It’s been a little over two years since I left Frank Sinatra all forlorn and lonesome on that empty city street well after closing time, cigarette in hand, gazing absently into a blue fog, mourning his deteriorating marriage to Ava Gardner.
My review of In the Wee Small Hours was published on Independence Day 2018, my last review of an American artist before I launched a boycott of music exports from the USA. My modest protest lasted eighteen months, and during that time, my greatest regret was leaving my readers with a one-sided impression of Sinatra. While I completely agree with the characterization offered by Terry Teachout in the documentary Sinatra: All Or Nothing at All (“He was the poet laureate of loneliness; his songs were haunted by it.”), we also hold the image of Frank Sinatra as a man who loved the high life, the guy who clowned around with his Rat Pack buddies in Vegas, the singer with one of the most beautiful smiles I’ve ever seen, one that radiated joy and optimism.
Sinatra was also a hopeless romantic, in constant search of agape (unconditional love). His well-documented philandering can be interpreted in two ways: one, he was a typical dude on the make who viewed women as sex objects, blessed with the fame and fortune that makes getting laid a snap; or two, he was constantly searching for the all-consuming merger of body and soul and the women in his life were simply incapable of meeting both needs over the long haul. As he crooned in his first mega-hit:
All or nothing at all
Half a love never appealed to me
If your heart never could yield to me
Then I’d rather, rather have nothing at all
And as is often the case with Frank Sinatra, both interpretations are probably 100% on the money.
Songs for Swingin’ Lovers, an album that celebrates the joys of love through Sinatra’s interpretations of songs from The Great American Songbook, was the fourth in a series of collaborations with arranger-conductor Nelson Riddle, recorded less than a year after In the Wee Small Hours. The creative synergy so obviously manifested on the darker album continues unabated here, the two albums forming a yin and yang of heartbreak and happiness. While critics agree that the two works are equal in terms of quality, In the Wee Small Hours gets the lion’s share of critical attention because it is considered “serious.” This bias towards gloom and doom is part of the human condition; Shakespeare wrote seventeen comedies, but we spent most of our time in lit class on four tragedies: Hamlet, Othello, Macbeth and King Lear. Most of the history we study focuses on war, pestilence and disaster; what passes for news today is largely bad news; clips that describe the good things humans do are diminished by the adjectives “heartwarming” and “light” and stuck at the end of the newscast.
Though the same bias exists in music criticism (Beethoven’s symphonies are considered “superior” to Schubert’s lieder), popular music has often served as an antidote to our obsession with the bleak. Although I don’t have exact figures (though it’s possible that someone out there looking for something to do while riding out the pandemic may already be on it), I think it’s a safe bet that most of the popular songs written over the centuries are about love and that most love songs are more “I love my baby and she loves me” than “My baby left me.” The need to love and be loved is also an essential facet of the human condition, and love songs capture many of our most cherished hopes and dreams. Love brings out the best in us and in each other; automatically dismissing love songs out-of-hand as “nice,” “sweet” or “soft stuff” should be considered absolute sacrilege.
Great philosophers have a gift for the pithy statement that cuts through our mental meandering and captures the essence of the matter of hand, and one of the greatest philosophers of the 20th Century, holographic Vegas lounge singer Vic Fontaine (portrayed by James Darren on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine), put it this way:
“It’s love, baby. Nothing better than that.”
Songs for Swingin’ Lovers is Sinatra and Riddle at the top of their game, working with the best studio musicians and recording engineers in the business, swinging with force and finesse.
Nothin’ better than that, baby.
I specifically mention the engineers because the quality of the recording knocks my socks off every time I take Songs for Swingin’ Lovers for a spin. I have a similar reaction after listening to Masterpieces by Ellington, so part of my delight can be attributed to the sheer warmth of analog recording on the Ampex 200 series tape machine used for both albums. The other factor affecting my perception is a rather snooty, probably millennial attitude towards the primitive recording techniques of the time and a quickly-becoming-archaic belief that better technology means better outcomes. Any DIY software today has a thousand times the recording capability of a 50s set-up, but the little recordings of the piano-flute duets my mother and I come up with don’t come close to the quality and crystal-clarity of Songs for Swingin’ Lovers—and the Capitol engineers had to deal with a full swing band with up to thirty-six musicians (not to mention a very demanding vocalist).
As a highly informative piece I found at Sound on Sound conclusively proves, ingenuity + collaboration + persistence can overcome any and all technological limitations. Engineer John Paladino related some of the challenges facing the crew, the musicians and the arranger:
Having experimented as to where the sound really came from on each instrument, I found that miking lower — maybe two-and-a-half to three feet above the floor, shooting straight under the music stands — provided a nice fullness to the saxes. You see, on stage the sax section would play standing up, but even when they addressed the microphone full-on they still wouldn’t get the boost that the floor provided. Sometimes, that was very difficult to handle because the woodwind guys would have to play multiple instruments: after playing a sax, a guy might then have to play a flute, and we didn’t have extra mics [to accommodate different setups].
This was educational for the arranger. He had to know some of the pitfalls of recording, and that he couldn’t all of a sudden just go from a full sax section to a little old flute solo. He had to somehow work it into the arrangement so that the guy could, perhaps, quickly get up and go to another microphone. In the beginning, someone like Nelson Riddle didn’t know how to write for a recording . . . and we didn’t know how to record for a recording! We were all learning at the same time. I’d tell him, ‘Nelson, I can’t do this. You’ve got the strings here against the brass and it won’t work.’ Well, Nelson became very adept at that — he was very good — and all of the on-call arrangers got wise to that, too.
