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Tuesday, 22 January 2013

Bobby McFerrin & Wynton Marsalis

Photo by Frank Stewart
Back in October 2012, in my post about Bobby McFerrin I mentioned I attended a concert in New York, but never talked more about it, so I wanted to do that now.
Last September I went on a trip through New York, Washington and my beloved New Orleans (you can check out the photos on my website). As was my wish for years, I wanted to see where jazz was born. Just days before my departure to New York, I found that Wynton Marsalis and JALC were performing with Bobby McFerrin. I had to double check, because I could not believe my eyes. I was ecstatic. Two of my favourite artists performing together?! What a way to start the trip that was already meant to be all about music anyway.
The venue - Lincoln Center in The Time Warner Center on the 60th street - was so beautiful, sophisticated and classy. Some don’t care about that, but I always appreciate a nice atmosphere at a concert. The concert’s theme was Bobby McFerrin’s biography, but I felt that wasn’t exactly the main thing of the night, it was more of a way to convey this great collaboration. I mentioned Jazz at Lincoln Center in one of my previous posts and they are truly amazing. It’s a band consisting of only great musicians and I really enjoy their sound and like pretty much anything they do. At the concert it felt like they could make anyone sound awesome, let alone Bobby McFerrin. I am a great admirer of both Bobby McFerrin and Wynton Marsalis, and this was probably one of the best concerts I’ve ever been to. In hindsight I would, however, like to see Bobby do more of his usual crazy stuff and Wynton solo more. But nevertheless, the concert was magical just the way it was. The band and Bobby just clicked on so many levels and I guess that’s the result of Bobby blending in more and not doing his usual stuff to the fullest potential.
I was so thankful to be able to listen to their rich sound in person. It was so intense, I remember getting emotional and filled with such happiness throughout the concert. Ah, I can’t wait the next time I’m going to hear Wynton or Bobby live again.
I highly recommend you listen to the whole concert, I believe it’s well worth it. But if you don’t have the time, or are not interested, here are a few excerpts.

Beautiful rendition of George Gershwin’s Prelude No. 2. It’s evident right away, how well they they go together, Bobby and JALC.

Charlie Parker’s Donna Lee, and the only time at the concert where Wynton and Bobby directly interact with each other. And it is golden! If you’ll listen to only one song, listen to this one. Their duet always brings a smile on my face, it’s just soo good!!! I love it.

They performed this concerts a couple of nights in a row. I was there on the opening night and the video on youtube is from one of the following nights. There are minor differences, but there is also one major one. On the opening night, there was Paul Simon in the audience and after the intermission, Mr McFerrin called him up on stage to sing Scarborough Fair with him. At first he was really reluctant and didn’t want to come up, and we all really thought he wouldn’t. But after a lot of convincing from the audience, Paul came up. That’s right. Paul freakin’ Simon! Just when I thought the night can’t get any better... Needless to say, it was the highlight of the concert. Beautiful, magical, mysterious and heartwarming.
Here is a version without Paul, beautiful as well.

And finally some crazy Bobby McFerrin stuff - here he sings Beethoven’s 7th Symphony. I know right, who on earth sings this?
At the concert I attended, Bobby sang solo a capella version of Somewhere Over the Rainbow for encore. Genius!
I’ll say it again, I strongly recommend you take an hour and forty minutes for yourself and enjoy this beautiful performance. I think Bobby McFerrin and Wynton Marsalis have some special energy between them and you can hear it firsthand.
It’s actually one of my wishes, that they record an album together. They’re just so amazing together. Listen to a song they recorded together on one of Wynton's albums - Baby, I Love You. The kind of chemistry they have is simply infectious.

What about you, what do you think? Thoughts on the concert, Bobby, Wynton, JALC, the post? As I always, I encourage you to share your comments.

Until next time everyone.

Wednesday, 16 January 2013

Robert Johnson

Robert Johnson
Today, my two greatest passions in music are definitely Jazz and Blues. But it wasn’t always so and there are two musicians who got me interested in this music and ushered me to a whole new musical world - just as Louis Armstrong kindled my passion for jazz, Robert Johnson did so with the blues.
The first time I heard his music, I was blown away. I only heard one song and already knew that this is what I’ve been looking for. I was mesmerized by the raw emotion conveyed within the song. I haven’t heard anything quite like it before. The singing, the guitar... it was all so powerful. And the reason I can remember all of this so clearly is because nothing has changed - the moment I put on Robert Johnson, I feel exactly like I did the first time I heard him. The only difference is, that with every listening, I hear more and more nuances in his music. Listen to Come On In My Kitchen and how he plays melody and rhythm at the same time on his guitar, and all the while he delivers this amazing singing, like it’s not even a big deal. Or maybe Terraplane Blues, where it almost sounds like there’s more than one guitar playing (it’s all just him, fyi). But maybe don’t even listen to that, just listen to the emotion and the feeling of the songs. You don’t need to know anything about music for this to blow you away, just be open to it. Huh, I get excited about Robert Johnson, I need to calm down.
So who is Robert Johnson? Let’s put on a song first, before we get started.

