Monday, September 26, 2011
Much more Kurt Weill still lay ahead as Lotte Lenya’s publicizing efforts (see part 4A below this closing section) made things happen--long-play records, more performances by more curious musicians, scholars mulling things over. Nonet trombonist J.J. Johnson and pianist Andre Previn teamed up for a Weill record, and then Gil Evans proceeded to create two multi-varied albums of great genius, perhaps the best of his long career (and no Miles for miles!), titled Out of the Cool and The Individualism of Gil Evans.
Each LP featured, and to some extent was keyed on, a single piece by Weill. Retrieved from his German theatre works were “Bilbao Song”—in Gil’s hands a mix of dissonant proclamation, odd percussion, and plucked bass and guitar, somehow all of a piece with the Cool album’s other tunes—and,
Evans’ assistant for several years in the Eighties was Maria Schneider, who learned much from Gil and applies those lessons herself as a multi-Grammy award-winning Jazz orchestra leader. Invited by Jazz.com to pick and analyze a dozen favorite Evans tracks from his long career, well, Ms. Schneider chose Weill’s “My Ship” and “The Barbara Song” as two of the twelve. Regarding the latter she wrote, in part:
Musician, conductor, and scholar Ryan Truesdell has located and studied and prepared for recording a number of unknown Evans arrangements, with an album to be released next year. He too has declared “The Barbara Song” to be one of Gil’s best and most important creations.
Without Gil Evans and Kurt Weill would the Doors ever have swung wide open--first, Kurt’s “Alabama Song” and then Gil’s “Jambangle,” reworked a bit to become, with lyrics added, “Light My Fire”? And that era-defining hit probably led inexorably to Gil’s late projects with both Robbie Robertson and Sting—while edgy rockers like Lou Reed, Marianne Faithful, Nick Cave, and Tom Waits
Without Evans, would composer Carla Bley’s twists and turns and quirky jibes so readily have found a place in Jazz? Without Kurt’s Berlin days, could bassman Charlie Haden’s peripatetic orchestra ever have become so political, so “Musically Liberated,” and so admired?
If Gil hadn’t taken off the arranger gloves and punched-up his freeform bands of the Seventies and Eighties, embracing electricity and synthesizers, would Miles Davis have gone so far (and farther out) into fusion and funk? He continued to consult Gil at every turn, and one can easily imagine the two of them holed up with some medicinal weed,
But we need to resume our walk on the Weill side. George Avakian became the manager and producer for a John Lewis-Gunther Schuller “Third Stream” venture called Orchestra U.S.A.; and one mid-Sixties project was an album titled Mack the Knife and Other Berlin Theatre Songs of Kurt Weill, by two Orchestra sextets that included ex-Nonet members Mike Zwerin and Lewis. Zwerin’s arrangements took a much simpler approach to Weill,
Nearly three decades later, when Avakian wrote typically brilliant liner notes for the CD reissue of yet another Weill/Jazz album (John Bunch playing solo piano versions, mostly “up” and Fats Wallerish),
Lenya listened and then responded with her own tale of Kurt hearing a Jazz version of one of his tunes and not recognizing it at first. When he did, he quoted a Threepenny lyric, “It’s possible my way—but this is possible too.”
Gil Evans was dead by the time Avakian wrote about woodwinds-and-sax genius Dolphy—who had contributed as well to the great Individualism album. In the mid-Eighties Gil evidently had begun to rethink the anything-goes, un-arranged bands he had “led” (just barely) for two erratic decades. Some bits of evidence:
Maria Schneider found him at the piano one day, practically tearing his white hair out; he desperately wanted to recreate his classic re-composing of Weill’s “My Ship,”
At the time of his death in 1988, he was considering a proposed commission from producer Hal Willner, innovative driving force behind the excellent Weill tribute album Lost in the Stars (released in 1985) and the varied and amazing September Songs CD sequel that would shake up the Jazz/Pop world in 1997. Willner wanted Gil to do a new version of Mahagonny! (The mind boggles at what might have been… the whole opera given the old Evans musical magic? The Songspiel only? Or even just the right song or two…)
Maybe Gil had finally heard the rumblings among fans and Jazz critics,
“Evans belongs back in the studio, where greater focus is a prerequisite, and where arrangers are in their element… He deserves an opportunity to pick the soloists for an entire album of Mingus or Ellington or Billy Strayhorn or Kurt Weill, for whom he has long shown a special affinity…”
But none of that occurred. Instead Gil cut a disc of duets with Steve Lacy and a pair of fine, old-style-Evans orchestral CDs with Laurent Cugny’s Big Band Lumiere. Then he died.