And at the center of it all, you have the man George Will described in a centennial piece on Sinatra as “unquestionably . . . the greatest singer of American songs.” Many of Mr. Paladino’s challenges had to do with Sinatra’s insistence on recording with a live band, but Sinatra also challenged everyone in the studio to achieve an exceptionally high level of craftsmanship, including and especially himself. Paladino remembered, “Frank knew his own voice pretty well, and when he wasn’t singing well, he’d walk out of a session. I’ve got to give him credit for that. In fact, I’ve got no criticism of Frank at all. His criticisms of the musicians’ playing were really top-notch, because they locked in with what he was doing. He knew what he was doing, and he knew what he wanted the band to do.”
Sure, all these guys (and the three gals in the band) were paid for their efforts, but it is clear from the result that their work was a labor of love. Sinatra would accept nothing less the best from himself and the people around him, and his high standards became their high standards.
Nothin’ better than that, baby.
The album kicks off with the perfectly thematic “You Make Me Feel So Young,” a song lifted from the positively dreadful film “Three Little Girls in Blue” and transformed into a swing masterpiece by Sinatra and Riddle. The arrangement is split into three parts: the two repeated verses and a coda. After a healthy opening from the horn section, Riddle tones it down a bit to establish a relaxed, happy-go-lucky mood for the first verse. When Frank enters in marvelous voice, he mirrors that happy-go-lucky feeling so well that you can picture him with his hat at a jocular angle, hands in his pockets, a girl at his side, “Running around the meadow/Pickin’ up lots of forget-me-nots.” Prior to the start of that verse, muted horns handle the counterpoint, but right after Sinatra delivers the fanciful lines “I wanna go and bounce the moon/Just like a toy balloon,” Harry Klee takes over those duties with light responses from the flute that complete the meadow-scape with images of flittering butterflies. I feel like squealing with delight when Harry executes a perfect rising glissando to introduce the “Pickin’ up lots of forget-me-nots” line and then harmonizes with Sinatra’s voice. While all this is going on, Riddle has followed up on Sinatra’s suggestion for a continuous string background, providing a subtle watercolor wash to the overall picture. As we move forward, the attention shifts entirely to Sinatra’s delivery, phrasing and astounding breath control as he executes what turns out to be a modest crescendo. I don’t know how he managed to avoid taking a breath after belting out the line “And a wonderful fling to be flung,” where he extends the high-register note of the word “flung” and then immediately drops an octave to deliver “And even when I’m old and gray” without a pause. He then shows us he still has plenty left in the tank with his sinuous yet powerful delivery of the closing lines.
Following his lead and anticipating the denouement, the full band returns with a more muscular swing, cueing Frank to repeat the verse, albeit in a more jazzy, finger-snapping style. I can’t describe the build and crescendo of the second part any better than Will Friedman did in Sinatra! The Song Is You: A Singer’s Art: “Even more effective are the ways he increases the emotional, no less than the musical, pitch within a single track: “You Make Me Feel So Young” modulates from mere cheerfulness to exalted rapture so overpoweringly it could make a statue want to fall in love.” The flute then returns for the gentler coda, this time reflecting those little kisses we give our lovers when all passion is spent. Once you get past the ecstasy the song generates (if that’s possible), you might realize that the Sinatra-Riddle take on “You Make Me Feel So Young” serves as a masterclass lesson in vocal command and the art of musical arrangement.
Technically speaking, “It Happened in Monterey” doesn’t fit with the album’s theme since Frank left the girl and “threw away the key to paradise,” but Riddle and Sinatra deserve medals for transforming the patently odd original into a serviceable swing number. Of the two competing versions of the original, Ruth Etting (of “Ten Cents a Dance” fame) wins out over Paul Whiteman, but even Ruth couldn’t overcome the molasses-level slow tempo set in 3/4 time nor the lame attempt to “Mexicanize” the song with Spanish guitar. The reconstruction eliminates one of those tedious lyrical introductions that often accompanied popular numbers in the 20s and 30s (Al Jolson’s discography is full of them), replaces it with an attention-grabbing flurry of horns, strings and flute, and shifts the time signature to 4/4. The structure of the new arrangement is similar to that of “You Make Me Feel So Young,” with the harder swing in the second verse marked by sharp punctuations from the horn section and sexy bursts of solo trumpet.
The metaphor of love-as-addiction is familiar to everyone who has seen the video version of Robert Palmer’s “Addicted to Love” with the five leggy, red-lipped broads undulating to the song’s thrusting rhythm or to fans into the Huey Lewis and the News hit “I Want a New Drug.” The Songfacts entry on Palmer’s number is remiss in that it identifies the trope as a purely ’80s phenomenon, failing to note that “You’re Getting to Be a Habit with Me” initiated this micro-genre way back in 1932. The original sort of appears in the film 42nd Street (vocalist Bebe Daniels performs a quick run-through that is interrupted by dialogue); the version that went to the top of the charts came from Bing Crosby and Guy Lombardo. The Crosby version is rather stiff and formal, befitting the sexless elegance of Lombardo’s music, and though Riddle and Sinatra chose a slightly slower tempo for their rendition, the song flows nice and easy, and the combination of strings, celeste and flute in the instrumental passage turns the song into something approaching sweet and cuddly, though not cloyingly so. The images of addiction are far less harsh than Palmer’s “Your heart sweats, your body shakes,” as the only substances mentioned are coffee and tea . . . not the cigarettes and booze one would expect from Frank Sinatra, who often changed lyrics to suit his taste.
