In the June issue of Music Media Monthly you’ll find a very mixed bag indeed: reviews of video documentaries on the celebrated conductor Mariss Jansons and composer Felix Mendelssohn; a book about Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Kris Kristofferson and the “outlaw country” movement; a wonderful jazz website; and sound recordings representing classical, jazz, and more. Enjoy!
In 1980, Willie Nelson appeared at the Democratic National Convention in New York to support his friend, President Jimmy Carter. Willie ambled on stage and sang his own edited version of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” leaving out some of the lyrics. It hardly mattered; Nelson was already a beloved public figure. Now, at 80, he is a living monument. (There is a bronze statue of him in Austin.) Kris Kristofferson will soon be 77. Like Nelson, Kristofferson continues to tour and to record. Waylon Jennings died in 2002.
Four decades ago, these three Texas natives – with considerable help from Johnny Cash and a large supporting cast – forever changed country-western music with their “redneck” songs, nonconformist attitude, and shaggy locks. Their work freed country music from the hidebound, syrupy “Nashville Sound”.
Michael Streissguth’s spirited book describes the scene in the country-music capital as it gave birth to the “outlaw movement”. There are plenty of books about country music in general, and many more about individual singer-songwriters. However, Streissguth synthesizes the impact of rebels who insisted on obeying their own muse, choosing their own producers and backup musicians, and dressing “like Jesse James”.
Streissguth frames the “outlaw” contribution within a larger political and social context. Nashville long was a segregated city. Its civil rights lunch-counter sit-in leaders were the original outlaws, the author suggests. But it took time to shake up the music establishment.
Kristofferson, who had been a Rhodes scholar, was still in his U.S. Army uniform when he arrived in 1965. A teaching assignment at West Point awaited him, but the music mecca exerted a stronger pull. He resigned his commission, rejected the teaching offer, and settled his family in Nashville. The following year, as Bob Dylan was recording Blonde on Blonde in Nashville’s Columbia Records studio, Kristofferson worked there cleaning ashtrays and doing other menial tasks.
Nelson was a known quantity, having written such hits as “Crazy” and “Funny How Time Slips Away”. But his record sales were anemic and he chafed against the tight reins held by legendary guitarist Chet Atkins, who ruled RCA’s Nashville offices.
Jennings, a member of Buddy Holly’s band, famously gave up his seat to “The Big Bopper” (J.P. Richardson) on the plane that crashed and took Holly’s life. He, too, butted heads with Atkins, even though several of his early Nashville recordings were hits.
The man Streissguth identifies as the outlaw “godfather”, Johnny Cash was the first to break away from Nashville’s “nursery-rhyme-simple verse”. Cash gave Kristofferson a huge boost when he put him on the bill at the 1969 Newport Folk Festival. Kristofferson also got attention for the song “Me and Bobby McGee”, which was recorded that year by country star Roger Miller. The renegades were gaining strength.
Vietnam War protests contributed to Nashville’s ferment. In 1970, the National Guard shootings at Kent State University in Ohio triggered demonstrations at Nashville’s Vanderbilt University, a generally conservative campus. The anti-establishment music contingent grew to include another pair of Texas songwriters: Guy Clark and Rodney Crowell. The burgeoning movement helped make the city’s West End neighborhood “a bohemian enclave, a glint of San Francisco in the buckle of the Bible Belt”. The Exit/In, a key music club, opened in 1971.
Even though Nelson returned home to Texas after his Nashville house burned down, his influence did not dim. He returned often to record and to perform in Nashville, symbolizing, in the author’s words, “the union of ‘hippie and hillbilly”. Both Nelson, a connoisseur of weed, and Jennings, an amphetamine user, finally won creative control over their albums.
Streissguth names Waylon’s 1973 Honky-Tonk Heroes as the first album of the outlaw movement. Who coined the term “outlaw”? A staffer at one of the recording studios. Asked by a disc jockey what to call the music, she paged through a dictionary and found “outlaw” defined as “living on the outside of the written law”. That sounded right, she thought, and suggested that the DJ use it.
Anecdotes tell how Waylon and his posse liked to stay awake all night playing nonstop pinball at joints like Burger Boy. Once, when the Burger Boy manager asked to be reimbursed for the $4,000 he had advanced Jennings, the singer wrote him a check – on a paper bag. A local bank actually cashed it.
Nelson’s masterly Red Headed Stranger became the outlaws’ first blockbuster album, although record executives were so puzzled by its spare instrumentation that when they first heard it, they thought it was unfinished. The outlaw zenith came with the 1976 release of Wanted! The Outlaws. A compilation, it included Waylon and Willie dueting on “Good Hearted Woman,” along with performances by Jessi Colter (Waylon’s wife at the time) and Tompall Glaser. It became the first country music album to sell 1 million copies. Waylon’s band had been carrying gear from show to show in a station wagon; now they were booked in arenas, their equipment transported in a convoy of tractor-trailers.
