Friday, June 25, 2010

Traveling the Tried & True Path on Pandora

You all know how much I adorePandora Radio and the whole idea of discovering music based on what your own likes and dislikes are without any "genres", "user ratings" or what's considered "cool" or "radio-friendly". Back in 2006 I first explained how Pandora works in Follow The Clay Path To New Music and since that first blog I always did at least one from each new Clay album: A Thousand Different Ways, and then two for One My Way Here Part 1 and Part 2 - and imagine my excitement when Pandora added in Clay Aiken's Tried And True.

To refresh your memories - from Pandora's About page:

When was the last time you fell in love with a new artist or song?

At Pandora, we have a single mission: To play only music you'll love.

To understand just how we do this, and why we think we do it really, really well, you need to know about the Music Genome Project®.

Since we started back in 2000, we have been hard at work on the Music Genome Project. It's the most comprehensive analysis of music ever undertaken. Together our team of fifty musician-analysts has been listening to music, one song at a time, studying and collecting literally hundreds of musical details on every song. It takes 20-30 minutes per song to capture all of the little details that give each recording its magical sound - melody, harmony, instrumentation, rhythm, vocals, lyrics ... and more - close to 400 attributes! We continue this work every day to keep up with the incredible flow of great new music coming from studios, stadiums and garages around the country.

With Pandora you can explore this vast trove of music to your heart's content. Just drop the name of one of your favorite songs or artists into Pandora and let the Genome Project go. It will quickly scan its entire world of analyzed music, almost a century of popular recordings - new and old, well known and completely obscure - to find songs with interesting musical similarities to your choice. Then sit back and enjoy as it creates a listening experience full of current and soon-to-be favorite songs for you.

You can create up to 100 unique "stations." And you can even refine them. If it's not quite right you can tell it so and it will get better for you.

The Music Genome Project was founded by musicians and music-lovers. We believe in the value of music and have a profound respect for those who create it. We like all kinds of music, from the most obtuse bebop, to the most tripped-out drum n bass, to the simplest catchy pop tune. Our mission is to help you connect with the music YOU like.
We hope you enjoy the experience!

So I decided to start my second exploration with one of the songs I've become addicted to on Tried And True - It's Only Make Believe. A quick check of the attributes for this song, Pandora lists:

  • jazz influences
  • acoustic rhythm piano
  • intricate melodic phrasing
  • busy horn section
  • thru composed melodic style
  • acoustic sonority
  • major key tonality
  • mid-tempo swing feel

And right off the bat, the first song Pandora chose to get a feel for what I like was a song by the Brian Setzer Orchestra. I love Brian Setzer! This song was Love Partners In Crime and the attributes they list are: jazz influences, demanding instrumental part writing, intricate melodic phrasing and busy horn section. Starting off great - thumbs up for me!

Next came - Van Morrison. Now everyone who knows me knows how I feel about Van Morrison - but who'da thunk he'd be the second song on my Clay Aiken It's Only Make Believe path? They suggested This Love Of Mine from Van's Magic Time album and it was one of two covers he did on that eclectic album.  It's also one of the few songs Frank Sinatra wrote the lyrics to. I can definitely hear the similarities to It's Only Make Believe. A quick check of the attributes and sure enough - it's got: jazz influences, mid-tempo swing feel, major key tonality and busy horn section but it's also adding in:

  • blues influences
  • dynamic male vocalist. 

Pandora does this to see what other attributes you might like so it can suggest additional music for you. One person may give this a thumbs down and after enough thumbs down to a blues influence, Pandora won't suggest any more. But for me? I'm a blues fan so of course, thumbs up! A quick click on the song title and it brings up additional information about This Love Of Mine. Similar songs . . . well in addition to Pick Up The Tab by Chris Cain Band and Ain't Gonna Worry No More by Wayne Hancock and How Sweet It Is by Michael Buble . . . two Clay Aiken songs show up . . . There's A Kind of Hush and Mack The Knife. Be still my heart . . . Clay and Van. Now that's a connection most people won't make but that's what is so fabulous about Pandora. It's about the music. Not the hype.

Continuing with the blues influence, the next song in Pandora's selection was You Are My Sunshine by Marva Wright, the Blues Queen of New Orleans, and she's terrific.  But Pandora is smart - and they move closer to the attributes we started with by now suggesting I Love Being Here With You. I know this song from one of my Diana Krall albums . . . but this was Queen Latifah's version and no hesitation - thumbs up for sure. I wasn't familiar with her album Trav'lin Light but a quick stop at iTunes added this terrific version to my iPod. Checking in on the song I can see we're back to the jazz influence, busy horn section and mid-tempo swing feel that I found irresistible in It's Only Make Believe.

