While I sincerely mean “Merry Christmas” in the most convivial sense, it’s interesting to me that the etymology of the word “merry”, in addition to its principal meaning (derived from Middle/Old English: sweet, delightful, melodious), includes a lesser known component: brief, short, narrow, as in a “merry pace”.
Most folks who enjoy the “holidays”, as we’ve come to call them in our cross-culturally respectful, modern era, would agree that they are all too brief: the relaxation of family and friends gathering for festive times; the sense of community derived from celebrating together the deeply cherished beliefs that define many of our lives; a period of “comfort and joy” indeed.
But, as I’ve learned, there are many — perhaps increasingly so — who don’t necessarily anticipate the Christmas season so eagerly. It has the potential for a poignance and resultant ennui that can be devastating.
I say “as I’ve learned” because I was blessed (I mean blessed!) to grow up in a happy family where Christmas was celebrated with great flourish, and Christmas music was as central to our holidays as any aspect could be. I recall sensing the underlying emotion in songs like “O Holy Night”, “Away in a Manger”, and “Silent Night, Holy Night” as early as age four or five. (My mother used to sing “The Friendly Beasts” to help us get to sleep on Christmas Eve.) I loved the carols and traditional songs the best; modern, commercial tunes were snappy and fun to sing, but the seemingly deeper message contained in the older, classic Christmas repertoire stirred something special inside my young soul.
Having experienced the inevitable ups and downs of life I’m now more in touch with the melancholy side of the holidays, although I’ve been fortunate enough in the richness of extended family and friends to still greet Christmas time with eager anticipation. (I’ve attempted to capture some of the emotional yin and yang reality most of us experience during the yule season in the one, original offering here, “Song of the Christmas Bells”, sung beautifully by Kurt Elling.)
So, in a way, this album has been a lifetime in the making. My hope is that everyone who gives me the gift of listening to it enjoys it, whatever their “emotional Christmas camp” may be.
This album is dedicated, as it should be, to the loving memory of Burnet M. Hobgood.
With this new album, Elling celebrates a legendary legacy outside the jazz world. 1619 Broadway – The Brill Building Project honors a locale that the London Telegraph called “the most important generator of popular songs in the Western world.” Even for the ceaselessly inventive Elling it’s a hugely unexpected step, and one guaranteed to further solidify his reputation for bold innovation and superb craftsmanship. “Having done so many projects about my love for Chicago,” he says, “I wanted to make something that spoke of my love for New York.”
The two cities define his career. Elling developed his craft in Chicago, and recorded his early albums there, including his 1995 debut, Close Your Eyes, which catapulted him onto the national stage and earned the first of his many Grammy nominations. (All told, every one of Elling’s nine albums has been nominated for at least one jazz Grammy – a streak unequalled in Grammy history.)
But in fact, Elling and his family have lived in Manhattan since 2008, and 1619 Broadway – The Brill Building Project is his response to that experience.
“I didn’t want to cover any of the New York songwriters jazz people usually go to: the Gershwins, Rodgers and Hart, Cole Porter, all of whom I love; I wanted to reach out for something different. The vast collection of songs coming out of The Brill Building seemed like a gold mine.”
A honeycomb of offices and claustrophobic studios at 1619 Broadway, in the heart of midtown Manhattan, the fabled Brill Building at its peak served as the creative home for more than 160 tenants associated with the pop-music industry. Of these, the vast majority were composers and lyricists. From the mid-1930s through the early 1970s, the architects of the “Brill Building Sound” churned out a preponderance of the popular songs that three generations of America grew up hearing and singing.
The term “Brill Building Sound” describes the string of rock-and-roll masterpieces that defined the genre and signaled its first maturing. These instantly recognizable songs came from such songwriting teams as Leiber and Stoller (“Stand By Me”), Goffin and King (“Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?”), Mann and Weil (“You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling”), and Bacharach and David (“Walk On By”). Such teams crafted hit after hit while working in a physical environment with paper-thin walls that allowed the writing teams to hear and learn (or steal) from each other. It became a fertile and competitive hothouse of cross-influence and collaboration.
Even as Elling began researching this material, he “knew this would be a challenge, because the Brill is so much associated with doo-wop” – not his usual neighborhood. For help, he turned to a friend: hit songwriter and educator Phil Galdston (“Save The Best For Last”).
