Tuesday, April 22, 2008
I was on the radio today for a show called "Grumpy Old Grad Students," where these two grad students asked me what it was like to be a trumpet major. It will eventually be streamed, with all my frivolous banter, here.
One question they asked me was what a trumpet player can do to make money. I said symphonies, small little pick-up brass gigs, ceremonial music, church music, funk/rock bands, jazz, solo touring recitals... (just kidding about that last one)
Then the guy asked me if this was a good season to be a trumpet player, because of all the Obama/Clinton/and especially McCain commercials that set a montage of the heroic candidate to the soundtrack of a lone trumpet supported by strings or sonorous brass. They asked me how to get those jobs, and I thought about it, and mentioned that trumpet players adore Tim Morrison, and I made the argument that perhaps Tim Morrison invented the stoic and heroic brass tone as we (and especially non-musicians) know it today. Think about, for instance, the theme to Apollo 13, or the West Wing. Without the rich low brass chords and the lone trumpet with a perfect, beautiful still sound--would these movies/shows have the sort of richness and gravity that
Perhaps Mr. Manning knows Morrison, since Morrison's classic Boston days coincide.
What's the point? Well, I am just as annoyed as any other "highbrow" musician to play cookie-cutter film music transcriptions in a summer band, and I'll roll my eyes at John Williams like the next person. But here in the main marketplace, there is a brass sound--remember the richness of the tuttis in Jurrasic Park?--that is a touchstone for non-musicians. At the risk of overstating things, these cues--through patriotic commercials, military bands, and film music (all of them to some extent "commercial" in their intent)--point to a cultural relevance of the brass sound in our days of canned electronic beats. You can't replace the resonance of a James Horner score, for instance, by using a synthesizer. People just know, and they crave the real thing.
So next time that John McCain commercial comes on, and the flag waves, no matter what your politics, listen for the brass sound. Like a political message, our product--our sounds--are being subconsciously peddled to a new generation of listeners.
This is a sound that is utterly commercial in its purposes but--in the case of Morrison, the BSO, and the London Symphony, that crop up on several albums that are "commercially" intended--it is a sound with an unimpeachable integrity as brass playing. One can make some money, then, and reach a wide audience without donning a sombrero, or a funny hat and a flugel and a catchy melody, by playing a very simple, very "American" tune very, very well.
Tuesday, April 8, 2008
But can you imagine playing that music (hopefully in the opera it was shorter) and then going back to your opera section parts?!
"1947 – First performance in Monte-Carlo of what will become one of his most famous works. Originally called Fanfares Concertantes, the opus will be played world-wide in its integral form under the name Fanfares Liturgiques. Its four movements, Annonciation, Evangile, Apocalypse and Procession du Vendredi Saint, are part of the opera Don Juan de Mañara."
Sunday, March 30, 2008
But I wanted to call your attention to this album, that I've never heard but have wanted to. Perhaps prof. Manning, being from Boston, has a line on it? It's a Gunther Schuller/Miles Davis/Dmitri Mitropolous (whoa!) collaboration entitled "The Birth of the Third Stream" . The music is by Mingus, the great classical jazz pianist John Lewis, trombone virtuoso J. J. Johnson, harmonic theorist George Russell, two tunes by Schuller (one of those "tunes" being a four movement symphony for brass and percussion), and two tunes by Jimmy Giuffre, who wrote for Woody Herman and was a leading arranger of "cool jazz."
Alot of albums like this fill in with anonymous studio players. Let me make some lists. These are just the highlights. Remember, aside from being a know-it-all jazz scholar, Schuller was then (1956) also a know-it-all horn player in the Met. opera orchestra and he brought some friends along for the ride, as well as the top call jazz players.
Rhythm section: pianist Bill Evans, bassists Milt Hinton and Charles Mingus
Tuba: Bill Barber (a top-call east coast studio player)
Trumpets: Joe Alessi (Sr.), Mel Broiles, a young Art Farmer, lead great Bernie Glow, Louis Mucci, and, of course, Miles as featured soloist.
Trombones: J.J. and Kai, Urbie Green, New York Phil great Gordon Pulis
The entire improvising French Horn world of the 1950s turned out (except, curiously, Julius Watkins--what was he doing?) and the highlights are James Buffington, Schuller himself, classical pedagogue Joseph Singer, Ray Alonge, and Arthur Sussman
Baritone horns are performed throughout by: John Swallow and Ronald Ricketts. Don't know who they are, but they have funny names.
I tend to react negatively to many Schuller things (like some of his books) because he can sometimes seem a little too forceful in overstating his role, and in describing things in yes-or-no terms. But like Wynton Marsalis, you may be able to dislike his playing, or his writing, or his speaking but one can't deny or discount that both (or either) have been tireless advocates of musical and historical education, and providing institutional places for the best musicians to convene and perform.
