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Thursday, 29 November 2012

Stevie Wonder

I’ve put this women in jazz series on hold for now, as I want to prepare something different and special for the last one. For now, I wanted to write about something unrelated to that, so I decided to write about Stevie Wonder.
I’m sure he doesn’t need much introduction, since pretty much everyone knows of him. He was born Steveland Hardaway Judkins in 1950 and was blind almost from the day he was born. He began singing in a church choir and began learning piano, drums and harmonica at the age of nine. Today, Wonder plays the piano, synthesizer, harmonica, congas, drums, bass guitar, bongos, organ, melodica, and clavinet. He began his musical career in 1962, when he was only 12, which makes his career span over a respectful 50 years.

I don’t enjoy all of his music (I Just Called To Say I Love You, for example), but there are three albums that are perfection and that make me love and respect Stevie Wonder and call him a living legend. They are, as he has always been, optimistic and cheerful. Website allmusic.com describes it so well: “His best records were a richly eclectic brew of soul, funk, rock & roll, sophisticated Broadway/Tin Pan Alley-style pop, jazz, reggae, and African elements -- and they weren't just stylistic exercises; Wonder took it all and forged it into his own personal form of expression”. Whenever I need a dose of optimism and energy, I put on one of these albums and it works like a charm every time. I don’t know about you, but I personally cannot stand still while listening to Superstition. I believe it’s physically impossible. These three albums I love are Talking Book, Innervisions and Songs In The Key Of Life. Listen to at least one of them (or preferably all three) to hear the genius of Stevie Wonder firsthand.

As I’ve said, I recommend all three of them, but Talking Book might be the best place to start - it’s the easiest to get your head around. It has beautiful love songs like I Believe and it also has one of his best songs ever (if you ask me); Superstition. What I find interesting is that the album is recorded almost solely by Stevie Wonder. He didn’t have any help on some songs, while others feature some great names in music, like for example Jeff Beck on Looking For Another Pure Love.
Innervisions is a bit more socially and politically oriented and might be a bit harder to listen to, if you’re not used to these sounds, but nevertheless a great album. My favourite from this album is definitely Don’t You Worry ‘Bout A Thing, with its great rhythm and groove.
Last but absolutely not the least is Songs In The Key Of Life. Many say it’s the pinnacle of Stevie Wonder’s career. I’m not going to talk about how amazingly good the album is (which it is, and if you’re interested, you can read a good review of the album here), but I’d rather just name two of my favourites songs on the album. Isn’t She Lovely, one of his most known songs is just a pure pleasure to listen to. The whole song is wonderful, but his harmonica solo is incredible. He wrote the song for his daughter, which gives it slightly melancholic undertones - just listen to the lyrics and think about the fact that he’s blind and will never be able to see his daughter. The interesting part though, is that he probably doesn’t think of it this way, seeing as he’s generally so optimistic and cheerful and never considered being blind as a disadvantage. In any case, Isn’t She Lovely is a typical Stevie Wonder song and I love it.
The next favourite from the album is Sir Duke, a song written as a tribute to the great Duke Ellington (I will be talking about him in the future) and music in general. No words here, just listen.

I’m sure everyone has a favourite Stevie Wonder song, so please share!

Sunday, 25 November 2012

Nina Simone

Nina Simone
I don’t know as much about Nina Simone and her music as I would like to, but I enjoy her music very much so I decided to do a quick mention of her anyway. I mean, it is my women in jazz series and she definitely deserves a spot! I will do another post on her, once I get to know her a bit more, which will happen soon, because I’m quite intrigued by her. The way she takes on some of the songs is very interesting and her voice takes a bit of getting used to, I think, but after that, it becomes great. It is puzzling but is also rewarding because of that. Another thing I like about her music is that she fills it with raw emotion. Sometimes you can’t quite put your finger on it, but you can just feel something strong.
Here are a few examples of my favourite Nina Simone songs. I love her version of ‘I Put a Spell On You’, I feel it’s the best one (and there are many versions of the song out there). I enjoy the genius irony in ‘I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free’ - the music is so cheerful, but there’s absolutely nothing cheerful about the lyrics. And because I didn’t want to put too many examples in this post I decided for only one more song. I feel ‘Nobody’s Fault But Mine’ is a good example of what I was saying about raw emotion. The singing and the backing piano (which she plays by herself of course) just gets to you. I’ve listened to the song so many times, but it still grabs me every time, because I can’t quite get to the bottom of it.

