Thursday, May 29, 2008

When I'm Polling You....

Hey Everybody,

As we approach 100 posts (this is actually #99), I thought it would be appropriate to ask folks about this site. So I've placed a poll on the left side of the page to get a feel fo what you guys really like – and perhaps want to see more of. Please take a moment to check off your favorite regular features.

Or you could leave me a comment and/or drop me an email. More Jazz? Less Jazz? Cheesier 80s stuff? Less cheesy 80s stuff? Requests for favorite soundtracks? I'd love to hear from you.

It's been fun for the last 100 posts (OK, 99) over the past five months. Hopefully, the next 100 will be just as memorable.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Cover of the Week – Arcade Fire "This Must Be The Place (Naive Melody)"

You can thank your lucky stars that I never was that big a fan of "Burning Down The House."

Because then you would be listening to Tom Jones combining with The Cardigans on their truly awful cover of the Talking Heads hit. I mean c'mon Tom – we thought "Kiss" was cute. But did that justify an entire album, Unloaded (2000), made up of 80s covers? I think not.

I'll admit I whooped it up to "Burning Down the House" at plenty of beer bashes during my college days. But my favorite song on Speaking in Tongues (1983) was always "This Must Be The Place (Naive Melody)," one of those rare moments when David Byrne quieted all of his anxieties in order to get melodic and sweet.

Byrne has admitted that he wrote it as a love song – another rarity in the oeuvre of a band that fretted over society being "same as it ever was." And by the way, that's not your imagination. Tina Weymouth's bass and Byrne's guitar are repeating the same riffs over and over again in the song.

Still …

I've grown rather fond of the Montreal band Arcade Fire, despite their overwhelmingly pessimistic world view. Which made it all the more fascinating to me that they chose this live version (with AF fan Byrne on the backing vocal) of the cheeriest Talking Heads tune ever as the flip side to their "Neighborhood #3 (Power Out)" single in 2005.

If anything, the addition of steel drums makes the song sound even happier.

Hmmmm. Rock stars. I'll never figure them out.

Play "This Must Be The Place (Naive Melody)" by Arcade Fire

Here's a good-quality live video (without Byrne) of the cover.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Two-Fer-Tuesday: Burt Bacharach's Best, Back to Back

First of all, a happy belated birthday to Burt Bacharach, who turned 80 on May 12th.

That gives me an excuse to play two versions of my favorite song by one of my favorite composers: "This Guy's In Love With You."

Back in 1968, the red-hot Herb Alpert wa in the process of putting together his first TV special. He asked his good friend Bacharach if he had any left over songs that somehow had never made it to the recording studio. Bacharach pulled out "This Guy's In Love With You," a song that some have speculated was originally intended for Dusty Springfield.

And what a song it is. Never has such simplicity resulted in a pop masterpiece. Designed not to push the vocally limited trumpeter, "This Guy" uses what sounds like five notes. Furthermore, Bacharach's partner, lyricist Hal David, doesn't include any words with more than two syllables.
In the TV show, Alpert sings it it to his then-wife Sharon (He would later divorce her and marry the Brazilian Lani Hall, the original lead vocalist for Sergio Mendes & Brasil '66)

Play "This Guy's In Love With You" by Herb Alpert

And the hokey video:

How good was this song? It became the first # 1 for both Alpert's own A&M label (Alpert is the A and partner Jerry Moss is the M). And – believe it or not, despite prior hits such as "The Look of Love" and "I Say A Little Prayer"– it was the first U.S. #1 for the songwriting team of Bacharach and David.

Further evidence of its strength: Just six months after Alpert's version was released, the duo's traditional muse Dionne Warwick switched the gender and came out with her own version, which promptly hit No. 7 on the Billboard charts. Interestingly, though Bacharach and David produced most of the Warwick album Promises Promises (1969) that contained this song, Don Sebesky actually was behind the boards on this track.

Play "This Girl's in Love With You" by Dionne Warwick

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Soundtrack Sunday – Under Cover (1987)

In the late 1980s, everybody was trying to get into the act.

Even those who had no business being there.

I'm talking, of course, about the easy money record companies were making by releasing soundtracks in conjunction with hit films.

There was a big caveat: The film had to be a hit.

And it wouldn't hurt if the record company knew how to do this sort of thing.

None of the above applied to Under Cover (1987), a fick produced by the shlockmeisters of the time Menachem Golan and Yoram Globus. It was designed to cash in on the craze for John Hughes/Cameron Crowe-type teen flicks – with a splash of gritty realism thrown in for good measure.

Directed and co-written by John Stockwell, who played one of Tom Cruise's colleagues Cougar in the smash Top Gun (1986) the year before, the movie also had as one of its co-stars Jennifer Jason Leigh of Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982) to boost its marketability.

Didn't matter. The movie made barely a dent in anyone's consciousness.

So why am I writing about this film?

