highly, and not in some abstract way.  He is a true Embracer, and his deep love of community lasts longer than a simple hug.  He showed us this once again a few Mondays ago at a little gathering at his Brooklyn studio, The Drawing Room.

Michael Kanan

Michael’s colleagues in melodic exploration were his friends and ours, Greg Ruggiero, guitar; Neal Miner, string bass: each of them a thoughtful swinging intuitive orchestra in himself.

Greg Ruggiero

It was a jam session evening, so even though this trio played six songs (you’ll have the first three here) it wasn’t a mini-recital, more a gathering of friends who don’t get to play together often. They hadn’t played together in months, and after Michael had seen the videos, he called them “music in its raw natural state,” but it was an acknowledgment rather than a criticism.  I think of them as cherries picked from the tree, their stems still attached, as opposed to cherry pie filling from a can.

Neal Miner

Porter’s YOU DO SOMETHING TO ME:

Strayhorn’s TAKE THE A TRAIN:

Ellington’s I’M JUST A LUCKY SO-AND-SO:

When you’re invited to a party at Michael’s, you go home laden with gifts.

May your happiness increase!

ARTIFICE TRANSFORMED: CLIFF EDWARDS and DICK McDONOUGH, 1933

I spent some time yesterday morning trying to find in tangible shape what I could hear in my mind’s ear — a complete recording of what was a new song in 1933 — lyrics by E.Y. Harburg and perhaps Billy Rose, music by Harold Arlen — IT’S ONLY A PAPER MOON, sung and played by Cliff Edwards with accompaniment by Dick McDonough, guitar. Yes, it’s on YouTube, but because reissues removed the verse, those video postings are unsatisfying.


Since the Forties, the song has been performed without the verse, as above, and in the most famous recordings by Sinatra / Nat Cole / Ella / Goodman, at a swinging medium-up tempo, which to me undermines its sweet flavor.  The version I present here is a tender love ballad, hopeful rather than swaggering.

The Wikipedia entry notes, “It was written originally for an unsuccessful Broadway play called The Great Magoo, set in Coney Island. It was subsequently used in the movie Take a Chance in 1933.”  Wikipedia doesn’t add that there seem to have been two films released that year with that title; the other one with James Dunn and Buddy Rogers, the one song in the film by Vincent Youmans.  In his book AMERICAN POPULAR SONG, Alec Wilder notes that in its first incarnation it was called IF YOU BELIEVE IN ME, a much less lively title than the one we know.

The composer credits intrigue me: Arlen’s melody, of course, souunds so simple but that simplicity has made it memorable (thus the appeal of the song to instrumentalists).  He didn’t write dull songs.

As to the lyrics, I wonder what, if anything, Billy Rose contributed to the song. Did he say to a stagehand, “Don’t drop that!  Yeah, it’s only a paper moon, but it costs more than your salary!”  Or is it a quiet reference to the wonderful prop in photo studios of the preceding century, where couples could snuggle in the crescent curve, pretending to be miles aloft because of love?

Yip Harburg’s lyrics are a marvel, bridging contemporary and eternal in the most moving yet casual way.  Leave aside “bubble” and “rainbow,” which were cliches even then, but savor “a temporary parking place,” “a canvas sky,” — and the entire bridge, which is beautiful, affecting and sharp, ” “Without your love, it’s a honky-tonk parade.  Without your love, it’s a melody played in a penny arcade.” Urban folk poetry at the highest level.  (Wilder calls the lyrics “innocent,” which is puzzling, but he admires Arlen’s bridge . . . .)  In Harburg, I hear his sense of a whole world no more grounded than a series of stage props, created to fool an audience but clearly unreal.  His words are Manhattan-tough but the toughness is there only to convey great wistful feeling.  You’d have to live in the city to understand the resonance of a temporary parking place; not only might it disappear, but you might be punished by the authorities.

A few sentences about Cliff Edwards, who seems a sculpture with so many surprising facets that when he is looked at from different angles, he is unrecognizable each time.

