Oct 142012
 

Lena Chamamyan: she’s from Syria. Judging by her last name, she’s Armenian. She makes jazz-oriented Arab baby-making music, sort of the musical love child of Fairuz and Chet Baker. She has a voice like a motherfucking malaak. Lenaleh, if you’re out there, keep your head down – even the Jews are worried about you. I hear anywhere else is nice this time of year.

لينا شماميان - بالي معاك
(Baali Maʕak – My Thoughts Are with You)

لينا شماميان - حوّل يا غنّام
(Ḥawwel Ya Ghannaam – Shepherd, Turn Back)

لينا شماميان - يا مسافرة
(Ya Mesaafira – O Traveller)

Sep 282012
 

As I mentioned previously in my translation of Natan Zakh’s “A Moment,” a professor of mine has been developing a claim that Admiel Kosman’s poem of the same name represents an oblique response to the heavy-of-tongue existentialism of Zakh’s original. Dan Miron argues with some force that Zakh’s “A Moment” describes a failed and final opportunity for modern man to gain access to “transcendental knowledge,” knowledge man so desperately needs to contend with the miseries of existence and muster some measure of empathy for his fellow: “Everybody is equally myopic, for all people have lost the power of ‘divination’ in the original theological sense of the term.”1 My professor sees in Kosman’s description of one of his characteristic moments of transcendent unity with the sublime an implicit rejection of the notion that “transcendental knowledge,” a shard of nevu’ah, is beyond our grasp.

Miron draws a parallel between the “garment” the narrator of “A Moment” fails to touch with the mantle Elisha inherits from Elijah in 2 Kings chapter 9 that gives him, in effect, the authority and ability of a prophet (the Hebrew word Zakh uses that I have translated as “garment”, ‘adéret, is the word used for Elijah’s mantle of prophecy). But I translated “yakhólti lagáʕat be-shuléi ‘adartó” as “I could have touched the hem of his garment” because, well, I listen to a lot of black music, and the Hebrew phrase immediately called to mind a certain Sam Cooke number:

The reference, of course, is to the account in both Mark and Matthew of a zavah healing herself by touching a part of Jesus’ clothes (“hem of his garment” is from the King James translation of Matthew; most commentators seem to think the reference is to one of Jesus’ tzitzit). Interestingly, all of the Hebrew translations of the New Testament I looked at online before I wearied of offers to send me a free copy of the good news render “hem of his garment” as “kenáf bigdó,” rather than Zakh’s shuléi ‘adartó – but, as Miron points out2, Zakh enjoys playing with loaded Christian motifs, and drawing a fairly explicit parallel between a lost chance at transcendental knowledge and the prophet the Jews “missed out on” (well, one of the two) seems a good way to provoke the Jewish reader. My professor also brought up the interesting point that Zakh, apparently the child of a German-Jewish father and an Italian Catholic mother, is one of the few (non-Arab) non-halakhically Jewish Hebrew poets, and may have come by his evident familiarity with the Christian Bible through his mother.

Either way, I would simply like to take this opportunity to point out that everyone should listen to more black music: whether you’re into Hebrew poetry or something, I don’t know, practical (Business Administration?), it will inevitably prove relevant. I can’t even rifle through the Psalms without a few dozen reggae songs cuing up simultaneously in the Dragon Stout-drenched soundsystem that is my subconscious.

  1. Dan Miron, The Prophetic Mode in Hebrew Poetry, 546.
  2. 543
Oct 072009
 


.

A dialogue:

R**************r: Tina Weymouth has aged well, except now she looks like a friend’s mom.
R**************r: She would insist you called her “Tina” and make you a grilled cheese.
R**************r: Look at those two.
R**************r: Like your friend’s cool parents. Totally.
R**************r: All home theater in the basement.
R**************r: All guitars on the wall.
R**************r: All letting you have some beers out of the fridge in the garage/pool room.
E******n: holy fuck
E******n: all showing you an R movie your parents would never let you watch
E******n: Chris Frantz all talking to you about pleasing a lady
R**************r: All letting you smoke weed, “as long as you do it in the house where we know you kids are safe.”

This is all true. You cannot deny a single word.

