10. All of You

JamalRecord: All of You
Artist: Ahmad Jamal
Released: Argo Records, 1962

I had never heard of Ahmad Jamal before flipping through these records a few months ago as I started thinking about this project, and this record stood out, not just because the artist was unfamiliar.

Look at young Mr. Jamal gracing the cover of the album, sitting confidently in a mid-century modern chair that my wife would die for, nattily dressed with a tie I wouldn't mind wearing to work. There's something striking, not just about his pose, but the entire composition of the photo. Jamal couldn't be more self-assured, but he seems to be holding something back. His eyes don't quite meet ours, and the blurred foliage in the foreground seems to be keeping us at a bit of a distance. "Give me all of you," he seems to be saying, "but you can only have some of me." Some is enough.

As with a lot of these albums, I had never heard All of You before dropping the needle on the record this afternoon, so I had no idea what to expect. It took me about three or four bars before I fell in love.

This isn't usually the case for me. Typically I have to immerse myself in a new album, and plenty of my favorites grew on my over time. It's hard for me to imagine now, but the first time I listened to the Cure's Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me it felt a little abrasive, as did Nirvana's Nevermind. Not until I had studied the lyrics of Springsteen's Nebraska did I fully appreciate its genius, and it took several listens to wrap my head around Coltrane's A Love Supreme. Sometimes listening has to be intentional, not casual.

But once in a while a record will meet you right where you are, whether it's at a particular time in your life or a moment in time. For me, some of these were Led Zeppelin's first album, the Red Hot Chili Peppers' Blood Sugar Sex Magik, and even a self-titled debut album from an obscure Scottish band, Glasvegas. 

There's no explaining why, but it was like that with All of You. It turns out Jamal is only the headliner, the pianist in the Ahmad Jamal Trio, and the opening track, "Time on My Hands," highlights his skills on the keyboard in the most beautiful way. I was only a minute or two in before I was reminded of a similar jazz pianist I had discovered on my own when I was in college. Marcus Roberts burst on the jazz scene in 1989 with his debut album, The Truth Is Spoken Here, at the age of just 26. (Here's my favorite track from that album, a Duke Ellington cover, "Single Petal of a Rose.") He had already been playing with some of the greats at an even younger age. (When I first heard him he was playing with Wynton Marsalis.)

Roberts has always been known for his appreciation of traditional jazz and the greats who came before him. His third record, Alone with Three Giants, features his interpretations of Duke Ellington, Thelonious Monk, and Jelly Roll Morton, and he later recorded tributes to George Gershwin, Scott Joplin, and Nat "King" Cole. It shouldn't have been a surprise that I heard similarities between Jamal and Roberts, but I was still pleased (and admittedly proud) when a Google search for "Ahmad Jamal and Marcus Roberts" returned several articles. In 2009, for example, the Village Voice declared that Roberts "has more than a little Ahmad Jamal in him." So I wasn't the only one who heard it. It was validation for my ear.

I've just flipped the record again, listening to the second side for at least the third or fourth time, and I'm struck again by the emotional aspect of the quest I've been on. Certainly I enjoy listening to the music, whether it's familiar or new, and I love the unpredictable paths I wander as I learn about each record, thinking about things as surprising as mix tapes one week and cover art the next, a demolished department store last Sunday, and today a band from Scotland. 

But all of that is diversionary. At its heart, this project will always be about my father. I pull him closer with each Sunday that passes, with each record I play. I learn something about who he was by listening to the music he treasured. Sadly, it's like catching smoke in your hands. It's temporary. Every wisp of truth brings along pangs of regret. I so wish that I could have had this conversation with him, that he and I could have listened first to All of You and followed it with something from Roberts. That we could have shared interpretations or argued about opinions. Or just sat together and listened.

Jamal2

Side 1
Time on My Hands
Angel Eyes
You Go to My Head

Side 2
Star Eyes
All of You
You're Blasé
What Is This Thing Called Love


9. Count Basie Swings, Joe Williams Sings

BasieJoe1Record: Count Basie Swings, Joe Williams Sings
Artist: Count Basie and Joe Williams
Released: Clef Records, 1955

If there's one thing that classic jazz has in common with modern hip-hop and rap it's that it was as common then as it is now for major artists to collaborate. My father's collection is full of records like this one, with two legends sharing the studio, apparently unafraid of being overshadowed by the other. Instead each elevates the other, especially when a gifted singer joins a renowned band leader.

