Get our free newsletter
Art forms choose their own places and times to flourish: the novel in Victorian England, cinema in early-1960s France. For songwriting, the golden age was in America during the first half of the last century. Jerome Kern, Irving Berlin, George and Ira Gershwin, Cole Porter, Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart, Harold Arlen, Johnny Mercer, and their peers elevated popular music to what has come to be acknowledged as high art. Unlike today’s songwriters, who perform their own material, these specialists focused their energies entirely on creating the music and lyrics.
Now referred to as the Great American Songbook, their collective compositions hold an irresistible allure for singers of many schools. Pop vocalists Rickie Lee Jones, Brian Ferry, and George Michael have had a go at them, as have R&B artists Ray Charles, Etta James, and Johnny Adams; country singers Willie Nelson and Crystal Gayle; and opera stars Frederica Von Stade and Thomas Hampson. It’s unlikely that these performers chose to record pre-rock standards for commercial reasons; their crossover albums are as likely to alienate as to expand their core audiences. What draws them is the melodic richness, harmonic sophistication, and lyrical eloquence of this material. Unlike most ephemeral pop music, these songs were built to last.
After more than three decades of performing her own compositions, Joni Mitchell has delved into the Great American Songbook with breathtaking results. Mitchell came to prominence in the late ’60s, initially for her songwriting, which bridged the gap between mainstream pop and folk-rock. Tom Rush recorded her plaintive “Urge for Going” and “The Circle Game,” and Judy Collins popularized Mitchell’s best-known song, “Both Sides Now.” In intelligence and technique, Mitchell’s lyrics rivaled those of the golden age songwriters, and her melodies were more ambitious than the basic blues structures and two-chord riffs laid down by her contemporaries. As she progressed, she experimented with more advanced forms, venturing into art rock (1975’s The Hissing of Summer Lawns) and jazz (1979’s Mingus). Significantly, artists as diverse as Mabel Mercer, Frank Sinatra, Bob Dylan, Brasil 66, and Cassandra Wilson have recorded Mitchell’s songs.
Both Sides Now showcases Mitchell performing 10 Great American Songbook standards and two of her own compositions. Unlike Linda Ronstadt and Carly Simon, whose clueless renditions of standards sound like sheet-music demonstrations, Mitchell passionately immerses herself in this vintage material. Drawing on her experience as composer, lyricist, and instrumentalist, she deploys the skill and confidence to alter melody lines and embellish lyrics in order to personalize songs that have been recorded dozens of times. She’s even evolved a new sound, considerably lower, softer, and more intimate than the voice familiar from her previous efforts. Echoes of legendary pop and jazz singers haunt these performances: Billie Holiday (who recorded half of the CD’s dozen songs), Peggy Lee, Jeri Southern, Julie London, Annie Ross, and Shirley Horn. Mitchell has absorbed all of these influences, honoring but not imitating them. No currently functioning jazz-oriented singer has brought such sincerity and intensity to classic songs, certainly not the aloof Diana Krall or the mannered Cassandra Wilson.
Vince Mendoza arranged and conducted elaborate backings for Both Sides Now, employing members of the London Symphony Orchestra in combinations involving as many as 71 musicians. One could argue that the largest ensembles, including that used on “You’re My Thrill,” the opening song, are excessively lush, but Mitchell’s subtle, confessional interpretations manage to hold their own against the banks of cascading strings. On several tracks, Mendoza, whose writing for brass reflects the influence of Gil Evans’ densely layered orchestrations for Claude Thornhill and Miles Davis, leaves brief solo spaces for guest instrumentalists. Trumpeter Mark Isham (peeking out of his Miles bag) and saxophonist Wayne Shorter enhance the spells cast by Mitchell’s vocals, but Herbie Hancock’s piano interludes dither aimlessly. Hancock’s meanderings are the only weak element in an otherwise seamless album, which is highlighted by reinventions of Mitchell’s compositions “A Case of You” and “Both Sides Now.” Compared with her spare, pristine 1969 recording of the title song, her new, heartbreakingly resigned interpretation signals the complete evolution of a precocious talent into a mature artist.
I’m confident that Both Sides Now will come to be regarded as a masterpiece, as musically and emotionally satisfying as anything Mitchell has achieved thus far. Apparently, Reprise, her record company, thinks so, too, having issued an advance $49.97 deluxe limited edition in time for Valentine’s Day. The CD rests in a well inside a handsome chocolate-brown, silk-covered candy box, along with reproductions of Mitchell’s artworks and cards containing song lyrics. However, the geniuses at Reprise failed to anchor the disc, which, after rattling around during shipping, has often emerged looking like a souvenir coaster from a wild fraternity party. The label has been flooded with returns, somehow a fitting retribution for their carelessness and economic elitism. If you can’t live without the limited edition, insist that your retailer allow you to open the box and examine the disc before you purchase it. Otherwise, wait for the working-class version scheduled for release on March 21.
Predictably, most of last year’s celebrations of Duke Ellington’s centenary turned out to be timidly reverential. How else could one approach the imposing work of arguably the 20th century’s greatest American musical talent—a nonpareil composer, arranger, and performer? Last fall’s CD tributes by singers Tony Bennett and Carol Sloane offered serious, respectful presentations of Ellington’s songs but broke no new interpretive ground. Leave that to the heedless New Orleans singer-pianist Dr. John, whose Duke Elegant turns out to be an Ellington tribute unlike any other.
