Archive for the Music Category

Carúl Inis Córthaidh

Posted in Music on December 20, 2021 by telescoper

The Wexford Carol is a traditional Christmas song whose origin is obscure. It is often said to date from the 12th Century, or even earlier, but music historians consider it more likely to be from the 15th or 16th Century. Whatever its provenance, it’s a fascinating folk melody with a haunting, timeless quality to it.

The song is associated with Enniscorthy in County Wexford so is called in the Irish Language Carúl Inis Córthaidh or Carúl Loch Garman, Wexford being one of those towns in Ireland with an Irish name (Loch Garman) that bears no phonetic relationship whatsoever to its English name. Anyway the song is very well known and there are a lots of versions floating around, but is usually sung in English so I thought I’d post a version in Irish. Altogether now “Ó, tagaigí uile is adhraigí …”

Il Mio Tesoro – John McCormack

Posted in History, Opera with tags , , , on December 19, 2021 by telescoper

The aria Il Mio Tesoro Intanto from Act II of Mozart’s great Opera Don Giovanni is widely regarded as a test piece for Operatic tenors because of its demanding mix of long flowing lines, big leaps and florid coloratura ornamentation. The other day I heard a performance by the great Irish tenor John McCormack which, despite being recorded over a hundred years ago (in 1916) completely blew me away. I thought I’d share it here.

John McCormack made over 800 records in his lifetime, the vast majority of them Irish songs and ballads that found a huge audience not only in Ireland but also in the Irish diaspora in the United States of America; this part of his career was extremely lucrative making him a millionaire. His first love was the Opera: a lyric tenor of the highest quality, his career overlapped with that of the great Enrico Caruso and the two became great friends after McCormack moved to the United States and became a regular at the Metropolitan Opera. It was Caruso who made the first ever million-selling record (Vesti La Giubba from I Pagliacci in 1902) and perhaps that’s what persuaded McCormack to embark on a recording career.

Before the 1920s gramophone recordings were entirely acoustic, made by a process exactly the reverse of a gramophone player. Musicians and singers would play into a horn at the sharp end of which was a needle that could leave an impression on the recording medium. In the early days the recording would be made on a wax cylinder, but this was soon replaced by plastic or acetate discs. It wasn’t possible to make recordings longer than a few minutes using this method.

Here’s an example of an early recording session showing what it was like. The chap with the moustache is Sir Edward Elgar:

Given this sort of arrangement it is no surprise that the sound of the Orchestra of the Met is muffled and distorted on the following recording. Almost certainly McCormack would have been standing right in front of the horn so his sizeable form would have acted as a kind of baffle. When I think of these old records it always seems a wonder that you can hear anything at all.

Despite the limitations of the recording technology the crystal clarity of McCormack’s voice and his superb control shine through. I listen to quite a lot of old jazz records made in a similar way so my ears are perhaps unusually forgiving but I think this is one of the greatest versions of this aria that I’ve ever heard – and I’ve heard quite a few. I hope you enjoy it too.

P.S. John McCormack was born in Athlone, which is about 100km due west of Maynooth.

Rum & Coca Cola – The Christie Brother Stompers

Posted in Jazz with tags , , , , on December 11, 2021 by telescoper

And now for something completely different in the form of a lovely bit of British revivalist Jazz from 70 years ago. Once upon a time I had a 7″ EP record with this track on it, but I’m afraid I lost it along the way. I’ve been hoping someone would put it on Youtube and it seems about six months ago somebody did!

The song Rum and Coca Cola was a hit for the Andrews Sisters in the immediate post-war years although it began as a satirical calypso with clear references to prostitution. Anyway, it’s a catchy tune and it’s no surprise that it was picked up by traditional jazz bands during the New Orleans revival, including this terrific version by the Christie Brother Stompers made in 1951; note the calypso-style piano intro.

When this particular record was made, British bands were being heavily influenced by the discs that were coming over from the States at the time – especially from Bunk Johnson’s 1940s band and the Kid Ory band – to the extent that a recorded-in-a-garage sound was sedulously acquired. Despite the somewhat muffled sound quality, I really love this record for the general exuberance of the playing, especially that of the superb trombonist Keith Christie whose style of tailgate trombone was clearly influenced by Kid Ory.

