The nearest star to our Earth is Proxima Centauri, a mere four and a quarter light years away. A journey of 2,000 light years would take one near Keplar 76b, a planet one and a half times the size of Jupiter.
Since 1995 hundreds of exoplanets have been discovered, but nearly all are like Kelpar 76b, gas giants sometimes called “hot Jupiters” because of their similarity to our neighbor. Most are also believed to be in single-planet systems, which is the case for Keplar 76b.
Another record which has been ‘doing time’ in our storage space is this Dizzy Gillespie compilation, which we can’t really put out in the shop because one of its two LPs is missing. In these cases we sometimes keep the albums in the unlikely hope we’ll find that missing album (this has happened) or that (more likely) we’ll find a second copy missing the other LP.
Other times the half-complete double albums are put in with all the other free records we offer every year at our block party in April. And some, like this, we keep around. This is an album where the liner notes are pretty interesting in and of themselves.
The nice folks at the Smithsonian Institute had a history of making records even before the Folkways label was bequeathed to them in 1987. The Asch family donated the label founded by Moses Asch in 1948, and given to our national museum on the condition its couple thousand titles remain in print.
This enormous influx of new material more or less buried the original Smithsonian Collection label, which was a program in the Institute’s Division of Public Art, itself part of the Institute’s Office of Public Service. Columbia Records produced the actual records through their Columbia Special Products division, which also included other educational material and, for a time, the Sesame Street catalog. Its catalog of classic jazz compilations — notably in 1973 The Smithsonian Collection of Classic Jazz, a six-LP box set which became a surprise success — and American recordings of the standard classical repertoire receive little of the attention today given to the Smithsonian Folkways label.
This Gillespie retrospective is one of our favorite albums in the Smithsonian’s jazz series, along with the absolutely essential Fletcher Henderson compilation Developing an American Orchestra. If you came across this set in the new arrivals bin of your favorite record store in 1976, you saw a pretty familiar image of Diz on the cover, although he is not playing his distinctively bent trumpet (an instrument which he donated to the Smithsonian in 1985, by the way). Inside, however, are recordings from the first half of the forties which provide a very different picture of the young man who would become a founder of modern jazz.
The collection includes recordings like “Pickin the Cabbage,” a song Gillespie wrote and arranged for Cab Calloway’s Orchestra in 1940, when he was twenty-three years old. Martin Williams, who also compiled the Smithsonian Collection of Classic Jazz, deliberately left out Diz’s early recordings with Charlie Parker because he notes that “they have often been collected and reissued and, more important, Parker’s brilliance has sometimes clouded the issue of Gillespie’s own.” This was very true in the seventies, when Bird retrospectives were all the rage and again today — a surprising portion of Gillespie’s recorded works are currently out of print.
Diz’s legacy is heavily in his role in early bebop and also the establishment of Afro-Cuban jazz in the United States, but so much of his work was also in the big band arena. This compilation (at least the one LP we have to hear) represents some of his earliest experiences working in that setting. In a particularly remarkable example of the evolution of jazz, his own big bands and smaller combos would later include musicians such as John Coltrane, Lalo Schifrin, James Moody and Yusef Lateef.
Its inspiring that so much of this American tradition is well-preserved on records and CDs. We’d really like to see more of Diz’s records in print since we’re obviously huge fans (having posted him here and here and here, for instance). This is one of the things that makes working in a record store rewarding. Now if only we could find the second LP to this set…
The opening of this highly praised 1961 album by Stan Getz and Eddie Sauter is named for a phrase uttered by the White Rabbit, the first of many anthropomorphic creatures in Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland. In the novel he actually saying, “Oh dear, oh dear, I shall be too late.”
In Disney’s adaptation of the story, the Rabbit famously says, “I’m late, I’m late, a very important date.”
The record itself is a through-the-rabbit-hole adventure in jazz, unlike any other previous album. Getz commissioned Sauter to arrange a series of pieces for strings with which he would perform. The arrangement contain no part for the tenor saxophone, only opening in which he could improvise. “I’m Late, I’m Late” is the only to feature an additional jazz musician, drummer Roy Haynes, who adds to the frantic feel of the recording.
Sauter derived the opening passage in “I’m Late, I’m Late” from a theme Bela Bartok’s 1936 composition Music for Strings, Percussion and Celeste (if you skip to the second movement in this performance you’ll hear it). The two first met when Sauter was working for Benny Goodman at the time Bartok was commissioned to compose Contrasts in 1938.
