Music Collecting – Classical

I have been an avid, some might say obsessive, music fan for as long as I can remember.  As a result, I have a much bigger collection of music than anyone with as little money as I have had should have.  Recently, I decided to start cataloging my collection.  It’s in pretty rough shape after a couple of moves.  It’s partly still in boxes and partly on shelves in three different spots in the house.  Not only is it not alphabetized, it isn’t in any order whatsoever.

So, I’m using Discogs.com to catalogue the collection.  I started with my classical collection.  I went through and pulled out every classical release I could find (this includes orchestral soundtracks), entered them into Discogs and put them together on a couple of shelves in the basement.  There were 166 classical releases.  I know that’s not all of them.  I know I own Patrick Stewart narrating “Peter and the Wolf”, but I couldn’t find it.  And I know I own a 2 disc Phillips set of the complete Brahms symphonies, but I couldn’t find that either.  I wouldn’t be surprised if my classical collection tops out around 200, but 166 was what I could find in my first pass.

It’s been a nice trip down memory lane doing this project.  It’s amazing how many pieces have distinct memories associated with them.  In fact, I don’t think there was a single piece, as I’m sure there will be when I get to some of the bigger parts of my collection, where I didn’t know that I own it or didn’t know why I own it.  I thought it might be nice for me, since I’m sure no one else is interested, to share some of those stories.

Like most every American my age and younger, my first exposure to classical music was through cartoons.  I knew “Kill the Wabbit” long before I knew what a Wagner was.  I would also hear it through my parents, occasionally on the radio (NPR) and some other random places.  I certainly didn’t know much of anything about it until fourth grade.  That was the year when we got to pick an instrument in school.  I picked the French Horn (although I never call it that now, it’s just the Horn).  I had no idea what a Horn sounded like or what it was used for.  I thought it looked really neat.  It was all shiny and gold with tons of twists and turns.  My parents, as always, were very supportive and encouraged me by buying me my first piece of Horn music.  It was a vinyl copy of “The Art of Dennis Brain” on the Seraphim label.  I still have it and still love it.  If you know any aspiring Horn players, it’s a great place to start.

Since I was a Horn player, a lot of my collection is Horn-centric.  I am partial to Dennis Brain, Hermann Baumann and Lowell Greer.  And then there’s Mason Jones.  The one and only prerecorded cassette I ever owned was Mason Jones performing the four Mozart Horn Concertos with Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra.  It was given to me by my high school band director.  I’ve long since lost track of the cassette, but a few years ago, I found and purchased the same recording on vinyl.  It is wonderful.  But the thing I always think of when I pull that album out is my third private teacher.  He was the one that started me playing the Mozart concertos.  When we started, he told me I should get a copy, either Brain or Baumann.  I told him that I already had a copy, but it was Mason Jones playing.  He was surprised and made me bring in my copy to show him.  It turns out that Mason Jones had been his Horn teacher.  He decided that that recording was acceptable.  I’ve felt a connection to Mason Jones ever since.  He’s almost my Horn grandfather.

Another big chunk of my collection comes from band, chamber and orchestral pieces that I’ve performed.  This is how I came to have Smetana’s Mouldau.  I didn’t enjoy playing the piece, and I don’t particularly like listening to the piece.  But, I had to learn it, and in the days before the internet, that often meant picking up a copy for reference.  I also discovered some things that I love through the same process.  I first encountered Shostakovich because we were performing his Festive Overture.  I still listen to that CD quite a bit and Shostakovich, if he isn’t my favorite, is certainly in my top five composers.  His String Quartets are wonderful.  And I first discovered Brahms’ Academic Festival Overture when my college orchestra performed it and it is one of my favorite pieces of music in any genre.

One disc that I have a real personal connection to is “Portraits of Freedom: Music of Aaron Copland and Roy Harris”.  When I was in college, my third year I think, our orchestra played a fundraiser for a local school in Kingston, NY.  We performed Prokofiev’s “Peter and the Wolf” and Copland’s “Fanfare for the Common Man” and “Lincoln Portrait”.  “Peter and the Wolf” and “Lincoln Portrait” are both narrated, and we had James Earl Jones do the narration.  I’m about the biggest Star Wars fan you’d ever want to meet and I got to perform live, on stage with the voice of Darth Vader.  It was even more awesome than it sounds.  A couple years later, I ran across “Portraits of Freedom” and it has a recording of “Lincoln Portrait” featuring James Earl Jones.  The only way it could be better is if it were a recording of my orchestra.