There’s Jiminy Cricket. There’s the goofily appealing Twenties vocalist, ukulele player, and scat singer — “eefin'” his way through one “novelty” chorus after another, often on dim-sounding Pathe 78s.  (I suspect that if Edwards had come to prominence ten years later and had had no ukulele, he would be much better known and regarded today.)  A comic film actor. There are the party records: I LOVE MOUNTAIN WOMEN comes to mind, and, yes, you can imagine the lyrics.  Later, there’s the unstable older man capering around with the Mouseketeers, and what we know of as the terrible husband and self-destructive alcoholic who dies in poverty.

But what I’ve consciously left off of that ungenerous list is Edwards the truly convincing ballad singer, someone whose wistful voice and sweet delivery stays in my ear.  He never got the attention or opportunities to woo audiences, perhaps because he had natural comic talents, but more, I think, because he wasn’t perceived as sufficiently handsome.  He could not rival Bing or Russ in erotic power, so in films and on records he was rather a light-hearted comic foil instead of the leading man.  Alas, audiences in the  Twenties and Thirties — as they do today — tend to listen to singers with their eyes rather than their ears.  I suppose that becoming Jiminy Cricket was a great thing for Edwards’ career, but being invisible and an animated insect did not help him as a romantic singing star.

But back to IT’S ONLY A PAPER MOON.

Thanks to the generosity of Laurie Kanner and Jonathan Alexiuk, I can offer both takes, complete, to be accessed at https://archive.org/details/CliffEdwardsCollection1927-1933/ItsOnlyAPaperMoon1933CliffEdwards-Take1.mp3 — a collection of mp3’s of his complete 1927-1935 recordings.

I’ve left the whole ungainly web address visible so that if the link doesn’t work for you, I encourage you to go to the archive.org site for Edwards and hear IT’S ONLY A PAPER MOON and more.

I think this performance is a model of the most endearing singing — he means every word, and it’s not by rote. It’s also the gentle tempo that I hear PAPER MOON at.  I haven’t analyzed these records nuance by nuance because they work their way into the heart instantly.  Or, if they don’t for you, listen intently, without distractions or preconceptions, from the rubato verse to the hip little ending.

In preparing this post, I shared these two sides with the fine guitarist and scholar Nick Rossi, a solid sender from San Francisco, who admires Dick McDonough as I do, and he wrote, “What a masterclass it is in sensitive guitar accompaniment to a vocal.”  And — we might add — in McDonough’s staying out of the way yet never upstaging Cliff’s ukulele.

But I keep coming back to the affectionate hopeful totality of Edwards, Arlen, Harburg, and even Billy Rose, who in these recordings say — no, sing — to us, “Love miraculously transfigures artifice,” which is a wondrous thought.  Cherish its power to create new realities.

May your happiness increase!

REBECCA KILGORE’S WISTFUL HEART (Mezzrow, January 18, 2017)

oz-large

Great artists make the familiar magically alive. Many of us have seen the film THE WIZARD OF OZ, perhaps as children, so the score is well-known. But at the beginning of 2017, January 18, to be precise, Rebecca Kilgore (accompanied by the imaginative Ehud Asherie) imbued the Harold Arlen – Yip Harburg song IF I ONLY HAD A HEART with yearning depths of feeling I’d never experienced before.

Rebecca said that she was inspired by the performance of the late Susannah McCorkle, but this is no copy of Susannah: it is a wistful journey all its own.  And it shows, in case anyone needed reminding, that Ms. Kilgore’s heart is large and generous.  I think she is singing better than ever; judge for yourselves.

(A word about that intrusive microphone stand: I knew it was there but didn’t feel right whispering between songs, “Could you move that stand out of the way?”  My error.  Close your eyes and listen.)

The Kilgore magic — heartfelt in many moods — is also evident on her most recent CD for Arbors Records, a duet with the splendid pianist Bernd Lhotzky, THIS AND THAT.  Here ‘s the link to purchase a copy or several.  I’ve been listening to Rebecca for years, and I think that this CD captures her voice and spirit perhaps better than any other release.  And that is saying a great deal.

this-and-that

I was honored to write a few words for this release.

