Midweek Music Break: Kelsie Saison, ‘Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas’

Kelsie SaisonWhen I’m putting together my annual list of Christmas music here, I draw most inspiration (of course) from my existing music collection. But I also try to keep my eyes open for other, newer sources; many music-marketing sites, for instance, offer Christmas music free or for a nominal charge, and these downloads often come from from interesting newcomers. That’s how I came across Kelsie Saison this year: at the NoiseTrade site for musicians and authors hoping to find an audience.

There’s not a whole lot of information online about Saison. She is, or recently was, a student at Belmont University, and she currently lives, or used to live, in Nashville (where Belmont’s located). The image posted here is the one featured almost exclusively on other sites. Her recordings are available from other sites as well as NoiseTrade — at SoundCloud, for instance. She’s got a Facebook page, and a Twitter account (at least, I think it’s hers)…

but the music — three EPs of Christmas music — all seems to have come out in 2013. That’s also when her last Facebook post appeared; her Twitter feed is more active, after a fashion, but even there she hasn’t posted anything for months.

Given the untimeliness of the little information I could find, I don’t know if we’ll ever get to hear more from her. But in the meantime, we’ve got the three EPs. “Just” Christmas tunes, as I said — with a twist: she plays the piano and sings, and it’s jazz: lightly swinging, slightly old-fashioned, easy-listening jazz.

Her voice naturally suggests, as her Facebook page says, that she’s fond of Ella Fitzgerald, Norah Jones, Diana Krall, Michael Buble, and Frank Sinatra. In today’s little gem, in particular, she seems to be channeling Fitzgerald: the song is a little over four minutes long, but she dispenses with the lyrics after the first ninety seconds or so. Thereafter, she scats through all but the last seconds of the remainder.

Scat singing is an interesting little back corner of music history. No one really knows where it came from, although theories abound. Louis Armstrong claimed to have invented it himself in 1926:

According to Armstrong, when he was recording “Heebie Jeebies,” soon to be a national bestseller, with his band The Hot Five, his music fell to the ground. Not knowing the lyrics to the song, he invented a gibberish melody to fill time, expecting the cut to be thrown out in the end, but that take of the song was the one released.


Armstrong’s claim, like pretty much anyone else’s with a theory, almost certainly relies more on legend and “common sense” than on actual historic fact. Wherever it came from, scat just blends the concept of vocals with that of instrumentals: it turns the human voice into a purely auditory device. In that way, it extends the voice — a particularly potent technique, I think, when used by someone who plays an instrument in addition to singing. Says Barry Keith Grant in Representing Jazz, edited by Krin Gabbard:

Scatting, unlike vocalese, does not taint the music with the impurity of denotation… Just as one musician explained the title of Charlie Parker’s “Klacktoveedsedsteen” by declaring “It’s a sound, man. A sound,” so scat singing, in avoiding the use of words, is seen to strive for the abstraction, the purity, of the music itself.

By the standard expressed there, I think Kelsie Saison’s scatting through the second half of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas!” (she uses an exclamation point there) succeeds very well. I love the way it sounds.

Send to Kindle

Weekend Music Break: Joey Alexander, “My Favorite Things”

James Gulliver Hancock: Joey Alexander's 'My Favorite Things'

[Image: Album art by James Gulliver Hancock, for Joey Alexander’s debut, My Favorite Things (2015).]

One of the most famous descriptions of some unlikely cultural phenomenon or another goes like this, taking various specific forms depending on the phenomenon in question:

Sir, [phenomenon] is like a dog’s walking on his hinder legs. It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all.

Joey AlexanderThe original comes from James Boswell’s Life of Samuel Johnson, quoting SJ himself. There, the phenomenon is “a woman’s preaching.” But it’s hard for me not to think of the quip in connection with Joey Alexander’s jazz piano work. Because — beautifully fluid, virtuosic, inspired, inspiring though it may be — at the time he recorded and released this debut album a few months ago, he was all of eleven years old. The photo at right (click it to enlarge) is one of my favorites from the little booklet enclosed with the album — it should give you some idea of the marvel of the cultural phenomenon of the moment.

I don’t want to make too much of this as a novelty. (In writing about Alexander, one New York Times observer said, “The acclamation given to musical prodigies usually involves some mix of circus-act astonishment and commodity futures trading.”) No, really — all I wanted to do was to offer you a solid hour of nice, not-at-all challenging weekend listening.

