Tag Archives: Performers

The Bristol sessions

In the summer of 1927 a group of musicians gathered for a recording session in Bristol, on the Tennessee-Virginia border, including musicians who would become some of the most influential names in American music—the Carter Family, Jimmie Rodgers, Ernest Stoneman, and more.

Organized by Ralph Peer for Victor Records to capitalize on the popularity of “hillbilly” music, the Bristol sessions were a key moment in country music’s evolution, producing the first commercial recordings by these artists.

The musicians played a variety of styles largely endemic to the Appalachian region. Rather than attempting to record purely traditional sounds, however, Peer sought a combination of musical elements, an amalgam that would form the backbone of modern country music. The reverberations of the Bristol sessions are still felt, yet their influence is widely misunderstood, and popular accounts of the event are more legend than history.

This according to The Bristol sessions: Writings about the big bang of country music (Jefferson: McFarland, 2005; RILM Abstracts 2005-19593).

Below, all four tracks from the Carter Family’s Bristol session.

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Jascha Heifetz and popular culture

 

Throughout Jascha Heifetz’s career he was celebrated as an epitome of highbrow taste; but he was no stranger to popular culture. He appeared in three films: Carnegie Hall, Of men and music, and They shall have music, in which he performed the finale of the Mendelssohn violin concerto and four other works.

Heifetz also composed popular songs, including “When you make love to me (don’t make believe)” and “So much in love”. “When you make love to me” (1946) was published under the pseudonym “Jim Hoyl” (maintaining the initials J.H.) to prove Heifetz’s point that the name of the composer would have little bearing on its success. The song was recorded by Bing Crosby and sold 300,000 copies when first released.

This according to “Heifetz, Jascha” (Biographical dictionary of Russian/Soviet composers Westport: Greenwood, 1989).

Today is Heifetz’s 120th birthday! Below, his own recording of “When you make love to me”.

BONUS: The Bing Crosby version:

Related article: Paganini and Marfan syndrome (featuring Heifetz on the violin)

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John Langstaff and the Christmas Revels

 

On Christmas Eve in 1920 John Meredith Langstaff was born into a music-filled home where a rousing, wassailing carol party was the peak of his family’s year.

Half a century later, the Christmas Revels was born, a theatrical weaving of traditional song, dance, and drama that has become a beloved institution across the country.

From his years as a star choirboy (and notorious troublemaker) to his early career as a noted recital singer; from a daunting World War II injury to his work as recording artist, TV performer, teacher, and children’s author, Langstaff fused his passions for music, ritual, and community to create the participatory celebration that is the Revels.

This according to The magic maker: A portrait of John Langstaff, creator of the Christmas Revels by Susan Cooper (Somerville: Candlewick Press, 2011; RILM Abstracts 2011-12592).

Today would have been Langstaff’s 100th birthday! Above, Langstaff at the 1998 Revels (photo by Roger Ide); below, highlights from the 2004 Revels.

More Christmas-related posts are here.

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Frank Zappa and classical music

 

Although he was best known as the guitarist and leader of The Mothers of Invention and other rock bands, Frank Zappa grew up with a keen interest in 20th-century concert music and aspired to be an orchestral composer as well; his scores have been recorded by Pierre Boulez, Ensemble Modern, and others.

Appropriate listening strategies for Zappa’s pieces for acoustic concert ensembles should be based primarily on models developed from his more abundant commercially successful output, and less so on the music of early–20th-century composers, such as Stravinsky and Varèse, whose music he admired.

This according to “Listening to Zappa” by Jonathan W. Bernard (Contemporary music review XVIII/4 [2000] pp. 63–103; RILM Abstracts 1999-44563).

Today would have been Zappa’s 80th birthday! Below, conducting his G-spot tornado in 1992 with Ensemble Modern and dancers Louise Lecavalier and Donald Weikert.

Related article: Frank Zappa and Uncle Meat

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Uday Shankar’s “Kalpana”

 

The feature film Kalpana (Imagination) is the only kinetic record of Uday Shankar’s choreographic work. Directed by and starring Shankar himself, it is semi-autobiographical and also stars his wife, Amala Shankar.

The film involved a fair amount of social commentary, and Shankar’s opening statement in it still feels strikingly appropriate:

“I request you all to be very alert while you watch this unusual picture—a Fantasy. Some of the events depicted here will reel off at great speed and if you miss any piece you will really be missing a vital aspect of our country’s life in its Religion, Politics, Education, Society, Art and Culture, Agriculture and Industry.”

“I do not deliberately aim my criticism at any particular group of people or institutions, but if it appears so, it just happens to be so, that is all. It is my duty as an Artist to be fully alive to all conditions of life and thought relating to our country and present it truthfully with all the faults and merits, through the medium of my Art.”

“And I hope that you will be with me in our final purpose to rectify our own shortcomings and become worthy of our cultural heritage and make our motherland once again the greatest in the world.”

This according to “Uday Shankar’s Kalpana” by Sunil Kothari (Sruti 195 [December 2000] 53–57).

Today is Uday Shankar’s 120th birthday! Above and below, excerpts from the film.

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Dave Brubeck’s legacy

 

Dave Brubeck helped to rekindle jazz’s mainstream popularity in the 1950s and 1960s with recordings like Time out, the first jazz album to sell a million copies, and Take five, the still instantly recognizable hit single that was that album’s centerpiece.

In a long and successful career, Brubeck brought a distinctive mixture of experimentation and accessibility that won over listeners who had been trained to the sonic dimensions of the three-minute pop single. He experimented with time signatures and polytonality and explored musical theater and the oratorio, Baroque compositional devices, and non-Western modes.

