A Tribute to Jan DeGaetani, Goddess of Song

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Jan DeGaetani, née Janice Ruetz, was born in Massillon, Ohio in July 1933. In addition to her vocal studies at Juilliard with Sergius Kagen, she also credited her weekly music-reading lessons of part-songs and Madrigals from the Renaissance and Baroque eras with Norman Lloyd for expanding her musical range. She retained a fondness all her life for songs, particularly lieder, of the past—she even recorded an album of Cole Porter songs and made them works of art—yet she quickly became noted for her mastery of modern and avant-garde music. Since she didn’t have perfect pitch, she gave new scores a thorough going-over to make sure she had each and every note in place.

After graduating, she worked with such groups as the Waverly Consort, but soon became involved with the Contemporary Chamber Ensemble directed by Arthur Weisberg, and especially with their pianist Gilbert Kalish, and this was the fulcrum by which she had a jump-start into the world of contemporary music. Her breakthrough recital came in 1960 when she performed Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire at Carnegie Recital Hall with Robert Cole and the Gramercy Chamber Ensemble. Although Bethany Beardslee had recorded this work for Columbia (under the direction of Robert Craft), it was DeGaetani who became known for singing this challenging sprechstimme work in public. She made a famous recording of it in 1970, her first album for the Nonesuch label.

Yet it was another Nonesuch recording, of George Crumb’s avant-garde song cycle Ancient Voices of Children, that catapulted DeGaetani into superstardom as a leading singer of the modern idiom. Crumb’s work was scarcely considered musical by many listeners, a masterpiece by others, yet the combination of the generally quiet mood of the piece, the almost shocking “reverb” effects that DeGaetani created with her voice, and the ambience of the recorded sound made the LP a classic. Retail sales astonished both the artists and the record label, and the LP became a sort of underground “hit” in the classical world.

She briefly taught voice at the State College of New York at Purchase and Bennington College before joining the Eastman School of Music in 1973. By the late 1970s she was also teaching voice and giving annual performances at the Aspen summer Music Festivals, and this is where I caught up with her in 1979.

Already a legend for her perfect voice placement, superb phrasing and meticulously detailed performances, I approached her with a degree of reverence that I seldom felt towards “opera singers.” I couldn’t help asking her how on earth she managed to sing such strange music without stretching her voice out of shape. Her answer, though simple on the surface, was enlightening and lit up the light bulb in my head: “The trick is to never sing anything that’s outside your range. As long as all the notes in the score are within your range, you’ll make it somehow. Step outside of your range, and you’re in big trouble.”

I heard her sing a song recital that summer, but the big deal of the festival was the American premiere of Peter Maxwell Davies’ latest opera, The Martyrdom of St. Magnus. I had gone over the score with New York Times and Opera News critic David Hamilton, who also showed me the score of Maxwell Davies’ Eight Songs for a Mad King—without question one of the weirdest scores I’ve ever seen, laid out like a birdcage with music staves all over the place and notes reaching above and below the staff like a bunch of crazy wildflowers. But I had liked Eight Songs for a Mad King (yet another surprising modern-music “hit” for Nonesuch, this one featuring baritone Julius Eastman and the Fires of London ensemble), so I figured I would like Martyrdom. No such luck. The score was just as zany as the Eight Songs but not as concise; nor did it contain tonal or rhythmic “signposts” that the listener could hold on to. In short, it was a load of bull. And the stage production was cutting edge minimalism, with soldiers searching for Magnus suddenly running through the auditorium with flashlights, as if the burgeoning saint were hiding under one of our chairs. The only image that sticks in my mind from the whole performance is that of DeGaetani, as “Blind Mary,” lying flat on her back in the middle of the stage and singing a soliloquy. As much as I admired her, I couldn’t help but find the scene more than a bit ludicrous.

A couple of years later, back in Cincinnati, the music director of the local Chamber Orchestra wanted to perform Benjamin Britten’s wonderful late Phaedra cantata but couldn’t find an adequate local mezzo who could sing it. Out of the blue, I recommended that he ask DeGaetani. He wondered if she had sung it before; I told him probably not, but she was such a good musician that I was sure she could learn it in less than a week. He took a chance and contacted her; much to his relief, she agreed to learn and perform it. Her performance of it was one of the most moving I’ve ever heard after Janet Baker’s great 1976 recording of the work, but unfortunately the performance was neither broadcast nor recorded, so it only exists in my memory.

I followed DeGaetani’s career sporadically over the next several years but, aside from her performances at the Aspen Festival, she seemed to be teaching more than singing. Then, suddenly, it was all over. She died in 1989 of leukemia, a shock to all of us who admired her.

It’s difficult to think of too many other singers of her time who were as important in a number of ways that didn’t relate to conventional opera. She was, like Bethany Beardslee, Cathy Berberian and Dora Orenstein, one of those singers who stamped her art and her personality on everything she sang and, in return, drew a much larger audience into her circle. She was sorely missed and, in many ways, never replaced.

— © 2016 Lynn René Bayley

Listen to Jan DeGaetani here:
Ancient Voices of Children, part 1
Ancient Voices of Children, part 2
Ravel: Les Chansons Madécasses

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A Stunning New “Rodelinda”

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Handel: Rodelinda / Sonia Ganassi, mezzo-soprano (Rodelinda); Paolo Fanale, tenor (Grimoaldo); Marina De Liso, contralto (Eduige); Franco Fagioli, countertenor (Bertarido); Gezim Myshketa, bass-baritone (Garibaldo); Antonio Giovannini, countertenor (Unulfo); Orchestra Internazionale d’Italia; Diego Fasolis, conductor / Dynamic CDS 7724/1-2 (2 CDs, live: July 13 & 29 2013, Martina Franca)

An online friend of mine once told me that he is always searching for a Handel opera as dramatic as Giulio Cesare. I mentioned Rodelinda to him, particularly after hearing the Metropolitan Opera broadcast of January 1, 2005 with Renée Fleming (Rodelinda), Kobie van Rensburg (Grimoaldo), Stephanie Blythe (Eduige), David Daniels (Bertarido), John Relyea (Garibaldo) and Bejun Mehta (Unulfo), conducted by Harry Bicket (a performance I still love for its sheer beauty and accuracy of singing), but for whatever reason he didn’t find it particularly interesting.

This performance is very interesting. So interesting, in fact, that in my view it shoots straight to the top of Rodelinda recordings.

Oh, yes, there are partisans of the Alan Curtis recording with Marie-Nicole Lemieux as Rodelinda, and it’s pretty good, but to me it just misses the mark. Then there is the officially issued Met performance with Fleming and Blythe, from December 3, 2011 with several cast changes (Andreas Scholl as Bertarido, Shen Yang as Garibaldo and Joseph Kaiser as Grimoaldo), also good, on Decca DVD 974 3469, but that is not as dramatically taut as the 2005 broadcast. And there are several people who absolutely adore the Glyndebourne DVD with Italian mezzo Anna Caterina Antonacci as Rodelinda, conducted by William Christie, but if you can tolerate Antonacci’s wiry, fluttery, ugly voice, you have a stronger stomach than I do.