Cocaine was among the problems that led to the movement’s demise. Jennings, a major consumer, was arrested on conspiracy distribution charges; these were dropped, but an associate did plead guilty to distributing cocaine and served a short prison sentence. Jennings mistrusted many people and hated the media, “so it was Willie who became the darling”. Meanwhile, Kristofferson became a movie star and left Nashville’s orbit.
Still, the nationwide popularity of pickup trucks and cowboy boots was a testament to the outlaw influence. Among the musicians who covered outlaw tunes or wrote their own were Billy Joe Shaver, Jerry Jeff Walker, Marshall Chapman, Emmylou Harris, Roseanne Cash, Kinky Friedman, John Hiatt and even Elvis Presley.
Ironically, it was Stardust, Willie Nelson’s 1978 album of American pop standards, that united fans young and old into a single massive audience, says Streissguth. Nelson surely is “the most significant musical and spiritual legacy” of the rebels.
Overall, Outlaw is an entertaining look at an important musical uprising of the 1970s.
Outlaw: Waylon, Willie, Kris and the Renegades of Nashville by Michael Streissguth. 2013. 304 pages. ISBN: 978-0062038180. It! Books.
– Grace Lichtenstein
Between Two Waves
Kremerata Baltica; various soloists and conductors
This is the first album to be devoted entirely to compositions by Russian composer Victor Kissine, and it features three pieces: the title composition (a piano concerto); a duo for viola and cello; and a piece titled “Barcarola” for violin, percussion, and orchestra. Kissine suggests that what unites all three works is a sense of the ocean, but I doubt that most listeners would pick up on that flavor unprompted. What these pieces all suggest to me is a weird and unsettling dream–but one from which you won’t want to wake up. I realize that makes no sense, so let me try again: all of these pieces, each in a different way, evoke a mood of fretful productivity, or maybe laid-back anxiety; each creates an abstract and at times almost pointillistic soundscape that alternately twinkles, glistens, mutters, and dances. I wouldn’t necessarily play this album at a party, but I would use it to demonstrate to skeptical friends that art music can be uncompromisingly modern without being chaotic, self-indulgent, assaultive, or merely mathematical. The playing is exceptionally fine; one of the featured soloists is violinist Gidon Kremer, who founded the punningly-named Kremerata Baltica.
Azica (dist. Naxos)
For this deeply attractive recital program, harpist Yolanda Kondonassis has selected a varied but aesthetically unified list of works by American composers John Williams (the film composer), Hannah Lash, Lowell Liebermann, Stephen Paulus, Norman Dello Joio, John Cage, and Elliott Carter. All nine pieces are original compositions for harp (not arrangements), and of them three represent world-premiere recordings. The album opens with deceptive simplicity (Williams’ “The Lanes of Limerick” draws deeply and sweetly on Celtic harp traditions) before heading off into crunchier, more challenging territory and ending with Elliott Carter’s predictably bristly and difficult “Bariolage.” But even at its spikiest moments, this music is made both accessible and fascinating by Kondonassis’ unique blend of strength, sensitivity, and subtlety of touch. This is a marvelous recording by a major young talent.
Wayne Wallace Latin Jazz Quintet
Latin Jazz-Jazz Latin
Despite an album title that sounds as if the group ran out of time to come up with something better, this is yet another triumphant Latin jazz project from trombonist, composer, and bandleader Wayne Wallace, whose quintet continues to display a quality that is the holy grail of Latin jazz ensembles: the fiendishly difficult juxtaposition of utter tightness and rubbery looseness that makes Afro-Latin grooves possible and without which the music ends up sounding like a suburban junior high school exercise. On tunes like “A Ti Te Gusta” and “Estamos Aqui,” solo chops (though present and prolific) matter hardly at all; what matters is the way the ensemble’s limbs move in their sockets. The band’s adaptation of Duke Ellington’s “Things Ain’t What They Used to Be” works very well, as does their chugging take on John Coltrane‘s “Giant Steps,” but I kind of wish they had chosen a different Thelonious Monk number–Wallace’s arrangement of “I Mean You” feels a bit rhythmically forced (“Bye-Ya” might have been a better choice), though it’s still plenty of good fun. Overall, this is a very enjoyable album and is highly recommended to all fans of Latin jazz.
