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Song of the Day: November 6

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​

Song of the Day: November 5

Today’s Song of the Day selection comes from New York Times columnist Joe Nocera:

If you read my final New York Times op-ed column on Tuesday, you know that it drives me batty that American’s greatest opera company won’t perform America’s greatest opera. It has been nearly a quarter of a century since the Metropolitan Opera last put on a production of Porgy and Bess. Am I the only one who finds this shameful?

Let’s talk first about the opera itself. It should hardly be necessary to make the case for one of the finest examples of American art to be produced in the last century. But let’s make it anyway. Its creation was a small miracle: three white men, George and Ira Gershwin, and DuBose Hayward—two of whom had never lived in the south—wrote an astonishingly empathetic portrayal of a poor black community in South Carolina—Catfish Row, they called it—in the decades before the dawn of the civil rights movement. Its songs—including “Summertime”, “It Ain’t Necessarily So”, and “I Got Plenty of Nothin’”—are some of Gershwin’s finest, and are central to our nation’s music.

It is also a fine piece of theater; no less an authority than Steve Blier once said that it “ranks with Puccini in terms of crafting great melodies and great theater.” If you saw the tepid Broadway revival of Porgy and Bess a few years back and think you saw the real thing, think again. Performed as the Gershwins and Hayward originally intended—as an operaPorgy and Bess has a power that no musical theater bastardization (and there have been plenty of them) can match.

Now let’s talk about the Met. One hears constantly that opera—and the Met—need a more diverse and younger audience.  The Met has also faced large financial deficits in recently years, which, says Alex Ross of The New Yorker, has caused Peter Gelb, the Met’s general manager, to “play it safe” this season instead of trying adventurous new operas or productions. It is true that Porgy and Bess requires a large all-black chorus, which would be expensive. And it’s also true that the Gershwin estate can be difficult to deal with. But figuring out how to tackle both those challenges is Peter Gelb’s job. With its mostly black cast, its recognizable songs, and it thrilling theatricality, Porgy and Bess could well bring in that younger and more diverse audience. It might even make a buck or two.

For anyone in Chicago between now and December 20, Porgy and Bess is being performed by the Lyric Opera of Chicago, with Eric Owens in the title role.  For the rest of us, there is the 1976 Houston Grand Opera’s Porgy and Bess directly by Jack O’Brien, which ranks as perhaps the finest production ever. Here is Donnie Ray Albert and Clamma Dale from that producing singing my favorite song from the opera, “Bess, You Is My Woman Now.”


Song of the Day: November 4

Today’s Song of the Day selection comes from New York Times columnist Joe Nocera:

It is not exactly news that Adam Guettel is a composer of immense talent.  The grandson of Richard Rodgers (one is required to note that when writing about Guettel), he has a transcendent melodic gift, and has written more than his fair share of gorgeous theater songs.

Alas, Guettel, at 50, has had only three shows produced: “Floyd Collins,” first performed at Playwright’s Horizons in 1996; “Saturn Returns,” a song cycle put on by the Public Theater in 1998; and “The Light in the Piazza,” the 2005 musical that won him a Tony for best score.  (One hears that Guettel has had bad luck over the years with shows that never made it to the stage.  How one longs to be able to hear all that unheard music!)

“Floyd Collins” never really got much of a chance in New York; my Times colleague Ben Brantley didn’t much like it, and it closed after 25 performances.  But it has long since become a cult favorite among theater cognoscenti, and with good reason.  It takes what would seem to be an unpromising premise and turns it into something beautiful.

Floyd Collins was a real person—a Kentucky cave explorer whose foot became trapped in a narrow crawl space underground in 1925.  He lived for two weeks, stuck in that spot, as rescue workers frantically tried to get him out.  It was one of the country’s first media circuses, which Guettel and his co-writer (and director) Tina Landau capture with both humor and horror.

More than that, it is a meditation on family, and on death.  In “How Glory Goes,” the show’s last—and finest—song, Floyd accepts that death is imminent and asks the Lord what heaven is like: “Is it endless and empty and you wander on your own….or does rising bread fill up the air from open kitchens everywhere?”  I saw “Floyd Collins” at Chicago’s Goodman Theater in 1999, and I’ll never forget the sight of people so moved by “How Glory Goes” that they openly wept as they left the theater.  I was one of them.