Partly because of the company that released the soundtrack: Enigma Records was one of the great indie labels of the 80s alternative scene. If you were a college radio music director back then, you listened seriously to almost anything they sent you: Game Theory, Green on Red, Don Dixon, etc. This was also the label that launched the careers of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, the Smithereens and (unfortunately) Poison.

Super-slick 80s soundtracks weren't their thing, however.

Until this one, which truth be told wasn't particularly slick. On one side were the instrumentals composed for the movie by the composer of it score, the one and only Todd Rundgren.

On the other side were five tracks from three Enigma artists: TSOL, Agent Orange and Wednesday Week.

Which brings me to the whole point of this post: To reintroduce the world to the single from the soundtrack, "Missionary" by Wednesday Week, a criminally overlooked piece of 80s power pop from a band that was unfairly compared to the Bangles.

This group – which did have a male among its four members – had a slightly harder edge. In this song particularly, I love how they fuse the garage band guitars into a song that has more hooks than a deluxe fishing lure.


Play "Missionary" by Wednesday Week

And here's the video – which differs from the one that includes clip from the film. Don't worry. You're not missing anything.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Cover of the Week – Better Than Ezra "Conjuncton Junction"

Let's have a quick show of hands out there on the Internet.

How did you remember certain things as a kid? Like the preamble to the Constitution. Multiples of three. And what a noun exactly was.

Chances are, if you grew up in the 70s, you all cited the same source: Schoolhouse Rock!, those interstitional animated shorts that ABC put between its cartoons every Saturday morning.

The brainchild of an advertising executive whose young son was having difficulty memorizing things in school, the snippets began airing in 1973 – and ran solidly for 13 years, then off and on for the next couple of decades.

Yeah, I know. You're already humming the refrain from "I'm Just a Bill."

Anyway in 1996, 23 years after the series originally aired, some of the series' first generation of fans had their turn with the compilation album Schoolhouse Rock! Rocks. Among the highlights: Blind Melon singing "Three is the Magic Number," Pavement contributing "No More Kings" and Ween performing "The Shot Heard 'Round the World."

Plus this cover of a song that seems to always land at the top of everyone's list of favorite songs from the show.

Play "Conjunction Junction" by Better Than Ezra

I'll leave you with this bit of trivia. Lynn Ahrens was a secretary at the advertising company, McCaffrey & McCall, when she began writing songs and singing them for the show. Among the songs that she sang; "Interplanet Janet," "No More Kings" and "A Noun Is A Person, Place Or Thing." Today, she is one of Broadway's most successful composers, teaming with Stephen Flaherty to pen the music and lyrics for Ragtime (1998), Once on This Island (1990), Seussical (2000) and the animated film Anastasia (1997).

Ahrens didn't write the series best-known song, "I'm Just a Bill," but I'll leave you with a clip of this parody from The Simpsons.

Play "The Amendment Song" by The Simpsons

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Back to the 80s: Shona Laing "Soviet Snow"

To be truthful, there isn't much I know about Shona Laing other than what I've been able to glean from the internet.

She's fairly well-known in her native country of New Zealand. And has had several hits there, including a song I've never heard (and will in no way include this week) "Glad I'm Not a Kennedy." She also worked with Manfred Mann Band's 1983 political statement, Somewhere in Afrika.

Truth is, Laing is like a whole bunch of artists most of us encountered during the 80s. They put out one killer song. And were either never heard from again or never put out anything nearly as good as that first record.

In the case of Laing, that song was "Soviet Snow."

Remember that the 80s were during the waning days of the USSR. Despite glasnost, the country was still seen as mysterious and somewhat threatening. You could do a whole mix tape of ominous songs associated with a country that many people (mostly Americans) thought could wake up one day and decide to bomb the United States: Kim Wilde's "Suburbs of Moscow," the Beatles' "Back in the USSR," Renaissance's "Mother Russia," Sting's "Russians," among others.

One of the best of the lot, however, was this song – which was quite danceable, once you got past its disquieting lyrics about "radiation over Red Square." Another thing you have to get past: The song's way-too-long orchestral introduction, which takes up 1:40 of the song's 5:37 length. Keep your finger pressed on your Ipod's right arrow. You will be amply rewarded.

Play "Soviet Snow" by Shona Laing

And as usual, here is the video, courtesy of those 80s fanatics at YouTube.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Two-Fer-Tuesday: Carly is the Bomb

Two records. Two complete bombs. Two record companies that dropped her quicker than hotcakes (only hardcore Simon fans will understand that reference) after they tanked.

What in the world am I doing focusing on tracks from two of Carly Simon's least commercially successful albums?

Actually, I'm not sure.

I'm just joking.

I guess you could say that my tastes sometimes divert from the majority of Americans, and this serves as de facto proof. Because two of my favorite Carly Simon songs are on Spy (1979) and Hello Big Man (1983).