Which brings us to this production given in the relatively small Italian town of Martina Franca. Judging from the photos on the front booklet cover and CD box inset the costumes look outré and ridiculous, the stage sets look ugly and bare, but thankfully this is an audio CD and you don’t have to put up with the visuals. And what you hear on the recording is a performance that doesn’t just come close to the dramatic ideal, but rather explodes dramatically in a way that you almost never hear in this modern era of Historically-Informed Historicals with their straight tone strings and—worse yet—the insistence on what soprano Carole Bogard called “pinny neat singing” with no drama or feeling.

The one thing you must tolerate is the fact that this is a live performance (actually the combination of two live performances), thus the singers warm up before your very ears. This is particularly true of our Rodelinda, Italian mezzo Sonia Ganassi, who in my experience is much like Marie-Nicole Lemieux, a girl with the curl in the middle of her forehead…when she is good, she is very, very good, etc. She starts out in poor voice, sounding a shade flat in her first florid aria, “L’empio rigor del fato,” but before the aria is over you can hear her voice click in and improve. And she imparts a tremendous amount of feeling to the role of the vanquished queen separated from her husband and under the control of the vicious Grimoaldo. In a way, this opera is sort of a cross between the plots of Il Ritorno d’Ulisse in Patria and Fidelio, and as such it simply cries out for the kind of dramatic reading it receives here.

Nor is Ganassi the whole show. Grimoaldo, normally sung by light, pleasant Baroque tenors, always seemed to me an emasculated character, but here he is sung by Paolo Fanale who sounds almost like he came in a time machine from the era of early Verdi. Indeed, so dark and strong is Fanale’s timbre that at first I thought he wouldn’t be able to sing Grimoaldo’s coloratura, yet he negotiates it with ease while still sounding like a nascent Ismaele or Macduff. Contralto Marina de Liso, as Rodelinda’s sister-in-law Eduige, lacks the smooth delivery of Stephanie Blythe—she has a somewhat uneven vibrato that tends to spread under pressure—but her chesty, Marilyn Horne-like plunges into the low register, and equally Horne-like focus on a damn-the-torpedos dramatic delivery, darn near knock you off your feet.

Yet even these singers, good as they are, are not the end of the wonders of this recording. My readers know that I am usually not a fan of countertenors not named Philippe Jaroussky, but much to my surprise Franco Fagioli’s Bertarido is presented with such a firm tone (even when he dips into the low range, where 99% of countertenors sound thin and hollow), and such a dark sound, that I was absolutely bowled over. His performance of the showpiece aria “Vivi, tiranno! is the best I’ve ever heard. And then there is the young Albanian baritone Gëzim Myshketa (b. 1982), who sounds to my ears like a junior Leonard Warren with good coloratura technique. In the midst of such riches, perhaps it is nitpicking to say that the other countertenor, Antonio Giovannini, sounds merely good.

One of the virtues of this recording is that it is complete yet fits onto two CDs, but there are two little problems. The first of these is that several arias are truncated—Eduige’s “De’ miei scherni,” Grimoaldo’s “Prigioniera hò l’alma” and “Trà sospetti, affetti,” and Rodelinda’s final aria, “Mio Caro bene”—yet the overall performance is so good that one forgives this slightly-more-than-venial sin. The other complaint I had was that, for some reason, they chose to place the Act 2 opening recitative and the aria “De’ miei scherni” near the end of the act, just before Grimoaldo’s aria and the great Rodelinda-Bertarido duet, “Io t’abbraccio.” Perhaps this had something to do with the stage director’s “vision” (saints preserve us, boss!) but, frankly, I don’t like it. If you buy this album as downloads, however, it’s pretty easily remedied: just put that track at the beginning of Act 2 and push Garibaldo’s recitative and the aria “Tirannia gli diede il regno” to the beginning of the second CD. Problem solved.

And now we have only the conducting of Diego Fasolis to discuss, and it is fantastic. Yes, yes, the strings play most of the time with straight tone, but not consistently so: they also use a light vibrato at times. More importantly, the orchestra plays with heart and drive. They don’t sound as if they are whining and mewling. Miraculous! In addition to all this, the recorded sound is just perfect for a live performance, both the orchestra and the voices forward and clear with no quirky reverb or acoustic anomalies. All in all, a great performance, one that will grab your attention and then hold it for two and a half hours. The one drawback to this recording is that you’ll have to download the libretto from Dynamic’s website and print it out yourself, but this is a small inconvenience, particularly since they’ve managed to put the whole thing onto eight pages (in both Italian and English). If you like Giulio Cesare, you’ll love this particular recording of Rodelinda. It’s a strange mixture of Baroque and Verismo sensibilities, but it works, and that’s all that counts.

— © 2016 Lynn René Bayley

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Tara Helen O’Connor’s Versatile Flute

 

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As soon as I heard the CD reviewed below, I knew that I wanted to interview the artists, Tara Helen O’Connor and Margaret (a.k.a. Peggy) Kampmeier, because not only was the music interesting and challenging but their playing was so exciting. It isn’t often that I go out of my way to contact an artist, but I did so in this case, and I’m glad I did, because they are just as lively and interesting as the music they play.

Between performing and teaching, O’Connor is one of the busiest musicians on the scene today. She performs at the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival, Chamber Music Northwest and the Spoleto Chamber Music Festival of Charleston, South Carolina; she is a member of the New Millennium Ensemble, Windscape, Andalucian Dogs and the Bach Aria Group; and she teaches at Purchase College at the State University of New York. Her musical partner on this disc, pianist Peggy Kampmeier, is Artistic Director and Chair of the Contemporary Performance Program at the Mannes College of Music and Studio Instructor at Princeton University’s Department of Music. She performs regularly with the Orchestra of St. Luke’s, Sherman Chamber Ensemble and (believe it or not!) Peter Schickele’s P.D.Q. Bach concerts as well as numerous new music ensembles, so as you can see, this is a busy and versatile duo.

I caught up with them via e-mail to ask a few pertinent questions about this CD project and their approach to music in general.

Art Music Lounge: Tara, let’s start with you, but Margaret can jump in any time she wants. My initial reaction to your CD was twofold: one, I not only liked the music I heard but found it interesting and well constructed, something that not all modern music is; and two, I was absolutely blown away by the intensity of your playing. Clearly, for you music is not just a job but a personal mission. Would that be a fair statement?

Tara Helen O’Connor: Absolutely. I approach all music in the same way.  I search for the emotional, physical and spiritual motivation that lays behind the notes.   This could manifest as tone color, articulation, inflection or any of countless nuances of sound and rhythm. The main thing is to be authentic to the aesthetic of the composer.

