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|Latest update: 12/28/2001.|
12/28/2001 Irma Thomas, "Wish Someone Would Care"
I mentioned this unsettling soul ballad in an online discussion the other day along with my opinion that it might be the saddest song of all. I thought I'd write a little more about it, and I listened to it again this morning several times as I travelled to work.
Thomas' lyrics come from the point of view of someone who has "made it" - this is not "Nobody Knows You When You're Down And Out," it's more like, "Nobody Knows You, EVER." Even as she acknowledges her success, she gets no satisfaction from it: there is something profoundly missing - someone who would care. The song's form is disarmingly simple - short into, verse, chorus, verse, chorus, fade. The 6/8 soul ballad time is punctuated by bold, dynamic drum flourishes and deep, slugging rhythm from the electric bass. The sound is filled out by deep tolling bells, giving the backing an extra depth and subtly drawing on the line, "Time - time waits for no one" in the lyric.
But what makes this song go is Irma Thomas' penetrating vocal delivery. From the opening wordless wail, her suppleness and power soar above the rich backing track. The way she hits the word "smiles" - almost contemptuously, but still with longing and regret, as if she doubts she will ever smile again - is a great moment. Her breathless delivery of "all, all of your trials" wrings soul from a somewhat trite line. And her direct appeal during the fade - "Don't you think someone should care?" - is peevish, accusatory, heartbroken.
I watched a movie last night, "Family Man," whose premise is parallel to that of "Wish Someone Would Care." Jack Campbell (played by Nicolas Cage) has wealth and confidence, foxy girlfriends, and, as we meet him, he is on the verge of a huge business deal. In a sort of inside-out adaptation of "It's A Wonderful Life," he is sent into an alternate reality - where he has trouble paying his bills, but he has not forsaken the love of his life, Kate (Tea Leoni) in order to gain success. The film does a fair job of portraying the aggravation of a life with limited financial resources. The chemistry between Leoni and Cage lends believability to his excitement about restarting his life, this time with her.
But "Family Man" doesn't do two important things in my view - it never really convinces us that Jack's emotionally empty "real" life dissatisfies him. In fact, it is his profession of just how satisfied he is with it, which triggers his alternate-reality trip. Also missing is a full portrayal of the satisfaction Jack gets from his "alternate," family-based life. He looks like he is enjoying the hot flashes of his love life with Kate, but the attraction the rest of it holds for him is less clear.
I think "Wish Someone Would Care" could have punched this film up a bit, had it been on the soundtrack.
It is hard nowadays to see things through any lens other than that of post-September 11th. I think today many people are questioning what riches they have in the bank, and what they have in their hearts. This is an (the?) eternal question, of course. Certainly Irma Thomas' song and this film are part of a long tradition of art based on this question. I found "Wish Someone Would Care" deeply affecting before the fall of the World Trade Center, but perhaps even more so now.
The track "Wish Someone Would Care" is available on "Dave Godin's Deep Soul Treasures Volume 3," several other Various Artists compilations, and on at least one Irma Thomas greatest hits collection, "Time Is On My Side Plus." The entire "Dave Godin's Deep Soul" series (3 CD's, on Ace) is highly recommended. Godin's thesis is that "deep soul" music is a progression from pop music into mature themes, adult situations, real relationships, true moods. With "Wish Someone Would Care" he illustrates his point in full, and there are plenty more treasures on the three discs.
11/7/2001, updated 12/12/2001
Bach: Goldberg Variations
This composition by Johann Sebastian Bach was written for harpsichord and published in 1742. Glenn Gould, who made two of the greatest recordings of the Variations, wrote liner notes to his 1956 recording and they are available here. Gould presents an insider's overview of the work's structure and history. I am by no means a musicologist and what follows is merely a music lover's account of my personal discovery of this work.