"Vengeance" was supposed to be the big hit single from Spy, Simon's final album with Elektra. In fact, it's a blatant attempt to recreate the success of "You're So Vain," right down to the backing vocals. No, that's not Mick Jagger once again doing the honors. It's soundalike Tim Curry of "Rocky Horror" fame.

I actually prefer this song to Simon's bigger hit because of its shimmering sound and more blatant funkiness. (Not that it matters, but did you know that Simon is one-quarter African-American?)

Play "Vengeance" by Carly Simon

As for "Hello Big Man," the title track to her final Warner Bros. album, you can probably call it a companion piece to "That's The Way I Always Heard It Should Be" in which Simon gives a faux happy ending to the story of the romance between her father
Richard L. Simon (of Simon & Schuster fame) and mother Andrea Louise Heinemann. (Their marriage was actually pretty stormy)

Sure, it's a little heavy on the synths. The saxophone solo could have been turned down a notch. But here's one of its saving graces: Simon co-wrote the song with Peter Wood. Yes, the same keyboardist and co-author of "Year of the Cat" who was the subject of my first "Unsung Hero" post.

Ain't it nice to be revisting an old friend?

Play "Hello Big Man" by Carly Simon

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Soundtrack Sunday, Rain Man (1988)

Rightfully so, Cameron Crowe and John Hughes receive lots of praise about their choice of music and how they weave it into their films.

But there's one other director I admire for the way he uses music to add extra dimensions to his work: Barry Levinson, particularly in his early films.

Can anyone imagine his directorial debut Diner (1982) without the mind-boggling assortment of 50s tunes that helps define the film's setting? Or how about the way Randy Newman's music in The Natural (1984) builds the tension and, eventually, brings out the joyfulness of the film's climactic scene?

Perhaps Levinson's most successful film to date, and the only one for which he won a directing Oscar, is another example of how music can play a key part in the way the film unfolds. This film about an autistic savant, played famously by Dustin Hoffman, and the cross-country road trip he takes with his brother is undeniably quirky – and the selection of the songs reflect both the theme of the film and the peculiar mind of Hoffman's Raymond Babbit. I mean, you have Etta James singing "At Last," Lou Christie of "Lightnin' Strikes" fame crooning "Beyond The Blue Horizon," Banarama doing their usual goofy stuff on "Nathan Jones," early r&b contributors Delta Rhythm Boys contributing "Dry Bones" and Aaron Neville combining with iconoclastic bassist Rob Wasserman on a delicate"Stardust." The one quibble I have is the inclusion of the Belle Stars ho-hum cover of "Iko Iko," rather than the Dixie Cups' original. But that's offset by the inclusion of one of my all-time favorite songs of the 80s: Juluka's "Scatterling of Africa"

Play "Scatterlings of Africa" by Juluka

Levinson's other unorthodox contribution was the hiring of a relatively unknown German composer to do the soundtrack. Although Hans Zimmer had done a few soundtracks, he was best known as an electronica composer who had played keyboards on the Buggles' "Video Killed the Radio Star." Zimmer contributed a score that mixed elements of Stewart Copeland's rhythmic innovations with the popular electronic music of fellow German Harold Faltermeyer.
The soundtrack itself included two of his instrumental tracks, "Leaving Walbrook On The Road" and "Las Vegas End Credits."

Play "Leaving Walbrook On The Road" by Hans Zimmer

Rain Man won four Oscars in 1989 – including one for Zimmer's score.

But that's not the end of the story.

Zimmer, of course, was on his way to a highly successful career as one of Hollywood's top composers. Five years after Rain Man, he hooked up with Walt Disney and was hired to compose the incidental music for The Lion King (1993).

Yeah, you might have heard of that movie. The Broadway musical. And the blockbuster money-making machine.

The funny thing is, Zimmer's music didn't turn out to be so "incidental." First of all, the musician Lebo M. used it as a basis to compose many of the songs on the CD sequel Rhythm of the Pridelands (1993). And that music was, in turn, used to expand the score of Julie Taymor's Broadway production. Listen to "He Lives in You" (the original Rhythm of the Pridelands version), which has become almost as identified with The Lion King as the songs from Elton John and Tim Rice.

Play "He Lives In You" by Lebo M. and Hans Zimmer

Notice any similarities? Yeah, Zimmer sort of ripped himself off.

But really, that's the life of the Hollywood composer. Right, John Williams?

Two more things to note if you are intrigued by autistic savants and other variations on the ADHD/Autism spectrum. For insight into how an autistic savant's mind works, I highly recommend that you read the autobiographical "Born on a Blue Day" by Daniel Tammet, an autistic savant who is somehow able to explain the way his brain functions to the non-autistic world.

And Ronald Bass, who wrote the screenplay for Rain Man, was also behind Mozart and the Whale (2005), a love story that represents Hollywood's first mainstream attempt to portray the related but less disabling condition known as Asperger's Syndrome.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Stories From the War: Lisa Lisa and Cult Jam with Full Force

I still own two Lisa Lisa and Cult Jam with Full Force albums – and I'm proud to admit it.