“We must have touched on a couple hundred songs before we narrowed it down. Phil did a masterful job of codifying first-tier, second-tier, third-tier choices. Several of my choices, like the classic ‘On Broadway’ were foregone conclusions; some, like that hip lick recorded by The Coasters, ‘Shoppin’ For Clothes,’ gradually percolated to my attention.” And, indeed, the reworking of that novelty “B-Side” falls right into Elling’s penchant for spoken-word fun, games and hipster jive.
Another surprise choice is the Goffin-King exercise in social satire, “Pleasant Valley Sunday.” As Elling recounts, “I had summarily dismissed that one until it had time to simmer on its own, and I found an idea on how to handle it.” This version mixes John McLean’s retro-lectric guitar, authentic-sounding sound clips of the ’60s, and an audio profile that recalls Ken Nordine’s classic “Word Jazz.” The result is a trippy and darker-than-the-original ride through a neighborhood that the Monkees first visited in 1967.
Some jazz fans may raise an eyebrow at these song choices, but they’d do well to remember that throughout the 20th century, artists from Louis Armstrong to Sonny Rollins and Herbie Hancock have successfully transformed one era’s pop songs into another generation’s jazz standards. And throughout his career, Elling has worked to expand the jazz repertoire, sprinkling his albums with songs made famous by (among others) The Zombies and King Crimson.
Some of the tunes on 1619 Broadway – The Brill Building Project were actually written years after their composers had left the Brill entirely. For example, Elling explains, “Carole King, like many other signatories to the ‘Brill Building Sound,’ never had an actual office at the Brill. The Brill is both a physical reality and a mental construct; and because of that, I felt comfortable casting a wide net.”
That wide net contains more than rock and doo-wop. As Elling’s inspired song choices reveal, the Brill was a hive of music activity from the mid-’30s on, housing the creative efforts of Irving Berlin, Sammy Cahn, Johnny Mercer, Harry Warren, and more.
One survey estimates that of the 1200-odd songs performed between 1935 and 1948 on the Your Hit Parade broadcasts (radio and then television), more than 400 of them – nearly a third of the total – came from Brill tenants. Thus the inclusion here of such Great American standards as “I Only Have Eyes For You” (Warren/Dubin,1934) and the Sinatra signature “Come Fly With Me” (Cahn/VanHuesen,1957).
On track after track Kurt Elling and Laurence Hobgood, his collaborator for two decades, illustrate the creative fireworks that have marked their work together from the start.
Some tracks, such as “On Broadway” and “You Send Me,” glow with atmospheric reharmonizations (either audacious or subtle), unexpected rhythms, and jazz sensibility. Others, such as “I’m Satisfied” and “A House Is Not A Home,” artfully distill the essence of the original through a jazz filter.
But all of them manage to strike a balance of tradition and modernity that will by now be familiar to Kurt Elling’s longstanding admirers, on a program of songs guaranteed to bring new fans to the party.
“An Evening of POEMJAZZ” featuring renowned poet ROBERT PINSKY and Grammy-winning jazz pianist LAURENCE HOBGOOD will have its premier performance at The Regattabar at the Charles Hotel, One Bennett Street in Cambridge, Massachusetts on Friday, February 24 at 7:30 PM. Reserved seat tickets at $25.00 can be purchased on line at www.regattabarjazz.com or by calling: 617-395-7757.
POEMJAZZ treats a voice speaking poetry as having a role like that of a horn: speech with its own poetic melody and rhythm, in conversation with what the music is doing. To put it simply, POEMJAZZ is a conversation between the sounds of poetry and music.
POEMJAZZ is also a new CD, just recorded by Robert Pinsky and Laurence Hobgood on the Circumstantial Productions label. The limited edition CD with booklet of poems will be available at Robert and Laurence’s POEMJAZZ performances and at circumstantial.us
Robert Pinsky, the only three-term United States Poet Laureate, brings an innovative energy to all he does. In 2011, his acclaimed Selected Poems appeared. In 2010, his libretto for Tod Machover’s opera Death and the Powers: A Robot Pageant premiered in Monaco before coming to Boston’s ART. Next year, his adaptation of Friedrich Schiller’s Wallenstein will be presented by the Shakespeare Theater of Washington, D.C.
As Poet Laureate, he founded the Favorite Poem Project, in which thousands of Americans—of varying backgrounds, all ages, from every state— shared their favorite poems, as documented by the video segments, as seen on PBS and now at www.favoritepoem.org.
