Saturday, February 26, 2005

Three records

These suggestions came to mind when I was playing a Scarlatti sonata in class on Friday--three recordings "everyone" (everyone with a serious interest in music) should have:

Glenn Gould, Goldberg Variations
The Goldberg Variations, by J.S. Bach, is a work for harpsichord, an aria and thirty variations, written for a musician (named Goldberg) whose insomniac patron wanted something to listen to while not sleeping. What an odd origin for such a remarkable work. I started listening to it in 1984, when my "girlfriend" (now my wife) introduced me to it via harpsichordist Trevor Pinnock's recording. We listened to it on cassette, walking around Boston and riding on the train, sharing a Sony Walkman with a special jack for two sets of headphones. My almost-lifelong interest in jazz (see below) made this work immediately congenial: what could be more appealing to a jazz person than the idea of variations on a theme?

Pinnock's performance of the Goldbergs still sticks in my mind, but hearing pianist Glenn Gould's recordings in 2003 really opened up my ears. Gould recorded this piece in 1955, and his sharp, clear, modern conception of the music completely changed people's ideas about Bach on the piano. The 1955 recording was huge, and it's never gone out of print. Gould's 1981 Goldbergs (which turned out to be his last recording) is even better. Here Gould seeks to present the work not as a series of separate pieces but as a unified whole (held together by impossibly complex patterns of tempo from variation to variation). Musical analysis aside, the 1981 recording is art of such a high order that it prompts, in me, something like religious reverence--a sense that there's a lot more to life than one might have thought.

The best way to get Gould's Goldbergs is in a 3-cd set called A State of Wonder. It contains the 1955 recording, the 1981 recording, a few outtakes, and a long interview, and sells for a bargain price (something like $21). It'll keep you happy and fascinated for a lifetime. (Caution: You might also end up buying a dozen or more Gould cds.)

Miles Davis, Kind of Blue
The one jazz record that everyone should have (and someday will--it still sells and sells). I've been listening to this record almost my whole life, as my dad, a tremendous jazz fan, brought home a copy in 1959. My childhood comment on Miles Davis was "Sad!"--not a bad way to describe the mournful sound of his muted trumpet.

Kind of Blue is more than "sad" though. It's a perfect recording, each of its five performances capturing musicians at their highest moments of genius and empathy. The album represented a new possibility in jazz, leaving behind the complex chord changes of bop and using simple scales and modes, not song forms, as a basis for improvisation. Everyone from the Allman Brothers to Phish has credited Kind of Blue as an inspiration for improvisational music. Like Gould's 1955 Goldbergs, it's a recording from a time when artistic accomplishment and commercial success were still pretty compatible.

Of the seven musicians on the record--Miles Davis, trumpet; John Coltrane, tenor sax; Julian "Cannonball" Adderley, alto sax; Bill Evans, piano; Wynton Kelly, piano; Paul Chambers, bass; and Jimmy Cobb, drums--only Cobb is still living.

The Beach Boys, Pet Sounds
Sometimes you catch on early, as I did with Kind of Blue; sometimes it takes much longer. I had not the slightest interest in the Beach Boys in my kidhood and teenagerhood--I was a Beatles fan, and never considered listening to a group who sang about cars and wore matching striped shirts. What did I know?

I first listened to Pet Sounds in 1999 (33 years after the fact!), when my curiosity was piqued by watching a documentary about Brian Wilson. In it, musician after musician spoke of Pet Sounds in terms of musical brilliance. I borrowed a copy from the library and listened. The songs seemed so short, ending before they had even begun. As I had long been listening almost exclusively to old blues and jazz, recorded with a minimum of "production," the lavish instrumental backgrounds and echo of Brian Wilson's studio-based art were quite foreign to me. But I kept listening, and listened at least a dozen times before the music made an impact--first musically, then emotionally. Then I understood what I had been missing, and I realized how much solace this music might have provided when I was younger.

Pet Sounds is somehow the most difficult of these three recordings for me to describe. It moves from innocence to experience, beginning with hope for the future in "Wouldn't It Be Nice" and ending with the loss and isolation of "Caroline, No." The album is filled with unusual harmonies and unusual musical textures--bass harmonica, plucked piano strings, timpani. Aside from Brian Wilson's SMiLE (which would finally arrive 38 years later), Pet Sounds must be the most sophisticated pop record ever made.

Pet Sounds is available as a single cd, with Brian Wilson's mono production and a Wilson-approved stereo mix. For diehards (and it's relatively easy to become one), there's Pet Sounds Sessions, with instrumental tracks, outtakes, alternates, and best of all, vocal tracks. The sound of the Beach Boys' voices a capella is one of the greatest sounds in music. Give a listen, and you'll understand the Doonesbury comic strip in which a dying man is grateful that he lived long enough to hear Pet Sounds reissued on cd.

If I were to double this list, I'd add the Complete Recordings of Robert Johnson, the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, and Van Dyke Parks' Song Cycle. But that's enough writing for now.

[Update: Kind of Blue has just been released as a DualDisc. From the Amazon.com editorial review:

The latest version of this classic LP is reissued in a new 2-sided DualDisc format, which includes an audio version, 5.1 multichannel surround sound, studio outtakes, and a photo gallery. It also includes "Made in Heaven: The Story of Kind of Blue," a documentary about the legendary recording, featuring a wide array of musicians and fans, from Ed Bradley of 60 Minutes and rapper Q-Tip, to Shirley Horn, and Cobb (sadly, KOB's last surviving musician).
List price is $18.98.]

comments: 1

Jeff said...

I agree with the Goldberg and the Beach Boys, but I must admit that, try though I might, I just can't get into Kind of Blue. (Great. Now you've lost all respect and probably won't read the end of this comment. Sorry.) Maybe it was my post-undergraduate first exposure, or the fact that I read the liner notes before I listened to the album: reading those notes made me feel like I was about to be transformed by listening to The Most Important Record Ever. Instead, I was bored. Every time I try to give it a chance, I discover my mind has wandered and I'm itching to hit the 'next' button.

Pet Sounds does take a while. It's hard to get past the Surfin'-Safari-ness of the Beach Boys. But that's also part of the glory of the album. It's got all those great pop hooks, but then it just goes deeper and deeper. And I really hate to call *any* pop album deep. But I can *listen* to Pet Sounds like I can listen to few other albums, especially those produced for a mass audience of teenagers.

I'm also going to disagree with your Sgt. Pepper's recommendation. I was in the bookstore today and heard some Beatles and, for the first time, realized just how shallow they were. Even their deep stuff only pretends to be deep. Where Brian Wilson had a vision, the Beatles had a publicist. (OK, that's unfair. Sorry again.)

Finally, may I recommend Mstislav Rostropovich's two-CD set of Bach Cello Sonatas 1-6? Taken as a whole, the pieces are moving. Coming from a master, a cellist's cellist, they are language.