In some of these collaborations we see the genius of Count Basie. I've already written about the record he recorded with Frank Sinatra, in which his band adjusted to Sinatra's pop-leaning style. Here, Basie accommodates Joe Williams, one of the great blues singers of the era.

The opening track, "Every Day (I Have the Blues)," is a negotiation. The record opens up with Basie's signature stride piano style, and then the horns join in, reminding us that this is one of the most powerful big bands in history. Once that's been established, Williams is welcomed in, and his trademark baritone voice parts the waters; within seconds a swing tune morphs into the blues.

Nobody loves me,
Nobody seems to care.
Speakin' of bad luck and trouble,
Well, you know I've had my share.

Although he's best known for singing the blues like that, there are other tracks on the album that are more upbeat ("Alright, Okay, You Win") or ask Williams to do a little crooning ("In the Evening"). His versatility, along with Basie's, is on display, and the result is a showcase for both legends. (There will be lots more from both men as this project continues.)

Depending on the version you find, this record could have as many as twelve tracks, with the final three recorded in 1956, but my father's album, released in 1955, has only nine, which remains mysterious to me. 

One of my favorite things about this record is the slip case, which features cover art by David Stone Martin, an artist who designed covers for more than a hundred jazz albums in the 1950s and '60s. (Like Williams and Basie, we'll see Martin's work again.) On the back cover Basie and Williams, resplendent in suits that would still look sharp today, frame liner notes that are modest for the time, only six paragraphs. 

But most interesting is something that you won't find on your album. In the upper right hand corner there's a price tag -- $3.98 -- that's survived sixty-seven years. My father bought this record from Hudson's, a landmark department store in Detroit. Once upon a time, Hudson's was the tallest department store in the world, and only slightly smaller by square footage than Macy's in New York City. My own memories of the store are hazy, but I remember shopping trips and lunch and Sander's with my mother, and when I learned to write in cursive in the third grade, I patterned the H in my first name after the stylized loopy version in the Hudson's logo rather than the standard H I saw on the chalkboard.

I was just a boy back then, but it's fun to imagine my father as a young man twenty years earlier, walking into the flagship store at the corner of Woodward and Gratiot and heading to the record counter, either down in the basement or up on the twelfth floor. After settling on this record, perhaps he paid with a five dollar bill, then used the change to get some lunch on the way out. There's no way to know if he might've taken the same elevator my mother and I did twenty years later or sat in the same booth at one of the restaurants, but this morning I listened to the record he bought that day, and that's a pretty cool thing.

BasieJoe2

Side 1
Every Day (I Have the Blues)
The Comeback
Alright, Okay, You Win
In the Evening (When the Sun Goes Down)

Side 2
Roll 'Em Pete
Teach Me Tonight
My Baby Upsets Me
Please Send Me Someone to Love
Ev'ry Day


8. Focus

FocusRecord: Focus
Artist: Stan Getz
Released: Verve Records, 1962

I hadn't heard this record before this morning, and even though I'm only on my second listen as I write this, I have to admit that it's already one of my favorite albums for a handful of reasons.

First, it's absolutely beautiful. Stan Getz's tenor saxophone is melodic and sonorous as it pours into every nook and cranny of Eddie Sauter's composition, layering atop the delicate strings of the arrangement and lingering in empty spaces before quietly fading away. It's soothing and hypnotic at times, like on "I Remember When," the opening track on side two, but there's also the pulsating frenzy of "I'm Late, I'm Late" on side one. There's a song here for every mood.

It only took me a few minutes to realize why this was one of my father's favorites. His jazz collection leans heavily towards the big band era, but that's not this. This isn't one horn player fronting a band, this is Stan Getz front and center, with each composition highlighting his tenor sax and giving him room to dance. There are any number of records like that, but what makes this one unique, what must've appealed so much to my father, was the merging of his two musical loves, classical music and jazz. As Getz explained while describing the songs Eddie Sauter wrote, "...more than anything, they show quite clearly that the legitimacy of the past 300 years and the soul of our modern times can be put together and be beautiful."* Indeed.

There are more than a hundred classical records in my father's collection and notebooks filled with musings on the masters. He no doubt appreciated what Getz and Sauter were doing, blending his two loves into something new.

"What I wanted to do," explained Sauter, "was write like a string quartet with space to move things." Incredibly, all Sauter did was write for the strings; he left Getz on his own with the idea that he'd simply improvise over the written material. Obviously it's Getz's improvisation that elevates this record from a good idea to something closer to genius.