Dec 142008
 

Poor Jorge Ben has suffered far too many indignities for an artist of his stature. His breakout song “Mas Que Nada” was entirely co-opted by the schlocky Brazilian Herb Alpert, Sérgio Mendes, and then further desecrated by a Black Eyed Peas-assisted remake, the closest modern analogue to ’50s-era doo-wop whitewashing. And his titanic Brasil-funk track “Taj Mahal” was outright stolen by Rod Stewart in the midst of his coke-fueled disco-era meltdown and repackaged as the execrable “Da Ya Think I’m Sexy,” a unforgivable musical theft that was later, of course, vigorously rubbed against by Paris Hilton. Gilberto Gil gets to be the Minister of Culture; Mr. Lolita Complex himself, Caetano Veloso, gets to provide ambience in classy Almodóvar flicks; Jorge Ben gets Fergie. And what did he do to deserve all this? Only release album after album, one (sometimes two) a year for twenty years, of the finest samba, MPB and Brazilian soul ever committed to record. A vida é uma merda.

I have, and fiercely love, all the ’60s and ’70s Jorge Ben albums that have seen US releases, but many of his classic period recordings were never officially released and were essentially impossible to find. I had heard whispers about the excellence of 1970’s Força Bruta, reputedly a slice of the very finest raw Brazilian soul, but it wasn’t even available through the magic of the Internet. So I gave up – and that is why I was surprised and delighted to find a brand new, recently reissued CD copy while browsing the Brazilian section of one of Austin’s many funky record stores.

As promised, it’s fucking awesome. Percussionists Trio Mocotó provide plenty of bottom, and more than enough cuíca to keep the proceedings well lubricated.

Oba lá Vem Ela
121408(1).mp3
“Alright! Here she comes!” For some reason, the killer track on Jorge Ben albums is almost always the first one. The groove is already great; then syrupy Barry White strings get poured all over it and something profoundly delicious results.

Mulher Brasileira
121408(2).mp3
After countless hours of research, I have arrived at a theory: between 90 and 95 percent of all samba, bossa nova and MPB songs are about either: a) how awesome samba, bossa nova or MPB are; b) a girl; c) how awesome a girl dancing to samba, bossa nova or MPB is. This is an excellent example of “b.”

For real. Doesn’t this man deserve better than his lot?

Dec 132008
 
121308(2).mp3

You know what band I like?

Steely Dan.

Just about every time I go out, I hear one of their songs on MOR canned radio, and I smile to myself, because behind the immaculate production and tasty guitar solos are left-field jazz harmonies and Talmudically esoteric lyrics about terrible people with cocaine problems.

No, seriously: you can stick “Hey Nineteen” between Huey Lewis and James Blunt all you want, but it doesn’t change the fact that it’s a song about a middle-aged man romancing a teenage girl who alternately entices and disgusts him, and with whom he shares nothing save a predilection for tequila and blow. That’s a tune made for the minivan and the Target if ever there was one.

And on that note, I greatly enjoy this site.

Dec 022008
 

You know…like that rad BBC program (Linton Kwesi Johnson, as one might expect, has great taste except for the inclusion of fucking Imagine; Simon Cowell has some remarkably shitty choices considering his Big-Dick-Producer prominence on American Golden Calf; Kristin Scott Thomas adorably includes one of the songs from the soundtrack to Under the Cherry Moon, the mostly terrible Prince post-Purple Rain vanity project that was her film debut.)

In no particular order. Completed as I feel like it. One album. One song from the album. And plenty of babble.

****

THE ALBUM: Prince, Sign ‘O’ the Times

Cover

THE SONG: “Adore”

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1987. Iran-Contra. Jim ‘n’ Tammy Faye. “Tear down this wall.” Baby Jessica. The first intifada. My second birthday. And Prince’s ninth album: “Sign ‘O’ the Times.” The number nine is telling – by his twenty-ninth birthday, the astoundingly prolific Prince had recorded nine albums, one a year since the late 1970s, of which three were good and six were truly excellent (five of those coming in a row). Lesser artists have achieved greater reputations with smaller outputs – Michael Jackson at the height of his powers only managed Off the Wall, Thriller, Bad and the lackluster Dangerous before being utterly undone by pedophilia, paranoia and a maladroit scalpel – but none of them can lay claim to capping a nearly decade-long winning streak with one of the most stunning tours de force in pop music.