For one thing, amid all the 80s era slag that has dwindled into irrelevance, a lot of their material still sounds fresh today. Maybe because the group (actually, the groups) managed to capture many of the early elements that would be embraced by hip-hop and rap. Whether you like those genres or not, that kind of influence is a formidable achievement.

But that's not really the point of the post. Because this is one of my "Stories From the War" – an anecdote from my halcyon days as a music business flunkie.

As I stated in several earlier posts, my first job out of college in the summer of 1986 was as a production assistant for U-68, an extremely low budget New York City TV station that broadcast music videos over the air when we weren't playing infomercials. Ever see that Weird Al Yankovic movie "UHF?" Well, the station was a lot like that.

Occasionally, artists would visit our remote Newark, N.J. studios for interviews and the privileges of "hosting" a show, where an hour of music videos would be interspersed with their comments about them. Stil enjoying the success of their big hit "I Wonder If I Take You Home," Lisa Lisa and Cult Jam with Full Force were one of those bands.

The whole afternoon went very well. Lisa Lisa (Real Name: Lisa Velez), the two members of Cult Jam (Alex Spanador Mosely and Mike Hughes) and the six members of Full Force (Paul Anthony, Bowlegged Lou, B-Fine, Baby Gerry, Shy Shy, and Curt-t-t) were very pleasant and polite throughout the whole experience. Certainly not as boisterous as the Ramones,
who would visit us a few weeks later.

As an added bonus, I did something that would be the envy of 21-year-olds all over America: I was the one who pinned the clip-on mike on Lisa-Lisa's low-cut blouse. You don't soon forget that experience. Could any of classmates at Georgetown University who went on to big careers in Wall Street and the State Department say that?

Anyway, after it was all done, the musicians had some time to kill. The guys from Full Force and Cult Jam wanted to see our library of music videos so they could watch a few of them in our basement. So I brought them downstairs and into the room that held all of our individual tapes.

So what videos did they pull out to watch?

Not Atlantic Starr, Kurtis Blow, Run D.M.C. or any of the other R&B acts all over the airwaves back then.

Nope. They wanted to watch every single Jimi Hendrix video we had in our collection. Never mind that we didn't have a whole lot of them. (We were modeled on the MTV of that time frame, after all), but what we had pleased them no end. They watched them with amazement, pointing out all the great things Jimi was doing with his guitar and enjoying the educational experience thoroughly.

Needless to say, I gained a new level of respect for Full Force and Cult jam that day. Full Force (which was more of a production unit than a band) went on to produce James Brown, Samantha Fox and even the Backstreet Boys in later years.

And as he got older and more wise about the music he was istening to, Rob gradually got rid of the promo copies of the Shannon, Exposé, New Edition and S.O.S Band albums he had received over the years.

But he kept the Lisa Lisa albums.

Not only is the music good. But so are the people behind it.

Play "I Wonder If I Take You Home" by Lisa Lisa and Cult Jam with Full Force

Play "Lost In Emotion" by Lisa Lisa and Cult Jam with Full Force

As a bonus, I just came across this bit of "history" on YouTube. No, not the interview, but a series of PSA outtakes Marshall Crenshaw, Meat Loaf and Wendy O. Williams did for the station, a year before I arrived. They give you a sense of what fun this station was – and how much I miss it.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Unlikely Cover of the Week – Cybill Shepherd "This Masquerade"

Maybe you were perhaps expecting a song from the 80s or 90s when Shepherd was already a big star, thanks to "Moonlighting" and her self-titled sitcom "Cybill?" A time when she had the pull, just like her co-star and "pal" Bruce Willis, to play prima donna and demand that the music busiess make her a major singing star?

Nope, believe it or not, this cover of the Leon Russell song (first made popular by George Benson) comes from her 1976 release called Mad About The Boy. Shepherd was just 26 then, a former beauty queen who was five years removed from her head-turning debut in The Last Picture Show (1971). Even back then when she probably wasn't always called back by her own agent, she desired to be an an actress and a cabaret-style singer – and this album, recorded over four days in a Hollywood studio. represents her first attempt at making that transition.

Play "This Masquerade" by Cybill Shepherd

But that's not the best part of the album.

Listen to that saxophone. Your ears aren't deceiving you. That is indeed Stan Getz backing Ms. Cybill with his inimitable sound. If it sounds vaguely like Stan is is once again in the Bossa Nova frame of mind, there's good reason for that. This is his first album after his final recording with Joâo Gilberto, Best of Two Worlds (1976), which we covered in this earlier post. Furthermore, the great Brazilian guitarist Oscar Castro-Neves, who arranged the music on Best of Both Worlds, did the same duties for this album – having Shepherd cover Antonio Carlos Jobim's "Triste" for good measure.