Joey Alexander: My Favorite Things

Send to Kindle

Midweek Music Break: Melodía Pegadiza, Part 3 (“Mas Que Nada,” and the Bossa Nova in General)

[Video: “Bim-Bom,” by João Gilberto: generally understood to be the first bossa nova song written (although not the first recorded). The lyrics repeat those two syllables in various combinations, along with phrases whose English translation (per Wikipedia) simply say, “This is all of my song / And there’s nothing more / My heart has asked that it be this way.” If you’d prefer to listen to all nine of the songs featured in this post at one go, you can jump over all the background, right to the full playlist at the bottom.]

New York City has its “Swing Street,” a block of W. 52nd so named because of the profusion of jazz clubs which once lined the sidewalks there. Even if you’ve never been to Manhattan, you might have heard the name.

Lesser known is Rio de Janeiro’s counterpart: Beco das Garrafas (“Bottles Alley”). Like Swing Street, it’s “grown up” now, apparently with a Mercedes-Benz dealership on the corner and other upscale shops on either side. But in the late 1950s and early ’60s, Beco das Garrafas hosted the birth of the bossa nova.

While researching this post, I found one source which said the term “Bottles Alley” referred to the habit of residents, of hurling beer bottles into the street to silence the noise of the “Bohemians” who frequented the nightclubs there.

The Portuguese phrase doesn’t quite lack meaning, but the straight-up English translation — “new trend” or “new wave” — doesn’t exactly speak volumes, either. A better way to regard the term: recognizing that Brazilian Portuguese has its own slangy usages, and that as far back as the 1930s, as Wikipedia notes, bossa represented “old-fashioned slang for something that is done with particular charm, natural flair or innate ability.”

Ruy Castro’s book Bossa Nova: The Story of the Brazilian Music that Seduced the World (first published in 1990) traces its origin as a term for this particular musical genre to an entertainment journalist named Moysés Fuks. Fuks was also “artistic director” for a musical group called Grupo Universitario Hebraico do Brasil, or GUHB: the (yes) University Hebrew Group of Brazil. Fuks had a colleague, one Ronaldo Bôscoli, to whom he offered GUHB’s auditorium for use in promoting some kind of concert. Apparently Fuks didn’t care exactly who was on the bill, other than GUHB; “He merely suggested they include someone ‘who had made a name of sorts.'”

Bôscoli’s first choice was a local street-and-club performer (one source describes him as “one of the biggest slackers in the business”) named João Gilberto. Gilberto himself wasn’t available on the chosen night, so they chose a solid alternative vocalist: Sylvinha Telles, who was familiar with GUHB’s music.

Fuks’s role in this? He printed up a program with the set list, and copied it for the band members. In it, “he promised a bossa nova evening.” He later insisted he had no idea why he’d used the term; whatever its significance to Moysés Fuks, it stuck to the music.

[Read more…]

Send to Kindle

Midweek Music Break: She Her & I: “Everybody Loves My Baby”

She Her & I

“Everybody Loves My Baby” has been bouncing around in pop music for a long time. First recorded in 1924 by Clarence Williams’s Blue Five (featuring a young cornetist named Louis Armstrong, who did not sing at all in this version), it seems to be rediscovered every ten years or so. The lyrics change according to the singer’s gender, but the preferred presentation features one woman singer — or a group of them — playing against a hopping, hot-jazz accompaniment.

About the comma-eschewing trio named She Her & I, unfortunately, I can tell you almost nothing. Their Web site includes no “About” page; a brief paragraph on the home pages says only:

Straight out of the zeitgeist, SHE HER & I is a vintage-meets-modern cocktail of tight harmonies, hot jazz, and big band and gypsy swing.

I think that “gypsy swing” phrase (whatever it means) probably helped me decide to feature them today. In their video performances I’ve seen, they come across as at once flirtatious and slightly scary (of course, I’m easily scared), and they can really sing as well as swing.

