Archive for November, 2012

Elephants on Parade

The Japonize Elephants is more an ensemble than a group. There is a subtle but important difference between the two. With an ensemble the roles and evolution of creation tend to be less static, facilitating an ongoing freedom. One could almost categorize them as an orchestra except that some of the meat of the body of the ensemble encompasses ethno/world/root instruments, forgoing those of the formalized Western orchestral tradition. The ensemble’s name, like their latest album Mélodie Fantastique, embodies  a sort of chance logic akin to the word game created by Andre Breton and Paul Eluard “Exquisite Corpse”.

“Eye Wrote This” has a frenzied Gitane (gypsy) & klezmer feel to it. Structurally, the song is made up of a series of fast runs carried out but several smaller groups within the group. A bolero beat makes an appearance before the vocalese chorus that ends the song. There is the urge to drink and then dance like an inelegant bird unsure of whether it wants to fly. To some extent this song may serve as the ensemble’s calling card in that it seamlessly melds several genres’ music utilizing a full, unique sonic palette to do so. There is some definite quirk to this group but never to the point of distraction nor as any kind of crutch. I am all for humor in music whether in its execution or composition but too often it lapses into gimmick or novelty. The ‘Elephants completely sidestep such dangers with top notch musicianship and compositions which embrace the occasional quirk but never rely upon it.

“Melodie Fantastique” initially has the slurred tongue of the violin which a song earlier had been urging on some kind of dance, playing over a sort of pulsed beat. It takes on a nasal-mid eastern cadence, the temptation of Faust as embodied by the hypnotic gyrations of a belly dancer. Then with the entry of banjo the song morphs; it is an Appalachian get together or the fireside entertainment of a roving band of travelers. The song again morphs (2:30) becoming the sort of aural fanfare that could have been birthed from the head of Nino Rota. Plucked strings singing out as a diverse cast of characters each most likely speaking a different language, cross their arms over each other each hand clasping that of the person on either side of them, the long line snaking out the door of the nightclub heading down the cobblestone street in black and white as the band is left playing to itself and a lone balloon which has fallen at the foot of the stage. The various percussion and vocalese propel the piece forward; the song gets softer, hushed plucked strings and spoons as the line moves further down the street and out of sight.

If Esquivel had been asked to score a Connery era James Bond film it would sound like “End Times, The Theme From Bat Boy”. Vibraphone lays down that cooler than cool pattern over which muted horns pop up before another central figure is introduced by a trebled guitar, the frenzy of someone making love to one of Leo Fender’s Strats. There is not a care in the world as he will get the girl, and dispatch the baddies with a terrible pun. All while being indifferent to the fact that his number, red thirteen, has come up on the wheel.

“Breusters” changes things up with country twang and vocals. The ensemble are all actually very good musicians and on some of the slower more acoustic pieces this really rises to the fore. There is a beautiful lap steel solo in the middle of the song. The vocals are well done; there is that lone star desolation in the two entwined voices that manages to be beautifully blue. It is Tom Joad now a member of a live in the van indie band witnessing a vanishing Americana of honky tonk bars where hipsters are not allowed to order mixed drinks or check their iPhones and every midnight is the start of a new day.

Being a short but sweet track; “An Evening With A thumbtack” is a lone piano murmuring a bluesy minor chord cakewalk which ends with the sound of libations being poured out and sipped. One could almost imagine a small stage with the rest of the band about to take a quick five or return to continue the show. The sound throughout the album is pristine. On the tracks with vocals, when one listens with headphones there is a sonic intimacy as if the artists are standing in the same room.

I highly recommend this CD it is fun; it is art; it is an orgy of sound.

I am in my cranberry colored bathrobe, the sleeve bleached a bubblegum pink from the time I helped Chili dye her hair, I am painting in the garage in an olive green jump suit like Picasso wore during his Ripolin phase, I draw three concentric circles at the bottom of the paper then let all the extra words burn off in the atmosphere. There is a fecundity of ideas to be found in this album, a lopsided joy carried out via excellent musicianship. Three circles upon the paper, through an open window one could almost imagine hearing the Japonize Elephants music playing as they parade down the street, stumping for the circus come to town that escaped E.E Cummings condemnation*.

http://www.thejaponizeelephants.com/

*“Damn everything except the circus.” E.E Cummings

This article is not to be used or reprinted without the expressed permission of Maxwell A. Chandler (maxwellachandler@aol.com)

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Density’s Pull: A conversation with Alexander Berne

Maxwell Chandler: Your professional beginnings seemed fairly traditional, backing up people like Albert “Tootie” Heath, and “Jabali” Billy Hart among others. How important was this beginning to what you would ultimately artistically become?