I was first exposed to the Goldberg Variations by Glenn Gould's 1955 piano version, his debut recording. I had learned of its strong reputation as a noteworthy recording and I found it easily on CD. The first reaction I had was that Gould was full of passion and the work was exceptionally beautiful, with a stunning range from sweet, pensive melodies to showy displays of technique. As I listened further, the effect I felt from the complex, interlocking structure of the variations as a group was that of purity and coherence. The parts related to the whole in a way that I had not experienced in any other music. This experience led me to seek out other recordings of the Goldberg Variations and I have enjoyed this pursuit.
Kurt Rodarmer recorded the Goldberg Variations in unusual fashion: he transcribed the keyboard work for guitar. He ran into several challenges doing so: the range of the harpsichord score extends below the lowest note on guitar, so he had a special guitar built which was tuned to a lower range. A keyboard player can utilize ten fingers in playing complex passages, but a guitarist has only six strings and five fretting fingers to work with. So Rodarmer overdubbed himself, using both the baritone guitar and a matching one in conventional tuning, in order to play every note of the composition. More information is available here.
Rodarmer's recording is simply amazing. The beauty of the melodic lines, the power of the "fingerbuster" sections, the coherence of the composition, are all rendered with awesome impact and tender sensitivity. This disc is never far from my CD player and is my top recommendation as a musical gift. I have sent it to many friends and they are uniformly enchanted. I was reading a back issue of The Absolute Sound once and saw a reader's letter criticising one of their reviewers, who had made a list of top classical guitar recordings which omitted this disc. In the next issue, the reviewer replied that she had obtained the Rodarmer disc to evaluate it and, not only did it certainly belong on the list, it perhaps belonged at the top.
In case you are curious, as I was, the disc she rated as possibly better was Paul Galbraith's Bach Sonatas & Partitas, on Delos. It is indeed quite wonderful, and to my ears, more similar to Rodarmer's Goldberg Variations than it is different. Both Galbraith and Rodarmer share a focus on, and perhaps obsession with, Bach. The results from both are transcendent.
Wanda Landowska recorded the Goldberg Variations on harpsichord in the 78 era and these recordings are still in print. I have an LP transfer from the 50's on RCA Victor and it is a more formal and stately rendition than either of the two mentioned above. It is informative to hear the work as it was originally intended to be played, on harpsichord, and while her recording is not terribly exciting, her crisp execution and the harpsichord's dry, quick-decaying sound allow new insights into the by-now-familiar music. As I understand it, when Landowska recorded the Variations, they were by no means as familiar in the keyboard repetoire as they are now and her recordings brought them wider exposure. Gould's electrifying 1955 recording made them more popular still.
Another harpsichordist, Trevor Pinnock, made an LP of the Variations and his recording features a much more immediate, "high fidelity" sound while sounding otherwise similar overall to the Landowska versions.
I have a transcription for pipe organ, recorded by Jean Guillou in 1988, which is lovely. The somber, reflective quality of the slower Variations is well served by the pipe organ, and the multiple voices available inject an interesting element of counterpoint and contrast which comes across as unusual given the more familiar treatments on harpsichord and piano.
It also serves to underscore the way in which a single voice such as a piano, builds a coherent edifice from the blocks which are the individual Variations. Both approaches are valid and the fact that this is so, brings even more fully into view the strength of Bach's conception and the power of the variation structure as used here.
Another interesting transcription, for chamber orchestra (strings & harpsichord) is the one by Dimitry Sitkovetsky performed by the NES Chamber Orchestra and released on a Nonesuch CD. Again, the separation of voicings makes some logical sense, and the chamber orchestra lends a much more conventional baroque mood to the music as compared to the almost mathematical approach of Gould, which comes off as much more modern in comparison.
Rosalyn Tureck has recorded the Variations several times and the version I own is her most recent, from 2000. I don't find it terribly engrossing.