Although the song has been recorded by Audra McDonald and Kelli O’Hara, among others, I contend that it has never been sung better than by the original Floyd, Christopher Innvar.  Here is “How Glory Goes,” from the Floyd Collins cast album:

Song of the Day: November 3

Today’s Song of the Day selection comes from New York Times columnist Joe Nocera:

On March 7, 1965, Louis Armstrong was in Denmark, where he watched in horror the televised images of civil rights marchers in Selma being brutally attacked by police. When Danish reporters asked Armstrong for his reaction, he said angrily that he had become “physically ill” watching the beatings, and added, “They would beat Jesus if he was black and marched.”  Beloved around the world, at the peak of his fame, Armstrong’s remarks made headlines worldwide.

Three weeks later, Armstrong’s concert tour brought him to East Berlin for his first-ever gig in Soviet Eastern bloc. At a press conference, East German reporters peppered him with questions about Bloody Sunday—but he refused to repeat any of the things he had said in Denmark. Instead, he sat grim-faced, puffing on a cigarette, testily deflecting questions about how he was treated in the South.

As it turns out Armstrong did have something to say in East Berlin about Bloody Sunday, something he powerfully conveyed through his music. Decades earlier, Armstrong had appeared in the all-black musical “Hot Chocolate,” which was bankrolled by the gangster Dutch Schultz. According to the Armstrong biographer Ricky Riccardi, Schultz wanted the show’s song-writers, Fats Waller and Andy Razaf, to include a tune about dark-skinned  women losing men to lighter-skinned women. Waller and Razaf complied by writing “(What Did I Do To Be So) Black and Blue.” It included this offensive line: “I’m white inside, but that don’t help my case/’cause I can’t hide what is on my face.” Though Armstrong played the song for years afterwards, but he had taken it out of his repertoire a decade or so earlier.

That night in East Berlin, however, he revived “Black and Blue,” but with a crucial lyric change. He sang, “I’m right inside, but that don’t help my case/’cause I can’t hide what is on my face.” The song concludes, “My only sin is in my skin/What did I do to be so black and blue?” Armstrong had turned “Black and Blue” into a song of racial protest, one that he would continue to play for the rest of his life.

Here is Louis Armstrong and his band playing “Black and Blue,” in East Germany, March 22, 1965:

Song of the Day: November 2

We’re excited to have New York Times columnist Joe Nocera join us to curator this week’s Song of the Day. Welcome, Joe! 

From Joe Nocera:

I fell in love with Joyce Moreno—musically, that is—two years ago when I stumbled into Birdland one evening in search of a Brazilian music fix. The well-known composer-singer Dori Caymmi (“Obsession; “The Look of Love”) was playing that night, and his group included a special guest from Rio de Janiero, a woman known only as Joyce.  About halfway through the set, she came on stage, and began playing a remarkably complex rhythm guitar to accompany Caymmi. When she sang, her voice had a rich, full-throated, supple quality: here was a woman fully in control of her voice, and her art. At one point, her husband, the drummer Tutty Moreno, had to stop to fix his high-hat. Joyce grabbed the guitar and knocked off a version of “Waters of March” that left the audience breathless.

I’ve since learned a lot about Joyce Moreno (she began using her last name professionally a few years ago.) She is part of the post-bossa nova generation of composers intent on finding their own way, while acknowledging in their music the foundational importance of bossa nova and samba. For Joyce, finding her own way meant writing songs with a first-person, female-centric point of view—indeed, she was the first Brazilian singer to do so.  In her teens, she wrote a song that began, “I was told that my man doesn’t love me.”  She was immediately engulfed in controversy, as many critics found her approach vulgar.  Although momentarily stung, she never backed away.

Nearly 50 years later, Joyce is still singing songs from a woman’s point of view. “Feminina,” her signature song, is about a girl who asks her mother what it means to be female. She has also been remarkably prolific and adventurous in the course of her long career. Of her two most recent albums, both released this year (though so far only in Japan, where she has a big fan base), “Cool!,” recorded with her quartet, is her interpretation of American standards. “Poesia”  is a duet recording with the pianist Kenny Warner.

Today’s song is a short medley of two of her better-known tunes, “Clareana,” a lullaby she wrote after two of her daughters were born,  and “Monsieur Binot,” which, she once told me, is about her yoga instructor. She has also recorded a version of that song with Gilberto Gil; it turns out that Monsieur Binot was his yoga instructor too.

Join NYFOS at Compositora: Songs of Latin American Women on April 26, 2016, 8pm at Merkin Concert Hall to hear more music by Joyce Moreno and other Latina composers. More info and tickets >

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