The album’s title seems somewhat tongue-in-cheek. Ellington personified refinement in his art, speech, bearing, and sartorial style, but Dr. John’s approach to his music is about as elegant as a mess of greens. A decade ago, on his first-rate Great American Songbook collection, In a Sentimental Mood, the Delta musician dressed up Duke’s title song with strings and horns. This time out, he’s taken the opposite tack, funking down a dozen Ellington vocal and instrumental pieces, accompanying himself on piano and Hammond B3 organ, backed by electric guitar, bass, and drums.
Initially, the result is surprising and liberating, especially the album’s delightful opening song, “On the Wrong Side of the Railroad Tracks,” a forgotten collaboration with lyricist John Latouche from the score Duke composed for the 1946 Broadway musical Beggar’s Holiday. This affectionate portrait of “a neighborhood where folks can relax” and “shirts are never stuffed” sets the tone for the Good Doctor’s down-home take on an uptown master. The next tune, “I’m Gonna Go Fishin’,” written for the soundtrack of Anatomy of a Murder (1959), benefits from Dr. John’s inspired decision to reconfigure it from a jazz waltz to a 4/4 rolling boogie.
But as Duke Elegant unfolds, the novelty of funkifying Ellington wears thin. A slowed-down “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing)” doesn’t mean much. Nor does the dirty-rice version of “Satin Doll,” nor the thumping roadhouse instrumental approaches to “Caravan” and “Flaming Sword.” Ellington’s music, as performed by his inimitable orchestra, presented a broad spectrum of moods, tones, and colors. Stripping down Duke’s compositions to their blues roots and performing them on amplified instruments with a relentless backbeat is unsatisfyingly reductive, a diminution rather than a celebration. Listen to the late Charlie Rich’s 1992 version of “Mood Indigo” on his superb valedictory album, Pictures and Paintings, to discover how an Ellington song can be deliciously Southern-fried without losing its essence or elegance.
It took more than 100 years for American music to escape the stranglehold of European models and find its own voice. The evolution began with folk songs and blues filtered through Stephen Foster, Scott Joplin, and W.C. Handy, and reached fruition with Irving Berlin, George Gershwin, and Ellington. The classically derived compositional and vocal styles of the operetta and the palm court gave way to the distinctively domestic ideas of syncopation, harmony, and lyric content that have made our music, like our movies, embraced worldwide.
A century later, the European concert-hall tradition is attempting to recolonize popular music. Opera singers have claimed the Great American Songbook as their turf, and the results aren’t pretty—or, rather, are much too pretty. Several of these classically schooled vocalists, notably Dawn Upshaw and Jerry Hadley, are less stiff than their coevals, but none of them could swing if you took them to a playground.
Soprano Jessye Norman, who struck out with her 1992 ballad album, Lucky to Be Me, tries again with I Was Born in Love With You, a collection of songs composed by Michel Legrand, who appears as Norman’s piano accompanist, assisted by bassist Ron Carter and drummer Grady Tate. Although Legrand is a Frenchman, his sweeping, long-lined ballads composed for Hollywood movie soundtracks (“The Summer Knows,” “The Windmills of Your Mind,” “What Are You Doing the Rest of Your Life?”) and the jazz harmonies and syncopations of his arrangements surely qualify him as an adoptive musical son.
Norman is, of course, a brilliant classical performer, rightfully regarded as a phenomenon, a force of nature. But the formal training that made her an international opera and concert star virtually disqualifies her from singing popular music idiomatically. You can feel her struggling to rein in her powerful instrument to avoid overwhelming Legrand’s songs. But a muted Norman is like a ballerina with a charley horse. Coming from a tradition that permits only the subtlest interpretive shadings, she’s slavishly faithful to Legrand’s melodies, daring to bend only a note or two, phrasing the English and French lyrics as accessories to the music, with little expression. Almost everything that makes Mitchell’s album remarkable is missing from Norman’s.
Like Barbra Streisand, who once dared to record an album of classical art songs, Norman deserves a few points for courage, if little else. To accommodate her, Legrand, usually a hard-swinging piano player, adopts an excessively florid, quasi-classical keyboard style. His occasional attempts to sneak jazz rhythms into the arrangements make Norman seem even less comfortable than she is on the other tracks.
Even in this constricted context, Legrand’s songs retain enough of their beauty and originality to make you want to hear them more effectively presented. I can’t recommend the Legrand-composed-arranged-and-conducted collection by Kiri Te Kanawa (stuffy and often out-of-tune operatics), Laura Fygi (technically impeccable but robotic European pop), or even jazz great Sarah Vaughan (whose plush voice is crushed under the weight of more than 100 backup musicians and singers). Surprisingly, the finest of all Legrand vocal collections remains the 1971 Jack Jones Sings Michel Legrand, arranged for a large but not overpowering French orchestra and sung with peerless musicianship and sensitivity by the baritone who subsequently squandered his talent on inane television themes and Las Vegas vulgarity. Reissued as a bargain-priced LaserLight CD, it sells for a third the price of Norman’s album and is at least 30 times more enjoyable. CP