Claude Debussy

All That Jazz

I got a message this week that said, “Hey Jude, don’t make it bad, but that back-order of discs you’re expecting? Ain’t gonna happen. Remember… to order from us again…then you’ll begin to make it…better…” The discs in question were from the order that included the Howlin’ Wolf and Davey Graham CDs I’ve already reviewed…and yes being the guy I am, I did make it better, but not at the same online retailer. We haven’t finished with the replacement for the broken Wolf discs yet…so it’s best to proceed cautiously. But there was a bunch of music listening done this week so here are a few down-and-dirty reviews.

Moonlight in Vermont ***** This album was probably the high point of Johnny Smith’s career and is viewed as one of the most influential guitar classics of the period by many, including prominent guitarists such as Barney Kessel, Wes Montgomery, and Jimmy Bruno. Charlie Parker was also rumored to be a huge fan. The album is still a great disc to listen to because of its high level of musicality and the emotional romance that music of this period contained. The material on the album was actually a compilation drawn from 2 10-inch discs that Johnny had recorded while at NBC during the early 1950s (It was the song, Moonlight in Vermont, not the album, that was jazz magazine’s Downbeat #2 song of the year (in 1952). The album Moonlight… was released in 1956 and Smith picked his band from a group of fellers he met while was on staff at NBC. This group included the incomparable saxophone superstar Stan Getz, who is the perfect foil for Smith on this album as the two of them drive each other to thrilling and precipitous heights on several cuts. It’s easy to imagine that in lesser hands what is attempted would fall apart spectacularly, but they both had a level of mastery that enabled them to play cleanly, clearly, and brilliantly no matter the tempo or difficulty of the musical passages; a reason many of the performances on the disc are flat-out breathtaking, even by today’s standards.

Many reviews of Moonlight in Vermont allude to Smith’s chord melody style having the quality of a piano and his single line playing recalling the great saxophone lines of someone like Lester Young, and this is true. He also had a pure, very crystalline tone delivered either on an Epiphone or Guild archtop and there is at times a very distinct Western Swing vibe and a nod or three to the great Chet Atkins. Throughout the album there is a very Lush Musicality, that is well supported by the great rhythm section and piano players that appear on the disc. Moonlight in Vermont includes the original composition Jaguar with Smith and Getz playing the dual lead head and middle passages at breakneck tempo. Then there is the Caravan-esque Tabu with its bebop harmonies and dark guitar tone…also a dual lead by Smith and Getz. Smith’s picking is clean and forceful and he has said he imagined that he would have to execute lines in the same smooth fashion as a violin player (going from a bottom note all the way to the top in one crescendo movement). The breakdown middle during the solo choruses of Tabu illustrates this very well with both players blowing out a flurry of notes. The best ballads: Tenderly, Stars Fell on Alabama, I Don’t Stand a Ghost of a Chance, and the title cut all feature Johnny’s beautiful chord melody (tight-closed voice) playing that he pulls off with the harmonic and melodic sense of a classical/jazz pianist. At other times, the sound of Johnny’s guitar almost approaches that of a pedal steel and that tone adds an extra level of sweetness, ambiance, and emotionalism to the tunes and juxtaposes very nicely with Getz’s very throaty, resonant sax solos. Sometimes it also sounds like Hawaiian slack key slide guitar as on the bouncy Vilia and I’ll Be Around. Then there are the tunes that are completely early 50s bop: Cherokee, Nice Work If You Can Get It, and Cavu. All in all it’s a perfectly balanced listening experience and though it serves as such, it is much more than just a very inspired guitar study. Trust me when I say that if you throw it on the next time you want to set a romantic mood, you won’t be sorry!

Soft Guitars***1/2 The Al Caiola (w/Don Arnone) Soft Guitars disc is another lush and very swanky jazz disc, released in 1961. Both Caiola and Arnone were well-regarded studio musicians in New York in the 1950s, so obviously this is top-level, well-arranged music for the swank set of that time. This is very typical of the Cool Jazz/Space Age pop/Bachelor-Pad style of music of the time; lots of playful sounds, swinging guitars, bongos, vibes, bells, whistles, sound effects, and lots of album covers with hot babes. This album was originally part of a two-LP set called Great Pickin’ and Soft Guitars and then was a 2 LP on 1 CD set and somewhere along the line the set was split. It is a marvelous snapshot or earshot, if you will, of a time in music that is long gone, yet recalls the exuberance, optimism, and class of the pre-rock era. People like me, who came of age during the 60s and 70s still heard this type of music and this type of musician all of the time on television and in movies. It didn’t really go away permanently until the 80s.