Alexander Berne: That’s hard to say.  I think I was born into a situation where to become an artist was inevitable.  The fact that jazz was an early spark, and was in a sense a good incubator for things to follow, people whom I’ve met, a credo of, “making it work”, the love and awe of a Cannonball Adderley, on and on is something I’m grateful for; and mostly that my first teacher Randy Wanless was and is a master, and he spoke that language, and gave me an incredible start and friendship going on 33+ years now.

MC: After playing in other people’s bands and a prestigious teaching gig you left America for Belgium. Upon your eventual return stateside you had shed your old skin for a new artistic vision. Did the journey facilitate the change or vice versa?

AB: My life in Europe for 2 1/2 years was based on a “spiritual search”.  Which basically means I was miserable and knew I had to fix it, and approach the issues directly, I had no choice. The scenery was not critical per se. Quite a while before leaving I had formed much of my hyper – personal saxophone methods/techniques.

MC:  What brought you back stateside?

AB: Malnutrition, depression, desperation…lovely things like that.  It was time to be back at home in NYC.

MC: You have actively been involved in creating an array of custom instruments. How did that come about?

AB:
I think it’s quite natural when spending so much time with something (or someone even) to have frustration with limitations, ideas about what could be better, questions about why certain possibilities seem easy while others are so out of reach, at least for me it’s usually the case.

The saduk was my 1st real foray into instrument making and is the most fully realized instrument to date. I experimented with metal pipes, electrical tape, tin foil, saxophone mouthpieces of all manner. Here’s something I wrote for The Saduk CD which pretty much sums it up:

“What do nearly all instrumental virtuoso do? Running headlong into limitations, they make significant changes to their instruments or in some cases make a new one entirely. I love the saxophone deeply, but it has some inherent constraints. It is a ‘heavy’ instrument, laden down with many large keys; you need a lot of breath to vibrate its elongated conical metal tube. Often longing for a more tender palette of expression than the saxophone would allow, – I developed flute envy. My solution was to create the saduk, the simple open-holed flute/reed hybrid featured on these tracks. Inspired in equal measure by an inner sound – one that I have ‘felt’ as much as ‘heard’ throughout my life – and the primal, tender wind instruments found in most world traditions, this recording marries a prenatally familiar wind expression with voice, percussion, saxophone and other acoustic sounds.”

MC: Do you have a favorite? How tied into your playing & composing is the creation of these instruments and could you ever do one without the other?

AB: My favorite is as of yet unrealized. It’s a new saxophone like instrument, but has a flexibility and range of timbres heretofore unrealized in a single instrument.

MC: Your music has cerebral components and an overall density which legitimately makes it more accurate to describe as modern classical with elements of improvisation. It seems that in America such aural art has become marginalized to a specific semi hidden audience. Does this ever effect the ambition of the scope of a project or how long after completion you remain involved with the performing/promoting of a work?

AB: I have arrived (for now at least) at a place where the pursuit of my art is important in and of itself.  Meaning I trust I am only somewhat delusional, and that I know when I am cheating, being lazy, betraying my self, all the “bad habits” and “the pull” away from “the pursuit”.  I will admit it’s, if not a losing battle, certainly a Sisyphean struggle.

So my ambition as you say, is great…as the standards are awesome, daunting, limitless, unachievable.  Not MY standards, but THE standards.  Set by the masters in all fields, places, times.  I’m fortunate, I have been surrounded by “greatness”. So it’s easy in that sense to keep going.  The goal for me is just to be a drop in the bucket. Not be intimidated but rather just offer up my little effort, my humble talent, mediocre worth-ethic, on the the alter of infinite creativity, inspiration.

As for promotion: I’m a beggar…please listen to my music!

MC: It would seem so many things regardless of the medium that have weight to them are destined to only obtain a certain level of exposure.  Do genre defying artists have to make a conscious decision to not contemplate how “big” they will be or is it a form of stoicism which one learns organically with the passage of time?

