A LITTLE TRAVELIN' MUSIC
By Joe Brancatelli
March 26, 2009 -- I've just arrived in Shanghai from New York and it wasn't until a few minutes before I left for the airport yesterday that I realized I'd traded a weekend of soup dumplings for the Sweet Sixteen.
Don't get me wrong. Nothing, not even a power forward with a mid-range jumper, delights me more than dumplings. But the Sweet Sixteen NCAA college basketball weekend is tradition and I don't think the television system here at the soothing Okura Shanghai Garden Hotel has any of the games.
So since there is precious little going on in business travel right now--Do you really want to hear again how hotels are empty and airlines have lost their premium-class customers?--and I can't talk basketball with you, let me tell you what I chose to be the soundtrack of this trip. You might want to download a few of these when CBS cuts back to the studio from the games and Greg Gumbel begins babbling about the incredibly obvious…
FORGET THE LABEL, LISTEN TO HER SING
I missed the whole argument over whether Cassandra Wilson is a jazz singer or an R&B artist or some other easy-to-compartmentalize label. In fact, I missed Cassandra Wilson entirely until a fellow traveler tipped me to Belly of the Sun in 2002. What can you say about a woman who covers songs from The Band ("The Weight"), Antonio Carlos Jobim ("Waters of March"), James Taylor ("Only a Dream of Rio"), Jimmy Webb ("Wichita Lineman") and Dylan ("Shelter From the Storm")? Only that she's gonna knock you out with her unbelievable recreation of these oh-so-familiar tunes.
BRASIL '66 STILL SWINGS 43 YEARS LATER
The bossa nova beat that blew through the American pop charts in the 1960s made names of only three artists: Antonio Carlos Jobim, who wrote the "Girl from Ipanema;" Astrud Gilberto, who sung on the hit record; and Sergio Mendes. Mendes was the savviest. He realized that slick, tightly arranged Brazilian sounds could be a potent way to reinterpret the other musical strains remaking the American pop charts of the 1960s. Hence Mendes and his best U.S. group (Brasil '66) had a string of hits with covers of Simon and Garfunkel ("Scarborough Fair"), Bacharach and David ("Look of Love"), the Bergmans ("So Many Stars") and especially the Beatles ("Day Tripper," "Fool on the Hill" and "With a Little Help From My Friends"). All of these and six other Mendes classics appeared on his 1970 Greatest Hits album.
Blossom Dearie died earlier this year and I was bummed for days. I saw the seemingly ageless jazz chanteuse and piano player more times at more venues in more cities than any musician I've ever loved. This was a woman with the voice of a giggly teenager and an unerring sense of what made great music. I love Jazz Masters 51--Blossom Dearie, a Verve compilation released on CD in 1996. The 16 tracks are from 1957-60, after Blossom returned from Paris, where she first found fame. She is accompanied on standards such as "I Won't Dance," "The Party's Over" and "Surrey With the Fringe on Top" by top-notch sidemen like Kenny Burrell, Ray Brown and Herb Ellis. You'll be charmed by her version of Cole Porter's "Give Him the Ooh-La-La." This compilation also includes one of the all-time great road songs, Schwartz and Dietz's "Rhode Island Is Famous for You." You did know that minnows come from Minnesota and tents from Tent-a-see, didn't you?
THE LONG AND WINDING ROAD NOT TAKEN
You can't listen to Let It Be...Naked, the stripped down, "as it was meant to be heard" version of the 1970 Beatles album, without thinking of what might have been, for them and for us. The original concept of Let It Be came from The Beatles' desire to get back to basics: a bunch of mates making and releasing live-on-tape, no-tricks music. In other words, they were on their way back home to their rock roots after changing popular music--and the world--with their politics, style, money, mysticism, drugs and dazzling studio work. They didn't make it: Let It Be was abandoned as the band pulled apart and only released after a very thick application of Phil Spector studio chicanery. Come to think of it, neither did we. For better and for worse, the world that The Beatles helped shape in the 1960s has been fraught with times of trouble ever since. The whispered words of wisdom have never come. A long, long time ago, The Beatles thought Let It Be...Naked was the long and winding road home. It's absurdly naive, of course, but I can't help thinking that we wouldn't have been left standing here if only they had gotten back to where they once belonged.