Prince didn’t change his given name to the unpronounceable Love Symbol glyph until 1993, the first instance of pop culture infamy I became aware of during my childhood, but the growing disdain for conventional graphemes that led to the adoption of the Love Symbol had already been hinted at by Sign ‘O’ the Times’ title, which replaced “of” with a peace symbol (Prince’s disdain for orthography, of course, had already been well-established, to the point where U probably don’t need 2 C an example).

The album begins on a dour note with its title track, a blippy catalogue of the social ills hanging over mid-’80s America, from AIDS to infanticide to exploding space shuttles, which despite its twitchy minimalist synth funk serves mostly as proof that regular updates on the activities of the humans are beamed into The Artist’s lace-draped purple bunker (see also “Ronnie, Talk to Russia,” “America” and “Mr. Man” from Prince’s other albums). Prince isn’t touched by these concerns, but the fact that he even realizes they exist is encouraging – when Prince becomes aware enough of a cause to champion it, it has achieved maximum penetration into the social consciousness.

Scattered throughout the album is the detritus of one of Prince’s many aborted projects, a collection of songs recorded under the alias “Camille,” characterized by a pitch-modulated lady-voice and a pronouncedly feminine take on love and sex. Prince may not be the first male artist to write from the perspective of a woman, or whatever exactly Camille was intended to be, but he may well be the most confused.

Take “If I Was Your Girlfriend,” one of Prince’s greatest songs, and an unparalleled glimpse into the delicately-scented, ambiguously gendered carnal maelstrom that is the man’s id, an alternate, lavender-hued universe where there exists neither man nor woman, only excessively-mascaraed orifices making unlikely love to the persistent pop of robo-slap-bass. The song’s spoken coda, understandably excised from the single version, packs more sexual ambiguity into one minute than the entirety of David Bowie’s 1970s output. Lady Stardust, meet Camille:

“Is it really necessary for me to go out of the room just because you wanna undress? We don’t have to make children to make love. And we don’t have to make love to have an orgasm. Your body is what I’m all about. Can I see it? I’ll show you. Why not? You can do it because I’m your friend, I’d do it for you. Of course I’d undress in front of you. And when I’m naked what shall I do? How can I make you see that it’s cool? Can’t you just trust me? If I was your girlfriend you could. Oh yeah, I think so. Listen, for you naked I would dance a ballet. Would that get you off? Tell me what will! If I was your girlfriend would you tell me? Would you let me see you naked then? Would you let me give you a bath? Would you let me tickle you so hard you’d laugh and laugh? And would you, would you let me kiss you there – you know, down there where it counts? I’ll do it so good, I swear I’ll drink every ounce! And then I’ll hold you tight and hold you long, and together we’ll stare into silence. And we’ll try to imagine what it looks like. Yeah, we’ll try to imagine what…what silence looks like.”

One imagines that the woman, or man, or life-size cutout of Prince at the receiving end of this soliloquy probably responded: “Screw the naked ballet. You know what would get me off? If you could just penetrate me, move it in and out a few times, and then not cry after. That’s what I want silence to look like. You not holding me and crying.”

But seriously. What the fuck is going on here? On first perusal, the lyrics seem to be a man asking his reticent female lover if she would be more liberated were he a female friend rather than someone with a rich pelt of chest hair. But then, of course, we careen abruptly into the matter of kissing down there, where it counts, and subsequently drinking every ounce. Unless Prince, to paraphrase OutKast’s Big Boi, really knows what it feels like to have control over the G-spot, it seems unlikely that cunnilingus would culminate in an ounce-quaffing kind of situation. So that of course leaves us with the gender whose orgasms do tend to result in a technically potable concoction (I’m talking about men, for those of you who color outside the lines), but if “If I Was Your Girlfriend” were a song to a man, by a man, why the squeaky female voice, and why the reference to procreation, which, despite the best efforts of your friendly neighborhood lobbying group, is still something scientifically beyond the reach of the Wombless Masses? Either this is a mixed-up love ode to a Puritan squirter, or Prince spent biology class in high school inattentive, dreamily scribbling “Mrs. Prince Rogers Clinton” into the margins of his Lisa Frank notebook.

