Archive for the 'music' Category

Moment #11: North by Northwest (1959)

29 May 2017

Before the invention of VHS, it was an act of dedication to find and watch classic films; sometimes you would catch a ‘live’ TV screening, otherwise it was a trip to a cinema that cared enough about film to show them. Now, a film like Hitchcock’s North by Northwest, with advertising executive Roger O. Thornhill (Cary Grant) on the run and all at sea, can be found everywhere.

The theme of the “wrong man” who ends up on the run, both tying to solve the mystery and to clear his name, recurs in Hitchcock’s films. Think of The 39 Steps. But in North by Northwest, in a way that is both more plausible,and more sinister, he’s being left out there as a decoy.

Most of its big set-pieces are well-known; the murder at the United Nations; the attack by the crop duster plane; the final set-piece among the American Presidents on Mount McKinley.

The moment: the sequence before the attack by the crop duster plane, which builds the suspense, and oh, so, slowly.

It’s worth breaking it down a little to see what Hitchcock did.

The sequence starts with a high static fixed shot, probably from a crane, looking back along the road. The bus that Thornhill/Grant is on appears in the distance, and the shot allows it to drive all the way, to the bus stop at the bottom, where Grant gets off, and the bus leaves again. We get the picture: this is the middle of nowhere. It runs for 48″.

There’ then a series of shots, also static, that intercut between Grant by the side of the road, the few cars passing on the road, and the flatness of the Plains. We (spoiler) still think that he’s here to meet “Kaplan”. This sequence runs through 27 shots and lasts 1’52”.

Now something happens. A car appears from a side road (more a track), and stops at the junction, on the other side of the road, where a man gets out. There’s a fabulous shot of the two men, on opposite sides of the road, the  horizon no more than a quarter of the way up the screen. Grant, eventually, eventually, walks across the road towards him; there’s an immediate contrast between Grant’s expensive grey Manhattan suit and the man’s cheap brown suit and hat. Ernest Lehmann’s dialogue is laconic, as we hear the plane for the first time.

NbyNW.001-001

The scene ends as it began, with a bus heading away along the highway, and Thornhill/Grant standing by the roadside. It is also worth mentioning the sound design, although it wouldn’t have been called sound design in 1959. The audio during this whole sequence is “natural” sound; the cars on the road, doors being opened and closed, Grant’s shoes clicking on the dirt as he looks around. No music. In fact, there’s no music until after the plane has hit the truck.

The sequence lasts for just over five minutes; longer, in fact, than the scene in which the crop duster plane attacks Grant. When we call Hitchcock the master of suspense, it’s because of sequences like this, which signal to the audience a sense of foreboding and makes the action more intense when it starts.

Most of the sequence is here.

Moment#7: An American In Paris (1951)

10 May 2017

An-american-in-Paris-poster

Moment #7. Everything that can be said about An American in Paris has probably been said already. With On The Town and Singin’ In The Rain it represents the apogee of the American musical, and in particular of the work of Arthur Freed’s unit at MGM. It pushed the Hollywood dance sequence to new limits1–the 17-minute “American in Paris” ballet sequence, created by Gene Kelly, cost almost half a million dollars to make, in 1951 money–and the film won a hatful of Oscars.

I watched the film on DVD again at home in a back-to-back American in Paris multi-format experience immediately after going to see the latest stage version in London, which is a trumphant reimagining of the film.

The moment: the sequence early in the film when Henri Baurel, played by Georges Guétary, describes to the musician Adam Cook (Oscar Levant) the delights of Lise, (Leslie Caron), the young woman he’s in love with, and we see Caron perform a series of balletic routines. I’ve chosen this because it’s doing several things all at the same time.

It’s introducing the 19-year old Leslie Caron, spotted by Gene Kelly dancing in a French ballet company, to the Hollywood audience for the first time.

It’s showing us that she’s a proper dancer, and doing so without her having to talk (at the time her English was only serviceable).

It shifts the film from the realism of the narrative, and the browns of that narrative palette, into the colours of the dance musical.

And I think it does one more thing as well. It maybe conveys to us, quite early in the film, that Henri Baurel is maybe in love with an idea of Lise, rather than the actual person, which helps explain (spoiler) why he’s willing to give her up right at the end.

Here’s the clip.