Sugar Pie by Nelson Adelard is next up and keeps with the attributes originally discussed but also adds some r&b stylings. I've never heard of Nelson Adelard before but with Pandora it's easy to find out background information on the singers they have selected. Wow - how did I miss him? I love this guy but can't find anything on Amazon or iTunes . . . luckily I found his Official Website and was able to pick up some songs there. Now you see why I love Pandora? How else would I have ever heard of Nelson Adelard?

Roomful of Blues brings more blues and electric instrumentation to the mix and I love this next song, Jona Lee Again, it's a group I'm not familiar with (shame on me!) - so I clicked on them to find out more: A nine-piece outfit for the majority of their existence, Roomful of Blues was founded in Westerly, RI, all the way back in 1967, by guitarist Duke Robillard and pianist Al Copley. I really love them - and downloaded the whole Standing Room Only album from iTunes. What a great find!

Obviously there's a reason why I love It's Only Make Believe because song after song is getting a thumbs up and the next one is no exception . . .Duke Robillard. Guess what? He's a founding member of Roomful of Blues! OK - this is making sense. I couldn't buy When Your Lover Has Gone on iTunes but I was able to buy the mp3 from Amazon off the album, Swinging Session with Duke Robillard.

So my path is heading in a very interesting direction and because it's MY path - and mine alone - I'm probably going to get presented with different songs than another person might - even though we'll both start at It's Only Make Believe. It's all based on what I've given a thumbs up or thumbs down to. But I have to admit - I'm way more thumbs up than down on this ride I'm taking.

Next song with a big thumbs up was Keb' Mo' and Wake Up Everybody. This brought back some more r&b influences (and another trip to iTunes) to pick up the entire Peace...Back By Popular Demand which is an album of 10 protest and peace songs from the 1960s and 1970s. For me, a hippie who participated in my fair share of protest marches - this album as a gorgeous rending of some important songs like The Times They Are A Changing and Imagine with some wonderful soul-jazz-funk added to them. Am I glad to have discovered this gem!

After my quick trip to iTunes I'm about ready to try another song off Tried and True. I chose What Kind of Fool Am I - which in general terms seems quite different from It's Only Make Believe. But a quick check of the attributes of this song and I see that there are many similarities as well:

  • jazz influences
  • laid-back swing feel
  • intricate melodic phrasing
  • through composed melodic style
  • prominent percussion
  • acoustic rhythm piano
  • major key tonality
  • orchestral arranging

So my journey starts with Ketty Lester and Lonely People Do Foolish Things. Ketty Lester is a wonderful singer who had a hit in the early 1960s with Love Letters but who's career never really took off. What a treat for Pandora to start off with this little gem who's additional attributes were: r&b influences and vocal-centric aesthetic

Next up is Brian Setzer (remember him from my previous path with It's Only Make Believe?)! This song is Lonely Avenue from the album Songs From Lonely Avenue . . . A Soundtrack to an Unwritten Film . . . an ode to film noir - great album. Lots of similar attributes and of course, thumbs up from me. I love his version and the guitar solo is fabulous.

Beyond the Sea - but not Bobby Darin's version - is up next. Matt Belsante - that's a name I'm not familiar with. He's a young man - only 26 now and this song is from his album Blame It On My Youth, recorded when he was only 23! He has a kind of Michael Buble feel to him but I find his voice and style more authentic. I picked up a couple of tunes off this album from iTunes.

Ohhh - this is fun . . . Harry Nilsson singing Makin' Whoopee!  off his A Little Schmilsson in The Night album and just terrific. It's got the usual attributes but also some new ones: string section beds; a light swing groove and orchestral arranging. I just had to pick up this tune!

Oh look . . . Linda Eder is up next singing This Time Around from her It's No Secret Any More album. Yummy - Linda's version was one my father absolutely adored and played all the time. He discovered her late in his life and her music brought him great pleasure. No hesitation - thumbs up for me!  I guess possibly because Linda's voice is theatrical - the next suggestion is a bit too Broadway for me with Pal Joey's Happy Hunting Horn - but that's an easy fix. Click thumbs down and move on to Bonnie Raitt's Everything That Touches You. This song adds to the jazz influence and string bed attributes with acoustic rock instrumentation and acoustic rhythm guitars. Thumbs up and I'll be eager to see what this new song does to my path . . . but not tonight as I'm ready to close Pandora down for the evening.

I know I'm going to be continuing on these musical journeys discovering fabulous old and new music - old and new artists -- familiar and unfamiliar singers -- all from the kernels there were It's Only Make Believe and What Kind of Fool Am I. And what better way to end this blog than a performance of What Kind of Fool Am I by Clay Aiken at Bringing Broadway Home.

Next trip down Pandora I think I'll check out where Unchained Melody and Mack The Knife lead me. This is addictive!