But being the funky bundle of leather-pantsed contradictions that he is, the Artist follows that inscrutable rulebook to the game of Musical Genders with a song about an emotionally abusive relationship, a song gently refusing an adulterous advance, and then, as if to Febreze away the reek of debauchery clinging to every lascivious word that came before it, a campfire-worthy song ’bout how we all needs to get saved by Jesus (“The Cross”). The tension between the sacred and profane has always been at the crux of great R&B, a tension which undid Little Richard, Al Green and Marvin Gaye, but even those luminaries didn’t brazenly plant their freak flag at Calvary’s summit like Prince does. Jesus himself is doubtless at a loss.

And so, with salvation thus assured, Prince wiggles into his skintight funk freak regalia for the live Revolution jam “It’s Gonna Be a Beautiful Night,” plumbing the deep well of James Brownian incomprehensibility in the bass-thumping heart of every true soul man with Wizard of Oz chants, frequent exhortations to say things loud and lyrics like, “Every man a ninja, wid my chicken grease! Get wid it!” All he’s missing is a “HEH!” capping every impenetrable proclamation, a habit of James Brown’s brilliantly commented upon by the young Eddie Murphy (no, really, Eddie Murphy was once considered brilliant):

And then there’s “Adore.” On most of his albums, Prince apparently feels the need to balance his bold experimentation and genre-cruising with a reminder that, his competitors’ Pepsi endorsements and rhinoplasties be damned, he remains the preeminent vocalist of pop’s post-Gaye era. Before there were Controversy’s “Do Me Baby,” 1999’s “International Lover” and Purple Rain’s “The Beautiful Ones,” but the definitive testament to the man’s magical vocal cords is “Adore,” a six-and-a-half minute flight of falsetto bearing the distinction of being the most genuinely sweet love song of Prince’s golden age. Prince usually saddles what we humans would call “affection” with turgid sexual come-ons, unstable histrionics or discomfiting religious analogies (or all three), but Adore mostly eschews all that. Oh, sure, it includes lines like, “When we be makin’ love, I only hear the sounds / Heavenly angels cryin’ up above, tears of joy pourin’ down on us,” proving once again that the 1980s’ most sex-drenched pop star had more than a couple profound misconceptions about what is genuinely sexy (sex in a puddle of voyeuristic, lachrymose angels’ tears certainly isn’t) – but this is Prince possibly at his most sincere, and he even takes his sense of humor out of the Paisley Park vault for a rare appearance. “You could burn up my clothes, smash up my ride,” he croons, then quickly checks himself: “Well, maybe not the ride.” It’s those goofy throwaway moments that remind us that even if Prince isn’t exactly an Earthling, he’s at least from a nearby planet – and he comes in peace, and funk.

Nov 302008
 

I picked this album up on a whim because it boasted a version of one of my very favorite standards, “Star Eyes,” and a very promising lineup: West Coast golden boy Art Pepper, one of jazz’s many fine Italians*; and Miles Davis’ mid-’50s-era do-no-wrong rhythm section, Red “Fuckin'” Garland, Paul “Fuckin'” Chambers, and “Philly” Joe “Fuckin'” Jones. Those three could back up Herb Alpert on Jew’s harp and it would still cook, hard.

It did not disappoint.

I’ve listened to this album a lot lately, and putting the uniformly excellent musicianship aside for a minute, what keeps me coming back is the hot mix. A great deal of jazz is somewhat diffidently recorded, blurred a little around the edges so as not to ruffle any feathers at the cocktail party, but this album fucking explodes out of the speakers (although, admittedly, I have very good speakers). It is loud. It is unapologetic. There is an imperial shit-ton of bass. The cymbals sizzle and hiss and the snare cracks. And the saxophone slaps you in the face like an admonishing paisan.

Speaking of that sax: this man’s tone owns the West Coast. Geographical alto compatriot Lee Konitz may have routinely peeled off statements of dizzying complexity, but his tone is as reserved and polite as a state function. Pepper’s, on the other hand, combines the warm roundness of Stan Getz’s tenor with an arresting bite. It is the Secret Deodorant of the jazz alto world: strong enough for a man, but smooth as a lady (that’s how that went, right?).