Goodman made his debut as a classical performer in early 1941, first performing Debussy’s Rhapsody for Clarinet and Piano with Bartok, and then, adding violinist Joseph Szigeti, Contrasts. This is the around the same time Goodman first recorded Sauter’s “Clarinet ala King” and “Benny Rides Again.” He may have taken the title for the second from Buck Benny Rides Again, a Jack Benny comedy released the previous year. And suddenly, we’re down the rabbit hole…
“I’m Late, I’m Late” has a rush hour feel suited to a Monday morning in January. And with that we need to get moving because there’s a lot to do in the record shop before opening up this morning!
Etta James recorded “God’s Song” by Randy Newman year after he released it himself on Sail Away. Her own album of 1973, self-titled and sheafed in plain black, was another attempt by Chess to re-cast her image. Gabriel Mekler was enlisted to produce a heavier sound along the lines of records he’d helmed for Three Dog Night and Steppenwolf, and the song selection turned towards weightier subjects. Etta James also included the title track from Sail Away. and an weary cover of Tracy Nelson’s “Down So Low.”
Her cover of “God’s Song” (incidentally later also recorded by Nelson on her own Homemade Songs) isn’t just the album’s highlight, its the highlight of James’ seventies output. Drawing darkly on the pain in her gospel roots — as a young child she was physically abused by the musical director of the Echoes of Eden Choir in Los Angeles’ St. Paul’s Baptist Church, as well as forced to sing by a foster father — her reading of Newman’s satire is almost salaciously snarling.
There are places in the world where speaking satirically in the voice of God would warrant a death sentence. Author Salman Rushdie famously learned this after the publication of The Satanic Verses in 1988, and the fatwā calling for his assassination still stands in Iran, including a bounty of more than $2.5 million for his murder. It is no coincidence this subject is on our minds as tomorrow is the second anniversary of the terrorist attack on Charlie Hedbo, in which twelve were killed and eleven injured in a retaliation for the satirical weekly’s publication of cartoon images of Muhammad. Rushdie was one of the millions who said “Je Suis Charlie” in response to efforts to suppress speech through fear, telling Time magazine that satire “has always been a force for liberty and against tyranny, dishonesty and stupidity.”
Randy Newman likely faced less fear after the release of Sail Away, at least in part because in context “God’s Song” came across as more light-hearted humor. After all, the album opens with an enthusiastic entreaty to Africans to join the Atlantic slave trade (“You’ll just sing about Jesus and drink wine all day / It’s great to be an American”) and the second side starts with a suggestion that we “drop the big one and see what happens.” Fortunately, our leaders today would never speak (or tweet) so glibly about something so grim.
On the surface “God’s Song” walks the line of blasphemy by purporting to speak for the Lord, but underneath it forces us here in the first world to confront our own indifference to suffering, as God says in the third verse:
I recoil in horror from the foulness of thee From the squalor and the filth and the misery
Newman’s God returns a sardonic refrain of “That’s why I love mankind” each time he is praised for the suffering he has caused. In the same, the world westerners saw in ’72 was praised for its perceived respect for our success. An alternate reading of “God’s Song” shifts the focus of Newman’s satire from the religious to his favorite subject: the emptiness of American affluence.
At the time Newman wrote the song, the western world was confronted with images of famine from Bangladesh and Cambodia, today replaced by suffering in new parts of the world. Consider how much was written about five-year-old Omran Daqneesh, the Syrian boy whose image pulled from a Youtube video posted by the Aleppo Media Center, and that in the United States this reporting, as in this NRP story, has been about the purported power of media imagery rather than proposed solutions to the Syrian war.
We’re no different from other victims of Newman’s wit in that we have no solutions to offer. Fortunately no one is looking to a neighborhood record store to solve such an enormous crisis. We really just know a lot of stuff about records, and even that we’re still learning. One thing for sure is that the lack of leadership we see each day in the newspaper leaves us heartbroken and worried, and that we fear the world’s turn towards “tyranny, dishonest and stupidity.”
Tuesday’s post featured the love theme from The Empire Strikes Back and contained the age-old allegation that film composer John Williams is somewhat of a scoundrel when it comes to crediting his inspirations. “Han Solo and the Princess” is undeniably derived from Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto in D Major, first published in 1878 and debuted three years later under unfortunately auspicious circumstances.