Facebook is a bit more informative, however:

Inspired by the Boswell Sisters, Django Reinhardt, Duke Ellington, Etta James, The Andrews Sisters and the fervent joy of New Orleans vintage jazz…

Band Interests
jazz, swing, swagger

Artists We Also Like
Boswell Sisters, Big Bad Voodoo Daddy, Django Reinhardt, Duke Ellington, Glenn Miller Orchestra, The Andrews Sisters, Oh dear… the list is long…

(A little poking around there finally uncovered their names: Francesca Vannucci, Corrie Shenigo and Alisa Burket. It also reveals that both their record label and their booking agent is someone — or something — named “Belle Aesthete.”)

I can tell you, unambiguously, that I first discovered She Her & I via another performer’s video of a completely different song. Which performer, which video, which song? Patience, Grasshopper. (All will be revealed in the fullness of time, which according to my watch will be in about ten days a week no, ten days after all.)

[Below, click Play button to begin Everybody Loves My Baby. While audio is playing, volume control appears at left — a row of little vertical bars. This clip is 2:54 long.

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

“Everybody Loves My Baby” has been covered by a good range of artists, with a good range of personal styles. (The Andrews Sisters — actually Boswell Sisters — approach seems to predominate.) Most recently, it made a pretty big splash when featured in the HBO series Boardwalk Empire. Wikipedia devotes an entire rather painful paragraph to a parsing of the lyrics, especially their grammatical ambiguities which apparently drive some people crazy. (Not least, one suspects, some people who edit Wikipedia articles.)

For contrast, here’s the first recording, by Clarence Williams’s Blue Five (including  Eva Taylor’s vocals and, again, Louis Armstrong on the cornet):

Finally, a side note: Doris Day may be the only singer to have performed both “Everybody Loves My Baby” (definitely not the “good girl” Doris Day of the stereotype) andEverybody Loves a Lover.” I don’t believe the songs are otherwise connected (but always welcome surprises (well, some of them)).

Send to Kindle

Midweek Music Break: Miles Davis, Soundtrack to Ascenseur Pour L’Echafaud

Jeanne Moreau and Miles Davis

[Image: Jeanne Moreau and Miles Davis]

A couple of days ago I ran across this list of (according to the Guardian) the “Top Ten Film Noir.” It was an interesting selection; I couldn’t recall seeing a a few of them, and one — #7 on the list, 1958’s Lift to the Scaffold — I couldn’t remember even hearing of. Said the Guardian:

Louis Malle’s first fiction feature, based on Noel Calef’s 1956 novel, occupies a very interesting space. It qualifies as film noir for its appropriation of US postwar cinema in its tale of lovers gone bad, but also heralds the imminent arrival of the French new wave. The director was in his mid-20s at the time and clearly using the crime-thriller genre (something he never returned to) as a testing ground and not a strict template. Perhaps that explains why his film is such a melting pot of influences, drawing not only on Hitchcock but also the Master of Suspense’s overseas admirers, including Henri-Georges Clouzot and his Les Diaboliques.

…in the film’s signature sequence [Jeanne Moreau’s character, Florence’s] man fails to turn up, so she walks the streets trying vainly to find him. Filmed on the fly without professional lighting, accompanied only by Miles Davis’s brilliant, melancholy score, these few minutes capture the bleak and beautiful essence of Malle’s film.

When I finally got around to looking it up on Wikipedia, I found (among the usual “much else”) a quote from a reviewer, jazz critic Phil Johnson:

The score by Miles Davis has been described by jazz critic Phil Johnson as “the loneliest trumpet sound you will ever hear, and the model for sad-core music ever since. Hear it and weep.”

(Johnson’s description appears to be pretty much de rigeur in anything posted on the Web about the soundtrack.)

All of which more or less commanded me to hunt the film down. We rarely rent DVDs anymore, preferring the convenience of streaming films and old TV shows. The search took several tries: in the first place, the Guardian‘s piece referred to the film only by its British title; and, in the second, my main resources for streaming films (Netflix and Amazon) currently offer the film only via DVD. (I finally found it to stream on Hulu Plus.)

Although it’s now in the Hulu queue, I haven’t actually seen the film yet. But the Miles Davis score — oh, my. From the first listen, I knew I’d have to post the whole thing this week. It’s not even a half-hour long*; still, if you put it on auto-replay while writing, don’t be surprised to find “guns, dames, and hats” (as the Guardian sums up the genre) creeping into your storyline.

