Thursday, March 26, 2009

What Is Popular Is Sometimes Right

I remember a motivational poster that hung in my seventh grade Spanish classroom, although I don't remember the Spanish: it said, roughly, "What Is Popular Is Not Always Right and What Is Right Is Not Always Popular." There's a good lesson there, of course, but I think that sometimes--as musical performers--we take that to be a truth in and of itself rather than a caution.

Beethoven's ninth, Moonlight Sonata, 1812, Handel's Messiah, Tchaikovsky's first piano concerto, Barber's Adagio--psssh! Those people (you know, mindless regional orchestra subscribers and the like) listen to things like that.

I'm playing two concerts next weekend of quite "familiar" music. On Palm Sunday, I'm playing the Messiah, and on Friday night April 3rd, I'm playing in Johnson County Landmark (the world's oddest name for a college jazz band) backing up clarinetist Richard Stoltzman in a Salute to Benny Goodman, at a sold-out Englert Theater in downtown Iowa City. I've been in grad school long enough that I'm beginning to cycle through repertoire: that is, we tried to put this concert on 2.1 years ago, but were foiled due to ice.

It's always an odd feeling in college big bands, because sometimes there's a hold-your-nose kind of culture that comes with "historical" big band music. Ew, vibrato. Ew, simple chord changes. Ew, old people would like this music. And so sometimes I come into a concert cycle pretending to feel that way, but--again and again--I'm convinced that this music, from the inside out, is irresistible. It teaches you how to swing, how to wait, how to hurry, how to hit it, how to hide away.

We're doing a good mix of favorites, small group stuff, cute-stuff, and burning Fletcher Henderson arrangements. I've always been a big Fletcher Henderson fan--my favorite is a ditty of his called Fidgety Feet. It's really wild stuff, inventive and irresistible. And although I'm not playing on this particular tune, "Queer Notions," archaic title and all, is just about the funkiest thing ever done with a whole tone scale:

Then, there's Sing, Sing, Sing. Talk about the cross-sectional writing. Bugle Call Rag--how about that syncopation? "Goodbye" (Gordon Jenkins' Goodman band theme) is sweeter than it is schlocky, and I can never write it off as theme music, since the first version I knew was Sinatra's Only the Lonely reading:

Anyway, I even walk down the street humming the syncopated out-chorus to "Let's Dance." Listen how in this simple--some might even say cheesy tune--the bass and saxes are so far out front of the time, the brass and drums drag it, and Benny is Benny.

What's the effect of that whole tempo game? Go ahead: don't tap your toe.

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