DISCLAIMER: The photos of Clay Aiken have nothing, zero, nada to do with Pandora or singing these songs or anything . . . they are just simply gorgeous and begged to be used! Thank you to Diana Levine, photographer.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Destiny's Child Part 3

Two years ago when I started the Destiny’s Child blog that has turned into a Destiny’s Child series, I marveled at what some may think is just a bunch of coincidental events. While I do believe in the occasional coincidence, there’s something to be said for a series of intertwined events, days apart or even decades apart that set your life on a path of higher learning or bigger experiences. I believe life is a series of fateful events influenced by our own decisions and commitment. That feeling of coincidence is really just reinforcement of the fate that awaits you. Or there may be an event that seems like part of every day life that will eventually reveal itself as a connection between past and future.

A few months ago, I decided to change jobs. I had heard of a new job opportunity at an iconic international company that would allow me to work in an industry that has always fascinated me. The word on the grapevine was that it is extremely difficult to get hired at this organization. I networked hard and was able to secure a phone interview which ended with an appointment for an onsite interview. Thirty minutes after I hung up the phone, I received a call from my daughter at college. She is studying Public Relations and had to create a mock press release based on an assigned company and she had emailed it to me for review. I opened my email and saw the logo of the company that had just invited me onsite. I had four more events like that happen to me in a ten day period of time. Coincidence? Or was this my own personal version of The Force?

Earlier this week, a number of entertainers who were either native to Raleigh, North Carolina or who had a deep connection to the North Carolina Theater in Raleigh performed at a benefit concert. Performers included Broadway legend (and former NCT director) Terrence Mann along with Broadway singer/actress Lauren Kennedy. Also in the “cast” were actress Sharon Lawrence, and singers Quiana Parler and Clay Aiken-Multi-platinum recording artist, Broadway actor and Raleigh’s unofficial tourism ambassador.

He opened the show singing Home from The Wiz. How appropriate. He talked about sitting in the Memorial Auditorium for the first time, while watching a production of Big River starring Marty Moran as Huck Finn. Years later Clay was invited to play Sir Robin in Monty Python’s Spamalot on Broadway. The actor preceding him? Marty Moran. I discussed that Circle of Life in Destiny’s Child Part 1.

There was a lot of talent in this benefit concert that night. But in the video and audio of the show, a few things were clear to me. First, Clay can sing anything. Fans have always laughed that he can sing the phone book but he seemed determined to prove it. He dueted with various performers and easily slid from Broadway singer to pop singer depending on song and partner. As Nan said, she watched three different Broadway songs from three different shows and saw three different singer/actors. He embodied the song and morphed that embodiment to suit the mood. He sang traditionally and then he played with his voice as if it was an acoustical guitar and a trumpet all rolled into one. In Those Magic Changes from Grease, he seemed to be having a jamming session with himself and all of the Clays were thoroughly enjoying it.

And then there was his performance of Mack the Knife. This is such a strange song, it’s about a killer sneaking around slitting people’s throats and yet it's performed with this jazzy flair. What does this have to do with Destiny? Clay sang this song on American Idol in 2003 in the show that put him in the final. He needed to nail the performance, they had changed the words to his previous song at the last minute and he had stumbled a bit. That night found a young man on stage who was feeling the pressure to nail it.Sing it big and they will like it. This week it was the seasoned professional who sang a sadistic song with a sassy, grooving ease. He felt no pressure to nail it because he owned it the minute he opened his mouth.

As an aside, what is UP with his voice? The man has always had a voice better than 90 percent of the singers out there and it improves when he’s live on stage. But 2010 Clay? His voice is even better technically and the notes are effortless as always but there’s something more there now. I feel a joy and abandonment in his singing that I haven’t seen in a few years. I was thinking about it today as I was driving home from work (at that iconic new company that ultimately hired me last month). He sings with a sense of freedom to explore and experiment. He sings with no pressure, likely born from working with a new record label that finally, in his own words, gets him. He sings with hope. Does he sense the hand of destiny too?

So what else did our sister Destiny have in store for him this week? Sure, he stood on that very stage three months ago as he recorded a PBS special that had a smashing premiere in Chicago this month and will be airing on PBS stations nationwide in August. Interesting, but by itself probably a mere coincidence at best. But the memory, the event, the intersection of dream and reality began a lot earlier. It began when a 17 year old Clayton entered a regional performance competition and stood on that Raleigh stage in a sparkly blue vest and sang a song that was too big for most adults. He sang it with little nuance, just the “all in” naiveté of a teenager, but the judges rewarded him for the raw talent of it all.

Fast forward (or flashforward as Clay said that night) fourteen years to that very spot where the untamed wild pony had impressed a group of local educators and parents. He’s a household name now, about to embark on his ninth tour in seven years. He returned to sing that same song, not because he had a choice but because there was no other choice. He had to close that circle. I’m sure Miss Destiny has a few more waiting. I wonder if he has an aunt named Emmy.