Gil’s assistants and musicians and fans continue to ponder his musical choices and mysterious innovations. The piano trio known as Tethered Moon issued a terrific CD of Weill songs in 1995; all three musicians (Masabumi Kikuchi, Gary Peacock and Paul Motian) in some manner had played or recorded with Gil.
And in late August, a few weeks ago, Ryan Truesdell and his hand-picked orchestra of New York musicians cut a dozen previously unrecorded and/or unknown Evans arrangements ranging from the Forties up to the Sixties. The resulting album will be issued in 2012, Gil’s own centennial year.
Among the tunes recorded was a recently discovered alternate arrangement of “The Barbara Song,” this unknown version
The Kurt Weill conduit continues.
* * * * *
My thanks to all who actually read all five parts in this diffuse saga. I tried to make it vaguely amusing, even surprising in a few spots, with a changing perspective on the people and music. Maybe I got in over my head, but the float vest worked... and here we are, finally ready to move on.
Saturday, September 24, 2011
(Lengthy Part 4 is now divided for readability, with second half in a day or two.)
There was something in the air. Or maybe it was the water. But from the Twenties to the late Sixties there was this spectrum--invisible, imaginary, whatever--of oddball anarchist music (well, quirky anyway) being created and released on record and film. Aural symptoms might include sound effects, irregular rhythms, changing tempos, tuneless tunes, uncommon instruments, eccentric, possibly amateurish playing, an alien musical conception withal.
Each artist would exhibit only certain of these traits. At one end of the spectrum you’d find, chronologically, the barnyard sounds and seemingly uneducated playing of the Original Dixieland Jass Band; the wild and woolly, wacky-woo-woo, musical bits and pieces strung together with split-second timing by composer Carl Stallings for Warner Bros.’ “Looney Tunes and Merry Melodies” cartoons; and the bizarre combinations of music and dialogue and sound effects good-humoredly smushed together on the records of Spike Jones. (The near-musical, carefully timed, rapid-fire routines of comics like the Marx Brothers and Abbott & Costello fit in there somewhere too.)
The opposite end of the spectrum is much more musical, though still strange-sounding when first sprung on a casual, unsuspecting listener. I hope there’s no need to belabor the point (racially or otherwise), but I’m thinking of the choppy, hammering, stride-piano playing and eccentric, brilliant-corners compositions of Thelonious Monk; the slightly west-of-caterwauling, hues-of-blues originals issuing from Ornette Coleman’s plastic sax (love the “ugly beauty”; still not ready for Prime Time); John Coltrane’s “sheets of sound” reflecting his unshakeable, inner-space determination to blow every possible note and combination of notes arrayed in the infinite field of any piece of music (and do so all at once!); and the antic hijinx--the combs, brooms, costumes, dreams and drums--the delirious music unleashed on a suspicious world by the world-is-our-playground-and-oyster, con-kniving knaves known as the Art Ensemble of Chicago.
One end “light”… one end “serious.” And most groups and Jazz bands somewhere along the line between. You can supply your own candidates and placement, or you can dismiss the whole fanciful thing as Hog-warts, but I ask that you just amble with me a ways further.
Edging toward the bizarre would be the Boyd Raeburn Orchestra mixing BeBop and Stravinsky, while the working groups and session bands organized by Gil Evans would be drawn more to the blues’n’boogie, Hard Bop portion of my diagram. And the odd balance of Jazz, opera, and Broadway pop would deposit Kurt Weill (his friend Gershwin not far off) right on the invisible midpoint, flanked by tubas and tangos!
Kurt died in 1950, with only his American show-tune hits of the Forties still having any currency. But two stubborn fans (maybe three) versed in his forgotten European works were having none of that. I wrote a bit last time about Lenya’s revived career and tireless publicizing of Kurt. Time now to introduce George Avakian: writer, producer, scholar, proselytizer, bon vivant, and great good friend of Jazz. The fact that he knew and loved Weill’s early masterworks was the cake under all that frosting.
Avakian and Lenya teamed up to create most of the famous Columbia Records LPs starring her and resurrecting Kurt’s songs and German theatrical works with and without Brecht—excellent if not quite perfectly definitive productions of Mahagonny, Threepenny, his German and American theater songs, Seven Deadly Sins… all but Happy End, which was a later addition after George had moved on from Columbia. (Avakian shows up time and again in this fable.)