Of all the bluesmen, Robert Johnson’s life is probably the one shrouded in mystery the most. Robert Leroy Johnson was born in 1911, in a small town Hazlehurst, Mississippi. He developed an affection for music as a teenager and started playing a harmonica. When he was around 19, he took interest in guitar and started playing that instead. Around the same time, his wife died in childbirth, which made him turn to his music that much more. He was learning from any source he could get his hands on, and it was obvious that he was still just learning. His most important mentor and source of inspiration was a bluesman, Ike Zinnerman. It’s been told that they were playing their guitars late every night in graveyards on tombstones, where no one would bother them. If he wasn’t with Ike, Robert would go to the woods by himself, where he was trying to learn everything he could about the guitar. After a couple of years he started travelling around the state to play around different juke joints. The musicians that had heard him when he was still just learning, were amazed. They could not believe what kind of progress he made and how his abilities suddenly surpassed their own.
Because of his talent and because he played all the time and everywhere, he quickly became famous around those parts. He played with many musicians and he left a mark on most of them. He played in places, where they requested all kinds of different songs, so he developed an amazing ability, where he had to hear a song only once before he was able to play it. He could be deep in a debate with a friend, with music playing in the background, and without ever stopping the conversation, he could play and sing the song perfectly afterwards. That helped him with a well-rounded repertoire for his gigs.

Robert had a big appetite for women, and women were crazy about him. He had a habit of finding a woman in any town he went to, who would give him food, money and a place to stay. His lust eventually killed him. One time, while playing in a bar, he was flirting with a woman for the whole night. What he didn’t realize, was that it was the owner’s wife. The owner was furious to see this, so he put poison in young Robert’s drink, which killed him.

That’s one way of telling the story. The other (which makes much more sense, if you ask me) goes like this: an aspiring young musician wants to become famous and is willing to do anything for it. He tries really hard but his desire is greater than his patience. One day he finds out, that if he goes to a certain crossroad at midnight, he’ll meet someone who can help him. And that’s exactly what he does. At the crossroads he meets a tall dark man, who tunes his guitar, plays a song or two, and gives it back to him. And with that, the deal is struck - Mr Johnson sells his soul to the Devil, in exchange for the incredible musical abilities and renown. He goes back to the musicians that taught him to play and surprises everyone with his skills. He’s unbeatable. But there was another part to the deal - a couple of years later the Devil gets his toll. Robert Johnson gets killed by the age of 27.

No matter what story you believe in, Robert Johnson’s music is simply amazing and incredibly influential. Apart from some testimonies about his life, 3 photos of him and his 29 songs (with alternate takes it adds up to 41 recordings) are all we are left with. Thankfully, the depth of his music makes that plenty.

Sunday, 13 January 2013

Robert Johnson as told by Keith Richards

Robert Johnson
Robert Johnson is my favourite bluesman of all times, so I wanted the post about him to be really good. Otherwise I would feel I'm not doing him justice (and even now I'm nervous because I want to make sure that doesn't happen). Therefore, I'm doing it in two stages, with this post serving as an introduction to the post I'll do in a couple of days.

Brian Jones had the first album, and that's where I first heard it. I'd just met Brian, and I went around to his apartment-crash pad, actually, all he had in it was a chair, a record player, and a few records. One of which was Robert Johnson. He put it on, and it was just-you know-astounding stuff. When I first heard it, I said to Brian, "Who's that?" "Robert Johnson". I said, "Yeah, but who's the other guy playing with him?" Because I was hearing two guitars, and it took me a long time to realize he was actually doing it all by himself.
I've never heard anybody before or since use the form and bend it quite so much to make it work for himself. The quality of the songs themselves-I mean, he came out with such compelling themes, they were actual songs as well as just being the blues. The songs and the subject matter, just the way they were treated, apart from the music and the performance. And the guitar playing-it was almost like listening to Bach. You know, you think you're getting a handle on playing the blues, and then you hear Robert Johnson-some of the rhythms he's doing and playing and singing at the same time, you think, "This guy must have three brains!"

