"And Then She Stopped" by Dizzy Gillespie, 1965

Monday, September 30, 2013

Choosing a favorite trumpet player is tricky business, especially probably for a trumpet player. For most of my high school years as a player, I would have said Miles Davis, despite the fact that I often had trouble listening to him. I suppose I thought Miles, like much jazz and like all the new drinks I was trying at the time, was an acquired taste. Perhaps he is; I certainly like him more now than I did then. However, choosing him as a favorite was dishonest and an affectation. I discovered Clifford Brown my first year of college, and I loved his tone and his solo style and his pace, and I was like, "Ohhhh. This is way better."

I still think that about Clifford Brown, but in recent years I've remember how much I loved Dizzy's music even before I affectedly chose Miles Davis. (There was a brief period in which I worshipped Wynton Marsalis, for his exquisite tone and technical ability, and for his willingness to move, and skill at moving, from jazz to classical and back effortlessly. But he was rarely any fun.) I'd abandoned Dizzy as a fan probably because I knew he flared his cheeks, something every novice trumpet player is taught not to do. Also he kept showing up on the Cosby Show, which didn't seem disdainful of popular culture to a degree sufficient for a jazz musician. Miles Davis wouldn't even look at the audience, never mind appear on a sitcom.

Much in the way we can often as adults return to childhood favorites in movies and books, I returned to Dizzy only recently. Dizzy Gillespie composed and performed music that possessed all the qualities of bebop that I loved then and now. Maybe especially the Afro-Cuban stuff from the 40s, 50s, and 60s, like "Manteca" and "A Night in Tunisia" (I could just as easily have included either of those two on this list) and this piece, "And Then She Stopped," Dizzy's music had the wit and technical showmanship of most great jazz, but it was also eminently danceable and possessed a kind of musical humor. Jazz often cracks jokes, usually with brief musical allusions during solos, but I mean something more than that--Dizzy's compositions are inherently good natured and fun. Dizzy also played in the highest register of the instrument to a point that often seems a little absurd, setting off tiny musical fireworks. I love that.

A little of all of this is apparent in the video herewith, from a live performance of "And Then She Stopped" from 1965, the year of its initial release.

"Ana Ng" by They Might Be Giants, 1988

Friday, September 20, 2013

This song is particularly special to me for two reasons.

1) They Might Be Giants are distinct among bands that I like a lot, and not just because they're such freaky weirdos: I first liked them by seeing them live. When they toured in 1992 (I think) to promote Apollo 18, I had never heard them. Still, they came to SUNY Binghamton, where  I was a freshman, and lots of my friends were going. The show was right in the student union. Of course I went. And it was fantastic. I can't remember another time I went to see a band live whom I'd never seen or heard before and fell so thoroughly in love. I in particular loved this song, which had me (and everyone else) bouncing around the room like crazy people.

2) Like a lot of my favorite songs,"Ana Ng" is a perfect little self-contained story, though a weird one, I'll grant you. In this case, our narrator is in love with a woman who leaves clear on the other side of the planet, and he's never met her. Maybe they're pen pals, but I prefer to think it's some other kind of connection that is conceivably in the narrator's imagination. That idea, added with the lines "Who was at the Dupont Pavillion? Why was the bench still warm? Who had been there?" inspired me to take on perhaps the most challenging book idea I've ever had. I'll probably never finish it.

"Alison" by Elvis Costello, 1977

Thursday, September 19, 2013

There aren't all that many Elvis C. songs more famous than "Alison," his very first single, recorded even pre-Attractions. I guess "Pump It Up" gets more radio play. Maybe "Radio Radio" and "Watching the Detectives" come close. And now and then he records something new, which gets a lot of airplay but then vanishes in to obscurity, where frankly it probably belongs. (Case in point, this new one with the Roots. I think it's horrible.) I'm not actually sure "Alison" is the Elvis song I'd call the best. Not by a long shot. "Beyond Belief." "Shipbuilding." "Big Sister's Clothes." But they didn't make my list. Who can explain these things?

But back to "Alison." I had a dear friend during and after high school by the same name, with that extra common "l," and often, when I was bored, I'd call her up and sing this song into her answering machine. (Sometimes I'd sing "Alison's Starting to Happen" by the Lemonheads, but that didn't make the top-100 list.) When I think about it now--the song, that is--it makes me a bit uncomfortable, but it fits right in with Elvis and his Angry Young Man aesthetic: there's something vaguely misogynistic about these lyrics. While the narrator claims his aim is true, and seems to love Alison, he also wishes she would just shut her silly mouth. He also casts a dark eye on her former loves in a manner not entirely becoming, I'd imagine, to a woman being wooed.

Still it's a fine and brief pop song, deceptively simple, with really strong lyrics.

Next time, another love song, sort of, and a whole lot weirder. Think 1964 World's Fair.