Parallel to this were developments in the career of arranger/re-composer/conductor Gil Evans. Claude Thornhill’s bands of the early and later Forties, with beaucoup arrangements by Evans, occupy a special “Beautiful Music” spot on that spectrum chart. Gil fashioned a strange but lovely sound by blending high woodwinds, low brass, and Thornhill’s soft-as-snow-falling piano… which oddly worked on BeBop adaptations as well as ballads and semi-Classical numbers.
When the band was off the road, Evans stayed on in New York City, and his door’s-always-open bachelor pad became the philosophic bull-session center (circa 1948-1951) for a select group of musicians and fledgling arrangers: Evans, John Parisi, Gerry Mulligan, Lee Konitz, John Lewis, and several others including Gil’s new pal, Miles Davis. Fresh from his high-profile time with Charlie Parker, Miles soon became the frontman/leader, and Gil the central force behind the scenes, as the group gradually experimented with a stripped-down version of Thornhill, all the rich chords and strange harmonies vested in nine players only (including tuba and French horn)—just the sort of musical challenge Weill once thrived on.
So there they were, the Evans crew gradually rehearsing, road-testing audience response via a two-week gig at the Royal Roost, and slowly edging into the recording sessions that became known years later as “The Birth of the Cool”—and Kurt doing much the same: writing, orchestrating, rehearsing, moving on from Street Scene to shape new shows Love Life and Lost in the Stars. I’d love to believe that Gil and Kurt each had a chance to catch the other’s work; it’s just barely possible. Certainly Weill’s music became a source for Evans’ magpie curiosity and skillful re-composing a few years later, but Gil’s interest might have started in the Forties.
Here’s that chronology told simply:
Miles' (and Gil’s) Nonet recorded very slowly, with sessions in 1949-50. Among the changing roster of players, Konitz, Mulligan, Miles, and tuba whiz Bill Barber made all dates, joined variously (as available) by J.J. Johnson, Max Roach, John Lewis, Junior Collins, Al McKibbon, Gunther Schuller, and (in place of Johnson during the Roost gig) trombonist and writer Mike Zwerin.
Evans’ conception and maybe even his handiwork seem evident in several arrangements though he claimed only “Moon Dreams” (often cited as the perfect Nonet cut) and “Boplicity.” Some selections were released on 78s with minimal publicity and minimal response, but reissued c. 1954 and then 1957 on LPs with the “Cool” claim—light textures, subtle rhythms, disciplined arrangements; some of them including “Moon Dreams” aren’t too far from what Weill was composing and imaginatively orchestrating at (and on) all stages. (Tangos seemed one of Kurt’s special fortes. Intriguing then that Evans’ own best-loved original was “Las Vegas Tango.”)
Kurt died in 1950, the Nonet soon after. Players dispersed to become leaders elsewhere. Miles and Gil stayed in touch. Then in 1956 Columbia’s producer and a&r great George Avakian not only began issuing the Lenya-Weill albums, but also signed Miles to a major label contract. Gil came aboard to help with arrangements for the Davis Quintet’s ‘Round Midnight debut, which turned out so well that Avakian decided to put Gil and Miles together for an orchestral Jazz LP.
Which became the brilliant and famous album titled Miles Ahead, though not without a struggle: several three-hour recording sessions and countless hours of cut-and-splice tape editing by Avakian and overseer Gil. But the result… ah, the bountiful, beautiful result… “Springsville.” “New Rhumba.” “The Duke.” “The Maids of Cadiz.” “Blues for Pablo.” The title cut. And leading into that track, because the LP really is one big suite of linked, disparate tunes and themes, Kurt Weill’s song superb, fleet of foresail and fancy, “My Ship”… the track routinely discussed as one of Evans’ masterworks of melody and motion. (Yes, Kurt and Gil, together again for the first time, documented.)
And so onward, to Porgy and Bess and Sketches of Spain and more, as Davis and Evans went deep into the dark center of Catfish Row and the deepest song of flamenco--wailing Jazz soloist against richly textured orchestra, slipping closer to a kind of opera. And the reawakened Sephardic soul of Kurt lingered a Weill, smiling
Sunday, September 11, 2011
Inspired by the gorgeous aerial shots of autumn foliage that bridge scenes in the new TV series Necessary Roughness, and by Doug Ramsey’s photos detailing the changing seasons as seen from his roving bicycle (posted at his Rifftides blog), yet equally dis-inspired by this dadblamed new computer still dissing me, and by my resulting failure to write "Kurt Weill Part 4," well… what can a poor boy do but to sing for a rock ‘n’ roll band, ‘cause in sleepy Vashon town there’s just no place that’s happening, so I’ve booked-in Little Johnny Keats as my stand-up replacement. Yes, he’s another short guy like Weill, but he’s tall on entertainment and believe thee me, folks, he knows how to turn a phrase!
