Getz/Gilberto : Stan Getz and Joao Gilberto (#41)

Stan Getz and Joao Gilberto | Getz/Gilberto (April 1964)
Verve
(Brazil/USA)
Jazz / Bossa Nova – 34:02

“That’s the most seductive music ever.”

There is a definite difficulty in listening to certain albums. The more you try to concentrate on the music, the harder you find it to keep track. Simply put, it can be too easy to drift off into a daydream while the music washes over you. It isn’t just the obvious albums; I’ve known myself to put on a hard rock album and, 30 minutes later, be shocked that it has finished without being aware of actually hearing any of the songs. But some albums are harder to listen to coldly and objectively. It is not because they bad; far from it, the music reaches deeper into your soul and touches you at another level, allowing you to glide away into your own personal world. Getz/Gilberto is one such as this.

It cannot be underestimated the importance of this album. It isn’t just the fact that it was the first non-American album to win a Grammy. In reality, it was the one which kick-started the bossa nova craze across North America. Bossa nova (which literally means ‘new sound’) was a combination of jazz and samba, which began to find popularity in Brazil during the 1950s. But it took the combination of American saxophonist Stan Getz, Brazilian guitarist João Gilberto, and composer and pianist Antônio Carlos Jobim to launch it into the stratosphere. Much of the credit must go to the brilliant writing of Jobim. But perhaps the masterstroke, the key to its massive success, all lies with the first track on the album – and the second most recorded song in the world (240 cover versions to date); the wonderful and timeless Garota de Ipanema – better known as The Girl from Ipanema.

The Girl from Ipanema was a real woman; 17-year-old Brazilian model Heloísa Pinto. Jobim and his lyricist, Vinicius de Moraes, would see the teenager walk down to the beach, past the bar where he sat, every day. It wasn’t long before inspiration hit; years later, he wrote that he had been moved by “the paradigm of the young Carioca: a golden teenage girl, a mixture of flower and mermaid, full of light and grace, the sight of whom is also sad, in that she carries with her, on her route to the sea, the feeling of youth that fades, of the beauty that is not ours alone—it is a gift of life in its beautiful and melancholic constant ebb and flow.” Originally written in Portuguese, it became a hit when it was sung in English on the album Getz/Gilberto by Gilberto’s wife, Astrud. And while the explanation by Moraes may seem overly-elaborate, there is a beauty and ethereal quality to the song.

It is this quality which continues throughout the album. The gentle strum of the Spanish guitar, matched with Getz’s saxophone, combine to create a soft and subtle sound that draws you in to a dreamlike world. There is a wonderful charm to the album, which conjures up an image of sandy beaches under a hot sun; of a paradise world, that may not exist outside of a travel agent’s imagination. Regardless, this is an album which virtually demands that you sit back, close your eyes and allow it to work its magic upon you. It exudes a calm which belies the brilliant musicianship of Getz and Gilberto. It is easy to understand why this album was the starting point of the bossa nova craze. Among the stand-outs are Desafinado, which combines the guitar with a light piano that brings a smile. It doesn’t matter that the lyrics are incomprehensible to anyone unable to speak Portuguese; the sense of the song is conveyed through the music itself.

By combining to separate sounds – jazz and samba – Getz and Gilberto have managed to not just create a whole new genre, but one that proved popular. It may have fallen into the realm of lift muzac on occasion now, but that is an unfair fate to a breathtakingly and achingly beautiful sound. In fact, the combination has even allowed me to actually like a ‘jazz’ album, even if it is one that is not a pure form of the style. Regardless, this is the perfect soundtrack to lazy Sunday mornings or warm evenings on holiday. Timeless may seem an overused word, but this is one album which has certainly lasted the test of the last 50 years.

If you have a Spotify account, you can listen to Getz/Gilberto here:

 

Next time: A Hard Day’s Night by The Beatles

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Live at the Apollo : James Brown (#40)

James Brown | Live at the Apollo (May 1963)
King
(USA)
Soul – 31:31

“When I’m on stage, I’m trying to do one thing: bring people joy.”

Gigs can be a spectacle to behold. Dancers shimmy their way across the stage, their bodies creating wondrous shapes as they spin from one side to the other; costumes accentuate their lithe moves, adding everything from colour and sparkle to sophistication and effortless cool; the sets are lit by endless displays of warm lighting; and the lead singer, dripping in charisma, draws it all together, resulting in something far greater than the music alone. There is more to just the sound in the staging of some live shows. All of which makes it hard to translate a live gig on to a record – how do you convey the overall experience on a medium which relies purely on sound and nothing else?

It is a problem which plagues James Brown’s first – and most famous – live album, Live at the Apollo. James was the consummate performer. It is not for nothing that he was described as the hardest working man in music; for Brown it wasn’t just about standing in front of a crowd and singing his hits. He would wear elaborate costumes (all the while insisting his backing singers dressed in tuxedos), and even had an entire routine involving being wrapped in a cape as part of one of his numbers. On top of this, he would incorporate dance steps into his performance, choreographing intense routines for him to break into as he sang. He even once said that his aim was to make the audience as exhausted as he was by the end of a concert. All of which makes it hard to get a true sense of the experience of seeing Brown in the flesh when all you have is the audio recording of his performance; from the start, you are lacking an essential ingredient in the guise of the visuals.