You know those moments in conversation when communication truly works, so that simple words carry deeper meaning – when speaker and hearer get one another? This communion can happen when musicians who live their art deeply create a heartfelt kinship. This CD captures fifteen such lovely interludes created by a most empathic pair.

While we trot along in the nature preserve of song, Rebecca and Bernd point out rare flowers and wild asparagus we would otherwise have missed. Consider the song most familiar to you on this disc. Marvel at how fresh they make it. The opening phrases of SWEET AND LOVELY are a splendid example. Study Bernd’s solo interlude before the chorus of THE BEST THING FOR YOU, and Rebecca’s transformations of the repeated words in DO DO DO into something lively and elastic. Thanks to technology, you are free to play I’M SHOOTING HIGH twelve times in a row. It’s restorative, better than the reproachful Fitbit around your wrist. I remain entranced by the way these two turn the tick-tock-tick of the verse into the free and soaring chorus.

Listening and re-listening, I ask myself, “How do they know how to do that most exquisite wiggle right there?” One answer is that Bernd and Rebecca have spent their lives hard at work but also joyously at play in the music they love. So each song becomes a fully realized lyrical playlet, a three-minute world of feeling and swing. Some of the songs bubble with optimism and hope, an antidote to the day’s news. Others, somber and mournful, remind us that art transforms sorrow into something more. We feel the beauty of the lament, the sound of yearning.

I haven’t tried to explicate this music, since words can’t ever explain the sensations of the first bite of ripe fruit. But I am delighted and awed by what Rebecca and Bernd offer here. Who could want a sweeter surprise? Better yet, fifteen sweet surprises.

Rebecca knows the way into our hearts.  We welcome her in.

May your happiness increase!

WHEN LOVE LASTS: YAALA BALLIN and ARI ROLAND (2015)

Songwriters have always done well with the sudden romantic infatuation, the blinding green flash “across a crowded room.”  “And all at once I owned the earth and sky.”  But love that lasts when such mind-altering experiences have grown familiar is much more rarely a subject.  Oh, there’s WHEN YOU AND I WERE YOUNG, MAGGIE, but MAGGIE is no longer around to appreciate the encomium; there’s THE FOLKS WHO LIVE ON THE HILL, but that couple is also apparently fairly sedentary.

THEN I'LL BE TIRED OF YOU

The song that I think of with great affection is the 1934 THEN I’LL BE TIRED OF YOU, music by Arthur Schwartz, lyrics by Yip Harburg.  I heard it first in a rather irreverent version by Fats Waller (when the song was new) and later by Vic Dickenson and Joe Thomas — instrumental but deeply fervent.  The simple melody is memorable (Joe delighted in those repeated notes) yet for me what makes it complete is Harburg’s witty conceit: rather than attempt to revitalize “I will always love you,” he turns it on its head in the conditional: “I’ll weary of you when these improbable events happen, but not a second before.” High fidelity, and long-playing, too.

YAALA

Here’s a deliciously intimate version by the fine young singer Yaala Ballin and string bassist Ari Roland, recorded in December 2015 at The Drawing Room (video by the very gifted Neal Miner):

Even better than this video is the news that Yaala and Ari will be singing and playing on Sunday, June 19, at the pastoral hour of 3:30, at The Drawing Room (56 Willoughby Street, Brooklyn — right near a subway!)  Here are the details of that event.  And later on that same June 19, Lena Bloch, Russ Lossing, Cameron Brown, and Billy Mintz (the FEATHERY quartet) will be creating and improvising . . . from 7 PM on.

May your happiness increase!

TODD LONDAGIN’S EXTRAORDINARY RANGE: “LOOK OUT FOR LOVE”

I met and admired the trombonist and singer Todd Londagin several times in 2005 and onwards; he was one of the crew of cheerful individualists who played gleeful or dark music with the drummer Kevin Dorn.  A fine trombonist (with a seamless reach from New Orleans to this century) and an engaging singer, Todd is someone I have faith in musically.  But when I received his second CD, LOOK OUT FOR LOVE, I hardly expected it to be as remarkable as it is.