Friday, March 28, 2008
Masekela, who went into exile in America in 1960, says in the liner notes to his 1963 album Grrr that in South Africa, jazz and joyful "freedom songs" were forbidden. Playing in clubs, he had to hide and evade authorities who enforced mandatory black curfews. Going out to secret clubs was exhilirating, and also meant alot. Nowadays when we go to the Mill or the Sanctuary (bars in Iowa City that offer live music), we give up TV watching or paper-writing or practice time. Imagine needing to let loose and sing and dance so badly that you would risk sure punishment. Masekela also says that it was such a dramatic experience to be in these clubs, pulsing with life (all of these people, even the musicians, had day jobs as servants) that they would play 8 hours straight with few breaks, until the chops almost fell apart (those are his words).
Hear Masekela talk about music under apartheid here. It's quite dramatic, and he fashioned himself as an eloquent, dignified social critic even through the 90s.
Grrr has the sound of hard-bop in it. Though there is a saxophone, there are seldom any sax solos. A trombone is typically the lead voice with Masekela filling in the harmonies beneath him, which makes for a thicker sound perhaps reminiscent of Art Blakey and gives a funky depth to the voicing. The rhythm resembles a straight-eighth boogaloo (early funk), but with accent patterns that aren't obtrusive but, when you pay attention to them, are very hard to figure out.
A tuba pops in when you least expect it, on a few tunes, casting the music in a New Orleans light. The music is very tertian but has lots of voicings in fourths (you have to hear it to see what I'm saying, and I'll play it for my classmates Wednesday), and the frequent trombone and trumpet solos are very powerful, muscular, and in the pocket. They leave it all out on the tracks. Unfortunately, records from the sessions were not saved so we don't know who the tubist or trombonist are.
Increasingly Masekela turned to funk and "world music" and away from the tight brass band sound. In 1968, he scored a number one mega-hit for his ultra-catchy (some may say annoying song) Grazin' in the Grass. I can't find an online listing of the original, but here's a bad recording of it from 2000. He can still play. The tune starts at about 1:15 in the track. There is a joyful if over-produced album with Herb Alpert and Hugh Masekela from the 1970s that sort of sums up where he went, trying to broaden his audience in order to gain a larger platform for his social critique (also, to make some $!).
Ever since junior high, I've been a huge Sinatra fan. You won't be surprised to know I got picked on and had frequent nosebleeds.
But enough about my childhood. Sinatra has three style periods: the first came during World War II when he was a matinee idol (swooned over by young "bobby-soxers") and it is generally acknowledged that his voice was purest and smoothest in this period. But he got his start as the featured vocalist first in the big band of legendary soloist and Benny Goodman bandmember Harry James. He really matured, though, working in the late 30s and early 40s with trombonist Tommy Dorsey's band. In fact, Sinatra credits Dorsey with consciously teaching him how to breathe and phrase effortlessly and seamlessly. (Listen on some of Sinatra's classic recordings--you'll be hard pressed to find a section where he interrupts a melody to breathe.)
Then after a few years in the early 50s where his voice suffered and he recorded with barking dogs and other novelties, he joined the roster at Capitol records and made a string of classic "concept albums," each with a theme and an extended mood. He worked with three arrangers, principally: Gordon Jenkins, who typically wrote bitter stark ballad arrangements with strings, Billy May, an ex-trumpet player who wrote hard-swinging, very bright and brassy uptempo charts in addition to more lush and rich ballads with large orchestras, and Nelson Riddle, who mastered the art of the midtempo single as well as turning in some of the saddest ballad arrangements and swinginest burners. Riddle was a trombone player, and so many of the seemingly smooth arrangements have absurdly meaty bass 'bone parts if you know what to listen for. (The Sinatra/Riddle hit masterpiece "I've Got You Under My Skin" has a very notable, powerful trombone soli that leads to the climax.)
In the early 60s, Sinatra founded his own label, Reprise Records. This is just like Herb Alpert's founding of A & M, only Sinatra was already a big star. It allowed him to explore other projects, take total control of revenue, repertoire, and distribution, and finally to sell the label to a conglomerate for bookoo bucks.
He still owed Capitol several albums, and one of his final was a Billy May collaboration called "Come Swing With Me." (Their previous two collaborations, better albums overall, were "Come Fly with Me" and "Come Dance With Me"--btw, a few tracks were "ghost arranged.") It features not one but two all-brass big bands. In place of saxophones, there are french horns. One big band is in each channel and often beat for beat and phrase will alternate from one channel to the next. The guns are blazing, but the group also plays enormously soft and
the horns are effective blazing and also playing very soft lines. My only complaint is that sometime the 'bones are buried in the mix. He sounds hoarse the whole session, probably from singing over 40+ brass musicians!
This is before the age of overdub tricks, and what's amazing is the uniformity of style, where a whole big band matches a whole big band note for note, beat for beat.
At the same time he was working on this, Sinatra was recording a Dorsey tribute, and in two years (1963) he would record "Sinatra and Swingin' Brass." Though it includes saxes, it is indeed brassy, and some might say disgusting. It is arranged by Neil Hefti, a classic Basie arranger, but by then Hefti's day job was writing music for the Batman! series.
My point? The sound of brass was cool, it was swingin', it was the bachelor pad sound. And in walked Herb Alpert, right around this time.
