Saturday, November 18, 2017

Concert Review: Tom Rush with Matt Nakoa at the Dakota Jazz Club

Tom Rush.

Last week I saw folksinger Tom Rush at the Dakota Jazz Club. I’ve seen Tom Rush several times before, as he’s one of my Mom’s favorite singers. I reviewed his 2013 show at the Cedar Cultural Center here. Rush has performed at the Dakota before, and the venue is a great fit for his laid-back style. Rush made his first records during the folk music boom of the early 1960’s, recording on the Elektra label. (My Mom is pretty sure she bought her first Tom Rush album just because he was on Elektra, which was known as a great folk label.) Rush is probably best known for his 1968 album The Circle Game, which included his best-known song “No Regrets.”

Rush is a great entertainer, whether he’s singing, playing the guitar, or telling stories. I’ve heard many of his stories before, but Rush tells them as though it’s the first time. His honeyed baritone makes it easy to listen to him spin stories of meeting Joni Mitchell, and becoming the first person to record her songs. Rush is also a fantastic guitar player, one of the great finger-pickers. As always, a highlight was his version of “Panama Limited,” as he makes his guitar imitate many different train sounds. 

Along for the ride with Rush was guitarist and pianist Matt Nakoa. I’ve seen Nakoa with Rush before, and his piano playing adds new textures to Rush’s songs. Rush played many new songs from a forthcoming album of all originals, and Nakoa played excellent blues piano on those tunes. 

The concert was another enjoyable evening of folk and blues from Tom Rush. Rush may be 76 years old, but he still plays this music with the joy and enthusiasm of a young man discovering it for the first time.

Saturday, October 28, 2017

Concert Review: Ramsey Lewis at the Dakota Jazz Club

Ramsey Lewis and his band. From left to right, Tim Gant on keyboards, Charles Heath on drums, Ramsey Lewis on piano, Joshua Ramos on bass, and Henry Johnson on guitar.

Last night I saw the great jazz pianist Ramsey Lewis at the Dakota Jazz Club. I’ve seen Ramsey Lewis three times before, in 2009, in 2012, and in 2015. Each time he’s put on an excellent show full of his vibrant piano playing. Lewis played with the same group I’ve seen him with before, Tim Gant on keyboards, Henry Johnson on guitar, Joshua Ramos on bass and Charles Heath on drums. 

Ramsey Lewis’ first album, recorded in 1956, was titled Ramsey Lewis and His Gentle-Men of Swing. The very first song on that album was “Carmen,” a jazz version of the habanera from the opera Carmen by Georges Bizet. Ramsey Lewis always comes across as a gentleman-he’s always impeccably dressed and seems like a very nice guy. And it’s fitting that his first song on his first album was a fusion of classical and jazz. Lewis studied classical piano as a young man, and his playing brings together many different elements-jazz, classical, soul, R&B, pop, and more. 

Lewis achieved crossover success in 1965 with his recording of “The ‘In’ Crowd,” which had been a pop hit for Dobie Gray. Recorded live at the Bohemian Caverns club in Washington, D.C., with his great trio of Eldee Young on bass and Redd Holt on drums, the album and the single were both Top 5 hits on the pop charts, an unprecedented feat for a jazz group. Lewis’ recording of “The ‘In’ Crowd” is often used in TV shows and movies, as it has become a song that instantly captures its era in just a few funky notes. 

Lewis opened the concert last night with the smooth funk of “Tequila Mockingbird,” and he mixed a musical quote from “The Trolley Song.” His next song was a version of the Beatles “Here, There and Everywhere.” He began the song solo, and slowly the rest of the group joined in as it moved in other directions. Lewis followed that up with another Beatles song, “A Hard Day’s Night,” which he had a hit with in 1966. The band really got to show off their chops on “A Hard Day’s Night,” as everyone took lengthy solos. The whole band is excellent, and special mention must be made of Henry Johnson on guitar, who reminds me a lot of Wes Montgomery. Johnson also had some terrific exchanges with Joshua Ramos on bass. Lewis played a beautiful version of “Dear Lord,” a John Coltrane song. Lewis is adept at playing both ballads and funky swingers. His style is always smooth and easy to listen to.