Many thanks to GBB, Fountaindawg, Brightstar and toni7babe for their talents and treasures in the pictures and film clips on this blog. Check out Destiny’s Child Part 1 and Destiny’s Child Part 2 to see this amazing life.

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Monday, June 07, 2010

The Classics - and The Classy!

Everyone knows I have eclectic taste in music. I like my rock to really rock (not the Daughtry-kind) so I still play Ten Years After and Pink Floyd and The Doors. I still go to cafes to listen to folk music and I see Tom Paxton every single time he's playing near me - even as recently as a few months ago and at 72 he's still funny, warm and emotionally touching. And over the holiday weekend I was thrilled to be sitting in a wine bar in my little town, sipping a martini and listening to the fabulous jazz guitarist and legend, Bucky Pizzarelli still dynamite at 84 years young. I don't know why it is that I don't gravitate to one kind of music only but I feel fortunate that I don't. I know music is subjective and some people simply don't "feel" anything but pop or classical strikes them right. I have a million moods and a million songs to fit them. I think I'm lucky that way.

I've been thinking a lot lately about how musical history gets diluted by a constant drumming of media spin. Voices that were once called "golden" or "legendary" now can be sneered at by using the two dreaded words "easy listening". Is listening supposed to be hard? Sure there is music that sounds like it belongs in an elevator. Hey, the Beatles music has been converted into that. And some singers do have ordinary voices or predictable phrasing and aren't very interesting - some from the 50s and 60s . . . and even some from the "contemporary 2000s". All one has to do is turn into American Idol every now and again to be convinced that there are hundreds of ordinary voices out there.

I do realize that many people simply do not like "standards" or "those kind of arrangements" or "that kind of voice" and I understand as I've never understood the appeal of Madonna or much pop music for that matter. Or rap. Give me blues and rock any day but I have zero interest in hearing Shakira or  Katy Perry.  And while I love r&b - it's the voices of Sam Cooke or Otis Redding I long for - not much of what is contemporary r&b. So I do understand when people listen to standards and just don't care for it.  But I also think that many others simply don't really know the music they are quick to dismiss. Sometimes sounding "easy" is really really difficult and takes considerable talent.

I've been thinking a lot about this particularly since Clay Aiken's new album Tried and True arrived at my doorstep. Now I love Clay's voice but I've never been one who's said "he can sing the phone book and I'll be happy". I have zero interest in hearing the phone book sung by anyone - including a voice as interesting as Clay's. Music matters to me. I wasn't happy when I heard he was singing "covers" but I became much more interested when I heard he was singing "standards". I never tire of hearing Ella sing "They Can't Take That Away From Me" and Kenny Rankin's version of 'Round Midnight will be on my deserted island.  So I was excited about this album - and it didn't disappoint me at all. And Clay's rendition of Misty keeps inching over on Sarah Vaughan's which shocks the heck out of me!

I intend to write more about Tried and True later, especially since it includes some amazing arrangements -- and Linda Eder's vocals on Crying and David Sanborn's sax on What Kind Of Fool Am I (two artists I adore) - but today, listening to some recent interviews with Clay about why this album means so much to him and why he wanted to sing what he has been calling "singer's songs" - I've been drawn to hearing some of the voices Clay has mentioned: Andy Williams and Johnny Mathis. WHAT?????? Snoozy Andy in his cardigan? Boring Johnny of the lush romantic elevator music? Nope. Not those people because I don't know who those people are. I've been thinking and listening to the real Andy Williams and Johnny Mathis. That's right.

Andy Williams, the man who in the 1960s was one of the most popular vocalists in our country. The man who, at the time, was signed to the biggest recording contract ever and who earned more gold records than any man other than Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley and . . . oh yeah, Johnny Mathis. Andy Williams, who's television variety show ran for nine years and won three Emmy's.  That Andy Williams. So I relistened to some Andy Williams music and remembered why he was so popular. The ease of his vocals, the smoothness, the control. His lovely vocal ability shines in this version of Scarborough Fair with Simon and Garfunkel:

. . . or the way he can mix it up with the likes of Antonio Carlos Jobim in The Girl From Ipanema:

And then I thought, I haven't really listened to Johnny Mathis in a long long time. I mean everyone made out to Johnny Mathis music - but had I really listened? I admit I don't own any Johnny Mathis songs. I wasn't a fan although I recognized his beautiful voice. So I needed to really listen. And once I did I had my "aha" moment. Put that voice together with a great song like Michel Legrand's Pieces of Dreams and I'm lost in it.


And it's perfection when connecting so emotionally to a song like 99 Miles From LA:

So Clay - if you want to show your wonderful vocals and your sublime interpretative skills singing "singer's songs" - like you did in this version of Unchained Melody on The View - please do.

I know a great song by a great singer will never go out of style.

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