Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Robbie and Ella, Guy and... Diz?

Odd to think that one of the most popular New Year's Eve song renditions should be the version of "Auld Lang Syne" by band leader Guy Lombardo.

We can still enjoy Bing Crosby's take on that song; embrace Ella Fitzgerald singing "What Are You Doing New Year's Eve"; entertain the idea of bluesy New Year's lamentations by Blind Lemon Jefferson and Lightnin' Hopkins; even endure the Olde Sod politics of U2's "New Year's Day." But, like it or not, we owe the popularity of "Auld Lang Syne" to Guy and His Royal Canadians.

The bandleader heard Scottish immigrants sing it up north in Canada, played it at midnight 1929 in New York's Roosevelt Hotel and then at the Waldorf Astoria every year from the early '30s to 1976. By then, America and other parts of the English-speaking world not previously given to Scots dialect had been won over.

Tradition says that poet Robert Burns heard an old man sing some small portion of it, took down the words and polished the lines (a lot), and then died a few months before the new song was finally published in The Scots Musical Museum in 1796. What happened to it for the next century-and-some (other than its being taken up and sung in the British Isles) I guess no one knows. But when Lombardo inadvertently relaunched this changing-of-the-year anthem, whole regions of the world soon learned that "auld acquaintance" should never "be forgot," for "old times sake." (That last is my loose translation of the title phrase; "times gone by" is another approximation.)

Yet the part of the song most commonly sung at midnight on New Year's Eve misleads a bit because it neglects other verses so heavy on the Scots dialect that translation subtitles are likely required. Here are some of those lines, plus my casual readings:

And surely ye'll be your pint-stowp
And surely I'll be mine...

"And surely you'll buy your pint tankard,
And ((of course)) I'll buy mine..."

(Aye, laddie, and doesn't that sound like frugal Scots negotiating?)

We twa hae run about the braes,
And pu'd the gowans fine...

"We two have run ((over)) the hills
And ((picked)) the daisies fine..."

(Ah, yes, those carefree days of youth!)

And there's a hand, my trusty fiere,
And gie's a hand o' thine,
And we'll tak a right guid willie-waught
For auld lang syne...

"And there's ((my)) hand, ((old)) trusted friend,
And give us your hand ((too)),
And we'll take a good-will draught ((of ale))
For old times..."

I guess Lombardo instinctively knew better than to dip too far into Scottish dialect, but nothing held me back when I wrote a TV commercial for Heidelberg Beer nearly 30 years ago that pitted an Archie Bunker lookalike against a Scotsman in tartan and tam, who confounded Archie completely by saying things like: "'Tis a braw bricht moonlicht nicht thanicht" and "Gie's a right guid willie-waught!"

As for the rest of us, I recommend we take a cup of kindness on this New Year's Eve and pass it around freely, for all to savor in the 12 months to come. And so, as Prince Charlie might have said... Bonne annee, mes amis. Hae a bonny year!

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Merry Christmas, Baby

It's Christmas week. I used to write that word stubbornly as "Christ Mass" just to make sure everyone registered the day of greed and family angst--and sleighloads of love--as a religious event too, something to do with a celebration of the birth of a certain holy man maybe named Jesus. These days, the historically enabled believe that Christ was actually born a couple of decades Anno Domini later, and that his celebration is derived from earlier pagan rites, but what the hey. While I did go to Sunday school and (occasionally) church as a kid and young man, I've never been religious or even modern-day "spiritual." I suppose I qualify as agnostic, but I'd rather be wholly Gnostic, whatever that might mean...

Speaking of "the holiness of the Word" leads us peripherally to the new album by Bob Dylan. Born-again Christian and reform(ed) Jew, plangent poet and songster extraordinaire, and ornery cuss in general, what in the Wonderful World of Christmas is ol' Zimmerman up to? I admit to not having heard his Xmas disc, but much as I love Bob and admire his chutzpah, I really don't want to internalize his take on hymns and secular songs celebrating holly&ivy, baby-in-manger, Santa-in-chimney, and angels harking.