Studio One Ironsides: 1963-1979
Soul Jazz (dist. Redeye)
England’s Soul Jazz label has established an enviable relationship with the corporate remnants of Studio One, the Jamaican label responsible for some of the most important and influential recordings of the ska, rock steady, and reggae periods. Soul Jazz has released a steady stream of compilations and reissues drawing on the Studio One vaults, and this is one of the best in the bunch: an 18-track collection that includes both timeless classics (the Gladiators’ “Bongo Red,” Lone Ranger’s “Three Mile Skank”) and obscurities (the Soul Sisters’ “Another Night”), and a mix of vocal, instrumental, and DJ numbers as well. There are some examples of early dub mixes, mid-1960s ska and rock steady tunes from the likes of Don Drummond and Alton Ellis, and vintage roots reggae from Cornel Campbell, Freddie McGregor, and Johnny Osbourne. I can hardly imagine a better introduction to both the formative and the mature periods of reggae music, and the packaging is lovingly done (as is usually the case with these Soul Jazz collections). The track-by-track liner notes are helpfully detailed without being annoyingly obsessive. A triumph in all respects.
– Rick Anderson
Music is the Language of the Heart and Soul: A Portrait of Mariss Jansons; Mahler: Symphony No. 2. A film by Robert Neumüller. Concert conducted by Mariss Jansons and performed by the Netherlands Radio Choir and the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra. Available in 2 DVDs (709708) or 2 Blu-ray discs (709804). C Major, 2012. 142 minutes. $29.99/$39.99.
Beautifully and sensibly constructed, this documentary tells the story of contemporary conductor Mariss Jansons, who celebrates his 70th birthday this year. Disc 1 of the set is the documentary Music is the Language of the Heart and Soul, and Disc 2 is a performance of Mahler’s “Resurrection” Symphony with Jansons conducting the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, a group he has led since 2004. The documentary—including Jansons’s narrative—is in German, but subtitles are provided in English, French, Spanish, Chinese, and Korean.
Jansons—an aging, sensitive, and modest Latvian conductor—is one of those people who, when he talks about music, leaves you holding your heart in your hands. Most of the film consists of Jansons offering an unassuming autobiography in which he recalls a very nurturing and musical childhood: his happy upbringing by a conductor father and mezzo-soprano mother, spending much of his time at the Riga Opera house during his parents’ rehearsals, the day he received his first violin from his father, how hearing Carmen reminds him of his mother, and how any Strauss piece brings to mind his father.
Jansons prepared for a musical career, studying conducting at the Leningrad Conservatory. Though Soviet officials denied Jansons’s initial request to leave the country to accept Herbert von Karajan‘s invitation to become his assistant conductor, he was later able to work under Karajan in Salzburg during what proved to be a very formative time in his early career. The film shows footage of a young Jansons rehearsing Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 as Karajan’s assistant; Jansons ties this memory back to his parents, revealing that when he was ill as a young boy, his mother would play that very symphony at his request over and over again while he studied the score. It was only after Jansons won a prize in the 1971 International von Karajan Foundation Competition that he felt he became the young conductor Mariss Jansons rather than merely the son of Arvids Jansons.
The film includes interviews with notable singers and stage directors: baritone Thomas Hampson, pianists Lang Lang and Rudolf Buchbinder, and soprano Krassimira Sloyanova all figuratively sing their praise of Jansons. There is also modern footage of Jansons leading rehearsals for a 2011 production of Eugene Onegin in Amsterdam—both Sitzprobe and staged—as well as shots from the live production. Jansons covers a range of topics in the film; he describes himself as fortunate to lead the Concertgebouw, an orchestra with a “very noble sound,” and he recalls his experience having a heart attack on the podium, which is how his father died—collapsing in the middle of a performance. The most salient and touching part of the documentary, however, is when Jansons expresses deep gratitude to his parents while Hampson performs Songs of a Wayfarer in the background.
Just last week, Jansons received the Musikpreis—often called the Nobel Prize of music—from the Ernst von Siemens Musikstifung, an honor he shares with Bernstein, Britten, Harnoncourt, Stockhausen, and his former mentor Karajan, among many other composers, conductors, and performers. Both the documentary and the symphonic performance on this set are evidence that this award is richly deserved, and both are equally fine tributes to Jansons, a respected artist and a thoughtful soul. Highly recommended.