Arthur Freed had tried to buy only the rights to the American in Paris Suite from Ira Gershwin (George had died in 1937) but Ira shrewdly insisted that all the songs in the movie should be Gershwin songs. I think Freed got lucky here, since it gives the musical a coherence and quality that a patchwork of songs by several composers would not have provided. And Kelly’s dancing shimmers in this smart adaptation of ‘I Got Rhythm’.


1. Although, of course, Powell and Pressburger’s British film The Red Shoes, made three years earlier, also had a long ballet sequence in it. Kelly screened the film for MGM executives before An American in Paris was greenlighted, according to imdb.

The Atkin-James song book

12 February 2017


I have been a fan of the songs of Pete Atkin and Clive James for all my adult life, ever since a friend turned up at a flat I was living in in my late teens with a copy of their second LP, Driving Through Mythical America. It was obvious at first hearing that these were songs of a different order, from the very first song, ‘Sunlight Gate’, a lyric about the Vietnam war which never names it and manages, at the same time, to be timeless. And that’s not even one of the best songs on the record, by some way.

So I’ve been looking forward to reading Ian Shircore’s book, Loose Canon on their lifelong collaboration. I wasn’t disappointed.

These lyrics aren’t a sideline for James: while I tend to think that his poetry is over-rated, the constraints of the song lyric seem to suit him well. As he said on the John Peel Show in 2000, “This is the work I’m known least for, but which is closest to my heart.” Atkin’s arrangements, which are given good consideration here, are often rich and subtle.
Read the rest of this entry »

Big band Christmas

30 December 2016

Guy Barker Big Band Christmas SpecialThe trumpeter Guy Barker must be well on his way to becoming a national treasure, at least in those parts of Britain where jazz trmpeters are treasured.

He’s played with everybody, of course, from Frank Sinatra to Georgie Fame to Sting, but he’s also a composer and an arranger. I’m particularly fond of his Soundtrack CD (2001) of themes for a couple of imaginaryfilms. I’ve seen him play a couple of times in the last year or so, taking the Bix Beiderbecke role in the Jazz Repertory Compay’s reconstruction of the Paul Whiteman Orchestra at Cadogan Hall, and with Mike Westbrook.

But the prompt for this post is his Big Band Christmas show at the Royal Albert Hall in mid-December. When I say, ‘big band’, I mean big: some 40 players on stage, including two drummers, two pianists, two banks of brass and an 18-piece string section. Barker was mostly conducting rather than playing, and the repertoire had a Christmas feel to it. A selection of vocal guests, including Kurt Elling, Wayne Peters and Vanessa Haynes, the vocal group Accent, and the saxophonist Soweto Kinch, appeared from the wings. The singer and broadcaster Clare Teal co-hosted with Barker and also sang some numbers.

guy-and-soweto-kinchOf course, there were some standouts. A fabulous version of ‘All The Way’, more or less a duet between Kurt Elling and the double bass; the recreation of Charlie Parker and Kenny Dorham’s bebop version of ‘White Christmas’, originally performed live on Christmas Day 1948, with Kinch taking Parker’s part and Barker playing Dorham; and Vanessa Haynes lit the place up every time she came onstage, notably on a version of ‘Heaven Help Us All’.

But mostly, the event was about the power of a big band being given permission to swing, in that way that jazz musicians can. You wonder how much time a band of that size has managed to find to rehearse, but the arrangements wer rich and the playing tight. And the musicians also seemed to be enjoying themselves.

Just before the end, just before they tipped some theatrical snowflakes on to the stage from the bridge for the final number, Clare Teal asked if we’d like the show to become an annual event. By then it already felt like a Christmas institution.

Images: Andy Paradise/Royal Albert Hall.

‘Spoken not read’

14 December 2016
bob_dylan_by_kylelegates-d4odgmh

Bob Dylan, by Kyle Legates


There’s no argument here that Dylan deserved to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, not least because he changed our expectations of the weight that a song could carry. I admired the way in which, in his acceptance speech (read out in Stockholm by the US Ambassador) he both managed to compare himself to Shakespeare while at the same time using this as a shield to deflect the critics who had suggested that the Literature prize should not go to a songwriter.