Sunday, March 23, 2008
--Grrr, a somewhat rare but very funky album by South African flugel/trumpeter Hugh Masekela (featuring co-lead trombone and some unexpected tuba lines, a 1963 release)
-Chase the Clouds Away by Chuck Mangione; not really a brass ensemble, but a new CD was only--count it, I'm serious--ninety-nine cents at Virgin Megastore in Manhattan
--a (gasp) Chris Botti CD that I'm curious about, that was cheap but not that cheap
--a CD I'm really, really trying to like by the Dirty Dozen Brass Band. I've been incredibly into Motown lately, listening to Stevie Wonder nonstop, and my alltime favorite R & B album (alot of people's favorite) is Marvin Gaye's "What's Going On" album. I enjoy DDBB, but am so far a bit disappointed in the way they strip away the harmonies of the original. Still, very accessible expressive music with a Katrina-donation component to it.
Finally, I'm a big Sinatra fan, and an exploration of my personal music listening device reminded me of two albums that predate Herb Alpert by a couple years, really really swing hard, and are sometimes cheezy and overdone--both featuring Sinatra with nothing but brass and rhythm section (one album, "Come Swing With Me," is crazy hot and features two sax-less big bands blazing away, each with a sizzling french horn section, one in each channel. Sometimes they will alternate by channel each beat. It's very tacky. I'll play it for everyone some day.)
Sunday, March 16, 2008
He's not perfect. (In fact, he just got out of prison a few days ago after a year's sentence for using a ministry as a tax shelter despite an intervention by, surprise, Bill Clinton that tried to keep him out of jail.) A former member of Blood Sweat and Tears and Joe Cocker's band, Phil Driscoll typifies instrumental pop music and middle-aged "contemporary" Christian music. America really is at a crossroads generationally. Crossroads or not, Driscoll (who also served a stint on some drug charges in the 70s) is an inimitable "crossover" figure.
You have to admit, in a certain way, he knows how to play, and he has an attractive voice. He's obviously fried, but he is quite a marketing genius. In fact, given his "prison experience," he's probably a little too good at marketing.
Amazing Grace on the electric flugel
DO NOT MISS THIS RECORDING OF "JOYFUL JOYFUL!" Imagine that Beethoven wrote barqoue music for Maynard Ferguson, except it sounded like Arban, except it was really, really, really, really tacky.
Driscoll is a very genial figure, on TV all the time, who preaches a positive and generally untroubling message. But he is, unfortunately, a very influential figure in the development of the "contemporary church orchestra."
Some American Christian worship is unchanged from the hymn-heavy days those hokey Nehylbel arrangements or hymnal-sanctioned descant books were published. But churches are branching out. Many, to raise their profile on Easter and Christmas ("Gateway Holidays," I suppose you could say) mount programs rather than worship services, something more performed than worshiped. And those terms are arguable by just about anyone.
Catering to older audien--er, congregations--some mainline churches today are more apt to try to put on a Bach cantata, a classical mass, or some of The Messiah than before. After all, aren't the aging congregants of America's mainline Christian denominations the same demographic who still head rather faithfully to the concert hall, to see regional symphonies and traveling recitalists?
Then again, this weekend I just played a set of services at a small evangelical megachurch. There were elements of heavy characteristic brass writing, but always with an element of guitar or drums happening. The conductor moved to a click track to coordinate with video screens, and rich brass tuttis abruptly moved into funky sixteenth-note subdivisions, Tower-of-Power-lite for amateurs (even though, surprisingly, some of the material reached to the extremes for the horns and trumpets, low for the horns and high for the trumpets). The production value of the whole thing was impeccable, timed (literally, on a crib sheet) to the second and it was interesting to note how authentically the music staff worked to square the seemingly incompatible goals of natural and spontaneous spiritual experience, all while (for the purposes of agreement, technology, and production values) eliminating spontaneous variables in the service. Of course there was the guy with the synthesizer, filling in the added voices. All this evangelical service was missing was a very frazzled, gray-bearded bassist who looks out blankly, gets into it, but--you can tell--he's trying to rock out his demons from those years on the state fair circuit opening up for CCR, before he was saved.
I used to play two Sundays a month at a giant Lutheran church in Wisconsin. We would play brass ensemble arrangements of hymns done by a standard Lutheran publishing house, every once in awhile with a Robert Nagel or Robert King transcription or something along those lines mixed in for a prelude or postlude. Then once every couple months the organist would have me contract a full orchestra for what my wife and I referred to as "The Jesus Disco." Imagine three full services of Lutherans rocking out to what they imagine contemporary music to be (or what they remembered it to be the last time they listened to secular radio in 1978, around the time that Chuck Mangione and the Beegees cornered the top ten--and that's what it sounds like.)
But these Lutherans, those evangelicals don't have to hire brass groups. The publishing companies offer "tracks" where the pros can back up your service for a small fee. Or why not MIDI? So as we all probably go to play what will feel like that nineteenth verse of "Christ the Lord Has Risen Today" next week, maybe we should count our blessings, grin, and bare it. For at least one week a year the world believes that the sensation of vibrating metal filling a room is utterly indispensable, as our teams of red-eyed angels belch, nod off, and empty our spit in front of the hundreds of twice-yearly churchgoers who assume we're there every week.
