Inspirational

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This week we discussed with a friend what his son’s musical taste was likely to become, growing up in a home with two musicians and others often visiting for band practice in the basement. It reminded us of Paul Witgenstein, who was destined to become a pianist, and whose determination to play led to the commission of a whole new subgenre in music for the left hand.

Witgenstein grew up in one of the wealthiest households in the world. His home in Vienna was of often visited by famous musicians, including Johannes Brahms and Gustav Mahler, and as a boy he played duets with Richard Strauss. What’s more is that his grandmother was the woman who had adopted Joseph Joachim, the famous violinist and friend of Brahms, and arranged for him to study piano with Felix Mendelssohn.

In December of 1913, Paul Witgenstein made his debut in Vienna’s Grosser Musikvereinsaal and received good reviews. The following summer, of course, came “the guns of August,” and at twenty-seven he was conscripted to serve in the Austrian army alongside his philosopher brother, Ludwig. In battle on the Eastern front, he was shot and lost consciousness. When he awoke as a prisoner of war, he found his right arm had been amputated.

While a prisoner in Siberia, Witgenstein “practiced” on a wooden crate with his left hand, and began to dream of ways to play his favorite music of Chopin without a right hand. He was returned to Austria by the Russians in a prisoner exchange in 1915, in part because they felt a one-armed man was not useful for forced labor.

After the War, Wittgenstein used his family’s enormous wealth to commission works from an extraordinary list of great composers, creating a collection of concerti similar to the book of variations created by Anton Diabelli which we featured in a post last month. This collection came to include works by Ravel, Britten, Richard Strauss and Prokofiev, to name just a few.

Pianist Nicholas McCarthy has a lot to say about Witgenstein and the music he commissioned, because he himself was born without a right arm. “The most poignant thing must have been to have lost his hand after such a long struggle to become a pianist,” he wrote. “Because he came from such a high society family, being an ‘entertainer’ was looked down upon.”

Wittgenstein had a bit of an attitude himself, and was even critical of several of the works he commissioned. He did not initially approve of Maurice Ravel’s employment of jazz motifs in his Concerto for the Left Hand in D Major, and to the consternation of the composer chose to perform it with his own revisions. This is a shame because the single movement concerto is one of the most interesting of Ravel’s explorations of American music, while also incorporating clever ideas from Saint Saen’s 6 Etudes por la main gauche seule.

More remarkably, Wittgenstein chose not to perform the concerto composed by Sergei Prokofiev altogether.

We are passionate fans of Prokofiev’s works, and can’t imagine simply sitting on something so lively and inventive. Wittgenstein did not, as is sometimes written, refuse to play the Piano Concerto No 4 in B-flat major, he said he would perform it when he understood it, and this just never happened. This sounds to us a lot like the notorious “Minnesota no,” which is when the booker doesn’t get back to you about your band after repeated entreaties because he doesn’t want to tell you that you suck.

Unlike Ravel, Prokofiev remained friendly with Wittgenstein. He considered adapting it as a two-hand concerto, but never found the time. Sadly, it went unperformed until Wittgenstein passed away in the early sixties. This is because he retained exclusive performance rights for the works he commissioned during his lifetime. “You don’t build a house so that someone else can live in it,” he famously explained.

For this reason many of the works Wittgenstein commissioned are not familiar, even to fans of the composers. For instance, Erich Wolfgang Korngold wrote a characteristically bombastic concerto for in 1922 which has elements of his exciting film scores as well as a Wagnerian sense of tonality. It is, in many ways, our favorite of the left handed repertoire.

Wittgenstein’s exclusivity caused one of the lefty concertos to nearly go unheard. This was the concerto written by German composer Paul Hindesmith, which Wittgenstein apparently so disliked he did not keep the autograph (or original) copy. After his widows’ passing his papers became available to researches and in 2004 a copy of Hindesmith’s Opus 29 was discovered. Although it contained errors, Hindesmith’s enthusiasts were able to reconstruct his Concerto for the Left Hand from sketches and it received its long-overdue debut in Berlin.

Paul Wittgenstein lived out his late years teaching in the United States, where he’d become a citizen in 1946. In spite of his complicated relationship with some of the composers, his commissioned works and their story inspire pianists whether they have the use of one or two hands.

