Saturday, February 1, 2014

My Turn as a Music Critic

Writing a blog about music is a dicey thing, since everyone's tastes are different. Had I written such a blog back in my twenties it would have come to a different conclusion. Back then I was crazy over the Beatles, Rock & Roll, the classical guitar work of Christopher Parkening, and anything by Merle Haggard or Johnny Cash, not to mention an odd fondness for Beethoven. In other words, I was all over the place.

Now, with the innovation of Pandora, I get to listen to a ton of music for free, even create “stations” of my own. As a result, I believe I have finally stumbled across my favorite type of music. About two years ago I created a “Frank Sinatra” station. Through it, I have gotten to hear not only all of his great recordings, but a virtual treasure trove of other artists from his era, an era that spanned 60 years. What follows is a partial list of the more memorable:

Ella Fitzgerald, Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Artie Shaw, Bennie Goodman, Glenn Miller, Nat King Cole, Louis Armstrong, Tony Bennett, Lionel Hampton, Chick Webb, Billie Holiday, and Woody Herman.

Many of the songs made popular by these artists comprise what is known as the American Songbook, songs recorded over and over by hundreds of singers and players over the years. Some of the great song writers were people like George and Ira Gershwin, Cole Porter, Hoagy Carmichael, and Sammy and Gus Kahn.

The swing jazz bands of Basie and Ellington are nothing short of phenomenal, with amazing rhythms and jaw-dropping improvisational solos flying out of everything from pianos to flutes. The beauty of Ella Fitzgerald’s voice, the emotional power of Sinatra, the silky, effortless delivery of Nat King Cole, are marvelous beyond description. But there’s something else.

Much like Haggard and Cash, these singers deliver every lyric in understandable clarity. The diction is always impeccable. And it’s a good thing since one would hate to miss a single word of lyrics such as these:

Stars shining bright above you

Night breezes seem to whisper, I love you

Birds singing in the sycamore tree

Dream a little dream of me

Say nighty night and kiss me

Just hold me tight and tell me you’ll miss me

While I’m alone and as blue as can be

Dream a little dream of me.

There’s a sweetness to these standards that attracts me. Today it might be called campy, I suppose, but compared to the garish exhibitionism of your average Grammy performance, these type of lyrics wash over me like cool, clean water. Of course not all the songs from the Frank Sinatra station are this sentimental, some feature darker themes. But all of them seem intelligently written, filled with emotion and tender thought.

So whether listening to a soulful Fitzgerald ballad or the uproarious chaos of Goodman’s “Sing, Sing, Sing,” this station brings it! Give it a try.