AML: Peggy, I’m guessing that it’s much the same for you as well. I reviewed one of your previous CDs, a recital of songs by Kaikhosru Sorabji sung by Elizabeth Farnum on Centaur, and I was struck as much by your playing as by Farnum’s singing. I suppose that you specialize in contemporary music for a reason, right?

Peggy Kampmeier: That’s a great question. It’s so important to me to be involved with the music of our time. As a performer, that means giving voice to new and unfamiliar works, both in performance and in recording. Interpreting contemporary music has much to do with learning the languages of individual composers – “cracking the code,” so to speak, and this is forever fascinating to me. By the way, when I first moved to New York, I became known as a new music specialist, but I’ve always played all kinds of music.

AML: Tara, one of the things that impressed me about your CD was the no-holds-barred approach you take to flute playing. This is not to say that you don’t have perfect control of your instrument, rather that you take it to the limit at all times. I’m wondering if you take the same gung-ho approach to the music of Bach, Mozart, etc.?

THO: Absolutely. Again, I take the same approach to all music. I like to know the conventions of performance practice in all periods coupled with my instinct and my taste. I don’t try to play on the edge for its own sake, but rather I follow the music where it takes me. It’s an informed process that I hope brings me as close as I can be to the composers wishes. After all, we as performers are the vehicles of expression for the music of the past and our contemporaries.

AML: This question is for both of you. When I survey the classical scene today, what seems to me to be most popular—or at least most often performed and bought into by the larger general public—is what I call “classics lite” or “ambient classical,” music that is soft and relaxing, that doesn’t challenge people’s minds and emotions. Since both of you are so obviously dedicated to the exact opposite in music, what do you see as an antidote for this? In other words, is there any way you can see a future in which interesting music, emotionally played, once again becomes the norm rather than what young people refer to as “neo-classical chamber”?

THO: I am not a huge fan of labels, and it is especially impossible to label the time in which we are living. The music of all eras always contains works of great lasting meaning as well as shallow entertainment. That question has been with us throughout history. We have Bach vs. the lesser known Baroques, we have Beethoven vs. Spohr and Hummel, we have Schumann vs. Liszt and “the beat goes on.”

PK: For us the most important thing is to focus on music we find interesting and challenging, play it as well as we can, and put it out in the world. We rely on our instincts, training and experience to accomplish this. What happens afterwards, hmm…, well we can’t really control that, can we?

AML: I noticed that most of the works on this CD were either written for you, Tara, or commissioned directly by you. Yet I’m assuming that, because of your strong musical approach, you pick and choose the modern composers whom you approach to write for you. Is that correct?

THO: This CD was an evolutionary process. It stared with the idea of recording one of the first works Peggy and I performed together while we were finishing our graduate degrees at Stony Brook University. I then began to ask colleagues that I had worked with previously if they would be interested in writing pieces for us. These were composers whose work I fell in love with and really wanted to champion. They all said yes! We actually wound up with more pieces than we could fit on this CD and we hope to be doing a second one soon.

AML: Peggy, I can’t help but ask…how on earth did you get involved with the P.D.Q. Bach concerts? As busy as you are, I would think that you’d take a pass on something that is really a big musical joke! (I should mention that I love Schickele’s P.D.Q. Bach stuff and actually attended one of his concerts once, so I’m not speaking as someone who disapproves.)

A: Take a pass on working with Peter Schickele? The man is a total genius! I met him when I was performing some of his music here in New York. The rest is history, as they say. On the surface, P.D.Q. Bach concerts are entertaining and hilarious, but Peter Shickele’s underlying craft is impeccable. He is one of the finest musicians I know, and I have had a great time working with him and his incredibly talented musical cohorts.

AML: With both of you being so very busy, I wondered if you have much time, outside of a recording project like this, to perform together?

THO: We are both extremely busy, but we have played a lot together over many many years and always enjoy it.  We will soon be starting on a new project with another colleague. Additionally, we have a chamber music group together that has recorded a few CDs. Having gone to school together, we share a similar background in our pedagogical studies. This makes the collaboration even more fun and rewarding.  Having “grown up” together and honed our reflexes, I feel that we are really well matched. Additionally, we are great friends. It’s really fun!

PK: We are both extremely busy, but our paths cross often. Whenever we get a chance to play together, it’s like old friends meeting up. We just pick up where we left off and go from there.

AML: Thanks a million for your time! In closing, I would only say that I wish a record like yours would be nominated for a Grammy or a Pulitzer Prize in music, but I know better…it’s not commercial enough. But good luck to both of you in your future endeavors!

PK: Thank you so much for reviewing the CD so thoroughly and thoughtfully!

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THE WAY THINGS GO / Righteous Babe (Randall Woolf); Crystal Shadows (Steven Mackey); Gaze (John Halle); All Sensation is Already Memory (Eric Moe); Share (Belinda Reynolds); The Way Things Go (Richard Festinger); Duo for Flute and Piano (Laura Kaminsky) / Tara Helen O’Connor, flautist; Margaret Kampmeier, pianist / Bridge 9467

A music critic friend of mine can’t understand my strong liking for many modern works. To him, great music pretty much ended in the 1920s, and any changes since then are just steps backwards. But I run into this attitude all the time. People either ask me how I can like the modern stuff since I so obviously love Monteverdi, Buxtehude, the Bachs, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Berlioz, Schumann, Verdi, Wagner, Brahms, Debussy etc, or—which to me is just as strange—they ask me how on earth I can listen to the “old stuff” if I enjoy so much music from Schoenberg and Stravinsky on forward.

The answer, of course, is what I listen for: 1) the music’s structure and, in the case of orchestral or choral works, texture, and 2) whether or not it communicates anything to me. The shape of the music doesn’t matter to me. I can get just as much out of the string quartets of Segerstam as I can out of Beethoven’s, and just as much out of the operas of Messiaen, Orff and Hindemith as I can out of the operas of Mozart and Verdi—in fact, probably a bit more. But if you don’t know music (and it embarrasses me to admit how many serious music lovers can’t read a score and don’t even know, for instance, that there are no high Cs in “Di quella pira” from Verdi’s Il Trovatore), you can’t tell if a piece is well written or not, because regardless of the style, the principles remain the same. The rest of it is simply whether or not the music moves you. If it sounds like an intellectual game I’m not much interested and I’ll write it off, but if it connects emotionally I’ll go out of my way to understand it.

Such is the case with this CD, admitted by flautist O’Connor on page 4 of the booklet as “a labor of love…recorded over several years with my dear friend Peggy Kampmeier.” And you can tell this from the first note of the first selection, a sort of bitonal tango-boogie (they come together in A for the main theme, but start to split around 2:04) titled Righteous Babe. Randall Woolf, the composer, studied privately with David Del Tredici and Joe Maneri. Most classical folks know who Del Tredici is, if only from his 1976 surprise hit Final Alice, but Joe Maneri is not so well known. Maneri (1927-2009) was a jazz composer, saxophonist and clarinetist, well known for his enthusiasm for the avant-garde. Righteous Babe is sort of in between jazz and classical, but decidedly leaning more towards the former in rhythm and drive. Woolf writes that it was composed for O’Connor and “chiefly concerned with avoiding the flowery and dainty side of the flute.” That’s putting it mildly. There’s a bit of Lew Tabackin and a touch of Jethro Tull’s Ian Anderson here, and I found the whole piece exhilarating from start to finish.