Lewis closed the 7PM show with his two biggest hits, “Sun Goddess,” which he revealed was written as an Earth, Wind & Fire song that Maurice White couldn’t think of any words for, and of course, “The ‘In’ Crowd.” At the age of 82, Ramsey Lewis doesn’t disappoint.

Saturday, October 14, 2017

Concert Review: Paul Weller at the Pantages Theatre

Paul Weller

Last night Paul Weller played at the Pantages Theatre in Minneapolis. Weller is one of my favorite musicians, and I’ve seen him live once before, at the Varsity Theater in 2014. (I reviewed that show here.) Weller put on an excellent show last night, working with a crack band, led by longtime Weller sideman Steve Cradock, who traded lead guitar duties with Weller all night long. 

Weller played several songs from his latest album, A Kind Revolution, which came out in May of 2017. He played the catchy “Woo Se Mama,” which he played keyboards on, the Bowie-esque tune “Nova,” the yearning ballad “The Cranes Are Back,” and the moody “Hopper,” a song about the painted Edward Hopper. 

Although Weller only played one song from his years with The Jam, the excellent “Start!” he did play a few songs from his Style Council days, “My Ever Changing Moods,” “Shout to the Top” and “Have You Ever Had it Blue.” All of these songs had the crowd on their feet, rocking and rolling. If Paul Weller wanted to, he could easily have played all songs from The Jam and Style Council years, mixed in a couple of more recent songs, and people would have been thrilled. But Weller’s never been one to take the easy road. Ever since he broke up The Jam at the height of their popularity in late 1982, Weller has charted his own musical course. It hasn’t always been an easy journey, but Weller has made many superb solo albums and created a formidable discography, full of fascinating music.

Weller also played some of his more recent solo songs. I especially enjoyed “From the Floorboards Up,” a charging rocker from his great 2005 solo album As Is Now, and the jazzy “Above the Clouds,” from his 1992 self-titled solo debut. “Above the Clouds” is a great song, and it also has something of a special place in my life, as it’s the default song that my phone plays in the car when it can’t remember what I was last listening to.

The first encore of the evening was a set of acoustic songs, including some brand-new songs like “Gravity.” We’ll have to see if that appears on Weller’s next album. The second encore was more rock and roll, including the great song “Peacock Suit.” 

Opening for Weller was the English folk singer-songwriter Lucy Rose, who played a nice half hour set. Overall, it was a superb evening of music with Paul Weller, one of the great rock singers and songwriters of the last forty years.

Saturday, September 30, 2017

Album Review: Frank Sinatra, Songs for Young Lovers and Swing Easy! (1954)

Songs for Young Lovers, 1954. Begins the trend of Frank wearing a hat and smoking on his album covers.

Swing Easy! 1954.
It’s Frank Sinatra’s Capitol recordings that most people think of when they imagine Sinatra. Albums like In the Wee Small Hours, Songs for Swingin’ Lovers!, Come Fly with Me, Come Dance with Me! and others cemented Sinatra’s reputation as a peerless interpreter of songs. Charles L. Granata wrote in his superb book Sessions with Sinatra: Frank Sinatra and the Art of Recording, “Virtually every song the singer recorded at Capitol is a model of perfection.” (p.91) I’m inclined to agree with Granata’s judgement. 

Frank Sinatra is one of the few popular musicians whose greatest fame came between roughly the ages of 40 to 50. Most people would say he did his best work during that decade, from 1955 to 1965. I can’t think of many other pop musicians one could say that about. Certainly there are artists who do great work between the ages of 40 or 50, but there are few whose work during that decade defines them as much as Sinatra’s does. 