Near the beginning of the speech, Dylan writes:

I was out on the road when I received this surprising news, and it took me more than a few minutes to properly process it. I began to think about William Shakespeare, the great literary figure. I would reckon he thought of himself as a dramatist. The thought that he was writing literature couldn’t have entered his head. His words were written for the stage. Meant to be spoken not read. When he was writing Hamlet, I’m sure he was thinking about a lot of different things: “Who’re the right actors for these roles?” “How should this be staged?” “Do I really want to set this in Denmark?” His creative vision and ambitions were no doubt at the forefront of his mind, but there were also more mundane matters to consider and deal with. “Is the financing in place?” “Are there enough good seats for my patrons?” “Where am I going to get a human skull?” I would bet that the farthest thing from Shakespeare’s mind was the question “Is this literature?”

Of course, this is also a reminder that several playwrights have also won the Nobel Prize since it was created in 1901–Pinter, Dario Fo, Beckett, Pirandello, Eugene O’Neill, Shaw–and that they have also wrestled with the same problems of words-as-performance, without attracting the same opprobrium.

And then, in the speech, he goes off on a little tour, talking about his personal history, the slow way in which confidence and ambition grows with success as a performer, nodding in a clever but flattering way in the direction of the Nobel Committee, before bringing it back to Shakespeare again:

But, like Shakespeare, I too am often occupied with the pursuit of my creative endeavors and dealing with all aspects of life’s mundane matters. “Who are the best musicians for these songs?” “Am I recording in the right studio?” “Is this song in the right key?” Some things never change, even in 400 years.

Not once have I ever had the time to ask myself, “Are my songs literature?”

So, I do thank the Swedish Academy, both for taking the time to consider that very question, and, ultimately, for providing such a wonderful answer.

I was lucky enough, years ago, to hear Christopher Ricks do one of his lectures where he dissected several songs; the masterly construction of ‘Boots of Spanish Leather‘, with its alternate male and female rhymes (“made of silver or of golden“), and of ‘The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll‘ (“now is the time for your tears”), contrasted with the thinner material that makes up ‘One Too Many Mornings‘. Ricks became a bit of lightning rod for other critics, partly because he insisted on saying that Dylan was better than Keats, which was a red rag to sections of the English literati. I don’t think that argument was worth spending time on, even then, but the scholarship in his lecture, and much more, eventually found its way into a long critical appraisal of Dylan’s language and lyrics, a quarter of a century later. As Thomas Jones notes in his review in LRB, Ricks’ says of ‘Hattie Carroll’ that ‘Here is a song that could not be written better.’

Ricks, who was an early champion of Dylan’s literary quality, has been vindicated by the Nobel Commitee’s answer to Dylan’s unasked question, and he was in the pages of the Irish Times (scroll down) after the announcement was made.

Some reminders, since one of Dylan’s powers is that of a great reminder.

First, that every artist, insofar as he or she is great as well as original, has had the task of creating the taste by which the art is to be enjoyed (Wordsworth’s conviction). Second, that the art of song is a triple art, a true compound. And it doesn’t make sense to ask which element of a compound is more “important”: the voice, or the music, or the words? (Which is more important in water, the oxygen or the hydrogen?)

But in some ways Roddy Doyle catches the sentiment and the spirit better in the same Irish Times feature:

-I remember when me brother brought home Highway 61 Revisited, when it came ou’, like. Now, I love me music – always did. But, like, ‘She loves you, yeah, yeah, yeah’. I mean, there wasn’t much in the lyrics of anny o’ the songs back then. An’ then I heard, ‘They’re paintin’ postcards of the hangin’, they’re paintin’ the passports brown.’ It was amazin’. The start of my life, nearly. Even me da stopped complainin’ about the noise.

The image of Bob Dylan at the top of this post is by Kyle Legates. It is used here, with thanks, under a Creative Commons licence.

 

Toussaint’s American songbook

3 December 2016

  
A colleague was visiting New Orleans for the first time, and for the second time in a week I found myself extolling the virtues of Allen Toussaint, who was the beating heart of much New Orleans music until his death last year. I was lucky enough to see him play solo at Ronnie Scott’s shortly before he died. He had [turned to performing] relatively late in life, after losing much of what he owned in Hurricane Katrina, after years in the studio as a writer and a producer.

After Katrina, he co-wrote a record with Elvis Costello and toured with him.