I can’t wait to do a longer post on Nina Simone. Until then, any thoughts on her or her music?

The First Lady Of Song

The First Lady Of Song
Next up in this women in jazz series is the magnificent Ella Fitzgerald. I feel a bit intimidated writing about her - she was just that good! Her voice is probably as pure as it gets. It’s bright, perfectly clear and it’s very comforting. Her singing is so effortless that she makes it seem like it’s easy to sing like that. Sometimes I imagine what it would be like to have Ella for a grandma. Whenever someone felt blue, she would just sing their troubles away. While I love Billie Holiday and Dinah Washington, they never make me feel as good as Ella always does. It’s easy to get caught up in her music and forget about your worries.

I got to know Ella through my love of Louis Armstrong. As you may know, Lady Ella and Satchmo recorded 3 albums together, all of which are simply golden. Some people refer to ‘Porgy and Bess’ album as “Sandpaper and whipped cream”. I personally prefer the first two albums - ‘Ella & Louis’ and ‘Ella and Louis Again’. A combination of her singing and her exquisite voice, his amazing trumpet playing and his raspy voice is entrancing. Listen to ‘They Can’t Take That Away From Me’ or ‘Learning The Blues’ to get a feeling of what I’m talking about. And even if you’re not interested in what I’m talking about, just listen to the songs because it’s wonderful music and also because these albums are probably an example of one of the best collaborations ever.
For some other Ella Fitzgerald’s albums, I would recommend ‘Intimate Ella’ or some of her songbooks: Cole Porter's, Gershwin's or Duke Ellington's. The first two are actually not even that jazzy, so they might be especially appropriate for someone who’s not that into jazz, but because of Ella’s amazing vocals they will also be liked by jazz fans. ‘Intimate Ella’ is a good one to get the most out of her voice, since she’s accompanied only by a piano on this one. Here’s an example.

I read about her life the other day and I was quite surprised. Ella was born and brought up in poverty and she was actually homeless for a year before starting her career. She hit her big break at a talent show in Harlem. She was supposed to dance, but after seeing an amazing dance act go on before her, she got scared and at the last second decided to sing instead. Best last second decision ever!
Behind the stage, she was actually shy and reserved, which I think no one would guess because she looked so confident and, in her own words, felt at home on the stage. Singing is what she lived for. She often felt self-conscious about her looks and at times even doubted her abilities. How can someone so talented doubt themselves?! I guess she was still only a human, like the rest of us, even though she sounded otherworldly.

What is your favourite Ella Fitzgerald album or song? Your thoughts are appreciated.

Sunday, 18 November 2012

Dinah Washington

Yesterday, I did a post on Etta James and I promised I would write about Dinah today, and that led me to start a series of posts about women in music I listen to. Up next are Ella Fitzgerald, Nina Simone and some others. So if you’re into that, make sure you check the blog every now and then. Let’s get right to it.

Born Ruth Lee Jones in 1924, Dinah Washington was discovered at a talent show at the age of 15, by Louis Armstrong’s manager Joe Glaser. Since then, she has been praised greatly as a singer of both blues and  jazz and critics have given her as much credit as they have given Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday. Listen to her for half an hour and you’ll know what they were talking about.
She sang a lot of torch songs - songs about unrequited love, about loving someone even after they’ve found someone else, songs filled with sorrow and pain. In a way she could relate to those songs, since she had plenty of experiences to draw from. She was married 7 times, and after writing about Etta James and Billie Holiday, it almost sounds like I’m repeating myself. It’s the same story all over again.
In 1959, she hit the pop market with the hit song What a Difference a Day Makes and while the sound of her music changed quite a bit, her singing stayed as strong as ever.
In 1963, she died of a combination of diet pills and alcohol. She was 39 years old.

I love her singing and I listen to Mad About The Boy - The Best Of Dinah Washington at least twice a month (in addition to other Dinah’s albums). I definitely recommend it, and I think it’s actually a nice way to start getting into jazz, for anyone out there, who might be interested. Her singing is nothing short of phenomenal. Her smoky, raspy, salty, rich voice, full of vibrato is just a joy to listen to. Even though she sounds completely different to Billie Holiday, I think you can actually hear a lot of Billie in Dinah’s singing.
The best album Dinah Washington ever recorded though, is, in my opinion, Dinah Jams. It’s a jam session recorded in a studio in Los Angeles with big jazz cats like Clifford Brown and Max Roach. Here are two songs which perfectly show her amazing talent (the album itself sounds a bit different than these two songs, but I wanted to post them, because they represent Dinah better). In the second song, pay attention to lovely piano backing and the perfect saxophone accompaniment.

