Music can be a form of perfection - with nothing added or subtracted, flawless just the way it is.

The First Lady Of Song

Next up in this women in jazz series is the magnificent Ella Fitzgerald. I feel a bit intimidated writing about her - she was just that good! Her voice is probably as pure as it gets. It’s bright, perfectly clear and it’s very comforting. Her singing is so effortless that she makes it seem like it’s easy to sing like that. Sometimes I imagine what it would be like to have Ella for a grandma. Whenever someone felt blue, she would just sing their troubles away. While I love Billie Holiday and Dinah Washington, they never make me feel as good as Ella always does. It’s easy to get caught up in her music and forget about your worries.

I got to know Ella through my love of Louis Armstrong. As you may know, Lady Ella and Satchmo recorded 3 albums together, all of which are simply golden. Some people refer to ‘Porgy and Bess’ album as “Sandpaper and whipped cream”. I personally prefer the first two albums - ‘Ella & Louis’ and ‘Ella andLouis Again’ . A combination of her singing and her exquisite voice, his amazing trumpet playing and his raspy voice is entrancing. Listen to ‘They Can’t Take That Away From Me’ or ‘Learning The Blues’ to get a feeling of what I’m talking about. And even if you’re not interested in what I’m talking about, just listen to the songs because it’s wonderful music and also because these albums are probably an example of one of the best collaborations ever.
For some other Ella Fitzgerald’s albums, I would recommend ‘Intimate Ella’ or some of her songbooks: Cole Porter’s, Gershwin’s or Duke Ellington’s. The first two are actually not even that jazzy, so they might be especially appropriate for someone who’s not that into jazz, but because of Ella’s amazing vocals they will also be liked by jazz fans. ‘Intimate Ella’ is a good one to get the most out of her voice, since she’s accompanied only by a piano on this one. Here’s an example.

I read about her life the other day and I was quite surprised. Ella was born and brought up in poverty and she was actually homeless for a year before starting her career. She hit her big break at a talent show in Harlem. She was supposed to dance, but after seeing an amazing dance act go on before her, she got scared and at the last second decided to sing instead. Best last second decision ever!
Behind the stage, she was actually shy and reserved, which I think no one would guess because she looked so confident and, in her own words, felt at home on the stage. Singing is what she lived for. She often felt self- conscious about her looks and at times even doubted her abilities. How can someone so talented doubt themselves?! I guess she was still only a human, like the rest of us, even though she sounded otherworldly.

What is your favourite Ella Fitzgerald album or song? Your thoughts are appreciated.

17. January 2013
Ella Fitzgerald Jazz Louis Armstrong Women

Robert Johnson

Today, my two greatest passions in music are definitely Jazz and Blues. But it wasn’t always so and there are two musicians who got me interested in this music and ushered me to a whole new musical world - just as Louis Armstrong kindled my passion for jazz, Robert Johnson did so with the blues.
The first time I heard his music, I was blown away. I only heard one song and already knew that this is what I’ve been looking for. I was mesmerized by the raw emotion conveyed within the song. I haven’t heard anything quite like it before. The singing, the guitar… it was all so powerful. And the reason I can remember all of this so clearly is because nothing has changed - the moment I put on Robert Johnson, I feel exactly like I did the first time I heard him. The only difference is, that with every listening, I hear more and more nuances in his music. Listen to Come On In My Kitchen and how he plays melody and rhythm at the same time on his guitar, and all the while he delivers this amazing singing, like it’s not even a big deal. Or maybe Terraplane Blues, where it almost sounds like there’s more than one guitar playing (it’s all just him, fyi). But maybe don’t even listen to that, just listen to the emotion and the feeling of the songs. You don’t need to know anything about music for this to blow you away, just be open to it. Huh, I get excited about Robert Johnson, I need to calm down.
So who is Robert Johnson? Let’s put on a song first, before we get started.

