Music for dancing

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Tribute albums have been around for about as long as any other kind of record, but they really took off in the 90s when the “Various Artists” section of your neighborhood record shop (likely to be largely CDs in those days) swelled. Some artists were fortunate enough to find such a collection could buoy their careers by introducing their music to a larger audience. Sometimes the covers disc eclipsed the sales of the original recordings, as for instance with Sweet Relief – A Benefit for Victoria Williams in 1993, and a subsequent album of Vic Chesnutt’s songs.

It may be some songwriters will be best remembered by such a collection long after they’ve left us, and to further this theory we’d like to look a ways further into the past, about 135 years. This is when an Austrian music publisher, Antonin Diabelli, embarked upon a charity project to benefit the country’s orphans and widows in the wake of the Napoleonic Wars. To create his fundraising publication, Vaterländischer Künstlerverein (“Variations for the Pianoforte on a Given Theme”), he sent a waltz he had written to every A-List composer he knew and asked each to write variations on it. Fifty complied, including Franz Schubert, a now largely-unheard son of Mozart, and a then-twelve-year-old Franz Liszt. And then there was the fifty-first contribution, which came from Ludwig van Beethoven.

At this time, the monumental maestro was working with renewed fervor on the late sonatas (including the epic, finger-twisting twenty-ninth), the late quartets, the Missa Solemnis and that capstone of all works, the Symphony no. 9 in D Minor. His initial reaction was to dismiss the project as beneath his talents, as we know from his description of the piece as Schusterfleck, a German term of derision (literally “Cobbler’s patch”) which compares work to mundane stitching. Beethoven’s secretary and earliest biographer Anton Schindler, fond as he was of exaggerating Beethoven’s accomplishments, claimed he quickly created his thirty-three variations so as to establish his enduring prowess. More likely, Beethoven was promised a princely sum for a set of variations and complied for the cash. Studies of his sketchbooks suggest the variations were not written at one time, contradicting Schindler’s story.

The scale and depth of his set of variations, thirty-three in all, certainly did serve to further his supremacy in Vienna at the time. They were published, along with one each from the fifty other contributors, in 1823. The Diabelli Variations, op. 120, were his last major works for the piano published before his death three years later. And Antonin Diabelli, who likely initiated the project to advance his publishing business, achieved at least part of his goal in establishing the endurance of his name. The work is a favorite among Beethovenians, widely recorded and performed, and even the subject of a Tony-nominated play (33 Variations) produced in 2009.

Famously described by Daniel Barenboim as “thirty-three mutation,” Beethoven takes tiny elements of Diabelli’s melody and expands them. Throughout the series, which hardly strays from its original C-Major setting, Beethoven makes reference to Bach, his own sonatas, and most famously to Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro. Beethoven changes direction in the last several variations, first shifting to the minor and then, in number thirty-two, to the key of E-Flat-Major. This leads to a dramatic flourish which builds to a comfortable return to Diabelli’s key for the brief closing minuet in number thirty-three.

Some pianist, such as Alfred Brendel, have suggested his thirty-three variations were intended as a capstone to the thirty-two sonatas, the last of which had only recently been published. There is also an account of Beethoven having asked Diabelli how many composers had contributed variations to the project, and when told thirty-two said, “I shall write thirty-three myself.”

Owing to how ridiculous thirty-three little track players would be, we’ve posted this recording of Rudolf Serkin performing The Diabelli Variations in two tracks, one for each side of the record. The first track contains numbers 1-19 and the second track contains the remaining eighteen. You’ll have to forgive the noisiness of our this copy of the album, which was recorded from our personal collection.

There’s an interesting story about Serkin himself, who made his debut at seventeen years old while living with the family of German violinist Adolf Busch. Joining his host and others in a performance of one of Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos, young Serkin was asked to play a little encore. As a joke, he suggested that other famous set of variations, Bach’s Goldberg Variations. “I took him seriously,” recounted Serkin, “When I finished there were only four people left — Busch, [pianist] Artur Schnabel, [musicologist] Alfred Einstein and me.”

