Music

Celia and Isadora

 

The only way one legend can pay tribute to another is brilliantly.

Isadora Duncan and Celia Cruz

Isadora Duncan and Celia Cruz

The Queen of Salsa, Celia Cruz (1925-2003), had a long career that encompassed several genres of music and lasted a remarkable six decades. She recorded more than 70 albums and won two Grammy and three Latin Grammy awards. Cruz, in spite of her recording achievements, reminds me of Tina Turner in that both, in my humble opinion, are better live singers than studio singers: their energy almost seems diminutive in the studio, while on stage it can not be contained—making for a memorable music experience!

I was fortunate to have seen Cruz sing live at Carnegie Hall in the early 1990’s with her musical brother, the legendary Tito Puente. To understand what I am trying to convey, check out this video of Cruz, at the height of her powers in 1974, performing in Zaire: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E9iIBCO3vlE . While I adore Cruz live, my favorite song by her is a brilliant studio recording of her tribute to dance legend Isadora Duncan.

Isadora Duncan (1877-1927) was an American dance pioneer known as the “Mother of Modern Dance.” She was a revolutionary because her dancing eschewed the stringency of ballet while advocating the notion of free-spiritedness and the ideologies of ancient Greece (beauty, philosophy, and humanity). Duncan created a completely new way to dance. Cruz’s song captures Duncan’s spirit and creativity, lyrically and musically.

Isadora formo la liberacion (Isadora formed the liberation)
Isadora Duncan leyenda que no murio (Isadora Duncan your legend did not die)

Lyrically, the song tells of Duncan’s life and career and makes a brief reference to her very dramatic death.

y violento tu final (your end was violent)
Isadora Isadora Duncan
yo te tengo que cantar (And I have to sing to you)
para ti va mi cancion (I give you my song)

On September 14, 1927, in Nice, France Duncan went for a drive in a convertible and as she drove off purportedly shouted, “Goodbye my friends, I go to glory!” Moments later, her long shawl was tangled with a rear tire and her neck was broken.

While the lyrics are exultantly poetic, what makes the song exceptional is the arrangement created by master Johnny Pacheco.

The song opens with lush Classical strings playing a few chords of “Once Upon A Dream”, which was, fittingly, based on based on Tchaikovsky’s ballet The Sleeping Beauty (Duncan is now our sleeping beauty). It then launches into a 1970’s Salsa arrangement featuring a stalwart horn section. The song’s bridge marvelously combines the Classical strings with the Salsa horn section. The best surprise is during the final verse when a Rockabilly guitar is combined with the Salsa arrangement. The song climaxes, bringing in the best of the Classical strings and the Salsa horns. Even if you don’t speak Spanish, listen to the song because the arrangement will not fail to impress.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZrINI3iS_tw

After all of my years of listening to music, the only word I can think of to describe this song is unique. It is truly one of a kind.

A regular feature of this blog will explore a favorite song. My first foray into writing about a favorite song was in February 2014 when I wrote about the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ classic, “Under the Bridge.” I was inspired to write this entry after hearing the song on my iPod’s random play earlier this week.

Additional Sources:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gi3shupzL34

http://www.isadoraduncan.org/the-foundation/about-isadora-duncan

 

Philip Seymour Hoffman: Under the Bridge

I just starting writing this blog last month and had been considering a regular feature that highlights a favorite song of mine. I was inspired by yesterday’s events as well as a Facebook posting by a high school classmate that explored the dichotomy between how a celebrity drug overdose is treated by society (with empathy and understanding) versus the overdose of an ordinary person (with scorn and shame).

Prior to watching the Super Bowl, I learned of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s death from an alleged drug overdose. Later that night when I saw the Red Hot Chili Peppers performing with Bruno Mars, I remembered Philip Seymour Hoffman as well as their masterpiece, “Under the Bridge.”

Anthony Kiedis wrote the lyrics after being sober for several years and felt that this had distanced him from his band mates who continued to smoke weed. Kiedis had also come out of a relationship that was badly marked by heroin and cocaine addiction. The combination of feeling that he lost a connection with his band mates and reflecting on the destructive relationship inspired this truly brilliant song.
“Sometimes I feel
Like I don’t have a partner
Sometimes I feel
Like my only friend
Is the city I live in
The city of angels
Lonely as I am
Together we cry”

In his memoir, Scar Tissue, Kiedis discussed this song:
“…the loneliness that I was feeling triggered memories of my time with Ione and how I’d had this beautiful angel of a girl who was willing to give me all of her love, and instead of embracing that, I was downtown with fucking gangsters shooting speedballs under a bridge.”

The song begins with a slow intro that was inspired by the Jimi Hendrix song “Little Wing” ( https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f8Xq0Y0dR-Q )

22_underthebridge3

The guitar playing becomes more rapid as the song progresses and after the last chorus, Kiedis is joined by an epic choir who chant “Under the bridge downtown” while Kiedis accompanies them, singing,
“Is where I drew some blood
I could not get enough
Forgot about my love
I gave my life away”.