IF BILLIE HOLIDAY SANG DYLAN
What would American music sound like if Billie Holiday had lived long enough to cover Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen? Mind-boggling as that question is, we have an answer. Pick up Careless Love by Madeleine Peyroux. The thirtysomething Peyroux sings and sounds exactly like Billie Holiday on this 2004 release. She's got Lady Day's musical taste and her bittersweet approach to every song. Her cover of Dylan's most beautiful love song, "You're Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go," is haunting. She nails Leonard Cohen's "Dance Me to the End of Love" and makes the title track--a W.C. Handy standard made famous by Bessie Smith in the 1920s--seem new again. There's also Hank Williams ("Weary Blues"), a fresh cover of "Lonesome Road" and a Peyroux original ("Don't Wait Too Long") that already feels like a standard.
ONE NIGHT IN THE SNOW IN PROVIDENCE
Seminal musical moments are sometimes a matter of kismet. Seminal moments in live jazz that make it to CD are sometimes a matter of blind luck. And so it is that Havin' a Good Time! arrived in our midst more than 30 years after the night that Ben Webster and Joe Williams performed together live. In case you haven't heard about this astonishing 12-track disc, here's the remarkable tale: In February, 1964, Williams and a small combo arrive in Providence, Rhode Island, for a gig at Pio's jazz club. Halfway through the engagement, Providence is buried by a blizzard, but Williams and his group go to the club anyway. When they arrive, they find Ben Webster, who has come unannounced and wants to sit in. Best of all, someone tapes the show. The tape is given to Williams, who puts it in a closet. There it stayed, forgotten and unnoticed, until Williams' widow rediscovered it after his death in 1999. Now the show, digitally remastered and sounding as fresh as springtime, is available for all of us to cherish.
THERE'S NO GLOCCA MORRA, BUT BUDDY CLARK WAS THE REAL THING
It happened this past St. Patrick's Day, just like it always does. Some radio station decides to program a little "Irish" music and we end up with endless renditions of "How Are Things in Glocca Morra?" But like St. Patrick's Day, whose parties and parades are entirely an American invention, "How Are Things in Glocca Morra?" isn't Irish at all. It was written by two Broadway stalwarts, E.Y. "Yip" Harburg and Burton Lane. There is no place in Ireland called Glocca Morra. And the version we all love is sung by Buddy Clark, the American crooner whose real name was Sam Goldberg. But for all its phony Irish heritage, "How Are Things in Glocca Morra?" reminds us of Clark's titanic talent. After a decade as a big-band singer, Clark rocketed to solo stardom in 1947 thanks to the iconic "Linda." Ten more Clark singles hit the charts in 1948. During the first nine months of 1949, he recorded smash duets with Doris Day and Dinah Shore. Then, on October 1, 1949, he died in a private-plane crash in Los Angeles. A posthumous release, "A Dreamer's Holiday," went to the top of the charts, too. Two dozen sterling Clark tracks are compiled on the 1999 CD called Linda.
GRACELAND: THE ALBUM IN THE BUBBLE OF BRILLIANCE
I was flipping the TV dial in an airport hotel room the other day and came upon something called the Gershwin Honors. It was a 90-minute celebration of its first recipient, Paul Simon. Among the precious few performers that Simon himself played with during the event was Ladysmith Black Mambazo, the a capella male choir group from South Africa. That naturally got me thinking about Graceland, the amazing 1986 Paul Simon album that introduced Mambazo to most of us in America. Once you get over the shock of the fact that Graceland is 23 years old, you can enjoy it anew for what it is: An inspired moment that fused Simon's rock and pop sensibility with the Mambazo's Zulu rhythms and stirring harmonies. It's long past time to reintroduce yourself to "The Boy in the Bubble," where Simon reminds you that "every generation throws a hero up the pop chart." Or "Graceland," where Simon sticks an elbow in your gut by explaining that "Losing love is like a window in your heart/Everybody sees you're blown apart/Everybody sees the wind blow."