TODD LONDAGIN cover

On it, Todd sings and plays (occasionally doing both simultaneously, through an Avakian-like graceful use of multi-tracking . . . even sounding like Jay and Kai here and there), with a splendid small band: Pete Smith, guitar; Matt Ray, piano, Jennifer Vincent, string bass; David Berger, drums.  Singer Toby Williams joins in on BRAZIL.  The presentation is neither self-consciously sparse or overproduced. With all due respect to Todd, the foursome of Pete, Matt, Jennifer, and David could easily sustain their own CD or gig. I had only met Matt (unpredictable) and Jennifer (a swing heartbeat) in person, but this “rhythm section” is a wonderful — and quirky — democratic conversation of singular voices, each one of them a powerful yet gracious rhythm orchestra.

But I keep returning to Todd.  And his “extraordinary range” doesn’t refer to the notes he can hit on trombone or sing.  It’s really a matter of a deep emotional intelligence, and I can’t think of anyone who can equal him here. (That’s no stage joke.)

Consider these songs: LOOK OUT FOR LOVE / BYE BYE BABY / SOME OF THESE DAYS / BRAZIL / I CONCENTRATE ON YOU / LONG AGO AND FAR AWAY / PENNIES FROM HEAVEN / YOU GO TO MY HEAD / I CAN’T HELP IT / BUST YOUR WINDOWS.  The first two songs show off Todd’s sly, ingratiating self — witty and wily on the first (with a neo-Basie rock) and endearing on the second. Those who have to think of Echoes might hear Chet Baker, Harry Connick, Jr., a young Bob Dorough, or Dave Frishberg. I thought on the first playing and continue to think that if there were aesthetic justice in the world, the first two songs would be coming out of every car radio for miles.  (Todd would also be starring on every enlightened late-night television show, or do I dream?)

The pop classics that follow are always served with a twist — a slightly different tempo, a different rhythmic angle, a beautiful seriousness (I’ve never heard CONCENTRATE interpreted so well).

Maybe Todd is understandably afraid of being pigeonholed as Another Interpreter of The Great American Songbook — with all the attendant reverence and dismissal that comes with that assessment — so the closing songs are “more modern.”  I think he does Stevie Wonder’s I CAN’T HELP IT justice in his own light-hearted, sincere, swinging way.

I am not attuned to contemporary pop culture, except to cringe when I hear loud music coming from the car next to mine, so I had no historical awareness with which to approach BUST YOUR WINDOWS.

In fact, I thought the title would herald some exuberant love song, “My love for you is so strong, it’s going to bust your windows,” or something equally cheerful.

Thus I was horrified to hear Todd sing, “I had to bust the windows out your car,” and all my literate-snobbish-overeducated revulsion came to the surface, as I called upon the shades of Leo Robin and Yip Harburg to watch over me.

But then I calmed down and reminded myself just how much fun the preceding nine tracks had been, and that I would be very surprised if Todd — bowing to whatever notion of modernity — had gone entirely off the rails. And I listened to BUST YOUR WINDOWS again. And again. For those who don’t know the song, it was an immense hit for one Jazmine Sullivan in 2008, and there’s a YouTube video of her doing it. The premise is that the singer finds her lover has been untrue with another (not a new idea) but (s)he then takes a crowbar to her lover’s car so that her lover will know what faithlessness does to others. Tough love, indeed.  I researched Sullivan’s music video — where she is threatening to unzip herself to a tango / rhythm and blues beat — and disliked it.

But I had no patience for her rendition of her own song because I had been struck so powerfully by Todd’s — almost a stifled scream of brokenhearted passion worthy of a great opera’s finish before the grieving one, betrayed, commits suicide. Todd’s performance has no tango beat, no intrusive orchestration: he merely presents the lyrics and melody as if he is showing us his bleeding heart . . . as if he has used the crowbar on himself.  It is a performance both bone-dry and powerful, understated and unforgettable. I can’t forget it, just as I keep on wanting to replay LOOK OUT FOR LOVE.