It is sort of like the olden days, in fact. Kings and cities (Venice, for example) used groups of trumpets and trombones as symbols of wealth. Don't churches really do the same thing? More on that later, maybe.
Friday, March 14, 2008
My readers, I know, are classical brass musicians. How do we feel about this? The tune is familiar, the melody is (too?) sweet. The production is slick. But his sound... if you were about to get up onstage, and you could sound like yourself, or you could have the tone quality and consistency of Chris Botti, which would you choose? In his solo, he goes "out" a bit, and throughout, with every bend, run, snarl, etc., he has the utmost control and efficiency at his command.
I'd always heard of Chris Botti, seen him in the store, and concluded he wasn't for me, just as, initially, I figured (very, very, very wrongly) that Alison Balsom was just another pretty face. Then on New Year's, my father-in-law's friend put on a Chris Botti DVD, knowing I was a trumpet player. Initially, I just tolerated it politely. But you know what? Maybe we can learn something from playing with a little slick polish every now and again, with absolute control.
I realize I've been very trumpet-centric--I'll broaden out soon, I promise. Maybe I'll dig out some Bill Wautrous stories?
Thursday, March 13, 2008
Tuesday, March 11, 2008
In an earlier post, I cited an interview in which Chuck Mangione (a serious jazz/pop-instrumental artist blessed with a surprise, astronomical hit) expressed no regrets for hitting it big. There are some, you know, who are bitter. I don't know that he is bitter, but think of Bobby McFerrin: is there anyone (there are only a few) who can do more with a human voice than him, who also conducts to great spirit and effect, only to have morons post videos of their boring day at the beach to the tune of his "Don't Worry, Be Happy" only to misidentify him has Bob Marley ?
"Don't Worry, Be Happy"-- like "Feels So Good" or "A Taste of Honey" or "Take Five" or "Bolero"--is iconic, cliche, shorthand. You know, since the late 1980s commentators have written about the affect of having a "24 hour news cycle," where instead of twice per day (when your newspaper or magazines are printed, and at 5:30, when the national news is broadcast) information (sometimes raw data, mixed with opinion) bombards us 24/7, on our computers, in our radio, on our Iphones, blackberries, billboards, in our inboxes, and even in our facebook profiles. The same thing has happened to "art," perhaps. While we, the concertgoing intelligentsia of classical musicians might go see something experimental or buy a full-length CD, the art of the concert and the art of the album are withering. This is the age of the mix-tape, the link, the streaming upload. You must make a quick impression however you can, spread like a virus, and attempt to ride out your wave of fame, hoping that an audience following stays with you.
Frequently, the crossover hit leaves a thin residue of an audience for a recording artist. "Feels So Good" maybe picked up Mangione a few fusion fans who were eager to take the next step beyond Steely Dan, but not ready to go all the way to the Weather Report. But now, Mangione is a kitsch artifact in and of itself, as attested to his genial status as cult hero of the Mega-Lo Mart, an iconic character with his trademark hat and scraggly facial hair, selling all varieties of mundane products.
I first heard Mangione when, when I was in junior high, the high school marching band did a Mangione show. Of course, the director was a child of the 60s/70s, and so this was, you know, contemporary. And the parents seemed to be into it, and you know what? It is pretty good music. It definitely gives one a relaxed sense. (I loathe 70s directors, though, because they also brought us, gasp, the show choir, all because budding choral directors of the period never quite felt at home until they spent that summer with "Up with People."
The one-hit-wonder, by staying in the limelight, has the opportunity to drag a whole world of listeners into a new genre. I still remember, as a very very very young person, hearing a group I now know to be the Tijuana Brass on a commercial for Tide or some household cleaning product in the late 80s (but my youtube search came up for naught). Still, thinking of a recording artist as an image, waiting to strike it big and drag as much success as they can, brings me back again to Alpert. The consummate Artist and Repertory (A & R) man, his music is always one edit short of a commercial. But who knows? Maybe that's why, subconsiously, I play the trumpet.
Thursday, March 6, 2008
|1||Herb Alpert & the Tijuana Brass (19)||Carpenters (29)|
|2||Carpenters (15)||Herb Alpert & the Tijuana Brass (26)|
|3||Nazareth (13)||Styx (16)|
|4||Joe Jackson (12)||Bryan Adams (15) |
Cat Stevens (15)
|5||Joan Armadtrading (11) |
Quincy Jones (11)
Cat Stevens (11)
|Janet Jackson (14) |
|6||Baja Marimba Band (10) |
Rita Coolidge (10)
|Captain & Tennille (12) |
38 Special (12)
|7|| Peter Frampton (9) |
|Joe Cocker (11) |
Sergio Mendes & Brasil '66 (11)
Jeffrey Osborne (11)
|8|| Joe Cocker (8) |
Chuck Mangione (8)
Sergio Mendes & Brasil '66 (8)
38 Special (8)
Various Artists (8)
Rick Wakeman (8)
|Herb Alpert (10) |
Rita Coolidge (10)
|9|| Herb Alpert (7) |
Head East (7)
Humble Pie (7)
Paul Williams (7)
|Pablo Cruise (9)|
|10|| Human League (6) |
Joe Jackson (6)
Brothers Johnson (6)
|Billy Preston (8)|
Notice that many of the artists have crossover world music or lite-jazz appeal, especially Billy Preston, Sting/the Police, Quincy Jones, Mangione, the Baja Marimba band (a bald-faced, stereotyped spinoff of the Tijuana Brass), and wildly successful Brazilian singer Sergio Mendes. Commercial success comes from exhausting a formula, balanced with an eye for "the new thing."