I love the lyrics of Crazy He Calls me, a song made popular by Billie Holiday. Although Billie Holiday is my favourite female singer of all time, I think Dinah delivers this song better.

I say I'll move the mountains
And I'll move the mountains
If he wants them out of the way
Crazy he calls me
Sure, I'm crazy
Crazy in love, I say

I say I'll go through fire
And I'll go through fire
As he wants it, so it will be
Crazy he calls me
Sure, I'm crazy
Crazy in love, you see

Like the wind that shakes the bough
He moves me with a smile
The difficult I'll do right now
The impossible will take a little while
I say I'll care forever
And I mean forever
If I have to hold up the sky
Crazy he calls me
Sure, I'm crazy
Crazy in love am I
I love the witty contrast in the song. I feel like when she sings 'Crazy he calls me, sure I'm crazy, crazy in love' he and she are talking about the same thing, but seeing it differently. They're both talking about the same relationship, they're both using the same word, yet they don't have the same view on it. He sees crazy as are-you-out-of-your-mind crazy, it's not good to be this way crazy and she understands it as 'I'm so deeply in love, it makes me a bit crazy', but a good kind of crazy. And anyone can understand it that way actually. You could see 'I say I'll go through fire and I'll go through fire, as he wants it, so it will be' as something only a person not thinking straight would do, and it's not sane. Or you could be more romantic and see it as an inspirational thing and admire her deep love for him.
In the end, both kinds of crazy are actually the same thing, it just depends on how you look at it and what you have to gain from your perspective; if you see this crazy as something wonderful as she does, then you can do the impossible 'The difficult I'll do right now, the impossible will take a little while', otherwise it's likely that the impossible will stay impossible. I don't know about you, but I'd rather be a romantic and do the impossible.

What do you think about the two songs? What are your favourite Dinah Washington songs? Comment away.

Next time, I’ll write about another wonderful female musician. Until then, everyone.

Etta James

Etta James
Here’s a singer! Nicknamed ‘Miss Peaches’, Etta James was born in 1938 and her amazing career spanned from the 50’s to around 2010. She left a great legacy and a big amount of wonderful music for us to enjoy. If you don’t know her, you should read on, because in my experience, everyone seems to like Etta James. Doesn’t matter what music you’re into, there’s a chance you’ll enjoy Etta.

I started listening to Miss Peaches after a recommendation from a good friend and she’s been one of my favourite female singers ever since. She has probably the strongest voice I’ve ever heard in a woman and with it she can sing whatever she wants. She defies labels and genres, so it’s really hard to say what she sings, but I’d say it’s a bit of jazz, a bit of blues, a bit of soul, and a bit of R’n’B. She also didn’t like being put into a category and she said that she just sings what she sings and it doesn’t really matter what you call it.
Most people will know her by the song At Last or maybe I’d Rather Go Blind, but there’s more to her than just those two songs. What I like about her is that it doesn’t matter what mood I’m in, I can always find an album that’s appropriate. Anyway, I would recommend you get some kind of Best Of Etta James album, because it’s hard not to like her, and I doubt you’ll be sorry. Also on the recommended listening list are These Foolish Things from her Billie Holiday tribute album and a duet with Dr John - I’d Rather Go Blind, which I personally think is probably one of the best duets ever.

Miss James had a turbulent life, which sometimes reminds me of that of Billie Holiday. She was born to a 14 year old mother, she never met her father, and throughout her whole life, she was struggling with relationships and drug addictions. You could say that, like Lady Day, she also not only sang the blues, but lived the blues. She explains that because she felt the pain, she could sing the songs the way she did.
Billie Holiday and Dinah Washington were her greatest influences. I talked about Billie Holiday before and I’ll talk about Dinah Washington next time, since they’re all connected in a way.
Etta admired Lady Day greatly. I was watching an interview with Etta, in which she described how the two met in the 50’s. Miss James was only about 17, 18 at the time and when she met her, Billie was very weak. Her feet were all swollen, two men had to help her walk around and, as Etta remembers, her hands were almost like boxing gloves. Etta observed her nervously and eventually their eyes locked and Billie said to her “don’t ever let this happen to you”. In hindsight, she found this intriguing and strange and it had haunted her for a while. The thing is that at the time, she wasn’t into drugs at all, but later when she got addicted, she remembered that moment and wondered “Why did she say that to me? Why did she look in my eyes and say that?”. I think it’s all very interesting how even though she didn’t want it, her idol’s fate got a hold of her and how that very same idol could foresee it. (this is a nice thought)

