here are few things that remain constant in life, but for me one of them is this: Stephen Sondheim’s work has touched me for more than half a century. It did so when I was first listening to records as a child, when I didn’t know his name or much else, and it does so right this minute, as songs of middle-aged regret like “Too Many Mornings” and “You Must Meet My Wife” are randomly shuffled into my headphones by iTunes. It’s unusual to remain so loyal to a single artist. We tend to outgrow our early tastes and heroes. It’s even more unlikely to have that artist materialize in person and play a crucial role in one’s life—as Sondheim first did when I was 21 and he was 40. Since then, with some lengthy intermissions along the way, he’s been a mentor, an occasional antagonist, a friend, and even an unwitting surrogate parent.
While it was far from the case when I first met him, Sondheim at 83 is an institution and a cottage industry. He’s received every prize an artist can in America, often multiple times. His shows are in constant revival. In November alone, he was lionized by the New York Public Library, the Museum of the City of New York, and City Center at home, even as a West End production of his 1981 Broadway failure, Merrily We Roll Along, beat out The Book of Mormon for Best Musical in London’s Evening Standard awards. At this point, so much has been written about his career that it’s hard to find much new to say about it. Besides, Sondheim often says it better than anyone else. The most transparent of artists when it comes to explicating his craft, he has given countless interviews detailing his methods and motives, meta and micro, song by song and show by show. (Much of it is codified in the essays tucked into the two juicy volumes of collected lyrics he published at the start of this decade.) But the man himself, the guy behind the work, can be harder to pin down. This is a challenge that the playwright and director James Lapine, Sondheim’s friend and longtime collaborator, and I tried to address in Six by Sondheim, our documentary debuting December 9 on HBO. I’ll let the film speak for itself, not least because almost all the speaking is done by its subject, whose on-camera interviews over 50-plus years shape a narrative built around a half-dozen of his songs. But I continue to wrestle with my own, separate Sondheim narrative: Not a day goes by when I don’t reflect on what I’ve learned from him and what he and his work have meant to me for as far back as I can remember.
This was a defining question for many years. By nature, I’m a Stones person. But I also love the Beatles. And I’m too grown to pick one over the other. They’re both great for very different reasons.
I’m with the Beasties on this one. Yeah, the Goldiebox commercial is admirable in spirit but they’ve got the nerve to rip off music for their own purpose and then hide behind their politics.
Cool product, and at this point, they’ve accomplished their mission because the video has gone viral, but still: they get the Gas Face.
Ry Cooder has a new live record out. Alec Wilkinson has a thoughtful post about Cooder and performing live over at the New Yorker:
Absent disabling cases of stage fright, emotional reversals, or predatory addictions, performers who withdraw from performing—who liberate themselves straight into a private life—are rare. One of the few popular musicians I can think of who has done so happily (besides George Harrison) is Ry Cooder. Perhaps in Cooder’s case it isn’t surprising since he began his career as a studio musician, when he was still a teen-ager—he grew up, that is, in a context where music was made in rooms with only a few people present, not on a stage for an audience. He once said that the people who want the applause should have it, but he wasn’t one of them. He didn’t like being watched. He didn’t like the pressure of having to deliver a performance—as opposed to just playing music—and he didn’t like being analyzed by the guitarists who stood as close as they could to try and figure out what he was doing. The whole experience was draining. After a concert, he once said, he felt like a withered balloon under a chair at the end of a children’s party. About thirty years ago, he reached a point where he could no longer go out on stage and say one more time, “Ladies and gentlemen, and especially you ladies…”
…Another reason Cooder didn’t tour is that in middle age he felt he could no longer perform many of the songs he had recorded when he was younger. Some of them had relied on a jauntiness he no longer felt.
So this went viral yesterday.
Over at the New York Review of Books, Adam Shatz reviews the first volume of Stanley Crouch’s long-anticipated Charlie Parker biography:
That Parker was a child of Kansas City swing should be obvious, but it has been obscured. The temptation to hear Parker’s music as a complete rupture with swing has been fed not only by his beatnik admirers, who saw him as a kind of natural wonder, but by Parker himself, who insisted that bebop was “no love-child of jazz” but rather “something entirely separate and apart.” Indeed, Parker’s work sounds utterly different from the music that preceded it, particularly in its unusual phrasing, and in its splitting of the four beats in a bar into eight. When Parker launches into his improvisation in “Ko-Ko,” his exhilarating reworking of Ray Noble’s “Cherokee,” he seems to be taking flight and bidding farewell forever to the Swing Era.2 To listen to the recordings Parker made for Savoy and Dial in the mid-1940s is to feel you’re witnessing the birth of modern jazz, with its eighth notes, flatted fifths, and breathless velocity.
