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December 2022

January 2023

24. Getz/Gilberto

GG1Record: Getz/Gilberto
Artist: Stan Getz and Joao Gilberto
Released: Verve Records, 1964

This collection of vinyl that once was my father's but now belongs to me is more than just a sentimental link to a man I never knew. What he amassed over twenty years or so now stands as something of an archive of jazz history. It isn't unique -- I'm sure there are thousands of people like me who have collections that were passed down from jazz lovers like my father -- but it's still important.

Some of the records I've already written about -- and lots yet to come -- are obvious classics. Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Billie Holiday, Dave Brubeck, and more are well represented, and if you look at someone's list of the "best jazz records of all-time," you can be sure that ninety percent of them are in my collection. (There is, however, one glaring omission, something I'll write about at some point.)

But it's the unexpected records that have been the most interesting. I'd never heard of Chico Hamilton, for example, until I pulled out his record and discovered it had been recorded twenty minutes from my house.

And there's today's record. I was familiar with Stan Getz, but I knew nothing about Joao Gilberto until I started spinning their collaboration. When I first began this project my idea was that I would take out a record on Sunday morning and write about it in the moment as I listened for the first time. That plan didn't last long. Now I typically listen to the record all week before doing some research and eventually writing about it over the weekend. It's a much deeper experience, and the immersion has been wonderful.

Listening to Getz/Gilberto over the past several days has been interesting. The music has slowly grown on me, becoming more interesting with each passing day. Getz's tenor sax is smooth and relaxing, and Gilberto's lyrics are melodic syllables devoid of meaning, unless you speak Portuguese, but rich in emotion.

This is consistently ranked as one of the best jazz albums of all time, and probably not just because of what we hear on the record. The cover exclaims, "America's top jazz tenor joins Brazil's great young singer in the most exciting album of the year." Indeed, this album began the explosion of bossa nova, not just in the United States but around the world. It's an easy listening genre that fits nicely into the background of a dinner party but is still worthy of a close listen with a set of headphones.

You might not think you know bossa nova, but I assure you that you do. The opening track of this record is one of the most famous songs ever recorded, "The Girl from Ipanema." It's estimated that it has been recorded more times than any pop single save the Beatles' "Yesterday," and I'm certain that everyone reading this could easily hum along and perhaps sing some of the lyrics.

Tall and tan and young and lovely
The girl from Ipanema goes walking
And when she passes
Each one she passes goes, "Ah."

The song and those lyrics are so ubiquitous that they've become a cliché, but this was the first recording. Joao Gilberto sings the first few verses in Portuguese, but then Astrud Gilberto, his wife and the only bilingual Brazillian in the studio at the time, finishes with the familiar English lyrics. It's a time capsule from another century, but it swings in any era.

The lyrics were written by Vinicius de Moraes (Portuguese) and Norman Gimbel (English). Gimbel's verses aren't direct translations of what Moraes wrote, but they extend the theme. Moraes was inspired by an actual girl, Helô Pinheiro, who often walked past a bar he frequented, drawing the attention -- and whistles -- of the patrons. Years later, Moraes wrote that she was "the paradigm of the young... golden teenage girl, a mixture of flower and mermaid, full of light and grace, the sight of whom is also sad, in that she carries with her, on her route to the sea, the feeling of youth that fades, of the beauty that is not ours alone—it is a gift of life in its beautiful and melancholic constant ebb and flow."

Moraes was not the first to write about fleeting beauty. In William Shakespeare's "Sonnet 18" he writes to a (possible) love interest, one who possesses beauty so pure that not even time can steal it away. 

And every fair from fair sometimes declines,
By chance, or nature's changing course, untrimmed;
But thy eternal summer shall not fade...

Like Moraes centuries hence, Shakespeare found inspiration in beauty. His muse might have been a young man in London while Moraes's was a teenage girl in Rio de Janeiro, but the message is the same. Some things are timeless; some beauty never fades. 