Looking over my whole collection, my preferences clearly run modern, as in early to mid-twentieth century.  I also seem partial to Russian, British and American composers.  Not that I have anything against the Germans and Italians, I just like the Allies better.  I do seem to have an aversion to French composers.  I have one collection of “French favorites.”  I got that because my high school orchestra was performing Ravel’s “Pavanne For a Dead Princess”.  It’s not one of my favorite pieces, but it does feature the Horn prominently.  I also have a CD of Bernstein conducting Bizet.  I’m pretty sure that’s the extent of my French music.  For whatever reason, I respect the French composers, but I can’t seem to enjoy them.

I also seem to be partial to the low end of the orchestra.  Give me anything with a Double Bass, Bassoon or Tuba and I’m pretty happy.  Even as a player, I liked the low end.  First Horn is where the famous bits are, but I loved playing the second Horn parts.  The Horn has a broad range, but I always felt more comfortable with the Trombones and Cellos than the Violins and Trumpets.  It definitely shows in my collection.  I have more Bassoon concertos than Trumpet concertos and I have more Tuba music than Flute music.

Now that classical is (mostly) done, I’ll start the next section.  I’m not sure what that will be.  I’ll just open a box and see what jumps out at me.

 

 

 

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Longevity

I’ve been listening to a lot of B.B. King since his death.  One thing that struck me is that “The Thrill Is Gone” was released 20 years into his career.  It was not only his biggest hit, but his signature song.  After it became a hit, it was the one song you would be guaranteed to hear at every show he played.  The reason it struck me is because in the Rock world, there is a strange bias against longevity.

Anyone who knows anything about music knows that real musicians get better with experience and practice.  At some point they may decline for health/stamina reasons, but barring unusual circumstances, a 50 year old is better than a 20 year old.  Which is better, Mozart’s “Twinkle Twinkle” or his 40th symphony?  Many people think that Johnny Cash’s American Recordings are the best of his career.  Branford Marsalis is way better now than when he played with Sting and lead the Tonight Show Band.

When people start talking about Rock music, though, they act like anything done after the age of 30 is a waste of time.  People swear that U2 hasn’t done anything worthwhile since The Joshua Tree.  They think that Murmur is REM’s best album.  They want to Stones to just play the hits and stop making new music.  If those people would actually listen, they might realize that U2 is a much better band than they were 30 years ago.  All That You Can’t Leave Behind and How To Dismantle an Atomic Bomb are probably their best overall albums.  REM had an issue with their drummer leaving the band in the mid nineties, so their sound changed.  But, Out of Time, Automatic For The People and Monster are all better than anything they did for IRS Records.  And Accelerate and Collapse Into Now are both fantastic.  And the Stones haven’t put out a bad piece of music since Dirty Work, and that was 30 years ago.

Rock ought to learn from every other style of music.  Life experience is good for art.  Give the old a fair chance and you’ll probably hear something you like.

B.B. King

The first time I saw B.B. King perform live was 1992 or 1993.  I’m pretty sure it was my senior year of high school, but I don’t remember which side.  Before I went, a guy that I worked with told me that seeing B.B. is, “like going to church.”  I didn’t really understand what he meant.  I spent my high school years learning about the blues, but I actually got to B.B. a little late.  I knew him from The Cosby Show, but I was really into Chess Records and acoustic blues, so I hadn’t taken a deep dive.

After seeing him live, I started studying.  I went for the classics, Completely Well, Indianola Mississippi Seeds, Live At The Regal, Live At Cook County, stuff like that.  It was great.  And, since he toured constantly, I started seeing him whenever he was within two hours of my house.  I’m not sure I can say this about any other artist, but B.B. never let me down.  Every album I bought was great.  Every show I saw was great.  I came to realize that the most famous and successful blues artist in history was vastly underrated.