There is a well-arranged duet style that permeates the record and given that both of these guys were first call session guitarists, I’m sure they came to this kind of arranging naturally. There isn’t a whole lot of wild improvisation or flashy stuff; they keep it to some great instrumental jazz/popular music of the time, played exceptionally well. They cover Stella by Starlight, Try a Little Tenderness, The Sound of Music and More Than You Know. Leading off the album is their take on They Can’t Take That Away From Me, a song that was later associated with jazz guitar titans Ted Greene and Martin Taylor. Since this album was recorded way back in 1961, I would say Al and Don got there first! In addition to other jumpin’, jivin’ tunes like S’ Wonderful and S’Nice they do a great take on Imagination, the old jazz warhorse I Can’t Get Started, and Clair de Lune as Debussy might’ve imagined it. I wrote about Debussy and the complicated history of Clair de Lune here and was very surprised to find it on an album like this. Because both guitarists are obviously playing electric (archtop) guitars their version has a much different, trebly, ringing quality that one doesn’t hear when the piece is performed classically as it usually is. But I enjoy the very ethereal and dreamy feel that is augmented with beautiful harp accompaniment from Gloria Agostini. Though this isn’t the genre-defining album that Moonlight in Vermont was and is, it is still a great listening experience.

There were two other discs that I previewed, but ultimately passed on…and they were both Django Reinhardt CDs if you can believe that! The first disc was Django and His American Friends, a 3 disc set that is mostly Django backing up the likes of early jazz superstars like Coleman Hawkins and Benny Carter as well as lesser-knowns like Rex Stewart and Dickie Wells. There are some Freddie Taylor vocal cuts (After You’ve Gone, Georgia, Ilse Muggin’) too, but they (as well as some of the Hawkins material) can be found elsewhere and I already have. While the disc gets great reviews, most of this stuff is the big-band era kind of jazz that doesn’t really feature guitars or Django. Of course he was a GREAT rhythm player and there is something to be said for the historical value, but I do have some of this stuff on other comps and truth be told, it’s not really my go-to Django stuff. I prefer him playing his compositions.

Another Django disc I previewed and passed on was Django in Brussels, which is not the same as this disc that I have and have already reviewed and is very good. Culled from 1942 sessions, this new disc (new to me not NEW) sounds like it was recorded off of someone’s copy of a scratchy record in the back of a caravan somewhere. The sessions themselves are the stuff of legend: recorded beneath Stalag 13 while Colonel Klink and the rest of the oblivious Nazis slept, Django and his band recorded a bunch of rare and unheard tunes…at least for those who are familiar with his catalog. Of course, this is the major selling point of what I found to be a ho-hum collection. Also…I can’t get past the fidelity. That’s probably all that survives of this session at this point, but I didn’t think the songs themselves were so great that I could ignore the sound quality. Others make think differently about that equation and that is the beauty of musical opinions just BEWARE! If you are thinking about buying a Django in Brussels CD and it doesn’t look like this, better preview some of the audio first is all I’m saying!

The Master — Andrés Segovia

a very instructive lesson from the Master, Andrés Segovia. This is only one of many classes from Segovia on YouTube, but it reveals a wealth of information on his thinking process and approach to guitar. While much of the information he imparts pertains to classical (acoustic) music, the same approaches can be applied across the musical/guitar spectrum. Segovia’s influence cuts a wide swath across the history of music and he is often credited with bringing the guitar the respectability it always deserved as a sophisticated instrument. Not only did he have impeccable technique and an almost unlimited tonal palette (as seen in the video above), he also pioneered a “new” repertoire for classical guitarists and took it upon himself to be the instrument’s biggest supporter and teacher throughout his very long life (also as described in the above video and here and here. The second link with Hugh Downs is really great not only for its information, but also to watch how an 80-year old guy can still shred and how he helps Hugh pick a nice classical guitar!

A few months ago when I created the first post on The Impressionists, specifically Claude Debussey, I linked up to a few performances by Julian Bream and John Williams. While Debussy was probably a little too out there and modern for Segovia’s sensibilities, his music (along with the other impressionists I profiled) translates very well to classical guitar arrangement and performance. Bream and Williams were both students of Segovia and some of what Segovia demonstrates in the top clip can be seen in their performance of Golligwog’s Cakewalk, above. What they do with their hands; the positions, the touch, the tonal reproduction is crucial to a great performance of this piece. In the original post I linked to Tommy Emmanuel‘s performance of Golliwog and, of course, he can turn it out in great style just like everything he does. But there is much more of a classical sensibility to the Bream and Williams performance; a delicate stridency, intense dynamic range and, a the variety of tones that gives the impression that one is hearing many instruments, or a very classical, salon-style adaptation. The breakdown in the middle is especially intimate and sublime, and looks like it attempts to exactly create some of the instruments in the same style as Segovia in the top video.