Here are some excerpts from his ode to the busy female “Autumn”—but rather than New York or Vermont, this lovely gal’s a favorite in Sussex and Cumbria instead…
Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,
Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;
Conspiring with him how to load and bless
With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eves run;
To bend with apples the mossed cottage-trees,
And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core…
Who hath not seen thee oft amid thy store?
Sometimes whoever seeks abroad may find
Thee sitting careless on a granary floor,
Thy hair soft-lifted by the winnowing wind;
Or on a half-reaped furrow sound asleep,
Drowsed with the fume of poppies, while thy hook
Spares the next swath and all its twined flowers…
Where are the songs of Spring? Ay, where are they?
Think not of them, thou hast thy music too,--
While barred clouds bloom the soft-dying day,
And touch the stubble-plains with rosy hue…
Hedge-crickets sing, and now with treble soft
The red-breast whistles from a garden-croft;
And gathering swallows twitter in the skies.
* * * * *
That was Johnny… a pretty decent poet, and the clever lad predicted social networking too.
Friday, September 2, 2011
He was not a tall man, this proud new American, this solid citizen immigrant. Diminutive, compact, bespectacled, he was a shy man, quietly confident--perhaps arrogant, but silently so--regarding his musical skills and his business (show business) acumen. And this is what he said, this is what Kurt Weill said:
I write for today. I don’t give a damn about writing for posterity…. I have never acknowledged the difference between “serious” music and “light” music. There is only good music and bad music.
Sound familiar? One Ducal/orchestral leader offered a similar opinion:
There are two kinds of music. Good music, and the other kind.
Asked about the Jazz elements in his opera-related, vox populi music, Weill responded:
American Jazz has influenced modern music undoubtedly. Rhythmic and harmonic freedom, simplicity of melodic material, directness—saying things as they are—these are the contributions of Jazz… I do not mean the Jazz of today, but the Jazz of the time of the “St. Louis Blues” and other pieces of that period. Today it is much more complicated and it has been influenced in turn by Debussy, Rimsky-Korsakoff, and so on… [M]odern composers did not go to Jazz to borrow its idiom. It was not the actual taking of material. It was an influence you did not feel.
Now, certainly Kurt Weill could articulate the stance of those composers who absorbed detectable aspects of Jazz, but it is also ironic that his own staying power and his place in music history owe debts of gratitude to Jazz arrangers influenced by that very impressionism, the “re-composers” who discovered useful irony and melodic invention, suspended harmonies (“notes between notes”) and tuneful changeability in Kurt’s compositions. And his indebtedness certainly extends to a certain other “St. Louis” too.
(Look out, old Satch is back!)
Throughout the War and after its end, Weill kept quietly storming the barricades… and Broadway responded, noting misses as well as hits. The Firebrand of Florence flopped like a gasping flounder, yet that failure came hard on the heels of his biggest hits, Lady in the Dark, an astonishing musical about psychoanalysis, with Gertrude Lawrence, young Danny Kaye, and Kurt’s co-writers Moss Hart and Ira Gershwin, followed by One Touch of Venus, starring Mary Martin as the earth-visiting goddess, with fine and funny lyrics by Ogden Nash. The two also featured a pair of moody ballads—one each show--that became Kurt’s second and third all-time showtune standards, “My Ship” and “Speak Low.”
The latter was taken up first, by Billie Holiday and Sarah Vaughan, then Sonny Clark with John Coltrane, Tony Bennett, Grant Green, Stan Getz, Bill Evans, Hank Jones, Boz Scaggs, and umpteen more, right up to a deep thudding bass performance by Charlie Haden—accompanying a tape of Kurt himself “Speaking Low”! Similarly, “My Ship” sailed from Sassy Sarah to Kenny Barron and Gary Bartz, with stops en route at the ports of Jeri Southern and Ella.
