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Archive for the ‘Billie Holiday’ Category

SOUNDTRACK: JOYCE DiDONATO-Tiny Desk Concert #933 (January 15, 2020).

I was sure that Joyce DiDonato had performed a Tiny Desk Concert before, but I actually knew her from a gorgeous NPR Field Recording from 2015.

the last time we filmed the down-to-earth diva, she insisted on singing an opera aria at the Stonewall Inn, the iconic gay tavern in Greenwich Village.

DiDonato is an opera singer and her voice is amazing–she can soar and growl and everything in between.  But this Tiny Desk is not what you’d expect.  For although DiDonato sings in her beautiful operatic voice, the music the band is playing is anything but.

When opera star Joyce DiDonato told us she wanted to sing centuries-old Italian love songs at the Tiny Desk we weren’t surprised. But when she said she was bringing a jazz band to back her up, we did a double take. But that’s Joyce, always taking risks.  On paper, the idea of jazzing up old classical songs seems iffy. At the least it could come across as mannered and at worst, an anachronistic muddle. But DiDonato somehow makes it all sound indispensable, with her blend of rigor, wit and a sense of spontaneity.

The first song is by Alessandro Parisotti.  “Se tu m’ami” sets the stage for what this show is going to be like.  Gorgeous jazz with DiDonato’s impressive voice.

The musical formula for these unorthodox arrangements makes room for typical jazz solos while DiDonato molds her phrases to the flexible rhythms and inserts old-school trills and flamboyant roulades.

A cool trumpet solo from Charlie Porter takes a cool trumpet solo while DiDonato admires his skill.

After three minutes they segue seamlessly into Salvator Rosa’s “Star vicino.”  This one features a piano solo from Craig Terry which he begins with a line from “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star.”  The song also features a muted trumpet solo with a few drum breaks for Jason Haaheim

My favorite moment in the set comes just before 6 minutes where she sings a beautiful lilting melody and then hits a growly note that I was sure was the trumpet until Porter played the same note on his muted trumpet.  It was very cool and kind funny.  Especially when she says

there’s no soprano in the world who could get away with that

Less than a minute later she runs through her enormous vocal range from low to very high to soaring.  It’s amazing.

She says that in the classical world, the standard is perfection–rarely achieved.  Young singers try so hard to get it perfect that they lose the “grease” as the jazz players say.  So this project was designed to put the swing back in these old love songs.

The third song she says is by anonymous, but it is credited to Giuseppe Torelli. “Tu lo sai” is a love song that says, “you have no idea how much I love you.  No matter how much you scorn me, I still love you,”  She says they giving this the Chet Baker treatment.  I’m not exactly sure what that means, but there is some wonderful trumpet work in this song.

It has a slow opening with piano and voice.  The other instruments slowly come in and there is a wonderful moment during Porter’s trumpet solo where she picks up the note from him and runs with it.

Bassist Chuck Israels (who has played with everyone from Billie Holiday to the Kronos Quartet) never solos but he keeps the whole enterprise running perfectly.

For the final song Francesco Conti’s “Quella fiamma” they bring out Antoine Plante on the bandoneon.  She says, “Yea we’re going to South America in a minute.”

Porter uses a different kind of mute which creates a unique sound.  Then the bandoneon comes in and the South American flair is complete.  There’s an incredible moment at the end of the song where Joyce just trills away–showcasing so much of what she can do.

As the blurb says, despite how great the band is

the star of the show is the continually amazing DiDonato, whose voice is certainly one of the great wonders of her generation. The flexibility of the instrument, the colors she conjures and her fine-tuned dynamic range are a few of the reasons she’s still at the peak of her powers. She looks and sounds like she’s having the time of her life.

I see that she sings in Princeton pretty often.  Next time she;s in town I will make sure to check her out.

[READ: December 20, 2019] The Raven’s Children

This story was fascinating in the way it started as a very real story, suddenly added magical realism and then turned into an utterly fantastical story.  And yet it all works perfectly well as an allegory of the oppressive regime under Stalin.

Not bad for a book with talking animals.

This book was translated by Ruth Ahmedzai Kemp and she brings this story to life.

Shura is a young boy living in Leningrad.  He lives with his mama and papa as well as his older sister and a little brother.  They live in an apartment building and he and his sister are lucky enough to have a room to themselves.  The amusing set up is that they have to walk through a wardrobe that their father set up to separate the rooms (he removed the back but you can’t tell from the front).  This weird construction actually saves them later in the story.

Shura’s friend is named Valya.  His parents don’t want him hanging out with Valya, but they like to do the same things, so he disobeys.  Today they are putting pennies on a railroad track.  They had been doing this for long enough that they can tell how heavy a train is by the way the resulting items come out.

On this occasion the train that went by seemed to be full of people.  People crammed into each car.  As it sailed past, a piece of paper sailed out.  Valya grabbed it. Neither of the boys could read very well but they could see some numbers on it.  Shura was sure that the paper was important and he desperately wanted it. But he didn’t know how to get it from Valya without making him want it more.