The narrative structure of this curious documentary is based on letters written by Felix and Fanny. The topical focus of the film seems to be on Mendelssohn’s Jewishness and on anti-Semitism during and after his life, but it also explores religious kitsch and the appropriateness of performing religious works in concert halls, and touches on important events like Mendelssohn’s revival of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion. The documentary surveys some of Mendelssohn’s well-known works and his compositional style, as well as his captivating relationship with Fanny and his acquaintance with Schumann. The film includes brief interviews with writer and pianist Charles Rosen, conductor Kurt Masur, and violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter. Footage of interviews and concert performances appears to come from multiple time periods, and there seems to have been little effort on the part of the editors to normalize the quality of all the clips. The biggest eyebrow-raisers of the documentary are disturbing Super-8 animations of Goethe and Wagner sitting as if for a portrait, during which the only noticeable movement is in the faces as their mouths move in sync with overdubbed audio of quotes about Mendelssohn. These animations and other re-enacted footage attempt to suggest they are from Mendelssohn’s time, but the execution falls well short of the concept, and the only effect is distraction. The disc also includes bonus performances of a number of Mendelssohn’s works, including two Venetian boat songs from Lieder ohne Worte and his Sonata for Violin and Piano in D minor.
– Anne Shelley
All About Jazz is a comprehensive website dedicated to providing “information and opinion about jazz from the past, present, and future”. Geared to the “curious newbie as well as the jazz aficionado”, All About Jazz features CD and concert reviews, articles on up-and-coming and established musicians, festival and concert news, interviews with musicians, and a multitude of other content about jazz.
The All About Jazz website is easy to navigate and very well organized. The home page features four headline articles in rotation, and recently included an article on Norwegian trumpeter Arve Henriksen’s experimental jazz, Taiwanese vibraphonist Yuhan Su’s career, Irish guitarist Christy Doran and the Bray Jazz Festival, and an interview with California guitarist Ross Hammond. The articles are well-written and go into some depth, recalling some of the better writing in print publications such as Jazz Times.
The home page also features a “Celebrate!” section that highlights musicians’ birthdays, as well as a menu bar with quick links to sections titled “Articles“, “Reviews“, “MP3s“ (for free!), “Videos“, “New Releases“, and “Future Articles“. The “Articles” section includes interviews, featured stories, live reviews, and a section called “Catching Up With,” which features updates on artists’ latest undertakings, including pianist Geri Allen and percussionist Trilok Gurtu. The “Reviews” section provides a wealth of information – often three or four reviews per day – so it’s nice to see a search box that allows you to look up a particular artist or CD but also gives you the option to filter by recent reviews, popular reviews, or random reviews.
There’s plenty of free music available on All About Jazz. The “MP3s” section includes hundreds of free downloads, including new releases and recommended ones. The “Video” section links to scores of YouTube clips from classic artists such as Bill Evans to contemporary musicians who are working today. The site also provides information about local jazz events via the Jazz Near You link on the top of the home page. It references your location (I’m in Virginia) and provides a half dozen upcoming shows nearby. You can also search or browse by Event, Venue, and Festivals.
All About Jazz is, in many ways, a community-based platform. It solicits jazz musicians and guides in various cities around the world, and actively seeks submissions from musicians and event promoters. In fact, the database includes over 49,000 musicians from around the world, and allows searching by musician name or browsing by instrument. They also run an Open Jazz Project that seeks to broaden the online knowledge base about jazz by soliciting experts’ input in the spirit of Wikipedia or About.com.
Not everything is perfect at All About Jazz. It’s supported by ads on each page that clearly pull material from your personal internet searches. A few links are inconsistent — “Future Articles,” for instance, brings up a blank editorial calendar. But these are very minor things. Overall, this is a wonderful site for knowledgeable fans and those just learning to love jazz.
– Gene Hyde
The May issue of Music Media Monthly covers a broad gamut of books, videos, websites, and recordings–from the hills of Appalachia to the concentration camp at Terezín, and from World War II-era classical music to the contemporary British reggae scene. There’s lots of great stuff here–enjoy!
Stories from the “good war” never cease to engage Americans. However, the music discussed in this fascinating and difficult book is not usually what comes to mind when we think of World War II: the Glenn Miller band, the Andrews Sisters, etc. Instead, this book bills itself as the first one to take an in-depth look at the role classical music and musicians played in the United States and abroad during the conflict.
What’s fascinating is how much ground Annegret Fauser covers — from the pop singalong Army Hit Kit to the treatment of luminaries like Béla Bartók as “enemy aliens,” from music as trauma therapy to the notion that “concert” music was a far more powerful force in the U.S. then than it is now. What’s difficult is Fauser’s style. She can be ponderous, and uses words like “imaginary” (as a noun) and “performative” that make this reader wince.