In my review of Sinatra’s last Capitol album, 1962’s Point of No Return, I mentioned that the very first recordings Sinatra made for Capitol were arranged by Axel Stordahl, who had arranged almost all of Sinatra’s recordings for the Columbia label, from 1943-1952. Stordahl’s strength was arranging ballads, and since the great majority of the songs that Sinatra recorded for Columbia were ballads, the partnership worked out very well. As Sinatra’s Capitol years began, he was still loyal to Stordahl, and insisted that his first Capitol recordings should be arranged by him. Fortuitously, Capitol executive Alan Livingston got Sinatra to agree that if the records weren’t hits, he would try recording with Nelson Riddle. In April of 1953, Sinatra recorded “Lean Baby” and “I’m Walking Behind You,” his first songs for Capitol, arranged by Stordahl. (Heinie Beau actually arranged “Lean Baby,” in the style of Billy May.) At the end of April, Sinatra recorded with Nelson Riddle for the first time. The very first song they recorded together was “I’ve Got the World on a String,” which has become an iconic Sinatra performance. 

There was magic when Sinatra recorded with Riddle. Sinatra’s voice was slightly lower than it had been in the 1940’s, and Riddle’s up-tempo arrangements showed that he was ready to swing. Riddle’s arrangements highlighted Sinatra’s voice perfectly. 

However, Riddle was not the arranger for Sinatra’s first Capitol LP, Songs for Young Lovers. Thanks to Sinatra scholar Will Friedwald, we now know that George Siravo was the arranger. No one was actually credited with the arrangements on the original album, but since the front of the album read “Accompanied by Nelson Riddle,” everyone assumed that the arrangements were Riddle’s work. Siravo had arranged for Sinatra before-he was responsible for Sinatra’s most swinging sides that he cut for Columbia-these songs were released on the album Sing and Dance with Frank Sinatra in 1950. (The album was re-titled Swing and Dance with Frank Sinatra when it was released on CD.) 

Recorded over two days on November 5th and 6th 1953, Songs for Young Lovers included songs that were part of Sinatra’s live act. The decision was made that Sinatra’s Capitol albums and singles would largely be separate affairs. This choice meant that rather than just collect a hodge-podge of singles for an album, Sinatra was free to think about creating a mood and choose a unified set of songs to sustain that mood. This would lead directly to Sinatra’s classic concept albums like In the Wee Small Hours, and Songs for Swingin’ Lovers! Songs for Young Lovers was originally released as a 10-inch LP, meaning that it only held about twenty minutes of music. With the introduction of the 12-inch LP, Sinatra could create longer concept albums.

The songs on Songs for Young Lovers are:

“My Funny Valentine”-The beautiful Rodgers and Hart song is given an exquisite reading by Frank. The arrangement briefly turns into a waltz for a few measures. This song captures the intimacy of Sinatra’s voice very well.

“The Girl Next Door”-from Meet Me in St. Louis, where it was originally sung as “The Boy Next Door” by Judy Garland. Sinatra perfectly expresses the romantic yearning of the lyric, as he longs for the girl he hasn’t met, “though I live at 5135 Kensington Avenue and she lives at 5133.” I’ve always loved that lyric, not many songs can seamlessly work in a street address. 

“A Foggy Day”-A Gershwin song that is one of my favorite Sinatra tunes. Listen for the way he sings “shining” five times in a row-a sign of Frank trusting his rhythmic instincts more and more.

“Like Someone in Love”-This is the one Nelson Riddle arrangement on the album. It’s a lovely ballad, and Frank makes his vocal sound dreamy and abstracted, as though he really is “bumping into things.”

“I Get a Kick Out of You”-From the pen of Cole Porter comes one of Sinatra’s classic performances. The arrangement is a superb jazzy affair, with the guitar playing a prominent part. This version includes the original lyrics: “Some they may go for cocaine/I’m sure that if I took even one sniff/It would bore me terrifically too.” In later live performances and recordings by Sinatra, this verse was often changed to “Some like the perfume from Spain/I’m sure that if I took even one sniff/It would bore me terrifically too,” or to “Some like the bop-type refrain/I’m sure that if I heard even one riff/It would bore me terrifically too.” I love the way Frank hangs on to the f in “terrifically.” One of my favorite Sinatra songs. When I was a teenager listening to KLBB radio in the mid to late 1990’s, they would never play this version of the song-I assumed because of the cocaine lyric.