They walked home and by the time they got to Shura’s place, they were physically fighting.  Shura manged to snatch the paper and Valya threw a rock at him.  The rock smashed a window of an older lady’s apartment in their building.  Shura knew he was in trouble for the window.  But it was Valya’s fault.  Of course, he wasn’t supposed to be playing with Valya. (more…)

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SOUNDTRACK: alt-J-Tiny Desk Concert #614 (April 24, 2017).

Alt-J have been reduced to a trio.  And their sound has gotten even more delicate and almost pastoral.

Bob Boilen loves Alt-J, and that’s why they’ve been invited back for a second time.  He explains:

As the primary booker of the Tiny Desk Concerts, I have this self-imposed rule: No artist can come back for a second visit unless there’s something wholly different about what they’re doing. The first time alt-J played the Tiny Desk, in 2012, they came as a four-piece; electric guitar, bass, keyboards and drums. They were a pretty new band, their album had been out a few months and they were playing in clubs for a couple hundred people, not much more.

In the five years since the band visited it has found quite a few new fans. When I heard cuts from the newest album Relaxer a few months ago I flipped and tried to think of a way to bring them back. So I wrote them, saying I’d love to have them again but that it would have to be wholly, out-of-the-box different. I told them I’d hire a brass band, an African kora player if need be, a string section… They took up the challenge. They told me to find a cellist and two violinists.

I wrote to my friend Carol Anne Bosco, a cellist, who turned out to be a huge fan of the band and helped find two violinists for the performance. About four days before the performance the band sent the string parts, written by their friend Will Gardner.

On Monday morning, the English band met the American string players and they all gathered behind my desk. As they worked their way through a first pass at “Three Worn Words,” I noticed them and relieved — alt-J had actually never heard the string arrangements, this was the first time. They sounded beautiful. By noon, NPR employees and friends gathered around my desk to witness this astonishing concert from alt-J, including two new songs and two old favorites. Magic.

“3WW” is the first single and it sounds very different.  The song opens with a lengthy instrumental, and then the keyboardist Gus Unger-Hamilton sings lead.  It sounds quite a lot like an old English balladeer song.  Then standard lead singer Joe Newman takes over.  His unusual voice is especially recognizable but the song still stays quite mellow until the moment where the strings burst forth …but just for a bit until they sing the practically whispered, “I just want t love you in my own language.”

“In Cold Blood” sounds a bit more like their old style with a very interesting drums pattern from Thom Green: lots of fast snares and toms.  The synths feel almost Ren-Faire like.  There’s also a fun section of “la la las.”  I only wish I knew what they were singing about.

“Warm Foothills” is primarily piano and strings.  There’s a very delicate falsetto vocals (and even a whistle).  All three of these songs are new.  It’s interesting to realize that these songs won’t sound like this anywhere else or on record because they have the strings only for this show.

They then say they’re going to play something from their first album, to mutters of pleasure and when he says “taro” there’s a whoop or two and Joe jokingly goes “Yes!!”  This is a quiet guitar-base song and the strings really bring out elements of it.

alt-J are certainly a weird band but they have slowly won me over.

I happened to check Wikipedia about the band and found this interesting tidbit (veracity in question of course): “The band’s unusual sound stems from the fact that due to living in student halls, where noise had to be kept to a minimum, they were unable to use bass guitars or bass drums. Thom Sonny Green suffers from Alport syndrome, a rare genetic disease which causes hearing and kidney failure. As a result, he is about 80 percent deaf.”

[READ: March 8, 2017] “Crazy They Call Me”

I usually love everything that Zadie Smith does.  But this story didn’t do very much for me.

It is a kind of inner monologue of Billie Holiday.  I’ve always liked Holiday’s voice but I don’t know much about her life.  Like I didn’t know that Billie Holiday wasn’t her real name–which was Eleanora Fagan.  But I don’t think that that’s what made me not love the story much.

I assume this story takes place near the end of her life “you certainly don’t go out anyplace less than dressed, not these days.”  She is saying goodbye both to Elenora Fagan and even to Billie: “There is only Lady Day.”

Lady Day is mostly thinking to herself about her life. How she doesn’t really like other women, is mostly a man’s lady. (more…)

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2016-12-05-21-06-09SOUNDTRACK: KAT EDMONSON-Tiny Desk Concert #242 (October 1, 2012).

I’d published these posts without Soundtracks while I was reading the calendars.  But I decided to add Tiny Desk Concerts to them when I realized that I’d love to post about all of the remaining 100 or shows and this was a good way to knock out 25 of them.

katKat Edmonson is a singer who is often associated with jazz (the word chanteuse is thrown around a lot), although for this Tiny Desk Concert it’s just her singing and Steve Elliot on acoustic guitar.

She has  beautiful voice and at times she can make it sound unexpectedly like Billie Holiday (which certainly explains the jazz angle).

But she doesn’t do that voice on the first song “Hopelessly Blue.”  This makes me think more of Kristen Chenoweth (or am I thinking that because they are both so petite?).  Comparisons aside, her voice is clear and pure and there’s no tricks to it.

