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In New York City, in the East village at West Fourth and Jane Street, there’s a little old tavern that serves the best hamburger you’ll ever have. The place is simply named The Corner Bistro.
There was a great Irish bartender pal of mine at the Bistro named Dermott who always matched our bought drinks with a free-bee about halfway through the preceding one. Needless to say you got where you were going pretty quick.
In this classic old village joint, there was a great jukebox full of old jazz and the likes. At a certain point every night that I dwelled there, I’d pop a quarter in the box and play Frank Sinatra’s version of “In the Wee Small Hours ”, letting it waft through the smoke filled air to land directly into the lonely cave of my heart. When it would finish, Dermott would hand me the phone, already having dialed my apartment in Chi-town so I could tell my baby that I loved her. If you haven’t ever heard Sinatra’s album of the same title, there’s a hell of a story that goes along with it. In ‘51 Sinatra married what he must of thought was the love of his life, Eva Gardner. Any picture of Ms. Gardner during the late 40’s and early 50’s could make the most devout catholic priest climb over a legion of choirboys, just to get a wif of her. She was excruciatingly beautiful and sexy. They spent one tumultuous year together before she dropped him on his head and filed for divorce. Apparently Frank was inconsolable. During the next few years, the rest of Frank’s business associates did the same. MGM dropped him like a hot potato as well. He lost his TV show. The pop world kicked him to the curb. It took a few years, but he finally wound up getting a new and much more autonomous (especially for it time) record deal with Columbia Records in ’55. He had this idea to put out a concept record totally devoted to the scarred emotions of lost love. The album was the new 10-inch medium in those days. They’d just learned how to make a long-player. Can you imagine the amount of forward thinking? A concept album! What genius! What balls!
This is the moment that turned Sinatra from the pencil-thin, teen heartthrob into the artistic badass icon. He went from being called Frankie to his new moniker that stuck ‘til the day he passed and beyond. “The Voice”. More importantly, he’d found himself.
Some songs can get sung and sung again and again by a multitude of different artists. Some get nailed shut. By this I mean, the singer, the time and place combine together to give the world its definitive version of a song. Strange Fruit and Billy Holiday. Sitting On the Dock of The Bay and Otis Redding. The Weight and The Band. In fact, you’d have to be kind of an idiot to record any of these of anthems. Unfortunately, life is full of idiots.
But every once in a rare while, some one comes along and brings these songs either a uniquely different or even greater truth. Think of the in-the-moment reading of “Like A Rolling Stone” by Jimi Hendrix at the Monterey Music Festival or the mad-as-a-hatter version of the Stones “Satisfaction” turned mechanized assembly line through Devo and nearly everything that the incomparable Ray Charles ever touched. Dig?
“In The Wee Small Hours” has always been forbidden fruit. Sinatra nailed it shut with10 foot spikes. You’d have to be out of your fucking mind to tackle that one. That, or maybe one of the greatest jazz singers of our time at the very peak of his understanding and vocal powers. (This is the point where Elling enters the frame. Think Welles as Harry Lime in The Third Man.)
Kurt’s a master of vocalese. This is when a singer takes the solo or melody from an instrumental song and writes a lyric to it, as if he were co-writing it with its original writer. There have been some kings of this style before him, including the late great Chicagoan, Oscar Brown Junior. (I can remember his son, Bobo, telling me the song “Dat Dere” lyrics were written about him when he was a baby. “Hey daddy what dat dere?”) Kurt’s been vocalese-ing? Maybe a better word is channeling through some of tenor sax’s big guns from the beginning, (Dexter Gordon, Von Freeman) slamming out poetry to these master’s solo lines.
On Elling’s latest cd, Nightmoves, he takes on the task of reinventing “In The Wee Small Hours” by combining it with a piece of poetic lyric he’s written to a Keith Jarrett piece, as a sort of preamble or intro to the song. In anyone else’s hands this would be known as a suicide mission. In his…well, he not only conquers it, he reinvents it…and history… and the song intro…and time and space… and…well shit. ME TOO!
The song intro, as an art form, has pretty much died off in the last four decades. In fact, the only bands from the 60’s I can think of that still wrote intro sections to their songs were the Beatles and the Beach Boys. Maybe they were the last great pop craftsmen of our time. The intro’s birth was a theatrical one. A way of getting from the spoken lines in a play to the big production number. More often than not the introductions to those old warhorse songs were the most sophisticated part of their following number. (Check out the amazing intro to Night And Day or the touchingly poetic intro to He’s Funny That Way.)
Elling knows this fact more than most. He chose a perfect piece of music to write a lyric to. Not an obvious choice by any means either. An untitled improvisation, (You might even call it a spell) by the great haunted musician, Keith Jarrett. The title of this new found intro is named “Leaving Again”.
Kurt’s poetry on this one is in a word; breathtaking. It speaks on the inevitable ending of things. The act of leaving. The hours before having to bid farewell to loved ones that, sadly, the more beautiful the moment is, the more deadly. Elling seamlessly mixes this with the curve of the Earth in all its dramatic, larger than any human life’s glory. But it is the ending of things that looms over all… no matter nature’s pageantry. Loss, consuming all moments as its own.
As the intro’s ending fades into a linear blackness of bottom end chords accompanied by the unwaveringly single noted resign of Elling’s vocal, pianist, Laurence Hobgood begins this beautiful, skeletal version of “In The Wee Small Hours”. I’ve listened to this moment at least twenty times and have yet to make it through it without boo-hooing like a baby. Not only for the truth of it. It’s the sheer excellence of this historic accomplishment that moves me. To have crafted a moment in time so perfect. As artists, we all strive for this, I hope. Hearing it happen before my ears is just so exhilarating that, well, my eyeballs just won’t let me get through it without a little sacrifice to the music gods.
Elling and Hobgood then go on to an elegant, one time around version of “In The Wee Small Hours” so simply done, you feel as though your hearing the song written and sung at the very same moment, like some pivotal, modern staging of a Shakespeare play that would change the theatre forever. There’s also an improvised melodic change by Kurt of the line, “When your lonely heart has learned it’s lesson” that will have jazz singers ‘round the world kicking themselves in the ass for some time to come! If Sinatra nailed this song shut, Elling pried it open and resealed it with a welding torch!
As for Elling’s instrument: “The Voice”… It is positively one of the most in-tune voices ever heard on the planet. Now I love Billy Holiday, Sarah Vaughn, Betty Carter and Carmen McCrea as I’ve loved Parker, Coltrane and Dizzy. All of them badass. But as singing goes, nothing can compare with the dead-on beauty of Ella Fitzgerald’s voice or on sax, the exquisite tone and natural profoundness of almost any Johnny Hodges solo. (Ellington’s long-time alto soldier) Elling belongs in the latter group. Not since Ella has the human voice been so otherworldly in it’s dexterity. In fact, if the bar were raised to Kurt and Ella’s height as a prerequisite for becoming a singer, we’d all be out of a job. Thank God, for my sake, that the human ear is more forgiving.
The music world has become the guinea pig of the digital age. Now anyone with a charge card can walk the Earth with literally thousands of songs in their pocket. Unfortunately it also has diminished the power of songs in the process. They’ve become cheap. The new Dylan’s of today seem to be film directors, but with utube up and running… it’s only a matter of time. Soon movies will become the big mac to our 99-cent musical fries. 99 cents a song! Less than any value meal at McDonalds!
Maybe Sharkforum is the answer. Download this song now!!! It’s better for you than a large fries.