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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stpteach said...

Lovely reminder of why I used to look forward to The Andy Williams Show; he, like Clay, was a singer's singer. And maybe someday Clay will choose to sing "Pieces of Dreams" - I'm quite sure his version would be equally as moving. Thanks, Nanjeanne, for putting into words what so many of us feel.

macmom said...

Loved looking back through time to the days of Andy Williams and Johnny Mathis -- and then to once again enjoy Clay's amazing performance of Unchained Melody on The View last week. Enjoyed your blog very much, too, Nanjeanne.

Beautiful voices with lovely lyrics win every time for me.

Anonymous said...

....going back now to listen to and watch the clips you posted. But for now, WORD on your words! There's a great, big wonderful world of music out there. Too bad for those stuck in an age or a genre for all eternity!

Corabeth said...

I wouldn't mind another album that contained a some standards if they were more obscure ones like the Pieces of Dreams one you included. It is new to me and I found the lyrics very interesting. And many of the arrangements on Clay's album took familiar songs and made them not so familiar in new and intersting ways. Those are my favorites. I'm less enamored with the standards sung exactly like we've heard them a million times.

Easy listening to me doesn't mean the opposite of hard, it means I'm not engaged in hearing the song. Clay's voice always enough to make that first connection/engagement point but I hope he continues to find great songs both standard and original and my wish, an original standard!