“I Don’t Know” opens with a lovely “hoooo hoooo” and a slightly faster tempo.  And her voice sounds a bit more like 70s folksingers (keep in mind that she was only 29 at the time of this recording).

Her speaking voice is high-pitched and sweet as you might imagine, although she sounds quite different as she introduces “Lucky.”  “Lucky” showcases her more Holiday-ish style of singing—as if her accent is from somewhere very other than Texas.  (To hear her even more pronounced version of this singing voice, check out this song).

[READ: December 6, 2016] “Cure”

Near the end of November, I found out about The Short Story Advent Calendar.  Which is what exactly?  Well…

The Short Story Advent Calendar returns, not a moment too soon, to spice up your holidays with another collection of 24 stories that readers open one by one on the mornings leading up to Christmas.  This year’s stories once again come from some of your favourite writers across the continent—plus a couple of new crushes you haven’t met yet. Most of the stories have never appeared in a book before. Some have never been published, period.

I already had plans for what to post about in December, but since this arrived (a few days late for advent, but that was my fault for ordering so late) I’ve decided to post about every story on each day.

This story is about the family of a Pastor living in an area of the country that is dominated by Finnish Laplanders.  The setting is just after the war.

The community has had much loss.  The Pastor’s wife had died. The Tolvi children were very unwell and even the Pastor’s eldest son Arden seems to moving beyond the family.

The Pastor’s sons Lowell and Jonas head down to the canoe by the river and go for a paddle.  They hope to go to the decommissioned fort–a wonderful place to explore for young boys.

While they are paddling, the happen upon a naked lady (!).  She is alluring, and invites them to look into the water to see paradise.  But they resists and head home–promising not to tell anyone about what they saw.

But they go back.  Jonas even brought a sweater for the woman who must have been cold. She invites them again to look into the water and see the next place where it was always lovely.  Lowell peers into the water and sees nothing.   But Jonas puts his head in and says “I saw it!”  And then he has dived into the water.

Arden seems to know about this woman–she is a mythological creature who is far too real.

The end of the story shows the near future of the family–particularly how Lowell moved on.

The story is dark for sure, but the last line is completely energizing, making you wonder what is coming next.

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hiro1SOUNDTRACK: ASAF AVIDAN-Tiny Desk Concert #340 (March 2, 2014).

asafAsaf Avidan is a 33-year-old, Israeli singer, formerly with a folkish rock band called Asaf Avidan & The Mojos.  He has since gone solo and is touring the States.   His voice is the most notable thing about this performance—it’s feminine, but not in a conventionally feminine way.  It’s got a husky Janis Joplin vibe or maybe that weird Billie Holiday thing that she does.  And yet Asaf Avida is (clearly) a man and when he belts out songs, his voice is incredibly powerful.

And yes indeed, he knows how to use his voice very well.  His voice would be unconventional even if he was a woman—it’s creaky and crackly, it warbles and rises and swoops and yet it is very powerful nonetheless.  And I can see it being very polarizing.  I didn’t like it at first but it really won me over.

“My Latest Sin” is a slow finger plucked song (the guitar is beautiful) and most of the song is pretty quiet, but man can Asaf belt out the lines when he wants to. “Different Pulses” is a more robust song musically (even though it is just him on guitar). When he sing the “oh ho” part, he hits some real falsettos, but is still very powerful.

The way he mixes up his incredibly high pitched voice with the gravelly and growly makes this an incredibly engaging performance.

As he introduces the third song, “Reckoning Song,” he explains that it was remixed as an ambient song–which he hates.  He had asked the remixer to take it down, but the guy refused.  And it has since hit 150 million hits.  He’s grateful for the attention, although he still hates the remix. His version is quiet and powerful with some beautiful catchiness.

I’m very intrigued by this fellow and want to hear more.

[READ: June 20, 2014]  Johnny Hiro Book 1

This book collects the first three Johnny Hiro stories (from 2007-2008).  It was originally published by AdHouse books with the cover that you’ll see below.  This Tor reprint is identical (as far as I was willing to investigate).

I was immediately intrigued by the cover and the title.  I loved the play on Hero and Hiro and when I saw that a Godzilla type monster attacks them on the first page, I was sold.

So Johnny Hiro is an average Japanese American kid living in New York.  He has a bad job as a sushi chef, but he has a beautiful Japanese girlfriend who loves him very much.  Of course, when the first story opens and Mayumi is pulled away by “Gozadilla,” things aren’t looking that good for him.

But here’s some wonderful things that do happen in the story: Johnny rescues her while wearing her Hello Bunny slippers (she’s concerned that he will stretch them out); we learn that Gozadilla is mad at her because her mother stopped him in 1978 from trying to rampage Tokyo (so this is a revenge mission) and, best of all, they are saved because Mayumi calls Mayor Bloomberg for help (she got his number from the phone book because of an article in the New York Times).  Oh and the monster attack has left a huge hole in their exterior wall. (more…)

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