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January 24, 2007

Song of the Day #784

Song of the Day: Limehouse Blues, written by Philip Braham and Douglas Furber, dates to 1924. Some 14 years before that, on this date, the great "gyspy" jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt was born (though some say it was January 23rd). Listen to an audio clip of this song, featuring the hard-driving Django (with violinist Stephane Grappelli and the Quintet of the Hot Club of France). And check out the classic Joe Pass "Django" tribute recording, which is available for download here.

January 20, 2007

Song of the Day #783

Song of the Day: Nights (Feel Like Getting Down) features the words and music of Nigel Martinez and Billy Ocean, who sings this cool and funky 1981 disco track. Listen to an audio clip here.

January 15, 2007

American Idol 2007

As readers of Notablog no doubt know, I'm a big fan of "American Idol," which begins its 2007 season tomorrow, January 16th. (In fact, for me, with the premiere of "24" and "AI" this week, it's like the new TV season has just begun! Virtually all of the new shows I started watching this Fall are now history... but the old ones keep chuggin' along...)

A really nice article on AI appears in today's New York Daily News. Written by David Hinckley, "Why 'Idol' Outshines Its Rivals" brings attention to what I think is the essence of the series: It's a talent show! And it's part of a long tradition that stretches back to the Golden Days of Radio and TV; it may not match the track record of Amateur Night at the Apollo, but it's clearly an aspect of a larger talent show tapestry:

At its core, "American Idol" is really no more than a slick version of the Major Bowes and Ted Mack amateur hours of the 1930s, whose alumni include the likes of Frank Sinatra. Moreover, if "Idol" lasts 100 years, it's unlikely to produce anything close to the roster of winners Apollo Theater amateur nights have been delivering since 1934 - artists like James Brown, Michael Jackson, Gladys Knight and Luther Vandross. However much fun it is to hear Simon Cowell turn snarky, chasing tuneless singers back home was even more entertaining at the Apollo, where Porto Rico ran on stage in funny suits firing a starter's pistol.
No matter. "Idol" has become the most lucrative amateur night of them all, brilliantly promoting and marketing itself into a package far richer than the sum of its components.

So, I'll be watching tomorrow night; first, however, I've got to get back to watching last night's recording of Jack Bauer's explosive new adventures...

Michael Brecker, RIP

I first heard him when he played with his brother Randy as part of the Brecker Brothers. Whether he was heard on pop tracks, like "Same Old Lang Syne" or playing a haunting saxophone synthesizer on "In a Sentimental Mood," Michael Brecker was a consummate jazz musician.

After a long bout with leukemia, Brecker passed away on Saturday, January 13, 2007. Influenced by John Coltrane (and Coltrane's widow, Alice, passed away this weekend too) and the fusion sounds of the 1970s and 80s, Brecker actually completed his final album two weeks ago.

My condolences to his friends and family.

January 13, 2007

Song of the Day #782

Song of the Day: Django, an elegy composed by John Lewis, was recorded famously by the Modern Jazz Quartet.  But my favorite version remains the one recorded by immortal jazz guitarist Joe Pass, who was born on this date in 1929.  That version is the opening track on Pass's tribute album to another immortal jazz guitar great, Django Reinhardt, to whom this piece was dedicated. It remains my favorite Pass album of all time. Listen to audio clips of the Pass recording and the MJQ recording.

January 11, 2007

Yvonne De Carlo, RIP

Remembered as Moses's wife in the 1956 Cecil B. DeMille classic, "The Ten Commandments," and as Lily Munster on "The Munsters," Yvonne De Carlo passed away earlier this week at the age of 84. Her career spanned both B-movies and Broadway (where she starred in the Stephen Sondheim Tony-winning musical, "Follies"). But it's as the matriarch of 1313 Mockingbird Lane that I will most remember her, fondly.

Condolences to her friends and family.

January 10, 2007

More on Jack Sullivan and Film Scores

This morning, I came across an article entitled "Conversations with John Williams," by author Jack Sullivan, whose book Hitchcock's Music I mentioned in my post on "Hitchcock and the Art of the Score." The article is published in the current Chronicle of Higher Education, which means you'll need a subscription in order to read it. For those who don't have a subscription, here's a little bit about the essay.

Sullivan tells us that John Williams, "Hollywood's premier composer," echoes the arguments of "[h]is predecessors Erich Korngold and [Bernard] Herrmann," who believed "that film music helped keep classical alive..." Williams "is convinced this phenomenon is now truer than ever."

"Purists will not like that," he admits, and he himself is emotionally torn. "As musicians, we don't like to think we need visual aids to project music. It should be able to engage us aurally and intellectually without a visual distraction. I'm painfully aware of that problem, but as you and I have discussed before, we are visual addicts, stimulated by computer or movie screens. People have their eyes glued to something all the time. For that generation, it's hard to listen to Beethoven and be completely engaged in a way that we would prefer them to be. But I think to ignore that fact is to ignore a reality that is with us; the audiovisual coupling as expressed in film music is something that is really with us to stay because of the way we live."