The art form of jazz is built on improvisation, which often means one musician is stepping forward to explore some musical ideas for a minute before retreating into the fold. You can see that at any high school jazz concert, but when elite musicians come together the improvisation becomes more of a communal call and response as a riff is floated by one, echoed by another, punctuated by the drummer, then reimagined by the originator. In many ways it feels like music in its highest form.

Years ago my wife and I celebrated our wedding anniversary at a Harry Connick, Jr., concert at the Hollywood Bowl. He was playing with a large band, and while the music was amazing, what stayed with me as we walked away was the absolute joy that had flowed from the stage that night. Connick is a showman, and he was obviously there to entertain us, but there were moments when the audience didn't matter. He and his band were all in their element, discovering new nuances in tunes they had played hundreds of times, and when a song would end to thunderous applause, the band members didn't look to us. Instead they first looked to each other, nodding and smiling, a bass player acknowledging something the drummer had done, the piano player appreciating a tangent the saxophonist had just explored. Only after they had celebrated each other would they turn to us and accept our applause. We were clearly secondary, just lucky to be there.

It's this ephemeral nature of jazz and improvisation that has always proved difficult to capture on vinyl. If you watch a band over the course of a few nights, the same song might go in different directions from one show to the next, and the same thing can happen in a studio. Nothing was written here for Getz, so this album is just a record of the musical journeys he took during the three sessions it took to complete the work. In fact, the opening track of the album is significantly longer than any of the others precisely because of the vagaries of improvisation. "The only two takes were judged to be so fresh and so different that, rather than scrap one, they were tacked together to form a single take."

The choice to combine those two takes echoes the larger choice to combine these two genres. I'm sure that some of the records I write about here will go back into their sleeves and rarely if ever see the light of day again. My father was right about this one, though. It'll stay in the rotation.

* All quoted material comes from the text of the liner notes written by Dom Cerulli.

FocusNotes

Side 1
I'm Late, I'm Late
Her
Pan

Side 2
I Remember When
Night Rider
Once Upon a Time
A Summer Afternoon


7. Flamenco

FlamencoFrontRecord: Flamenco
Artist: José Barroso
Released: Crown Records, 1959

If there's one thing that I've learned in talking to people about music over the years, it's that people who truly love music never confine themselves to one genre. Most will claim a favorite genre, perhaps the music they listened to exclusively in their youth, but tastes broaden and mature as we age and begin to see commonalities and appreciate differences beyond what we had been comfortable with.

According to his music collection, my father was no different. There are roughly three or four hundred records, and the variety is striking. The collection is divided almost equally between jazz and classical, but there is nothing mainstream. Not a single Beatles record, no Buddy Holly or Elvis Presley or James Brown. No Motown. The only nod to pop music of the day is Frank Sinatra, but my father filed him with the classical records.

But there are a few unexpected albums that pop from time to time as you're flipping through, like this one. We discover new music in different ways, or at least we used to. Last week I heard a song that I thought my daughters might like, so I texted them an Apple Music link. When I was their age, someone would have had to put a physical copy in my hands. My first exposure to 70s prog rock came through a high school friend of mine, Christian. We were in physics together, and when he'd come over to study, he'd always bring a different Genesis album. It was unlike anything I'd ever heard -- none of it was on any of the radio stations I listened to -- but I quickly fell in love. If my own children go through my vinyl collection after I'm gone, they'll likely be as surprised by my Genesis albums as I've always been by my father's Flamenco.

What I've always wondered about is how my father came across this record. Did a friend put it in his hand the way Christian did for me? Or was he drawn by the cover art, a flamboyant photo of a woman with castanets in her hands? (Castanets are not heard on the record, by the way. Only a single guitar, played beautifully by José Barroso.) 

I'll never know how it got here, but I'm glad it did. It tells me something of his approach to and appreciation of music. He admired musical expertise, and I've no doubt that that's what appealed to him with this record. I've had the same response listening to Rodrigo y Gabriela, a flamenco-influenced guitar-playing duo from Mexico City (also the birthplace of Barroso). My wife and I saw them play at a benefit show years ago, and I immediately bought their self-titled album. I still love listening to it, not just because of the beauty of what they've produced but because I can't begin to imagine how they do it. Even so, it didn't lead me to explore any deeper into the genre, and neither did this album encourage my father to buy anymore flamenco records.