The next several works are generally more abstract and less jazz-tinged in style, although the last movement of John Halle’s Gaze is marked “Rag: Raucous.” This is exactly the kind of music my tonal-loving friends don’t understand me liking, but as I’ve told them many times, listen for the structure. If the structure makes sense and is original in design, it’s good. If it’s original but poorly structured, it’s bad; if it’s neither original nor well structured, it’s rubbish. One need also keep in mind that some of these pieces, particularly Mackey’s Crystal Shadows, rely as much on the use of space between the notes as on the note sequence itself. There is also a certain amount of syncopation within this piece; it’s just not jazz syncopation. Halle’s Gaze is divided into three movements: “Always moving forward,” “Homage: Slow tango/Habanera” and “Rag: Raucous.” Halle uses rhythmic shifts here the way other composers might use thematic shifts; his theme keeps on developing throughout the first movement, but it rarely stays in the same rhythm or tempo. There is a certain amount of jazz “feel” around the 3:25 mark. The second movement, like the first, relies on tempo shifts which mirror the changes of dynamics and/or mood, but it is more playful and less serious-minded. Despite the allusion to ragtime, the last movement sounds to my ears more like something by Marius Constant than Joseph Lamb; even thought it stays mostly in A-flat, the piano part in particular plays around with the tonality (now playing a loud downward gliss, then playing crushed chords or altered chord positions) as the flute “gets lost” rhythmically before they “find” each other and come back together again.

I’ve had occasion to praise some of Eric Moe’s work in past reviews. All Sensation is Already Memory is a good piece—I liked it for the most part—although, to my ears, it’s not one of Moe’s most original works. Indeed, in style it closely resembled parts of Gaze, particularly the second movement. But as I say, it’s not a bad work at all, the piano part in particular having some very clever things to say. The work is in two parts, titled The Ungraspable Advance of the Past” and “Devouring the Future.” By contrast, Belinda Reynolds’ Share is an almost elegiac piece built around a repeated modal motif played by the piano whle the flute hovers above it playing a sparse but attractive melodic figure. I was not surprised to learn from the notes that Reynolds is an educator who helps children create music. The elegant simplicity of this piece may elude the listener who, so far in this recital, has been bombarded with interesting and novel effects, but my only (small) complaint about Share (which is played on the alto flute) is that I felt it went on a bit too long.

Richard Festinger, we are told, has led groups as a jazz musician in addition to his composition studies at the University of California in Berkeley. That being said, I enjoyed The Way Things Go tremendously for its clever working-out of short phrases, knit together in an almost awkward way that is strangely fascinating, but I heard no allusions to jazz in the score. The last of the three short movements has a quasi-Latin feel about it without really crossing over into that style of rhythm. Flutter-tonguing is used to enhance the mood as it was in Righteous Babe but also moments where the pianist plucks the strings. Festinger uses motor rhythms—but again, not jazz rhythms—to propel the music towards its conclusion.

The recital ends with Kaminsky’s Duo, which is the last piece written for this disc (2006). Curiously, the first of the three movements puts us back in the same kind of mood as Woolf’s opening piece, except that the rhythm is a bit more fractured here and there and not consistently moving forward. Indeed, the first movement comes to a standstill about a minute in so the solo flute can play an a capella solo for a few bars at a slower tempo, then the music is deconstructed when the piano returns, slowly unraveling and fragmenting itself into little 16th-note swirls alternated by the two instruments, then staccato notes which introduce an extempore section with greater fragmentation of the already minimal theme. This stops in the middle of nowhere before moving on to the more lyrical second movement, which sounds to me to be in an A mode, later shifting to B-flat. The last movement is all buoyant, nervous energy, once again using a stuttering ostinato rhythm in the keyboard, the music being “bound” thematically by the flute.

All in all, this is a fascinating recording, one well worth exploring, played with love and enthusiasm by two musicians who obviously enjoy what they’re doing.

— © 2016 Lynn René Bayley

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Jabbo Smith: A Study in Stubbornness

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When one discusses the great trumpet and cornet players in jazz, a long list of names come to mind, but when restricted to the late 1920s-early ‘30s only four names come up with any regularity: Louis Armstrong, Bix Beiderbecke, Bubber Miley and Red Nichols. There are strong, valid reasons why each of them are still remembered, particularly for this period of jazz, but one name that is seldom brought up except by serious collectors is that of Cladys “Jabbo” Smith.

Jabbo was born on December 24, 1908, the son of a barber and church organist who unfortunately died in 1912. Smith’s mother, who did washing and sewing to earn a living, fond it increasingly harder to care for him so in 1915 he was placed in the Jenkins Orphanage of Charleston, South Carolina where he learned to play the trumpet and trombone. His mother sought employment and was hired by the Jenkins Home so she could be close to her son. Cladys was so adept at learning his instruments that four years later, at the age of 10, he was touring with the Jenkins Band. This so impressed his mother that she made him promise her that he would never accept any job that paid less that $100 a week, an astronomical salary for an itinerant musician in those days. After unsuccessfully trying (and failing) to run out of the orphanage on his own several times, he did manage to leave for good in 1926, at the age of 17, where he headed north.

Apparently, the young but brilliant Jabbo was able to get the $100 a week he wanted, because he found work both in the recording studio and, more importantly, on the bandstand, particularly that of Charlie Johnson’s Paradise Ten, a hot Harlem band known more to musicians than to the general public. The lineup included, in addition to Jabbo, Leonard Davis on second cornet, Charlie Irvis on trombone and a young Benny Carter on clarinet, soprano and alto saxes. Smith also found employment in the recording studio with Thomas Morris’ Hot Babies, including a couple of sessions with Fats Waller on piano, and in November 1927 the 18-year-old sat in for an important OKeh recording date with Duke Ellington’s hot “Jungle Band,” playing solos on What Can a Poor Fellow Do?and Black and Tan Fantasy. Ellington offered Smith a permanent job in his band, but since the Cotton Club didn’t pay top dollar he couldn’t offer more than $65 a week, so Jabbo turned it down. This was just the first of several poor career choices made by the young hotshot trumpeter.