Tuesday, March 4, 2008
This past November, however, the three departments united under a new banner. There's a very brief video about it here.
How did these three departments merge and what did they become? Well, after a 30 Million dollar grant from Herb Alpert (unheard of in a public university, possibly second only overall to Yale's 9-figure grant), these three departments became The UCLA Herb Alpert School of Music.
I don't know that Ray Mase or Rolf Smedvig would have 8-figures to spare.
Monday, March 3, 2008
The track, a cliche of instrumental pop, begins with a high, bright guitar lick on one of the chords' upper extensions, before a gnarly, hyper-rhythmic statement of the theme with the trombone voiced over trumpets in seconds beneath it. The effect is very tight and abrasive, not unlike an Art Blakey front line.
Then comes the bridge. Herb Alpert plays the melody over a soaring wordless choir (far enough back in the mix as to not make me vomit) on, it sounds to me, flugelhorn. The sound is so silky, so covered, the melody so long, the vibrato so natural, that I really begin to understand what a strong player Alpert is, and how he can shift styles--from bullfighter, to goofy faux-Mariachi, to Raphael Mendez, to Al Hirt, to something between Caruso and Harry James--all at a moment's notice.
And that's the point. You only have a moment's notice. (See Alpert's quote on the left side of this page about needing "the hook.")
The beautiful bridge on Girl from Ipanema made me think of, naturally, Chuck Mangione. Chuck Mangione being--should we be surprised?--an A&M recording artist. I'm going to try to see later if Alpert had any role in Chuck Mangione is also among the most unfairly dismissed brass musicians of the past century. While his recordings are dated, isn't/wasn't most jazz/fusion of the 1970s? Do we listen to the Weather Report and think, wow, that could have been written yesterday? No, with the Weather Report we listen through the synths and such to try and appreciate what were some of the most innovative music being written.
Mangione's history also makes him difficult to dismiss. Born and raised in Rochester, NY, Mangione attended hometown Eastman School of Music from 1958 to 1963. Little-known fact: while at Eastman, Mangione wrote an Afro-Cuban tinged composition brass quintet and solo trumpet for some young trumpet whiz-kid who went on to become solo cornet of the President's Own Marine Band and, later, a legendary pedagogue in the Eastern Iowa area.
Strange but true.
Mangione was part of Rochester's jazz scene and sufficiently impressed no less than Dizzy Gillespie, who recommended him for an opening in drummer Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers. As a trumpeter/flugelhornist in this legendary long-running hardbop collective, Mangione was in shockingly good company, occupying a chair that had been held by Clifford Brown, Lee Morgan, Freddie Hubbard, Donald Byrd, the acrobatic Woody Shaw (who also parlayed musical integrity into fusion success through funky records for the CTI label in the 70s), Wynton Marsalis, and Terence Blanchard.
Mangione came back to direct the Eastman Jazz Ensemble from 1968-1972, which is important, because these were formative years of the jazz ensemble as a genre in academia (and in universities, its rise parallelled that of the brass quintet). Can you imagine your jazz director hitting it big, big, bigtime with a number one hit? John Rapson really looks like Mangione, and his melodies sometimes have really strong hooks. Stranger things have happened.
There is a terrific LP with Mangione's band and the Rochester Philharmonic. Yes, it's too earnest by half at times, perhaps, but the melodies are absolutely soaring, and the arrangements are very daring for their times. And you know what? Quite lovely, and so well-played.
Fast-forward, 1977. Contract with A & M records. The Bee-Gees occupy a supermajority of the top ten list, and here comes "Feels So Good," shorn of its long improvisational vamps to fit on a three-minute single, to fill a void and please audiences who want melodies and pretty music. Check out this interview with Mangione about the phenomenon and his recent cult status due to King of the Hill (which will be covered in my next post). His attitude towards success, though, is so healthy and actually refreshing. From that interview:
Question: Is it true that "Feels So Good" put your two daughters through college?
Mangione: Yeah, and then some...[but] I do not mind having written the song at all. I just wish that I had written it in a different key, as the high d is hard to play. I am glad that I wrote something that brought joy to millions of people.
And now the man-on-the-street knows what a flugelhorn is. It's a win-win situation.