“Little Girl Blue”-Honestly, this is my least favorite song on the album. It’s Rodgers and Hart, so that speaks well for its pedigree. I just don’t care for the lyrics that much-I’m especially perplexed by the line “Sit there and count your fingers.” I’ve never heard that expression before. 

“They Can’t Take That Away from Me”-A fun and jazzy reading of the Gershwin classic. Listen for Frank mimicking the saxophone after he sings “The way you hold your knife.” 

“Violets for Your Furs”-A highlight of the album. Frank’s vocal is sexy and intimate, especially when he sings “And it was spring for a while, remember?” It’s as though he’s whispering in your ear. You can also hear Sinatra’s precise diction, as he sings “vi-o-lets,” with each syllable crystal clear. 

Songs for Young Lovers was released in January, 1954. It peaked at number 3 on the charts.The follow up to Songs for Young Lovers was Swing Easy!, with arrangements by Nelson Riddle. The eight songs were recorded on April 7th and 19th 1954. Swing Easy! was released in August, 1954 and also peaked at number 3. 

The tracks on Swing Easy! are:

“Just One of Those Things”-Another Cole Porter classic. Sinatra once said that he thought this was the saddest song ever. For a man who made a career out of singing what he called “saloon songs,” that seems surprising. I’ve wondered if he was thinking about his relationship with Ava Gardner when he said that, as their tempestuous time together certainly fits the song’s subject matter. Riddle’s arrangement fits Frank perfectly. Once again, you can hear Frank stretch an f on “fabulous flights.” And then there’s the wonderful moment when, singing the song the second time through, he goes for broke and sings “So goodbye goodbye bye bye goodbye baby and amen” instead of just “So goodbye, dear, and amen.” And he makes it work so well.

“I’m Gonna Sit Right Down (And Write Myself a Letter)”-This song has been recorded by many people, with Fats Waller’s version being the most well-known. Riddle’s arrangement features the vibraphone, and you can hear Sinatra’s total ease with up-tempo songs.

“Sunday”-Kind of an odd song, about a guy who is only happy when he’s going out with his girlfriend on Sundays. Why don’t they go out on Friday or Saturday? One of the lyrics is: “Friday makes me feel just like I’m gonna die.” Not a sentiment that’s often heard in popular music.

“Wrap Your Troubles in Dreams (And Dream Your Troubles Away)”-Frank sounds quite ebullient on this tune. I’m a big fan of the version that Dean Martin recorded for his 1958 album Sleep Warm-which Sinatra conducted the orchestra on. 

“Taking a Chance on Love”-Frank sounds even looser on this standard. As he sings “Mmmm, I’m in the groove again,” you could think he’s talking about his career rather than romance. Listen for: another elongated f, the second time he sings “Brother rabbit of course you’d better kiss that foot goodbye.” 

“Jeepers Creepers”-Sinatra makes the most of this silly tune, and Riddle gives it a gassy arrangement, with nice trumpet and trombone solos. 

“Get Happy”-The most swinging cut on the album, taken at a very brisk clip. Although it’s from 1930, the song will forever be identified with Judy Garland, who sang it in the 1950 movie Summer Stock. The instrumental break is great, but much too short. 

“All of Me”-Sinatra had previous recorded this song at Columbia, but now he invests it with a swinging swagger that is a new addition to his sound. 

Songs for Young Lovers and Swing Easy! are now combined on one CD, and while Sinatra and Riddle would climb to greater artistic heights on their next records together, these two albums remain an excellent example of Sinatra’s Capitol era sound.

Monday, August 14, 2017

Book Review: A Short Autobiography, by F. Scott Fitzgerald, Edited by James L.W. West III (2011)

Cover of A Short Autobiography, by F. Scott Fitzgerald, taken across the street from a restaurant named after him in Saint Paul, Minnesota. (Photo by Mark C. Taylor)

F. Scott Fitzgerald, 1896-1940.
F. Scott Fitzgerald’s non-fiction writings are not as famous as his novels and short stories, but they contain some superb pieces that shed light on the life of this fascinating author. One reason that might explain why Fitzgerald’s non-fiction writings are less well-known is that they have been scattered all over the place. It would be wonderful to have one volume that collected all of his major non-fiction pieces in one place. 