Sullivan reminds us of what I'd call the "snob factor" among some classical music buffs, concerning film score composing:

The classical intelligentsia once openly ridiculed film composing, using it as an instant metaphor for anything shallow or sentimental and scoffing at concert composers who wrote for the movies on the side. Stravinsky panned Rachmaninoff's symphonic works as "grandiose film music." Otto Klemperer, upon hearing that Korngold was writing for Hollywood, sneered that Korngold "had always composed for Warner Brothers, he just didn't realize it." Current critics tend to be more accepting of the field, but they practice a curious doublethink, one that is often unconscious. "Sounds like movie music" is still a common way to dismiss a new concert work, even among reviewers ostensibly friendly to the genre. ...
The stakes are high, for film music is uniquely situated to disseminate symphonic culture at the moment many commentators worry about that culture's impending collapse. In Williams's view, our multinational age presents an opportunity for classical music to reposition itself and for young composers to find an audience. "For better or worse, the audience for film music, even in an unconscious way, is multinational and enormous. If there is such a thing as global music, it's probably coming from film, where it's less attached to one particular vernacular. As a unified art form, a successful film, if it has a score that people will embrace, really can, in the atmosphere we live in today, reach across those boundaries. Film music can therefore be very important even to the history and development of the art form of music itself."

Sullivan makes important points, I think, about the significance of film scores. "Common sense should tell us that the divide between film music and classical is artificial, as silly as the schism between symphony and opera." Williams is among those composers who have kept symphonic music alive, the kind of music that features a "grand, Romantic, sweeping style..." That style was sure on display the first time I saw Williams conduct the New York Philharmonic, back in February 2004, and again in April 2005 (in an appearance at Lincoln Center that featured special guest violinist Itzhak Perlman), and yet again in May 2006.

I like the fact that Sullivan focuses on Williams's vast talent as both a composer and arranger ("he orchestrates his own scores, every note and instrument, down to the last string harmonic or harp glissando, working with pencil and paper"). Williams was deeply influenced by composers as varied as Haydn (his favorite), Stravinsky, Shostakovich, Prokofiev, and Bartók, as well as Ellington and Billy Strayhorn. The latter influence really shows, I think, in Williams's score for "Catch Me if You Can," pieces of which were performed brilliantly at the May 2006 Avery Fisher Hall concert I attended.

In any event, having argued for the musical integrity of film scores many times in the past (see here, for example), I really enjoyed this Williams interview, and, as I said the other day, I'm looking forward to reading Sullivan's book when I have the time.

January 08, 2007

Hitchcock and the Art of the Score

There is a really good article in today's NY Times, a book review by Edward Rothstein entitled "Hitchcock, Thrilling the Ears as Well as the Eyes." In it, Rothstein reviews Jack Sullivan's new book, Hitchcock's Music (Yale University Press). Having chosen quite a few "Song of the Day" tracks from Hitchcock films, written by great composers such as Bernard Herrmann and Miklos Rozsa, I have always celebrated soundtracks not only for the role they play in cinematic integration, but also as works that transcend the medium. (My celebration of film score music resumes in mid-February, with my usual "Ben-Hur" citation, in anticipation of the Academy Awards broadcast on February 25th.) So the new book sounds very intriguing.

Rothstein writes:

Bernard Herrmann, for example, who created the scores for "Psycho," "North by Northwest" and some of Hitchcock's other masterpieces, said there were only "a handful of directors like Hitchcock who really know the score and fully realize the importance of its relationship to a film." But it was more than that. For Hitchcock music was not merely an accompaniment. It was a focus. And it didn't just reveal something about the characters who sang the score's songs or moved under its canopy of sound; music could seem to be a character itself. ... Music has as much a role to play in [Hitchcock's] films as any of the characters. It might charm them or be used by them. But it also can reveal more than they know, offering secrets or promising salvation. Hitchcock's music has such an independent life, it also seeps through film’s strict boundaries: Something that seems to be a score turns out to be a radio playing off screen ("Rear Window"); music that starts as part of a film score is heard again in the humming of a hero (in "Foreign Correspondent"). "I have the feeling I am an orchestra conductor," Hitchcock once told Francois Truffaut. He also compared film to opera.
Hitchcock, without ever drawing a line between the popular and high arts, explored his chosen genre with a firm belief about the powers of music. Music can provide an archetype for Hitchcockian suspense. Music can hint at more than it says; it can unfold with both rigorous logic and heightened drama; and despite all expectations it can shock with its revelations.

Excellent observations; I look forward to picking up Sullivan's new book and reading it.

Also noted at the Rozsa Forum.

January 06, 2007

Song of the Day #781

Song of the Day: Indigo Eyes features the music and lyrics of Peter Murphy and Paul Statham. My favorite rendition of this song is from Peter Murphy's live set, "aLive Just For Love" (audio clip at that link). This double album features an array of accoustic reconstructions of Peter's diverse body of work (and includes a guest appearance by Bauhaus bassist David J). I have highlighted Peter's "Subway" and "Just for Love" in previous "Song of the Day" entries, and I've enjoyed his artistic evolution from his Bauhaus days to his glorious solo projects. Thanks for introducing me to Peter's eclectic universe, sweetie. Happy birthday, with love.

January 01, 2007

Song of the Day #780

Song of the Day: Let's Start the New Year Right is an Irving Berlin chestnut from the 1942 film, "Holiday Inn." Listen to audio clips of renditions by Bing Crosby and Mel Torme. As our annual tribute to the holiday season comes to an end, let me wish all of my readers a Happy, Healthy, and Successful 2007!