Saturday, March 1, 2008
Friday, February 29, 2008
Early this evening I visited Iowa City's Real Records (on Market and North Linn St., for you Iowans who haven't made the trip) for the purposes of collecting albums that might pertain to this blog and to an understanding of the financial side of brass playing. I picked up (cheaply) a reviewer's used CD of Herb Alpert's "South of the Border," and a fascinating LP: a 1978 A&M Records release entitled "Herb Alpert*Hugh Masekela." For those of you who don't know South African flugelhornists Hugh Masekela, he probably has the best-selling flugelhorn instrumental in history with the 1968 smash-hit "Grazing in the Grass." (Eat your heart out, Chuck Mangione.) The single sold 4 million copies. (Imagine me saying that in a Dr. Evil voice, and it's pretty funny.)
Recipe for success, ya think? If you haven't heard "Grazin'" check out this interesting little NPR piece on him a few years ago, that covers his anti-apartheid heroics as well as his commercial success and later artistic collaborations.
Both will generate future posts, as will a two CD set by trumpeter Dave Douglas, on cornet actually, in Dave Douglas Quintet: Live at the Jazz Standard. That link will send you to Greenleaf Music, a label Douglas founded to release his own music. During a week at the jazz club, his quintet would release that night's entire set via download the next day from his label's website, so that there were six straight days of absolutely new content with "no carbon footprint." In all there are 44 tracks, from which Douglas chose two CDs worth for Koch Records (who distributed the two-CD set). Douglas has been self-producing for a few years following a stint at RCA records, where his albums were uncommercial as ever. In a future post, though, I will examine his liner note essay in this album that is almost an apology for the album itself! He talks about the conflicts of being a 44 year-old lost in the shuffle of the download age and wanting to catch up.
But when I first walked in the store, I walked into a hilarious conversation. A hipster girl was categorizing CDs, and told the grizzled white-haired owner,
"That's so tacky! That's a really disgusting name!"
to which he replied
"What?! It's the name of the instrument! They're an amazing instrumental funk band."
to which I chimed in, not having heard the group but having heard the name from the other ABEL folks,
"Hey, are you talking about Bonearama? They're really amazing. It's seriously intense music."
The owner almost smiled, and I established, through my virtual ESP, some totally unearned hipster cred.
Thursday, February 28, 2008
Here in sick land (I just downed a heaping helping of Chicken Noodle soup that I actually burned because I started to fall asleep when I put it on the oven!) I turned to PBS accidentally between the Daily Show and the local news and forgot that the NY Phil concert in North Korea was going to be re/broadcast. Unfortunately, the fine folks and Mediacom and Iowa Public Television broadcast picture without sound. It is funny, though, that I could tell they were playing "An American in Paris" from the car horns and, later, from the tuba solo and the sly smile on Lorin Maazel's face.
After shaking my fist at the TV off and on for ten minutes, I then remembered about the internets and found this PBS upload.
(Trumpeters take note: "the" solo is at 11:45 on the track, and it's about as boozy as you could ever hope for. If Phil Smith does it, we have carte blanche. The tuba solo comes in at 19:53. If you were watching from outer space, you'd be hard pressed to figure out if air speed, eyebrow level, or shoulder movement changes pitches. You'll see.)
22:25 is a frac for the ages, but it really works in context. You'll see.
Also check out Lorin Maazel, who is older than dirt, around the 16 minute mark. This guy, who is very young for being so not young, just sparks to life and is having the time of his life, even if his lower body doesn't really move all that much. His stately reserve cracks into a smile, and it is literally infectious. There was such gravity on the faces of the North Korean crowd as well as the Americans in the audience, as if it was
You can see many in the audience start to crack smiles, in spite of themselves almost, and the interview footage is also interesting, although I haven't checked all of it. Maazel, though, insists on being an ambassador between people and people, more than between states and states. Can't the American people befriend the North Korean people without forgiving, condoning, or even considering Kim Jong Il?
Wednesday, February 27, 2008
Herb Alpert is now a theater producer who has put on high-art productions, among other things, of the Pulitzer Prize winning AIDS drama "Angels in America." He still uses his fortune to bankroll art and other products on his own terms.
Read a 1979 interview with him here.
Tuesday, February 26, 2008
Well, I'd like to ask the senators if they would do anything to stop Mexican imports like this from littering second-hand stores across the United States.
Any future trade agreement must address the issue of bad pop music spreading unchecked across borders.
Can we build a musical fence that would keep out just this song?
Dripping with vibrato, of course.
Then comes "Tijuana Sauerkraut." What happens when tuba-heavy polka meets gentle mariachi? Don't drink the water.
But "Desafinado," the classic bossa nova, is every bit as sexy and groovin' as Stan Getz's classic reading. A more "American" attitude towards straight tone, vibrato and bends for emphasis, underscore Alpert's really tasteful solos. Listen, if you hear the album, for the squarest vibe solo that ever was.
The track "Mexico" begins with a whistle, and then busts into a tuba-trombone-two trumpet-guitar statement of a slow two-step. Every sixteen bars, this attractive AABA melody is reorchestrated sometimes subtly, sometimes drastically, always cheesily. But by the time that Alpert's trumpet (overdub) floats over the ensemble, the melody has endeared itself to us. This is eminently untroubled music. It is happy being camp, and its fun is unending unless you approach it with hostility.