But, back to the main point, I have looked regularly to music as a way to enjoy Christmas without belaboring the religious stuff. Rather than the Mormon Tabernacle Choir or Handel's Messiah (hallelujah, y'all), I pull out anthologies of quasi-Xmas Blues, and John Fahey playing hymns on guitar, and certain country singers who make good albums that just happen to be about the season (Vince Gill or Patti Loveless or Emmylou, all of them in partial Bluegrass mode). There are fine records by Ray Charles and Phil Spector's stable of artists, not to mention the Cole and Crosby and Sinatra classics, and we haven't even mentioned Elvis. (Who really nails "Merry Christmas, Baby"? Charles Brown or Santa's Elvish helper?)

But what I really seek out every Christmas are three albums from my college folkie days. They are all wonderful--I'm not just nostalgic for the past--but all have had their ups and downs, forgotten for a decade or two and then revived (resurrected?) for a time again.

Released in 1958, and immediately popular across the U.S., not to mention with my parents and two sisters and me, was Harry Belafonte's To Wish You a Merry Christmas. (I actually preferred his three Caribbean albums, especially Jump Up Calypso from 1961, which even had some titles that vaguely suggested Christmas--"Emanuel Road," "Goin' Down Jordan," "Gloria"--as well as a gentle tune that really was about "The Baby Boy.") Belafonte's Christmas release was beautiful, haunting, a mix of traditional and little-known, anchored by "Mary, Mary" (more familiar maybe as "Glory Be to the Newborn King"), a great version of "I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day," and the very first track, "Mary's Boy Child," claimed by Harry himself, and the one song that perfectly encapsulates Christ Mass for me: "Hark now, hear the angels sing, Listen what they say: That man will live for evermore Because of Christmas Day." Play that one and forget the world of trouble we're all livin' in...

Recorded late in 1960 (so I likely bought it that December or soon after) was the Kingston Trio's splendid collection of little-known seasonal folk songs titled The Last Month of the Year. Originally it was their poorest selling LP over all, but the record's painstakingly polished tracks actually were a highwater mark for the collegial three, offering tricky harmonies and complex arrangements. And a quarter century later, it was the first of their albums to be brought back on CD. (Last Month and Goin' Places are the true fans' definitive Kingston Trio favorites.) The old spiritual "Children, Go Where I Send Thee," the gentle hymn "Bye, Bye, Thou Little Tiny Child," and the little-known gospel gem "Last Month of the Year"--recently revived on a Blind Boys of Alabama Christmas disc--all receive terrific performances, and Dave Guard's banjo and bouzouki get a workout on many tracks. (His death from cancer a few years later robbed the folk world of a neglected great.) Too bad the rock audience wrote off the Trio for so long.

Album three, Joan Baez's simply titled LP Noel, was accused of pretentiousness when Vanguard issued it in 1966, partly because Joan sang in three languages, over Baroque arrangements by Peter Schickele, but mostly because she had begun to voice, and demonstrate, her anti-war activism. While cartoonist Al Capp mocked "Joanie Phoanie," I was hooked on her beauty, her amazing voice, her politics, her relationship with Bob Dylan, and more. So I played Noel enough to get right with it, from "The Coventry Carol" to "Carol of the Birds" (Pablo Casals' peace theme), from "I Wonder as I Wander" to "Mary's Wandering," from "Down in Yon Forest" to "Deck the Halls," and from "Ave Maria" in gute German to the gorgeous French of "Cantique de Noel" ("O Holy Night"). That last number, in fact, was a high-note beauty, with the climax of Joan's vocal actually shattering the vinyl sound on many copies of the disc. Still, in song after song her high, pure, clear soprano voice rained down like manna from heaven, or gifts to the son of Mary.

Belafonte earns a gold record... Baez leaves some Americans frankly incensed... The Trio releases a brilliant album, but buyers demur... Three Xmas stories with happy endings, several decades later on.

