Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Ella and Janis: An Observation

In late February, I was at a bar in Montreal, called Snack'n Blues, which plays jazz and blues music all night.  There are William Gottlieb photos on the wall and unidentifiable clips of Japanese movies projected above the bar.  I like it, because they have an inexhaustible supply of free chips and pretzels and chocolates, they have beer, and I can listen to jazz.

The night I went, there was some Billie Holiday playing for a while at first, pleasantly soporific.  I didn't expect to hear anything recorded after 1975, and I didn't, really.  "Birdland" by Weather Report, from 1977, came on, which didn't surprise me.  So did "Chameleon" (1973).  But those funky, fusion-y songs came later in the night, at a time when Billie Holiday can't compete with the rising din of drunken chatter.  In between Billie and Weather Report, Ella Fitzgerald came on.  They played a few of her recordings.  The one I remember the best is her live recording of "Sunshine of Your Love," which she did, I think, at Montreux in 1969:

I don't find it very good.  I don't think the rock rhythm suits her.  It feels forced and maybe too clean and a little desperate.  But I was struck by her voice that night.  It seems less striking now, but pay attention to her monologue interlude, starting at about 2:49.  Does it remind you of Janis Joplin at all?  The voice, I mean--the tone and texture.  Like when she says "the sunshine" for the second time, at 2:56.  She's not saying it loudly, but she's straining to make it sound quiet and raspy, something I think Joplin was good at.  Also, at 3:15, she really gets me: "I'm ashamed of myself," she says, half-coy, half-confessional, looking down at the ground.  Where does that come from?  Why should she be ashamed?  The song is not about shame.  For some reason, I believe her when she says it.  I feel sorry for her.  This all in about four seconds.  Because at 3:19 she takes it back up--"But I'm lookin' for my baby in the sunshine"--and you have no reason to feel sorry for her.  That's something Joplin could do, too. 

You can see that she's improvising the lyrics, as some of her word choices seem a little unnatural.  But she settles into a groove with the tune of "Work Song," the band picks up on it (unless they planned it beforehand) and it basically loses its semblance of "Sunshine of Your Love" after that.

My comparison with Janis Joplin might be superficial.  But listen to "Cry Baby," from Joplin's last album, "Pearl," recorded in 1970, and think about it some more:

I love Janis Joplin.  For me, it's her pathos--that she can give me shivers.  On "Cry Baby," listen to her repeating "come on," starting at 2:59.  The fifth and last one, where she goes down, sounding possessed, always gets me.  Sort of in the way Ella gets me by contrasting that "I'm ashamed of myself" with the force and determination of her succeeding lines.

Originally my comparison between Ella and Janis was going to be based only on their voices. But I think the reason I was surprised that I heard some Janis in Ella that night at the bar was because I have never associated the emotion of Janis's blues rock with Ella's jazz.

I remember last year I was sitting in my living room with my friend Karl, and I put on some jazz.  Karl is a curious guy, appreciates music, but doesn't feel jazz.  I don't remember what I put on, it doesn't really matter, but Karl asked me if I found it moving, if I felt the emotion in it.  Because he couldn't, and he was wondering how I could.  I told him I did, but couldn't really explain how.  It's hard to do that because preferences are so primal.  I could explain how it worked, but not why it worked for me.

At that time, I didn't find much music besides jazz moving.  I still struggle to do that.  But as I get older, I think my capacity for acceptance and understanding is widening.  There are many kinds of emotions to be conveyed.  Throughout her career, Ella expressed a lot of them.  I think, to Karl, jazz is a little too refined.  It's not dirty enough.  It's too cerebral.  Clearly that description is reductive and untrue, though it could be true, in certain cases, of any music.   

I know a lot of things, but I don't always feel them.  Feeling them is important to me.  It can complete understanding.  So I need both Janis and Ella to help round out my understanding of music and of myself. Sometimes Janis is as soft and sensitive as Ella in a ballad.  Sometimes Ella is as raspy and winded as Janis in a confession.  It goes both ways.

That night in the bar, I was struck by that.  It's not much more than an observation.  Sometimes observations don't stick.  I think that's the point.  The ones that do might just be a little bit more.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Winters Ago

Below is, I assume, the last article I will ever have published in a student newspaper--at least as an undergrad.  It's not related to jazz, but I thought I'd post it here because I think you might like it.

Four winters ago, after class on a clear day in December, my friend Jack and I hiked up the northeast side of Mount Royal in the snow. It was cold, but the ascent was steep—we were making our own path—and we warmed up fast enough, enjoying deep breaths of crisp, coniferous air.

Actually, Jack was making the path. He had gone up the week before and invited me to join him for a second go. Arriving at a decent vantage point, we took a break to look out on the city: a vast swath of the upper Plateau whose vanishing point, from that angle, happens to be the Olympic Stadium, oddly beautiful from the mountain.

As we stood there, a chickadee alighted on a tree branch close by. We called him in, and to our surprise, he flew closer, jumping cautiously from branch to branch, chirping with curiosity. Beckoning him further, we held out our hands. He jumped into my palm first, then Jack's, then to a branch and away. He felt weightless.

That was my first winter in Montreal, and my first year at McGill. Now that it's my last semester, I've been feeling reflective, sorting through my memory for cherishable moments—trying to make sense of my time here.

Last Sunday, I went up the mountain alone, along the northeast side. I hadn't been up that way since first year, with Jack, and I wanted to revisit the experience. I think I was trying to sanctify a memory by reliving it in some way. But that isn't very realistic. It felt a little bit like acting, artificial. As I made my way up the snowy mountainside, along a narrow path few had walked, I stopped and stood there and tried to drop the self-consciousness.

The forest was remarkably still and quiet. I had forgotten how calming that kind of stillness can be. At that moment, I heard a chickadee chirping above. Following his voice, I found him high up in an oak tree and called him in.

He came, cautious as the other, jumping from branch to branch, cocking his head, sizing me up. I put out my hand, waiting for the moment. But he didn't jump. I waited as he waited, and finally, he flew up and away from me, high above into the same oak.

I could have tried to call him in again. But I walked on toward the chalet lookout, which overlooks downtown Montreal. I have been there too many times to count. Entering the chalet, I bought a hot chocolate and sat down at a table to think. Then I walked outside to the lookout and leaned on the balustrade, viewing the city on a clear, windy day before the snow had melted.

I know this city much better now, four years and millions of steps later. I looked down at McGill, its frosted green roofs glistening in the sun—quite a vantage point for reflection and nostalgia, for the retrieval of memory. I kept on looking, just able to make out the little bodies moving slowly through campus, going somewhere. Montreal looked so self-sufficient that day—the city made sense.

I don't know if I'll ever make sense of my memories. I do remember vividly how weightless that chickadee was that landed in the palm of my hand four years ago. I can't forget. Memory is also weightless.

And winters from now, I will remember winters ago, when I hiked up the mountain alone and called in a chickadee. Because he would not land, I will remember him for his weightlessness, too.