The song was a vocal departure for Kiedis, who had spent most of his career up to this time singing rapidly. While I have never considered Kiedis to be a remarkable vocalist, his singing on this song is very sincere and absolutely unforgettable—I truly cried the first time I heard it. These lyrics and Kiedis’ vocals resonate deeply with me:
“I don’t ever want to feel
Like I did that day
Take me to the place I love
Take me all the way…”

I had not heard the song for some time and played it several times on my way to and from work today. The song felt as fresh as it did in 1992: it is beautifully textured, full bodied and grand in a very approachable way.  Like Picasso’s powerful commentary on war, Guernica ( http://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2003/02/guer-f08.html ), “Under the Bridge” reminds us of the human casualty of drug addiction.

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Watch the music video here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GLvohMXgcBo

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RELATED RESOURCES:

http://teens.drugabuse.gov/

http://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/drug-addiction/basics/definition/con-20020970

http://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/drugfacts/understanding-drug-abuse-addiction

Motown: The Musical (Review)

The first time I ever played a record on my own was in 1972, when my parents bought me a compact record player that, when closed, could not be distinguished from a suitcase.  Since I didn’t yet have any records of my own, I went to their collection and played a 45 of “Love Child” by The Supremes. On that day I became a life-long fan of The Supremes, Diana Ross and the now legendary Motown sound.Love Child 45 Record

Over the last couple of years several Broadway productions have been mounted that pay tribute to favorite singers of mine, most notably, A Night With Janis Joplin and Forever Dusty. I have been hesitant about seeing these shows because I never saw these singers live. Of course I have seen videos, but they simply do not compare to seeing and hearing someone sing live. I feel a little left out. I remember being awed by a video of Janis Joplin’s electric performance at the Monterey Pop Festival. Interestingly, someone filmed Mamma Cass Elliot’s (who was an awesome singer in her own right) reaction to Joplin’s performance and she is visibly blown away, her lips silently saying, “Wow!” I initially had mixed feelings when my sister, a fellow Motown devotee, gave me tickets to see Motown: The Musical. I wish I could have seen Marvin Gaye, Mary Wells and, of course, The Supremes live. Regardless of what I missed, I went in with an open heart and mind and was not disappointed.

Motown: The Musical explores a uniquely American institution, and its role in history.  Motown’s cultural contributions are enormous and this show bears that out.  Perhaps Motown’s greatest contribution is the way music brought people together; blacks and whites loved the music. The show does not shy away from issues like racism, segregation, poverty and war; in fact, the manner in which they are addressed felt quite germane. This was perhaps best depicted through Marvin Gaye’s timeless classic, “What’s Going On” —which was beautifully sung and performed by Jarran Muse, who magnificently captured Gaye’s sensuality, sensitivity and vocal power.

The actress playing Diana Ross, Felicia Boswell, had some big high-heel stilettos to fill. While she does not look like Diana Ross (many of the actors bore little physical resemblance to the people they were playing), she remarkably managed to capture the essence of Ross’ singing voice and, to an extent, her vibrant charisma. One of the most memorable moments is when the show re-enacts Ross’ first solo concert without The Supremes: singing “Reach Out and Touch” Boswell ventures into the audience bringing people on stage to sing with her. I have had debates with people who criticize Ross’ singing voice as weak—yes, it is not as strong as some of her contemporaries, but it is still rich, layered and vastly expressive. I have always been moved by her sincere singing in songs like “Mahogany” and “Touch me in the Morning.” Then there is Ross’ undeniable presence and star power—Boswell partially captures this, but “Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing.”

One of my favorite moments was when the audience meets The Jackson 5 for the first time.  Raymond Luke, who played Michael Jackson, was nothing short of remarkable. The audience reaction was equally stunning: it was almost as if a young Michael Jackson was really up on the stage! Perhaps the most unexpected moment was when the audience meets Rick James, played with absolute bravado by Eric LaJuan Summers. All I can say is that you have to see it for yourself.

I was quite disturbed by Tracy McDowell’s attempt to recreate Teena Marie’s singing—-get a better singer or cut this song out!  Another curious moment is when Florence Ballard (Allison Semmes) begins behaving unpredictably and Berry Gordy, ( Brandon Victor Dixon) says, “The pressure of fame is vicious. Not everyone can go the distance.” I could have sworn I heard a few bars of “And I am Telling You”, from Dreamgirls, played on the piano.

The show makes good use of the stage, successfully integrating set pieces with video. The costumes were colorful without losing period authenticity.  The orchestra captured the Motown sound, making excellent use of tambourines, melodic electric bass-guitar lines, and orchestral strings.

Overall, I enjoyed Motown: The Musical and recommend seeing it. The music, singing and acting were excellent.  However, at times it feels like there is too much crammed into this show. Gordy, who wrote the show’s book, seemed determined to mention every act from Motown’s long roster. Gladys Knight and the Pips were only with the label briefly, considered second string and found their greatest success after leaving Motown.  Yet, they surprisingly make a brief appearance in this show. More than 50 songs are performed, many abridged, with the best presented in concert.

Gordy’s story is Motown’s story and both are truly notable and should be depicted onstage. However this show doesn’t quite do the story justice. Ultimately, this show is about great songs that have stood the test of time and will likely not be thought of in the context of this show.  The songs, and those who sang them, firmly stand on their own.

Playing at the Lunt-Fontanne Theater, 205 West 46th Street, Manhattan, (877) 250-2929, http://www.motownthemusical.com/. Running time: 2 hours 40 minutes.