Happy Christmas to all who fight the good fight.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

JR and Flanagan... A Real Pleasure

Tenorman JR Monterose always gave credit to pianists, starting with early Bud Powell, for the advanced harmonic sense he acquired... gradually. Monterose (he was a "Junior," hence the "JR" initials nickname) worked with several major ones over the course of his in-and-out, here-and-gone career, from George Wallington and Horace Silver to Mal Waldron and Hank Jones. But the man who helped JR shine on records most was "poet of the piano" Tommy Flanagan, who backed him on two brilliant albums separated by almost a quarter of a century--the long time between most likely the result of Monterose's peripatetic wanderlust and somewhat reclusive nature.

It's a small irony that both men were born in Detroit (Monterose in 1927, Flanagan in 1930). Yet because JR's family soon moved on to Utica, NY, and his jazz training then came in the ranks of some Northeastern big bands, the two young musicians had only minimal contact until the late Fifties when JR's second date as a leader (released on Jaro Records in 1959 as The Message) brought him together with Tommy at last. Flanagan had already made his bones maneuvering through both Sonny Rollins' Saxophone Colossus and John Coltrane's Giant Steps, as well as many sessions backing J.J. Johnson and Thad Jones, while Monterose had played for a time with Charles Mingus and then Kenny Dorham, and had gained some critical acclaim for his debut album on Blue Note. But for some reason Tommy and JR were a great fit straight from the git-go, the result maybe of Flanagan's amazing "ears" and sure sideman skills. Or maybe their chord choices and favored tempos were a closer match since JR early on was admittedly in thrall to both Rollins and Coltrane.

Whatever the source, the two were attuned. And with the quartet completed by quick-fingered Jimmy Garrison and thunderous Pete La Roca, you can bet JR had to be ridin' some roilin' rhythm. You can hear it immediately on opening track "Straight Ahead," a stomp-it-off rewrite of "Get Happy" (with some lightning exchanges between JR and Pete)--and differently on the following cut, one of only two ballads in the set. But "Violets for Your Furs" let Monterose demonstrate his ability to play at any speed, creating a lovely tenor-sax equivalent to Frank Sinatra's famous vocal.

JR had come back to the Apple after a year-and-some's residence at a club in upstate Albany, and along with added confidence he brought some polished and inventive originals too. But the complex structures and busy changes of "You Know That" and "Short Bridge," for example, couldn't faze Flanagan after Coltrane's Step-lively tunes--and his flowing solos show it--while the upbeat blues of "Green Street Scene" was just sweet cream to a sharp-eared cat from Detroit.

With the section taking care of business, JR was free to be assertive or mellow, spontaneous or studied--to vamp some sections of his waltz called "Chafic" (an Arabic word for "merciful," however he came by it 50 years ago), or mourn most lyrically throughout Benny Golson's already-classic "I Remember Clifford": breathy, hovering, then blowing free, and cushioned all the way by Tommy. So he rolled on directly across that final "Short Bridge" too...

... And then JR was gone again, to Maryland, Iowa, Europe, always looking for the gig and the solo that would satisfy. The two guys crossed paths in Los Angeles and overseas, but without any follow-up recordings. Tommy maintained a busy schedule for all the years, while JR played only where or when he felt inspired. A few albums surfaced, usually live club snapshots, but nothing of great substance really... until 1981. Back in New York State for a while, he sat in on Flanagan's solo gig up in Schenectady, and the dual magic was suddenly and soundly apparent.

Tommy had become accompanist extraordinaire, supportive at every moment, singing with every note, pushing when needed, laying back quietly, shining forth during his own pretty, pithy solos, making things happen. All the years with Ella and others had sharpened and secured that part of his genius--while Monterose was playing with superb thrust and parry, solos plaintive yet controlled and wasting no notes, still blasting when appropriate but now whispering more frequently and easily, even breaking out a not-previously-heard soprano sax for a few numbers when they hit the studio for what became the album titled A Little Pleasure (available currently as remastered by Rudy Van Gelder for little-known Reservoir RSR CD 109).

Man oh man, what songlines, what languid beauty they found there, too! Think of the other late-century sax-and-piano duos--Stan Getz and Kenny Barron, Art Pepper and George Cables, Zoot Sims and Jimmy Rowles (a could-have-been, anyway)--and put JR and Tommy right up there. Tune after tune, sweet and sensitive, tart and transcendent, holding to the rhythm yet free to shift gears and tempos as inspired, but always advancing inexorably--yes, discovering and delineating anew the spontaneous "freedom Jazz dance" as it's meant to be experienced.