Partly due to his recording work with Morris, Smith was offered a spot in the pit band of the 1928 Broadway show Keep Shufflin’, where he joined Waller on organ, James P. Johnson on piano and Garvin Bushell on alto sax. This band recorded four titles for Victor under the name of the Lousiana Sugar Babes. But the real Jabbo Smith didn’t fully emerge on records until the following year when he was stranded in Chicago, while on the road with Keep Shufflin’, when famed gangster Arnold Rothstein—the backer of the show—died from an unfortunate case of lead poisoning (he was gunned down, gangland style). Since he was now a seasoned musician he was able to find a good amount of work, and someone put him in touch with Mayo Williams, recording director of Brunswick Records in Chicago. Williams asked him to form a recording group, which he called The Rhythm Aces (“Four Aces and the Joker”), to compete with Louis Armstrong’s popular Hot Five series on rival OKeh. Between January 29 and August 22, 1929, Smith cut 20 sides for Brunswick on which he cut loose with some of the most exciting, original and at times strange trumpet solos ever recorded. Just listen, for instance, to Jazz Battle from the January 29 session, which starts out with an brunswick7078impromptu cadenza that sounds a bit like Armstrong’s on West End Blues but played at warp speed. Like Armstrong, Smith utilizes initial note and terminal vibrato—something he held back from in his earlier recordings—but he also plays much more wild solos, staying up almost consistently in the top third of his range and building his solos around rather wild triplet figures. In his early sessions he was lucky enough to obtain the services of the great Omer Simeon, Jelly Roll Morton’s favorite clarinetist, a superb technician with a fine ear and first-class reading skills who could weave appropriate counterpoint around Smith’s sometimes Baroque fantasies. In the later recordings made from March 30 on, Simeon was replaced by the so-so alto saxist George James, but the trade-off was that the merely competent pianist Cassino Simpson was replaced by an excellent, underrated player named Earl Frazier.

Croonin the BluesThe Rhythm Aces records swung, but in an odd sort of way. Although it took Dizzy Gillespie to fully break the mold between the jazz rhythm of Armstrong and that of future jazz, on these 1929 recordings Jabbo Smith is already pushing the envelope. Small wonder that, despite Williams’ promotion for them in the black newspaper The Chicago Defender, they sold fairly poorly and were soon forgotten…except by a handful of musicians, among them young Roy Eldridge. Eventually the younger Eldridge met his idol in person, but that first encounter wasn’t a very happy one for him. By Eldridge’s own account, “Jabbo Smith caught me one night and turned me every way but loose…he wore me out …He knew a lot of music and changes.”

As the new decade of the 1930s dawned, it seemed as if young Smith was headed for a very rosy future, but something happened. He faded for a few years, only to be rediscovered in 1935 by jazz record producer Helen Oakley (who would later marry critic Stanley Dance) under the name of Charles LaVere & his Chicagoans. In 1938 he recorded four sides for Decca under the name Jabbo Smith and his Orchestra, but shortly thereafter he married and moved to his wife’s home town—Milwaukee, Wisconsin, about as far from the hub of jazz activity as one could get during those Depression years. In Milwaukee he collaborated with saxist Bill Johnson but by the early 1940s dropped out of sight, working regularly for an auto tire company and only playing occasionally on the side.

Jabbo in July 1979 w Orange Kellin

Jabbo Smith in July 1979 with trombonist Frog Joseph (rear) and clarinetist Orange Kellin

Several guesses have been made as to why Jabbo chose this route, but the one that makes sense is that, as the Depression worsened, he couldn’t find anyone willing or able to pay him $100 a week. It was also said that he enjoyed women and liquor more than music. Whatever the reason, he wasn’t rediscovered until the early 1960s, and his chops were rusty. It took him some years to regain at least part of his form, and although the spectacular, constant high-range excursions were a thing of the past, he could occasionally regain some of the speed of his youth and his musical ideas were often as good as before. The problem was that he was now placed in strictly “trad jazz” settings, playing with such old New Orleans geezers as trombonist Frog Joseph and guitarist Danny Barker in addition to the excellent (but still trad-jazz) white clarinetist Orange Kellin. The mere thought of Jabbo Smith, former avant-garde dynamo, playing such pap as Muskrat Ramble and Down in Honky-Tonk Town was a bit anachronistic, rather like putting Roy Eldridge (also still alive at that time) in a ragtime band, but as you can hear from their recorded performances, Jabbo had his blinders on and just tore through his solos as if he were still with the Rhythm Aces.

One of Smith’s most commercial successes came when he accepted singer-dancer-producer Vernel Bagneris’ invitation to join the stage band of his surprising hit retro show, One Mo’ Time, in 1979. He didn’t get a lot of exposure in the tight arrangements, which were tailored to feature the vocalists in the show, but what he did play still sounded marvelous. He was still playing well, I am told, when he appeared in Berln in 1986 and greatly impressed the avant-garde trumpeter Don Cherry, a veteran of the famous Ornette Coleman Quartet of the late 1950s-early ‘60s.

In October 1990 jazz writer and aficionado Len Weinstock nominated Smith to the Coastal Jazz Hall of Fame since he had been born in Savannah, Georgia. He was quickly accepted but, having suffered a stroke in May of that year, was living in the Village Nursing Home in New York. He died on January 16, 1991, but had already learned of his acceptance into the Hall of Fame from his closest friend in his last years, the wonder owner of the Village Vanguard, Lorraine Gordon. She accepted the award on his behalf in Savannah at the induction ceremonies in May, 1991.

It’s not difficult to hear in Jabbo Smith’s playing of 1928-29 the germination of an entirely new style of jazz that would not develop for another decade or find a name until after World War II, and it’s more than a shame that he wasn’t active at that time or recognized for his achievements. Had he stayed in New York, I’m sure he would have found a good paying job in a band—perhaps even a white band like Gene Krupa’s or Artie Shaw’s, famous for hiring black talent during the Swing Era—and he might have broken through to commercial popularity in addition to artistic achievement as Roy Eldridge and Henry “Red” Allen did. We’ll never know just how far Jabbo Smith might have taken his talent, because for whatever reason, it just wasn’t that important to him.

— © 2016 Lynn René Bayley

Listen to Jabbo Smith here.

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A New Recording of Bertoni’s Copycat Orfeo

Bertoni Orfeo

Bertoni: Orfeo ed Euridice / Vivica Genaux, mezzo (Orfeo); Francesca Lombardi-Mazzulli, soprano (Euridice); Jan Petryka, tenor (Imeneo); Coro Accademia di Santo Spirito, Ferrara, dir. Francesco Pinamonti; Ensemble Lorenzo da Ponte, cond. Roberto Zarpellon / Fra Bernardo Limited Edition FB1601729 (live performance: Ferrara, 2/15/2014)

I promised myself that I would avoid writing negative CD or DVD reviews on this site—after all, I’m not required to review things I don’t like anymore—but in this case I opted to take the plunge because the music is very good, as is some of the singing. What ruins it is the stupid, misguided, and completely non-authentic “historically informed” orchestra and chorus B.S. (See my article tearing apart the HIP movement here.)

