The Town Hall was built in the 1920's for orators, and musicians also discovered that the acoustics are superb. None of today's audio tech existed back then, but no mics are ever needed there. "Broadway Unplugged" is an annual concert that gathers some of Broadway's best singers performing without mics and sounding that much more real. I've attended the last two years and I've been thrilled hearing (and feeling) all these beautiful voices, not amplified through speakers, but directly from the throats (and the hearts) of the singers.
Scott Siegel is the producer and host. In this interview, we talked about the upcoming 5th annual "Broadway Unplugged" -- Monday the 17th at 8 at Town Hall -- for tonight's WBGO Journal. And we kept on talking, including listening to highlights from last year's show: Max von Essen and Sarah Jane McMahon singing "Tonight" from West Side Story, Lorinda Lisitza singing a heartbreaking "Surabaya Johnny" from Happy End, Marc Kudisch singing "I'm Still Here" from The Glorious Ones, and Bill Daugherty singing a show-stopping "Sit Down, You're Rocking The Boat" from Guys and Dolls.
Abbey Lincoln is proof that a rose by any other name smells as sweet. The reigning diva of jazz has had more than a few names over the years. She was born Anna Marie Wooldridge. Her earliest professional names include Gaby Wooldridge and Gaby Lee. For eight years, she was legally Mrs. Max Roach. The cultural minister of Zaire bestowed the name Aminata Moseka.
Abbey Lincoln has certainly earned the right of the great singers in our music, those who need only one name. Billie. Sarah. Ella. Carmen. Betty. Abbey.
For decades, Ms. Lincoln has also been the poet laureate of jazz. Her songs have expressed the essential components of a life unfolding, the sum of our strengths and vulnerabilities. That which makes us human. What's right and what's wrong with us. What we have done. What we can do better.
WBGO recorded Abbey Lincoln at Iridium in New York, October 1996. Marc Cary is the pianist, Michael Bowie the bassist, Aaron Walker the drummer.
This Sunday's telecast will be the 80th annual awarding of the Oscars. This Sunday's Singers Unlimited (10AM-2PM) will celebrate with songs from the movies. Most of the standards of the American Popular Songbook, songs of Rodgers & Hart, Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, the Gershwins et al, came from Broadway or Hollywood musicals. Most of the Broadway songs also came to the screen. I'll spotlight songs from the movies of Fred Astaire, Bing Crosby and Bob Hope, even Humphrey Bogart. I'll celebrate the birthday next week (and upcoming gig at Birdland) of Oscar-winning composer (and jazz pianist) Michel Legrand. I'll feature highlights from jazz and blues movies, also Oscar-winning songs performed by the likes of Nat Cole and Frank Sinatra -- although I won't be playing all of the Oscar-winning songs. "It's Hard Out Here for a Pimp" is not really in our groove on WBGO ...I started reviewing movies in 1967, and I've seen a thousand or two. I started going to the movies with my grandfather when I was 2. I don't remember any of those movies with him, but once in a while I'll be watching an old western and I'll have deja vu. I can't always remember what I was doing yesterday, but I can still name all the actors on The Late Show.
I rarely go to the movies nowadays. I get in cheaper as a senior, but most of the new movies aren't worth whatever the cost. I'd rather wait and rent newer movies -- although I'm much more often watching older movies on TV.
Herewith my all-time favorite movies:
1 THE SEVEN SAMURAI, the masterpiece of director Akira Kurosawa. Toshiro Mifune is downright feral on screen as one of the seven swordfighters who protect a farming village from bandits. My favorite of countless great moments: the little smile on the face of Daisuke Kato when his old comrade recruits him but tells him this time they might not survive, also the grace and power of Takashi Shimura drawing and shooting arrows during the climactic battle in the rain.
2 CASABLANCA, the first movie I bought on DVD. My favorite moment is any moment Claude Rains is on the screen.
3 THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES, photographed in often painterly black and white by (should've-won-an-Oscar visual genius) Gregg Toland. It's the story of three men returning home after WWII, each of them struggling with who they used to be and who they've become, each of them getting a dramatic moment of redemption. Fredric March as a banker turns drunken babble at a banquet into a passionate hope for the future. Dana Andrews as an ex-officer who can't get a job walks through a field of broken airplanes and realizes that he's also junk. Harold Russell (who actually lost both hands in the war) shows Cathy O'Donnell as his girl next door what he looks like when he pulls off his hooks, but, rather than being horrified, she matter-of-factly picks up his hooks as if she's putting aside his slippers. It's the most deeply intimate scene I've ever seen.
4 YOU'RE TELLING ME, I think the funniest comedy of the funniest comedian, W.C. Fields. He's especially graceful doing his physical gags, and, for someone always thought grumpy, Fields is also very sweet, especially when he talks to a princess when he thinks that she's trying to kill herself. I think the funniest scene ever filmed is in another Fields comedy, when he's trying to sleep on the back porch and keeps being bothered by noise and neighbors in IT'S A GIFT.
