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

Sunday, March 07, 2004

AGAINST THE PANTHEON (Part 9 of Driving Down the Mountain with Ella And Friends)

Ella Fitzgerald, along with Norman Granz, her record producer from the mid-’50s through the ‘60s, played an important role in naming the pantheon of classic pre-rock American songwriters. Ella and Granz devoted her “Songbook” series of albums, which appeared between 1956 and 1964, to the songwriters they considered tops. It turns out that the critical consensus that has emerged since the eclipse of the Tin Pan Alley era agrees with their decisions pretty closely. The songwriters: Cole Porter, the Gershwins, Duke Ellington, Rodgers and Hart, Irving Berlin, Jerome Kern, Harold Arlen, and Johnny Mercer.

The songbooks present themselves as summits between Ella and the songwriters, but there’s always a third co-equal creator present. Neither the annals of stardom nor the accounting books of record companies give this third creator co-equal status, but he (and on these records it’s always “he”) has as much to do with a listener’s experience as the chief star and interpreter (Ella) and the songwriter. This intermediary is the arranger.

The arranger. My usually unsung idol. The American pop music invention that encouraged the outrageously gorgeous florescence of American song in the pre-rock period. In the European “classical” tradition, a new arrangement of a piece of music gave the arranger co-composer status. “Fantasy on a theme by Meyerbeer,” by Holst, would be a (fictional) example. In jazz and pop, the songwriter always got paid and the jazz performers and arrangers just did their thing with it.

Nelson Riddle arranged a lot of the songbooks for Ella, and he always comes up with a suitable and lively and usually inventive setting. Some of the other arrangers don’t please me as consistently. Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn’s arrangements for the Duke songbook are nonpareil.

I haven’t heard the whole series, but I’ve heard parts of each of the songbooks and I own copies of a few of them. The series is monumental and frequently glorious. But three facets of the songbook series trouble my enjoyment of them, one of which I already mentioned: not all of the arrangers are as happening as Ella or the songwriters.

“Ella and Friends” is strictly contemporary. Some of the songs are older, but they’re all in the current style of the time they were recorded. The songbook series is retrospective and, with the exception of the Duke songbook, played and arranged with a retrospective sense of monumentality and decorum.

Years ago, when I was first starting to listen seriously to this repertoire, I was struck by the differences in tempo and approach between Ella’s ‘50s versions and Fred Astaire’s original ‘30s and ‘20s versions of some of the same songs. Some of the difference can be attributed to Ella’s consummate swing and the efforts of her arrangers to provide her with sympathetic settings.

The enormously influential French critic Andre Hodeir, in his book “Jazz: Its Evolution and Essence,” written in the ‘50s and translated into English in 1956, names two definitive qualities of swing: relaxation and vital drive. The co-habitation of tension and relaxation in swing is a paradox of the music and a source of its power. It is on these grounds that such jazz-influenced recordings as Fred Astaire’s soundtrack singing can be said not to swing: they have the vital drive, but not necessarily the inherent relaxation.

Hodeir argues that the evolution of jazz can be best heard through an understanding of the transformation of rhythmic style, from Ragtime to New Orleans, to Swing, to Bop. It’s a persuasive theory of American musical history, and it can be applied to American pop music as a whole, not just jazz.

On “Night and Day,” which Fred Astaire introduced in the 1930s, and which Ella sings on her “Cole Porter Songbook,” the two versions are as different as, well, not night and day, but pretty different. Fred sings it at a slightly faster tempo and with an urgency that suits the obsessional unrequited lust of the lyric. Ella sings it more confidently, at a statelier tempo, and with a statelier arrangement.

The differences suggest a coital theory of cultural evolution. Astaire’s version is all pre-coital uncertainty and urgency. Ella’s is all post-coital satisfaction.

The difference does not reflect a difference in ability or predilection on the part of the singers. It’s a question of historical moment. When Fred sang the song the style was still on the ascendant. Ella was singing when the style had been eclipsed by bop on the one side and was starting to be eclipsed by rock and roll on the other.

You can hear the distinction between pre-coital urgency and post-coital satisfaction (or dissatisfaction) in the history of rock too. ‘50s rock is all urgency and energy; ‘70s rock is all sleek and fat.

Sometimes even one band has contained the distinction within its history. The 1930s Count Basie Orchestra was an unbeatable swing combo. The 1950s Count Basie Orchestra (which had very few members held over from the ‘30s) cruised like a gigantic land-whale ‘50s luxury car. The pre-cursor to the ‘30s Basie Orchestra, the Bennie Moten Orchestra, of which Basie and his original and very key bassist Walter Page were members, played with even more vital drive than the Basie band.

Part of the pre-coital urgency could be due to the Eureka factor, the excitement of being privy to new discovery, either as the discoverer or an early follower. By the 1950s, the Eureka factor had disappeared from swing.

Not all late comers to a genre musically live in the post-coital sleek fat Cadillac style. Duke Ellington never entirely lost his urgency; in his 70s he made some dissonant high energy rock and roll, ears still open to the contemporary moment. My post-coital uneasiness about the songbook series does not apply to his songbook.

“Ella and Friends” comes from the heart of the glory of the swing years, and the energy is high and the arrangements unselfconscious.

My third qualm about Ella’s mostly marvelous songbook series: focussing on the pantheon leaves out a ton of great songs. Of the eight songwriters (or songwriting teams) canonized by Ella’s songbook series, only two are represented on the 20 songs of “Ella and Friends”: Duke Ellington and Harold Arlen with one song each. Two further songs represent songwriters who made it onto other people’s pantheons though not Ella’s: Harry Warren and Frank Loesser. That leaves 16 songs from non-pantheon songwriters, with not a bad one in the bunch and a number of classics.

A side effect of missing out on great songs is that an album devoted to one composer and arranged by one arranger can start to sound strained or samey.

The Duke songbook escapes censure on this count. Duke’s songbook represents contributions from many members of his orchestra, most famously Billy Strayhorn, but also very notably Juan Tizol, the composer of “Caravan” and “Perdido.” In addition to Duke, Billy, and Tizol, six members of the orchestra have songwriting credits on the “Songbook” album. It's like a studio approach to post-Renaissance painting, where apprentices contributed to the finished works of the main dude. "From the studio of Duke Ellington," and with goosebump-raising beautiful arrangements.

The Mercer songbook escapes this censure as well, because Mercer was primarily a lyricist who worked with a number of composers, including himself. The 13 songs on Ella’s Mercer songbook represent 12 composers; the only composer with more than one credit is Mercer himself! And Nelson Riddle outdid himself with the arrangements.

The urge to pantheon-erecting is understandable. We come to music through filters -- through radio, magazine articles, TV, recommendations from friends, movies, books. A pantheon of “great songwriters” is a filter with which listeners can start to sort the endless possibilities of past music preserved in sheet music and on records.

And "Ella and Friends" can point us to some of the great songs of the countless accomplished non-pantheon songwriters.

Comments: Post a Comment

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?