No artistic movement, however, is born of immaculate conception. Thanks to the work of Albert Murray, Gary Giddins, and Scott DeVeaux, we now know that the music of Parker and Gillespie evolved from the big-band swing against which it rebelled. Murray, in his 1976 book Stomping the Blues, described Parker as “the most workshop-oriented of all Kansas City apprentices,” rather than a highbrow modernist “dead set on turning dance music into concert music.”
Crouch has praised Stomping the Blues as “the most eloquent book ever written about African-American music,” and there is a lot of Murray in Kansas City Lightning: the celebration of the battle-of-the-bands milieu of Depression-era Kansas City; the insistence that jazz is a proud dance music, rather than an aspiring art music pleading for admission to the concert hall; and above all, the evocation of what Crouch has called “the rich mulatto textures” of American culture. These Murray-esque riffs will be familiar to anyone who has read Crouch’s cultural criticism. But Crouch understands that Bird was more than a gifted exponent of the Kansas City style, and that his inspiration arose from a hidden place that cannot be located on any map. Kansas City Lightning is about what Parker owed to his native city, but also about why he had to make his mark elsewhere.
The glories of Kansas City big-band jazz, which Crouch describes in lush detail, are well known. The formidable leaders of the “territory bands”—Count Basie, Bennie Moten, Walter Page, and others—all plied their trade there. They clashed with one another in fierce, joyful “cutting contests,” and sometimes raided one another’s bands for members. The more than fifty cabarets between 12th and 18th Streets provided an education for young black musicians barred from attending the city’s musical academies. The pianist Mary Lou Williams, who later took part in the bop revolution at Minton’s, remembered Kansas City as a “heavenly” place. It was also a sinner’s paradise, where sex was easily purchased and clubs were supplied with Pendergast’s own brand of whiskey. (When the temperance advocate Carrie Nation came to Kansas City, she was shown the door and told never to return.)
[Photo Credit: Joey Conzo]
Most contemporary engineers and producers see a record as a “project,” and the band as only one element of the project. Further, they consider the recordings to be a controlled layering of specific sounds, each of which is under complete control from the moment the note is conceived through the final six. If the band gets pushed around in the process of making a record, so be it; as long as the “project” meets with the approval of the fellow in control.
My approach is exactly the opposite.
I consider the band the most important thing, as the creative entity that spawned both the band’s personality and style and as the social entity that exists 24 hours out of each day. I do not consider it my place to tell you what to do or how to play. I’m quite willing to let my opinions be heard (if I think the band is making beautiful progress or a heaving mistake, I consider it part of my job to tell them) but if the band decides to pursue something, I’ll see that it gets done.
I like to leave room for accidents or chaos. Making a seamless record, where every note and syllable is in place and every bass drum is identical, is no trick. Any idiot with the patience and the budget to allow such foolishness can do it. I prefer to work on records that aspire to greater things, like originality, personality and enthusiasm. If every element of the music and dynamics of a band is controlled by click tracks, computers, automated mixes, gates, samplers and sequencers, then the record may not be incompetent, but it certainly won’t be exceptional. It will also bear very little relationship to the live band, which is what all this hooey is supposed to be about.
[Photo Via: SOS]
Ronstadt: Story is what’s most important. What’s your story.
Tavis: Ah, uh-huh.
Ronstadt: You’ve got to be able to make your story clear, and your story has to resonate with the public. If you don’t have a story -
Tavis: Your story or the story in your music? Your personal story or the story in your music?
Ronstadt: Yeah, your personal story. If you don’t have story to tell the public at large – you have to be able to sort of go listen, you’ve got to listen to this or I’m going to – you have to grab the public by the collar and go, “You’ve just got to listen to this, because I’m going to die if I don’t get to tell somebody this story.”
It’s just got to be bursting out of you. You can’t keep it in. It’s like ooh. Then the weird thing that turns on you is that once it gets to the listener’s ear, it should be about the listener’s story.
They really shouldn’t be thinking about my story. It’s just my job is to evoke, not to instruct.
[Photo Credit: Amy Sussman/Invision/AP]
Q: In one sentence, can you define your record collection?
A: Years ago I read an opinion piece in the New York Times–the writer talked about how collecting doesn’t have to be just about accumulating, it can be about editing, about collecting only the most essential examples of something. That’s how I look at my record collection. If I’m not going to play a record, don’t need to own it. So I only have records I truly love and play.
Q: Do you remember your first record?
A: The first album I remember owning was Mister Ed, The Talking Horse, which I got as a gift. But the first one I chose myself was Beach Boys Concert. I was given a children’s album as a gift and made my mom take me back to the record store to exchange it. I have a copy, but unfortunately not my original one. The first 45 I got was The Beatles’ “I Want To Hold Your Hand,” which my parents gave me as a gift. I think I’m pretty lucky that these were my first records. I loved records as soon as I knew what they were. My parents had a few Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass albums that I loved and played constantly. Many years later I had the good fortune to work for Herb at A&M, and we’re still friendly. It blows my mind. Still.
[Photo Credit: Eilon Paz]