If I had to choose one song to try to introduce someone to Etta James, it would probably be an obvious choice like All I Could Do Was Cry. But if I wanted to choose a song which would showcase her singing, her interpretations, her raw emotions, it would have to be Feeling Uneasy. The song is just filled with pure pain, sorrow and hurt and she delivers it perfectly. They recorded the album while she was in rehab, and when they recorded this particular song, the withdrawal was especially bad. She was in so much pain that she was actually unable to sing the lyrics. All she could do was shout and moan, so they just let the tape roll and this is what they came up with. A haunting, painful and poignant piece of music.

What do you think? What about Etta James, do you like her? What are your experiences with her music? Please, share your thoughts!

Sunday, 11 November 2012

James Booker

James Booker is easily my favourite New Orleans pianist and in light of the anniversary of his passing (I’m a few days late, I hope it still counts), I wanted to do a quick post about him.

Booker is an influential figure in New Orleans music and during his career, he played with many renowned artists such as Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles, Dr. John, Ringo Starr, Fats Domino, Stevie Wonder and many others. Unfortunately, he’s hardly known outside of New Orleans. I hope I can help change that a little bit with this post.
In my opinion, his piano playing is just a perfect combination of New Orleans R’n’B, Blues and Jazz. He takes the best parts of each and puts them together. I love how his music is so rich and full, but never too intense. For example, I love the complexities of Art Tatum’s piano playing, but he can be overwhelming, so I’m not always in the mood for his music. On the other hand, I’m always in the mood for James Booker.
Here are two examples of his music. If you like him you should get an album of his, like Junco Partner or a compilation of some kind. I don’t think you’ll regret it. You’ll get your own taste of New Orleans piano at its best.

Don't Give Up On Me

Solomon Burke
Solomon Burke, also known as the king of Rock’ n’ Soul,  was a phenomenal singer full of energy, one of the pioneers of Soul music and also an overlooked musical talent. For most people the name won’t ring any bells, but I’m sure a lot of you know him even though you don’t realize. Some people might know him through The Rolling Stones, who covered his ‘Everybody Needs Somebody To Love’, or maybe through the movie Blues Brothers which also contains this song, others will know him through the Dirty Dancing soundtrack and ‘Cry To me’ and some might have seen him on Rolling Stone list of Top 100 singers of all time. But whether you know him or not, he’ll always be one of the greatest Soul singers of all time.

I’m a big fan of his music and his rich singing. I think it embodies exactly the things I love about Soul music. I love how he can sing either gently and slowly or enthusiastically and with so much force it could satisfy any kind of audience. But either way, his singing is always powerful and full of emotion and intricacies. I’ve been listening to his music for many years now, and at the end of 2009, I saw that he was doing a tour around Europe. I was looking at the tickets for the shows near Slovenia, but ultimately, I said to myself “ah, I can’t do it this time, I’m sure he’ll be back again and I’ll go then”. Well, in 2010 he passed away and to this day not seeing him live is still one of the greatest regrets I’ve ever had. Today I enjoy his music more than ever, but the way I decided not to see him there and then is on my mind whenever I listen to him.

You can easily find his big songs from the 60’s on one of different Best of compilations (which is definitely worth having) but if there’s one album I would recommend to anyone, it has to be Don't Give Up on Me. I feel like even people who don’t enjoy this kind of music will like it. I absolutely love this album and it’s one of my favourite albums ever. I like how it’s so fresh every time I listen to it. For example, I listened to it two days ago (after listening to it many times before, of course) and hearing it today, it feels like I’ve heard it for the first time again. It was recorded in 2002 and it was a great comeback for Solomon and also a great comeback for old style Soul music. He proved that he hasn’t lost any of the energy he had in his prime era. Some great songwriters wrote all of the songs for this album, specifically for Solomon. All of them are great fans of his and some of these songwriters are Bob Dylan, Nick Lowe, Brian Wilson (from the Beach Boys), Van Morrison, Tom Waits and Elvis Costello. Listen to this great song to either get a feeling of the album or to just hear an amazing song and an amazing vocalist.