AB: Speaking of myself only, again I’m at a nice place when I do that which I can do right here, right now.  Can I make myself a star? In demand? Popular?

I can however practice, study, go in the studio an deal with matters at hand, or ear, or eye.  Complaining in my mind, asking why, when I know there’s no answer, is a self indulgent wine better taken in small infrequent sips.  Reminding myself any complaints I have are more honestly excuses is a good thing. I have to remember, I have everything I need right now, to do something potentially great…it’s up to me.

MC: Once Honore de Balzac (1799-1850) became fully (artistically) realized he said that he no longer read other’s work as he did not need the inspiration in that form. Do you still listen to other people’s work to keep the juices flowing or for enjoyment and if so how have your listening habits and tastes changed over the years?

AB: I love music. I love to listen.  And there is a seemingly never ending wealth of music that I say,  “Wow! I wouldn’t mind if my name was on that!”.  I see a lot of, shall we say, a lack of generosity in artists…and I also see the opposite too!  Ask yourself, “Did I give that recording, painting, movie, etc. the same quality of attention, atmosphere, and benefits I give my own work?”  Of course, de gustibus non est disputandum.

MC: All your albums have a fantastic sound to them. How much of a factor does technology play in your compositions? Has technology ever changed a composition from its inception to execution live or in the studio?

AB: The studio as an instrument is a new and blossoming endeavor/fascination for me.  For years I was obsessed with sound, on my saxophone.

True stories about practicing one note only, for considerable lengths:  living at home my parents forced me to see a shrink thinking I was insane with that one note.  And for a while in NYC I would practice after-hours in a large basement real estate office.  After months, this lovely chap who cleaned at night, the only other soul in earshot, listening to my note every night, approached me.  We had never spoken and he said, “Man don’t you know any songs? I mean you can’t keep playing that one thing forever?”

The studio is infinite saxophones…kickin’ my arse!  I didn’t have any idea what compression was just a minute ago.  Now I geek out about trying to hear differences between optical,  VCA, Variable MU, FET. Mics, preamps, EQs, tonal shaping of aux sends, reverb chambers…insane.  And also a danger that it all becomes an excuse, a distraction.

Yes I think all my work is a balance, a negotiation, a conversation between what I can do and what I want to do, my circumstance vs. my vision

MC: Your music is very cinematic which is apt as you have also done film work. How did that come about?

AB: My grandfather Gustave Berne was a theatre and film impresario, so I had a start there I suppose.  I do believe that I am naturally inclined towards the sound/vision synaesthetic.

MC: You also paint, between all your mediums is there ever a cross pollination of inspiration?

AB: Inspiration is frequently in my case, just about getting started and then trusting providence will meet me half way.  Certainly I have ideas and I prepare for them, and all that’s required to bring such to fruition, but often if I may, the medium is not the message.

MC: With art in any medium, the audience makes a personal totem of a work, not necessarily in line with the intent of the artist. How important is it for people to be attuned with your intent when approaching one of your pieces?

AB: I would like to think that if someone, “gives me a chance”, meaning say in the case of my recorded sounds, at least allowing themselves an atmosphere where absorption would be possible, that I have a good likelihood of touching them.  As I said, beggars can’t be choosers.


MC: Is it possible to sum up your artistic philosophy and in doing so would it enhance one’s enjoyment of your work?

AB: I heard my mentor say once,  “Art is that which represents you when you are not there.”  A few ways to read that…

http://www.alexanderberne.com/

*This article is not to be used or reprinted without the expressed permission of Maxwell A. Chandler (maxwellachandler@aol.com)

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The Definitive Charley Patton (Catfish Records)

The late 1800’s/early 1900’s, the term “redneck” had drastically different connotation than that which it carries today. Initially it was a verbal short hand to describe the Irish and Scottish immigrant farmers down south. After a day in the fields their necks burnt a lobster red. Like all who joined the great melting pot with dreams and hopes of something better, they brought their songs to sing with them. Folk melodies, murder ballads, played with a lot of the instruments which would be used for the early country music. This mixed with the sung laments of plantation slaves birthed the blues.

The earliest blues was a complex amalgam of these three seemingly divergent sources, country, folk and plain song brought over by the slaves. In the far future practitioners may have more chops, but the construction and influences would never again be as open minded, nor as organically mixed.

