Private Astronomy (Bix Beiderbecke)
For weeks, I've been listening to ancient recordings of Bach's Keyboard Concerti. They're not as old as I tend to think they are, but they completely antedate modern performance practices. And yet they sound great.
They were made in Vienna, in 1958 (the solo concerti) and 1964 (the multiples). I Solisti di Zagreb, led by Antonio Janigro, with Anton Heiller and others at the keys. How exotic that name sounds - "I Solisti di Zagreb." I can't tell if they're going, because their site is in Croatian. I see that I have to do some research: were these Yugoslavian exiles working in Vienna, or did they travel to the West to make their recordings?
The recordings are infused with a driven, dramatic quality that I like in this music. It sounds like the sound track to a horror movie. There was a time when I thought that the Concerto for Four Harpsichords in a, BWV 1065 would make the perfect score for a Dracula movie. (It's a transcription of the last concerto from Vivaldi's L'estro armonico.) There is a spooky quality that one doesn't ordinarily associate with Bach. Perhaps it's worth mentioning that I first heard these works at a time when harpsichords were beginning to be used by soundtrack composers.
I was crazy about harpsichords in those days, so much so that I built my own clavichord from a kit (harpsichord kits were too expensive). But I take the view nowadays that everyone from Bach to Mozart would have killed to play on Beethoven's Broadwood. Get this dinky tinkly thing out of here! Wanda Landowska, the pioneer of harpsichord revival, used to say, "You play Bach your way, and I'll play Bach his way." I think she's mistaken about what Bach's way would have been if he had been given the choice. The keyboard concerti, in any case, are the only works by Bach that I can bear to listen to on the harpsichord; conversely, I can't stand to hear them played on pianos. Clunk-eeee. But the piano is the only instrument for the solo keyboard music. I'd give anything to have Keith Jarrett's recording of the Goldberg Variations on a piano. He's recorded it on the harpsichord, and I'm not impressed. His piano recording of several of Handel's keyboard suites is, to my mind, the gold standard of Taste.
Ah, here's the music that's playing when Michael Caine rams Barbara Hershey up against the record player, making a frightful scratch (Hannah and Her Sisters).
As I think I've mentioned elsewhere, MHS has made these recordings available again. I didn't order them; I forgot to fax in the "don't send" request.
For some reason, BWV 1053 and 1054, the second and third solo concerti, are omitted. I don't even know if I know them! I used to be a multiple concerto addict. Why listen to a concerto for one instrument when you can hear one for two, or three or - in Bach's case - four! The only unfamiliar music on the set I've been wearing out (so to speak) is BWV 1061, for two keyboards in C. It sounds almost rococo.
A record that I am not crazy about is Wolfgang Rübsam's recording of Bachs Toccatas, BWV 910-916. I was utterly innocent of this music until De battre mon coeur s'est arrêté, which followed the film upon which it is based, Fingers, in making a showpiece of BWV 914. In the new movie, the toccata is played by the star's sister, Caroline Duris - she's a piano teacher. She has some trouble with the end of the piece, as does everyone else I've heard play it except for Glenn Gould, who does something almost transcendental. (The writing is very dense.) Hr Rübsam solves the problem by playing at what I will call a deconstructing pace. Read: "not fast." (March 2006)
Ry Cooder's terrific 1978 album, Jazz, included three compositions by cornettist Bix Beiderbecke, the short-lived white jazz legend (from my Keefe grandmother's home town, Davenport, Iowa) who worked extensively with Paul Whiteman in the Twenties. Of the three, I fell in love with "In A Mist" right away. It's quick and quirky and unlike everything else. Harmonically daring and shaped against the grain of the standard song, it took a while to absorb. It would be impossible to forget. When I read in the Times a while back that Geoff Muldaur, of Jug Band fame, had released Private Astronomy: A Vision of the Music of Bix Beiderbecke, I ordered it right away. I wasn't ready for it, though. "In a Mist," as originally charted, and played at a period tempo, had none of the dash of Ry Cooder's arrangement. Beiderbecke's instrumentals seemed merely quirky. The album was padded out with songs of the same era but of an entirely different feeling. The songs were great, if largely unknown, but they seemed to choke off the far more "artistic" compositions that had inspired the disc. One wanted more of them, and one perhaps wanted a few old favorites. ("Whispering," for example - a song that can't be adapted often enough.) One song went straight to my limbic system, but I'm too old to be loading discs for just one song, and the album eventually got lost in the pile.
The song that crazed me was "Bless You! Sister," a song with words by Al Dubin and music by J. Russel Robinson. (Dubin's relatively famous, but Robinson is new to me.) A cheeky parody of revival music, "Bless You! Sister" has lines such as
Just like old Adam, I was eating an apple a day.
I'm through with apples, since the peaches came my way.
and it is very saucily sung by guest artist Loudon Wainwright III, with backup by Martha Wainwright and Jenni and Clare Muldaur. I assume that the Muldaurs are Mr Muldaur's daughters, but not with much conviction, because I also assumed that Martha was the current Mrs Loudon Wainwright III. Rufus Wainwright, whose songs I hadn't heard, had been much in the news just before Private Astronomy arrived, and I knew that his mother, Kate McGarrigle, had parted ways with Loudon III a long time ago. Then, about a month ago, Ms NOLA burned two songs from Rufus's Want One on a compilation for me, and I presently learned that Martha is his sister, not his stepmother. Remembering the Private Astronomy connection, I dug out the disc, which was no easy thing, because it's largely unclassifiable.