Maurice Chevalier (who sang much better in his native French) turned “You Brought a New Kind of Love to Me” into a hit, his version earning the honor of satirization via the Marx Brothers in Monkey Business. The lyrics caught the attention of this kinky broad due to the ambivalent expression of male submissiveness:
I’m hip that I’m the slave, you’re the queen
Still you might understand that underneath it all
You’re a maid and I am only a man
That verse only makes sense if you remember that most men are in denial about their desire to serve the superior sex. Sinatra is relatively restrained in this piece, with the band contributing the subliminal oomph. Apparently the boys in the band were more enthusiastic about the possibility of engaging with a dominatrix.
You may be familiar with the Johnny Mercer-Richard Whiting song “Too Marvelous for Words” via Jo Stafford’s version that appears in the Bogie-Bacall vehicle Dark Passage, or, if you go back aways, the runaway hit rendition by Der Bingle. I’m not all that hot on Crosby, but Jo Stafford is one of my favorite singers and I absolutely love her take on this marvelously crafted song.
That said, Frank really knocks this one out of the park. The key to Sinatra’s performance here is his remarkable gift for phrasing; as George Will put it, “For Sinatra, before a song was music, it was words alone. He studied lyrics, internalized them, then sang, making music from poems.” In the first verse, you hear Sinatra in a relaxed voice, taking time to savor the euphony of Mercer’s lyrics (“Like glorious, glamorous/And that old standby amorous”), maintaining his delight with rhyming phonemes while nailing the rare but brilliant middle-of-the-verse key change (“I mean they’re just not swell enough”). Song established, Frank takes a breather while the band launches into a hard swing featuring the trumpet section led by Harry “Sweets” Edison with two brief double bass solos adding dynamic and sonic contrast. The second bass solo cues Frank to step up to the mike, and baby, does that man know how to fly or what? His phrasing is now in perfect sync with the swing, riding the wave all the way to the thrilling crescendo where he closes his performance on a long, unbroken note at the upper reaches of his range. I like to imagine myself watching Sinatra performing “Too Marvelous for Words” in Vegas, where at the end of the performance I leap out of my seat to give him a standing ovation, rip off my bra and fling it onto the stage.
Yeah, I’m that kind of girl.
Speaking of striptease, ladies, if you’re into déshabiller érotique as a way of spicing up the foreplay, Sinatra’s version of “Old Devil Moon” would provide the perfect accompaniment. Unlike the semi-comic David Rose number that immediately jumps to climax while calling up images of sleaze and tawdriness, Sinatra and Riddle open with a playful dialogue between singer, flute, harp and trumpet, each providing an emotional response to the unexpected appearance of a beautiful vision in silky lingerie:
I looked at you and suddenly (rising harp followed by a quick trumpet burst—initial excitement)
Something in your eyes I see (flute slowly moving up the scale as the lovers make eye contact))
Soon begins bewitching me (swirling flute reflecting that delightful sense of vertigo when you shift gears from the rational to the irrational erotic urge)
Sinatra then goes full jazz singer, filling the tune with blue notes and the languorous phrasing of Billie Holiday. Meanwhile, the band responds with a combination attack featuring slow, hip-shaking rhythms, sudden punctuations and direct responses to Frank’s lyrics (the laughing trumpets that accompany the line “Wanna laugh like a loon”). And baby, they’re just warming up! The instrumental break is a striptease artist’s dream, the powerful horns providing hip-thrusting punctuation and “Sweets” Edison bringing the sass with his trumpet responses. “Old Devil Moon” is so hot that . . . well, let me borrow another phrase from Vic Fontaine. If this song doesn’t raise your temperature, “you’d better check the obituary column, because chances are you’re in it, pallie.”
“Pennies from Heaven” is another questionable thematic choice, as it’s one of those songs like “Happy Days Are Here Again,” a tune designed to sustain American optimism during the Great Depression. The core thought behind the song—you have to take the good with the bad—was already covered by Jolson in “April Showers.” What’s different is the strange use of a copper coin in a rain shower. Hey! Hail and sleet are bad enough, but a rainshower of pennies would surely leave dents in my skull! I’m also operating under the bias that I have never lived one moment in my life when a penny was worth a damn and I found it intensely annoying whenever the clerk tried to give me pennies in my change back when I lived in the States. I did some research and found that a penny wasn’t really good for much back in 1936. A candy bar, an ice cream cone, a bottle of Coke or a cup of coffee would set you back a nickel, and the only food item I could find that was close to penny value (other than the bad joke known as penny candy) was a pound of cabbage (1.5 cents). Perhaps it meant a lot more in 1936 when people had to save enough pennies to feed a poor family, but I can’t come up with a reason why people would want to be reminded of those days in a song twenty years later. It’s always nice to hear Sinatra sing, but I just can’t buy this song, no matter how many pennies you rain on my head.
“Love Is Here to Stay” was the last song George Gershwin wrote before his passing at the too-early age of 38. I have fond memories of this song because, well, it wasn’t the first song I learned on piano but it was the first song I played that earned a compliment from my piano teacher on my touch and rhythm (only took four years). It’s really a delightful song to play, filled with sixth, ninth and diminished chords and designed to be presented in “moderate swing time.” The melody is the ultimate expression of what it means to “tinkle the ivories,” a light, cascading flow of perfectly-arranged notes. Sinatra captures that feeling in his light, lilting vocal, and though it feels at times Riddle has the band swinging a little more intensely than “moderate,” it all works like a charm.