If you think I exaggerate, just sample a track or two: perfect versions of standards like "Never Let Me Go" (Tommy's notes dancing around the ascerbic, crying tenor) and "A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square" (sighing soprano nestled in beauty, even when fallen silent, from first note till last); elegant rewinds of Dizzy's "Con Alma" (JR swirling busily, Flanagan in a staccato strut) and Coltrane's "Central Park West" (Tommy stepping lightly, JR enjoying the city sights); splendid Monterose originals "Vinnie's Pad" (up tenor, surging, to the totally sudden stop) and "Pain and Suffering... and a Little Pleasure" (unexpectedly lovely soprano lilt, waltzing with the keys). Except for a track or two, the nine were nailed in single takes; for those two days in April the guys played as though newly resurrected and on fire--two phoenixes brightly risen. And Flanagan's career continued at that elevated level all the way into this 21st century. But JR slipped back into the shadows, playing brilliantly no doubt, but largely unheard, his death in 1993 going mostly unnoticed.

But you can still find Monterose fans today, aligned together from Albany to Alabama, from the Alhambra on to Albania maybe... alive and well and always alert for some newfound unknown dispatch from the vanished frontlines of JR's unceasing, far-flung, ultimately frustrated search.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Re Printing the Wyeth Family (II)

Next week's piece will look at jazz greats JR Monterose and Tommy Flanagan, but first I decided to revisit the Wyeth family (see most recent post below). Last time, I tried to position each illustration where it would be clear as to subject or artist, but chose to say nothing explanatory. So I thought it would be useful here to look briefly at one or two specific works by each artist, taking them in no particular order.

N.C., or "Pa" as he was known to all, illustrated hundreds of books and magazine pieces, plus calendars, posters, and ads. He was a professional working illustrator, in other words, and as such most of his paintings were, let's say, site specific--powerful or lovely, a frozen moment or a dramatic highlight. The Passing of Robin Hood is an example combining all those elements. Based on one folk tale about the mythic outlaw, we see the dying archer in his last moments, propped up by two of his men, about to shoot his final arrow, meant (as I recall it) to locate the place he would be buried. The pale room with window showing hill and sky outside (the life and freedom he'll enjoy no more), the anguished poses, pale-as-death Robin in silhouette, the sense of his fumbling frustration versus engrained bow skills, all are present. You could say that N.C.'s painting hits its target.

But the story continues decades later when son Andrew chose to paint a scene partly in homage to his father, silently echoing both the death painting and N.C.'s lovely fine-arts masterpiece The Springhouse (see it reproduced in the first post). Even if a totally different building--this one on the Kuerners' farm in Chadds Ford--Andy's Spring Fed can be interpreted as a reverse, inside-looking-out view from within Pa's famous structure. The water is full to overflowing (possibly the life draining from N.C.?) and a viewer can almost hear it drip; the cows outside are restless; the detail and subdued colors of the egg tempura surface seem slightly unsettling; and that helmet-like bucket and wire dangling down at right are, according to Andy in an interview I read somewhere long ago, his subconscious references to the pose and arrow of N.C.'s Robin Hood scene. Whether a viewer sees any of that or not, the painting serves as a potent example of the memories and behind-the-scene details at work every time Andrew picks up a brush. (Another example shows up later in this piece.)

Eldest child Henriette made her reputation fashioning portraits (her father, her husband Peter Hurd, various Wyeth and Hurd relations, Helen Hayes, Pat Nixon, some wealthy patrons), but she chose to focus for pleasure on flowers and other studio-interior still lifes. Some early works were fantasies bathed in what she called "the artifice of blue light," but New Mexico's desert light and the ranching life made her more of a realist, content to paint smaller subjects and run the household and husband and three children and generally be, as she said, "the power behind the throne." Still, the Santa Fe Opera, for one, used lush paintings of hers, like Puff Ball and Still Life with Irises, for their annual opera-season posters for many years.