Now I'm ready. Oh, am I ready. Private Astronomy is a very sophisticated collection of divers material, and now I see how the Beiderbecke pieces, which were never known to a wide public, flash against tunes that may have been top hits for a week or two before sinking into oblivion. The alternation of corny song and sophisticated instrumental opens up the Twenties in the most interesting way imaginable. If this were an LP, it would already be toast.
There's no point to trying to describe Beiderbecke as a composer; he's both original and unique, so if you haven't heard his work, no clues are going to give you an idea of what it's like. There are moments when it sounds extremely French (Darius Milhaud), but they're fleeting. If you've got Jazz - and readers of a certain age probably do - retrieve it and listen to the Beiderbecke tracks. (If you haven't got Jazz, your missing something quite as fantastic as The Buena Vista Social Club.) As for the songs, they stand outside the American Standard tradition largely because their lyrics are rather unsophisticated. The love songs are blues - "There Ain't No Sweet Man That's Worth the Salt of My Tears" and "Singin' the Blues," both performed by Martha Wainwright with an edge that makes me impatient for the release of her debut disc next month - while the novelty numbers, "Take Your Tomorrow (and Give Me Today)" and "Futuristic Rhythm," sung by Mr Muldaur with the backup of the "Harmony Boys," are only slightly more respectable cousins of the jug band music that Mr Muldaur recorded almost forty years ago, when Maria Muldaur was still Maria d'Amato. Toward the end, Geoff sings two extremely homespun solos, "Waiting at the End of the Road" and "Clouds." Well, I say homespun, but the latter song, set to music of Bix Beiderbecke, has words by Rufus Wainwright, among others, and it is more a meditative recitative than a song; while "Waiting" is by Irving Berlin. While I'm still nuts about "Sister," "Waiting" is my current fave, largely because Charlie Giordano's accompaniment on the harmonium sounds like something that Clint Eastwood might put to work in one of his inverted tearjerkers. The sustained chords carry me back into a parlor of my grandparents' Midwestern youth.
I used to think that Bing Crosby had the most beautiful voice, ever. Most of what he sang was rubbish, but he transfigured it with a cantilena of gorgeous, perfectly tied notes. Well, Jean Sablon’s the same but better. The biggest difference is that of range. Sablon has Crosby’s light-handedly authoritative baritone, but he also has a delicious tenor that approaches the falsetto, and he can range from one to the other almost seamlessly. He has a much better sense of humor, and can give novelty numbers such as “Je suis sex-appeal” and “Par correspondance” a genuine music-hall quality. The former song features some truly bizarre scat, while the latter is an exercise in rhymes on ‘-dance,’ with quite a few literary words. (I’m still puzzling out the lyrics, which are not available on the Web.) It’s about a cluck who takes correspondence courses and proceeds to have a love affair with the lady teacher – by post. (‘Nous échangeons des serments et photos, quelques cheveux, et des baisers postaux.’) This little jewel has much of the nonsensical elegance of Gilbert & Sullivan. As for sheer beauty nothing can beat Sablon's “J’attendrai,” which ought to be a standard in English as well. In 1939, he recorded a famous swing version of the ancient children’s song, “Sur le pont d'Avignon,” that is still absolutely irresistible - I don’t think I’ve ever heard an American singer swing so. Sablon’s occasional abandon is tremendously sexy, and his Clark-Gable looks couldn’t have hurt.
I discovered Jean Sablon, who lived from 1906 to 1994, on two EMI compilations, “Paris By Night” and “Paris After Dark,” that I owned for years before getting around to listening to them, an inattentiveness that ended when I realized that I could introduce some of the chic of Something’s Gotta Give into my very own home by playing them while I made weekend breakfasts. (Thanks to lots of recent French lessons, I could also understand the lyrics.) I dropped my pots when I heard “Sur le pont d’Avignon," and when I could finally stop replaying it – Warning: this song is a drug - I ran to Amazon and ordered ASV’s Living Era CD, Jean Sablon: J’Attendrai, which includes twenty-five songs recorded between 1933 and 1939. Sablon sings three songs in English, “Stardust” among them. Two other songs will be familiar, “Prenez Garde au Grand Méchant Loup” and “Rhythme du bal Continental,” both of which he makes far more attractive that I’d have thought possible. Django Reinhardt appears on nine of the cuts; l’Orchestre Wal-Berg supplies impeccable, Fred-Astaire style backup on twelve others. Inexplicably missing from the collection, which was put together a year after the death of the singer (1906-1994), is “Ces petites choses,” recorded in 1936. Written for Sablon to sing in a projected West End revue aborted by the death of George V, it is known to American listeners as “These Foolish Things.” Happily, the song is available on the Naxos compilation, “C’est Si Bon.” Stay tuned. (July 2004)
Copyright (c) 2005 Pourover Press