Today, the work is considered the capstone of the nineteenth century’s quartet of immortal violin concertos, following in the footsteps of Beethoven (1806), Mendelssohn (1844) and Brahms (1878). It should be noted that the dedicatee of Brahms’ Violin Concerto, Joseph Joachim, added to this list as “the richest, the most seductive,” the Violin Concerto in G Minor written by Max Bruch and debuted in 1866. And this addition should call all the more attention to the fact that, in the words of that Sesame Street classic, “one of these is not like the others.” Tchaikovsky the Slav’s entrance into this elite circle of Teutonic titans was a slow and unsteady transition.
All this is apparent in an early and widely disseminated review of the debut of Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto, written by Brahms’ close friend Eduard Hanslick, who suggested the audience had been put through “hell” by the performance. In its most famous line, Hanslick callously claims “Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto brings us for the first time to the horrid idea that there may be music which stinks to the ear.”
We cannot imagine how Hanslick’s savage words struck the famously thin-skinned composer. The Concerto had already scarred him enough, having been rejected by its original dedicatee in an unfortunate and public rebuff which forced the cancellation of the planned debut in March of 1879. In an interview decades later, Leopold Auer denied he dismissed the Concerto as unplayable, but does admit returning to Tchaikovsky a number of edits which addressed “passages which were not suited to the instrument.” Although Tchaikovsky deeply admired Auer, it was published without his alterations, and debuted by a far less famous violinist, Adolph Brodsky.
Leopold Auer eventually did perform the Violin Concerto, but retained the changes he suggested to Tchaikovsky in 1878. Whether the composer ever saw such a performance is uncertain, but Auer claims in the same 1912 interview that he “received absolution” from Tchaikovsky before his death. By that time, of course, the work had already begun to enjoy its acceptance in the European repertoire in spite of the poor reviews of its debut.
Critics can be shocking biased, as in the case of Hanslick’s claim the last movement of Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto was “odorously Russian.” The UK’s Daily Telegraph, a hundred years later, ran a review of The Empire Strikes Back by a critic who admitted he hadn’t even seen the first film. Unsurprisingly, all of the Star Wars series’ substance is lost on Eric Shorter, who found the film “devoid of feeling.” It seems a given he didn’t understand the suffering of Chewbacca, who Shorter describes as a “grotesque animal,” as he watches Han Solo lowered into the carbon freezing chamber. At that moment his anguished cry is expressive in a way that words, and even music, can’t so readily express. For all his might the Wookie is helpless to stop the world around him from going to hell.
Shorter’s disconnect from the film’s characters was not uniquely British. In The New York Times, for instance, Vincent Canby claimed “The Empire Strikes Back is about as personal as a Christmas card from the bank.” The Shorter review of the film suggests a bias against science fiction in spirit with Hanslick’s hostility to the forward-facing music of his time, which he dismissed as “music of the future” in an twisted paraphrase of Richard Wagner’s 1860 essay. Hanslick wrote a cold review of Lohengrin and never warmed to Wagner’s enormous big-idea productions, which the composer collected under the concept of gesamtkunstwerk.
Wagner’s vision of a “complete work of art” to encompass theater, music and poetry was realized in the epic Ring of Nebelungen operas, the first opera of which just enjoyed a well-received run at the Minnesota Opera last month. Many people have drawn parallels between Wagner’s gesamtkunstwerk and modern cinema. This would surely be lost on Hanslick just as was the larger story arc of Star Wars, with its triumph of the individual spirit over technology, misunderstood by Eric Shorter. At the time of their dismissive reviews, both critics were themselves relics, fast becoming left behind.
The acceptance of Tchaikovsky into the western canon is still controversial at times, as we touched on here early this year when composer and conductor Pierre Boulez passed away. There remains a perception of Tchaikovsky as an outsider, music for the masses neither European nor Slavic, just as there remains a perception of Star Wars as popcorn-peddling fare without substance.
The Violin Concerto has been widely recorded by many of the modern virtuosos, including very different interpretations by Jascha Heifetz and Fritz Kreisler recorded in the 1930s. We recently came across this excellent recording featuring Uto Ughi, who is still a popular conductor in his native Italy, where he is known for his efforts to encourage more people to discover classical music.