Keith Christie was for some time a member of the front line of Humphrey Lyttelton’s band and when Keith Christie passed away in 1980, Humph devoted full hour on his weekly radio programme The Best of Jazz to examples of his work (including this track). I remember Humph drawing attention to the robust humour that permeated Keith’s playing and admitting that when he was with the Lyttelton band they had several band meetings in which he tried to get him to temper the playful side of things. Quite wrongly, he admitted because while Keith Christie often brought out the humorous side of trombone he never mocked it.

The revivalist bands of that day were indeed a bit po-faced about their jazz and although the music they produced is great fun to listen to, they were all deadly serious about it. I think “The Guv’nor” Ken Colyer (who plays cornet on this track) was even more grave than Lyttelton and I’m not sure how he felt about Keith’s propensity to emphasize the knockabout fun of the music, though it is true that this band did change personnel rather abruptly shortly after the 1951 session.

The full line-up is: Keith Christie (trombone); Ian Christie (clarinet, Keith’s brother); Ken Colyer (cornet); Pat Hawes (piano); Ben Marshall (banjo); Micky Ashman (bass); and George Hopkinson (drums). I think Keith Christie’s playing on this is absolutely terrific, not only his solo – built in Kid Ory style around a single phrase – but his rumbustious contributions to the ensemble from about 1:45 seconds. And what a head of steam they build up together! Enjoy!

R.I.P. Steve Bronski (1960-2021)

Posted in Biographical, LGBT, Music with tags , on December 9, 2021 by telescoper

I was saddened to hear this evening of the death at the age of 61 of Steve Bronski, co-founder of the band Bronski Beat which provided much of the soundtrack of my early twenties. I spent many an hour in the mid-80s dancing away in gay clubs to their up-tempo numbers like Hit That Perfect Beat but, as I’ve mentioned on this blog before, the song Smalltown Boy had a particular resonance for me because it was about thoughts and feelings I knew very well but had never heard expressed in popular music. I really felt like the Smalltown Boy in the song.

Rest in Peace, Steven William Forrest, aka Steve Bronski (1960-2021).

Sugar Rum Cherry – Duke Ellington

Posted in Biographical, Jazz with tags , , , , , on December 3, 2021 by telescoper

Today has been one of those days on which I’ve been quite busy all day but seem to have achieved very little so I eventually retreated home in the rain to have a drink or several before making dinner.

Jazz and classical music don’t always provide a palatable blend, but here’s one cocktail that definitely works, especially as the festive season approaches. It’s from the 1960 album The Nutcracker Suite by Duke Ellington, based on original music for the ballet by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovksy. Most of the arranging on the album was done by Duke Ellington’s regular collaborator Billy Strayhorn,  and the result is every bit as witty, elegant and charming as you’d expect.  This is their gorgeous take on The Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy:

Jazz Quiz – Name that Trumpeter

Posted in Jazz on November 27, 2021 by telescoper

It’s difficult to post a quiz that can be answered easily by the use of Google, but I thought I’d try because this track from Youtube doesn’t have any personnel information or recording date on it.
It’s a big band arrangement by Benny Carter of the standard Just You Just Me. Carter himself solos on this live performance along with other members of the band, but can you put a name to the trumpeter who comes at about 43 seconds, after Carter’s opening solo?

Read on for the answer:

Continue reading

Pithecanthropus Erectus – Charles Mingus

Posted in Jazz with tags , on November 13, 2021 by telescoper

I heard this track on the radio the other night courtesy of John Kelly’s show and thought I’d write a post about it because I think it’s a neglected masterpiece. Pithecanthropus Erectus is the title track of an album by Charles Mingus released in 1956. For that time it was incredibly new: the long passages of static harmony, along with grunts and squeals from the horns, all became common place in avant garde jazz in later years but it is very surprising to hear them in a record from the mid 50s.