Ferdinando Bertoni (1725-1813) was an Italian composer fond of the opera seria style that just preceded and initially influenced his great contemporary Christoph Willibald Gluck (1714-1787). And, of course, any student of opera knows that Orfeo ed Euridice was Gluck’s “breakthrough” opera (1762), the work in which he first pushed aside some of the conventions of opera seria and began writing in a new strophic style, with stabbing strings and biting choral interjections, that he later developed more fully in Armide, Alceste and the Iphigenie operas. But Bertoni, whose own Orfeo followed in 1776, borrowed some of the same style and technique of Gluck’s music (in fact, it was based on the same libretto by Ranieri de’ Calzabigi that Gluck used, and Bertoni admitted that he had Gluck’s score in front of him while writing this opera) but stuck closer to the opera seria style, which meant more arias in the stand-there-and-sing style that Gluck was endeavoring to get away from. Interestingly, Bertoni’s Orfeo was written at the request of Gluck’s original Orfeo, the castrato Gaetano Guadagni.

The end result, as one can hear, was a work that in many respects sounded like Gluck—the mezzo-with-choral-interjections that opens Bertoni’s Act 2 sounds remarkably similar to the opening of Gluck’s Act 1, and there are several other passages that sound like music that Gluck might have cut out of his Orfeo score, particularly another choral passage that resembles Gluck’s chorus of the furies—and that, despite the occasional aria that doesn’t seem to fit, makes the work vital and interesting. One point of interest here is that Orfeo’s aria “Che puro ciel” was inserted into the 1960s recording of the Gluck Orfeo with Marilyn Horne and Georg Solti.

I will concede that Zarpellon’s brisk tempos generate some excitement, but good God…that freaking straight-toned orchestra absolutely ruins everything. Thin, whiny, and inhuman sounding, the strings snivel and mewl their way through the score like sick kittens. This is in stark contrast to our two lead singers, who have strong vibratos (tenor Jan Petryka, unfortunately, also sounds like a sick kitten), and neither the singing nor the playing is helped by the awful acoustic. Recorded in live performance at the Teatro Comunale di Ferrara, there is a bizarre sort of reverb that distorts the voices of Genaux and Lombardi-Mazzulli to the point where they grate on the ear like the aural equivalent of Brillo pads. Moreover, the chorus sounds not only thin but amateurish, since some of the voices are recorded too forward and lack a really fine blend.

Sometimes you really wonder if these HIP performers realize how much havoc they are wreaking on music and making it not only unpleasant to hear but actually disgusting. And this is a case where, with a little concession to string vibrato and a less choppy style (a bit more legato would have done wonders), this might actually have been a valuable recording. Scimone OrfeoAs it is, I can’t recommend it over the mid-1990s recording on Arts Music with Delores Ziegler (Orfeo), Cecilia Gasdia (Euridice) and Bruce Ford (Imeneo) with the Solisti Veneti—a sort of mid-period HIP orchestra, not as whiny-sounding as the Ensemble Lorenzo da Ponte—conducted by Claudio Scimone, who actually, really uses legato phrasing. In addition, Ziegler presents us with a real, complex character, not just a nice singing job—although sheerly in terms of singing, she has it all over Genaux. Her voice is richer, her tone coloring vastly superior, and she sings the trills that Genaux simply skips over. (The presence of the great Bruce Ford as Imeneo speaks for itself…here was a master tenor in a nice piece of luxury casting for a throwaway role.) Even the little bridge passages for the strings sound better in Scimone’s version, and overall the opera just sounds more Italian, if you know what I mean. This new recording is, quite simply, wrong-headed in execution and hard to listen to, a real disaster.

— © 2016 Lynn René Bayley

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The Mercurial Talent of Shura Cherkassky

Cherkassky-Shura-05

“Some people like my playing and some don’t, but nobody can say that I’m boring.” —Shura Cherkassky

For someone like me, raised in America during the 1950s and ‘60s, the biggest names in the classical piano world were Horowitz and Rubinstein. Horowitz was the super-virtuoso who could play anything; Rubinstein was the last great Romantic who specialized in Beethoven and Chopin. I never saw the former in person and didn’t care to. Most of his recordings, to my ears, even as a tyro who didn’t know a lot about music, sounded simply awful: overdone keyboard-banging, exaggerated rhythms, and a lack of legato. And frankly, most of his recordings still strike my ears this way, the only exceptions being his studio recordings of Scriabin sonatas and two live performances with his father-in-law, Toscanini (the 1943 Tchaikovsky Concerto No. 1 and the 1948 Brahms Concerto No. 2). But I did see Rubinstein in person, and he was so good—particularly in playing his encores—that he inspired me to learn to play de Falla’s Ritual Fire Dance, which I did for my astonished piano teacher who thought I didn’t have a good enough technique to play it. Yes, I heard about other pianists who were being promoted by the record companies, particularly Claudio Arrau (EMI), Van Cliburn (RCA) and Glenn Gould (Columbia), but Horowitz and Rubinstein were considered to be “it.”

Imagine my surprise, then, when I went to a Cincinnati Symphony concert in the late 1970s, to see and hear a Russian pianist I’d never heard of before named Shura Cherkassky; to hear him play a work I’d never heard before, Tchaikovsky’s Second Piano Concerto; and to be completely bowled over by his playing and the work as he presented it. I’m sure some readers of this blog will disagree with me, but within the world of American classical music, Cherkassky was barely known—even less well known than such names as Leonard Shure, William Kapell (long dead by then but still pushed as a legend), Egon Petri or Bruce Hungerford, who were on the outskirts of the classical constellation of stars.

Cherkassky’s performance riveted me because it had the three qualities I admire most: musicality, excitement, and imagination. He didn’t just play notes, he pulled emotions out of the keyboard. He made the music come alive without (in this work and performance) distorting the music. He stunned me.

Naturally, that experience made me want to explore him further, but much to my surprise there weren’t that many recordings available—in record stores, in the classical section, in the United States, in the Midwest—by him. And the ones I heard were disappointing. They didn’t sound like I had heard him in person. They were either slow and disconnected-sounding or well played but lacking the feeling and excitement I heard in person. In 1979 a studio recording of Cherkassky playing the Tchaikovsky Second Concerto with the Cincinnati Symphony appeared. Of course I bought a copy immediately, but it, too, was disappointing. The tempos were pretty good but not as tight as the live performance I heard, and his playing was clean but somewhat uninvolved.

That’s when I began to understand, slowly but surely, that Cherkassy was very much an artist of impulse. When he was inspired he was very, very good, but when he wasn’t he was just OK or even dull, and like many such musicians, he was seldom at his best in the recording studio.

young_cherkassky

Young Shura Cherkassky in 1924.

I also learned about his background: born in Odessa in 1911, fled to America with his family to escape the Bolshevik Revolution, lived in this country for several years, made his first records for Victor between 1923 and 1928. Studied with Josef Hofmann until 1935, whereupon he began touring extensively and moved to Great Britain. With the coming of World War II he moved to Hollywood, California, where he stayed until after the War, then moved back to England where he became a legend. He continued to live mostly in England and mostly in hotel rooms for the rest of his life.

