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.

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