Glenn Gould revisited the Goldberg Variations in 1982 for his final recording. Like the statement of the "Aria" that bookends the Goldberg Variations, the Variations themselves, then, bookended Gould's recording career. The 1982 recording is less brash, more reflective, as befits a performer at the end of his career, instead of a shooting star as Gould was in 1955. Again it is evident that the music is coming from a place deep in Gould's soul, and this is certainly music which bears soulful attention.
I was extremely fortunate to attend a private recital recently in a friend's home, at which John Kamitsuka played the Goldberg Variations for us. He was getting prepared for a recording session (I can't wait to hear this version!) and in this intimate setting, we heard the pieces much the way Count Kaiserling did in the 18th century, when he commissioned J. S. Bach to write them for his court musician, Johann Gottlieb Goldberg. By the time I attended this concert, the Variations had become one of my favorite pieces of music, and John played them with a vengeance after a brief historical introduction. He is from the "fast school" of interpretation of this work, and listening to his passionate, powerful rendition from a comfy chair about five feet from his hands was a huge thrill.
One thing I found especially interesting is that the Variations were written for an instrument with more than one keyboard, and so when they are played on a piano, there is a tremendous amount of coordination required, with the left hand frequently crossing in front of the right etc. This was easy to see up close. John's seamless presentation was especially impressive in this light. He played fom memory, one Variation following the other in a flowing cascade, and it was clear he was "in the zone" as he played. This added depth to the already deep spiritual dimension of Bach's music.
John Kamitsuka's recording of the Goldberg Variations has now been released by the Bel Canto Society, and is available on CD here. He was getting tuned up for the recording session when I saw him play the Variations, and I had been waiting rather impatiently for its release.
First, this recording has everything that I love about this set of variations - power, glory, excitement, delicacy, exaltation, spirit, grace and energy. As I saw in that living room, John Kamitsuka enters "the zone" when he plays this music and the recording does a great job of conveying just what it is that is special about this zone and how this music celebrates the human spirit. Sonically, it portrays a detailed, rich piano sound with a close perpective that puts you on the piano bench, without a ridiculous wall-to wall stereo spread or a distant wash of echo. This is to my taste.
John, at times, plays "exuberant 88's" like Jerry Lee Lewis. To my ears, this is not brashness, but merely a device to establish one end of the spectrum Bach has mapped out as the traverse of the Goldberg Variations. He plays reflectively, somberly, establishing another end of the range. These two extremes act to encompass the variations of the human condition, as we ricochet between the exaltation, color, and energy of an explosion of orchids, and the finality, darkness, and unyielding depth of the grave on which they are placed.
I took a physics class 20 years ago, presented by the chairman of the department at a prestigious University. It was a survey of modern concepts and we wrestled with ideas that are fundamental to the construction of our universe, understandings which define and expand our place as human beings within that universe. The professor, one of the finest teachers it has been my privilege to meet, was able to shed light on these Big Ideas, but the lesson that stayed with me most clearly from this experience was his expression of faith. He passed on his conviction that the coherence and simplicity of the basic laws of physics were solid, internally consistent proof of an organizing principle at work in the creation of the universe. The laws governing gravitational attraction as the speed of light is approached are hard to remember today, but his profession of faith has been impossible to forget.
Bach's Goldberg Variations work in a similar way, as I hear them. The coherence and structure of these short pieces build upon each other to create a larger whole, a whole with great range and beauty of expression that stands as proof of the extent to which art can illuminate our everyday experience. But they go beyond that. Bach's achievement stands in awe of the organizing principle of our universe, it conveys respect and appreciation for something greater than our small selves, and illustrates and celebrates both the works of the divine spirit as well as the human spirit.
John Kamitsuka is a very skilled pianist, but that is not the important point here. He has become able to express his soul and the universal soul through his playing and this disc is a document of this expression which all of us can connect to whether or not we are skilled pianists ourselves. He shares his "zone" with us, and as it turns out, his zone is the world, and everything in it, and more.
John was kind enough to allow me to use the following information, from the liner notes to his CD release on Bel Canto scheduled for October 2001.