Long before the collaboration with Elvis Costello, he had worked with everyone who was anyone in the New Orleans scene, from the Neville Brothers to Lee Dorsey to Betty Harris, and one of the reasons for this was that he had a wide range as a song writer, from an affectionate tongue-in-cheek song such as Fortune Teller, to danceable R and B such as Ride Your Pony or Working in the Coalmine, to a political song such as Freedom for the Stallion.

He learned from Professor Longhair, whose distinctive piano style had lit up the Crescent City in the 1960s, but the reason he got his first break, as a teenager, was that he was a fine technical player who was able to imitate the piano style of Fats Domino. At a time when Fats was on the road a lot, and most recording was done two-track, he’d play the piano part in the studio in New Orleans, and the tape would be sent to wherever Fats Domino was touring so he could add his inimitable vocal.

It happens that there was a final record in the works when he died, released earlier this year and which I stumbled across a few weeks ago. 

American Tunes (Nonesuch Records) is produced by Joe Henry, which is usually a mark of quality. The songs are played solo or with some fine collaborators, including Bill Frisell and Van Dyke Parks. The title is well-chosen: this an American songbook, but inflected with a New Orleans sensibility. As well as his own songs, he plays songs by Professor Longhair, Duke Ellington, Bill Evans, Billy Strayhorn and Fats Waller, as well as the (almost) title track by Paul Simon.

As Joe Henry says in the sleevenotes, written after Toussaint died, 

Allen was a quiet radical, musically speaking, and a prince of sublime humility, national royalty, if this troubled country has ever known any such thing… American Tunes is visceral and earthy. The repertoire spans the structural foundation of all that we understand to be American music… Today, in the dim light of his untimely departure, it sounds like the promise made good on all the work he might still undertake.

Five to look up on youtube:

Southern Nights: the title track of best known full length record as a performer.

With Elvis Costello.

Get Out of My Life Woman, his 1968 single.

On Your Way Down, covered by Little Feat.

Toussaint plays Lipstick Traces, which gave its name to Greil Marcus’ book.

If you want to know more there’s a long interview on Quietus, done shortly before he died, which explores pretty much his whole carrer. Richard Williams’ post on The Blue Moment blog after Toussaint’s death is, as ever, succinct but rich.

 

The Liberation Music Orchestra in London

26 November 2016

Obviously the Charlie Haden Liberation Music Orchestra isn’t quite the same without Charlie Haden, who died two years ago. But equally, as Alan Shipton of Radio 3 noted before the start of their concert at Cadogan Hall last weekend, right now we need it more than ever.

The Orchestra was created in 1969, at the height of the protests against the Vietnam War, as a vehicle for Haden’s politics and music, and has toured and recorded off and on ever since, notably in the 2000s as a protest against the invasion of Iraq. The current band, under the leadership of Haden’s long-term collaborator Carla Bley, has just released a record on ecological themes, Time | Life, which was a work in progress when Haden died. The concert included material from this and from their 2004 recording Not In Our Name.

I love big bands, and the Liberation Music Orchestra is a big band: bass, drums, guitar, tuba, French horn, trombone, two trumpets, alto sax and two tenor saxes. Most of the musicians have been playing with the Orchestra for years. And then there’s the elfin figure of Bley, now 80, perched at the piano, standing from time to time to bring a song to a tidy close, or transition into a new one.

They are Carla Bley’s arrangements—Haden’s wife, Ruth Cameron, who introduced the band, said that Charlie could never imagine anyone else arranging the Liberation Music Orchestra’s work—and she has an unmatched ear for the timbres and textures of the jazz orchestra, in the same league as Gil Evans.

Some of the material on Time | Life goes back to the ’60s—Haden’s Song for the Whales and the Bley composition, Silent Spring, a response to Rachel Carson’s path-breaking polemic, both of which were part of the set at Cadogan Hall. There’s also a fine version of Miles’ Blue in Green, which the band opened with.

It wasn’t just me who found the material from Not In Our Name the most compelling on the night, with the scars of the recent Presidential election still fresh (Richard Williams’ review is here). The title track shares with Mingus’ Fables of Faubus the notion that protest should have a spring in its step and a smile on its face. Bley’s arrangement of Amazing Grace restores the simple power of the original. And the high point of the evening, without doubt, was the long medley of America The Beautiful/Life Every Heart And Sing/Skies of America, with drummer Matt Wilson shifting into a military mode in a long solo before the band returned to cacophonous discord. If it was designed to convey the idea that America has lost its way, it worked.

