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. Dictionary.com 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.

2 comments:

Morty said...

Actually, your reference to Monk and the celeste is moot: Lewis used the celeste in the 1930s. (He recorded "I'm in the Mood for Love" on the instrument during that song's first flush of popularity, around '36.)

I dig the celeste in jazz. Lewis's 3 celeste pieces in the '61 album you mention are actually slow blues. It works damned well in that application. Listen again.

Jazz 88's said...

I will listen again. Even then, I'm not sure I'll agree with you. But I'm open to anything. (Except maybe the tuba as a lead instrument in jazz. I have an album somewhere of tuba bebop. It's not natural.)