One side note. There was something about this record -- the physical record -- that always bothered me. There was no paper cover for the vinyl, and that just didn't seem right for my father, who clearly cared for his collection. When I gave the record its first spin, I could see that it was slightly warped, and it didn't sound as clear as the others I'd been listening to.

But when I did my usual research I found that Crown Records was notoriously cheap and known as "the king of the junk record labels." According to Discogs.com, "The covers usually fell apart almost instantly. LP's were shipped out with NO inner paper liners, thus splitting covers. The cheaply-made records sounded worn right out of the package. Plagued with more than the typical pressing flaws, noise can be heard and bumps seen on most LP's." 

And yet somehow this record survived sixty years. I'm glad it did.

FlamencoBack

Side 1
Farruca
El Vito
Soleares
Serenata Española
Nostalgia
Tanquillo

Side 2
Malagüena
Cuadros en Aragon
Página Romantica
Soleares Opus 10
Fandanguillos
Tango Español


6. Just One of Those Things

ColeRecord: Just One of Those Things
Artist: Nat "King" Cole
Released: Capitol Records, 1957

Once upon a time there was no more common rite of passage for a teenager than the creation of a mixtape. You'd fill a sixty- or ninety-minute cassette with favorite songs from your collection, maybe from your friend's, and you had a soundtrack for your summer. It was usually just a collection of the best songs from your favorite bands, but sometimes there was a theme of some sort -- British new wave, bands with female leads, classic rock guitar legends. (Rob Sheffield wrote a great book about this that I highly recommend, Love Is a Mixtape.)

Which brings us to the pinnacle of the art form, the romantic mixtape. Never did we spend so much time finding just the right songs with just the right lyrics and putting them in just the right order as when we were crafting a collection of songs to present to someone we loved and hoped would love us back. I still have the mixtape my wife made for me when we first started dating almost a quarter century ago, and even though I no longer have a cassette player and don't even know where I'd get one, I'll keep that tape forever.

None of that was possible for young lovers sixty years ago, so the music industry obliged. There were any number of options for those looking to set a romantic mood, and all the crooners of the day -- Frank Sinatra, Billie Holiday, Tony Bennett -- regularly released collections of love songs that were no doubt played over candlelight dinners everywhere.

Nat "King" Cole was one of the legendary singers of that or any era, and here he presents a collection of ballads lamenting lost love. In "A Cottage for Sale," a man comes across a home where he once lived with his true love and discovers that though it looks the same, everything is different.

From every single window, I see your face
But when I reach a window, there's an empty space.
The key's in the mailbox, the same as before,
But no one is waiting for me anymore.

The lyrics are from Larry Conley, and the song has been recorded dozens of times by everyone from Frank Sinatra to Judy Garland to Willie Nelson, but Cole's phrasing here is perfect as he expresses a longing for something he can no longer reach.

Continuing with the theme of heartbreak, Cole tackles another standard, "These Foolish Things." Of all the tracks on the record, none has been recorded by as many different legends. There are versions from the people you'd expect -- Sinatra, Holiday, Fitzgerald -- but it's also appealed to modern singers from different genres, like Aaron Neville, Rod Stewart, and Bob Dylan. The first time I came across the song it was the Bryan Ferry version, which isn't surprising because I'm sure Ferry would've been right at home singing standards back in the 1950s.

The lyrics are simple but poignant.

A cigarette that bears a lipstick's traces,An airline ticket to romantic places,A fairgrounds painted swings,These foolish things remind me of you.
 
A tinkling piano in the next apartment,Those stumbling words that told you what my heart meant,And still my heart has wings.These foolish things remind me of you.
 
You came, you saw, you conquered me.When you did that to me, I knew somehowIt had to be.
 
The winds of March that make my heart a dancer,A telephone that rings but who's to answer?Oh, how the thought of you clings.These foolish things remind me of you.
Who among us hasn't experienced something like this? The surprise that comes when a common object triggers a flood of memories. A pack of gum might remind you of your high school boyfriend, a child's hairbrush can bring your newborn baby back into your arms. Or the feel of an old cassette tape can remind you of what it was like to fall in love.
 
If my father were sitting with me this morning, listening to this record, I wonder what foolish things the music might bring to his mind. Maybe they wouldn't be foolish at all.

Cole2

Side 1
When Your Lover Has Gone
A Cottage for Sale
Who's Sorry Now?
Once in a While
These Foolish Things Remind Me of You
Just for the Fun of It

Side 2
Don't Get Around Much Anymore
I Understand
Just One of Those Things
The Song Is Ended
I Should Care
The Party's Over