Some choice cuts:

“You’d Be So Nice to Come Home To”
113008(1).mp3
A very fine take on a very fine Cole Porter standard. But what puts this over the top is Art and Philly Joe trading fours towards the end.

“Imagination”
113008(2).mp3
Great, cleanly-articulated brush work. Great, cleanly-articulated ballad playing.

“Straight Life”
113008(4).mp3
One of Pepper’s signature tunes (very ironically named). This album’s only real burner. Who says smack slows you down?

“Tin Tin Deo”
113008(3).mp3
Chano Pozo is raw like kibbeh nayyeh. As is this version of his song, which, thanks entirely to the assured drumming of Philly Joe, floats effortlessly between Afro-Cuban and bop rhythms. This is really a drummer’s album, come to think of it.

I read a little around the Internet about this set. According to Pepper’s autobiography, also ironically titled Straight Life (seriously, the man was released from a three-year stint at San Quentin in 1964 and managed to get himself thrown back inside the very same year), he only learned of this session the morning of the day it was scheduled, he hadn’t played in months, and his horn was FUBAR. Also, he had shot more horse than a glue factory. True? Eh…maybe not. But the kind of story jazz is made of.

*I have a Unified Theory of Jazz, mentioned in this site’s About page, that 99% of all great jazz musicians are either a) black; b) Jewish; c) Italian; d) Gerry Mulligan.

May 202008
 

My musical taste these days usually plies a fairly reliable course between reggae and jazz, with frequent calls at R&B, hip-hop and MPB, but occasionally it will drift a bit off course and I’ll stumble upon something uncharted that commands my attention for a time. Lately? The Isley Brothers. Obscure? Hardly. Outside the realm of my normal musical affections? Not at all. But somehow, to me, overlooked. No other group was able to keep abreast of every major development in black American pop for as long. They could sear nearly as hot as Funkadelic, and then turn it around and quiet storm hard enough to break Smokey Robinson’s windows. But despite all my explorations of bygone generations of black pop, I only recently figured that out.

Oh, I was familiar enough with the early part of Isleys’ career. “Shout,” “Twist and Shout,” and “It’s Your Thing” are as imprinted on my consciousness as they are on every other living person’s. I’d even heard some of their very early, basically doo-wop material…

“Angels Cried”
051808(2).mp3

…and of course I was aware that the Isleys had once employed (and lived with) a very young, pre-fame Jimi Hendrix…

“Move Over and Let Me Dance” (ft. Jimi Hendrix)
051808(3).mp3

(Isn’t it odd how an Isley Brothers song that happens to feature Jimi Hendrix as a sideman sounds like nothing other than a Jimi Hendrix original? The man had a signature sound and gone.)

Somehow though, mea maxima culpa, I had overlooked the group’s post-’60s efforts. I really don’t know how.

I began to realize the error of my ways when, by chance, I heard the blistering “That Lady (Pts. 1 & 2),” a remake of a song from the Isleys’ earlier days, which despite being a fairly major hit in 1973 had escaped my usual awareness of the pop culture of yesteryear. A massive oversight on my part, I know.

“Who’s That Lady?” (1964 original)
051808(1).mp3

“That Lady (Pts. 1 & 2)”
051808(4).mp3

So I began acquiring and soaking up their albums from the Gaye-and-Hayes era, getting particularly into 3 + 3, in which the Brothers traded in their snazzy R&B suits and pompadours for the fringe, leather, velvet, chrome lamé and open shirts worn by any self-respecting band of ’70s Afro spacemen, and brought on the younger generation of Isleys as full-time instrumentalists and official band members – including Strat-slinger Ernie Isley, who had obviously paid close attention during the period of his cohabitation with Mr. Hendrix. 3 + 3 and the few albums that follow it demonstrate the Isleys’ unparalleled ability to toe big-name funk’s finest line: aiming for the charts without sacrificing the groove. A few dance hits aside, Parliament/Funkadelic’s 40-odd members were – God bless them – too busy snorting their way through a Chocolate Milky Way of cocaine to make a concerted effort at freeing America’s mind and pop charts, and for all Earth, Wind and Fire’s success, we must remember that basically only a few tasty guitar solos separated them from being the black KC and the Sunshine Band. No, when it came to the R&B and pop chart-toppers in the ’70s, it didn’t get much better than the Isleys. By the middle of the decade, they had even begun, in classic Isley fashion, to smell what Sly Stone and War had been cooking up the past few years, i.e. fist-in-the-air, brick-through-the-Man’s-window protest funk:

“Fight the Power (Pts. 1 & 2)”
052008(4).mp3

But their compelling funksmanship aside, perhaps the Isleys’ greatest (and most surprising) strength is taking drecky MOR ’70s pop songs and stapling balls to them. Even James fucking Taylor.

See, now here is, ahem, sweet baby James’s “Don’t Let Me Be Lonely Tonight,” culled from the greatest hits album I downloaded for the purposes of this post and then immediately deleted before it could make me find Carly Simon, and by extension Steven Tyler and Seabiscuit, attractive.

“Don’t Let Me Be Lonely Tonight” (James Taylor)
051408(1).mp3

God, what on Earth would ever make any woman want to let him be lonely? No, really, do you realize how many white children were conceived to this song, how many drape-haired and mustachioed ’70s-sensi-dudes let fly their seed to the sound of the hacky saxophone solo? No wonder the resulting generation was so into depression and flannel. My advice: don’t shake hands with any white American 35-year-olds – you might catch the Taylor.

But now here are the Isley Brothers doing the very same song, the song penned by the bony alabaster fingers of James Taylor:

“Don’t Let Me Be Lonely Tonight” (Isley Brothers)
051408(2).mp3

How the shaw ’nuff did they do that? I mean, in a way, it’s justice; Taylor gained much of his fortune by turning in limp, colorless interpretations of black pop classics (see, or on second thought don’t, “How Sweet It Is”), and to have black artists take his limp, colorless, aggressively insipid originals and render them somehow awesome seems like sweet revenge. They can even do a number on “Fire and Rain,” which is an even worse song.

“Fire and Rain” (Isley Brothers)
051808(5).mp3

It makes one curious to see if dewhitening device that apparently came into the possession of the brothers Isley circa 1972 could be applied to other contemporary shlockmeisters – say, Seals & Crofts. Hey, of course it could:

“Summer Breeze”
051408(3).mp3

Still, for all their skill at resuscitating the hypoxemic hits of the early ’70s, even the Isleys can’t make the concept of imaginary jasmine sound any less dumb.

And their ballads? Yes, wonder of wonders, even those are alright.

“Let Me Down Easy”
052008(2).mp3

“For the Love of You (Pts. 1 & 2)”
052008(3).mp3

Still, in funk music, the ballad, which by its very nature requires a band to step back from a wrought-iron funk groove, is fraught with peril. No amount of Fender Rhodes warbling can save a song like “At Your Best (You Are Love)” from a terrible lyric.

“At Your Best (You Are Love)”
052008(1).mp3

At your best, you are love
You’re a positive motivating force within my life

Not only does it reek of couples counseling (“You need to be a positive motivating force within each other’s lives!”), it raises the question: what is she at her worst? One imagines the Ron Isley family dinner parties culminating in impromptu booze-soaked renditions of “At Your Worst (Goddammit Woman Shut the Hell Up or So Help Me I Will Sell You to P-Funk) (Pts. 1 & 2).”

Perhaps songs like “At Your Best (You Are Love)” were an ill portent. Any period of creative fecundity must eventually wither away, and by the beginning of the 1980s, the Isley Brothers had become a textbook case of that sad artistic truth. The less said about their post-’70s career the better, especially once they discovered hip-hop, although I must profess a certain affection for timely “Sexual Healing” rip-off “Between the Sheets,” partly because it was on the soul station in GTA: San Andreas, and partly because ’80s-era bedroom freakin’ music is always somehow so honest.