Brubeck did not always please the critics, who often described his music as schematic, bombastic, and—a word he particularly disliked—stolid. But his very stubbornness and strangeness—the blockiness of his playing, the oppositional push-and-pull between his piano and Paul Desmond’s alto saxophone—make the Brubeck quartet’s best work still sound original.

This according to “Dave Brubeck 1920–2012: His music gave jazz new pop” by Ben Ratliff (The New York times 6 December A1; RILM Abstracts 2012-10080).

Today is Brubeck’s 100th birthday! Above and below, the composer and pianist in 1964. (Photo licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.)

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Talking Heads and “Remain in light”

 

On their first three albums, Talking Heads made anxious, self-aware art-punk with enough pop appeal to notch a couple of minor hits and edge toward the mainstream. Their landmark fourth album, Remain in light, was a radical departure that nevertheless felt like a continuation of and improvement on everything that had come before.

The album was born in a recording studio, where the group arrived song-less and ready to jam. This communal approach was curious, given that they had typically brought in nearly finished compositions. The producer, Brian Eno, constructed the tracks by looping rhythmic sections and layering instrumentation—a method that initially left the group’s frontman, David Byrne, unsure of how or what to sing.

Written and recorded mostly after the instrumentalists left the studio, Byrne’s songs have a freeform, impressionistic, cut-and-paste quality; but even so, Remain in light is a record with very recognizable—and very Talking Heads—themes of alienation and the search for identity.

This according to “Talking Heads’ Remain in light at 35” by Kenneth Partridge (Billboard 8 October 2015; RILM Abstracts 2015-85008).

Remain in light was released 40 years ago today! Below, the full album.

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Ray Charles and “What’d I say”

 

In an interview, Ray Charles recalled the genesis of his 1959 hit What’d I say:

We happened to be playing one of my last dances, somewhere in the Midwest, and I had another 12 minutes to kill before the set closed. A typical gig of that kind lasted four hours, including a 30-minute intermission. It was nearly 1 a.m., I remember, and we had played our whole book. There was nothing left that I could think of, so I finally said to the band and The Raeletts, “Listen, I’m going to fool around, so y’all just follow me.”

So I began noodling—just a little riff that floated into my head. It felt good and I kept going. One thing led to another and I found myself singing and wanting the girls to repeat after me. So I told ‘em “Now.”

Then I could feel the whole room bouncing and shaking and carrying on something fierce. So I kept the thing going, tightening it up a little here, adding a dash of Latin rhythm there. When I got through, folks came up and asked where they could buy the record. “Áin’t no record,” I said, “just something I made up to kill a little time.”

The next night I started fooling with it again, adding a few more lyrics and refining the riffs for the band. I did that for several straight evenings until the song froze into place. And each time I sang it, the reaction was wild.

Quoted in Brother Ray: Ray Charles’ own story by David Ritz (New York: Dial, 1978; RILM Abstracts 1978-5376).

Today would have been Ray Charles’s 90th birthday! Above, the album cover (note the keyboard and hands reflected in his glasses); below, the recording itself.

BONUS: The scene as it was recreated in the 2004 film Ray.

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Rosie Flores and “Working girl’s guitar”

 

In an interview, Rosie Flores discussed the title cut of her 2012 album Working girl’s guitar:

There’s a friend of mine who does, well, everything. He does bodywork, he’s written books on rolfing, how to play the banjo, and how to play the upright bass. His name is Ritchie Mintz.

I went to him a couple years ago and said, “You know, I’ve got too many guitars, and I need to come up with some money. Are you interested in maybe getting one of my Taylors?” I brought it over, he looked at it, turned it over and said, “Man, this is a working girl’s guitar! Look at all the scars on it. This has been on some airplanes and trucks and cars, hasn’t it?” “Yep, it’s been around!” I said.

And so that night he bought the guitar. He called me up the next day and said, “Rosie, you’re not going to believe this, but your guitar wrote a song for you.” I said, “For me? My guitar wrote a song for me?” And he went, “Yep!” So I came over and listened to it, and was just blown away. I said, “That is such a cool song, Ritchie!” So I just turned up the distortion and the overdrive pedal and went to town on that riff and just had a great time with that.

Quoted in “Guitar girl’d: Interview with Rosie Flores on the release of Working girl’s guitar” by Laura B. Whitmore (Guitar world 25 October 2012; RILM Abstracts 2012-45948).

Today is Flores’s 70th birthday! Above, Flores at the 67th Annual Peabody Awards in 2008; below, a live performance of the song.

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Sonny Rollins and thematic improvisation

 

Sonny Rollins’s extensive use of improvised thematic development in his 1956 recording of Blue 7 marked a new level of musical evolution for jazz.

Jazz improvisatory procedures may be divided into two broad and sometimes overlapping categories: paraphrase and chorus improvisation. The former consists mostly of an embellishment or ornamentation technique, while the latter suggests that the soloist has departed completely from a given theme or melody and is improvising freely on nothing but a chord structure.

Most improvisation in the modern jazz era belongs to the second category, and Rollins’s recording is a landmark for maintaining thematic and structural unity in this type of playing.

This according to “Sonny Rollins and the challenge of thematic improvisation” by Gunther Schuller; this foundational work of jazz analysis from 1958 is reprinted in Keeping time: Readings in jazz history (New York: Oxford University Press 2015 193–202; RILM Abstracts 2015-155).

Today is Rollins’s 90th birthday! Above, the artist around the time of the recording; below, the recording itself.

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