Skip to content

Posts tagged ‘Duke Ellington’

Murakami’s elevator music

Haruki MurakamiOne of the things I love about Haruki Murakami’s fiction is the way he uses music to enrich the narrative: all kinds of music, from Haydn to the Beach Boys via Brenda Lee and Sly Stone. But jazz is his main thing, and my favourite example is probably the appearance in South of the Border, West of the Sun of Duke Ellington’s “The Star Crossed Lovers”, the gorgeous saxophone duet for Johnny Hodges’ alto and Paul Gonsalves’ tenor from Such Sweet Thunder, Duke’s 1957 suite on Shakespearean themes.

That’s just one occasion on which the author clearly allows his choices to reflect his own excellent taste. But in his new collection of short stories, Men Without Women, there’s an amusing twist. The closing story, from which the collection takes its title, centres on a man’s relationship with a woman whose taste in music is completely at variance from the protagonist’s own, or (we presume) Murakami’s. Here’s an extract:

What I remember most about M is how she loved elevator music. Percy Faith, Mantovani, Raymond Lefèvre, Frank Chacksfield, Francis Lai, 101 Strings, Paul Mauriac, Billy Vaughn. She had a kind of predestined affection for this — according to me — harmless music. The angelic strings, the swell of luscious woodwinds, the muted brass, the harp softly stroking your heart. The charming melody that never faltered, the harmonies like candy melting in your mouth, the just-right echo effect in the recording.

I usually listened to rock or blues when I drove. Derek and the Dominos, Otis Redding, the Doors. But M would never let me play any of that. She always carried a paper bag filled with a dozen or so cassettes of elevator music, which she’d play one after the other. We’d drive around aimlessly while she’d quietly hum along to Francis Lai’s “13 Jours en France”. Her lovely, sexy lips with a light trace of lipstick. Anyway, she must have owned ten thousand tapes. And she knew all there was to know about all the innocent music in the world. If there were an Elevator Music Museum, she could have been the head curator.

It was the same when we had sex. She was always playing music in bed. I don’t know how many times I heard Percy Faith’s “A Summer Place” when we were doing it. It’s a little embarrassing to say this, but even now I get pretty aroused when I hear that tune — my breathing ragged, my face flushed. You could scour the world and I bet you’d only find one man — me — who gets horny just listening to the intro to “A Summer Place”. No — maybe her husband does, too.

The thought occurs that, on this occasion, perhaps Murakami actually likes the music for which his protagonist affects disdain. I’m quite fond of “Theme from A Summer Place” myself.

The big bands are back (for a couple of minutes, anyway)

American HustleThe first sound you hear on the soundtrack of David O Russell’s new film American Hustle is that of the Duke Ellington Orchestra playing “Jeep’s Blues” during their historic appearances at the Newport Festival in 1956, and it just about lifted me out of my seat. There’s something about the sound of six brass, five reeds and three rhythm — in this particular case — that no amount of technology can reproduce or match.

I suppose whole generations have grown up without experiencing that sensation. I was lucky enough to see Ellington, Basie and Lionel Hampton leading their full-scale outfits, and a few others besides. The species still exists, if you search for it (I’m no great fan of Jools Holland, but he should certainly be commended for doing his bit in that respect), allowing people to discover what happens when all those instruments start disturbing the air in a room — preferably that of a smallish club.

The Jimmy Heath Big Band is an occasional ensemble led by a tenor saxophonist and composer who would have replaced John Coltrane in the Miles Davis Quintet in 1959 had he not been on parole at the time and not allowed to leave his native Philadelphia, thus preventing him from going on the road with one of the three or four leading small groups of the day. His consolation prize came when Miles recorded his composition “Gingerbread Boy” on the Miles Smiles album a few years later. He is the brother of the late Percy Heath, the bassist with the Modern Jazz Quartet, and the drummer Albert “Tootie” Heath: probably Philadelphia’s greatest musical family.

Heath is now 87; he was a mere 85 when his band recorded their new album, Togetherness, at the Blue Note club in New York City for the JLP label. It features several Heath originals, plus his arrangements of the standard “Lover Man”, Billy Strayhorn’s “A Flower Is a Lovesome Thing”, Dizzy Gillespie’s “Fiesta Mojo” and Charlie Parker’s “Yardbird Suite”, the presence of which reminds us that in his youth, when he was playing alto, Heath was known in Philly as “Little Bird”.