Another remarkable story began in 1964, when concert pianist Leon Fleisher developed a nerve condition called focal distonial, which cost him the use of his right hand in the middle of a successful career distinguished by his interpretations of Mozart and Brahms. For years he performed the left handed repertoire, until his condition was improved with the experimental use of botox. In 2004, the same year he performed the debut of the nearly-lost Hindesmith concerto with the Berlin Philharmonic, Fleisher released his first album since his recovery. He titled it Two Hands.

lincoln portrait

Aaron Copland’s Lincoln Portrait was inspired by conductor Andre Kostelanetz, who suggested he compose a portrait of a eminent American. Kostelanetz debuted the work with the Cincinnati Symphony in the summer of 1942, and it has since become a widely popular concert favorite.

The text in Lincoln Portrait is primarily derived from the speeches and writings of our sixteenth President. An impressive list of actors, politicians, astronauts and other celebrities have narrated the piece over the years. President Obama read the text with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in 2005.

Now that this cycle’s political conventions have passed and we are left with utterly uninspiring candidates, we thought it would provide some solace to hear the words of a President who appealed to “the better angels of our nature.”

This 1968 recording from Columbia’s “Copland Conducts Copland” series is narrated by Henry Fonda.

Lenny Bruce is best known for his blue material, but “The Djinni in the Candy Store” is a beautiful bit (mostly) suitable for listeners of all ages. The Common Sense Media organization would probably knock down its star rating for Bruce’s joke about “income property” and make some remark about its ethnic stereotypes, but “The Djinni” is mild compared to most of Bruce’s material.

the real lenny bruceFrom time to time we think of Bruce’s Djinni, when tackling a big project in our own store. The whole bit, first recorded by the comedian in 1958, is just an elaborate set-up for a groaner of a line, but as often happens in Lenny Bruce’s best material the Djinni becomes a memorable character. The only one who makes us laugh more is poor Cardinal Spellman, who must explain the ways of the Church to Christ and Moses when the return to Earth in a later routine.

 

In a seventh season episode of The X Files, the supernatural monster discovered by Agents Mulder and Scully is revealed to be a djinni who has spent millennia a prisoner of her powers. With each new master she watches tragedy unfold as the wishes become nightmares, until she receives her freedom when Agent Mulder wishes for it.

Lenny Bruce’s Djinni seems to enjoy his work, although he describes his bottle as “a glass prison.” He grant’s Sol’s second wish without using his magical powers, and we imagine he wanted to run the candy store. It recalls Yakov Bok, the eponymous hero of Bernard Malamud’s The Fixer, a prisoner who “begged for something to do. His hands ached of emptiness.” Yes, the Djinni seems to take pleasure of the minutia of running the small shop, bringing in the milk and the rolls and so on.

Twice, when doubted, the Djinni is indignant: “I am the Djinni, I can do anything!” He is nothing like the sneaky, manipulative djinni in The Thief of Baghdad, who seems to have inspired Bruce’s hilarious voice. The only thing we don’t like about “The Djinni in the Candy Store” is its brevity. We wish he’d had a few more adventures, perhaps in other settings from Bruce’s albums. Perhaps he could have visited Lima, Ohio or Enchanting Transylvania. Or the Djinni could have helped educate people about gonorrhea and raised funds for the Brother Matthias leper colony in Guiana. After all, he is the Djinni and he can do anything.

 

miles autobiographyMiles Davis’ 1990 autobiography, written with Quincy Troupe, is hardly the book one turns to for inspiration in troubled times, but we were struck by some of the similarities between his account of John Coltrane’s death, and the recent passing of Prince here in Minnesota. When drawing excerpts from Miles: The Autobiography, one must edit snark with ellipses (he cannot even describe the death of a friend without sniping), but will also find a moving description of the unifying influence of a musical icon.

For those of you reading along at home, we found this passage in chapter thirteen, which began, “Things were changing in this country, and they seemed to be changing real fast…

 

In July, Coltrane died and fucked up everyone. Coltrane’s death shocked everyone, took everyone by surprise. I knew he hadn’t looked too good and had gained a lot of weight the last time I saw him, not too long before he died. I also knew he hadn’t been playing much in public. But I didn’t know that he was sick — or even sick at all. I think only a few people really knew that he was sick, if they really knew. I don’t know if Harold Lovett — who was our lawyer at the time — even knew. Trane kept everything close to his vest and I wasn’t really seeing too much of him because he had been busy with his own thing, and I had with mine. Plus I had been sick, too, and I think the last time I saw him I talked about what a drag it was to be sick. But he didn’t say nothing about himself not feeling too well. Trane was real secretive like that and he only went to the hospital I think one day before he died on July 17, 1967. He had cirrhosis of the liver and it was hurting him so bad he couldn’t take it no more.

