Saturday, September 20, 2014

Jazz music buyer meets very strong algorithms

Over the years, I've purchased a bunch of CD’s on Amazon, including a few box sets and such from Tony Bennett. Right around the time we bought tickets to see Tony Bennett in concert in Nashville this December, Amazon started flashing me with a Tony Bennett Lady Gaga duets album pop-up. It was relentless. They really wanted me to pre-order this record, but, having never listened to Lady Gaga and not being all the enamored of a young woman who never shows her own face and wears meat dresses, I told myself that no matter how much I liked Tony Bennett, his recording with Lady G was one I was going to pass on.

Still the popups came. It didn't matter if I was shopping for books, music, salt shakers, saxophone reeds, cheesecloth, pineapple corers, sheet music, silver polish, a hand ax, Roomba parts, super glue, or protein powder. As sure as I was going to check the box for “checkout”, Tony and Lady were going to bounce up to tell me, “Eric, new for you!” It wasn't new. And frankly, an 88-year old guy with makeup by himself is not disconcerting, and a 28-year old pop star with a curly black wig and makeup is not disturbing, but together, staring at you, calling you by name, it is disconcerting, disturbing, and downright scary. For months, this went on, but as the sale date of the recording approached, Amazon figured they had given it their best shot, and eventually, the popups stopped.
Sometimes they just send me an email. You know, maybe I missed the popup or something.
Then came a Wall Street Journal article about the recording, together with an interview with Lady Gaga. It talked about how it came to be that Lady Gaga sings jazz, not only with Tony Bennett, but also that she wants to release at least one solo jazz album every year “forever”. It talked about the odd pairing of the two, how Tony ended up wearing different performance outfits, and how Lady Gaga was able to tap into some previously unheard part of herself, thanks entirely to Tony Bennett’s encouragement. Suddenly, everything made sense. I shared the article with Mrs. S who just asked, “So, are you going to buy the CD?” Of course, the answer was ‘yes’. I pre-ordered the CD. Amazon knew exactly what I wanted before I even knew I wanted it. In fact, they knew I wanted it, before I even really understood what it was. Some would say that is scarier than the faces on the popups. I, however, am oddly relieved to know a company can generate a computer program that knows me and my intentions better than I do. I’m almost happy about it. No, I AM happy about it!

From now on, if I have any question about anything in my life, I think I will just ask Amazon.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Something new for a change

Because of my position as an influential (?) writer about jazz, I occasionally get promotional materials and notices from jazz musicians, agents and music companies asking me to let my readers know about their latest musician, song, band, or whatever. When I first started blogging, I was very accommodating and was generally quite diligent about writing up what they let me know about. For some reason, however, at some point, I got away from doing that with any regularity.

Well, now I’m getting back to it, starting with Marcus Goldhaber.

Photo courtesy of Marcus Goldhaber and Randex Communications
Truth be told, I've had my eye on this guy for about two years now, as he was performing in New York close to when I visited there and I had a bunch of jazz clubs on my radar. I've always liked his voice and he usually has a great set of musicians behind him, sometimes some really big names. Of course, he’s also a composer and the musicality of his original tunes is as good as anybody in jazz right now. But what’s really appealing about Mr. Goldhaber’s latest offering, “A Lovely Way to Spend an Evening”, is that he mixes in five original songs with seven standards that are not performed as often as they should be. The mix is dynamic and gives Mr. Goldhaber ample opportunity to display his chops. Is just as pleasant a listening experience as male vocal jazz gets.

That said, what really puts this recording over the top for me is the backing musicians, and especially, the pianist. (Yes, I’m a pianist, so I’m biased.) Jon Davis (who co-arranged with Mr. Goldhaber) has a light touch on the piano, with a quick turn of phrase or chord voicing to relieve or boost the sentimentality, whichever and whenever needed. Mr. Davis also has a critical role in bringing cohesiveness with two different bassists and drummers. Even so, he’s always able to hint at relaxation without becoming lounge-ified. This is exemplified in the middle tracks of “No Moon At All”, where the piano takes second stage to the bass, but pushes the song right back to a bluesy stroll when he gets his solo, which is then followed by the Irving Berlin classic “Top Hat, White Tie and Tails”, taken at a mellow pace with the piano right out front. I’m in awe of Mr. Davis, but I applaud Mr. Goldhaber for picking him to work on these tracks. It all just works.

The recording comes out on October 14. If you’re looking for some good male vocal jazz that sounds original both in compositions and performance, put  “A Lovely Way to Spend an Evening” on your shopping list. It’s worth the price of admission.

Monday, September 1, 2014

A look at Ralph Ellison looking at jazz

I’m not sure how I could have gotten through an upright American Catholic high school, and then have spent 21 years in seven different schools getting a bachelor’s degree in business and never have read one of America’s greatest writers of the 20th century, Ralph Waldo Ellison. I’m sure some sort of black white thing played into it, but whatever, you can just put him in the pile of things, along with jazz, that took me forty or more years to discover, but aren’t we glad I finally did.

What led me to Ellison was the Ken Burns documentary on jazz, which excerpted some of his essays on the subject of America’s music. No surprise to learn also that Ellison stopped focusing on music to start focusing on writing. That, too, has many parallels, as an ear for language certainly can and often does breed an ear for music, and vice versa.
Ellison wrote A LOT. This 860 page anthology is just a "small" sampling of his work.
Having gotten through the first part of the anthology, where the antiquated word “Negro” appears about seven thousand times in 200 pages, I’m now in the heart of a chunk of essays about music, musicians, singers, and jazz. I’m enjoying it much more than the Negro bits. Don’t get me wrong. I’ve enjoyed everything I’ve read, and I’m learning a lot about black American culture in the 1940’s and 50’s. It’s just tiring to me. (Maybe that’s why they don’t teach it in high school?)

Ellison is a fascinating and incredibly insightful writer, and he has a turn of phrase about him that is unique, as if he developed it and practiced it, just like some technique on a sax or trumpet. Here’s a small sample:
I tell you this to point out that although there were no incentives to write, there was ample opportunity to receive an artistic discipline. Indeed, once one picked up an instrument it was difficult to escape. If you chafed at the many rehearsals of the school band or orchestra and were drawn to the small jazz groups, you were likely to discover that the jazzmen were apt to rehearse far more than the school band; it was only that they seemed to enjoy themselves more, and to possess a freedom of imagination which we were denied at school.
Labor Day is a godsend to me. I shall spend the day playing the piano and reading Ellison. I think those two activities will make me feel pretty good about not working today.