I haven’t spent any time exploring how one may arrive at a place where playing like this is possible, but one can learn a whole lot from watching and imitating the videos and any of the other classes that feature Segovia, or Julian Bream on YouTube. It’s pretty amazing how much really valuable info is out there for free! People used to have to spend the big bucks for the same thing! The first step is to know, imagine, and understand the possibilities. A lot of guitar players just want to play fast and loud, even if they are playing acoustic jazz, but there are many other options that often are not even considered. It’s also not true that energy or the entertainment value of what one is performing necessarily drops off because more of a focus is really placed on the tonal value of every note that is played. A figure one can play on the guitar can be played many ways. How does playing it in one position with one fingering sound compared to playing in another position with another fingering? How many people actually ask themselves these questions? This is where it begins, I think. Having that awareness. Then it is just a matter of developing the technique to pull it off and the imagination to hear and reproduce as much as is possible. No small feat, especially to play at this level, but the realization of what’s possible and the importance of considering the possibilities that the guitar offers are the very important first step.

The Impressionists — Part 1

Claude Debussy, Rockstar

Back in the early 1980s I remember reading a Van Halen interview and at one point he related how much he liked Claude Debussy. (If you follow the link you can read the whole interview [from 1980] for yourself. That wasn’t my first exposure to the name Claude Debussy as I had taken some music courses in college, but it was interesting that EVH was a fan and it’s probably the first time the name “Debussy” was mentioned in a rock guitar interview. It’s likely that Edward’s early piano studies were responsible for the exposure to classical music and it didn’t hurt that his father was a lifelong jazz musician who, because of his European (Dutch) background, probably knew all about Debussy and other Impressionist composers. Debussy casts a long shadow over 20th Century music and while it is beyond the scope of this blog and this blogger to explore all of the aspects of Debussy’s music and Impressionism, especially in the classical music realm, I am capable of drawing attention to some of the salient musical ideas he expressed and some of the musicians he and his contemporaries inspired.

You can get a full Debussy bio from several sources if you are interested: here, here, here, and here. What is striking about Debussy is that unlike many composers/French composers from this period, he is a man who came from nowhere; he was not from musical family and the source of his talent and influences has always been somewhat mysterious. He stated many times that his overriding guide for composing and playing was always, first and foremost, his own pleasure and enjoyment; musical rules, critics and audiences alike were of no consequence. Debussy was part of a group of somewhat controversial composers who came of age and success in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Other notables in this group known as Impressionists included: Maurice Ravel, Erik Satie and Isaac Albéniz. Departing from established norms in the classical musical field was, of course, not without problems. European audiences of the day were somewhat less than enamored with any departure from classical and romantic musical traditions. Debussy has often been called a musical revolutionary because of his desire to overthrow the established “rules” of composition (and perhaps it is this desire that Van Halen channeled the most?). Debussy (and Ravel to a certain extent) did not like the fact that [their] brand of composition brought comparison to the art movement of Impressionism: the harmonic nature of their compositions and the dreamy qualities of their music recalled the Impressionists’ art: “… scenes suffused with reflected light in which the emphasis is on the overall impression rather than outline or clarity of detail.” They considered themselves “modernists” and believed they were composing for a new generation and a new century. This is certainly voiced by Debussy in one of his most famous quotes: “The century of airplanes has a right to its own music.”

The video above features Leonard Bernstein’s analysis of one of Debussy’s most famous compositions, Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune (Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun), his first real musical “success”. Bernstein, one of history’s greatest musical minds, explores the background on the modern period I alluded to in the previous paragraph and then, during an analysis of the composition, explains Impressionism and how Debussy’s ideas helped shape music for the 20th century. He discusses the vagueness and dreamy qualities implied by uncertain tonal centers and Debussy’s use of the Augmented Fourth or the Tritone Interval (notes that span from G nat to C# and chords that move from Emaj to Bb7). As Bernstein explains, though it is unclear at the outset, Debussy’s Faun Poem is in the key of Emaj and throughout refers to, reverts to, or flirts with, either Emaj or one of it’s relative tonics and these tonal references serve as “landmarks” that illustrate a point of repose or a change in movement. As the 1st part of the video segues into part 2 (it should do so automatically) it is clear that Debussy also makes use of conventional I-V cadences (Emaj to Bmaj) which restore a sense of tradition and diatonic order, but no sooner than he does, he introduces a Whole Tone Scale! (more ambiguity). Bernstein gives Debussy credit for inventing the Whole Tone Scale, explains the relation of this scale to the Tritone, and notes that this is the first Atonal Scale to appear in music history (which should help illustrate why this was all very controversial to 19th century ears). Not included in the videos, but important nonetheless is that Debussy also employed: Bi-tonality, Pentatonic Scales, Random Modulations, free chromaticism, tonal ambiguity, and new ideas for instrument combinations. He also employed what was termed, at the time, A Strong Orientalism, which translates to “he was open to using sounds and ideas from Eastern music in his compositions.” [A familiar tale is how enchanted he was with the performance of a troupe of Gamelan performers from Java at the 1889 and 1900 Paris Expositions.]