Trane’s music and what he was playing during those last two or three years of his life represented, for many blacks, the fire and passion and rage and anger and rebellion and love that they felt, especially among the young black intellectuals and revolutionaries of that time. He was expressing through music what H. Rap Brown and Stokeley Carmichael and the Black Panthers and Huey Newton were saying with their words, what the Last Poets and Amiri Baraka were saying in poetry…

It was this way for many intellectuals and revolutionary whites and Asians as well. Even his change to a more spiritual music in the music on A Love Supreme — which was like a prayer — reached adn influenced those people who were into peace, hippies and people like that. I heard he played a lot of love-ins, which were becoming the rage all over California for a lot of whites. So he was reaching different groups of people, too. His music was embraced by a lot of different kind of people, and that was beautiful and I was proud of him…

…Around that time, everything was in flux again in this country — everything. Music, politics, race relations, everything. Nobody seemed to know where things were going; everybody seemed confused — even a lot of the artists and musicians who all of a sudden seemed to have more freedom that we ever had to do our own thing. Trane’s death seemed to put a lot of confusion in a lot of people. Even Duke Ellington seemed to be going in a spiritual direction, as Trane had done in A Love Supreme, when Duke wrote a score called “In the Beginning God” in 1965 and then played it in churches all over the United States and Europe.

love supreme

Incidentally, Impulse Records, now owned by Universal, released the complete A Love Supreme sessions earlier this year, adding tracks not found on the earlier Classic Quartet box set. We can’t resist saying something about this, because the alternate sextet take of Coltrane’s masterpiece, which adds Archie Shepp on second tenor and Art Davis on second bass, has been a subject of fascination to Coltrane fans since his death. It was known he considered performing A Love Supreme with a sextet, but the recordings were unheard until this year. His son Ravi Coltrane pulled them from the archives. The practice runs of “Acknowledgement” with the additional musicians are of great interest to Coltrane fans, but probably not worth the expense of buying the album for a second, third of fourth time.

We can only hope that in the coming years the unissued archival recordings Prince has stored at Paisley Park are handled with more reverence than were Coltrane’s.

jarry landis 45

Yep, its Paul Simon. For nearly eight years he wrote and recorded pop songs under several names before re-uniting with his childhood pal Art Garfunkel and scoring their breakthrough deal with Columbia Records in 1964.

Of all those oddball songs under various names, our favorite is “Play me a Sad Song.” Simon even gets himself in the credits there, and he deserved any credit he received. Like David Bowie, Paul Simon is one of those enormously influential and important songwriters or performers who worked for years to achieve a dream. It adds up to an inspiring story. True success doesn’t come overnight.

Some folks are embarrassed when they bring in boxes of records. Turns out that Wham! album always belongs to someone’s sister.

Truth is, there’s no judgement. Nobody should ever make fun of you for the music you enjoy, unless its your neighbors and you’ve been playing it too loud. Our own collection has all kinds of skeletons in the closet, and we don’t mean a copy of Skeletons in the Closet.

There is one record in particular which we have never played all the way to the end. We’ve never even finished a single side, and it’s a double LP. It’s Metal Machine Music by Lou Reed.

metal machine music

Reed’s hour-long electronic drone has no musical value whatsoever. Rolling Stone said it was as unpleasant as “a night in a bus terminal” at the time. It is commonly listed as one of the worst records of all time.

Always a contrarian, Lester Bangs praised the album, although given his tumultuous relationship with Reed its hard to tell if he is serious or not when he claims Metal Machine Music to be “the greatest album in the history of the human eardrum.”

A classical music it adds nothing to a genre that may well be depleted,” wrote Bangs. “As rock ‘n’ roll it’s interesting garage electronic rock ‘n’ roll. As a statement it’s great, as a giant FUCK YOU it shows integrity—a sick, twisted, dunced-out, malevolent, perverted, psychopathic integrity, but integrity nevertheless.”

Why have a record you’ll never play? Well, because we are Lou Reed fans, and it has to sit on the shelf in between Sally Can’t Dance and Coney Island Baby. And also because one day maybe we’ll finally “get it.”

There’s also have a book I’ve never finished: Bill Clinton’s 2004 autobiography My Life. I received it as a gift from my wife the week it was published because she knows how much I enjoy reading about the Presidents in their own words. The year before she gave me Ulysses S. Grant’s Personal Memoirs, which were originally published by Mark Twain in 1885 in part to provide for the Civil War hero’s family after his death.

my lifeMy Life by Bill Clinton is the most oppressively boring book ever written. I read a review at the time which said it was like being stuck at the airport with a lonely old man, and that’s about the kindest way to describe this book. I refuse to skip ahead, so don’t ask about the scandals which began to follow him as early in the 80s, because I haven’t gotten that far into the book. See the bookmark in the picture? That’s where I am after eleven years.