The embodiment of this first great wave of bluesmen was Charlie Patton. The exact date of his birth is often debated. Given sometimes as April 1887 or 1891. He himself was never sure, the later date being supplied by his parents for a 1900 census poll. He could not read or write except his name which he always slowly spelled out loud C-h-a-r-l-i-e. Ironically throughout his oeuvre it is spelled Charley.

Charlie was descended of mixed blood which included white, Native American and African American. The oddly pejorative term “good hair” (Caucasian-like) was often used to describe him when not talking about his music.

His family was religious and disapproved of his music and his casual teachers. The music was referred to as “Devil’s music” and his romance with it often earned him beatings from his father. Eventually, for whatever reason his father eased up, even buying Charlie a guitar. It was shortly after this he hit the road never again to return home for any real length of time.

Charlie’s main recorded output was the blues, but this was far more a financial decision on the part of the record company than a personal artistic choice on Charlie’s part. It was the same commercial consideration which largely kept Charlie’s less blues like pieces from ever seeing wax.

He did not seem to mind. Often to give an audience their money’s worth, when performing Charlie would toss and catch his guitar, play the underside percussively, drum like or when the mood struck him, behind his head. Considering what was resonating from him, all far from necessary.

Although he never liked to complain, like many artists of his day (and sadly, in ensuing decades) Charlie was taken advantage of by record companies. He and other artists would have to commute to Northern cities to record or in makeshift studios set up in barns or flop houses.

These early blues men were pursued by record companies not out respect for their artistic merits but in hope of creating an African American record buying (phonographs too) public. With few exceptions this was driving vision behind these small companies.

Pony Blues was successful, Charlie’s biggest seller (Paramount Records). In keeping with the times only the smallest trickle of money went to him. From his point of view, while never becoming rich, he was kept in sandwiches, whiskey and smokes. Always happy enough to not have to do manual labor as often.

Pea Vine Blues used a new gimmick thought up by the record company. The record was released with a contest. The singer was listed as “The Masked Marvel” its cover depicting an illustration which looked like Charlie donning a Lone Ranger styled mask. Contestants were asked to guess his identity. The winner received a Paramount Record of their choice. The contest entry forms accompanied the record all 10,000 sold out. Staggering when you consider that this was well before the age of mass media or quick communication. Paramount Records hedged their bets by also doing up 7000 promo posters and ads in The Chicago Defender, the premier paper for the other side of segregated America.

The initial pressing quickly sold out creating the market for a second pressing, a then rarity for such a specialized market.

Interestingly enough, Charlie had recorded (briefly) some religious hymns under the pseudonym J.J Hadley. Either name was an accepted answer for the contest.

Charlie was of average height and slight build (135lbs) but some of his material was musical boasts concerning his prowess and potency. (Charlie as a proto rapper?). Mostly though, he and other blues forefathers would recite topical verse over often simple but hypnotic beats. Charlie is believed to be the first one to use the now standard twelve bar blues pattern.

Initially, before the lexicon of blues standards was born, the tales in Charlie and his peers songs were intricate, image rich American Gothic. Flannery O’Connor meets the juke joint.

In Charlie’s lyrics, depending upon your point of view, God or the devil was ever present, not as an incarnation, but as natural calamities. Floods, the taste of one’s mortality, even boweevils. Despite the commercial considerations of what Charlie recorded, there was always more than just some woman having done him wrong. Deeper themes whose narrative complexity still retain their power in this modern age when Charlie’s way of life has long since vanished.

Another key appeal of Charlie’s work was his vocals. The lyrics were often obscured. The cadence of his voice being used as a second instrument. There is something about the sound of those simple, yet hypnotic beats mixing with that voice. It reaches deep down into you, a primal twitch. I like to listen to this in the dark. You should listen to this in the dark, listen anywhere desolation and appetite can be poetry.

It was said that Charlie had, had eight wives. At the very least he had eight roommates. With a hair trigger temper he had fought with all of them.

When not in jail, sick or recording, this American troubadour was out living the life he would represent in his art. Reporting on what he saw and interjecting his own opinions. One of the strongest tracks off of CD #2 is “High Water Everywhere”. This was based off of the 1927 Mississippi flood and its after effects as he witnessed them. It is from the episodic growl as much as the cabaret theater world of Brecht/Weil that Tom Waits would build his initial musical foundation  off of.