Of all the bluesmen, Robert Johnson’s life is probably the one shrouded in mystery the most. Robert Leroy Johnson was born in 1911, in a small town Hazlehurst, Mississippi. He developed an affection for music as a teenager and started playing a harmonica. When he was around 19, he took interest in guitar and started playing that instead. Around the same time, his wife died in childbirth, which made him turn to his music that much more. He was learning from any source he could get his hands on, and it was obvious that he was still just learning. His most important mentor and source of inspiration was a bluesman, Ike Zinnerman. It’s been told that they were playing their guitars late every night in graveyards on tombstones, where no one would bother them. If he wasn’t with Ike, Robert would go to the woods by himself, where he was trying to learn everything he could about the guitar. After a couple of years he started travelling around the state to play around different juke joints. The musicians that had heard him when he was still just learning, were amazed. They could not believe what kind of progress he made and how his abilities suddenly surpassed their own.
Because of his talent and because he played all the time and everywhere, he quickly became famous around those parts. He played with many musicians and he left a mark on most of them. He played in places, where they requested all kinds of different songs, so he developed an amazing ability, where he had to hear a song only once before he was able to play it. He could be deep in a debate with a friend, with music playing in the background, and without ever stopping the conversation, he could play and sing the song perfectly afterwards. That helped him with a well-rounded repertoire for his gigs.

Robert had a big appetite for women, and women were crazy about him. He had a habit of finding a woman in any town he went to, who would give him food, money and a place to stay. His lust eventually killed him. One time, while playing in a bar, he was flirting with a woman for the whole night. What he didn’t realize, was that it was the owner’s wife. The owner was furious to see this, so he put poison in young Robert’s drink, which killed him.

That’s one way of telling the story. The other (which makes much more sense, if you ask me) goes like this: an aspiring young musician wants to become famous and is willing to do anything for it. He tries really hard but his desire is greater than his patience. One day he finds out, that if he goes to a certain crossroad at midnight, he’ll meet someone who can help him. And that’s exactly what he does. At the crossroads he meets a tall dark man, who tunes his guitar, plays a song or two, and gives it back to him. And with that, the deal is struck - Mr Johnson sells his soul to the Devil, in exchange for the incredible musical abilities and renown. He goes back to the musicians that taught him to play and surprises everyone with his skills. He’s unbeatable. But there was another part to the deal - a couple of years later the Devil gets his toll. Robert Johnson gets killed by the age of 27.

No matter what story you believe in, Robert Johnson’s music is simply amazing and incredibly influential. Apart from some testimonies about his life, 3 photos of him and his 29 songs (with alternate takes it adds up to 41 recordings) are all we are left with. Thankfully, the depth of his music makes that plenty.

17. January 2013
Acoustic Blues Blues Robert Johnson

Robert Johnson is my favourite bluesman of all times, so I wanted the post about him to be really good. Otherwise I would feel I’m not doing him justice (and even now I’m nervous because I want to make sure that doesn’t happen). Therefore, I’m doing it in two stages, with this post serving as an introduction to the post I’ll do in a couple of days.

Brian Jones had the first album, and that’s where I first heard it. I’d just met Brian, and I went around to his apartment-crash pad, actually, all he had in it was a chair, a record player, and a few records. One of which was Robert Johnson. He put it on, and it was just-you know-astounding stuff. When I first heard it, I said to Brian, “Who’s that?” “Robert Johnson”. I said, “Yeah, but who’s the other guy playing with him?” Because I was hearing two guitars, and it took me a long time to realize he was actually doing it all by himself.
I’ve never heard anybody before or since use the form and bend it quite so much to make it work for himself. The quality of the songs themselves-I mean, he came out with such compelling themes, they were actual songs as well as just being the blues. The songs and the subject matter, just the way they were treated, apart from the music and the performance. And the guitar playing-it was almost like listening to Bach. You know, you think you’re getting a handle on playing the blues, and then you hear Robert Johnson-some of the rhythms he’s doing and playing and singing at the same time, you think, “This guy must have three brains!”

To me Robert Johnson’s influence-he was like a comet or a meteor that came along and, BOOM, suddenly he raised the ante, suddenly you just had to aim that much higher. You can put the record on now, and it’s as fresh and interesting as the first day you heard it. Everybody should know about Robert Johnson. When you know about something, and comperatively few other people know about it, that’s a crime in a way; you’ve got to do what you can to tell people, “Hey, check this cat out. Because you’re in for something extra in your life.” You want to know how good the blues can get? Well, this is it.

by Keith Richards

Come back in a couple of days - you’re in for something extra in your life, as Keith put it. Since it’s Robert Johnson, I couldn’t agree more.