You can find out more about Todd here, and after you’ve heard the three samples, I hope you will chase down a copy of this CD. It is wildly rewarding and beautifully-textured music, and it will stay with you when other CDs by more “famous” players and singers have grown tedious. I don’t like “best” or “favorite,” but this CD is magnificently musical in so many ways that it will astonish.

May your happiness increase!

MODERN MASTERS: SACHA PERRY, GRANT STEWART

Since many of the jazz musicians I revere are now dead, my musical immersions have a touch of necrology: this, I say, to someone, is the last recording ever made by Kid Lemon’s Happy Pals before the fatal club fire. Art blends with mourning and mortality — we can never hear Charlie Christian alive again! — to intensify the beauty of the music and our feeling of loss.

So it is both a pleasure and our responsibility to praise the living while they are still with us. The living, in this case, are pianist Sacha Perry and tenor saxophonist Grant Stewart, both often found playing at the darkly congenial Greenwich Village jazz club Smalls.

But my subject is two performances, found on separate CDs, less than fifteen minutes of music of a rare intensity: Perry’s trio exploration of the Depression lament, “Brother, Can You Spare A Dime”?” and Stewart’s “You’re My Thrill.”

Perry’s trio session (where he is joined by bassist Ari Roland and drummer Phil Stewart) came out on Not Brand X (Smalls Records srcd-0022). Perry has composed and recorded many originals, but this CD is devoted to standards by Porter, Rodgers, Gershwin. But these aren’t the same old jazz tunes-to-blow-on, nor are they treated in formulaic ways. “Brother, Can You Spare A Dime?” was a song rooted in a deep social awareness — Yip Harburg’s lyrics spring from the pageant of World War One veterans who were destitute in the early Thirties — and Jay Gorney’s strong melody verges on the operatic, as in Bing Crosby’s contemporaneous version, powerful and sad.

Perry takes this song at a properly elegiac tempo, reharmonizing its simple chords into granitic blocks, dense, weighty, and mournful. It becomes both dirge and angry protest: how could you have abandoned us? There are hints of Herbie Nichols, but Perry is blazing new trails, creating an intensely moving performance, serious, nearly grief-stricken.

Dark beauty of another kind comes through from the first notes of Grant Stewart’s “You’re My Thrill,” from his new CD, Young At Heart (Sharp Nine 1041), where he is joined by Tardo Hammer, Peter Washington, and Joe Farnsworth. Most listeners associate this song with Billie Holiday’s late-Forties Decca recording (I was astonished to learn that the song was written in 1933, also by Jay Gorney — are we on the verge of a Gorney renaissance? It wouldn’t be a bad idea: Count Basie, Jimmy Rushing, and Ruby Braff did great things with another Gorney song with a political edge, “It’s The Same Old South.”)

I heard this performance — without knowing the players — coming through my car radio while I was on my way to work — courtesy of WKCR’s longtime Tuesday “Daybreak Express” man, Sid Gribetz, the latter-day Symphony Sid. It held me spellbound, or as spellbound as I could be without driving off the road. Stewart takes the song at a steady slow pace, from his rubato duet with pianist Hammer, creating something that is half paean, half prayer. His tone is mahogany and port wine; his timbre is deep-hued fabric, passionate and rich. And he refuses to rush: he lingers over his notes — in a way that suggests a combination of Ben Webster and Pablo Casals.

Both of these performances are music to marvel at, music to savor. Bless Perry and Stewart: may they continue to create masterpieces that can stop listeners in their tracks in astonished surprise and joy.

As an aside: Grant’s CD has the additional boon of fine straightforward notes by writer Marc Myers. If you haven’t visited his blog, JazzWax, where he writes about a jazz record –78 to CD — every blessed day, you have missed out on a real pleasure. He’s also interviewed many of the great masters (Sonny Rollins, Ron Carter!) in addition.