# Title Length
01 Générique  2:48
02 L’Assassinat De Carala  2:09
03 Sur L’Autoroute  2:17
04 Julien Dans L’Ascenseur  2:09
05 Florence Sur Les Champs-Élysées  2:50
06 Dîner Au Motel  3:57
07 Évasion De Julien  0:51
08 Visite Du Vigile  2:03
09 Au Bar Du Petit Bac  2:52
10 Chez Le Photographe Du Motel  3:04

(Note: The playlist goes automatically from start to finish, once you click the little Play button. To skip to the next number, once a song is playing you’ll find a little fast-forward button to the right of its progress meter — and a fast-rewind to the left, for that matter.)

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.


* The ten songs here are as they appeared on the original soundtrack album; they all appear in the film. However, a later release of the album included sixteen additional tracks — alternate takes, sometimes multiples, of the core ten. A recent re-release of the soundtrack (as above) omitted these out-takes, a fact which drives some Amazon reviewers crazy: they feel cheated. Sorry; I myself just cannot get worked up about missing the snippets from the cutting-room floor — not given the score as delivered.

Send to Kindle

Midweek Music Break: Benny Goodman Orchestra, “One O’Clock Jump”

Count Basie wrote this iconic Big Band number in 1937, and played it as his theme song for half a century. Almost every other band of the time recorded its own version; the one presented here made its appearance at the Carnegie Hall debut performance of the Benny Goodman Orchestra, in January, 1938.

Over the course of its six-and-a-half minutes, the performance is apparently structured as a series of solos (we’ll get back to that apparently in a moment), by piano, tenor saxophone, trombone, clarinet, and, well… something else:

[Below, click Play button to begin One O’Clock Jump. While audio is playing, volume control appears at left — a row of little vertical bars. This clip is 6:34 long.

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

You might be curious what the “jump” in the title refers to. Wikipedia provides several hints, without fully answering the question:

  • Jump music — more properly, jump blues — “was an extension of the boogie-woogie craze.” (An example of boogie-woogie music previously covered here was “Beat Me Daddy, Eight to the Bar”… featured, of all things, in whiskey river Friday post in 2010.)
  • “Jump accomplishes with three horns and a rhythm section what a big band does with an ensemble of sixteen,” and
  • “The tenor saxophone is the most prominent instrument in jump.”

In Goodman’s version, saxophonist Babe Russin does play a central part. Easily the longest solo comes from Goodman’s clarinet, and Jess Stacy on piano and Harry James on trumpet stake out their own territories with characteristic assertiveness.

But — and here we get back to that apparently mentioned a few paragraphs ago — the real star of the performance is the rhythm section. You may not even notice it through much of the song, although it’s always there, pumping the whole thing along. But at around 5:09 it takes the stage almost exclusively, in an astonishing, all but exhausting run of something like thirty* cycles (bars?) of nothin’ but rhythm, the clarinet and other instruments simply twining around in embellishment.

Just for comparison, here’s one recording by Basie’s own band. It’s shorter and faster, but unmistakably the same song:

[Below, click Play button to begin One O’Clock Jump. While audio is playing, volume control appears at left — a row of little vertical bars. This clip is 3:47 long.

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.


* I’ve counted them several times, but keep getting swept up in the music and losing my place. Thirty is the number which crops up most often, heh.

P.S. No, the image at the top of this post doesn’t really have anything to do with this song. But I cracked up at the title. The singer pictured at the bottom right is Ruth Etting, who recorded one of the very earliest versions of “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” (as featured at the bottom of this post).

Send to Kindle

Not Exactly What You Had in Mind

[Image: promotional photo for Later the Same Evening, a one-act opera about five paintings by Edward Hopper. In this photograph, Hotel Room (also shown below) is the third painting from the left.]

From whiskey river:

Dark Pines Under Water

This land like a mirror turns you inward
And you become a forest in a furtive lake;
The dark pines of your mind reach downward,
You dream in the green of your time,
Your memory is a row of sinking pines.

Explorer, you tell yourself this is not what you came for
Although it is good here, and green;
You had meant to move with a kind of largeness,
You had planned a heavy grace, an anguished dream.

But the dark pines of your mind dip deeper
And you are sinking, sinking, sleeper
In an elementary world;
There is something down there and you want it told.