A couple of years later Cherkassky returned to Cincinnati to give a recital at Xavier University’s Piano Series. Of course I went to see him, and he was again fantastic. Here, in closer quarters, I was able to observe his playing in greater detail. One thing I noticed was his constant pumping of the sustain pedal—on and off, off and on, which colored and shaded his playing and created much of the shimmer one heard. After the recital I stood on line among other admirers (mostly little old ladies) to ask him about this. When I finally got up to him and asked him about it, he said that he didn’t know, he didn’t even think about it, that it was probably just instinctive (which I found interesting). But here’s the funny thing: as I turned to leave, the little old lady who had been just ahead of me in line came up and asked me if he spoke to me in English. Astonished, I said yes. She told me that when she started gushing at him about how wonderful he was, he answered her in Russian! So that’s how he held fawning admirers at arm’s length!

As time went on I started collecting more Cherkassky recordings, sporadically, particularly the “live” recordings issued by Nimbus and Decca, but even many of these were disappointing. Then, when I began to feel that I’d never find Cherkassky recordings that captured him the way I had heard him, I ran across these four albums:

Fricsay Vol 4
Tchaikovsky: Piano Concerto No. 2 in G, Op. 44; Liszt: Piano Concerto No. 1 in Eb
, S. 124 / Ferenc Fricsay, cond; RIAS Symphony Orch. / Audite 95.499

Cherkassky left us four recordings of the Tchaikovsky Second, one of his pet projects. The first, from 1947 with the Santa Monica Symphony conducted by Jacques Rachmilovich (Concert Hall Society) and the last, from 1979 with the Cincinnati Symphony conducted by Walter Susskind (Vox), are considered the least interesting. The one most collectors know is the 1956 Deutsche Grammophon performance with the Berlin Philharmonic conducted by Richard Krauss, and it’s not as dull as the other two, but this 1951 version with Fricsay is a firecracker. What’s ironic about this is that Cherkassky reportedly hated conductors who were too strict in tempo, and Fricsay, a conductor very much in the mold of Toscanini, was nothing if not strict in tempo, but both the Tchaikovsky and the Liszt (a live performance from 1952) are the Cherkassky I remember. The sound quality is very good for the early ‘50s.

Cherkassky Chopin
Chopin: Etudes, Opp. 10 & 25; Barcarolle in F#
; Fantasy in F minor; Fantasie-Impromptu in C# minor; Nocturne in F minor, Op. 55 No. 1; Piano Sonata No. 3; Preludes Op. 28 / Philips 456742 (2 CDs)

These are mostly mono recordings of Chopin but all of them are utterly fantastic. Rather than pulling the music out of the keyboard, here Cherkassky makes it flutter and sing as if the Etudes were played by butterflies. This performance of the Barcarolle is the second-best I’ve ever heard after the old Columbia 78 by Walter Gieseking. The Piano Sonata No. 3 is not quite up to the level of the rest of the album but still better than many other versions (although I prefer Dinu Lipatti’s performance to all others). An excellent, excellent album.

Cherkassky WRC Recordings
Beethoven: Piano Sonata No. 32; “Eroica” Variations. Clementi: Sonata in B-flat, Op. 47 No. 2. Schubert: Piano Sonata in A, D. 959. Chopin: Fantaisie-Impromptu in C# minor, Op. 66; Barcarolle in F#; Nocturne in F minor, Op. 55 No. 1; Waltz in E, Op. Post.; Scherzo No. 3 in CT. Schumann: 3 Fantaisiestücke, Op. 111. Schumann-Tausig: Der Contrabandiste, Op. 74 No. 10. Liszt: Consolation No. 3 in DI; Grand Galop Chromatique; Liebestraum No. 3; Grands Etudes de Paganini No. 3, “La Campanella” / Guild 2398/99 (2 CDs)

These are Cherkassky’s complete late 1950s-early ‘60s recordings for the World Record Club label plus an extended-play 45 made for HMV (the Chopin Fantaisie-Impromptu and Liszt Liebestraum). Some of the Chopin works on here are also on the Philips album, but they are different recordings. Your reaction as to which you prefer will depend on your individual taste, but by and large these WRC recordings caught Cherkassky in a particularly relaxed and inventive mood, especailly the big sonatas of Beethoven and Schubert. I’ve heard quite a few versions of this last, great sonata, including one live performance by the late Claude Frank that was frankly disappointing when compared to his recording of it (he programmed it at the last minute because his daughter, violinist Pamela Frank, was unable to perform with him due to an injury). My other favorite versions of this great sonata are the ones by Artur Schnabel (the 1942 RCA Victor recording, not the EMI version), Annie Fischer (from her complete set), John O’Conor and Michael Korstick, but Cherkassky’s may just be the most personal and intense reading of all (as O’Conor’s is, to my mind, the most purely spiritual). The other works all benefit from Cherkassky’s superb sense of touch and phrasing. A real surprise here is Liszt’s Grand Galop Chromatique, exactly the kind of “empty virtuoso piece” that one would not think of Cherkassky playing in a million years (it was a specialty of the great Gypsy virtuoso György Cziffra), yet he not only revels in the bizarre chromatic movement of the piece but tosses it off in a playful manner, which is really the best way of approaching it. Overall, a fascinating album.

Cherkassky Chopin Concertos
Chopin: Piano Concerto No. 1 (BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, cond. Christopher Adey); Piano Concerto No. 2 (BBC Symphony Orchestra, cond. Richard Hickox) / ICA Classics 5085

These live performances from Scotland and England in the early 1980s capture Cherkassky at his very best, in good digital sound. Earlier in my life I loved the way Rubinstein played these concertos on a stereo recording from the 1960s but, after hearing this CD, I can’t even listen to that disc any more (although there is a live performance from the 1940s by Rubinstein with Bruno Walter conducting that is superb in a different way from this). Cherkassky is an absolute magician in these performances; as good as you may think pianist X or Y is in these concertos—and yes, I’ve heard some very fine modern recordings of these works—a side-by-side comparison consistently gives the edge to Cherkassky. And believe me when I tell you this: I am NOT a huge fan of the Chopin concertos. I find the orchestra parts weak in musical ideas and poorly scored, and here, even in the second concerto where the pianist is paired with the superb Richard Hickox (one of my favorite British conductors), there just isn’t much you can do with the orchestral part. Plain and simply, it is relatively uninteresting; yet Cherkassky’s playing is so good that he even seems to make this rather lame accompaniment sound good.

So…these albums sum up, for me, the essence of Cherkassky. Some of the others, although interesting, are either too slow and/or too wayward in tempo and phrasing. A strange man, he was married once but not for very long. Reportedly, he divorced her because she couldn’t stand his practicing four hours a day (on the recommendation of Hofmann) and he wouldn’t settle down anywhere, preferring to live in hotel rooms. When he died in December 1995, it was learned that he owned nothing: his television, CD player and stereo set, his evening dress, even his piano, were all rentals. Cherkassky believed in treading lightly and leaving no footprint, except in the recordings listed above (and I’m sure there are one or two I’ve missed) that show what a superb and almost magical musician he could be.

