Utopian Turtletop. Monsieur Croche's Bête Noire. Contact: turtletop [at] hotmail [dot] com

Sunday, February 29, 2004

TONE AND TIMBRE (Driving down the Mountain with Ella and Friends, Part 7)

Tone and timbre, sound and expression -- I’m wrestling with the distinction between a person’s vocal sound, and the details of what the singer does with it.

I saw a documentary on Judy Garland on PBS the other night. She was blessed with what many people including me consider to be a deeply pleasing voice -- a beautiful voice. She also had a genius for expressiveness. This comes across particularly in film clips, watching the colors of many different shades of emotional nuance flicker rapidly across her face as she sings. She’s famous for an over-the-top excessive emotionality (which I love); she’s less famous for her subtlety and nuance. A recording like “Last Night When We Were Young,” from 1956, shows off many subtle shades of distraught, tinged with memories of joy, the loss of which has precipitated the sorrow. On “Anywhere I Hang My Hat Is Home,” from the same album (called simply “Judy”), she runs a gamut from rowdy pleasure to longing to something close to terror in her depiction of an itinerant life which the singer of the song feels inwardly compelled to live. “I’m going where the welcome mat is / No matter where that is.” Talk about fatalism -- Judy makes it sound very attractive and pretty damn scary.

The album “Ella Fitzgerald and Friends” (which I began writing about here on February 10, if you feel like reading the archives), unsurprisingly, trumpets these issues. Critics have denigrated Ella for not conveying lyrics as expertly as some of her peers, but I almost always find her to be idiomatic, expressive, and at ease in any emotional mode her repertoire presents her with. The raw sound of her voice -- many people have said this -- is simply gorgeous, as are her intonation, diction, range, rhythm, and improvisational inventiveness. Her buoyancy, her full-heartedness -- I cannot resist.

Two of the friends on “Ella and Friends” stand among the greatest masters, along with Judy, of finding unexpected emotional nuance in songs-as-sung: The two brilliant singing-playing Louises, trumpeter Armstrong and alto saxist Jordan.

On “Ella and Friends,” Armstrong’s genius for expressive timbre bursts through on a comic song by Joe Riccardel and Redd Evans (who they? Dunno), “The Frim Fram Sauce.” The singers crave a particular dish called frim fram sauce, with something on the side that the first several entries on Google all spell differently -- Ausen fay with shifafa on the side; oss-en-fay with sha fa fa on the side; oss and fay with chafafa on the side.

The line on which Armstrong surpasses expectations goes, “Now a fella’s really got to eat and a fella should eat right.” A breezy lyric, and Armstrong pounces on the word “Eat,” making it comically grotesque, an image of immense hunger bordering on gluttony. Or an image of immense pleasure in biting and tasting and chewing and swallowing, again bordering on gluttony. He sings the word out of tune, with a low loud shudder. The physicality of singing jostles over into the physicality of eating, with the enthusiasm conveyed by the dinner table entreaty, “Dig in!”

A couple years and a job ago at a conference-junket, when the 3rd keynote speaker in a row brought up spiritual matters in a way completely unrelated to the profession that the conference was supposed to be addressing, I started to get bugged. The new-agey speaker asked us to take a moment of silence to meditate on our “higher power,” however we conceive of such. I meditated on Louis Armstrong. And was filled with a feeling of peace and happiness, sating my hunger for personal smart-assery while simultaneously fulfilling the request of the speaker. Armstrong's devouring of the word “Eat” on the song “The Frim Fram Sauce” is only one example of many of his genius for complex expressiveness as a singer. The most perceptive and persuasive critic that I’ve read on this aspect of Armstrong’s music is Gary Giddins. In a terrific essay on Louis in his monumental book “Visions of Jazz,” which should be a basic guide to jazz history for years to come, Giddins has this marvelous line: “as Pope wrote of Homer, Armstrong’s art ‘is like a copious nursery which contains the seeds and first productions of every kind, out of which those who followed him have but selected some particular plants.’”

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