Pick Your Pop Culture

So, I've like written about music for 25 years, and like I've got a lot to say and not enough people to pay me for it, and like I like to write about TV, and books, and movies, and stuff like that.

Monday, January 10, 2005

Blue Rose

It may seem perverse to start talking about one of the greatest jazz vocal albums I’ve ever heard by concentrating on the track that has no vocals, but it’s the track that guaranteed I would buy this six-year-old reissue from the second I first heard it almost two weeks ago. Rosemary Clooney has been one of my favorite singers since I was five and I found my Dad’s 78-rpm disc of “Come On-A My House,” but I’d never heard her collaboration with Duke Ellington, “Blue Rose” until New Year’s Day when I found a used copy at work.

But, as I said, we’re first going to sing the praises of alto saxophone genius Johnny Hodges. It’s not as though this were the only time he ever recorded Billy Strayhorn’s eloquent “Passion Flower,” nor as though there aren’t many other exquisite renditions of same in the annals of jazz history. But, oh, my, the way Hodges lightly caresses the melody, then increases the pressure of his touches almost to the point of squeezing when he climbs up the chorus before swooping down with one continuous glide down the other side! And, then, the Ellington orchestra kicks him in the ass and makes him climb up again, this time with greater insistence on every individual note, and he decides to skip back down a step or two at a time to get to the beginning key for the last time. It’s one of the most breathtaking performances I’ve ever heard.

Clooney and arranger Billy Strayhorn were wise to leave vocals off this track. Anything else would be superfluous, and besides, she gets so many chances to shine. Some of Ellington’s most familiar hits are here – “It Don’t Mean A Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing)”, “Mood Indigo”, “I Got It Bad (And That Ain’t Good)”, “Just A Sittin’ And A-Rockin’” – along with a few lesser known but memorable gems. Clooney, who at the time was primarily considered a pop singer, slips into the Ellington sound as though she’d been singing it her whole life. It’s amazing to read in the liner notes – and to remember the reporting in David Hadju’s magnificent Strayhorn biography “Lush Life” – that she wasn’t comfortable because of an unfamiliarity with overdubbing. This was one of the rare 1950s albums where the orchestra was in one city while the singer was in another.

What I love about Clooney in general is her conviction, a sense that the song she’s singing, whether fluff or masterpiece, whether prosaic or poetic, is absolutely the right thing to be talking about at any given moment. She puts the emphasis on the words, but she always hugs the melody, and she has a natural swing which never lapses into the clichéd force of, oh, a Bobby Darin, to name somebody I’ve never liked who’s inexplicably the subject of a major biopic these days.

As a result of her skills, I’ve noticed the lyrics to “Sophisticated Lady” for the first time. To be fair, 90% of all versions of this song are purely instrumental, because it’s such a great base for improvisation, and because the reeds achieve such a luxurious tone on the first melody of the piece. You always get the sense of regret from the instrumental versions, but I’ve never noticed the judgmental part in the second half. See, the words tell the tale of a woman who had love and lost it, hence the sad sense of loss. But, then, without love, she becomes a “sophisticate,” which is apparently not something you want in a woman. She smokes, drinks, dresses up, and dances, all to cover up her lack of love. Who knew you couldn’t have love and fun at the same time?

I think you could spend a lifetime listening only to Ellington, and always hear more in his music. I know I’ve devoted hundreds of hours to the task, but I’ve got a long, long way to go before I get to the bottom of it. “Blue Rose” comes from an angle I’ve not encountered before, and which adds much to my delightful acquaintance with the greatest bandleader and composer of the 20th century.

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