Mingus intended this piece to convey in music humanity’s evolution, which he imagined would end in violent destruction. Who’s to say he was wrong? The tune itself is in an intriguing ABAC form with the B and C sections based on the same unvarying harmonic pattern but the C section being agitated and even chaotic. On the first and last choruses the alto sax of Jackie Mclean and the tenor of J.R. Monterose play improvised duets on the B section while the C section involves the whole band improvising collectively in a style reminiscent of the free jazz of the 1960s. The unusual accents on the fourth beat of the bar were later adopted by Miles Davis on Milesetones. These are just a couple of examples of how influential this track was to turn out to be. Looking back on it in historical perspective you can see how much of the musical vocabulary of jazz expanded with this one track.

Mingus shared with Miles Davis the ability to create music that was distinctively his own while somehow at the same time giving his musicians plenty of time to express themselves. In this performance there’s a very fine piano solo by Mal Waldron who, among other things, very effectively channels Thelonious Monk to a marvelous bass accompaniment by Mingus.

The other three tracks on the album are good too, but inevitably pale beside this work of genius in which Mingus managed to weld all these new and untried elements into a completely satisfying unity that was years ahead of its time.

Keys, Blues, a House, and an Infirmary

Posted in Music with tags , , , , on November 7, 2021 by telescoper
Scott’s Corner

I’m not finding very much time these days to continue trying to teach myself how to play the piano but I thought I’d share a quick post that probably only demonstrates how little I know about music.

The other day I decided to try to play The House of the Rising Sun without the music, i.e. by ear. Knowing that it is basically an 8-bar blues for which I thought I could easily figure out the chords I looked up what key it should be played in. Google confidently told me this:

So I set about trying to pick out the melody in that key, but I couldn’t get it to sound right at all (even allowing for the fact that my piano is a bit out of tune). Then I realized that it’s not really in F Major at all. It’s actually in D Minor (the relative minor of F Major, so it also has the same B flat but with a scale that starts on A rather than F). Transposing the chords into D Minor makes it sound much more moody. It can also be played in A Minor as demonstrated by the Modern Jazz Quartet whose Blues in A Minor is unmistakably the same tune:

Anyway, fooling around with 8 bar blues in different keys I tried F Minor and it struck me that there was a marked similarity between House of the Rising Sun and another famous 8-bar blues St James Infirmary. In fact you can sing the lyrics to St James Infirmary quite easily to the tune of House of the Rising Sun.

Both of these tunes have very old origins: Jack Teagarden, for example, introduced his classic 1947 live performance of St James Infirmary with the words “the oldest blues I ever heard”. I always assumed both these tunes referred to real places, but that seems wrong too. There was no “House in New Orleans” they called the Rising Sun, nor was there a St James Infirmary. They are not the same song, and neither started off as an 8-bar blues, but they do have elements in common and may be derived from a common ancestor.

The most famous version of The House of the Rising Sun is the 1964 hit by Eric Burdon with the Animals (including Alan Price on keyboards, who did the arrangement):

Interestingly, Eric Burdon and the Animals made a much less famous version of St James Infirmary in 1968 which I think demonstrates the similarity between the two tunes:

Hallowe’en – Charles Ives

Posted in Music with tags , , on October 31, 2021 by telescoper

I posted about this fascinating piece by Charles Ives ten years ago today, when I was still in Cardiff, but the link on that post to the actual music has died so I’m posting it again today.

If you like you can read my first ever Hallowe’en post from 2008 here.

R.I.P. Bernard Haitink (1929-2021)

Posted in Music with tags , , on October 24, 2021 by telescoper

Renowned conductor Bernard Haitink passed away on 21st October at the age of 92. It’s hard to pick one piece to commemorate such a distinguished career in music so I’m not going to try to be objective. Some time ago I bought the complete set of Mahler Symphonies performed by the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra in 1966 with Haitink at the helm and I think their performance of Mahler Symphony No. 3 is up there with the very best.

It’s interesting that as recently as 2018, another performance of Mahler 3 directed by Haitink won the BBC Recording of the Year. There is also a complete live performance from 1983 on Youtube which I was tempted to post here but the whole Symphony is about 100 minutes long so I decided instead to just post an excerpt which, fortunately, someone has already put on Youtube.

Here’s just one movement – the sixth and last – from that epic work. This movement is marked langsam which basically means “slow” but I think many conductors take this movement too slowly. Haitink for me judges the pace perfectly. There’s an overwhelming sense of catharsis at the climax of this movement.

R.I.P. Bernard Haitink (1929-2021)