The best parts deal with propaganda, a term which did not have negative connotations on the Allied side 70 years ago. The list of those who worked for the Office of War Information (OWI), the leading propaganda agency, reads like a roll call of major figures: Samuel Barber, Marc Blitzstein, Elliott Carter, Aaron Copland, Henry Cowell, Roy Harris, Colin McPhee, Daniel Saidenberg and Kurt Weill among them. Carter produced the first recording of Arnold Schoenberg’s Piano Concerto as an OWI specialist.
Performers who entertained the troops included Yehudi Menuhin, Lily Pons, Jascha Heifetz and Isaac Stern. Pons and conductor Andre Kostelanetz were said to have appeared before more than 2 million troops on one long 1944-5 tour, including some in occupied Germany. (A hilarious photo in the book shows Pons cozying up to a huge phallic brass artillery shell.)
Government officials and private citizens were responsible for making records and stocking foreign libraries with American classical music. A major military project involved creating and shipping to troops “V-Discs,” which Fauser, a professor of music and women’s studies at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, says constituted “a new medium – ‘12-inch practically unbreakable plastic platters.’” (V was for victory, not vinyl.) The first ones were of popular music, but there were classical selections too.
Sounds of War is filled with wonderful facts and anecdotes about how orchestras and symphonic works supported the battle against the Axis powers. Both Barber and Blitzstein wrote symphonies dedicated to aviation. Soldiers and sailors formed bands, symphony orchestras and string quartets. The Marine Corps had a women’s reserve band. Given the millions who served in the U.S. military during the war, this shouldn’t be surprising, yet the sweep of the effort is remarkable.
Not only was there much more to wartime music-making than “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy,” there were reputations to be made on the wartime stage. Pianist Eugene List was the “poster child” for classical music draftees. Fauser says his broadcasts and tours boosted his post-war career. Arturo Toscanini, already famous as a refugee from fascism, conducted his very first all-American concert in 1942. Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man was just one of the fanfares commissioned by conductor Eugene Goossens; others were by Harris, Walter Piston, Virgil Thomson, Darius Milhaud and Bohuslav Martinu.
Eleanor Roosevelt offered a ringing battle cry in the magazine Musical America: “Music should go on!” Meanwhile a seaman from the Bronx was earthier. Hearing Menuhin, he said: “Jeez, Dat guy c’n do more wit’ a G-string dan Gypsy Rose Lee!”
While there were issues about some programming of “enemy music,” particularly that of Richard Strauss (who was still alive and serving Hitler’s Germany with operas like Capriccio), American radio and live concerts did not avoid the dead German titans of the canon from Bach to Brahms; indeed, “entire concert series were dedicated to Beethoven.” On the Russian front, Dmitri Shostakovich’s Symphony no. 7 (“Leningrad”) was played and discussed so much that it irked Americans like Virgil Thomson and Roy Harris, who wanted more “native” music to be publicized.
How important was “good music” (as it was sometimes referred to, during the “good war”) to the American public? It was huge.
The Army broadcast a show twice weekly for troops called “Soldiers’ Symphony.” Toscanini’s radio concerts were renowned, and OWI also oversaw regular broadcasts devoted to American contemporary music by such composers as Barber, Copland, Cowell, Robert Russell Bennett, George Chadwick, and Charles Ives, whose seventieth birthday program was sent all over the world for radio use.
Here was “propaganda” of the most refined kind, played for armed forces whose white and almost entirely male troops loved classical music almost as much as swing and jazz, and much more than country and western, according to wartime surveys. As for African Americans, that was a different story. Operas were staged for “racial uplift” by the National Negro Opera Company, founded in 1941. Its first production: Aida, natch.
In her final chapter, Fauser asserts that the attempt to create an American “art music” identity led to “chauvinism,” “provincialism,” “Americanism,” the blurring of lines that separate patriotism from “blinkered jingoism,” and, in the case of Roy Harris, what she denigrates as “hooray patriotism.” Really? While many of her interpretations are nuanced, this is not. I wonder if her take on “cultural politics” isn’t creating controversy where none exists.
One wrong note: the author writes that Henry Cowell was “notorious for his conviction and imprisonment on a morals charge.” Cowell biographer Joel Sachs has pointed out that “conviction” is a mistake too often repeated; Cowell never appeared before a jury, instead pleading guilty without the advice of counsel because he distrusted lawyers. And Fauser should have made clear that the charge was having consensual sex with a young man, a crime applicable to anyone, gay or straight, in California in 1936.
Fauser’s turgid writing can make Sounds of War a tough slog in spots for non-academics. But the book covers a critical period in music history. It should be of interest to serious listeners both on and off campus.
Sounds of War: Music in the United States during World War II by Annegret Fauser. 2013. 384 pages. ISBN: 9780199948031. Oxford University Press.
– Grace Lichtenstein