Saturday, January 30, 2016

All good things come in threes, and as this post is about harmony - well, roughly - here is a third collection of tracks you might like, all vaguely related

As I’ve said before, these soundfiles should play fine on your Mac using Safari, Chrome and Firefox, and on a Windows PC using Internet Explorer, Chrome and Firefox. They don't seem to work on a Mac using Opera. I haven't tried them on Opera on a Windows machine cos I can't be buggered downloading and installing it. There are several other browsers out there - e.g. Maxthon for Mac - but at the moment is usually use an elderly Macbook running Snow Leopard and many of them demand a more up-to-date OS. But I feel I’ve done a my bit and if your browser doesn't play these tracks, it's up to you to sort it out. With the slightly longer last piece, give it a little time - not more than ten seconds, but a little time - to load.

I was thinking about the last but one post and how I discovered new music, and more to the point, new music I liked when I remembered how I came across The Boswell Sisters. The were huge in their time, the Thirties, and it’s fair to say that although spotting their success, many other ‘sisters’ (and I don’t doubt ‘brothers’) formed themselves, but The Boswell Sisters - Vet, Connie (later Connee because, apparently it was easier and faster to write as an autograph) and Martha - stood out.

They were musicians in their own right. Vet played they banjo, Connie (who had to perform and sing sitting down, often in a wheelchair) played the sax and Martha the piano. And all this after a straightforward classical music eduation. But they were born and grew up in New Orleans, and soon
came to hear blues and then jazz, and were smitten by it. I mention them because of how I came across them. Donald Fagen, of Steely Dan, grew up in New Jersey to parents Jerry, an accountant, and Elinor, a ‘homemaker’ (I think ‘homemaker’ is the modern term I am obliged to use). But before she married and had a family, Elinor had worked as a singer in hotels in the Catskills, and Fagen - Donald, that is - remembers as he was growing up in the Fifties his mother singing Boswell Sisters songs around the house. So I checked them out and immediately liked them a lot.

I can’t say I have a deep knowledge of the Thirties popular music scene, but I should imagine The Boswell Sisters (left) stood out because their arrangements were quite complex. I don’t know whether they played their respective instruments one stage - I doubt it - but their harmony singing is great, and I have always loved harmony singing. So here’s a track, a well-known song covered by many, but for me they give it something special.

The Boswell Sisters/I’m Gonna To Sit Right Down And Write Myself A Letter


Fagen, it has to be said has what might be described as a ‘singular’ voice. It isn’t one of your common or garden pop or jazz voices by any means. (Other singers I like with ‘singular’ voices are Bob Dylan and The Kinks’s Ray Davies.) But Fagen can sing and sing well, and obviously inherited his mother’s talent. More to the point of this blog is his performance of Maxine, a song on The Nightfly, and one of my all-time favourite songs.

I haven’t yet come across a cover except Justin Morell’s instrumental version, but I doubt few can come close to singing it as sublimely as Fagen. The reason it is included here is because of his breathtaking harmonising with himself. I had read somewhere that he sang all the parts on Maxine, but I double-checked and sure enough although other singers add background vocals on other tracks on The Nightfly, only he is credited on Maxine.

I once bought The Nightfly songbook and tried to teach myself the song on guitar, but I never got further than the first 16 bars. It’s got some great chords, but as usual I give up - I’m an awful weak giver-upper - and then mislaid the songbook. About 20 years later (i.e. in the last few years) I decided to try again, but as I couldn’t find mysongbook I thought I would buy another. Some hope: on Amazon you’ll have to shell out at least £201 for a used copy (though very good - what a relief) and if you want a new one it’ll cost you at least £402. So, do you know what, I decided against it and still hope to find my own copy. Here’s Maxine:

Donald Fagen/Maxine


I know The Eagles are regarded as uncool by some - some few idiots, I should say - but more fool them. They might not write complex tunes like Steely Dan (who famously put them down in their song their song Everything You Did on their album The Royal Scam, but even though I like their music a great deal those two cool Noo Yorkers Fagen and Becker can slightly get up my noise as can quite a few of the Noo York ‘art’ scene, who seem perpetually to carry on a great love affair with themselves - David Byrne and Talking Heads to exactly nothing for me. Maybe I’ve got cloth ears. And maybe not), but - what a digression, eh - The Eagles did what they did bloody well and I still many of their songs. But then that’s me, uncool. And in their first incarnation they harmonised superbly. Seven Bridges Road was a standard at their concerts:

The Eagles/Seven Bridges Road


Before I come on to Take 6, a black soul, jazz, gospel a cappella group (though they don’t sing this one below a cappella), here’s a bit of harmonising you might also like (if you like harmonising). I could have chosen anything from Palestrina and Victoria, but I have chosen this piece by England’s very own William Byrd, merely because he was the most recent of these three I came across. This is the Gloria from his Mass for Five Voices:

William Byrd/Gloria from Mass for five voices


Then there’s Take 6. I can’t for the life of me remember how I came across them, but I am very glad I did. This one, Grandma’s Hands, has been covered by loads of singers, some well, some not so well, but - racism alert - I really think it’s only fair that black singers should sing it. With anyone else it seems to become, as I pointed out a few days ago, just another song in their repertoire. But when Take 6 sing it is seems to grow.

Take 6/Grandma’s Hands


Finally, here’s a piece which has got nothing to do with harmony. An hour or two ago (it’s Saturday night and I am off to work in London tomorrow morning and thought I might have a shave now to have just a few more minutes of a lie-in) I was listening in the bathroom to Lullaby Of Leaves by sax player Illinois Jacquette. (I posted two guitar version of the song in my last post). And them, because my iPhone was on ‘songs’, next up came this: the first movement of Alban Berg’s Lulu Suite. And while listening to it, it suddenly struck me just how much, in some ways, jazz and more recent - good - classical music have in common. I mean, were you told this was a jazz piece and didn’t know any better, you would most probably accept it as such. It’s 14 minutes long, so have that shit first, but then spend 14 minutes listening to a rather beautiful piece. I think if you like jazz, you’ll probably like this.

Alban Berg/Lulu-Suite: I. Rondo: Andante Und Hymne

PS If this kind of music sounds vaguely familiar, it’s because a great many German and Austrian composers, not all of them Jewish, fled Germany and Austria and headed for the US when the Nazis came to power and some found work in the Hollywood film studios. There is some great music in those Thirties and Forties films, especially in film noir like Double Indemndity and Build My Gallows High which is partially ignored because it is just ‘the soundtrack’.

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