Here at Hymie’s we’ve always loved the idea of the lesser-known dance craze, and we’re surprised this next dance tune isn’t one you hear on the radio very often anymore. Actually, not so surprised.

Prince’s untimely passing coincided with a program by Warner Brothers to reissue his albums under their license, and as they work their way through his catalog chronologically they’ve hit a stumbling block with Batman, which is not exactly his most popular album anymore. Nevermind that the record was a colossal success when it was released in 1989 — it remains the most un-loved of several orphans in the Prince discography.

How does one do the “Batdance”? We’re not certain, and Prince’s music video for the song really only further confuses the matter. We do know for sure it is not the same as the legendary Batusi, as performed by Adam West.

“Batdance” is one of the most unusual Prince songs to become a hit. The track uses dialogue from the movie and seems entirely spliced together in the style of musique concrète. The album is probably the first (to that point) in Prince’s catalog to age poorly — Batman still feels like a record from 1989 where everything leading up to it has a magical, timeless quality. The record also marks the end of Prince’s paisley, psychedelic era and the dawning of a newer and darker image.

We’re not movie critics (hell, we’re hardly music critics) but the Batman film to which Prince contributed music feels like the only screen adaptation of the dark knight’s story which captures the comic book’s continuing creepiness. Prince, so recently on the national radar for his suggestive lyrics, really captured the weirdness of Tim Burton’s reimagination of the Bruce Wayne story.

So we love Batman because the album makes us feel like kids again. You know, unsure of the future and a little terrified but also curious.

 

A while back we put together a goofy post of lesser-known dance crazes, and today we have another to add to the list: “The Bend”!

We first found it on this 45 by former I Dream of Jeanie star Barbara Eden, but the song was earlier a huge European hit for a group comically named Dave Dee, Doozy, Beaky, Mitch and Tich.

Their recording of “Bend It!” topped the German single chart. The song incorporated the bouzouki sound popularized by Zorba the Greek by using an amplified mandolin. It received little airplay in the United States because the lyrics were considered suggestive, so the band re-recorded it with different lyrics.

Barbara Eden made a few records in the sixties which are campy collector’s items today. Her version of “Bend It!” came with a picture sleeve that had instructions for “The Bend” on the back, so now you can dance along at home!

 

Actually, it’s “Book Sale Day” at our kids’ school, but parachute day was always pretty awesome.

parachute time LP

Bean bag day is fun, too!

bean bag activities

ronnie the robot

You can’t possibly imagine how disappointed we were when this turned out to be an instrumental.

But first, this: the editors of The Star Tribune should be ashamed of today’s front page story about Prince. Their speculation that Prince’s sudden death was due to drug use is based on “unnamed sources” which are clearly the half-brother who sued the rock star several times, and a downright greedy lawyer.

Where the Carver County Sheriff’s office has reminded people that Prince was “a very good neighbor” and declared they will respect his privacy, The Star Tribune has sunk to a new low by placing their unfounded speculations on the front page. Even their own local music writer called the article out as “pitiful.”

Let’s hope that’s the last word on our hometown newspaper, which once again proves to be an embarrassment.

Here’s something from the lighter side of music news:

The Louis Armstrong House Museum has shared with the world rare footage of the legend himself in the recording studio. It was discovered in a warehouse in 2012, and released through the help of his daughter Andrea Bass. One would think there would be more film of Armstrong recording, considering his long and prolific recording career, but there isn’t — making this glimpse into his work all the more valuable to fans.

This was followed by a second discovery which delighted jazz enthusiasts all over the world. In a storage facility in Germany, three metal mothers featuring Armstrong and Duke Ellington and his Orchestra were found. They had been sent by Okeh Records for pressing by Odeon, but for some unknown reason were never used.

The result is magnificently clear sound for the recordings, made in 1928.

The metal mother falls in the middle of the process of 78rpm record production. It is cast from the lacquer first cut, called the master, on a lathe by a skilled engineer as the recording is in progress. These are very delicate and ideally cast as quickly as possible into a form called the matrix, through a process called electrotyping. In brief, the lacquer is dipped in a bath derived from metals, commonly copper or nickel, while an electrical current is passed through.

