That up there is one of my all-time favorite album covers. First of all, it’s pretty funny; Bill Evans looks like a parody of a Serious Person. I also love the color palette of browns, blacks, and golds (with that surprising splash of blue). And more than anything, I love that it looks like a record. Something about it makes it looks like it belongs only on an LP.
Bill Evans was only eight months removed from his work on Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue when he made Portrait in Jazz, which means he had an incredible year or so. Kind of Blue is obviously a landmark jazz record, and Evans’ record is just flat-out great, with the bandleader’s nimble fingers dancing over the piano keys and drummer Paul Motian and bassist Scott LaFaro providing subtle, confident support.
It’s LaFaro I notice most on “Autumn Leaves,” even more than Evans’ typically beautiful playing. LaFaro cheekily walks all over this thing, especially in the beginning, when he plays syncopated notes on off beats, like he’s trying to confuse his band members. This interaction—LaFaro skipping from note to note, Evans and Motian steadily holding the line—is typical of Portrait in Jazz, an album that delights in sounding simultaneously buttoned-up and ready to break rules.
Bill Evans may have been his trio’s leader in name, but the group was a true ensemble.
“Save the Last Dance for Me” has one of my favorite melodies in all of pop music. I’ve said this about other songs, but I can’t think of a better word for it: it’s so symmetrical. Not literally, of course—it’s not a musical palindrome—but it seems to begin and end exactly where it should, as if it follows a perfectly even arc.
Legend has it that one of the song’s co-writers, the wheelchair-bound Doc Pomus, came up with the idea behind “Save the Last Dance for Me” on his wedding day, after watching his bride dance with other guys. In a pop universe filled with romantic angst and melodrama, the song must have been a breath of fresh air, a story about security and confidence instead of mistrust and despair. Ben E. King, of course, can sing the hell out of anything, but he didn’t need to sell this one too hard to make it land. He just had to sing it.
“Save the Last Dance for Me” was just one of the Drifters’ many hits, which include “Up on the Roof,” “On Broadway” and “This Magic Moment.” Though the group’s songs were steeped in sweet memories, their history had anything but: their Wikipedia page details legal dealings, infighting and other kinds of acrimony. Listening to Ben E. King tell his loved one that everything’s always going to be just right, you’d never know it.
I’m including that album cover up there as a kind of cheat: “My Heart Cries” didn’t originally appear on At Last!—it was included as a bonus track on the record’s 1999 re-release. But damn, that album cover. I couldn’t resist.
“My Heart Cries” was released as the B-side of a single that featured “If I Can’t Have You” as the main attraction. To me, though, the song is not only worthy of an A-side, but of a place on James’s timeless LP. I think it’s gorgeous. James’s harmonies with Harvey Fuqua (founder of The Moonglows and a seminal figure in the birth of Motown Records) are imperfect, but that adds a kind of charm. The song’s rough edges make the duet sound like the work of people trying their damndest to make something work, either as a work of art or a relationship.
The musicianship on display here is equally stunning. The guitars are warm and thick, the saxophones are fat and round, and the piano is light and graceful. It all combines to make a big, comforting soup, one that surely deserves a better role than also-ran.
Today, April 4, 2013, would have been Muddy Waters’s 100th birthday. (I’m cheating a little bit, because technically the 93rd day of the year is April 3, but I’m a day behind in my posts.) He has the same birthday as my daughter, who is exactly 98 years younger than him. I don’t think much about the cosmic meaning of birthdays or signs, but the older I get, the more I like it when things like that coincide. Lilly and I have danced around to Muddy Waters together, so it’s nice that they share a birthday.
I’m no blues expert, but I know that I love Chicago blues. I always thought I liked it because of its mixture of dirtiness and formality, so I was surprised to read that the Chicago style often incorporates some jazz elements, such as ninths, an interval between notes that makes the music sound a little more ambiguous and abstract. To my ears, there isn’t much ambiguity in the Chicago style, especially in the songs of Muddy Waters. There’s mystery and darkness, especially in the vocals and lyrics, but the music always seems locked down tight, full of tension, as if something’s about to break.
My favorite Muddy Waters song is easily “Got My Mojo Workin'”. The original studio version is much slower than I’m accustomed to from subsequent live versions, so today I’m going with the live version from the Newport Folk Festival. Muddy actually played the song a second time, so the track listing on the Muddy Waters at Newport 1960 album, recorded live at the Newport Jazz Festival, lists the song in two parts. I have no idea why he launched back into it after Part 1, but if he hadn’t, he wouldn’t have done that little foxtrot with his harp player, James Cotton.
Muddy Waters at Newport 1960 was an enormously popular and influential album, so it’s amazing to think that the performance almost didn’t happen. The previous night, a riot broke out after 12,000 drunk teenagers and college students rushed the gates in hopes of getting in without a ticket. The Rhode Island police and the National Guard responded with tear gas. Newport promoter George Wein convinced the Newport City Council to keep the concert going, and Muddy’s band went on the next day.
Carole King is often lumped in with easy listening pablum, and I guess I understand why. But Tapestry, King’s blockbuster album from 1971, isn’t easy listening. It goes down pretty easy, but not without some complications, most notably King’s voice, which is less polished than many of her colleagues on the radio at the time (critic Robert Christgau described it as free of “technical decorum”).
King’s voice, in fact, is what makes Tapestry so good. These songs are full of heartbreak, and King sounds like someone who is trying to sound sure of herself. It’s the trying that I find so endearing. That probably sounds patronizing, but I mean it as a compliment; it’s an unconventional voice, but it’s a perfect match for these excellent songs.
“Will You Love Me Tomorrow?” was first performed by the Shirelles in 1960, and it was the first big hit (among many) that King wrote with her future husband Gerry Goffin. Hearing the songwriter perform the song more than 10 years after it became a pop classic, drawing out its pathos and darkness and erasing its sheen, is fascinating. I know it’s heresy to say so, but I slightly prefer King’s version of “Will You Love Me Tomorrow?” over the brilliant original.
King was only 18 years old when she and Goffin wrote “Will You Love Me Tomorrow?”, and the fact that it sounds so credible when sung by a 29-year-old King (not to mention countless others of all ages and backgrounds) is testament to its staying power.
The only moment in this song that I don’t like is when James Taylor, whose vocals are generally mixed low on the track, pops up in the bridge like a Muppet in a counting song. C’mon, James Taylor. Take it down a notch.