I have always loved the old bible story about the three wise men following a star that leads them to a humble manger and the baby inside of it, trusting in wisdom of the universe, written in the language of the stars, to lead them to something far beyond anything they would ever expect. You can really imagine how much improvising, and how much trust, would be needed to start a journey like that, and believe that their humble destination was really what they had been looking for.
For me, Deanna Witkowski and her trio colleagues, Scott Latzky (drums) and Daniel Foose (bass), embody that journey with this jazz arrangement of the beloved hymn, “We Three Kings” from her 2017 album Makes the Heart to Sing. Taking a lead sheet, a basic sketch of the melody written in chord progressions, they go on a musical journey together, trusting their skill and instincts along the way. In their own musical travels across a variety of key areas and rhythmic structures, this modern-day trio reveals its musical treasures to us. The familiar song becomes something extraordinary in the process.
I am a huge fan of Nancy Wilson. The timbre and versatility of her voice is incredible. I love the energy and spirit she brings to this incredibly unique version of this song. “On the Street Where You Live” from the musical My Fair Lady (with music by Frederick Loewe) was originally sung as a ballad by a man, but Nancy Wilson ups the tempo, adds some jazz, and makes it her own!
I’ve got one more anthem for you. Jazz is the most originally American style of music and if there is a jazz tune that everyone identifies with that genre, it is “Take Five”, written by alto sax man Paul Desmond and performed by the Dave Brubeck Quartet.
Originally released in 1959, it was two years later when they re-released the song that it took off and remains the biggest selling jazz single of all time. It has been used in dozens of films, tv shows, theme songs, and remains one of the most played tunes on jazz radio stations.
Influenced by Bulgarian and Turkish street rhythms that they experienced while on a State Department tour of Eurasia, Brubeck and Desmond played with incorporating the 9/8 syncopation and minor keys they heard while overseas. It is sexy, flirty, sultry music, where you can almost see the lights dim, the room fill with smoke, and here the rocks clinking in the cocktail coming your way.
But did you know the song had sultry lyrics to match the tune?
Carmen McRae recorded the 1961 version with the quartet and her dark, edgy sound, gives the song a completely different feel.
Upon his death in 1977, Paul Desmond left the performing rights royalties to “Take Five” and all of his compositions to the American Red Cross. To date, the Red Cross receives approximately $100,000 per year from Mr. Desmond’s bequest.
Here he is, playing that piece which is the signature of what great jazz can be, both the 1959 recording and a groovy live performance from the same era. Sit back, pour a cocktail and ease into your weekend.
Steven Blier is back to curate Song of the Day this week!
November always turns out to be a four-sided deadline crunch: the Juilliard program is due, we’re putting the final touches on next season’s casting and touring dates, the Schubert/Beatles program looms, a fundraiser letter needs to be produced by the end of the weekend. Oh, and I have a dim recollection that Caramoor might be wanting their program information too, but I have decided to play ostrich about that for a few more days because it is certainly not going to get done.
Practicing Rachmaninoff and Zez Confrey has taken over most of my brain cells for the past few months, leaving me just enough room for basic mitochondria. In these times my head can feel as if it is about to explode, and I need soothing music. What soothes me is Italian opera, because it is so familiar, and certain jazz discs—nothing too frenetic, no be-bop. Charlie Haden’s Nocturne is a go-to CD for me: inventive, opulent, calm, medium-to-slow tempos, blessedly simple and heartfelt. It is a pH-restorer, and I recommend that everyone listen to it twice daily as the holidays approach.
Today’s Song of the Day selection comes from New York Times columnist Joe Nocera:
When Native Dancer was first released in 1974, it was marketed as a Wayne Shorter album. That made a certain undeniable sense: an alumnus of one of Miles Davis’s greatest groups (it also included Herbie Hancock, Tony Williams and Ron Carter), Shorter was by then part of the wildly popular jazz fusion band Weather Report. Native Dancer was sold to the jazz-loving public as a Wayne Shorter solo project.
But it wasn’t. Instead, it was the result of a collaboration between Shorter and Milton Nascimento, perhaps the most important of the post-bossa nova Brazilian songwriters, composer of such classics as “Travessia,” “Cais,” and “Ponta de Areia.” Nascimento wrote five of the songs on Native Dancer, and the pianists for the session included not only Hancock but also Nascimento’s long time collaborator and friend, Wagner Tiso. It is fair to say that Native Dancer played the same kind of role in spreading Nascimento’s music beyond Brazil that Stan Getz and Charlie Byrd played with Jobim when they recorded Jazz Samba in 1962—the album that introduced bossa nova to American listeners.
My friend Cliff Korman, a pianist and educator who has lived and played in Brazil for decades, once interviewed Tiso about Native Dancer. Tiso told Korman that Shorter had first heard Nascimento while touring in Brazil with Weather Report, and immediately knew that “he wanted to record that sound.”
Korman also sent me a short excerpt of an interview Shorter himself gave a few years ago to in which he explained what he had in mind with Native Dancer. “The disc is important because it shows how to bring two views of music together without one being subordinated to the other,” he said. “We didn’t want Milton to imitate jazz, and I wouldn’t have been able to imitate Milton. We succeeded in doing something in which each complemented the other.”
The song I’ve chosen is “From The Lonely Afternoons” in part because it shows off so beautifully Nascimento’s haunting ‘Brazilian vocalise,’ as I like to think of it. If you listen to any of Pat Metheny’s classic albums, like Still Life Talking, you can hear Nascimento’s influence in Metheny’s own use of ‘wordless voice-as-instrument.’ In fact, since this is my last day blogging for NYFOS—what a great gig!—as an added bonus, I’ve linked to a video of Nascimento playing “Maria, Maria” with a lineup that included Metheny, Ron Carter and Michael Brecker.
bonus link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WGNgC5sK71E
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