I can’t imagine a human being not liking B.B. King.  I love him.  Now that he’s gone, I’m going to pull out all of his records and listen to them.  With work and the kid, it will probably take a few weeks to get through all of them, but it’s going to be great.

I Wish It Would Rain

I heard “I Wish It Would Rain” by the Temptations at the cafeteria at work today.  It is a truly spectacular song. If you have three minutes, I can think of no better way to spend it.  When it was playing, I couldn’t help but think how well everything works.  The performance and the arrangement and the lyrics are perfectly in sync. And, naturally, the song was stuck in my head the rest of the day.

It’s an unusual song for popular music in that it is so very sad. It’s about a man whose woman left, but there’s no, “I’m gonna get you back,” or, “I’ll find another girl.” It’s just bleak. He can’t stop crying and can’t leave the house. I think that’s part of the magic of the song. Most won’t go that far, but this is as cathartic as pop songs get. I get the same feeling listening to it as I get from Lacrimosa from Mozart’s Requiem.

As I’m apt to do, I looked up the song and confirmed that it’s a Whitfield/Strong composition. But I learned that the lyrics were written by Roger Penzabene. It turns out, according to various blogs and Wikipedia, that the song is autobiographical. His wife was cheating and left. He wrote the lyrics, but didn’t get any catharsis. He killed himself a week after the song was released.

This new information left me feeling strange, but I can’t quite explain why. It doesn’t change the quality of the song, but it does add kind of a real sadness to it. Artistic sadness is one thing, but this is real despair. I listened to the song again when I got home. The catharsis was still there for me, but it was accompanied by some real sadness. It’s just strange, and seems wrong, that I get something from the song that its author could not.

Blurry Lines

A couple years ago, I discovered that Kirk Cameron’s father in “Growing Pains” had a kid who had a hit song.  I’ve never heard the song, but I read an article about the fact that he was pre-emptively suing Marvin Gaye’s estate so that the courts would certify that he had not stolen one of Marvin Gaye’s songs.  This seemed like a really strange thing to do if it was an original song.  And the courts came back this week and announced that Robin Thicke did, in fact, steal one of Marvin Gaye’s songs and ordered more than $7 million paid to Marvin Gaye’s estate.  This got me thinking about something I have thought about off and on for years.

I don’t usually talk about this because there is no way to talk about it without sounding incredibly snobby.  That is not my intention, and I’m hoping Robin Thicke will help me.  Since he stole the biggest hit of his career and his defense basically boiled down to, “It’s not my fault, I was really high and didn’t contribute much of anything to the song,” I think it’s safe to say he isn’t exactly overflowing with musical talent.  The music industry discovered a long time ago that musical talent isn’t really important for making a singer popular.  Marketing is important.  Exposure is important, that’s what the whole payola scandal was about.  Image is important.  But, musicality isn’t that important.  Sure, the record has to be competent, but anyone can sound competent in a professional studio with professional musicians.  This is where I get confused.  What value does Robin Thicke, or others of his ilk, bring?

The first thing that comes to mind is he is attractive.  Although, most of any celebrity’s attractiveness comes from the fact that they are celebrities.  And, I’m doubtful that he is attractive enough to make that the deciding factor.  Next would be charm, personality and charisma.  But he seems to lack all of those.  He comes off as a douchebag.  So, I’m left with the thought that someone at a record company knows and likes Alan Thicke and decided to make Robin Thicke a star.

But what does the record company get out of this?  Wouldn’t it be more cost effective to make the actual musicians the stars?  Why hire a vaguely pretty, no talent front man?  That’s just an extra person to pay.  Are they afraid that making the real musicians popular would give the musicians too much power?  Maybe Robin Thicke was made a star because he would be compliant.  I don’t know, it’s as good a theory as any.

I wonder what would happen if the real musicians were the stars.  Would there be different and interesting music on the radio?  Would we discover another Marvin Gaye?  It’s a nice thought.

I am sorry, I know this sounds snobby.  I’m not trying to say that all music stars are no talent hacks.  But, it’s undeniable that a noticeable percentage of them are.  I’d love a good explanation.  If anyone knows, please leave a comment.