15. January 2013
Acoustic Blues Keith Richards Robert Johnson

Solomon Burke, also known as the king of Rock’ n’ Soul, was a phenomenal singer full of energy, one of the pioneers of Soul music and also an overlooked musical talent. For most people the name won’t ring any bells, but I’m sure a lot of you know him even though you don’t realize. Some people might know him through The Rolling Stones, who covered his ‘Everybody Needs Somebody To Love’, or maybe through the movie Blues Brothers which also contains this song, others will know him through the Dirty Dancing soundtrack and ‘Cry To me’ and some might have seen him on Rolling Stone list of Top 100 singers of all time. But whether you know him or not, he’ll always be one of the greatest Soul singers of all time.

I’m a big fan of his music and his rich singing. I think it embodies exactly the things I love about Soul music. I love how he can sing either gently and slowly or enthusiastically and with so much force it could satisfy any kind of audience. But either way, his singing is always powerful and full of emotion and intricacies. I’ve been listening to his music for many years now, and at the end of 2009, I saw that he was doing a tour around Europe. I was looking at the tickets for the shows near Slovenia, but ultimately, I said to myself “ah, I can’t do it this time, I’m sure he’ll be back again and I’ll go then”. Well, in 2010 he passed away and to this day not seeing him live is still one of the greatest regrets I’ve ever had. Today I enjoy his music more than ever, but the way I decided not to see him there and then is on my mind whenever I listen to him.

You can easily find his big songs from the 60’s on one of different Best of compilations (which is definitely worth having) but if there’s one album I would recommend to anyone, it has to be Don’t Give Up on Me. I feel like even people who don’t enjoy this kind of music will like it. I absolutely love this album and it’s one of my favourite albums ever. I like how it’s so fresh every time I listen to it. For example, I listened to it two days ago (after listening to it many times before, of course) and hearing it today, it feels like I’ve heard it for the first time again. It was recorded in 2002 and it was a great comeback for Solomon and also a great comeback for old style Soul music. He proved that he hasn’t lost any of the energy he had in his prime era. Some great songwriters wrote all of the songs for this album, specifically for Solomon. All of them are great fans of his and some of these songwriters are Bob Dylan, Nick Lowe, Brian Wilson (from the Beach Boys), Van Morrison, Tom Waits and Elvis Costello. Listen to this great song to either get a feeling of the album or to just hear an amazing song and an amazing vocalist.

Do you like it? What do you think? As always, I would love to hear your thoughts on the matter.

11. January 2013
Blues Solomon Burke Soul

A couple of days ago, I watched a movie about an amazing American songwriter Cole Porter, called De-Lovely. To anyone who’s never heard of Cole Porter before: he was a prolific composer, famous for his Broadway shows and his numerous jazz standards. He was something special for writing both lyrics and music for his songs, which was a rarity at that time. He had an amazing ability to come up with genius, funny, witty lyrics, often full of innuendos, always accompanied by beautiful melodies. Anybody, who was ever somebody in Jazz, recorded songs by Cole Porter at one point or another in their career - from Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong, Billie Holiday to Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, Oscar Peterson and many others. And to anyone familiar with Cole: even if you’re only remotely interested in Mr Porter, this is a movie you cannot miss! After watching the movie, I started understanding his songs much better and I started noticing more important details in his music and intricate lyrics.
The movie starts at the end of Cole Porter’s life, with the dying songwriter retrospecting on his life, but observing it as if it was a musical. It’s a great concept that fits perfectly to his life and music. The story talks about his life, his indulgence and his very interesting relationship with his wife, Linda. It features great performances by Robbie Williams, Alanis Morissette, Sheryl Crow, Elvis Costello, Diana Krall, Natalie Cole and others. It’s truly a great biopic, which reveals new dimensions to the irreplaceable Cole Porter. The only criticism I have is that the movie starts and ends with a great rhythm, but somewhere in the middle seems to slow down a bit, which makes it feel a bit inconsistent. But seeing as how great the movie is overall, this is hardly an important remark.
I highly recommend the movie to anyone interested in music or anyone simply looking for a good story. In case you like it, I suggest you get Ella Fitzgerald’s Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Cole Porter Songbook to listen to afterwards. Her renditions are simply beautiful and it’s a great way to start getting into Cole’s music.
Now get the movie as soon as possible. You won’t be sorry. Enjoy and come back afterwards to tell me what you thought! I’d love to hear your comments.

7. January 2013
Cole Porter Ella Fitzgerald Jazz Movie