Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Day 24: "piano GRAND! a SMITHSONIAN celebration" and The Big Band All Stars "A Tribute to Harry James"

When you're a musician, there is a part of you that silently judges other people's music selections. When you work at a record store, there's an even bigger part of you that slightly less silently judges other people's music collections.

This isn't always negative, though some of my friends might disagree. It just sort of becomes automatic. "Oh, that's what they're into." Your opinion of 'what they're into' is shaped by your opinions of the artists selected as musicians, or what they do, or the other people who would come in and buy those CDs. Even if you had the bland kind of CD collection that would appear on the packaging for CD racks, there is something that can be said about you in the music you select. I can't tell if you're going to be successful or are a sensitive lover (though, and this is true even without any relevant facts that would make this make sense, I did on one occasion accuse the Brawny Man of listening to U2 just to score chicks...), but despite what people desperately want to believe, their tastes in music aren't all that unique and they have a lot in common with other people who have made similar choices.

I'm not going to try and pretend I know why this is. I know the principles that go into how people like music, it's not a mystery. It's what makes Pandora so successful. But when you're around music and catering to other people's musical tastes, eventually you judge. It happens. It's why there are groups of friends of mine who won't let me near their iPods.

I try and comfort them and tell them that if they had my exact collection it would be the same. Except that my collection was only partially selected, and in not any way carefully. As I have started to go through these, I've started to wonder what my judgment would be of this collection and how it matches up with my actual perception of my musical tastes. I think this as I get prepared to put yet another big band selection onto the hard drive, of an artist I've never really been that into or even like that much.

What I'm realizing, to my slight horror, is that the nature of how this collection came about puts my collection closer to the aforementioned CD rack case box than it does of a connoisseur of music.

Lets get to that box cover...

Various Artists
Piano Grand: Smithsonian Celebration
I have a complex relationship with the piano. On one hand, I hold it at least partially responsible for me ultimately forgoing my planned career as a musician, because for the life of me I could not play it even remotely well. The added frustration was listening to people pound away at it with little real knowledge of what they were doing and sounding just fine and not having the slightest problem with it. While it could be argued that this is exactly what I did on the saxophone, I have no empathy.

Plus, outside of perhaps the lead violin player, there probably is no more pretentious performer than the piano player. These arrogant dill weeds waltz around like they own the place, every place. They're the only musicians who can reasonably expect the venue to have an instrument for them, and then scorn the instrument, which costs as much as a car, as 'not to their liking.' Someone else tunes it, moves it, polishes it, and then these prima donnas stroll in, sniff, and then 'grace' us with their machinations and stride out while the rest of us clean and pack our own instruments.

And then their 'big' instrument gets to have 'grand' in the title. I mean, come on.

And the way we do music is catered to their 'center of the universe' attitude, the staffing, scales, the way we do keys are all in relation to the damn piano. Composers are iconically depicted slumped over the piano scratching away at their scores.

It's a piano's world, and the rest of us are just living in it...and they don't need us anyway. You don't hear about saxophone bars. No, when we play alone it's out in the streets with our hats on the dirty sidewalk hoping you'll drop those quarters you didn't want from your freshly bought coffee, if you're not too wrapped up in the romantic kiss I just provided the soundtrack're welcome, by the way.

But, through all that, dammit...the piano can be pretty cool. And hey, it's the center piece of Western music, so that's something.

So now I apparently have this cheesily packaged celebration of the piano, as if they needed more justification for their attitude.

So far, there have been three stages of my understanding of what this CD was. First, a compilation of some studio musician playing through music everyone associates with the piano from classical to Billy Joel.

Nope, that's actually Billy Joel...okay, it's a compilation of original recordings of pieces that center around the piano.

Close, but no. It's a live concert recording with the Smithsonian chamber orchestra and a small all-star cast of piano folk to celebrate this instrument. Apparently they were able to fit that many piano players, their egos, and an audience into a concert hall.

The songs play one right after the other bridged by applause and no announcements. Billy Joel wraps up Baby Grand as the opener and then right into Robert Levin performing the third movement of Beethoven's Concerto No. 5 in E-Flat (followed somewhat comically by an audience member shouting "BRAVO!" before the applause). I don't know if this is careful and clever editing by the engineers or if the concert really did flow this smoothly from one performer to the next. If the latter, the stage manager of this event deserves a medal.

They've apparently decided to stack the classical up front (aside from the Billy Joel opener) and then slowly glide into more contemporary popular piano pieces.

