Tuesday, November 10, 2009


Some musicals are great to experience just as an album. Here are some examples:

A Little Night Music by Sondheim

Original Broadway Cast.

This musical waltzes through the 'Glamorous Life' of Norwegian aristocracy and their 'Liaisons'. Based on Bergman's Smiles of a Summer Night (one of my faves) this is full of Sondheim themes, reminding me at times of "Into the Woods" crossed with "Sunday in the Park". The songs are catchy and interesting. The over-played classic 'Send in the Clowns' seems fresh in this first take and in context of the story. Favorite tracks: 'Now Later Soon', 'Remember?', 'Weekend in the Country' and 'The Miller's Son'.

Stormy Weather by Everyone Who Was Anyone

Original Broadway Cast.

Cab Calloway, Lena Horne, Fats Waller, Bill 'Bojangles' Robinson. Plot? Who cares. This soundtrack to the 1943 musical has an amazing score, and if it had nothing else going for it that would be okay. The classic title track is still fabulous, as are the other tracks 'Ain't Misbehavin', 'Jumpin' Jive' and 'My, My Ain't That Somethin''.

West Side Story by Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim

Original Broadway Cast.

For a cooler kind of jazz "West Side Story" delivers the modern (1950's) Romeo and Juliet story with catchy tunes, lyrics and dance numbers. True, listening to the album won't give you the ballet experience, but listening to Bernstein's symphonic dances is still a treat. In the end Romeo, Tony, dies. Favorite tracks: 'Something's Coming', 'Tonight', 'Cool'.

My Fair Lady by Lerner and Loewe

1956 Broadway Cast.

Based on Shaw's "Pygmallion" Rex Harrison is Higgins: a man obsessed 'Why Can't the English' learn to speak? Julie Andrews, flower girl Doolittle, is taught to speak like a duchess. A peculiar romance entwines the pair as Doolittle softens from hating to loving the man who seems capable of only loving himself. Favorite tracks: 'I'm an Ordinary Man', 'Just You Wait', 'On the Street Where You Live', 'Show Me'.

Perhaps I'll add more later as I find more of this caliber.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Live Album Round-Up

As my music collection steadily grows I thought I'd take a moment and praise my top ten live albums.

Dream Letter: Live in London, by Tim Buckley

This is one of my favorite albums, period. Tim Buckley was a folk singing troubadour who is here captured at a decisive moment when he was mixing folk with jazz and rock. His band is minimal and his voice soars. If you are only familiar with his son Jeff Buckley's work I highly recommend this album as an introduction to the father.

Live at the Apollo, by James Brown

Many consider this the greatest live album of all time, and it is easy to see why. Brown whips the crowd into a frenzy with long jams and pleading medleys. The material is from Brown's earlier catalogue, and is a perfect showcase for 'the hardest working man in show business.'

At Fillmore East, by The Allman Brothers

For those who love the electric guitar Duane Allman was one of the undisputed masters. This collection of their best pieces from the last Fillmore concerts before closing highlight Duane's amazing technique in extended, but not repetitious, sessions.

At Folsom Prison, by Johnny Cash

Even more so than 'Apollo', this performance has the best crowd interaction. The inmates at Folsom Prison "roar their approval" as Cash presents a bill of songs about prison, love, standards, and some songs even written by the prisoners in the audience. Cash's songs, empathy, and humor makes the whole album excellent.

Carnegie Hall Concert of 1938, by Benny Goodman

This was the first time, ever, that jazz would be played in a venue like Carnegie Hall. The idea was new, but the best possible band for the job ensured that this would not be Carnegie's last jazz concert (see the great Thelonious Monk and John Coltrane live album at Carnegie, for example). The best big-band swing sound keeps the audience clapping through the amazing finale of 'Sing Sing Sing'.

MTV Unplugged in New York, by Nirvana

Okay, so Cobain was actually secretly amped. Still. This set was done in one marvelous take with a selection of some of Nirvana's lesser-known material and covers by Bowie, the Meat Puppets and other bands you may not have heard of. It is, to my mind, a vocal performance. Cobain's raw and passionate voice is the draw.

Live at Leeds, by The Who

The Who could create a great studio album, but this offering shows their legendary live prowess. Covering their classics ('Magic Bus', 'My Generation') and a long section of 'Tommy' they turn up the amps and start to forge what would become arena rock.

Live at the Regal, by BB King

BB King seems to disagree with most people that this is his best live work. As a blues set goes this short recording packs an amazing punch. King is in great form as a singer and guitar player, and the crowd is wildly enthusiastic.

Europe '72, by The Grateful Dead

The Dead had to make an appearance on any 'live album' list. This collection taken from a few different venues and countries on their European tour is a great collection of classic Dead jamming and covers some of their best material.

Ellington at Newport, by Duke Ellington

This live album rejuvenated the band leader's career. For many years this 'live' album was actually a studio cut made to sound live. Recently the original live tapes were found and now the two cuts, live and studio, come packaged together. The Newport Jazz festival boasts many classic jazz shows and artists, but for pre-Miles jazz this is an excellent show.

Honorable Mentions: Highlights from the Plugged Nickel, by Miles Davis; Thelonious Monk Quartet with John Coltrane at Carnegie Hall; Live at the Harlem Square Club, by Sam Cooke; Royal Albert Hall, by Cream.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Redding and Cooke

I'm not a tremendous fan of either Otis Redding or Sam Cooke.

Otis Redding is best known for his posthumous single "Sittin' on the Dock of the Bay". Since the song is about my town I feel some connection to it, and its popularity bespeaks to some extent the emotional connection many feel when listening to it.

Redding's best album, essentially universally acknowledged, is 'Otis Blue: Otis Redding Sings Soul'. This album is very good, but has always bugged me. See, out of 11 tracks Redding wrote: 2 and a half. That's a bit of a discrepancy. Most of his songs were covers of tracks by the likes of BB King, The Rolling Stones, Smokey Robinson, or Sam Cooke.

Cooke appears three times on the album, more than anyone else. Redding was a huge fan of Cooke's and covered some of his best-known songs on the album: "Shake", "Wonderful World", and Cooke's masterpiece, "A Change Is Gonna Come".

Then again, everyone used to cover, and the number of folks who covered the latter is quite high. So I shrugged it off.

Besides, Redding was known for his gravelly voice and pleading style while Cooke had a voice with a smoothness far surpassing silk. In that regard I figured Redding's covers were fine: his vocal talents are so different from Cooke's that it is almost like listening to a unique song.

But they weren't actually that different.

For the past few weeks I've been listening to "Sam Cooke Live at the Harlem Square Club, 1963". For a live album the energy is pretty good, but not comparable to Brown's live album the year before. The performance is in Miami. As the liner notes say, and I must wholeheartedly agree, "It's a different Sam Cooke." Sam is feeling the deep soul. And his voice?

Pleading and gravelly.

I was stunned. He was out-Redding Redding. Why?

The simple truth was stark and unavoidable: Redding knew Cooke personally, and must have seen and heard him live. Cooke wasn't imitating Redding, Redding was imitating Cooke; so much so that he even copied Cooke's voice. It just wasn't the voice most listeners knew.

Most who listen to Cooke know his studio cuts, but this live performance, while not amazing, is very telling. It reveals a new angle to the performer and helps clarify the sound distinction between the legend and his protege, Otis Redding. They say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. In that case Redding was the greatest flatterer of all.

I still listen to "Otis Blue", after all it is still a good album, but you can be sure that "The Harlem Square Club" has left me reevaluating just how 'great' an artist Otis was.