The following is copyright 2001 John Kamitsuka. All rights reserved by the author.
"I had a second to look at your article. Thanks for your kind words. The following is the program note booklet from my CD.
"Pablo Casals was fond of describing Bach as a "volcano", referring to the depth, dynamism and expressive range of Bach's music. The Goldberg Variations are the longest set of variations for a solo instrument (nearly forty five minutes even without the repeats), and express a huge panorama of human experience, some being full of fun and carefree humor, others poignant and penetrating like a movement from the St. Matthew Passion.
"The famous anecdote told by Bach's early biographers regarding the inception of the Goldberg Variations, has come under question by current scholarship. The story was that they were written at the request of the insomniac Count Hermann Karl von Kayserling to be played by his brilliant court harpsichordist Johann Theophilius Goldberg, during sleepless nights. The point of contention is whether the date of composition actually predates Goldberg's employment, which would then negate the idea that Bach had written a piece of such stature and difficulty knowing that it would be played by a specific performer. Whatever the outcome of this debate, Goldberg's name is now permanently associated with the title of the variations. We also know that Kayserling was most grateful for the piece and sent Bach a snuff box filled with one hundred louis d'or, perhaps the most Bach received for a single commission.
"It is particularly noteworthy that in 1742, during the last decade of Bach's life, he would decide to deal with a form which he had found contrary to his nature throughout his life. Bach, quite possibly the most prolific composer of all time, by 1742 had written the great majority of his life's output. It is from this mature vantage point that he deals with variation form. As generally practiced during Bach's time, the primary variation procedure was the progressive division of the note values of the thematic melody. This was too automatic for Bach's fecund melodic and contrapuntal approach. So, as he had done with nearly all the musical forms he employed, Bach reshapes this one to suit his needs.
"Instead of taking the melody of the theme as his point of departure, Bach uses the passacaglia-like bass taken from the thematic Aria as the foundation for the variations. Sometimes the nature of a particular variation will make the bass line jump up or down an octave. Other times it is found in the middle or top voice. But the bass and its accompanying harmonic progression remains the basis from which all the variations spring. Therefore, each variation played straight through is a complete entity, making the repeats optional and determined by the performer's sense of the overall structure. Bach handles the stopping and starting inherent in variation form the same way he handled the issue in the Cantatas and Passions. Though there is of course no verbal text, one gets the sense of an unfolding and accumulating musical narrative. The piece leads to, and then away from Variation 25, the last of three variations in the minor mode.
"To create further opportunities for contrapuntal expression, every third variation is a canon, beginning in unison and increasing stepwise intervalically to a ninth. In addition to the canons, forms frequently used during Bach's time are used in other variations. The tenth variation is a fughetta and the sixteenth variation is an overture in the French style. The thirtieth variation is a Quodlibet, a kind of musical joke, where two popular songs are intoned simultaneously. Bach put together two drinking songs of the time, "Ich bin so lang nicht bei Dir gewesen" (I have not been near you for so long) and "Kraut und Ruben" (cabbage and turnips). It is expressive of Bach's personality that he culminates such a grand and profound piece with gruff humor and pure joy." - John Kamitsuka
You probably don't need me to tell you about Shuggie Otis : Inspiration Information by now. Shuggie's been on Letterman, hell, I even read a piece in The New Yorker the other day about this record. With all the buzz about this reissue I feel justified in predicting it will win the next "best reissue" Grammy award.
But in case you have been off campus on a field trip lately, let me welcome you back with some good news. The combination of trippy, spacy funk and summertime is here again, like sweet, sour lemonade.
This album, first released in 1974, fits in a slot left vacant by the death of Jimi Hendrix and the tailspin of Sly Stone. Like Jimi's music, an optimistic, hazy incomprehensibility and tasty organic guitar flavoring provide a friendly texture to the sound. Like Sly's, there is a sweetness and a propulsive funkiness that sheds a flattering light on those textures.