Long time brother in arms Willie Brown spent years observing and playing with Charlie. From the practical application of this apprenticeship Willie became a great blues man in his own right. It was from Willie in the 1920’s a teenage Robert Johnson attempted to learn.

With the onslaught of the depression, many small record labels folded, times were tough all around and Charlie made due the best he could. By the mid 1930’s, Charlie, in his mid forties began to feel the effects of his lifestyle. A fight one night ended with Charlie having his throat slit and living to sing about it. Bad woman, good cocaine and strong whiskey with an endless supply of cigarettes to mark the time in between each.

1934 saw the depression finally beginning to bottom out. People no longer needed to be tunnel-visioned on how to eat, where to find work. It would be several more years until it was done with completely. The theory that affordable distractions will always make money in times of trouble has been proven again and again.

W.R Calaway of The American Record Corporation wanted to record Charlie. For what would be Charlie’s last sessions he tracked the artist and his wife Bertha Lee who would share vocal duties, down to a Mississippi jail where they were both serving time for having had one of their knock down drag outs at a house party. W.R Calaway made bail and brought the pair to New York.

New York was having one of its bad winters. Charlie was already frail and sick. Both in lyrical content and in his haunted performance Charlie seems to have felt the ebb and flow of his mortality.

One of Charlie’s last recorded songs was 34 Blues, 34 being slang for “go away”. Three months after his final sessions while living on a plantation with another woman Charlie died of a heart condition brought on by an attack of rheumatic fever. As he lay dying, in delirium, it was to the reciting of one of the religious hymns he recorded as J.J Hadley he occupied his last days until death finally took him.

The sound on these three CDs is good, it has been cleaned up, but not sanitized to the point of loosing its soul in studio artificiality. At times there is the ambient presence of a 78’s hiss. It works, it belongs. The effect is akin to listening to some of the great prewar Edith Piaf recordings which contain the same hiss. It furthers the effect of being spoken to from another time, without ever distracting or lessening the art. So well does it work, it almost seems as if these two artists, so different, both incorporate the hiss and technological limitations into their deliveries and technique.

The songs are all presented in chronological order which I always think is a nice touch. Aside from the aforementioned “High Water Everywhere” another personal favorite (CD #2) is “Mean Black Moan” which features a trance inducing guitar pattern, with the singing violin sounding almost like an upper register clarinet all occurring while the tale is told.

Henry Sims on violin is perfect. He had a touch which managed to be both raw and subtle. He would go on to work with later day blues man Muddy Waters. It offers a glimpse of what might have been if Charlie had had opportunity for more instrumentation or at least further sympathetic accompaniment.

The packaging is nice. The three CDs are packaged in hard cardboard sleeves to look like old  78’s which are housed in a good looking little box with an eighteen page informative booklet.

This compares nicely with “The Best of Charlie Patton” (1 CD Yazoo). Yazoo was one of foremost revivalist of early American music chroniclers. This is one CD and not really that much less than this three CD set.

The crown jewel for any serious collector is “Screamin’ and Hollerin’ the Blues:The Worlds of Charley Patton” (7 CDs Revenant Records) This is literally functional art. Designed to look like a large 78’s record box, it includes lots of reading material including the long out of print thesis on Charlie by John Fahey, stickers interviews and other Charlie related literature. An investment to be sure, but worth it.

It was not until 1980 Charlie was actually induced into The Blues Foundation’s hall of fame. In 1990 singer John Fogerty paid for a proper funerary monument to be erected. Other Mississippi blues men are talked about and sited more often. Charlie’s stuff, because of its deeply personal delivery would be far harder to emulate. This is the king. From the roots of this musical tree would flow far reaching and diverse branches.

Charley Patton-guitar/vocals

          On some tracks:

                 Willie Brown-second guitar

                  Henry Sims-violin

                  Bertha Lee-vocals

 

 

 

 

*This article is not to be used or reprinted without the expressed permission of Maxwell A. Chandler (maxwellachandler@aol.com)

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Fantastic upcoming event by Cosmopolitan Jazz Performers: Lua Hadar with TWIST

Like A Bridge Movie Premiere
November 15th, 7:30pm
Balboa Theater, San Francisco

Tickets available here

For more information go to Lua’s website at http://www.luahadar.com

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The Tears Which Water The Flowers: Fado

You can say that jazz is one of, if not the only, purely American art form. While that is no longer true, and while in it’s infancy it needed the nurturing which it could only receive abroad due to segregation, that heady stew which drew from so many diverse sources could only have been cooked in what was then, the great melting pot.