(Gwendolyn MacEwen [source])


Thomas Merton wrote, “there is always a temptation to diddle around in the contemplative life, making itsy-bitsy statues.” There is always an enormous temptation in all of life to diddle around making itsy-bitsy friends and meals and journeys for itsy-bitsy years on end. It is so self-conscious, so apparently moral, simply to step aside from the gaps where the creeks and winds pour down, saying, I never merited this grace, quite rightly, and then to sulk along the rest of your days on the edge of rage. I won’t have it. The world is wilder than that in all directions, more dangerous and bitter, more extravagant and bright. We are making hay when we should be making whoopee; we are raising tomatoes when we should be raising Cain, or Lazarus…

Go up into the gaps. If you can find them; they shift and vanish too. Stalk the gaps. Squeak into a gap in the soil, turn, and unlock — more than a maple — a universe. This is how you spend this afternoon, and tomorrow morning, and tomorrow afternoon. Spend the afternoon. You can’t take it with you.

(Annie Dillard [source])


I never liked jazz music because jazz music doesn’t resolve. But I was outside the Baghdad Theatre one night when I saw a man playing the saxophone. I stood there for fifteen minutes and he never opened his eyes.

After that I liked jazz music.

Sometimes you have to watch somebody love something before you can love it yourself. It is as if they are showing you the way.

I used to not like God because God didn’t resolve. But that was before any of this happened.

(Donald Miller [source])

[Read more…]

Send to Kindle

Midweek Music Break: Jazzy Joni

Joni Mitchell, or so I thought around the time I first heard of her, epitomized the sweet-and-fragile visuals of hippie-folk culture.

(With her long straight blonde hair, oh-so-slender frame and a voice to match, with her acoustic guitar and simple attire, she seemed a Mary Travers wannabe — maybe her gawky delicate second or third cousin, who admired her from a distance at family reunions and weddings.)

Sometimes her songs seemed to come out of that culture, too, especially the hits like “Both Sides Now” and “Big Yellow Taxi.” They cemented (in my mind) the image of a dreamy mystic tinged with social consciousness. I saw her in person in 1969, at the Atlantic City Pop Festival held a couple weeks before Woodstock; that restive crowd, especially in the context of her preference for small clubs, drove her from the stage in tears before she’d even finished a single song. (I vaguely remember thinking something adolescent-male shallow like, What the heck is her problem?!?) Obviously — obviously — she was way too delicate and inconsequential to have much staying power in the rough-and-tumble of rock…

Haha. Yeah, I know: what a jerk.

Eventually it sank in that her songs were complex little bundles of sound and sense, which only seemed simple if, like me, you had never really listened to them. Even when it’s just her and her guitar or piano, she interacts with her music, plays with it, responds to it — especially when she moves out of contemplative mode, relaxes, and takes up the rhythms of jazz.

Her first song which hit me that way was “You Turn Me On, I’m a Radio,” from 1972’s For the Roses. The grinning-over-her-shoulder, winking lilt fits the lyrics like a saddle. “If your head says forget it / But your heart’s still smoking”: oh, what I’d give to have written such a poised, nuanced line!

[Below, click Play button to begin You Turn Me On, I’m a Radio. While audio is playing, volume control appears at left — a row of little vertical bars. This clip is 2:39 long.

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.


You Turn Me On, I’m a Radio
(Joni Mitchell)

If you’re driving into town
With a dark cloud above you
Dial in the number
Who’s bound to love you

Oh honey you turn me on
I’m a radio
I’m a country station
I’m a little bit corny
I’m a wildwood flower
Waving for you
Broadcasting tower
Waving for you

And I’m sending you out
This signal here
I hope you can pick it up
Loud and clear
I know you don’t like weak women
You get bored so quick
And you don’t like strong women
‘Cause they’re hip to your tricks

It’s been dirty for dirty
Down the line
But you know
I come when you whistle
When you’re loving and kind

But if you’ve got too many doubts
If there’s no good reception for me
Then tune me out, ’cause honey
Who needs the static
It hurts the head
And you wind up cracking
And the day goes dismal

From “Breakfast Barney”
To the sign-off prayer
What a sorry face you get to wear
I’m going to tell you again now
If you’re still listening there

If you’re driving into town
With a dark cloud above you
Dial in the number
Who’s bound to love you

If you’re lying on the beach
With the transistor going
Kick off the sandflies honey
The love’s still flowing
If your head says forget it
But your heart’s still smoking
Call me at the station
The lines are open

Send to Kindle