To me Robert Johnson's influence-he was like a comet or a meteor that came along and, BOOM, suddenly he raised the ante, suddenly you just had to aim that much higher. You can put the record on now, and it's as fresh and interesting as the first day you heard it. Everybody should know about Robert Johnson. When you know about something, and comperatively few other people know about it, that's a crime in a way; you've got to do what you can to tell people, "Hey, check this cat out. Because you're in for something extra in your life." You want to know how good the blues can get? Well, this is it.

by Keith Richards

 Come back in a couple of days - you're in for something extra in your life, as Keith put it. Since it's Robert Johnson, I couldn't agree more.

Monday, 7 January 2013


A couple of days ago, I watched a movie about an amazing American songwriter Cole Porter, called De-Lovely. To anyone who’s never heard of Cole Porter before: he was a prolific composer, famous for his Broadway shows and his numerous jazz standards. He was something special for writing both lyrics and music for his songs, which was a rarity at that time. He had an amazing ability to come up with genius, funny, witty lyrics, often full of innuendos, always accompanied by beautiful melodies. Anybody, who was ever somebody in Jazz, recorded songs by Cole Porter at one point or another in their career - from Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong, Billie Holiday to Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, Oscar Peterson and many others. And to anyone familiar with Cole: even if you’re only remotely interested in Mr Porter, this is a movie you cannot miss! After watching the movie, I started understanding his songs much better and I started noticing more important details in his music and intricate lyrics.
The movie starts at the end of Cole Porter’s life, with the dying songwriter retrospecting on his life, but observing it as if it was a musical. It’s a great concept that fits perfectly to his life and music. The story talks about his life, his indulgence and his very interesting relationship with his wife, Linda. It features great performances by Robbie Williams, Alanis Morissette, Sheryl Crow, Elvis Costello, Diana Krall, Natalie Cole and others. It’s truly a great biopic, which reveals new dimensions to the irreplaceable Cole Porter. The only criticism I have is that the movie starts and ends with a great rhythm, but somewhere in the middle seems to slow down a bit, which makes it feel a bit inconsistent. But seeing as how great the movie is overall, this is hardly an important remark.
I highly recommend the movie to anyone interested in music or anyone simply looking for a good story. In case you like it, I suggest you get Ella Fitzgerald’s Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Cole Porter Songbook to listen to afterwards. Her renditions are simply beautiful and it’s a great way to start getting into Cole’s music.
Now get the movie as soon as possible. You won’t be sorry. Enjoy and come back afterwards to tell me what you thought! I'd love to hear your comments.

Saturday, 5 January 2013

Roberta Flack

Roberta Flack
Ugh, I haven’t posted in almost two weeks now, it’s almost like I slept through the holidays. Anyway I’m back now, so let’s get right to it.

Roberta Flack, there’s an amazing singer! I’m not sure why I haven’t written about her in my women in jazz series, but I’m making up for it now. I was introduced to her music by a good friend last year and I’m still grateful.
Roberta Flack is a singer and a songwriter, born in 1939 and most notably known for her hits in the 70’s. If you’ve never heard of her, you probably know her by her famous “Killing Me Softly With His Song”, which won her a Grammy in 1974. Another quite renowned song she recorded is “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face”.
I don’t care too much for either of these songs and I’m not sure why. I guess they just don’t move me. But I do love and respect Roberta and the reason for that is her first three albums - First Take, Chapter Two and Quiet Fire. They’re soft, sophisticated and soulful. In life in general, I appreciate things that slowly build up to their peak, may that be in music, movies, books, shows or food. I feel that if something builds up to its full intensity gradually, it’s much more powerful than it would be, if it was as forceful from the very beginning. And I’m saying this, because I think songs in these albums provide just that - a wonderful slow build-up. That, of course, doesn’t mean there’s not much happening, it means they’re really powerful and strong.
Her music on these albums is like the ocean waves hitting the shore - at first glance it seems slow, quiet and serene but in reality it has so much power and energy.
These three albums are amazing and I highly recommend them. Here are two songs to get a feeling of what kind of music to expect.

Roberta is still creating new music. Just last year she recorded an album Let It Be Roberta: Roberta Flack Sings The Beatles. I really like The Beatles and I used to be obsessed with them so when I saw that she made an album full of their songs I was excited. As soon as I started listening to the album, the excitement was replaced with disappointment. With the exception of one song, it’s an awful album (at least to my ears anyway). You know, how sometimes older people try to sound young and hip but they end up just sounding awkward? Well that’s how I feel about this album. It sounds like she did some stuff on it just because “it’s what young people listen to these days”, instead of doing her own thing. For the better part of the album I was shaking my head, and asking myself “why?”. As much as I enjoy Roberta’s early music, this is one album I probably won’t listen to again.

What do you think? Do you have a Roberta Flack favourite? As always, I really appreciate any kind of comments.