Hurd himself was one of N.C.'s earliest live-in students, and he quickly endeared himself to the family and then in 1929 won the beautiful, outspoken daughter--even persuading her eventually to move to the San Patricio area near Ruidoso. Peter painted desert, cowboy, and ranch scenes mostly, with the odd portrait now and again (including one of Lyndon Johnson which the President rejected). Full of sunlight and dust and action moments, Hurd's landscapes and hills are distant and enveloping simultaneously; they seem a bit Western rough, sort of improvised I suppose, yet are actually polished works done in egg tempera, like A Shower in a Dry Year and The Gate and Beyond shown here.

It was Hurd, in fact, who introduced the tempera medium to the Wyeths, but Andrew soon became the acknowledged master of that delicate, demanding method for creating a picture--using egg yolks at first, laying a ground, building up a surface, adding ground-in colors, scratching-in some strokes and painting others. Andy would eventually employ knife or brush or pencil or... well, any device that came to hand at the right moment. Though few artists have the hand skills to fashion such gorgeous detail in tempera (as here in the amazing Pentecost), for Andrew it was merely learned technique, however brilliant. What made his works distinct from others was his total involvement in the scene before him, on the one hand, and his immersion at the same time in memory, and history, and death, and occasionally the romance not of love but of something like medieval geste. An observer could say he turned exteriors into disguised mental interiors--a mis-identified "realist" painter with no real allegiance to the factual details of an object or scene.

One haunting example is the portrait simply titled Adam, the last of several studies made of laborer Adam Johnson. The painter brought distant crows and tumbledown shed and silver bucket and blue-jacketed black man together because that's how his eye wanted to see them. Andrew proudly said later that "Adam told a reporter one of the finest things I have ever heard said about me: 'Andy--he's got the glory of painting and I got the glory of cuttin' grass, and we ain't gonna get nothing else.'"

Scenes as commonplace and localized as grasscutting were the main inspiration for daughter Carolyn. Early on she engaged the world, albeit hesitantly, but a failed relationship returned her to the Wyeth's Chadds Ford home, and she became the cranky, reclusive spinster aunt (although she stayed close to Andy and then his son Jamie too). She painted barns and chicken houses, big buckets and small Mason jars hidden under benches; and her single most reprinted work seems to be the unsettling brown-tones image titled Up from the Woods, with a very sexual split treetrunk in the dark foreground and the Wyeth house as a small bright bit of background--the finished work slightly primitive, strangely powerful, serenely Freudian.

Another outsider welcomed into the family was John McCoy, who married daughter Ann and studied for a short time with N.C. He learned to work in watercolor and some tempera, like the various Wyeths, but was dissatisfied. He then broke ranks and found his own mixed media style, and though he commuted back and forth between Maine and Chadds Ford like his in-laws, he eventually focussed most completely on Maine seacoast scenes; misty and moody, subdued trees with dabs of wildflower color, or swirling clouds and gulls, and full-action, splashing waves. But I offer his two very different works Wawenock Hotel and Milkweed Seed. (For splashing action, see The Ledge, placed at the head of this piece).

Finally we come to the other Maine-stay Wyeth: James Browning, son of Andrew and Betsy, still typically known as Jamie. Trained by Carolyn and his father, Jamie's commissioned portraiture work started when he still a teenager, and he produced famous ones of Warhol and Nureyev, JFK and other Kennedys. But over the years he has come to focus more--in a looser and slightly comical style--on pigs and pumpkins (including At Sea, just above), chickens and dogs and lighthouses, slightly strange locals and even stranger tourists. Jamie lives on Monhegan Island, and an amusing photo shows him holed up in a plywood crate with one wall missing, where he can sit and sketch and not have strangers peering over his shoulder. (Islanders help him move the mini-studio from place to place each day.)

The painter's self-portrait reiterates his pumpkin fascination. Less bleak, more forgiving, more fun, Jamie has proved to be the designated inheritor and worthy replacement for his father and the other Wyeth family painters, all of them dead now; and one can only hope that grandpa N.C. is looking down from on high, and laughing--just as robust as he ever was.