The band: Carla Bley, piano, conductor; Tony Malaby, tenor saxophone; Chris Cheek, tenor saxophone; Loren Stillman, alto saxophone, Michael Rodriguez, trumpet; Seneca Black, trumpet; Vincent Chancey, French horn; Marshall Gilkes, trombone; Earl McIntyre, tuba; Steve Cardenas, guitar; Darek Oles, bass; Matt Wilson, drums.

The concert was recorded for transmission on Radio 3 during December. 

Reflecting on Alan Stivell

20 November 2016

 

I stumbled across Alan Stivell’s first record while throwing out a bunch of tape cassettes recently. It was called Reflections in England (Reflets in France) when it was released there in 1970, and I’ve been playing it, along with his other early records a lot in the last few weeks as a reult. It reminds me that in bringing Breton music into the mainstream, or at least to the edge of the mainstream, he was maybe the first “world musician” in the days before the category of “world music” had been created. He broke through into the sensibilities of rock and blues fans like me, at least in the UK, long before the African insurgency in the late-70s, and even before Island records launched Bob Marley into the British market and drove reggae from Jamaica to the mainstream.

When you listen to both Reflets and its successor, Renaissance of the Celtic Harp, widely regarded as a masterpiece, you can see why. It has big sweeping melodies and rich arrangements. Perhaps more importantly, it also manages to sound both modern and ancient at the same time, both of the world and of the place, as if the spirit of Marshall McLuhan is running through the standing stones.

In fact, I think Stivell can be placed in a wider context, with those musicians in almost every Western culture who in the ’60s and ’70s honoured their traditional musics while introducing new arrangements and (usually) electric instruments into the mix. I’m thinking, for example, of Fairport Convention and Steeleye Span in the UK, for example, or The Band in north America, or Planxty, and later Moving Hearts, in Ireland.

Reflets seems to be out of print now, along with his first live recording, Live at l’Olympia. The full recording of l’Olympia is on Youtube at the moment, as are all of the individual tracks of Reflets, which I have reconstructed as a Youtube playlist.

One of the things I liked about Reflets, but which surprised me at the time, was that it included among the Breton folk repertoire an English song, Sally Free and Easy, collected by Cyril Tawney. Liked, because I knew it already in a version by Pentangle; surprised because I expected a man who was immersed in Breton culture not to mix up his performance with English folk songs.

But it seems that Stivell was a fan of English folk; there are more English songs on Live at l’Olympia, including The Foggy Foggy Dew. It’s a reminder that people like Stivell, who were musical pioneers, are always listening.

 

 

In praise of the accordion

11 April 2016

1500px-Accordion_button_mechanism.svgWatching the Donegal band Altan last night I got interested in watching the accordion player Martin Tourish, who’s recently joined the group. The accordion is a complex instrument; the player has to finger the melody, create the rhythm on the chromatic keys, and also not to forget to keep pumping to push the air through the instrument.

What’s odd about the accordion, and other forms such as the concertina, is that it’s a relatively recent instrument—it was invented in Germany in the 1820s—and that makes sense, since it is sufficiently complex that it’s evidently a product of the industrial age. But it spread rapidly, and forms of it are found throughout Europe’s folk music cultures, and beyond to Brazil and North America as well. It’s impossible to imagine Cajun music without the accordion, for example.

My guess is that the reason for its instant success was that in the days before amplification (or electricity, come to that), its sound could fill a room pretty much on its own, at the cafe, bar, or dancehall. And maybe that’s still the case: a New York Times article on the instrument a few years ago quoted a younger player who’d swapped piano for accordion because ‘“it’s pretty hard to carry a piano and travel,” adding that pianos are often out of tune at bars and clubs.’

Perhaps because of its role as a pre-electric instrucment, it’s still strongly associated with folk and ‘world musics’. There are a few exceptions, but it’s never really crossed into the pop and rock mainstream. The New York Times quotes some bands that have used the sound, and it pretty much proves the point. It is a quirkly list: They Might Be Giants, Arcade Fire, the Decemberists, Beirut, Calexico, Green Day, Gogol Bordello, Flogging Molly, the Pogues. Springsteen uses it in his lineup when he’s showing off his roots, mostly, as far as I can tell, on songs made famous by Pete Seeger, but also on the much earlier love song to Sandy.

