Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Celeste + Jazz = Blech!

In 28 years of professional writing, I don't think I've ever used the word "twee." But I'm about to.

Look it up. says "twee" means "affectedly dainty or quaint." Put another way: Unnaturally cute.

That's the celeste in jazz. It's cute and dainty and thoroughly unnatural. What's more, it's a mood killer. I can't understand why anyone would use it.

You've heard the celeste, even if you don't know it. It sounds like a toy piano. That's the problem. It's about the most un-serious musical instrument I can think of, except maybe a kazoo.

There's a place for the celeste in classical music. Tchaikowsky used it effectively in The Nutcracker. Think of the "Dance of the Sugarplum Fairies." It's also in Grofe's "Grand Canyon Suite."

But lately I've been listening to "The Blues Piano Artistry of Meade Lux Lewis." It was recorded in 1961 and it has 10 tracks. Seven of them are pure barrelhouse, booggie-woogie, solo piano pleasure. It's about as good and rolicking as a solo piano can get.

And then there are three tracks on celeste. Let's just say blues were never meant to be played on a celeste. The CD just stops cold dead at each track.

In fairness, Monk used a celeste, too, on his classic "Brilliant Corners" album, five years before Lewis. He did it on one track, "Pannonica." At least he was smart enough to surround himself with other instruments. He plays the celeste with his left hand and the piano with his right. Plus there are two saxes, drums and bass. And he does lay off the celeste for part of the track. Still, it doesn't sound right.

You have to wonder. Didn't anyone say to Monk or Lewis, "Dude, that's wrong. You sound like a 5-year-old. You sound... twee!"

I wish someone had.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Blue Note LP + CD

I don't get it.

I recently received an email from Blue Note Records. You can see the offer here.

They're offering 12 "classic Blue Note bestsellers," each in a package containing one LP and one CD. As the email explains: "CD for the car or computer, and a warm analog LP for the home sound system!" Each package sells for $20.98 at the Blue Note Direct Store.

Among the classic LP-CDs for sale are John Coltrane's "Blue Train," Herbie Hancock's "Maiden Voyage" and Dexter Gordon's "Go!" You can see the offer here.

Is there really a market for this? Are people still buying LPs? I like LPs and I still have many old favorites, but I don't like them enough to buy a CD for the car and an LP for home. Not even to get the "stunning, legendary album covers, which are works of art themselves," as the promo says.

Obviously, Blue Note knows it's market better than I do. But I don't see the attraction. I'd be curious to know how many they sell.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

The Bad Plus - But Is It Jazz

And now for something completely different.

I've been listening to The Bad Plus. They're not new, exactly. They've been around since 2003. That's pretty new relative to the rest of jazz/rock/pop/whatever.

And I guess it doesn't matter so much what they are. Jazz? Power trio? Fusion? Well, no, not fusion. By definition, fusion would have to include something electric, and The Bad Plus isn't that. It's just a traditional jazz trio of piano, bass and drums.

But there's nothing traditional about their music.

I have 3 Bad Plus CDs, two of which I bought last week. They are: “These Are The Vistas” and “Give” and “Suspicious Activity?” (The question mark is their's, not mine.)

I like them – I think. I can't recall hearing anything like them before. And how often does that happen?

I remember hearing Monk for the first time. I thought: “Wow, I know that's jazz,but it's unique.” That was three decades ago and I still believe it. I have searched near and far and I haven't found anyone yet who sounds like Monk, or even remotely reminds me of Monk.

The Bad Plus does. Not because their music is Monk-like. It is anything but. Still, it reminds me of Monk in its utter freshness. This is unlike any jazz trio I've heard before. Maybe that's because it's not jazz. It's not free jazz. Maybe this is more like a power trio – like the Jimi Hendrix Experience or Cream, but substitute a piano where Jimi or Clapton would play guitar.

The drummer is mad crazy. He reminds me of Keith Moon (the Who) or Carl Palmer (ELP). The bass is big and fat. And the piano is loud and fast and playing heavy block chords, kinda sorta like McCoy Tyner, but nothing like that. This is dense music, bomabastic music. There's very little melody per se, which usually ticks me off. But somehow, this works.

These aren't five-star CDs, really. I can't listen to them for long stretches. But for four or five or six tracks, they're really provocative.

I can't think of anything remotely like them. Can you?

Monday, November 10, 2008

Eldar (piano) vs. Eldar (beeps and boops)

There are two Eldars and I know which one I don't like.

Hint: It's the newer one.