All of this musical theory stuff is tame by today’s standards and is certainly familiar to anyone who is well-versed in various aspects of theory across different genres of music (classical, jazz, fusion, etc), but many of these ideas were really groundbreaking for Debussy’s day. People walked out of the performances because these composers were creating music that sounded atonal and dissonant to 19th century ears steeped in classical and romantic traditions. Modern composers and players of all stripes have made use of these techniques since the beginning of the last century (pretty much every blues/rock guitar player starts with the Pentatonic scale). While Debussy’s influence obviously transcends many musical boundaries, his music, played as is, holds up to this day. Piano was his instrument of choice for composing and/or performing, and further below we will make use of piano videos to explore a famous Debussy song. However, it is very easy to adapt his pieces for the guitar. Long ago I reviewed this wonderful CD of Classical Guitar Masters Julian Bream and John Williams collaborations from the 1970s titled Together and Together Again, that has been repackaged (as a 2-disc set) at various times since. The disc(s) contains three Debussy compositions: Reverie, Golliwog’s Cakewalk and the well-known Claire De Lune. It also contains a few fellow Impressionist Isaac Albéniz compositions as well as cuts from contemporaries Enrique Granados and Gabriel Fauré. Obviously, Bream and Williams were big fans of this period and saw a lot of value in adapting piano pieces to 2 guitars. (Some of these pieces even sound as if they were composed specifically for the guitar). Below they play Reverie; haunting and ethereal — one of Debussy’s early compositions and one that I think illustrates his dreamy musical qualities very well.

Guitar Master Tommy Emmanuel is also is a Debussy fan and as he relates, “he’ll do anything to entertain people!” So here is his version of Debussy’s Golliwog’s Cakewalk. If you think this doesn’t sound like classical musical, well imagine hearing it in 1911! This piece was part of the Children’s Corner Piano Suite which was written in honor of Debussy’s daughter, Claude-Emma (“Chou-Chou”). The rhythm and harmonic content are Debussy’s most obvious nod to American Ragtime. Debussy also injects “the love-death leitmotif of Richard Wagner’s opera Tristan und Isolde into the B part of the piece. Tommy does a very faithful rendition of this difficult piece of music (in Eb).

As the 20th century progressed the ideas and sounds of Debussy and his Modernity or Impressionism began to appear in popular and jazz music. Anyone who has any familiarity with jazz recognizes concepts like the tritone, chromatics, atonal scales and cadences that don’t involve familiar rules of harmony. Not only was this seen in compositions of the day, but it also appeared in the improvisations of notable jazz players, especially those with a classical background or an ear toward these composers. Someone I have written about extensively, Django Reinhardt, adopted many of Debussy’s (Impressionist) ideas for his own compositions and improvising. While Django was certainly a fan of many types of music and artists ranging from Bach to Louis Armstrong, he was quoted early in his career: “Jazz attracted me because in it I found a formal perfection and instrumental precision that I admire in classical music, but which popular music doesn’t have.” The influence of the Impressionism would emerge as early as 1937 when he recorded Bolero, which was heavily inspired by Maurice Ravel’s composition of the same name (this will be explored in Part 2).