Anyway, Martin Tourish can be seen playing on youtube at a session in Donegal with the guitar player Antoin Bracken. I like this because the first of the two tracks here is slower, and reflects the range in tone you can get from the instrument.

And this calls to mind some of my other accordion favourites.

The first is the English folk classic Morris On, in which a star-studded band plays versions of English folk songs as they might have been heard before Victorian collectors cleaned them up (“Cuckoo’s Nest” has nothing to do with bird-watching.) John Kirkpatrick is the accordion player here, driving along the electric band. Richard Thompson, Ashley Hutchings, Barry Dransfield and Dave Mattacks are also in the line-up, and Shirley Collins makes a guest appearance.

And it’s impossible to write about accordion players without mentioning Kepa Junkera, one of the towering figures of modern Basque music, who pays a trikitixa, or Basque diatonic accordion, displayed to great effect on records such as Bilbao 00:00h and Herria.

It happens that it was Kepa Junkera’s birthday at the weeken, and so here are a couple of tracks of his from youtube.

And the second is from his recent record, Trikitixaren historia txiki bat, which translates as “a little history of trikitixa”. This a fine video: as well as having some excellent accordion playing on it, it also reflects the way in which the Basque music culture is a living part of the region’s identity, certainly in the provinces located in Spain. 

 

“We did him in up country”

28 March 2016

Since it’s Easter Monday, it seems appropriate to share the lyric of “Search and Destroy“, words by Clive James, music by Pete Atkin, in which the Easter story is reimagined as a laconic report about the end of a successful 20th century counter-terrorist operation.

James, who is an outstanding lyric writer, has written better songs than this, but there’s something to admire about the way the final stanza locates the story conclusively and then punctures it decisively:

The faithful talk some wishful-thinking cock/ About a spook who rolls away the rock/
At which point golden boy walks out alive/ We’re bumping them all off as they arrive.

One can imagine the likes of Brigadier Richard Clutterbuck being delighted about the way things turned out here.

Search and destroy

I'm glad to say we're mopping up up here
I'm sending you today's report in clear
Security's no problem now at all
You just pick up the phone and make a call

     We should have done all this back at the beginning
     And never let the clowns think they were winning

We took a month to crack their second man
But when he talked the strudel hit the fan
He named eleven leaders who we shot
And then the top guy's girl who we've still got
The chick was tough and held out for a week
But spilled a bibful when we made her speak
We picked his mother up and worked on her
He came in on his own and there you were

     We should have nailed the first ones when we found them
     Before all the mystique built up around them

We never gave the local heat a chance
To get him on their own and make him dance
We did him in up-country, bombed the cave
And made the whole damn mountainside his grave
The faithful talk some wishful-thinking cock
About a spook who rolls away the rock
At which point golden boy walks out alive
We're bumping them all off as they arrive

     And that winds up this dreary exhibition
     A total waste of time and ammunition

12286262111

‘The Cavalry incident’

Of course, Clive James is in good company here. The radical journalist Claud Cockburn recalled in his memoir I Claud rewriting the Easter story in the early 1930s as a parody of The Times’ Berlin reporter Pugge, who tended to see the streetfighting going on in Berlin in somewhat simple terms. This is how Cockburn described it in the book:

It was a level-headed estimate studded with well-tried Times’ phrases. ‘Small disposition here,’ cabled this correspondent, ‘attach undue importance protests raised certain quarters result recent arrest and trial leading revolutionary agitator followed by what is known locally as “the Cavalry incident”.’ The despatch was obviously based on an off-the-record interview with Pontius Pilate. It took the view that, so far from acting harshly, the Government had behaved with what in some quarters was criticized as ‘undue clemency’. It pointed out that firm Government action had definitely eliminated this small band of extremists, whose doctines might otherwise have represented a serious threat for the future.

The youtube clip at the top shows Atkin—who is currently, thankfully, recovering after being hit by a bus in Bristol—performing “Search and Destory” solo in Sheffield.

The recorded version is on the Pete Atkin reord Lakeside Sessions Vol. 2, which is available as a CD online or via iTunes. Or if you want to play it yourself, the chords are here.