Play "Triste" by Cybill Shepherd

As he was throughout this prolific mid-70s period when he was working with the likes of Chick Corea, Ron Carter, Jimmy Rowles and Bill Evans almost every month, Getz is once again in fine form. Give him credit. Shepherd is no great shakes as a vocalist (although she makes the most of her limitations). He could have phoned this performance in and simply lent Shepherd his name to sell the album or provide her with the credibility she craved. But Getz' professionalism wouldn't let that happen. As you can hear, there are some really nice Getz licks on this album. As a big fan of this genius saxophonist (isn't that apparent by now?), I'm glad this album is in my collection.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Two-Fer-Tuesday: Thoughts on the Future of the CD…

This past weekend, I did something out of the ordinary.

For the last year or so, I have been avoiding the purchase of CDs. Partly because I had so many in my collection that, in order to provide for the safety of my coming marriage, I had to sell off big chunks of my collection.

But also partly because of the change that is occurring all over America: That more and more, people are making CDs irrelevant (and record stores close) because of the rapid rise of using the music to download music.Certainly, I have done more than my share of that.

On Saturday morning, I went to a garage sale in my neighborhood. Much to my delight, in a box filled with used CDs selling for 50 cents, I found one of my favorite albums from 1982: Donald Fagen's The Nightfly. I already have all but two songs from the album on my iPod (and in my computer), but I figured it was time to actually own the album – if only because the cool cover made it worth the two bits I would be paying my neighbor.

I don't think I ever owned the physical album, but I certainly borrowed it enough from friends who owned it, the radio station where I worked or the local library. I admit I got a certain sense of smug satisfaction from finally having it in my hands as my very own.

Then I took the booklet out of the CD case and sat down with it.

Now, as far as liner notes and presentation go, there's nothing special about The Nightfly. As you might remember, it's a loose concept album that uses the optimism of the Eisenhower/Kennedy era as a starting point. As Fagen himself writes in the "liner notes:"
The songs on this album represent certain fantasies that might have been entertained by a young man growing up in the remote suburbs of a northeastern city during the late fifties and early sixties , i.e., one of my general height, weight and build.

I was amused by this passage. I was also entertained by facts long-since forgotten in my overfilled brain. Among the contributors to the album were both Brecker Brothers (Michael plays that nice tenor sex solo on "I.G.Y. (International Geophysical Year)," Valerie Simpson (backing vocals on five of the album's eight tracks), guitarist Larry Carlton, bassist Marcus Miller, drummer Jeff Porcaro and even the ever-present Rick Derringer on "The Nightfly."

Play "I.G.Y. (International Geophysical Year)" by Donald Fagen

Play "The Nightfly" by Donald Fagen

I also had a good time reading the lyrics, which are always important when Fagen is trying to make a point.

That got me thinking: Some time in the very near future, when CDs finally disappear (and they will, believe me), we are all going to lose out on an essential part of the music-listening experience.

You can point out the fact that there will always be AllMusic and the hundreds of lyric sites all over the web. But the fact is, all of these sites produce second-hand information – and they don't always get it right. Thousands of mistakes are floating all over the Internet because they weren't posted right in the first place. Where do you know that 99.9 percent of the time, it's going to be factually accurate? That's right. In the original source: All those CD booklets that are going to gradually disappear in the coming decades.

I know. I know. We went through a similar change a few decades ago when CDs supplanted vinyl albums as the medium preferred by the record-buying public. Album artwork became less important, the enjoyable experience of opening a gatefold album cover went out the door, the colorful record labels became less relevant and even the pleasure of contrasting side one of the album to side two disappeared.

But I'm warning you: The change on its way will be more profound than anything that has happened before. Setting aside the fact that there may never be an Abbey Road (1969) or Pet Sounds (1967) released ever again (let alone concept albums like The Nightfly, the whole experience of listening to music is about to get less enjoyable.

And that makes me sad.

So do yourself a favor. Buy a CD soon (perhaps even by clicking on the Google ads that surround my blog). Prolong the pleasure as much as you can.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Soundtrack Sunday: 'Round Midnight

As you might remember, one of the interesting bits of trivia from last year's Across The Universe was that many of the vocals for the film's Beatles songs were recorded by the actors on the set.

Well, try this on for size: An entire film with a soundtrack that was recorded while the cameras were filming.

That would be Round Midnight (1986), an often forgotten masterpiece from French director Bernard Tavernier. Taking its title from the classic Thelonious Monk composition (more properly named 'Round Midnight), the movie stands out as one of the finest films ever made about jazz and the musicians who played it.

Based on the later life of pianist Bud Powell (and to a lesser extent, Lester Young), the film recounts the friendship between an aging African-American saxophonist named Dale Turner who is befriended while in Paris by a French jazz aficionado. Their relationship helps Turner, at least for a time, overcome alcoholism and the many other challenges in his life.