Connecting all of these projects is Pinsky’s conviction—clear to anyone who has heard him read a poem—that poetry is a vocal, bodily art, closely allied to music. For that reason, POEMJAZZ, his collaboration with Laurence Hobgood, expresses something at the core of Robert Pinsky’s art.
“In jazz, as in poetry,” Robert Pinsky told The Paris Review in an interview, “there is always that play between what’s regular and what’s wild. That has always appealed to me.”
Best known for his collaboration with vocalist Kurt Elling, multiple Grammy-nominee and 2010 Grammy-winner Laurence Hobgood has enjoyed a multi-faceted and dynamic career. Musical Director for Elling since 1995, he’s played on, composed, arranged and co-produced all of Elling’s CDs (six for Blue Note and three for Concord), each Grammy-nominated. 2009’s Dedicated To You: Kurt Elling Sings The Music Of Coltrane and Hartman, recorded live at Lincoln Center, won the 2010 Grammy Award for Best Vocal Jazz Record.
In 1993, Hobgood met Kurt Elling and began a collaboration that resulted in Elling’s signing with the storied Blue Note label, with Hobgood as his co-producer and musical director. The two became great friends and were named 1995 Chicagoans of The Year in the Arts by the Chicago Tribune.
In 1996, Hobgood joined with Paul Wertico and bassist Brian Torff to form a new trio called Union, which released two CDs on the Naim label. Since then he has found time, amidst almost constant touring, writing and recording projects with Elling, to record three further headlining projects for Naim.
And Elling’s third Concord CD, The Gate, co-produced by Elling and Hobgood with music legend Don Was, has received a 2012 Grammy nomination for “Best Vocal Jazz Album.”
POEMJAZZ is a Circumstantial Production.
CIRCUMSTANTIAL PRODUCTIONS WORDS & MUSIC: KURT ELLING, DAN HICKS, LAURENCE HOBGOOD, DAVID MAXWELL, AND ROBERT PINSKY
This fall, Richard Connolly will produce and publish new work by jazz singer and vocalese writer, Kurt Elling; folk jazz musician and lyricist, Dan Hicks; jazz pianist and composer, Laurence Hobgood; blues pianist and composer, David Maxwell; and United States Poet Laureate (1997-2000), essayist, literary critic, translator and teacher Robert Pinsky.
Note of Hope will be released on September 27th by 429 Records.
Lyricist and poet Fran Landesman, whose last book, Small Day Tomorrow, was published by Circumstantial Productions in 2006, died in London on July 23, 2011.
Fran Landesman was born Frances Deitsch in New York City on October 21, 1927. She attended private schools, and later Temple University and the Fashion Institute of Technology. While in New York, she met writer and publisher Jay Landesman, whom she married on July 15, 1950.
The Landesmans moved to St. Louis, Missouri, his hometown, where he and his brother Fred started the Crystal Palace nightclub.
This was a successful venture, giving Woody Allen, Lenny Bruce and Barbra Streisand their first breaks in cabaret, as well as producing avant-garde theatre.
Fran Landesman’s experiences sitting in the bar of the Crystal Palace, listening to musicians and audiences, led her to begin writing song lyrics in 1952. Set to music by Tommy Wolf, two of her early lyrics, “Spring Can Really Hang You Up The Most” and “Ballad of the Sad Young Men” became jazz standards recorded by Ella Fitzgerald, Bette Midler, Barbra Streisand, and Sarah Vaughan.
In 1960, she began composing with singer/pianist/composer Bob Dorough who had been brought to St. Louis by Tommy Wolf to play the lead in Nelson Algren’s A Walk on the Wild Side. Their song “Nothing Like You” was recorded by Miles Davis and included on his 1967 album Sorcerer.
In 1964 the Landesmans moved to London, where she wrote lyrics for a number of well-known musicians and performers including Georgie Fame and Dudley Moore.
In the 1970s, Fran Landesman began writing poetry. She published several volumes, and performed at festivals and on BBC Radio.
In 2006, Circumstantial Productions published a collection of her lyrics and poems, Small Day Tomorrow, edited by publisher Richard Connolly.
“Small Day Tomorrow” has been recorded by many singers and was the title of Bob Dorough’s Candid Records CD in 2007.
In May 2010 the South Bank Centre presented “A Night Out with Fran Landesman” at the Purcell Room and in April 2011 the Leicester Square Theatre presented ‘An Evening with Fran Landesman’ as part of the Art of Song Festival.
Fran Landesman’s last appearance was at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art on July 21, 2011, two days before her death at age 83.