It took twenty-two takes and completely burned out the trombone player, but “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” remains one of the most exciting performances in popular music history. Astonishingly, the song was a last-minute addition to the album and Nelson Riddle had to come up with the arrangement in a hurry (in a taxicab on the way to the studio). “Go with what you know” is always a good starting point when panic sets in, and Riddle had spent quite a bit of time and energy studying the works of Maurice Ravel. Although “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” bears little rhythmic resemblance to Bolero and its 3/4 time signature with a triplet on the second beat, Riddle thought that its skeletal form of a repeating theme combined with a slow build leading to a veritable musical explosion might just work. The real challenge Riddle faced was Ravel spread his build over a period of eighteen or so minutes; Riddle had about three-and-a-half minutes to work with.
As in Bolero, Riddle established the repeating figure in the introductory passage that continues in the background once Sinatra launches his vocal (it sounds like a baritone sax, but biographer James Kaplan raised the possibility of a bass clarinet). Though the figure is not continuously repeated throughout the song (as it is in most of Ravel’s work), the figure re-emerges between verses, serves as a bridge to the instrumental break and makes a crucial reappearance in the fade. While most of the critical and popular attention justifiably focus on Sinatra’s vocal and Milt Bernhart’s once-in-a-millennium trombone solo, these tiny bits of repetition solidify the structure while giving the listener a satisfying sense of continuity and resolution. No wonder the band gave Riddle a standing ovation for this beautifully-designed arrangement.
This may be the twenty-second take but Ol’ Blue Eyes sounds completely relaxed as he savors Cole Porter’s typically clever lyrics in the first two stanzas. Though there are moments when you feel he’s ready to shift to belt-out mode in a heartbeat, he remains true to Riddle’s build, easing off at just the right moments. At this point, Riddle fast-forwards the build (in comparison to Bolero), heralding the shift by allowing a slightly truncated version of the figure to serve as a foundation while the strings build in volume and pitch; eventually the baritone sax eases out of its moorings with a more muscular sound. Right at the peak of the building tension, we hear a flurry of trumpets followed immediately by Milt Bernhart’s trombone, a sound that defines the phrase, “let it rip.” Milt blows at a gale force level pretty much throughout the solo, but somehow manages to maintain complete control of his instrument, hitting those beautiful blue notes and moving in and out of the strong swing delivered by the band.
Given the energy, the power and the superb craftsmanship displayed by Milt and the band, someone who has never heard Frank Sinatra sing may wonder if Riddle made a serious faux pas in designing an arrangement that requires the singer to follow such a stunning display of musical talent. “How do you top that?” our naïve listener mutters to himself.
What follows provides complete justification for Sinatra’s demand for full band accompaniment as well as his insistence on complete takes. I think part of the reason that no singer has come close to matching Sinatra in the intervening years has to do with advanced recording technology that allows a singer to record a vocal several times and then let the engineers cherry-pick the best parts. While some editing and patching were indeed possible with the primitive recording tools of the ’50s, Sinatra understood that songs are holistic forms of communication and that to deliver a song in a pleasing fashion made certain demands on a singer that he gladly accepted as part of the craft. To put it simply, he wanted full artistic control over his work and the opportunity to capture the feeling of a live performance. To accomplish that, he needed to draw on the energy of a full band to replicate the stage experience.
Sinatra’s delivery of the verses leaned more towards the tender and romantic; in the thrilling final chorus he sounds like a man who has experienced a revelation. Though his excitement shines through with absolute clarity, he never comes close to losing command of the song. He delivers the first three lines in a tone of budding excitement, then makes a crucial change in the lyrics: “In spite of a warning voice that comes in the night/And repeats, how it yells in my ear.” He then shifts to full belt-out mode, adding lyrics that bring the narrative closer to conversational speech while adding some terribly exciting rhythmic variation to his vocal:
Don’t you know, little fool, you never can win
Why not use your mentality, step up, wake up to reality?
But each time that I do just the thought of you
Makes me stop just before I begin
The music stops briefly on “begin,” allowing Sinatra to flip back to warm-and-tender as he delivers the closing lines:
Cause I’ve got you under my skin
Yes, I’ve got you under my skin
I get the chills so many times during the final chorus that when I finally melt like butter to those closing lines, part of me feels like crying in gratitude. No, it doesn’t get any better than that.
After the positively orgasmic experience of “I’ve Got You Under My Skin,” we need something a bit less taxing and the Van Heusen-Mercer composition “I Thought About You” fills the bill nicely. The hit version featured Mildred Bailey singing for Benny Goodman and His Orchestra, and I think Riddle’s decision to downplay the clarinet and pump up the horn section was a good call—you can’t top Benny Goodman unless you’re Artie Shaw. It’s followed by “We’ll Be Together Again,” the only performance on the album that doesn’t move my needle . . . I don’t know if it’s the song, the arrangement or Frank’s approach, but it doesn’t seem to be a particularly good showcase for Sinatra’s talents.
I’m not exactly sure why Sinatra chose to record a highly sanitized version of “Makin’ Whoopee,” the 1928 number made justifiably famous by Eddie Cantor. Cantor’s version is much more suggestive, maybe one step away from explicit. Sinatra’s version describes a man who is pussy-whipped; Cantor’s a man who’s cheating on his wife and eventually has to pay up in divorce court. Here’s a comparison of just the first two verses:
The countryside is all in bloom
The flowers and treezes, the birds and beezes are making whoopee
The chorus sings, “Here comes the bride.”
Another victim is by her side.
He’s lost his reason cause it’s the season
For making whoopee.