While being an older music, Portugal’s Fado is made up of as many diverse ingredients. Aside from sharing jazz’s multi-ingredient make up it also shares jazz’s emotional ability. The music manages to resonate an emotional landscape to its audience which is felt by each listener  to be unique and deeply personal, while at the same time embracing all who are open to it.

To classify Fado as Portuguese “Blues” is to paint too simple a picture, to miss the point. Even the sorrow, base component for both is of different worlds. Nor should Fado or its cousins Tango, Duende and Flamenco be categorized as mere world/folk music. Such terms too often now conjure up images of urban hipsters on a shopping spree at Borders.

Much like (Western) classical, one could spend their life familiarizing themselves with specific pieces, becoming a connoisseur in the same way one would with Wagner’s Ring Cycle. Indeed, there are complexities to rival any piece from the classical canons. There are established “rules” which gave way to sub genres and different “cults” of performers and compositional styles. Another way too, it is similar to the world of jazz, with its divisions of Bop, Cool, Free (et al), Jazz, Fado, like all great art, steeped in tradition and ever in flux.

Like jazz and classical too, the established structure is often added to by each generation, new groups of players and composers adding reflections of their world view to renew the music and make it distinctly their own. The cadence of the Fadista’s voice can vary, although never according to the purist, but never the lyrical structure nor their intent.

Lyrically Fado songs are all about a sort of nostalgic longing. It is heartbreak, but also a thankfulness that something could have ever been a trigger for such powerful emotions. Fado comes from the Latin word Fatum which means [an utterance , esp. a divine utterance]; hence [destiny, fate, the will of a god]; personif. Fata, [the Parcae or Fates]; [doom, fate, misfortune, ruin, calamity]. However, this definition gives only the smallest clue, a glimpse into what Fado has to offer, is about.

Like all music which has become deeply rooted in a culture’s identity, the exact origins of Fado remain unknown. It is known that Fado started appearing in the 1820’s. Within to be found, there are elements of African slave rhythms, Portuguese sailor music and some Moorish influences. Initially there were but two types of Fado, originating from two specific areas in Lisbon. From Alfama and Mouraria came Fado which had a more salon/drawing room style. A chamber music using vernacular, beautiful but rigid in how the pieces were arranged and performed. The other type came from Coimbra and incorporated Brazilian hall music popular with the heavy influx of Brazilian students who were appearing at this time. While both styles proved to be equally popular, it would be another hundred years before any Fado music was put down on wax.

A key lyric ingredient for Fado is the feeling known as Saudade. It is the nostalgic aspect of Fado. It concerns people, heartache and remembrance as opposed to the other often used ingredient Banzo. Banzo is a nostalgia for one’s culture and homeland. Both are connected to the music through a beautiful sense of longing. An inner ache made into music in hopes that sharing this will perform some sort of release, but also showing a respect for the broken heart whose pain lets us know we are alive. Life so sharply felt is always worth living.

Lyrical content aside, another thing which was initially required for a piece of music to be considered Fado was a specific line up of instruments. Sonically, the most prominent instrument is what’s known as The Portuguese Guitar. This is a twelve string instrument descended from a Moorish lute-like instrument and what is known as a Cistern. The tuning involves “watch key” tuning keys as opposed to modern day machine head pegs which are found on most guitars. When used for soloing, it possesses  a fuller sound than its relatives, the mandolin, lute or cistern. This guitar was teamed up in the early days with a Spanish Guitar (classical style guitar) which the Portuguese called a Viola and a bottom end provided by a double bass.

Now one can find larger instrumental ensembles playing Fado on a far more diverse group of instruments both acoustic and electric. This early trio of instruments though, made sense in their portability and the perfect supportive counterpoint they provided to each other and the voice telling the tale. For those not strict or “conservative” in their definition of what can be considered Fado, Fado music can now be heard, combining traditional instruments with more modern day technology to great effect (see the albums of Madredeus and Mariza who combine an organic Euro-groove feeling with Fado’s power).