LIstening to the last track of the first side, "Never On Sunday," prompts me to ask: whenever did wordless choirs go out of style in pop music?
Not soon enough.
Monday, February 18, 2008
And you can't start with Elliot Carter.
In my last post, I mentioned an illuminating conversation with jazz professor Tony Garcia on the cultural location of jazz, in particular. The corollary to his realistic (and bleak) assessment of market share was a concept that we normally associate with the oh-so-grave sin of "selling out." Garcia, however, phrased the concept more neutrally: that of "gateway artists," musicians marketed to a broader audience that nonetheless introduces art music styles to a particular target market.
For instance, Andrea Bocelli may not have the artistic integrity of Caruso and Phish's jams may not stand up next to Miles Davis's fusion; but one introduces classical song forms, instrumenation, and vocal styles, and the other expands the attention span and prepares the way for an appreciation of spontaneous, nuanced musical interaction through improvisation.
The next phenomenon, then, is "the crossover." Herbie Hancock's recent catalogue is riddled with such collaborations, as is Tony Bennett's. In both cases, intergenerational performers reinterpret familiar songs in the hopes that instead of one artist's fan base, you might attract more sales from ten performers' fan base. I bought Hancock's recent Starbucks-marketed "Possibilities" after being intrigued by Hancock's collaboration with Paul Simon--I wish I had just downloaded that track and saved the rest of the money! But recently, on Showtime, I saw a documentary about the sessions. Rather than being embarassed or ashamed by the marketing aspect of his music, Hancock (a Grinnell College alum, for you Iowa readers) cited the premium his Buddhist faith places on treating all things as one as well as alleviating the most sadness and suffering as possible with one's gifts. It doesn't sound so cynical that way, does it?
Renee Fleming sings pop songs accompanied Fred Hersch's avant-garde jazz piano (trying to consolidate that six percent of record buyers beyond opera listeners. Allegedly, Radiohead cover-pianist Christopher O'Riley still plays "classical music," but the gimmick lets him stand out. The San Francisco Symphony hardly sounds like a back-up band on the burly, menacing brass tuttis that puncuate their passionate collaboration with Metallica on the live album S&M. Crossovers are neither good nor bad, and can often put a group in somewhat disorienting or bewidlering territory. In the brass quintet world, the Meridian Arts Ensemble has picked up a cult of Zappa-ites, and the Empire Brass explored the shared territory of the electronic New Age and broad impressions of early melismatic chant. The Empire album is quite bizarre, and it seems intended to be a challenge to the group and to the listener, even while it can serve as unchallenging background music to someone totally unfamiliar to the group's other catalog. Says amazon.com: "Only 1 left in stock--order soon (more on the way)."
Remember that American Brass Quintet album linked off of "Elliot Carter" above? Amazon sales rank=155,041. "Passage"'s sales rank=31,252, beating out the Canadian Brass's "All You Need is Love," slouching in at 55,900. However, the CD reissue of the classic Columbia "Antiphonal Music of Gabrieli" obliterates them all, at a lean, fighting 12,512 ranking. The Dirty Dozen Brass Band's greatest hits collection splits the difference with a 17,653 ranking.
Get this. GET THIS. The 2005 40th anniversary reissue of Herb Alpert's Whipped Cream & Other Delights recieves a ranking of FOUR-HUNDRED AND TWENTY-SIX! Does that surprise you? It surprised me. Didn't you all think that its only sales were at third-hand record stores? People still buy it, even though the young woman on the cover is quite hard to see given the relative size of a CD to a record.
Clearly, perhaps inexplicably, Alpert's music still speaks to the kitsch fan in all of us.
Side note: the #1 Amazon bestseller? Herbie Hancock's Joni Mitchell crossover album.
Don't laugh, I bought it two weeks ago, before I even thought about this post. And you know what? It's fantastic. The lesson here: know what part of the pie you're going for. Then eat up.
Sunday, February 17, 2008
What was with the Tijuana Brass?
I mentioned in my last posted post that there really is no money in the brass quintet when compared to the musical money universe. In high school for a research project, I interviewed the renowned jazz educator Tony Garcia for a broad interview on "defining jazz" that I used for my required senior research project. (I since have seen the error of my ways in our post-Wynton age. Read as little or as much sarcasm as you wish into this.) While Garcia--now a jazz professor at Virgina Commonwealth University, then at nearby Northwestern University--dutifully put in his two cents on "what jazz is," as I naively asked. A certain beat, forms, improvisation, placement in a historical context, yada yada.
As with so many things, though, the line between jazz (or, in the even snobbier world, classical) and other music is defined by what the "inferior" music does not have. Complex rhythms, harmonic interest, "artistic commitment." Too listenable! And of course some of this is necessary for discernment and the growth of a defined taste in order to navigate between the sound-stimuli that bombards us.