— © 2016 Lynn René Bayley

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Dreams Are Nothing More Than Wishes: The Harry Nilsson Story

Nilsson is hear

In the spring of 1970, I was still a sophomore in college and, although I thought I knew what I wanted to be—a teacher (a dream destroyed by the liberal left after my graduation)—from a personal perspective I was lost. Trying desperately to find a way to fit into society, I was ridiculed and rebuffed everywhere I turned. I was strong enough in my belief that I was a worthwhile person not to let it bother me too much, but let’s face it, being a social misfit isn’t fun or comfortable. (I’m sure nowadays I would have been put on Ritalin and forced to assimilate with people I didn’t like myself.)

One afternoon, during a break between classes, I wandered over to a sort of on-campus coffeehouse with a loft. In the loft was a phonograph and a small pile of what I would best describe as Hippie-type pop records. The following year the college turned this little sanctuary, which was open to everyone and always had a mixed crowd, exclusively over to the black students on campus and they permanently barred white students from hanging out. But I digress.

There was another female student up in the loft, and she put a record on the turntable. After three short piano notes, a voice began to sing:

Dreams are nothing more than wishes
            And a wish is just a dream
            You wish would come true.

HarryIt was a high-pitched voice, very sweet in sound and completely unlike any other contemporary pop singer I had ever heard. I thought it was a woman singing…I was, in fact, quite surprised to learn that it was a man. I looked at the album cover and saw a faded black-and-white photo of a freckle-faced boy with the single word, Harry, next to it. That was my introduction to Harry Nilsson. I listened to the entire album in one sitting; each song seemed as good if not better than the last. When it was finished, I felt as if there was someone—this singer-songwriter, at least—who understood what it was like to feel alienated.

Nilsson’s next album, Nilsson Sings Newman, was just as good if not better. Backed only by Randy Newman on acoustic piano, but multi-tracking his voice, Nilsson sang ten Newman songs, almost none of which became hits (even when Newman himself did them) but most of which had the same theme of trying to fit in to society. It was almost like a pop song cycle, the best songs of which were Love Story, Cowboy, I’ll Be Home, Living Without You and So Long, Dad. By this time, I was hooked. Since I wore out one vinyl pressing of the Harry album and was working on wearing out another, I broke down and bought an 8-track tape player because I was by that time working weekend jobs as a security guard while putting myself through college. Most of these jobs were night shift, after everyone in the building had gone home, and so I was able to play Harry over and over and over again until every note, every phrase was burned into my musical DNA.

From this point forward, now, I’m speaking as a fan. I discovered Nilsson’s pre-Harry albums, Pandemonium Shadow Show and Aerial Ballet, particularly loving the second of Nilsson Aerial Balletthese. By this time I had seen the film Midnight Cowboy and heard the song Everybody’s Talkin’. Still in college, I heard the music from Nilsson’s animated film The Point, which I liked less, but was still a fan. I learned, by this time, that Nilsson had started out making demo records for songwriter Scott Turner in 1962, then wrote some songs (including one for Little Richard and three for Phil Spector) through which he met and befriended publisher Perry Botkin, Jr. All through this period he worked at a bank on computers—remember, these were the days when “computer” meant something six feet high and four feet across, with huge digital tape reels on them, set aside in a dustproof room (think of the computer Hal in 2001: A Space Odyssey), not something on a desk. But Nilsson had an office of his own. He sang just one live performance in tandem with another singer, was petrified and hated the experience, but Botkin was still able to promote Nilsson as a singer. He introduced him to composer-arranger George Tipton, who acted as Nilsson’s music director on his first three RCA Victor albums (including Harry). Tipton personally invested his life’s savings, $2,500, to record four songs with Nilsson which he was able to sell to Tower Records. Due to these demos, Tipton wangled a contract with RCA and history was made.

Nilsson’s only request of RCA was that he have his own office as he did at the bank. He still wouldn’t sing in live performances but in fact answered his own phone when people would call RCA and ask to speak to him. Years later, he recalled a typical conversation: “When did you play last?” “I didn’t.” “Where have you played before?” “I haven’t.” “When will you be playing next?” “I won’t.”

It seemed as if Nilsson was a quiet, sensitive man who had tapped into what it was like to be quiet and sensitive and misunderstood in American society. Certainly, that was part of his charm. His Nilsson Schmilsson album, though yielding the hit song Without You, was to me less effective than his earlier recordings (by this time he had a falling out with George Tipton, and I personally think Tipton’s replacements never quite achieved the tasteful quietude of his earlier recordings). I was less thrilled with his next release, A Little Touch of Schmilsson in the Night, even though it consisted of classic American pop songs arranged by Gordon Jenkins, not because of the songs but because of the slow, lethargic tempos he and Jenkins chose. But I certainly wasn’t prepared for what I perceived as the total meltdown of Harry Nilsson.

Apparently, the Beatles’ press officer Derek Taylor bought an entire boxful (25 albums) of Pandemonium Shadow Show and passed them around to friends, including the Beatles themselves. Both John Lennon and Paul McCartney were smitten by his pure, three-octave tenor voice and sensitive delivery, but it was Lennon who personally went out to California and helped to corrupt Nilsson. The two of them smoked pot, got drunk (often) and went around from club to club heckling performers, starting bar fights and otherwise raising hell. At one point during this drunken spree, Nilsson ruptured a vocal cord, and in a newspaper interview said that all of his sensitive songs were simply “bullshit.”

That was pretty much the end of my infatuation with Nilsson. Yes, I admit that it was just my own personal subjective feeling, but that’s just the way it was. And yet, I couldn’t get over the heartbreaking beauty of his second, third and fourth albums. To me, they were just something perfect and beautiful and moving.

And so I learned an important life lesson, that someone could be a wonderful artist and still be a jerk as a person. I bear no animosity towards Nilsson, but wish he simply had never made that statement to the press. Why did he feel the urge to do so? And why did he purposely wreck his voice and his career for a few momentary thrills hanging out with John Lennon? They made one LP together, Pussy Cats. It sucked. Probably the moment that really tore it for me was when he recorded the song You’re Breaking My Heart with the lyrics, “You’re breaking my heart / By keeping us apart / So f**k you!” Well, f**k you, too, Harry.

Yet I still have his early albums on CD, and I play them every so often. There’s just Nilsson gravestonesomething indefinably beautiful about them; they have a certain timeless quality. At the time they were released, Time magazine referred to that genre of music as “salon rock.” I suppose that’s as good a definition as any, but to me the “rock” element is so gentle and innocuous that it isn’t even noticeable most of the time. When Nilsson died of heart failure in 1994, not quite aged 53, it came as a bit of a shock to me, but by this time he had become much more identified with the songs Without You and Coconut in the eyes of the public. I miss that early part of you, Harry, and I wish you hadn’t deserted your principles and style. It was what made you unique.

— © Lynn René Bayley 2016

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