“Between the Sheets”
051808(6).mp3

So take my musical oversight, and the resulting Isleycation, as a lesson: when flipping through the stacks for the best of the obscure, one shouldn’t overlook the best of the popular. And remember, no matter how bad a song is, someone out there armed only with a Stratocaster and an elaborately embroidered double-breasted velvet suit has the power to make it kick ass. And that’s a comforting thought.

May 122008
 

When I get bored – or have something more important to do – I like to kill time by browsing through jazz videos on YouTube. Whereas today every note sung, latte bought, thought expressed and vagina exposed by our vapid pop stars is recorded for posterity, live videos from the jazz’s heyday are relatively few and far between, mostly due to the difficulty of video recording in the sort of venues where great jazz transpired. But there are always exceptions, and among the most sterling is 1957’s The Sound of Jazz (available on DVD here), a TV broadcast gathering luminaries of Dixieland, swing and bop onto one stage for a combined concert. The standout of the evening, which has been uploaded to YouTube, is Billie Holiday’s performance of her song “Fine and Mellow,” notable not only for its quality but for the fact that it marked the musical reunion – and last performance together – of Holiday and the brilliant, influential tenor saxophonist Lester Young.

After forming an exceptionally close musical and personal partnership during the ’30s and early ’40s (giving each other the nicknames “Prez” and “Lady Day”), Holiday and Young drifted apart, and by the time The Sound of Jazz was taped they apparently hadn’t seen each other or spoken in years. Wikipedia relates the story of their reunion per jazz and social critic Nat Hentoff:

Hentoff, who was involved in putting the show together, recalled that during rehearsals, they kept to opposite sides of the room. Young was very weak, and Hentoff told him to skip the big band section of the show and that he could sit while performing in the group with Holiday.

Years of alcohol abuse had ravaged Young’s famously smooth tone and seriously eroded his chops, but his melodic sense and good taste remain beautifully, and thankfully, intact. He can’t stand up through an entire song, he looks terrible, and he doesn’t have the stamina to play for more than a few bars, but he still manages to turn in a masterful blues solo (beginning 2:39 into the video). Holiday’s reaction is heartwarming and heartbreaking in equal measures.

I’ll be a man. I’ll admit it. It makes me mist over a lot a little. And I’m not the only one. Hentoff again:

Lester got up, and he played the purest blues I have ever heard, and [he and Holiday] were looking at each other, their eyes were sort of interlocked, and she was sort of nodding and half–smiling. It was as if they were both remembering what had been—whatever that was. And in the control room we were all crying. When the show was over, they went their separate ways.

Little more than a year afterwards, Young died. Attending his funeral, Holiday said “I’ll be the next to go.” She was – only four months later, she joined him.

There’s plenty to recommend the rest of the video. Here’s the order of the solos, if you like what you hear and want to look into the musicians:

1) Ben Webster, swing tenor saxophonist
2) Lester Young, swing tenor saxophonist
3) Vic Dickinson, Dixieland/swing trombonist
4) Gerry Mulligan, bebop baritone saxophonist, token white boy and representative of the school of Cool
5) Coleman Hawkins, swing tenor saxophonist
6) Roy Eldridge, swing trumpeter, who seems to be having a lot more fun than anyone else

The historically-minded should note how nonexistent production values were in the early years of television, especially in the obvious editing. The emcee (John Crosby, I think), who appears to have been produced, vitamin-enriched, and shipped out in stiff plastic wrapping just in time for the broadcast by the Continental Baking Company, dips deep into the cultural lexicon of 1950s America for an adjective to describe the incomparable Billie Holiday, and dredges up “really great.” He could have at least tried “spiffy keen.” Then he turns away from the camera and reads the names of the musicians off a clipboard. Imagine if Ryan Seacrest did that shit. He would be off the air faster than you can say “flagging numbers among females 18-49.”

To send you off, here’s Billie and Lester in happier times (1941), burning through “Let’s Do It” (in all its politically incorrect glory) and “All of Me”:

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UPDATE:
And since we’re on the topic of Lester Young’s tragic early demise, here’s Charles Mingus’s eloquent requiem for the late saxophonist, “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat,” recorded in 1959, followed by Joni Mitchell’s vocal version of the same, from her Weather Report-backed album Mingus, recorded in part with the dying bassist in the ’70s.

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