It's a beautiful and gentle film that I highly suggest you rent, even if you are not a big jazz fan. The sweet relationship between Turner (played by jazz great Dexter Gordon in one of his only film roles), Francis Borler (François Cluzet) and Francis' young daughter Bérangère (Gabrielle Haker) permeates every touching moment in the film. It's a real treat. The performance by Gordon, who received an Oscar nomination, has been denigrated by some of his peers as Gordon simply playing himself. But you know what? Sometimes, there's nothing harder for someone to do – particularly someone not used to having a movie camera stuck in his face.

As good as the film is, the music may be even better. Herbie Hancock won the Oscar for his score, but the real stars are an all-star line-up of jazz heavyweights. Besides Hancock himself on piano, there's Freddie Hubbard on trumpet; Wayne Shorter on saxophone; Chet Baker playing trumpet and singing an achingly beautiful "Fair Weather;" Bobby Hutcherson on vibes; John McLaughlin on guitar; Ron Carter on bass; and Tony Williams on drums, among others. Most also appear in the film in vital roles as Turner's fellow musicians.

I have many favorite tracks on the album. Hancock and Gordon's version of "The Peacocks" ranks up there with the Stan Getz and Jimmy Rowles original. The haunting "Bérangère's Nightmare" really sets the mood during one of the film's most riveting scenes. Actress and vocalist Lonette McKee (The Cotton Club) sings a smoky "How Long Has This Been Going On?" that complements the proceedings.

Yet, today, I've chosen to spotlight two songs that feature Bobby McFerrin's wordless vocals: "'Round Midnight" and "Chan's Song (Never Said)," the Hancock original that closes the movie. Of the latter, I've got to say that the inherent loveliness of this song gets me every time. For another great version of the song (with lyrics), I suggest finding Dianne Reeves' rendition on her 1991 debut.

Play "'Round Midnight"

Play "Chan's Song"

Chan, by the way, is a reference to Chan Parker, wife of the late jazz saxophonist Charlie Parker – a tragic figure in his own way whose life has been captured on celluloid as well.

But that's for another Sunday …

Friday, May 9, 2008

Cover of the Week – Neville Brothers "Fly Like an Eagle"

It's been a busy week for me so far, so I want to apologize in advance for the lack of updates.

I also want to go back to a post I started last week, but couldn't get around to finishing due to the time constraints of enjoying New Orleans in all its newfound glory.

As I stated earlier this week, because my wife and I used miles to get to New Orleans, we had to leave Saturday afternoon and missed a lot of stuff at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival – most notably the festival-closing appearance of the Neville Brothers (above in a New Orleans Times & Piscayune photo).

The brothers, the city's first family of funk, hadn't performed together at the festival since Hurricane Katrina had her way with the city in 2005. In fact, of the brothers, only Art remained in the city after the hurricane destroyed their home. Aaron relocated to New York, Charles headed to Boston and Cyril moved to Austin, Texas. Though he remains in the city, Art still hasn't returned to his house. Aaron (who just lost his wife of 49 years) will soon move to nearby Covington.

From all accounts, it was a heckuva show in many respects. Sure, it had its tearful reunion aspects to it. You could also call it make-up sex because lots of New Orleanians have apparently been mad at the band for seeming to abandon the Jazz Fest. From what I've read, there was also some great music on the stage. They played some of their great songs such as "Fire on the Bayou" and "Yellow Moon." They brought up fellow festival participant Carlos Santana to play on "Ain't No Use."

So what does this have to do with today's long overdue post? Not much. Except that it gives me an excuse to post this smoking cover of a favorite song by one of my favorite musicians. Seal did a nice version of this song for the Space Jam (1996) soundtrack, as did Les Paul on his Les Paul & Friends (2005) album, but in my mind the Neville Brothers have recorded the definitive cover of "Fly Like an Eagle" Included on their 1994 album Family Groove, this song not only boasts the participation of Miller himself but goes back to the song's roots. As I stated in an earlier post, Miller originally wrote this song in 1972 as a hard-edged form of political protest – the demo I posted several months ago proves that fact. This version, part of an album full of songs pleading for political and social justice, sheds some of the optimistic sheen that Miller himself placed on his final 1976 version of the song.

In other words, the song is finally brought full circle. By a group that itself just went full circle by returning to the city of its birth.

Nice, huh?

Play "Fly Like an Eagle" by the Neville Brothers

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Two-Fer-Tuesday: Al Green

It's on my to-do list this week: Listen and maybe even try to get an advance copy of Al Green's new album on Blue Note Records, Lay It Down (2008), which according to the pre-release buzz is supposed to be a sensational return to form by one of the all-time great soul singers. It's supposed to hit the streets May 27.

We sometimes take Green for granted, but there's no question that you can't go wrong with his voice and choice of material – even when he devoted himself full-time to Christian music a few decades ago.