Ben Greenman, in his New Yorker review, dismisses the sometimes lengthy instrumental tracks as evidence of Shuggie's laziness and lack of discipline: "pages from the sketchbook of a brilliant but unfocussed art student." But, after playing the album through many times these past few weeks I think there is something else going on, something I think Greenman was close to when he concluded "Sometimes the best way to write about the world around you is not to write about it at all." Greenman also name-checks Prince, Beck, and Marvin Gaye in his review and reflects on Shuggie Otis' one-man-band stunts that comprise much of the album.
I resonate with this common thread better. This is not a band on record here, it's a guy, a young, talented, probably acid-fueled young prince of the House Of Otis (Shuggie's father Johhny Otis was a progenitor of rock'n'roll, a titan of R&B.) What this album does is open a window to the sunny vistas of Shuggie's internal landscape. It's his noodling, his confusion, his lust, his cooling-out moments we are privy to with the rerelease of this terrific slab of soul. Now, we know from experience that sometimes records like this are of interest only to the noodlers themselves (if anyone.) But sometimes these records are Innervisions. Inspiration Information, taken as a whole, is not focussed by anything more than the organization of the sweet subconscious of a sensitive young man. I find that to be plenty.
FYI this album is available as a two-LP vinyl release as well as a polycarbonate-and-aluminum sandwich, so the pure of heart may rise up in a cue and cry if they so desire.
This first installment of my music page is going to be all about Ben. My friend Ben came up from New Orleans one time to check out the audio geekery that is shown on these web pages, and he brought some really great music into my home, all of it from people who I'd never heard of. This is the very best way to get me excited if you are a guy.
Ben not only told me about The Rob Wagner Trio disc, but he also PRODUCED it! Yay Ben!
Rob Wagner and his trio are sax/drums/bass jazzers, with a great blend, crisp compositions, and a nice balance between "out" wailing and more comfort-zone behavior. My buddy Ben and the engineer Mark Bingham have gotten a truly first rate sound for these guys and they did NOT waste it with audiophile noodling or bleached boredom.
Get the Rob Wagner Trio disc here.
This album, "Diaspora Soul," by Steven Bernstein is bending my mind.
In a GOOD way.
What kind of music, you ask? That'll be easy.
Steven Bernstein plays Bar Mitzvah folk melodies on trumpet with a bold, sweet tone. His band backs him in the greasiest New Orleans funky jazz R&B styles I can remember hearing since Steven's hero Dave Bartholomew was on the scene (Bartholomew led Little Richard's steamrolling band and Fats Domino's hard core crew.) Steven may have found the perfect sound, full of insistent Latin percussion, supple rhythms, and rich horn section textures. If Meyer Lansky owned a whorehouse in the Quarter, this would definitely be the house band.
I have a musical axiom, "a band with a baritone sax in it is better than a band without one," which holds true here - there's something about the chocolate bottom anchored by a bari sax that just boots everything else along. This disc is stuck in the rotation like Spahn & Sain.
The Naked Orchestra is a bigger jazz band. Again I am moved by the compositional skills displayed on their disc, "Brief Repairs On The Gradually Unravelling Spool In The Sense Continuum." I'm swayed by the band's full, snappy blend and sneaky soloists. "Tricky Sam" better watch his wallet around these guys. I mention him because the overall sound is very Duke Ellington-ish in its way, but somehow part of today too. A highlight is the middle section of the great "The Semitic Problem" which bursts out of its comparatively formal opening sections into a rowdy second line celebration. It's like the historic spitball fight that broke out during those humid final weeks of sixth grade.
Here is the Naked Orchestra's home page, click the "Brief Repairs" link for great info about the album and how to order.
Dang shangalang, I am in the groove right now. And remember,
It's what's in the grooves that count.
DISCLAIMER: I did get a couple of these discs free but, hey - get real - the opinions expressed here couldn't have come from anybody ELSE, now, could they? So they MUST be mine!