Orrin Keepnews

Orrin Keepnews died today, just one day shy of his 92nd birthday.  I knew his work, of course, but I went to his Discogs page just to look around and I was totally blown away.  He is credited on 752 records for production.  And a huge percentage of those are absolute classics.  There’s Monk, Sonny Rollins, Wes Montgomery, Cannonball Adderley, Nat Adderley, Bill Evans, Abby Lincoln, Gerry Mulligan, Toots Thielemans, and so many more.  He founded three record labels which all set incredibly high standards.  If any three people combined accomplished all that he did, we call them geniuses.  We need a better word for his resume.  Now, I’m going to go listen to some great music.

Serenade to a Bus Seat by The Clark Terry Quintet – A Review

When I heard Clark Terry died yesterday, the first album I went for was Serenade to a Bus Seat.  I’m not exactly sure why, but it is my favorite Clark Terry album.  He is most famous for playing flugelhorn and his mumbled scat singing, neither of which appear on this album.  It is a straight ahead hard bop session with a great band and it is just a lot of fun to listen to.

When I say it is a great band, I really mean it.  No one on the date is famous enough to be known outside of jazz circles, but they are all first choice players within the jazz community.  Philly Joe Jones was the hard bop drummer of choice in the fifties.  Johnny Griffin was as good a tenor sax player as anyone.  It was probably his move to Europe in the early sixties that kept him out of the limelight.  I have two basic rules when it comes to jazz recordings.  The first is that Paul Chambers always makes the recording better.  He literally plays bass on more classic albums than I can count.  The second is that Wynton Kelly always makes the recording better.  His piano lends a distinctive groove to everything he plays.  I’ll buy any album that has both of these players on it and I haven’t been disappointed yet.  And then there is Clark Terry.  Even at an early session like this, he is his own man.  The trumpet playing is totally distinctive.  He doesn’t sound like anyone except Clark Terry.

The session opens with Charlie Parker’s classic “Donna Lee” and it burns.  It starts with a Philly Joe drum fill and then the whole band plays the head.  Johnny Griffin gets the first solo followed by Terry and Philly Joe trading fours.  Then Wynton Kelly takes a solo that leads back into the head.  Not only is it perfect bop, it shows what this band can do.

A Clark Terry original called “Boardwalk” comes next.  This is a relaxed groove in the hard bop tradition, especially the way the trumpet and sax play together.  There are a series of short solos alternating with the head, first Terry then Griffin.   Then the head drops out and the two soloists go back and forth.  It’s nice to hear them play off of each other.  It’s playful rather than competitive.  Then Kelly gets some solo space to himself before coming back to the head.

“Boomerang” is another Terry original.  This brings the tempo back up a bit.  It’s a fun line.  Terry starts off the solos followed Griffin and Kelly.  Then we get the first bass solo of the record.  Chambers plays it arco and shows that he can keep up with anyone.  Then, they play the head and Philly Joe gets a brief moment before the close.

Another Terry original called “Digits” comes next.  This one relaxes the tempo a bit.  It’s a relatively short song at just over four minutes, so everyone keeps it economical.  But there is a nice duet between Terry and Griffin before Kelly’s solo.

Next is the title track, “Serenade to a Bus Seat” and it is also by Terry.  This tune is just plain fun.  Griffin starts off the solos followed by Terry.  Kelly’s comping reminds us that jazz is dance music at its heart and the feeling continues during his solo.  You just can’t help but tap your foot.

The Carmichael/Parish standard “Stardust” comes next and we get to see what this band can do with a ballad.  It is lush and romantic.  Philly Joe is on brushes and everyone’s playing is straightforward and tasteful.  That’s not a bad thing, though.  They are playing the song rather than playing over the changes.

With Terry’s “Cruising” we’re back to laid back hard bop.  This is the longest tune on the album and gives the players some room to spread out.  Griffin takes the first solo and Philly Joe is wonderfully responsive throughout.  Terry comes next.  I love the way he uses space and really lets the song breathe.  Then we get Kelly’s solo followed by Paul Chambers and the band trading before the close.

The session ends with Arlen/Mercer’s “That Old Black Magic”.  This is another dance number.  There is a definite Latin tinge to it.  And it’s short at just under two minutes.  Everyone says their piece and it fades out.

All in all, this is just a fun record.  The songs are great and the band is great.  I give it the highest recommendation.