Another bride, another June
Another sunny honeymoon
Another season, another reason
For makin’ whoopee
A lot of shoes, a lot of rice
The groom is nervous, he answers twice
It’s really killin’ that he’s so willin’
To make whoopee
I hate to say this, but Sinatra’s version qualifies as (ugh) “cute.” A line like “The groom is nervous, he answers twice” is a bit of dialogue that scarcely qualifies for a titter on the laugh track. In contrast to the tepid lyrics, the band is on fire, perhaps in an attempt to compensate for Frank’s curiously missing libido; nonetheless, his delivery is as flawless as ever. Sinatra also plays it safe on the following track, “Swingin’ Down the Lane,” and once again, the band brings the fire with some seriously hot horn work.
There’s nothing like a sprightly Cole Porter tune to get the blood pumping, but I would argue that the 1934 original featuring Ramona Davies for the Paul Whiteman Orchestra was over-the-top sprightly with its herky-jerky high-speed tempo. Sinatra and Riddle executed a full rebuild on this one, dispensing with the oh-so 30s introduction, ridding the lyrics of era-specific references (FDR, Mae West, Vanderbilts and Whitneys), and, most importantly, reducing the tempo and smoothing out the rhythm (an approach Ella Fitzgerald would embrace a year later on Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Cole Porter Songbook). The reconstruction of the beat into something more foundational gives the band lots of room to add the punctuation that transforms the song into a hot swing number in the second go-round, inspiring Sinatra to yet another thrilling finish.
I also like what they did with the lyrics. Combined with Sinatra’s perfectly clear enunciation, the re-arrangement gives the listener a better opportunity to appreciate the witticisms that made the cut:
The world has gone mad today and good’s bad today
And black’s white today and day’s night today
When most guys today that women prize today
Are just silly gigolos
I agree with most of the cuts save one—I wish they would have found room for “When ev’ry night the set that’s smart is intruding in nudist parties in studios.” While the editing is consistent with the sanitization of “Makin’ Whoopee,” I’m now very curious to find out if the upper crust really and truly humped their way through the Great Depression, knifing their way through the bread lines to arrive on time for the orgies, the bastards.
Songs for Swingin’ Lovers closes with “How About You?” originally performed as a duet by Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney in the film Babes on Broadway. The piece follows the dominant format used in the album, with a gentler first go-round followed by a swingin’ finish and fade. Riddle again finds a place for the celeste in that sweet first section; by contrast, the second section is full band on fire with Frank happily riding the waves. What I love most about the song is Sinatra’s plunge into the lowest part of his register on the parting words, “How about you?” I can picture him lifting his head up after nailing that line with his big, beautiful smile lighting up the studio.
Songs for Swingin’ Lovers remains an exhilarating experience sixty-three years after its release . . . but I have to admit it left me feeling more than a bit sad. The craftsmanship demonstrated by Sinatra, Riddle, the band members and the production team has been sorely missing from the vast majority of popular music released in this century. Auto-tune can make a shitty singer seem like a diva; this song is indistinguishable from that song; drummers are becoming obsolete. Society has devalued the craftsperson, whether it’s the jazz musician who toils in obscurity or the people who struggle to make a living working with their hands. When I lived in the States, I remember my astonishment that software engineers were commonly paid in six figures to produce products that never fail to disappoint the user. The visual arts have become portfolio investments; the best-seller lists are filled with tell-alls and celebrities with ghost-writers; and yes, music has become a commodity, screwing music creators in the process. I don’t think a person can be nostalgic about an era she never lived through, but I’d give anything to live in a world filled with Sinatras, Riddles, Milt Bernharts and John Paladinos—people who really cared about, respected and cherished the opportunity to make great and timeless music.
The lockdown officially started in France on St. Paddy’s Day and it doesn’t look like it’s going to end anytime soon. Unlike the United States, the government here is taking this thing very seriously. If I want to go anywhere I have to carry a signed form, the Attestation de Déplacement Dérogatoire, describing the purpose of my travel. I can only go out for two reasons: to get needed supplies (thankfully they classified les tabacs as essential businesses) or for exercise within a one-kilometer radius of my home one hour per day. I am not allowed to visit my parents (Dad flew back from the States a couple of weeks ago after he watched a Trump press conference and decided he needed to get the hell out ASAP). The government has drones flying about to make sure people are following the rules (I haven’t seen one yet, probably because I don’t get out much). As I write this, the city issued a pronouncement that all Niçoise are required to wear masks outside; Mayor Estrosi said they’re going to distribute masks to every citizen in Nice.
Several of our clients have suspended consulting work to take care of their own, so we’re only working a few hours a day. This means I’ve got nothing to do but fuck, listen to music and watch classic baseball games (and a stray movie here and there). Under normal circumstances, I’d say, “Life is good.” But it’s not.
More and more people are getting sick and dying. My partner’s brother—the guy who scored the weed for us during the Psychedelic Series—came down with the virus, but it looks like he’s going to be okay. Still, his parents and siblings can’t visit him in the hospital, and many have died without ever seeing their loved ones again. He’s in Spain, where it’s pretty bad, and I’m about twenty kilometers from the Italian border, where it’s catastrophic.
I love The Twilight Zone, but I never wanted to live in a Twilight Zone episode. It’s creepy and depressing.
I grew up in a city and I’ve only lived in cities. Having lots of people around is my normal. I love the energy and spontaneity of street life. I love going out to dinner and hitting the bars and cafés where live music is played. The dead quiet of a city once filled with human movement and the buzz of human voices is intensely distressing for me, as I’m sure it is to all lifelong city-dwellers. But my low-level discomfort is nothing compared to the relentless anxiety of the people working in hospitals, markets and public services, so after a few minutes of wallowing in self-pity, I remind myself this is a battle for survival. If that means being cooped up in the house for a while, suck it up, girl.