What stuck with me the most with Garcia, however, was his realistic attitude to that "not-jazz," and to the murky, often cheesy genre of music that falls between the cracks. Think of it like a pie, he said. The world of music (recordings) sales is the entire pie. Country takes up a surprisingly (to a yank like me) large chunk, and pop/rock, rap/R&B racks up sales. Classical and jazz, however, each comprise only between 2 and 3 percent of the sales pie. 5 percent total of highbrow music, perhaps. (These are rough estimates made during the year 2000.)
Out of classical music, brass quintets compete with thousands of albums of orchestral warhorses, operatic superstars, well-promoted piano and string virtuosi, and "...for a [Rainy/Sensual/Sunday/Relaxing/Brooding] Afternoon" compilations. One can only imagine how miniscule, say, the American Brass Quintet's sales are in comparison with the Julliard String Quartet, their better-promoted counterpart. And as an old teacher told me, strings will win every time because they don't empty their spit onstage!
Monday, February 4, 2008
In March of 2005, I checked out some grad schools. Since I was (for a terrible 6-month period) carless, I visited the University of Iowa and some schools in the NYC area in an absurd whirlwind of red-eye flights and, yes, Greyhound bus. Appleton , WIàMinneapolisàDes Moines, IAàIowa City (via Greyhound bus) àDes Moines (with seven hours overnight in the airport in lieu of a hotel) àMinneapolisàNewark (via turbulence, and—once on the ground—flak jacket) àLaguardiaàDetroitàAppleton.
An awful trip, and my auditions were, well… Let’s just say the highlight of my trip was the sightseeing. I had only been to New York once, a few months earlier, and—sleep deprived or not—I was going to experience Capital-C-Culture. On the flight into Newark, I bought a New York Times and a New Yorker magazine, scouring the arts section for monumentous events. The Meridian Arts Ensemble! One of my friends spoke the praises, endlessly, of Brian McWhorter and the MAE, so I resolved to check it out—it was one of only a large handful of classical music events going on that night, New York or not. In New York, I was staying with a couple of wonderfully fun, talented brass freelancers I knew from growing up in the Chicagoland area. They called me Friday night after my audition, asking me if I wanted to see a brass group with them. I told them I was already going—wow, it was going to be packed. Word-of-mouth was happening!
The show didn’t disappoint, not one bit. Their performances and style are almost always edge-of-your-seat and in-your-face in the wittiest way, and the repertoire was close enough to left field to make it a gem of a program. But the crowd, in a hip, dry converted theater… well, it wasn’t small, but it wasn’t big. I suppose I expected that somehow New York would be different. That “New Music,” brass music, there—well, how many millions of people live within a 30-minute subway ride? How many gigging musicians? How many hundreds of thousands of people read the New York Times each day? The crowd was comprised primarily of aficionados: just like in Iowa, just like in Wisconsin, dedicatees following the progress of one of their own. And while the program (starting with the Etler, standard rep. notwithstanding) would have been challenging to the man-on-the-street, the visceral style could have won more than a few converts, who may have been especially charmed by the straightforward Piazolla and Gershwin transcriptions. Who cares, though, about a brass quintet unless it’s Easter Sunday or an outdoor wedding?
While American Brass Quintet concerts—the brass equivalent of the Julliard String Quartet—may draw a slightly bigger crowd, how restless do audiences (even informed ones) grow upon hearing new works by composers other than David del Tredici, John Adams, John Corigliano, lately Osvald Golijov, maybe even Berio, Boulez, or Babbitt? These are composers that educated audiences—even if they may not like—at least understand that they ought to tolerate. There is a contemporary canon of music worth respecting that your average subscription-goer will be aware of. Who is this David Sampson? What of Gilbert Amis, or even—it’s hard to believe—Eugene Bozza? Are their works “irrelevant” to the orchestral or opera fan? If these composers were worth performing, wouldn’t the New York Phil be playing their symphony tonight? Where is Bozza’s opera? Ewald is, to us, standard repertoire. But who out there, who is not one of us, never was one of us, and never will be one of us, gives a rat’s you-know-what about Ewald? Or even, rest in peace, Malcolm Arnold.
Monday, January 28, 2008
What am I going to explore? Light-pop excursions by brass-heavy ensembles in the 1960s and 1970s. This is the stuff we chuckle at: Chuck Mangione, Herb Alpert, and Al Hirt. These cats made some decent “bread” in their day, but were they—gasp—sellouts?!?!?!?! While I have a small pile of their records, I haven’t given them sufficient time of day to really grapple with this time in brass history—when an instrumental pop group of trumpets and trombones could be commercially viable. The overarching theme I want to explore, circularly, is that of musicians’ tendencies to cannibalize each other upon the slightest hint of success. Be careful. You might just be a sellout too. I’m going to drift around these issues looking first at examples from jazz and classical brass music so that, hopefully, I can begin to shed at least some of my prejudices against brass pop music of the 1970s.
Why shed the prejudices? Because they are part and parcel of a cultural endemic: the fear that cult status might someday break into relative commercial success (even 80s Miles Davis, after all, was no Sting, and the Empire Brass won’t be threatening Strung out on…Radiohead’s sales figures, however meager they both may be) anytime soon.