It's clear, however, that Moraes wasn't familiar with the sonnet, or at least that he wasn't as bold as the Bard. In Shakespeare's closing couplet he reveals the secret behind his inspiration's immortality:

So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see, 
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.

Shakespeare knew then that his sonnet would live forever and keep that moment in time alive, along with his subject's beauty. Four centuries later, we know he was right. Moraes might not have had such aspirations when he wrote his lyrics, but the result has been the same. Thanks to his original lyrics, Gimbel's English addition, and the work here of Getz and both Gilbertos, the girl from Ipanema will always be "Tall and tan and young and lovely." Always.

GG3

Side 1
The Girl from Ipanema
Doralice
Para Machucar Meu Coração
Desafinado

Side 2
Corcovado
Só Danço Samba
O Grande Amor
Vivo Sonhando

GG2


23. Ella at Duke's Place

EllaDuke1Record: Ella at Duke's Place
Artist: Ella Fitzgerald and Duke Ellington
Released: Verve Records, 1965

This month Rolling Stone magazine released its list of the top 200 singers of all time. If we put aside the foolishness of such an endeavor and forgive the authors for the fact that they're actually in the business of generating clicks and comments and subscriptions, we must admit that it would be a fun activity to crack open some beers with a few friends and take turns linking your phones to a bluetooth speaker on the table as you make your case for one singer or another. Do you prefer Bono or Bruce? Mariah or Whitney? John, Paul, George, or Ringo?

But lists like these exist only to spark debate. So here's my quibble with this particular list. When I first clicked on the link, I went straight to number one (Aretha Franklin, if you must know), and scrolled backwards looking for one name in particular, fully expecting to find it in the top ten. Or at least the top twenty. Maybe the top thirty or forty? But it wasn't until I got to #45 that I found the name I was looking for -- Ella Fitzgerald.

(Perhaps I shouldn't have been so surprised. When the magazine produced a top 100 back in 2008, Ella didn't even make the list. Also of note, Mariah Carey jumped from #79 in 2008 to #5 this year, and Whitney Houston climbed from #34 to #2. It's not an exact science, apparently.)

The thing about Ella Fitzgerald is that she's unlike any singer you'll ever hear. I don't want to diminish the work of modern musicians like Taylor Swift and Ariana Grande, brilliant artists in their own right, but Lady Ella's career spanned more than six decades, or roughly the combined age of those two ingenues. 

But it's Ella's versatility, not just her longevity, that truly sets her apart. This collaboration with Duke Ellington highlights everything she can do. As the record opens with "Something to Live For," the first track on what's called "The Pretty, the Lovely, the Tender, the Hold-Me-Close Side" of the record, Ella hits the listener with a line as syrupy smooth as anything Billie Holiday might sing:

I have almost everything a human could desire,
Cars and houses, bear-skin rugs to lie before my fire.
But there's something missing,
Something isn't there,
It seems I'm never kissing the one whom I care for.
I want something to live for...

It's a classic standard from composer Billy Strayhorn (though Ellington gets a credit as well), but Ella makes it her own, putting her soul into every syllable of a song she'd one day name as her favorite. From there she makes her way through four other ballads, including "I Like the Sunrise," a hopeful Ellington tune commissioned for a 1947 celebration marking the centennial of Liberia's independence.

All of it's thoroughly gorgeous, but it's the flip side, "The Finger-Snapping, Head-Shaking, Toe-Tapping, Go-For-Yourself Side" that I can't get enough of. The opening track, "Imagine My Frustration," teeters between blues and something close to rock and roll, and the energy only seems to build as the record spins towards the closing song.

Remember the versatility I mentioned? Ella Fitzgerald, the Queen of Jazz, opens the record with a song that evokes a lounge singer on stage, perhaps leaning forlornly against a piano with cigarette smoke gently spiraling through the single beam of a spotlight. And she finishes with another Ellington tune, "Cotton Tail," a high-tempo vehicle for Ella to unleash her trademark scatting, a vocal styling in which she leaves lyrics behind and allows her voice to become an instrument alongside the horns in Ellington's band. 