NECESSITY IS THE MOTHER OF OSCAR PETERSON AND HAROLD ARLEN
I was in Rome a couple of years ago when circumstances conspired to rob me of music. What do I find on the first shelf I peruse? A two-records-on-one set called Oscar Peterson Plays the Harold Arlen Songbook. It's a Verve reissue of two separate Oscar Peterson Trio albums of Arlen tunes, one recorded in 1954, the other in 1959. There are nine songs common to both original albums, which offer a thrilling opportunity to hear a great artist tackle the same material in two unique ways in a short period of time. The 1954 tracks feature Ray Brown on bass and Herb Ellis on guitar. On the 1959 tracks, Ed Thigpen on drums "replaces" Ellis. Now the obvious question: How could I have missed this when Verve originally put the double-length CD together? Easy. It was released on October 9, 2001. Were any of us thinking about music then?
THE FERRY CROSS THE MERSEY MADE A BRIEF STOP NEAR SUPER-STARDOM
Whenever I hear "Ferry Cross the Mersey" or "Don't Let the Sun Catch You Cryin'," I think: Those guys were good! "Those guys," in case you forgot or never knew, were Gerry and the Pacemakers and, for one moment, they were the nearest thing to The Beatles. That may sound ridiculous, but it's true. Gerry Marsden and his band debuted with three consecutive No. 1 hits in 1963. More to the point, they were virtual clones of The Beatles: raised around Liverpool; signed by Beatles manager Brian Epstein; played the Liverpool-to-Hamburg club circuit; recorded with Beatles producer George Martin; and even had their own hit movie. The Pacemakers disbanded in 1966 and were assigned to the musical margins, but Marsden has crafted a successful solo career in Britain. There are at least a half-dozen CD compilations of Gerry and the Pacemakers standards; the one I have is out of print, but any of the others will get you through a bad week on the road.
What can't you listen to by Louis Armstrong? Who doesn't love Ella Fitzgerald? And then there were the sublime moments of musical perfection when Ella and Louis teamed up. No words or fancy titles were needed. The 1957 collaboration was called simply Ella and Louis, the follow-up, logically, called Ella and Louis--Again. The insanely wonderful pairing is backed by the Oscar Peterson Trio and Buddy Rich on drums.
IRVING SINGS BERLIN
It's impossible to top Jerome Kern's seminal line about Irving Berlin: "Irving Berlin has no place in American music," Kern once said in response to a question. "He is American music." And everyone--rappers, crooners, balladeers, Broadway belters, rockers, jazzmen--eventually covers a Berlin tune or 20. Even Berlin covers Berlin on Irving Sings Berlin, a 22-track disc of Berlin banging out some of his own work. He was a bad piano player and a very poor singer, but Berlin could deliver his songs with incredible feeling. Surprisingly, when he wasn't writing national anthems ("God Bless America") or memorable period pieces ("Alexander's Rag Time Band"), he was crafting tight story songs that had wit and bite and, sometimes, bile.
FIVE WORDS: RAY CHARLES AND BETTY CARTER
The 1961 release, Ray Charles and Betty Carter, remains the vocal duet album against which all others are measured. Every note, every syllable is brilliant. 'Nuff said.
Two CDs (okay, actually, I've ripped them onto my music player) that I never leave home without: The Tony Bennett/Bill Evans Album, the pitch-perfect 1975 collaboration of a great singer and a genius piano man when neither was wanted by a major record label; and Francis Albert Sinatra & Antonio Carlos Jobim, a blissful 1967 masterpiece by two giants at the peak of their games.
Enjoy the basketball this weekend. As Ray and Betty almost sang, I've got my music and my soup dumplings to keep me warm…
ABOUT JOE BRANCATELLI Joe Brancatelli is a publication consultant, which means that he helps media companies start, fix and reposition newspapers, magazines and Web sites. He's also the former executive editor of Frequent Flyer and has been a consultant to or columnist for more business-travel and leisure-travel publishing operations than he can remember. He started his career as a business journalist and created JoeSentMe in the dark days after 9/11 while he was stranded in a hotel room in San Francisco. He lives on the Hudson River in the tourist town of Cold Spring.
THE FINE PRINT All of the opinions and material in this column are the sole property and responsibility of Joe Brancatelli. This material may not be reproduced in any form without his express written permission.
This column is Copyright © 2009 by Joe Brancatelli. JoeSentMe.com is Copyright © 2009 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.