We've gone from classical canon, through Gershwin, to that awkward forced juxtaposition between jazz and classical that piano players try and do eventually. It's all those years of doing studies and exercises and memorizing classical pieces - when they finally 'rebel' and become jazz artists they eventually come back to all that foundation. I'm sure it starts out innocently enough. They're noodling at the piano and muscle memory finds them doing that stupid piece that they had to do at their 4th grade recital. But then they start to swing it, just for fun. And may throw in an improvised line or two. Up to now, we're fine. This will happen from time to time. But then they start thinking, "Man, Bach was a hip cat, we should do jazz versions of his stuff, I mean, there's improvisation in baroque music." And usually, that's where it all goes awry. It's rarely, if ever, two great tastes that taste great together.

I'm not saying it's always wrong. I'm a huge fan of Uri Caine, and sometimes it can sound cool. This wasn't so bad, in fact, though I apparently typed scorn all the way through it. But often, it's just...awful.

Now it's on to the pianist who probably most successfully brought all those years of classical exercise to jazz, Dave Brubeck. No surprises here, I got into Brubeck because of Paul Desmond, so without Desmond I'm not as into him, but credit where credit is due, he bridges that divide really well. He's doing a piece called Thank You (Dziekuje) of which I know nothing about, but it sounds like one of those things piano players play in a large room they are pretending is empty so some chick in a sleek evening dress will swoon when they pretend that they just noticed them there.

Nope, haven't gotten over my piano thing yet by the eighth track.

Diana Krall had a huge bump in the 90s and rode the height of the 'piano crooner' re-birth started arguably by Harry Connick Jr. Her CDs were one of the jazz sections only big sellers. I wouldn't be surprised if her success helped prompt the idea for this concert, even though her trio only appears on the one track, Let's Fall in Love.

All things considered, this is a pretty well programed concert for its intentions. We were eased out of the classical piano selections, bridged through some solo piano interpretations that were each by steps a little jazzier until we reached Krall's rendition of a standard, now a little more upbeat progressive jazz piano number which will apparently set us up for Jerry Lee Lewis. Man, I actually really dug Eliane Elias' The Time is Now.

Now it's time for the only two songs I probably could come up with if asked to name Jerry Lee Lewis songs. Of course since he does back to back songs, Lewis breaks that no commentary thing transitioning from Whole Lotta Shakin' to Great Balls of Fire.

Alright, no cheating, no looking. Take a guess. It's a big tribute to the piano...what do you think they're going to end it with. One guess. No peaking.

Yep, Piano Man. I have to admit, deep down, I kind of like this song. Not something I admit lightly. I spent some time on the road last year in my radio-less VW Bus trying to remember all the characters that people this song with my companion. After two weeks on the road without a stereo, it was the only middle ground we could come up with, musically speaking, and we both needed something.

But this song, of course, underlines what I've been saying about piano players. "The manager gives me a smile because he knows it's me they're coming to see", "the piano sounds like a carnival", "they put bread in my jar and say 'man, what are you doing here?'"


The Big Band All Stars
Tribute to Harry James
To someone who might have no concept of big band music, this might actually be exactly what big band music is.

Harry James was hugely popular in his time, and some of the music that he is known for is music that you would recognize the instant you heard it.

So why does all this important music produce yawns? Well, perhaps yawns are unfair, but it's not springing me to life, either.

As big band music goes, this stuff is strictly ballroom. Not to channel an 'inner hipster' here, but often the stuff that is popular in its time isn't really the best music of its time. Especially if you add into it the complicated pre-World War II (and post, for that matter) racial issues of what is essentially a 'black artform' in an essentially 'white man's world.'

This is no reflection on James himself or his character. I have literally no idea about him personally. But he was a white band leader at a time when black musicians entered through the back door.  I don't know if the telescope of time has either decided that his music had been covered, what with him being one of the most popular band leaders of his time, or that he just isn't as interesting as the others of his time. Certainly other white band leaders don't have that sheen of fluff that he has - Kenton (whom I was a little blah on, though), Woody Herman,  Benny Goodman, etc. With all of those in consideration, I can't help but think of James as almost generic brand big band.

Which is totally unfair. He's iconic. But when I'm reaching for a big band CD, James wouldn't even come to mind unless I was providing 'authentic period ballroom/dancehall' music because Earl "Fatha" Hines wasn't likely to be playing in 'finer' establishments.

And this recording isn't even James' himself or his band. It's the mysteriously named "Big Band All Stars." I have no idea who makes up the all stars. The liner notes are a goner so they're no help. Amazon doesn't have samples even, much less info on who these guys are. They apparently have a few other albums including a tribute to Tommy Dorsey (I may have that, actually), but no other information. Amazon even punted and tried to insist that other people who looked at Harry James also looked at Let's Go Bowling. I'm sure it's only a coincidence that I did a Let's Go Bowling CD not too long ago and not at all a cookie of some sort I picked up...

This might be the shortest 'full length' CD so far at just over half an hour.

I'm not sure who buys this CD. I guess someone who needed a sample of Harry James for his growing pretentious 'library' style collection.

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