“can you score this without speaking the language of the keys…”
—Aimee Herman, poet
“… she basically processes people’s traits.”
—Woman on street to another woman
“Once absorbed by the mainstream be-bop gets watered down its importance is diminished and forgotten by most […] Charlie Parker lived his music as he played it.”
—Oliver Lake, musician
I’ve helped fuel my bad reputation that I hate vocalists and prefer singers. When asked what I mean, I give the Billie/Ella equation, or explain: Bessie Smith’s a singer, Sarah Vaughn’s a vocalist. So when some new kid on the block says: “The next song is by Bessie Smith,” or, “This is a song about two people. One, in love with the other, the other thinks they’re just good friends,” I cringe in horror and loathing, thinking of Nancy Wilson singing “Guess Who I Saw Today?” and say “UGH. I saw YOU.” Or I mostly just avoid the situation. In one of the first articles I ever wrote in the ’80s, about a three-day festival at the long-defunct Gas Station, I mentioned that I had missed the second day of the event, that the headliner was a vocalist, and that I hated vocalists. When the article appeared in print it read, “On the second day virtuoso vocalist [I’ll discretely leave the name out] appeared […] etc.” Without ever consulting me, the editor had cleaned up my act. That was the first and last time I wrote for him.
Recently, on the suggestion of a friend, I went to hear Cécile McLorin Salvant, who received the 2010 Thelonious Monk International Jazz Competition first prize, had a great New York Times review, and played to sold-out shows all week at the people-friendly Jazz Standard. I was in a bad mood, having just done a fun gig at a big poetry press barbecue, so my attention span was limited. “Who cares? Another well-schooled ‘artist,’” I thought.
Though I still have problems with those who open their mouths to sing, I got more than I’d bargained for. I found a style and repertoire I was not prepared for. She did indeed sing two Bessie Smith songs wonderfully, one—her encore—unaccompanied. She did Bacharach, and “The Trolley Song,” alluding to Judy Garland while sounding more like Betty Carter. Though her voice has range, she and her trio reminded me most of Carter—who, by the way, I love. What they both have in common is a great combined balance of singer/vocalist. Salvant included the lonely, unseen-lover lyrics, one penned by her, but also a range of songs, from the aria from the Hughes/Weill opera Street Scene to West Side Story. No rock, no funk, no over-the-top, pretentious, dime-a-dozen vocalese. In fact, what I admired most about her was that she never exploited her capabilities, using her full range and abilities sparingly, never repeating, always re-inventing herself. When she hit that high note at the end of a tune, one she could’ve repeated over and over again to wow us, she only did it once during the set.
Wim Wenders spoke about music and film at his retrospective at the IFC Center. Wenders, who named his first film after Coltrane’s Alabama, admitted that Trane was a big influence. He even started to play the saxophone but soon traded it in for a Bolex camera, and, though he almost exclusively uses rock’n’roll in his films, his love of jazz is a given. He described music as the liquid language that helps complete the solid language of film. He claimed that music helped form and inform the character, as in The American Friend, where Bruno Ganz sings along with the Kinks’ “Too Much on My Mind” while sweeping the floor—and indeed having too much on his mind. In an early film inspired by the Kinks, Summer in the City, he uses the Lovin’ Spoonful to warm the viewer up, since the action takes place in winter. He has used every style of rock, including the seminal group Can, and explained that he asked Can to write an actual score, which they “wrote” on the fly. He spoke about the difference between a score and using diegetic* songs to accent different moments. He mentioned outrageous rights fees that led to him substituting songs in various films.
Music, for Wenders, was utopia amidst darkness and chaos. He used Canned Heat’s “On the Road Again” in an early road film as a character in and of itself. He said that beginning a film with Dylan’s version of “All Along the Watchtower” and ending it with Hendrix’s was the ideal way to show and contrast change. Music helped him find out the choreography and art of filmmaking. Having grown up after World War II, Wenders and others were weaned on American rock’n’roll, which spewed forth from late night Allied Forces radio and jukeboxes—which he called the first interactive music medium. Almost all his films pay homage to this by including jukeboxes. In Kings of the Road, named after the Roger Miller song that appears in the film, a portable record player is used by the principles to constantly play 45s. Wenders went so far as to say that rock’n’roll saved his life. He ended by saying that music is more than a soundtrack, that music and image together form more than their sum, a third entity, and are not just meant to accompany one another but to strive for that entity.
Speaking of accompaniment, another talk I attended at Film Forum was by the Quay Brothers. When asked how they arrived at their soundtracks, like the Stockhausen score commissioned for their film In Absentia, they said that in all their films music came first and that the films were made to sync up with it. When they showed Stockhausen ten minutes of the film, he grinned and said, “You know, guys, I’d like a little bit of blue in there somewhere,” and, “I’ve left a lot of quiet moments so that you can add sound effects.” They claimed the best way to get money to make a film was by “intelligent bluff,” and make the real film once the money was received. They mentioned that the power of everyday life “must not be avoided but exploited” and that they want to trick people with illusions rather than technique.
Speaking of technique and illusion, one of the worst films I’ve ever seen is Gaspar Noé’s new, over-the-top, 3D film Love. I won’t give away the plot or where the use of 3D comes into play but I will say that his use of music, as with most of the film, was juvenile, including his overuse/misuse of Satie’s Gymnopédies and Gnossiennes, two of my favorite pieces of music. After this horrid experience I did some research to prove a theory I had—I was proven right. Those pieces have been used in over 100 films, from Satie’s first use in 1925’s Entr’Acte up to many films just released this year. If you want a full list look online.
Ran Blake: “[…] one must externalize sounds and feelings […] The ear should tell you what to do.” So LISTEN.
I dedicate this to my dear friend, the poet Herschel Silverman, the Candy Store Man, whose love for people, jazz, and the blues knew no bounds. It’s like he said, “[…] the poet doctor gives clues and away we go.”
*It was suggested by George (my editor) that I replace three lines with the word “diegetic,” the meaning of which I knew not. I asked if he meant dietetic, diabetic, dialectic, dieuretic, or diatonic; he said “NO.” He then went on to explain what it did mean and I said, “Okay. That’s exactly what I wanted to say,” even though I couldn’t find it in two dictionaries, which were apparently as dumb as I was, and I immediately forgot the word. I hope you, dear reader, can figure it out.
Poet/collagist STEVE DALACHINSKY was a long time contributor to the Rail. His book The Final Nite & Other Poems (Ugly Duckling Presse - 2006) won the PEN Oakland National Book Award. His latest CDs are The Fallout of Dreams with Dave Liebman and Richie Beirach (Roguart, 2014), and the book/CD Pretty in the Morning with the French art rock group the Snobs (Bisou Records, 2019). He was a 2014 recipient of a Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et Lettres. His most recent books include Frozen Heatwave, a collaboration with Yuko Otomo (Luna Bissonte Prods, 2017) and where night and day become onethe french poems (great weather for MEDIA, 2018) which received a 2019 IBPA award in poetry.