Thus far we have created one ‘positive’ image of the recording, and one ‘negative’ image. The difference is that the first, the master, could be played back on a phonograph (this would, of course, destroy the soft and delicate lacquer). The matrix, a reverse image of the master, could not be played back on a phonograph.

The third stage is the production of the metal mother, such as the three from 1928 recently discovered in Germany. These are likewise produced by the electrotyping process, but the results are once again a ‘positive’ image of the recording. For 78rpm records, the sound on a metal mother is stunningly clear. There will be none of the familiar frying pan. Engineer Nick Dellow transferred the three recent discovers, and kindly has shared them on Youtube for all the world to enjoy.

If you are curious about the remaining two stages of the process of production, here they are: the metal mother is used to create a new ‘negative’ image of the recording called the stamper. This is the piece used to finally press the records. Several may be made, depending on how many records the label intends to press.

These parts may all be stored, although after some use the stampers must be changed so they are often discarded. Discovering long-lost metal parts may provide an improved recording of recordings from the era. This is what inspires, for instance, the folks who have been scuba diving in the Milwaukee River for years, in hopes of finding metal parts from Paramount Records, the legendary blues label which shut down production in 1935. It has long been thought employees tossed hundreds or more metal mother and other parts into the river. There is a chapter devoted to this in Amanda Petrusich’s great book, Do Not Sell at Any Price.

Fortunately, these newly discovered recordings of Armstrong and Ellington are available for all to enjoy!

Jazz legend Ramsey Lewis will turn eighty-one next month. He has released more albums that we care or count or dare to collect — but we always enjoy playing them. Especially when we come across one we’ve never seen before. One of the great things about his epic discography is that there’s always something awesome to discover.

For nearly a decade he led the Ramsey Lewis Trio, rounded out by the rhythm section of “Red” Holt and Eldee Young. The early albums lean on jazz standards, but they had their pop breakthrough with a cover of “The In Crowd” in 1965. His backing band left, forming Young-Holt Unlimited (whose sound is characterized by this super swingin’ hit). Holt’s replacement, Maurice White later became a founding member of Earth, Wind & Fire. Lewis never held on to a backing rhythm section as long as he had with his first group, but his albums always feature top performers. Young’s replacement, Cleveland Eaton, stayed with Lewis well into his funkiest years.

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Ramsey Lewis had three million-selling mid-sixties hits, pretty unprecedented for a jazz artist. “The In Crowd,” “Hang On Sloopy” and “Wade in the Water” all came from Lps which included jazz standards and sweet arrangements of pop hits. Wade in the Water augments his regular trio with a brass section and is one of our favorite Ramsey Lewis albums.

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Ramsey started playing on a fender rhodes and other electric pianos while he was still recording for the Chess Records jazz-leaning subsidiary Cadet, but he really took on electric keyboards after he started recording for Columbia

them changesOur favorite early electric jams from Ramsey come from Them Changes, which is also unique in being possibly the first album recorded at the club which became First Avenue (it was then the Depot).

When Ramsey left the Chess labels to record for Columbia, he started working with larger groups. Some even included a second pianist.

We came across a copy of his 1973 album Funky Serenity for the first time recently. Ramsey and Eaton (joined by blues drummer Morris Jennings) are in top form on this cover of Luther Ingram’s “If Loving You Is Wrong (I Don’t Want to be Right)”. Funky Serenity has quickly become one of our favorite Ramsey Lewis albums.

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A very popular album from this period is Sun Goddess, which finds Ramsey joined by his old friend Maurice White and some of his Earth, Wind and Fire bandmates. The album was another huge pop hit for Ramsey.

sun goddess

We really wanted to include the funky Spiderman song from Ramsey’s next album, Don’t It Feel Good, but we couldn’t find our copy (our record collection at home isn’t very organized!). You’ll have to check it out from the link.

Ramey Lewis still lives in Chicago, but if you look at his official website you’ll be surprised to find the eighty-year-old still tours extensively. He just finished a four night stand at Washington DC’s Blues Alley last weekend, and next month he’ll be in Seoul, South Korea!

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