Other shows, other hits: “It Never Was You” (Bobby Short, Judy Garland ), “Lost in the Stars” (beautiful version by Tony Bennett with Count Basie, also Ken Peplowski, Helen Merrill, Anita O’Day), “Lonely House” (wistful June Christy, eerie and powerful Betty Carter), and more. (Both the Haden and Carter reimaginings are on producer Hal Willner's interpretive masterpiece, September Songs, from 1997; also splendid tracks by Lenya, P.J. Harvey, William Burroughs, Lou Reed, et al, and a pair from Teresa Stratas that simply exceed perfection, "Surabaya Johnny" and the unknown and impossibly lovely "Youkali.")
By the time Weill died in 1950, pretty much from overworking himself, he had begun to gain a small dual following among Jazz folk; vocalists loved his melodies and his co-writers’ poetic yet straightforward lyrics, players admired his chords (“great possibilities for reharmonization,” commented one) and the rhythmic changes. But the admirers knew only the music of his “American” years—and even the performances I’ve mentioned mostly date from the mid-Fifties on. Before the Weill deluge could begin, a couple of other planets had to align…
The still-youngish Widow Weill decided to devote her life to keeping Kurt’s music--especially his neglected or unknown European works—in the public consciousness. First she performed a concert version of The Threepenny Opera in 1952, which set the theatrical world a-buzz about both Weills, then she played the part of Jenny (stopping the show every performance with her angry, world-weary version of “Pirate Jenny”), cunningly commanding the 1954 Americanized, revised staging of the complete Threepenny… which took off like a stealth jet, eventually and inexorably holding court off-Broadway for seven years.
That on-going success coupled with healthy sales of the MGM original cast album persuaded Lenya and Columbia Records to resurrect the others, adapted slightly so sultry, low-voiced Lotte could take some major role in each: Mahagonny, Happy End, The Seven Deadly Sins, and truly brilliant collections of his best (or best-suited to Lenya’s limited but oh-so-expressive range) German and American theatre songs—dozens of classic Weill and Brecht-Weill songs to be discovered, performed, and recorded by new generations of listeners and performers.
And in the midst of all that activity, capstone of the arch as it were, there arose the spectre of murderous Mackie Messer, aka “Mack the Knife,” with sainted Jazz trumpeter and master of the second-line march Louis Armstrong leading the way, just ahead of the “Mack Pack”: Turk Murphy (his version shelved for decades to leave the door open for Satch),then Ella Fitzgerald (live in Berlin as I recall), Bobby Darin, Bing Crosby with Bob Scobey, Eartha Kitt, Kenny Dorham, even Sonny Rollins blowing a tenor sax version under its instrumental/theme title, “Moritat”).
You could say that Kurt made Mack, and then Mack made Kurt, posthumously.
Suddenly both English-speaking audiences and revived German concertgoers were thinking, “Hmmm… Kurt Weill… Interesting… Wonder what else he’s written…” Whole albums devoted to Jazz versions of Weill began to appear, the first one an Australian Jazz Quartet LP of Threepenny songs with fairly boring arrangements by Teddy Charles. In France the Jacques Loussier Trio issued an album of brief, light, miscellaneous Weill. The Andre Previn Trio backed trombonist J.J. Johnson in his bid. And in the half century since J.J.’s LP there have been a couple dozen more devoted to Weill just in the categories of Jazz and Pop—over a hundred if one adds in the historical reissues and purely Classical releases too.
Weill was unique. I can’t think of any other composer who lived and created and succeeded so convincingly in the two musical realms he named with disdain in that quotation back at the beginning: “serious” and “light.” Indeed, at his best, whether sarcastic or sentimental, caustic or comedic, from The Threepenny Opera to Street Scene, from “Surabaya Johnny” to “Speak Low,” from Der Lindburghflug to Down in the Valley, from “Berlin im Licht” to “Youkali Tango-Habanera”…whether sung by Dave van Ronk or Dagmar Krause, Teresa Stratas or Elvis Costello, Andy Williams or Nina Simone, James Brown or DeeDee Bridgewater, Lotte Lenya or Lou Reed… or played by Miles Davis or the Doors, Cal Tjader or Django Reinhardt, Eric Dolphy or David Bowie, Nat Cole or Nick Cave, The Great Jazz Trio or the equally great trio Tethered Moon…
Whatever the Berlin shocker or Broadway blast, cabaret hit or concert hall miss, rock star adventure or Firebrand failure, you could be sighing a “September Song” or savoring “Green-Up Time,” and I might be sailing “My Ship” alone or feeling “Lost out here in the stars”… through it all, “It Never Was You,” or me. It always was Kurt.
(One last part of this convoluted story still lies ahead, a fantastic triple play to wrap-up the game. You might score it as “Thornhill to Evans to Kikuchi.”)