Let's start with a confession. I'm an old fart. I don't try to hide it. I like acoustic jazz. I like old jazz. Sometimes I like electric jazz, too, but I don't like them together and I can't think of a single instance where mixing them up on one CD worked.

Hence Eldar.

Now, I don't mind the kid's odd name or the fact that he looks like he's 12 years old. There are plenty of jazz guys with odder names and weirder faces. (What's with those cheeks, Dizzy?)

And I really liked his first CD from 2005, the one called just "Eldar." That super-duper-fast version of "Sweet Georgia Brown" blows me away every time. So does "Maiden Voyage" and "Moanin'" and "Watermelon Island." Although, come to think of it, all of those are covers of old jazz standards. The originals and the slow tunes -- not so much. But I do generally like the trio format and the solo piano tunes.

Then there's last year's CD, "Re-Imagination."

Fusion has its place. I like Return to Forever. But one thing I never heard Chick Corea do was mix his acoustic and electric stuff all on one CD. But that's what Eldar does on "Re-Imagination."

Let's start with the worst stuff. On this CD, there two short, weird electronic "pieces" with beeps and boops and buzzes. I don't get it. Then there are pieces that sound sorta-kinda like a cross between pop and jazz with acoustic piano and electric noise and some synthesizer thing in the background. One of these pieces is 8 minutes long. It leaves me cold.

And then, smack in the middle of the CD, there's this perfect track. It's a joyful, old-time piano romp on "Place St. Henri" by Oscar Peterson. If the kid left it at that, I'd be a happy old fart.

But then Eldar wanders off into some not-very-inspiring slow dreamy thing, followed by some more electronic stuff.

Look, I like Eldar. I admire his experimental streak. I love his chops. But I don't love "Re-Imagination." I hope he finds his own voice sometime soon, and I hope it doesn't include any beeps or boops.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Gershwin, rhythm and constipation

Insert your favorite toilet joke here.

I tried. I considered dozens of poop puns, then finally decided nothing could top reality. So here it is:

In the 1930s, George Gershwin – already a huge star – hosted a radio show on which he played piano between laxative commercials.

It's funny, really, when you hear it. And yet it doesn't detract from the music, which is sensational. Actually, the Feen-A-Mint ads are kind of charming.

You can hear it yourself on a CD called “Gershwin Performs Gershwin: Rare Recordings 1931-1935.” It's not easy to find. The CD came out in 1991 and it's currently out of print, although there are used copies available on Amazon for around $18.

Gershwin's tunes are absolutely everywhere, and performed by absolutely everyone. I'm sure Elmo and Big Bird will record “Summertime” any day now. So it's easy to forget that Gershwin started as a piano player. He was a “song plugger” on Tin Pan Alley in New York, plinking away on the 88s to promote new tunes by his musical publisher, Jerome Remnick Music Co.

You can hear Gershwin playing his own songs – sort of – on a pair of CDs called “Gershwin Plays Gershwin.” I say “sort of” because these aren't actual recordings. These are piano rolls created by Gershwin himself. So the listener, in effect, is hearing Gershwin play his own music. But it's not a direct thing. You can't actually hear Gershwin's voice. You can't really feel his personality in the piano rolls.

But “Gershwin Performs Gershwin” is something else. These are actual recordings from the 1930s. The quality is awful, as you'd expect. The first 16 tracks are from three radio shows. One includes an 8-minute “Variations on I Got Rhythm,” in which Gershwin not only plays the piano but explains the variations. It positively brings Gershwin to life. In another, he jokes with Rudy Vallee after playing “Fascinating Rhythm” and “Liza” and “Second Prelude” on piano. (The jokes are corny and they sound scripted, but so what?)

And that's just the start.

On Track 17, Gershwin personally leads a 1931 rehearsal of his underrated “Second Rhapsody.” It's a 14-minute treat. And on Tracks 18 to 22, Gershwin leads a 1935 rehearsal of “Porgy and Bess” – before it was ever performed publicly. This is history. You can hear him talking to the performers before each song. It's like watching the outtakes of “Gone With The Wind” or “Casablanca.” It is electrifying.

And, of course, there are those laxative commercials. One touts Feen-A-Mint as a great advancement in the field of medicine. Another is a 90-second melodrama in which two traveling salesmen discuss constipation and the benefits of a certain chewable laxative.

OK, it's laughable. But it's also a snapshot of an era – as true to its time as George Gershwin on the keyboard and at the microphone, chatting about his latest Broadway show. Like the rhythm in the song, it's fascinating.