Do you like it? What do you think? As always, I would love to hear your thoughts on the matter.

Sunday, 4 November 2012


Bluesman by ┼Żan Anderle
I absolutely love the blues! I started listening to it at about the same time as jazz and I love it just the same.
My favourite is the acoustic blues. It’s straight on blues without anything to either enhance it or deprive it of its original sound. I definitely enjoy other types of blues as well, but there’s just something about the rawness of the acoustic blues that draws me to it.
With this post, I feel like expounding on it would be thinking about it too much and feeling it too little. So without further ado, here are a few examples of acoustic blues or in other words, what I think is a glimpse of the artist’s pains, problems and sorrows in the form of a song.

(for these next recordings, try to hear past the bad sound quality)
The amazing Robert Johnson and his Sweet Home Chicago. There’s so much to talk about him, he definitely deserves a post of his own, which I’ll probably write sometime soon.

Blind Willie McTell and Stole Rider Blues. He’s a perfect example of someone I enjoy listening to very much, but can’t explain at all why. It’s somewhat of mystery to me.

And here’s something more modern, with a lot better sound quality - Taj Mahal and Stagger Lee. Taj Mahal is someone who I’ll write about in the future too.

What about you? Do you like the blues and do you enjoy the acoustic blues as much as I do? What are some other songs or styles of blues you enjoy? I would love to hear your opinions.

Next time I’ll do a post on Solomon Burke, so until then, everyone.

Saturday, 3 November 2012

Sam Cooke

Sam Cooke has, in my opinion, one of the best voices of all time. It’s soft, full of emotion, it’s reassuring, kind of smokey, creamy and incredibly soothing. If ever there was a voice which could alleviate pain and hurt, I think it would be Sam Cooke’s. Listen to his soulful 'Ease My Troublin Mind' to hear what I mean. Whenever I feel blue about something, a cup of tea while listening to Sam Cooke always helps.

Samuel Cook, born in 1931, began his career with the gospel music. He was so successful as a gospel singer, that he was afraid to make a transition into pop music because he didn’t want to disappoint all the religious followers. Eventually despite his fear he made the transition into secular waters with a hit song You Send Me. We can all be grateful he did that, as he is now widely recognized as the forefather of Soul music, which is a predecessor of funk, modern R&B and others, and because he gave rise to the likes of Otis Redding, Aretha Franklin, Solomon Burke, etc. If it weren’t for Sam Cooke, we would be deprived of a lot of wonderful, soulful music.
If you’re not sure what soul music is, listen to this short recording of Sam Cooke humming. I feel that within these 8 bars he explains it much better than anyone could with 8 pages of writing.

Seeing as he was a pioneer of soul music, you could say he was exploring new territory. He had to find a balance between secular pop music and religious gospel and spiritual music and he was bound to have some misses. I feel like some of his pop tunes were quite awful, but in the end he found his style. His album ‘Night Beat’ is phenomenal and is one of my favourite albums. It’s warm, emotional, bluesy, contemplative and easy to listen to. I strongly recommend it to anyone. Give it a listen! If you’re not sure you would like it, here's little taste of it.

Sam Cooke wrote and recorded innumerable great and memorable songs, but there is one which goes above and beyond and is the most important song he ever made, if you ask me. Inspired by Bob Dylan’s ‘Blowing In the Wind’ and drawing from his own experiences, he wrote a stirring and profound song about civil rights, called ‘A Change Is Gonna Come’. I think it’s a song everybody has to hear at least once in their life. It has been covered many times and it became an anthem for the African-American civil right movement in the 60’s. If you just listen to it without any knowledge of the background, it’s already a compelling and potent piece of music, but once you place it in its time and context, it becomes something more than just a tune. It becomes a haunting embodiment of things that were happening at the time. On top of all that, the song is very personal - while touring, he experienced the injustices happening in the States firsthand, and not long before Sam wrote the song, his 18 months old son drowned. All of this is reflected in ‘There were times when I thought I couldn't last for long, but now I think I'm able to carry on’ as well as in the overall weariness and emotion in the song.

But enough talking already. Just listen to the song and you’ll know exactly what I meant and much more.