This is music that never attempts to escape the conventions of the type of straightforward modern jazz which emerged from the bebop revolution. Heath arranges as he plays, with a complete understanding and command of that idiom, translating his knowledge to the broader canvas. The sections do exactly what they are supposed to do: they swing, they shout, they purr, and occasionally they whisper. Heath’s “A Sound for Sore Ears” is a terrific opener, and his tender improvisation on “Lover Man” is the highlight of the whole set for me. The other soloists include the trumpeter Roy Hargrove and the altoist Antonio Hart. The double bassist is Peter Washington and the drummer is Lewis Nash, which means that the rhythm section moves on well oiled bearings. This not an album to start a musical revolution, but it’s a reminder of how well the format can still work.

“Jeep’s Blues”, incidentally, is just the first of many pieces of music featured throughout American Hustle — which, as you might already know, is set in the 1970s, that decade beloved of a generation of film directors too young to have experienced it at first hand. Nothing else on the soundtrack — with the possible exception of Steely Dan’s “Dirty Work” — lives up to that great start. But it’s still a very clever and entertaining film.

* The still from American Hustle shows Christian Bale, Amy Adams and Bradley Cooper.

One night in Berlin

Miles in BerlinAt the start of the film of the Berlin concert which forms a bonus DVD to three audio CDs of the recently released Miles Davis Quintet Live in Europe 1969 set, you can’t help being struck by the impassive demeanour of the musicians as they are announced, one by one, to the audience. Jack DeJohnette doesn’t even look up as he fiddles with the placement of a microphone boom over one of his cymbals. Dave Holland, the young Englishman, is expressionless as he adjusts his double bass. Chick Corea reaches out his left hand to twist a knob above the keyboard of his Fender-Rhodes piano. Wayne Shorter licks his mouthpiece and stares into the middle distance. Meanwhile Miles has already prowled on to the stage, clearly not caring that the spontaneous wave of applause for his arrival has disrupted the MC’s scene-setting introductions. From none of the musicians comes even the tiniest acknowledgement of the audience’s welcome. This is how far the influence of Miles’s own super-cool on-stage deportment had spread, to men a generation younger than him (and, in the case of Corea and Holland, with naturally outgoing temperaments); he, in turn, is taking his wardrobe cues from them.

None of that stops it being a great concert, of course — or half a concert, in fact, since Miles’s group were sharing the bill at that night’s concert with Stan Kenton. You might think it an unlikely combination, even by the eclectic standards of the Berliner Jazztage, and that was how the 2,400-strong audience saw it, too. I remember half of them vociferously expressing their dissatisfaction with Kenton’s set, while those who acclaimed Kenton were clearly disconcerted by what Miles was up to (although their presence can be detected in the film only in the shot of some listeners frowning and shaking their heads as the camera scans the audience while the band leaves the stage). This intolerance was typical of Berlin audiences of the time and seemed particularly impolite since the whole festival, including that evening’s performances, had been dedicated in advance to Duke Ellington, who was due to appear at the same venue the following night in a concert scheduled in celebration of his 70th birthday.

It was my first exposure to Miles in person, and I certainly wasn’t disappointed. Urged on by sidemen who were leading him to the frontier of free jazz, he was spellbinding. Less than a year later, as he veered away from freedom towards an engagement with funk, he would be wanting his musicians to anchor the beat in a much more explicit way. But this was enthralling, a  freewheeling post-In a Silent Way, pre-Bitches Brew journey into abstraction, with a gorgeously oblique version of “I Fall in Love Too Easily” to seduce even those scandalised by the black shirt, trousers and leather waistcoat and the orange and gold scarf in which he took the stage, an outfit to match his black and orange trumpet.

Poor Kenton suffered far worse from the hecklers. He was booed even before he started, and later confessed that the experience had given him a sleepless night. Conducting the specially assembled Berlin Dream Band, a 19-strong multinational emsemble which included the trumpeter Carmell Jones, the trombonists Ake Persson and Jiggs Whigham and the alto saxophonist Leo Wright, he ran through a series of his best known pieces: “Artistry in Rhythm”, “Intermission Riff”, “The Peanut Vendor” and so on. Towards the end, however, he gestured the band to stand down as he performed his personal homage to Ellington, a five-minute variation on “Take the ‘A’ Train” delivered with such sincerity of emotion that the dissenters were temporarily silenced.

From the point of view of the audience’s divided reaction, it was one of the most bizarre concerts I’ve ever attended. The festival’s director, the late Jo Berendt, a man of broad vision and catholic taste, was intensely embarrassed. The following night, however, Ellington took the stage at the head of a band including Cootie Williams, Lawrence Brown, Johnny Hodges, Paul Gonsalves and Harry Carney, and harmony was restored.