I do have my daily routines to give me some sense of normal. The first thing I do every morning when I wake up is head for the sound system and turn on some music. Usually I just shuffle songs and take my chances, but whether I was motivated by a forgotten dream or had received a coded message from the astral plane, on this particular day I felt an overwhelming urge to listen to A Love Supreme. And instead of following my usual M. O. of leaving the room and starting the coffee, I sat down in front of the speakers for the next thirty-three minutes, closed my eyes and let Coltrane’s beautiful music penetrate my soul. After the performance ended, I sat there for a while, feeling calmer and more grounded than I had in weeks. When I opened my eyes, I saw my partner sitting cross-legged on the floor a few feet away, eyes closed, breathing yoga-style, a faint smile on her lips. I scooted over and we held each other for a while, whispering to each other, “It’s going to be okay.”
From that day forward, we have started every morning with A Love Supreme.
A Love Supreme is Coltrane’s spiritual manifesto, presented in a suite consisting of four sections: “Acknowledgment,” “Resolution,” “Pursuance,” and “Psalm.” As Lewis Porter describes it in John Coltrane: His Life and Music, the organization of the four sections “suggest a kind of pilgrim’s progress, in which the pilgrim acknowledges the divine, resolves to pursue it, searches and, eventually, celebrates what has been attained in song.” Given that model, most listeners can grasp Coltrane’s intent and follow the musical progression, but it’s equally important to understand how Coltrane connected spirituality with music:
My goal is to live the truly religious life and express it in my music. If you live it, when you play there’s no problem because the music is just part of the whole thing . . . My music is the spiritual expression of what I am—my faith, my knowledge, my being . . . When you begin to see the possibilities of music, you desire to do something really good for people, to help humanity to free itself from its hangups. I’d like to point out to people the divine in a musical language that transcends words. I want to speak to their souls.
—Porter, Lewis. John Coltrane: His Life and Music. Ann Arbor, MI: The University of Michigan Press, 1999, p. 232
While you may not have thought of music in that way, “to help humanity to free itself from its hangups” is at the core of most “anti-Establishment” music. When you belt out the lyrics to “Cretin Hop,” you’re helping to free yourself from the hangup of judgmental stereotypes; when you sing “It’s late and I want love—love that’s going to break me in two,” you’re ridding yourself of latent puritanism that infects most of the human species. One could argue that great music is “music that helps a person to clean out the noise and inauthenticity of modern life” (or, in a more pithy fashion, “clean out the bullshit”). The role of lyrics is more prominent in rock, blues or folk, but even if you’ve limited yourself to the more lyrical genres, you can relate to the largely instrumental orientation of jazz by recalling the feeling of liberation inspired by a Duane Allman guitar solo, or the playfully ominous licks of Muddy Waters, or the magical fingerpicking of Richard Thompson. The traditionally religious have understood the connection between music and spirituality for centuries; for me, listening to great music is a spiritual experience, whether I’m listening to the New York Dolls or Johann Sebastian Bach.
Porter’s study of Coltrane devotes an entire chapter to A Love Supreme, primarily focusing on the technical aspects of the composition: the dominance of the pentatonic scale and Coltrane’s variations on those scales; his use of overlapping disjunct and conjunct fourths; Coltrane’s techniques for building and releasing tension; the dominant rhythmic figures within the composition; and the wordless recitation of the psalm in the final section. His analysis is brilliant, insightful and impressive—to pull off the feat, he had to listen to the suite carefully and repeatedly, as Coltrane’s written instructions to his collaborators looked like this:
Coltrane provided the structure but not the details. He trusted his fellow musicians to fill in the blanks.
While I appreciate Porter’s effort and found it highly educational, he is a jazz scholar, and his narrative only makes sense to the few people left on the planet who know how to read music; for everyone else, it’s gibberish. Ted Gioia is one of the few musicologists who recognized this challenge; in the opening chapter of How to Listen to Jazz, he shares a parable of a “young scholar who decides to devote his life to the study of African rhythms.” The scholar spent ten years in Africa immersed in his quest, but when he returned to the States and tried to teach some of his students how to play the Dagomba drums, ” . . . they ask him the simplest question of all: ‘How do I know when to enter? When do I start playing?’ In Western music, there is an easy answer. The conductor waves a baton, or a bandleader counts off the beat, or the musical score provides a cue.” The scholar finds himself unable to meet their apparently simple request. “No amount of analysis or rule-making solves his problem. Finally, he realizes that the obstacle can be overcome only by moving away from analysis and entering into the realm of feeling. ‘The only way to begin correctly,’ he eventually discovers, ‘was to listen a moment and then start right in.'” Gioia wraps up the parable with the valuable lesson learned:
Listen a moment and then start right in. There has to be more, no? A decade of apprenticeship, and this is the takeaway? Yet this was the solution, beguiling in its apparent simplicity.
For those who devote the better part of a lifetime to the study of music, stories like this one are humbling. They testify to a magical element in the music, especially in its rhythmic essence, that eludes intellectualization. This aspect of the music must be felt, and if it isn’t felt, academic dissection is futile. The scholar must become more than a scholar to grasp it, and the student determined to follow on the same path must be willing to leave pedagogy behind and embrace something so elusive that, at times, it can hardly be described.
. . . In our parable, hearing trumps analysis. And if this superiority of the ear over the brain humbles the trained musicologist, it also should give a dose of encouragement to the outsider who doesn’t know the terminology and codified procedures of the aural arts. Listening, not jargon, is the path into the heart of music. And if we listen at a deep enough level, we enter into the magic of the song—no degrees or formal credentials required.