We've gotten so used to other artists covering Green ("Take Me to The River" by the Talking Heads and "Let's Stay Together" by Tina Turner, for example) that we forget that Green himself has taken on other people's material.

With mixed results, I have to say.

Which is the point of today's post.

I present to you Green doing two white soul classics – one is an interesting failure, the other is a stunning success.

From a purist's perspective, I don't consider Dionne Warwick to be an r&b artist. Particularly on her classic Bacharach and David tunes. Of all of these tunes, "I Say A Little Prayer" lands around the top of my list.

This is a song that has been done successfully by soul singers; Queen Aretha almost makes the song her own. But you really shouldn't go over the top for a song where its beauty is captured in its restraint. Dare I say it, but it really needs to stay on the dainty side to capture its inherent spirit. Green does his best to hold back on this version, which was included on his last secular album of the 70s, Truth N' Time (1977), but doesn't quite pull it off.

Play "I Say A Little Prayer" by Al Green

Way more successful is a more recent effort that paired Green with Vonda Shepard for a track on Heart and Soul: More Songs from Ally McBeal (1999). First sung by the English singer Lulu as the title track to the much-imitated 1967 Sidney Poitier film, it was a smash hit worldwide. But more than "I Say A Little Prayer," this was blue-eyed soul in the tradition of Dusty Springfield. In other words, Green could be his old self. Which is what he is as trades verse with Shepard, who often doesn't get due props due to her long association with the Fox series. Give it a listen. I think you'll agree with me. For a song featured on TV, this is pretty terrific stuff.

Play "To Sir With Love" by Al Green and Vonda Shepard

Monday, May 5, 2008

Mystery Solved!

A few days ago I received this email from a blog reader named Michelle:

I have a question that I hope you can answer because it’s been driving me and my sister nuts! The song “ A Night in New York “ is one we both remember but we thought the video featured 3 blondes and for some reason we thought they were The Coconuts from Kid Creole and The Coconuts. I have this image of them dancing on a roof top and also sitting in a 1940’s red convertible car. In your vast knowledge do you recall another cover of this tune or are we victims of flashbacks from watching way too many 80’s videos?

Good eyes Michelle. Because it was the Elbow Bones & the Racketeers music video for "A Night In New York"

But it also wasn't the one I posted on this blog a few months ago (which has since been removed by YouTube, unfortunately)

Let me explain.

Although it was never a huge hit, there were apparently at least two different music videos made for the song. One was for the 7-inch single or shortened radio version, which clocked in at 4 minute and 17 seconds and didn't include either dancing on the rooftop or a red convertible. That was what I originally posted on the blog. The other version was for the extended or dance version of the song, which was prepared for clubs. It lasted nearly six minutes and included both the aforementioned rooftop scenes and red car.

Here is that video. Thanks for writing Michelle. I hope that clarified things for you and your sister.

Sunday, May 4, 2008

A Few More Thoughts About the Big Easy and the Jazz Fest

My wife and I got back home from New Orleans late Saturday night/Sunday morning after a wonderful visit that included the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, eating stupendous food, walking around the French Quarter, eating more stupendous food, enjoying the view of the Mississippi River from our hotel room and eating more stupendous food.

If you'll indulge me, I 'm going to skip Soundtrack Sunday so I can sum up some of the highlights from the visit. I'm sorry I didn't post more during our visit, but Internet access was iffy at times and I was busy most of the time. Which is the point of any trip to New Orleans.
  • Please don't even begin to compare the NO Jazz Fest with any similar event. The event is that enormous and that ambitious in its scope. Elephant ears and corn dogs? Try Oyster Po'Boys and some of the best Jambalaya you'll ever eat in your life. And that's just the beginning of what you can taste. You will also never hear such a large variety of music. At one point Friday, if you were positioned in precisely the right location on the enormous infield of the racetrack where the festival took place, you could hear a New Orleans Ninth Ward rapper on the Congo Square stage and the strains of a traditional Dixieland jazz band from the Economy Hall tent. Aside from the music and the food, there was a full-fledged art fair, traditional Louisiana craftsman demonstrating their work and even cooking demonstrations underneath the racetrack stands. I've been to the festival about a half dozen times, but it remains mindboggling. You can never hope to capture it all. Just soak in what you can.
  • Despite all of the devastation brought about by Katrina, there remains no city in the United States – perhaps even the world – quite like New Orleans. The architecture, the nightlife and the cuisine remain one of a kind. And the city itself is gradually getting back on its feet, as I stated in my last post. But there remains some deep scars. My parents, who have been down for each of the 39 festivals, say the people in the city aren't as friendly as they once were – perhaps because of the deep psychic wounds not only from the hurricane but from the government's treatment of them. People just aren't getting along the way they once were. A classic example: One of the newspaper articles while we were there was about police stopping some jazz funerals. That never would have happened a few years ago.
  • I usually wander from stage to stage during the festival, rarely catching a full set. Two exceptions this time around: I saw Randy Newman's show on Thursday afternoon and Stevie Wonder's performance on Friday. Randy was his usual irrascible self, doing a mixture of familiar tunes between on-stage patter. He would play "Birmingham" from Good Ol' Boys(1974) and then launch into "You've Got A Friend In Me" from Toy Story (1995), a song that Newman introduced by saying that he had estimated he had contributed $4,000-plus to the total gross of the blockbuster Pixar film. As for Wonder, on the whole, I really got a kick out of his show. Sure, he was a little self-indulgent by allowing his thirty-something daughter Aisha Morris (The memorable subject of "Isn't She Lovely" in 1976) to solo on a piece and talking about his mother's death in relation to Katrina. The song "Ribbon in the Sky" went on much too long. But I came to the Jazz Fest expecting Old School Stevie and that's what I got – complete with a tight-as-hell band. Forget about "I Just Called to Say I Love You," "Part-Time Lover" or (gulp) "Ebony and Ivory" We heard "Superstition," "Sir Duke," "Living for the City" and "Don't You Worry About A Thing." It was 1976 all over again on the Acura Stage. And for once, I didn't mind it at all.
Play "Political Science" by Randy Newman