Whenever I have a fever or I can’t sleep, I take Bubba’s book off the shelf. It always solve my problem better than Nyquil, and with only a slightly more unpleasant hangover.

amine claudine meyersAmine Claudine Myers’ third album was a tribute to blues legend Bessie Smith, with one side of Smith’s songs and one side of originals written by Myers in the same style.

Myers joined Chicago’s AACM early in her career, and has recorded with the Art Ensemble of Chicago, Archie Shepp, Arthur Blythe and other post-bop and avant-garde artists.

Bessie Smith recorded “Wasted Life Blues” in October, 1929 with James P. Johnson on piano. It was not one of her more successful singles.

Myers’ interpretation is characterized by the ageless sophistication and grace one associates with the Chicago jazz scene of the 60s and 70s. She is accompanied on this album by Jimmy Lovelace and bassist extraordinaire Cecil McBee, but her solo introduction to “Wasted Life Blues” is the highlight of the record.

Myers relocated to New York and later Europe. In 1985 she toured with Charlie Haden’s Liberation Music Orchestra, and in the 90s played with jazz/funk supergroup Third Rail.

Speaking of the Liberation Music Orchestra, Haden’s original 1970 album is one of our “desert island” records, a must-have in our collection. A masterful amalgam of Spanish folk and free jazz, the record features exceptional talents: Gato Barbieri, Dewey Redman, Don Cherry and Roswell Rudd all contribute notable performances, and Sam Brown (of Keith Jarrett’s “American band” at the time) provides brilliantly colorful interludes on the acoustic guitar. What is so enjoyable about Liberation Music Orchestra is the ensemble playing throughout the album, and this is the work of pianist Carla Bley.

liberation music orchestra

The first side of the album is essentially a single suite, opening and closing with original melodies by Bley (“The Introduction” and “The Ending to the First Side”) and in between encompassing music of the Spanish Civil War, explosive free jazz arrangements and surreal moments of musique concrète. Bley makes clever use of Bertoit Brecht’s “United Front Song” and “Viva La Quince Brigada” (popularized with the American left by Pete Seeger in 1943), all the while holding together a large free jazz ensemble more successfully than any of her contemporaries.

Carla Bley’s credits extend far beyond this album and beyond the bounds of jazz. She was a founding member of the Jazz Composers’ Orchestra, with whom she recorded her epic jazz opera Escalator Over the Hill in 1971, and also wrote and produced a solo album by Pink Floyd’s Nick Mason. More recently, she has led a big band, although her last release was a collection of trio performances featuring long-time collaborator, bassist Steve Swallows and British saxophonist Andy Shephard.

When she was young, Nina Simone studied at the Juilliard School of Music until she could not afford the tuition, after earlier auditioning for the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. Her dream was to become a classical musician, but she worked as a cocktail pianist to pay for her private lessons. At Atlantic City’s Midtown Bar & Grill, she was given a raise if she would sing as well as play the piano — here she soon developed a following for her distinctive style.

So far as we have found, there are few instrumentals in Simone;s recorded catalog: these appear on the live album early in her career. Nina Simone at Town Hall includes an instrumental introduction to “Summertime” and on Nina at the Village Gate there is an extended and exceptional improvisation on “Bye Bye Blackbird,” which is as good as anything the top tier trios was recording in 1961.

Simone recorded one album without any accompanying musicians — Nina Simone and Piano — but she sings on all of its ten tracks. She felt it was one of her best albums, although it was not commercially successful. Most of her later albums include large arrangements and feature her primarily as a vocalist, in spite of her original, imitable style.

DSC07749Although Simone had a tendency to lean towards classical music and cocktail lounge piano, she could also lead a soulful ensemble, as on Nina Simone Sings the Blues, from which we have previously posted the protest song “Backlash Blues.”

Her flair for theatrics is apparent on another well-known protest song, “Mississippi Goddamn,” which appeared on the 1964 album Nina Simone In Concert. Simone opens the song humorously before singing a scathing response to the murder of Medgar Evers.

Nina Simone is probably more influential as a singer than as a pianist, but she would have been the first to remark that the two were simultaneous, and intricately related to one another. She was certainly one of the most versatile jazz pianist of her generation.

a single womanOn her last album, A Single Woman, Simone only played the piano on one song, “Just Say I Love Him.” The album was recorded in 1993, and owing to her declining health, Simone did not make another record before passing away from breast cancer a decade later.

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