And it's truly amazing. If improvisation is the cornerstone of jazz performance, Ella is one of the few vocalists to fully embrace the possibility of vocal improvisation. This track allows her to have a call-and-response conversation with Ellington saxophonist Paul Gonsalves, with each artist laying down a bar or two before listening to an echo from the other. (Take a look at this amazing video of a live performance recorded just a few months after the studio recording. Ella and Paul trade licks side by side at the front of the stage for more than two glorious minutes.) 

Fifty-seven years later "Cotton Tail" is mind-blowing, but the reaction in the moment was no different. According to Leonard Feather's liner notes, "When the final tape was played back, the orchestra and everyone else present burst into applause. Grinning in happy embarrassment, Ella said, 'Aw, you're just saying that because you are in a hurry to get out of here!' But I suspect she knew, just as we all did, that nothing could top the inspiration of this magnificent take."

Six decades later, nothing does.

EllaDuke3

Side 1
"The Pretty, the Lovely, the Tender, the Hold-Me-Close Side"
1. Something to Live For
2. A Flower Is a Lovesome Thing
3. Passion Flower
4. I Like the Sunrise
5. Azure

Side 2
"The Finger-Snapping, Head-Shaking, Toe-Tapping, Go-For-Yourself Side"
1. Imagine My Frustration
2. Duke's Place
3. Brownskin Gal in the Calico Gown
4. What Am I Here For?
5. Cotton Tail

EllaDuke2


22. Bernstein Plays Brubeck Plays Bernstein

BrubeckFrontRecord: Bernstein Plays Brubeck Plays Bernstein
Artist: Dave Brubeck
Released: Columbia Records, 1961

There are a lot of reasons why I like this record. First of all, it's the Dave Brubeck Quartet, one of the more well known groups in jazz history, one of the most important groups in the Cool Jazz movement, and possibly the single most famous jazz group to emerge from California. Two years before this record, Brubeck released Time Out, which features "Take Five," the best selling jazz single of all time. 

Cool jazz is about what you'd expect -- a smoother, more relaxed response to the big band and bebop era that immediately preceded it. While bebop gets your fingers snapping and your toe tapping until you had just have to get out on the dance floor with your best girl, cool jazz is... cool. It's the soundtrack to an evening of best friends sitting around a table sharing stories, the clinking of glasses gently blending into the rhythm and melody of the music coming from the corner of the room. 

It should be no surprise, then, that cool jazz led naturally into West Coast jazz, which gave birth to Dave Brubeck. The quartet's work is instantly recognizable, thanks mainly to the signature style of saxophonist Paul Desmond, who spends so much time playing in the upper register of his alto that the listener can be excused for mistaking it for a soprano. There is no other band that sounds like this one.

On this particular record, you get more than just Brubeck and his quartet. I've heard of Leonard Bernstein, but I only know two things about him: first, he was an American composer and conductor; second, I've screamed his name countless times when it comes up in the third verse of R.E.M.'s "It's the End of the World as We Know It (and I Feel Fine)." And if I'm being honest, I probably knew nothing about the the former when I first came across the R.E.M. song during my freshman year of college.

One the first side of the album, Bernstein conducts his New York Philharmonic Orchestra along with the Dave Brubeck Quartet as they play four pieces written by Brubeck's brother, Howard Brubeck. As we've seen in some of the other crossover records I've written about here, the orchestra stays true to the written score, while the quartet has the freedom to improvise and explore the themes that Brubeck's brother lays out for them. 

The relationship is reversed on side two, with the quartet on their own playing four pieces from Bernstein's most well-known work, West Side Story, and one from Wonderful Town. The recognizable melodies drift in and out occasionally, reminding the listener of the source material, but the improvisation makes this is a work worthy of standing alongside Bernstein's original. 

Is it cool? Without a doubt.

BrubeckBack

Side 1
Allegro
Andante-Ballad
Adagio-Ballad
Allegro-Blues

Side 2
Maria
I Feel Pretty
Somewhere
A Quiet Girl
Tonight