The first known “star” of Fado was a prostitute named Maria Severa. She was born the daughter of an innkeeper in 1820 in Lisbon. Her voice is unrecorded but there are many tales, all hard to confirm as hard fact which have become part of the public consciousness of Portugal. Her legends all seem to contain many of the same elements which can be found in the powerful art form she helped birth. Her first lover was shipped off to Africa during a flourish of Portuguese colonialism. She lamented his passing but soon was attached to a count. In his salons she shocked everyone by performing what would become Fado. Eventually the count was forced to separate himself from her. After this second major heart ache, in a fatal  mood of Saudade she committed suicide in an orgy of the senses, drinking and eating (game bird) herself to death in one sitting.

The major lexicon began to form when poets, a natural fit for such subject matter, became involved in applying their pen. The early body of Fado work, the “standards” quickly numbered over two hundred.

The first and eternal modern day queen of Fado is Amalia Rodrigues. She had a long career and never seems to have taken an artistic misstep, a rarity for any artist with such longevity. Amalia was born July 23, 1920. Much like Louis Armstrong with his second birthday which was always give as July 4, Amelia always insisted she was born on July 1st. In the timeless tradition of many great artists, she started working at an early age, hard, tedious jobs. At the age of nine she gave her first recital at her primary school. At this time too, she was selling  fruit on the streets of Lisbon and doing embroidery work. During these formative years she could also be found working in a cake factory and in a souvenir shop with her mother and sister. Her talent and drive were such that every year marked an important “first” for her. Too many to list, too many to keep this interesting. Two artistic touchstones however should be mentioned: 1935 marks the first time she performed, accompanied by a guitar during a benefit concert. 1945 sees Amalia make her first recording a 78 RPM single, done in Brazil.

During her career Amalia did extensive touring. She wracked up an impressive amount of appearances in movies, both at home and abroad. She seems to have fared better on the big screen than some of the other musical greats who tried, sometimes being the only good thing in a film. In the 1950’s her power was such that she worked directly with many of her country’s greatest poets, some even writing lyrics specifically for her.

Amalia was often considered “the only” cultural ambassador to Portugal (literary giants Fernando Pessoa and Jose Saramago might beg to differ). In her final years she was still making albums, the last one cut only a year before her death. In celebration of her long career there was a five hour television documentary made with her complete cooperation and featuring many candid conversations with the artist and some rare concert footage. This was eventually edited down for a DVD titled “The Art of Amalia”. When  Amalia died at the age of 79 the prime minister called for three days of national mourning. Her house in Lisbon is now a museum.

The best album for beginners, and the one I started off with is:

The Art of Amalia Rodrigues (Hemisphere). This is a compilation with pieces spanning the years 1952-1970.  Unlike “best of” albums by jazz singers one does not get the feeling they are viewing only a small part of the picture, one aspect of the performer. Another contrast I have found from Jazz singers and even opera divas is that there is no division of artistic periods. There is none of that “I enjoyed this incarnation of her band when she had…” Nor is there such cherry picking of which recording labels receive preference from the enthusiasts. It all seems to have the same sonic feel and there is always an immediate connection with whom ever is accompanying her, year and record label aside.

The songs are of three different Fado styles although only the experienced Fado listener is going to notice any huge difference. I am not a Fado conservative, but when I want my insides to vibrate in melancholy sympathy to the music, I prefer the traditional type of Fado. All the pieces on this album even the “evergreen” pieces have that.

Even though there are decades separating some of these performances. None give that feeling of coming at us from a distant, other time. It is unlike the earliest Edith Piaf recordings which sound as if they were only made to emerge from a Zinc tulip of a Victrola. Indeed, upon first listening, before reading the liner notes, I was surprised to find out how old some of the pieces were.

When I listen to the album it is always from start to finish. There is not one track without power. One favorite is “Vou Dar de Beber A Dor” (track 5 1968). The Portuguese Guitar does a bright, repetitive playful pattern. Her voice sounds sensual and playful always without the least affectation.

Jazz, Fado, you can tell people about it, but it is a road they must go down themselves. A trip which can last a life time and one which I highly recommend.

*This article is not to be used or reprinted without the expressed permission of Maxwell A. Chandler (maxwellachandler@aol.com)

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