Gioia, Ted (2016-05-16T23:58:59). How to Listen to Jazz . Basic Books. Kindle Edition. (underlined emphasis added)
In keeping with that spirit, this review will focus more on the spirit than the details. I’ll refer to the technical stuff when I think it may be helpful.
Coltrane’s acknowledgment of the existence of a higher power is a musical expression of spiritual awakening the mirrors the experience of physical awakening. The gentle gong that opens the suite feels like the moment when we wake from sleep; Elvin Jones’s cymbal washes meld with McCoy Tyner’s piano to create a sound that would make for a glorious accompaniment to a sunrise. Over that background, Coltrane’s tenor sax salvo sounds like the tentative engagement with consciousness we experience as we move from dream state to reality, perhaps accompanied by a nice long stretch after a good night’s sleep. As the notes fly from his sax and a pattern emerges, I’m reminded of those moments when I haven’t played in a while and I just randomly apply fingers to flute or piano without thinking about it or worrying about what might come out. The difference between my approach and Coltrane’s (beyond the vast difference in skill level) is that he views his instrument as a means of connecting with the higher power while I’m just trying to connect fingers to brain. If you heard my opening salvo, you’d say, “Oh, Ari is just warming up,” whereas with Coltrane’s you sense clarity and intent. As Porter points out, the segment serves as a lead-in to the suite, with the music based on E acting as the leading tone to the basic pentatonic F scale of the suite, solid evidence of a compositional objective.
Coltrane fades into background while Tyner and Jones build a mini-crescendo that fades with Jones providing a rapid-fire flourish on the cymbal bell. This cues Jimmy Garrison to enter with the bass ostinato that forms the suite’s dominant motif: a four-note pattern consisting of F, Ab, F, Bb in syncopated 4/4 time. This simple pattern serves as the foundation for a hip-engaging groove that might qualify as sinful in some churches but not in Coltrane’s. Tyner plays a dual role here—the chords he chooses to play anticipate Coltrane’s melody, but he also strengthens the groove to establish what Gioia describes as “rhythmic cohesion,” the defining characteristic of successful jazz. “In the great jazz bands, you can hear the individual members lock together rhythmically in a pleasing way that involves an uncanny degree of give-and-take, but with a kind of quirkiness that resists specific definition,” and as the suite moves forward, you appreciate just how much Coltrane trusted his supporting cast to supply that cohesion.
I hear Coltrane’s solo as his expression of engagement with the higher power, with emotions that range from reassuring calm to nearly inexpressible joy. The moments when he goes altissimo—pushing to the highest ranges of the tenor sax—feel like intense bursts of feeling that combine bottomless gratitude and genuine cherishment of the spiritual connection. As Porter notes, there are times when Coltrane drifts away from the base key as if he has entered a trance-like state, requiring Tyner and Garrison to improvise in kind. Having established his connection to the divine, Coltrane returns to the essential message contained in that four-note motif, transposing it to each of the twelve keys common to Western music, varying the register as he goes. Porter considers this transition “puzzling at first,” but what he means is that it’s puzzling in musical terms; it all becomes clear when we hear John Coltrane chanting the words “a love supreme,” and we realize that “Coltrane’s music is not abstract but is dictated in part by the messages he wishes to convey.” Theme resolved, Coltrane steps back while the music shifts to a soothing rhythm as Tyner then Jones exit the scene, leaving Jimmy Garrison to finish the piece. After repeating the motif a few times, he varies his run and ends his part with an almost classical flourish—a rare honor given to a double bass player and a satisfying conclusion that never fails to elicit a smile. In the process, Garrison changes keys to Eb, which will serve as the key for the second section.
As befits the title, this section is played with greater intensity and resolve; now that the pilgrim has experienced the eternal truth, he solidifies his intent to live his life in devotion to the higher power. “Resolution” is a classic modern jazz composition with Coltrane taking two extended solos and Tyner one. In the first solo, Coltrane defines the dominant motif with its memorable two-note starting point (really the only thing it shares in common with the slower and bluesier “While My Lady Sleeps,” one of Coltrane’s early compositions that some believe is the original source), then proceeds to fly with utter confidence over the full-kit attack of Elvin Jones and comp chords from Tyner. The dynamics soften a bit when Coltrane hands off to Tyner, who knocks it out of the park with an amazing combination of bright chords and astonishingly clear runs that sometimes combine to create what I’ll call an “internal dialogue expressed in call-and-response mode,” where it seems like Tyner’s left hand makes a suggestion while the right hand responds to the challenge. Coltrane wakes Tyner from his trance by easing himself back into the picture and riffing off some of Tyner’s ideas before closing the piece with a return to the dominant theme. Porter notes that the improvisations are more free-form than tied to a particular scale and rely “similarly on much chromaticism and dissonance,” a feature that magnifies the tension evident in the sheer force of the piece.
Takeaway: Resolution is the emotional commitment that precedes the action; as such, the music to “Resolution” is intense, filled with the piss and vinegar that characterizes the vitality of intent.
As we all eventually figure out after the usual bumps and bruises, life isn’t always kind to those with resolve. “What else ya got?” yawns Life in response to our passionate certainty that we have found the answer. Neither Jesus nor Muhammad experienced much in the way of smooth sailing following their enlightenment, for when they actually started to act on their commitment to a higher truth, they wound up pissing off a whole lot of people with more mundane priorities and greater earthly power.