5 BOSSA NOVA, the romantic comedy I've watched every birthday since 2000, about a lawyer (Antonio Fagundes) who falls in love with an English teacher (Amy Irving) in Rio, dedicated to (and featuring songs of) Antonio Carlos Jobim.
My all-time favorite music for a movie was the all-star jam that happens throughout Robert Altman's KANSAS CITY. Being there when some of the music scenes were filmed was one of the best jazz experiences of my life, especially the tenor battle of Joshua Redman as Lester Young with Craig Handy as Coleman Hawkins. They filmed way more music than was needed, music that was so great that an all-music version was created, called Robert Altman's JAZZ '34. Bob asked me to write the opening scene-setter that Harry Belafonte reads on the soundtrack -- my first and only time ever actually working on a movie.
I don't know how Gary Walker does it.
Contrary to the rumours that jazz is dead, or that the record industry is dead, and that soon there won't be any more CDs, we get hundreds of new jazz and blues CDs in the mail every year, plus almost that many more re-issues. Somehow, as the WBGO music director, Walker must face the Herculean labour of listening through the CDs that come every week.
I'll walk by his office, look in to grunt hello, and Walker will have 4 or 5 or more towers of CDs on his desk. He'll be listening on his headphones. He'll be, quite often, scowling. I'll grunt and head back to the studio.
There, on a wooden shelf, are the CDs that we're playing in the "new" slots on the WBGO music format clock. Usually, more than a hundred new CDs. Which is more or less 100 hours of music. Which is more or less four days of listening. Non-stop sleepless listening. Which is why I actually hear very little of the new music I play before I actually play it.
I trust in Walker's judgment, and, if he's considered these CDs to be WBGO-worthy, I can play these CDs. I can also depend on my own 35 years of playing records on the radio to have an immediate instinct about which records I can play day after day. I know the musicians, or at least most of them. I know the tunes, or I can get a feeling of the whole track listening to the first few seconds. Which is why I always tell musicians, and especially singers who want my advice about recording, to show me what you've got right from the jump. No 40-second vamps before the music kicks in on the first track. I might not listen beyond the first 40 seconds. Which is discouraging for some musicians I've talked with, but that's reality.
"Reality is..." is what Wylie Rollins, the WBGO program director who hired Walker and me, always said as a preamble to bad news. Reality is there's never enough time to listen. Which is annoying to all the musicians who send me CDs and then e-mail or call me a week after and want to know what I think, only to be told that I have not listened yet and might never have time to listen. I'm not kidding that I have dozens of CDs, including some I got more than a year ago, including some by artists I love, including some CDs I actually bought, that I have not yet played.
All of that said, I do listen to music from time to time, more often to music that I very much like already, which is a whole other blog. Herewith, in the meantime, and I don't mean to sound mean, is what I listen for when I listen to a new album or artist, especially singers:
Repertoire ... I want to hear some tunes I haven't heard so often that I can't stand hearing them again. If it's something that's been done countlessly, do it like it's never been done before. If it's something new, do it brightly.
Arrangement .. I want to hear something new in even the oldest tunes. And, again, in tunes old and new, I want to hear melodies and harmonies and rhythms done so brightly that the music grabs me by the ears.
Talent ... Some singers I've heard can't come close to singing in tune. Some singers I've heard think that singing oodles of highly emoted but meaningless notes is exciting. When there's nothing that gets to me more deeply than someone who can sing one true note.
Showbiz ... I come from the theatre. I want to see someone on stage with presence, someone who connects with the audience. I believe that art ought to be entertaining.
I realized when I first blathered these points at greater length that the first letters of the four words -- Repertoire, Arrangements, Talent, Showbiz -- spell RATS. Unless you turn the letters around ...
We had a productive soundcheck and rehearsal with Trio da Paz, Kenny Barron, and singers Pamela Driggs and Maucha Adnet.
We spent more than an hour making sure that what the nation hears in New York will most assuredly sound like Rio de Janeiro. Michael Bourne was in fine form, and he has a story from Antonio Carlos Jobim to lead us into the countdown. We've practiced everything. Next time, it's for real.
After rehearsal, we ran upstairs to Blue Smoke for eats. Here's what it took to feed the New York crew.
Macaroni and Cheese x 2, Braised Collard Greens With Bacon, Sweet Potato Fries with Maple Dip, Mashed Potatoes and Onions, Creamed Spinach
Seared Atlantic Salmon with Tomatillo Sauce, Scallion-Pepper Rice & Pico de Gallo
Rhapsody In 'Cue (x 3) = St. Louis Spareribs, Pulled Pork, Smoked Chicken and Hot Link
Kansas City Spareribs (saucy) - one full rack
Memphis-Style Baby Back Ribs (leanest) - two full racks
Eight large, moist towlettes and many toothpicks. Hey, it's barbeque!
We're currently recording the first set from Jazz Standard.