A Short Autobiography, edited by Fitzgerald scholar James L.W. West III, was issued in 2011 with the aim of collecting Fitzgerald’s non-fiction works that reveal more of his personal life. Unfortunately, A Short Autobiography doesn’t include any of the “Crack-Up” essays, but it does have many other excellent pieces.

Another issue with Fitzgerald’s non-fiction is that some of the pieces are hard to categorize. Is “An Author’s Mother” fiction or non-fiction? It’s been published in collections of Fitzgerald’s fiction, but it also appears in A Short Autobiography. There’s obviously some fiction in it, as the name of the author in the piece is not F. Scott Fitzgerald, and unlike the author in the piece, Fitzgerald didn’t have a brother. However, the piece does seem to be a pretty accurate portrait of Fitzgerald’s mother, Mollie McQuillan Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald was constantly borrowing from his own life to inform his fiction, and the line between the two is often blurred. 

In the very first line of the first piece in A Short Autobiography, “Who’s Who-and Why,” from 1920, Fitzgerald writes: “The history of my life is the history of the struggle between an overwhelming urge to write and a combination of circumstances bent on keeping me from it.” (p.1) Little did he know how true this would be throughout the rest of his short life. There were always parties, and alcohol, and many other distractions for Scott that would keep him from his work. However, that being said, he was still very prolific despite all the distractions, turning out roughly 180 short stories, four completed novels and one unfinished novel in his forty-four years. 

In “Princeton,” an affectionate look at the university Fitzgerald attended, (and didn’t graduate from) he mentions that 5% of his class at Princeton were killed in World War I. That’s a staggering fact that makes clear what a large impact the war had on Fitzgerald’s generation. 

One of the pieces that showcases Fitzgerald’s sense of humor is “Salesmanship in the Champs-Elysees,” which is written in the voice of a French car salesman. For me, one of the highlights of A Short Autobiography was hearing Fitzgerald’s authorial voice in a more personal way.

In “One Hundred False Starts,” an essay from 1933 in which Fitzgerald detailed the many ideas for stories he had that never panned out, he wrote: “There is the question of dog stories. I like dogs and would like to write at least one dog story in the style of Mr. Terhune.” (p.126) Two years later, Fitzgerald finally did write his dog story, “Shaggy’s Morning,” an odd account of a day in the life of a dog, written from the dog’s perspective. It was an interesting experiment, although perhaps not entirely successful. “Shaggy’s Morning” is one of the few Fitzgerald stories to be published during his lifetime that has never been collected in a book. 

In “Author’s House,” another essay written for Esquire in 1936, Fitzgerald wrote: “A writer’s temperament is continually making him do things he can never repair.” (p.139) This was certainly true in Fitzgerald’s case, as he wore out his welcome with friends again and again through his drunken behavior. 

One of the most beautiful pieces in the book is “The Death of My Father,” which Fitzgerald wrote after his father’s passing in 1931. He never finished it, and it was first published in 1951 in The Princeton University Literary Chronicle. It’s a short piece, only three pages long, but it paints a vivid picture of Scott’s relationship with his father Edward. In it, Fitzgerald wrote: “I loved my fatheralways deep in my subconscious I have referred judgements back to him, to what he would have thought or done. He loved meand felt a deep responsibility for meI was born several months after the sudden death of my two elder sisters and he felt what the effect of this would be on my mother, that he would be my only moral guide. He became that to the best of his ability. He came from tired old stock with very little left of vitality and mental energy but he managed to raise a little for me.” (p.118) 

This passage was repeated almost word for word in Tender is the Night, when Dick Diver learns of his father’s death: “Dick loved his fatheragain and again he referred judgements to what his father would probably have thought or done. Dick was born several months after the death of two young sisters and his father, guessing what would be the effect on Dick’s mother, had saved him from a spoiling by becoming his moral guide. He was of tired stock yet he raised himself to that effort.” (Tender is the Night, p.203) 

A Short Autobiography reveals parts of Fitzgerald that we don’t often get to see in his fiction. For this reason, it’s an essential read for fans of Fitzgerald’s writing.