Play "Don't You Worry 'Bout a Thing" by Stevie Wonder (Live in New York 1973)

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Walking Through New Orleans

Last night, at the conclusion of our excellent meal at The Upperline Restaurant in New Orleans' Garden district, we had a conversation with JoAnn Clevenger, the restaurant's proprietor about the city.

"New Orleans these days is like an eight bedroom house undergoing renovations," she said. "Three of the rooms still need major, major work. But the other five rooms are more beautiful than ever and are ready to be enjoyed."

This is my fifth or sixth visit to New Orleans, but my first since Hurricane Katrina devastated the Big Easy in 2005. And I'd have to say that Clevenger's assessment is pretty accurate.

If you look around, there are signs everywhere that this is a city finally getting back on its feet. Yesterday's two-mile ride on the St. Charles Avenue streetcar took us past all kinds of renovation and construction projects underway – including a major Borders book store in the heart of the Garden District. The five bedrooms are indeed ready for guests.

As for the other three bedrooms, we drove around the almost completely decimated Ninth Ward, formerly the city's poorest and most densely populated neighborhood. What was once an area teeming with people has been reduced to acres and acres of overgrown fields with the occasional badly damaged house – or, more hopefully, a newly constructed residence erected by groups such as Habitat for Humanity. Like I Am Legend (2007), you can keep on waiting for a lioness and her cubs to appear in this wasteland.

Even outside of the Ninth Ward, on every other block in residential neighborhoods, there is at least one house with a pile of flood-related debris still sitting on the sidewalk. On some of these houses, as well as others, you can still even see the lines to which the floodwaters rose.

Most Americans still have the image of flooding and a destroyed city in their head when it comes to New Orleans. And that is a big part of the problem for an area trying to get back on its feet.

With New Orleans' population dropping to 200,000 from what had been about 500,000 prior to the flood, the city is more reliant than ever on the tourist trade to support its businesses. And those tourists just aren't visiting at anywhere close to pre-Katrina levels.

On Tuesday night, after my wife and I arrived from Detroit, we walked through the French Quarter. Granted, it was the middle of the week, but less than a mile away, the New Orleans Hornets had just closed out their first-round playoff series with the Dallas Mavericks. We figured the Quarter would be crowded with celebrating fans.

No way. Almost all the streets were empty. Bourbon Street was more active, but nowhere near the levels I've seen in the past. All around the Quarter, which was mostly spared from the flooding, you hear of business owners barely scraping by. Or having trouble hiring busboys, dishwashers and other unskilled help because the city's poorest residents have been all but exiled to places such as Houston, Atlanta and Nashville.

Another sign of the city's struggles: We are staying on the 29th floor of the Hilton New Orleans Riverside in a beautiful room overlooking the Mississippi River. The waterway, prior to the hurricane, was almost always like a crowded interstate. These day, you're lucky to see more than one boat on the river at a time.

It's quite sad. In many ways, New Orleans is more beautiful than ever. But not enough people are around to enjoy it. Not the tourists. And certainly not the former residents who may never be able to come home again. I really am crossing my fingers for this beautiful city, but it may take more than houses and flood prevention efforts to cure its ills. (Speaking of which, the headline in today's New Orleans Times-Piscayune focused on the inadequacy of two of the supposedly improved floodwalls)

On a happier note, I'm about to go out to the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival today, where I hope to watch Randy Newman perform. Newman is actually a Louisiana native, as you can hear in this autobiographical song from his 1988 album, Land of Dreams. I've also included an mp3 from one of my favorite New Orleans bands, Cowboy Mouth, which I hope to make the subject of a longer post at a future date.

Play "Dixie Flyer" by Randy Newman

Play "Hurricane Party" by Cowboy Mouth