In 1940, after the outbreak of World War II that left violinist Stephane Grappelli stranded in England, Django enlisted Hubert Rostaing on clarinet and composed one of his most famous numbers, Nuages; a guitar nod to Impressionism and a gift to the French people who were suffering under Nazi occupation. Stuffed full of Debussy-style Chromaticism, Whole Tone and Diminished scale runs, the song is classic Reinhardt. Some have speculated that because the Nazi regime was hostile to anything that smacked of American music or certainly jazz, Django shifted his composition style to one that was much more classically-influenced and this may be true. Or the addition of reeds to his ensemble inspired him because in addition to Nuages, he would compose or arrange Impressionist-influenced music with this new cast of musicians throughout the 1940s: Manoir de mes Rêves, Melodie au Crepescule, Danse Norvegienne, Cavalerie, Oiseaux Des Iles, Lentement Mademoiselle, Fleur D’Ennui and Crepuscule . All of these pieces have the sound and vibe of Debussy and the other classical composers that Django admired and some, like Lentement Mademoiselle and Crepuscle have direct clarinet intro nods that recall Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune (above). He also would record a Debussy piece, Reverie, during the Rome Sessions of 1949-59. While not as literal as Bream and Williams’ take above, Django obviously takes a Debussy inspiration and makes it his own. He also would record a song by the name of Clair de Lune in 1947, although this piece has nothing in common with the Debussy’s composition, except it’s name. The song was actually composed by Joseph Kosma, (writer of many a splendid thing, including Les feuilles mortes, more commonly known as the standard, Autumn Leaves, for an aborted movie that would’ve been named La Fleur de l’âge, had it been completed. Supposedly this is just one of the 4 songs Django and Company would’ve performed and it’s a shame it was not to be as Django plays some totally killin’ guitar on it. What is strange is that Django DID appear in a 1932 movie titled…you guess it Clair de Lune some two years before the original Hot Club of France was formed. This movie was shot (completely outdoors) in Cannes and features some very melodious guitar.

Clair de Lune was certainly one of Debussy’s most famous pieces, part of the Suite bergamasque and titled from an 1869 poem of the same name. (Interestingly enough, Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune was inspired by Stéphane Mallarmé’s poem, L’après-midi d’un faune). It is played very emotionally and dynamically above by the very talented Kathia Buniatishvili. It is also discussed and analyzed here and here if you are interested to learn more about this very famous composition. I’ve listened to many different versions of this piece, including a the one by Bream and Williams, which is a favorite and I have to say this piece is what I imagine 1895 sounded like…at least in certain circles.

This video analysis above of Debussy’s La fille aux cheveux de lin, explained through the lens of jazz harmony is a must-watch, especially if you have any music geek in you at all. It is also an interesting primer for jazz/classical harmony. Anyone who has attempted to play Jazz or Gypsy Jazz will find many of these musical ideas familiar because they have become important staples of the style(s). In this lesson on YouTube (unfortunately it does not have subs) Romane (who I wrote about here) demonstrates the Whole Tone scale beginning at about the 9 minute mark. Diminshed/Octatonic scales and arpeggios are also often used in improvisations. Diminished chords are also used very frequently in the harmony of Gyspy Jazz tunes and songs from the Swing Era and these “movement” / “transition” chords and the ability to play over them is very important aspect of what gives the style it’s verve and exotic sound. See also discussions about this topic here and here and know that Debussy’s influence was definitely a factor, even if the chords or how they are thought of is not exactly the same as is true in classical music.

Stephane Wrembel is may be the most Impressionist-influenced composer/player happening today. He certainly has embraced all of what can be gleaned from Debussy, Django, Jimmy Page, and others to compose and perform music that sounds unlike any other. I’ve written about him before, here and here and his abilities as a composer and channel of these musical ideas first expressed back in the 19th century only continue to grow. In the above video he demonstrates his Impressionist ideas and how this shapes his music. Anyone who is a fan of Gypsy Jazz will find these concepts very familiar, but Stephane is definitely one of the riskiest composers in the genre. His music synthesizes all of the freedom found not only in Impressionism, but also the best music of the 20th century and the ideas that Debussy espoused about how emotion and freedom were more important to music that convention.

As I have done in the past, like this exploration on the song Waiting for the Sunrise, I find that the history, progression and connections of musical styles, ideas, players and composers fascinating. Debussy’s music stands on it’s own and it brings me great pleasure to listen to it and all that it inspired. What he created became so much more than just music; it became a way of making music, that inspired later musicians to create their own unique statements. The idea of freedom he aspired to and tried to bring to his compositions is a quality that every writer, player and improviser seeks to achieve because that is the highest plateau one can reach as an artist. I’m not sure what influence Debussy had on Edward Van Halen. The very different rock of Fair Warning? (that I reviewed here). The keyboard stuff that started appearing at that time? Sunday Afternoon in the Park? 1984? Girl Gone Bad? Someone should ask him, it would be interesting to find out!

In Part 2 I’ll look at some of the other Impressionist composers and how their ideas and their music helped shape the sounds of the 20th century and beyond!