The omnipresent tension in “Resolution” climbs to a peak in “Pursuance,” an even more intense barrage played (mostly) at lightning speed. The piece kicks off with Elvin Jones soloing like a bat out of hell in no particular meter for ninety seconds when suddenly Coltrane steps in with a clarifying riff, which serves as a cue for Tyner and Garrison to join in. The new arrivals spend a few seconds feeling each other out before cohesion arrives in the form of an extended Tyner solo, where Garrison takes a couple of measures to sync with Jones but once he finds the groove, feels comfortable enough to throw in a few departures of his own. While the percussion section proper rides the high-speed wave, Tyner fills in the gaps with an assertive performance that combines velocity with soul-tingling clarity. When Coltrane returns a bit after the four-minute mark, he ignites a different level of passion with a quick burst of tonal clarity, earning a moment of thumping encouragement from Elvin Jones. Coltrane then dominates the scene for about three minutes, returning occasionally to altissimo as if attempting to reconnect with his original awakening. In the context of the pilgrimage described in A Love Supreme, “Pursuance” is the musical moment when the pilgrim’s ideals are challenged by the earthier noise of modern material existence; Coltrane’s exuberant journey here tells me he was up to the challenge.
One of my favorite passages in Porter’s book involves the analysis of the key of this section as defined as opposed to the key as manifested. Whenever I listen to an album I’m about to review, one of the first things I do is identify the key, and in 99% of the rock/pop music I’ve reviewed I can figure it out in about twenty seconds. I love it when I turn out to be wrong and have to dig deeper to figure it out. In this case, Coltrane didn’t give Porter much help, referring to the song as a minor blues in Bb. What Porter realized through deep listening is that while Coltrane used the notes in the Bb minor scale, he launched his solo from the starting point of C, using “the same scale in a different tonal framework.” Coltrane essentially took advantage of Charlie Parker’s discovery that any of the twelve notes that make up the chromatic scale can potentially take you melodically to any key, giving the soloist greater freedom in oscillating between consonance and dissonance. Translating all that into something more useful and connecting it to the substance of Coltrane’s extended solo, what I hear are the musical equivalents of laughter, of puzzlement, of reconnection with one’s mission, of the liberating, healing qualities of music. And though chromaticism can take you anywhere, Coltrane employs good compositional sense by resolving to Bb.
Interestingly enough, Coltrane chose to bookend this section with the percussionists, giving Garrison an extended solo at the end to complement Jones’ extended intro. Garrison’s bass solo is a bit longer than the drum solo and covers more ground, including a hint of the dominant four-note motif, a clearer expression of the blues scale and some marvelous departures from that scale. This feels to me like a segment highlighting both the existential loneliness of the journey (the double bass can be quite a melancholy instrument) and the firm belief that loneliness is merely a condition of material existence that will vanish once the connection to the higher spirit is complete.
Coltrane claims in the liner notes that his awakening occurred in 1957; as noted in my review of Giant Steps, I hear evidence of that awakening on that album, which came out in 1960; A Love Supreme was released in late 1964. By this time he had finally a way to express his experience; “Psalm” is essentially the outcome of his spiritual journey, a celebration of the higher power and the essential unity enabled by that power.
Porter refers to “Psalm” as a “relatively calm postlude” in which Coltrane delivers a “wordless recitation” of the poem that appears in the liner notes of A Love Supreme. Thankfully, Porter inserts the sheet music with the lyrics to the first lines of the poem to demonstrate how this works; the listener can take it from there.
What’s amazing about “Psalm” is how beautifully it flows without “a recurrent chord progression . . . not even a steady beat.” Even without those listening aids, a person hearing “Psalm” for the first time will notice echoes of the blues and gospel music, a feature that Porter was able to connect to the arched shape of each segment (“an ascending phrase, a recitation on one tone, and a descending phrase”). While this may or may not represent a deliberate attempt on Coltrane’s part to mimic the melodically-tinged sermons of African-American preachers, I do agree with Porter’s observation that Coltrane’s focus was to express the meaning of every word in the psalm through music (“serene on the word ‘beautiful,’ shouting out ‘He will always be'”). You hear a range of moods in his “voice,” but the entire recitation reflects a passionate sincerity tempered by humility. You get the feeling that Coltrane wants all of us to have this kind of awakening, to share in his joy, to revel in the essential unity of all things.
His fellow musicians allow Coltrane to have his moment, filling the background with cymbal splashes, timpani, basic and contrasting piano chords and soft bass lines that never distract the listener from the sheer beauty—the sheer humanity—of Coltrane’s recitation. I find “Psalm” a remarkably soothing and reassuring piece, a perfect ending to the story of an authentic spiritual journey.
And I do believe his journey was authentic and real, despite my discomfort with his references to “God” in the poem and his classification of “God” as masculine. I relate far more easily to the language contained in the mission of the Saint John Coltrane African Orthodox Church in San Francisco: “To paint the globe with the message of A Love Supreme, and in doing so promote global unity, peace on earth, and knowledge of the one true living God.” And I really identify with the sentiments expressed in their coronavirus message explaining the suspension of weekly church services: “It has never been more crucial for humanity to attain to the blessed state of Coltrane Consciousness, and indeed the struggle continues!”
I don’t know if the pandemic will teach us to appreciate the wonder of life and draw closer to each other or will be exploited by those in power to further divide us. I could see it going either way—either the virus will expose current power structures as inefficient, wasteful and fraudulent, or the people in power will capitalize on our fears to hasten our self-destruction. All I know for certain is that we will be listening to A Love Supreme every morning long after the restrictions have been lifted to remind us that we are all of the same spirit.