In some ways, Live at the Apollo does not help James Brown in the claim that he works hard; the entire album lasts just 30 minutes (it takes me longer to write a blog post!). Add into the fact that there are numerous breaks between the songs and you are suddenly left with a live performance that has the named singer only taking up two-thirds of the entire recording. Call me picky but a 20 minute act doesn’t seem like a particularly arduous workout. Indeed, if anyone deserves the accolade, it should surely be the backing band, who play throughout the entire show without a break, sounding tight throughout. There is a playfulness and energy to their performance which is infectious, helping to push the show along and keep the crowd excited (screams can be heard puncturing the music throughout the half-hour running time). Add to this Brown’s backing group, The Famous Flames, and it seems the Godfather of Soul has little to do.

Another problem that I have with Brown is the lack of variety to his lyrics in a song. Most of the tracks seem to consist of a single line or two being repeated over and over again; there is no complexity or soul-searching lyrics, but merely repetition, occasionally broken up by a grunt or a scream. I admit he has a powerful voice; songs like Lost Someone display his ability to its full extent. But there needs to be more than simply screams; he comes across as some sort of over-the-top American evangelist, constantly shouting at his congregation ‘Can I get a witness’ rather than a singer. It means that, quite quickly, the tracks begin to roll into one. It comes to something when the instrumental breaks are the moments you find yourself waiting for in order to get some variety. Given that this is the second live album by a young black artist in the space of three album reviews, Sam Cooke certainly blows James Brown out of the water.

Brown was a hard man to work for, insisting perfection from his backing vocalists and band. He was known to fine those who displeased him – whether it was from turning up late, failing to shine their shoes sufficiently or singing a duff note. He would even incorporate certain hand movements into his dancing, to let those on stage his displeasure immediately, even if it was mid-concert. Perhaps if I was able to watch the show rather than simply hear it, it would make more sense and I would see what the fuss is about. However, as a solely audio recording, it lacks the punch it presumably had when performed in the flesh. Based on this alone, it seems more of a throw-away moment than an historic one, and leaves me feeling exhausted with disappointment rather than exhilaration.

If you have a Spotify account, you can listen to Live at the Apollo here:

 

Next time: Getz/Gilberto by Stan Getz and Joao Gilberto

The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady : Charles Mingus (#39)

Charles Mingus | The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady (July 1963)
Impulse!
(USA)
Avant-garde Jazz – 39:25

“Touch my beloved’s thought while her world’s affluence crumbles at my feet.”

The arts have always been seen as an effective form of therapy for those facing mental health issues. Whether it is painting, acting or music, there is something deeply therapeutic about expressing your emotions through the medium of creativity. When words fail you, knowing that you can still find a way of venting those frustrations, fears and follies can be liberating. It perhaps comes as little surprise to realise that many of the great artistes – in a variety of fields – have all suffered from some form of mental illness. In modern music alone, such big names as Brian Wilson, Ray Davies, Kurt Cobain and Syd Barrett have all struggled as a result of conditions such as bipolar disorder. A 2015 survey by Help Musicians UK found that 60 percent of musicians suffered from depression, with 70 percent saying their mental health had taken a hit as a result of touring. It is a shockingly high statistic, but perhaps unsurprising given the nature of art (in a wider sense of the word) and the type of people it attracts.

It probably shouldn’t come as a shock then to learn that Charles Mingus used his own compositions as a way of finding therapy. He suffered from depression, with his output fluctuating between short bursts of extreme creativity that briefly punctured long periods of inertia. By the time he recorded The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady in 1963, Mingus had shortly come off of a disaster with the infamous Town Hall Concert; his attempt to record a free-style live concert in 1962 – a dream of creating a working document of a true jazz workshop – had ended in chaos. Undeterred, he pushed on with his next record, putting The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady together in just three months. Clearly, this was his way of shaking off the demons; if any doubts remain, Mingus asked his psychotherapist, Edmund Pollock, to help pen the linear notes on the album sleeve. Interestingly, each of the four tracks is also given a subtitle, perhaps indicating that Mingus wasn’t always confident that people would interpret his music in the way he wanted.

There is no escaping that this is a true jazz album; like many of those which I have already encountered, it is a difficult one to penetrate and I still feel lost in the genre. The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady was envisioned as a type of ballet across four tracks and six movements; there is certainly a vibe of movement throughout – from the calls and responses of the brass instruments on the opening track (Track A – Solo Dancer) to the flamenco guitar of track three (Track C – Group Dancers). But there is no consistent theme; rather it seems to change direction at random during tracks. Perhaps this is an indication of Mingus’ mind – one that was constantly looking to create new sounds and follow new ideas. However, to a non-musical ear, it often sounds like a mess. Once again the quality of the musicians’ abilities cannot be doubted – the stand-out of the group is the wonderful Spanish guitar playing of Jay Berliner. But strong musicianship is not enough and this is an album which I cannot hear holding together.

Once again I feel let down by my musical knowledge. I want to be able to appreciate jazz; to feel that I am getting something out of the experience of listening to it. But whether my ears are simply not attuned or I do not possess enough theoretical understanding – whatever the reason, I find the genre too difficult to access. Within jazz circles, The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady is regarded not just as Charles Mingus’ masterpiece but as one of the greatest jazz albums ever recorded. Yet I still feel I am missing the point. This is a difficult album to listen through to the end, and sadly is not one I intend going back to. I end up more confused than satisfied, and this is not always a good thing. I hadn’t realised until embarking on this project how prolific jazz was in the early 1960s. I’m just thankful that, as we reach the mid-1960s, it had reached its peak; this may be its finest moment, but I regret that its perceived brilliance has all but passed me by.

If you have a Spotify account, you can listen to The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady here:

 

Next time: Live at the Apollo by James Brown