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Frank Sinatra’s “Watertown”

Posted by dlockeretz on April 15, 2017

I would have loved to have been a fly on the wall for the conversation that begat Frank Sinatra’s “Watertown” record, released in 1970. I’d imagine it might have gone something like this:

“Frank, baby, I love ya, but those record sales, they just ain’t what they used to be, dig? This new one, it’s gotta have a little hey-hey or your career, it’s bombsville!”

“Don’t worry, pallie, this new one’s gonna be a gas. Got some tunes by that gofer from the Four Seasons, what’s his name? And that cat who wrote that bluesy little number those limeys Led Zeppelin ripped off – “Confused for Days”, I think it’s called – let me tell ya, pallie, this is gonna be a barn burner!”

“Oh yeah? Tell me more, Frankie!”

“Well, you see, pallie, it’s about this bunter in upstate New York. Wife goes scramsville.”

“Oh, so he gets to take up with any ol’ broad he wants! Ring-a-ding!”

“Well, pallie, it ain’t exactly like that, see…”

When people talk about “concept albums” Frank Sinatra isn’t usually the first name that comes to mind. Ol’ Blue Eyes never sang about dystopian future societies or assassins who have been brainwashed by totalitarian governments. Yet his record “In The Wee Small Hours of the Morning” – a 1955 album of ballads about love gone wrong – was one of the first LPs to be conceived as a whole work, rather than merely a collection of songs. Thus, it has been considered by some to be the first concept album, an ancestor of “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band”, “2112”, “The Wall”, “Kilroy Was Here” and “American Idiot.”

“Wee Small Hours” was an attempt to sell Sinatra to a more mature audience as he entered his 40s. Similarly, at the end of the 1960s, Sinatra’s sales were flagging as the British Invasion and Woodstock consigned him to the past. Many erstwhile teen idols had attempted to connect with the changing times. Dion DiMucci, known for “Runaround Sue” and “Teenager In Love” sought out weightier subject matter in  “Abraham, Martin and John.” Bobby Darin of “Mack the Knife” and “Splish Splash” fame waxed introspective with “If I Were A Carpenter.” Even Elvis ventured into social comment with “In the Ghetto.” The 53-year old Chairman wisely avoided jumping on the psychedelic or protest trains or trying to squeeze out another hit single with Nancy. The direction he chose instead, however, was surprising, to say the least.

Sinatra was given a complete set of songs written by Bob Gaudio of the Four Seasons and Jake Holmes, an eclectic songwriter who is perhaps best known for “Dazed and Confused” (as well as assorted television jingles). The story: a woman leaves her husband and sons for the big city and the poor bastard’s stuck in Small Town, USA trying to figure out what happened.

“Watertown” is not a perfect record. The pop-rock rhythm section, electric bass in particular (and I say this as an electric bassist) make the thick orchestration seem more like Phil Spector lite than the swingin’ Nelson Riddle sound beloved on the Sinatra records of yore. The chord progressions perhaps excessively rely on harmonies that are known to create melodrama (music theory geeks probably know that I’m talking specifically about the IV/iv/I cadence; for people with lives, think of it as the musical equivalent of slow motion in movies: a good effect used sparingly, but one quickly gets the point). That Sinatra overdubbed his vocals for the first time on record doesn’t hurt “Watertown” per se but listen closely enough and you’ll miss the fluidity of his earlier years. And make no mistake: this record is not easy to listen to start to finish. We’ve all heard ditties about breakups and heartache before, but trust me, midway through the second side if not sooner you will feel the weight of the cumulative effect of these songs, whether or not you’ve recently been through a split. But I’m not writing about “Watertown” because it’s perfect; if I wanted to write about perfection I’d write about “The Nightfly.” I’m writing about this record because in almost four decades of listening to music, I’ve never encountered anything like it.

The title track, “Watertown”, opens the record and establishes the slow pace of life for the narrator and his world; exactly what made his wife restless: “Not much happenin’ down on Main, ‘cept a little rain”; “Everyone knows the perfect crime is killin’ time.”

“Goodbye (She Quietly Says)” describes the moment of the breakup, in a coffee shop where life goes on as usual for everyone else except the doomed narrator. The song debunks the theory that the “Watertown” story is not about a divorce but about a death: “Just as I begin to say that we should make another try/she reaches out across the table, looks at me and quietly says goodbye.”

“For a While” begins with a lilting waltz tempo that gives the listener a sense of hope, but ultimately it just serves to set the theme of the song: it’s easy to distract oneself with work, friends or house chores, but reality cannot be escaped.

“Michael and Peter” introduces the two sons – “You’ll never believe how much they’re growing” – and also provides a clue into the dynamic of the marriage: “You know your mother’s such a saint/she takes the boys whenever she can…” Some critics have found this line to be awkward, but it also suggests that the narrator’s mother-in-law sympathizes with or perhaps pities him; whatever made his wife leave, it wasn’t any kind of malice on his part. Besides the sons, the narrator also focuses on details of everyday life that may seem mundane (the house needs paint; it’s been raining; the guy who mows the lawn asked after you) but are also revealing about his character: intimidated about broaching the bigger issues of his life and marriage, he tries to find meaning in little things.

“I Would Be In Love (Anyways)” starts quietly and rises to a crescendo reminiscent of “My Way” – but while that anthem has the confidence of a man looking back on a full and rewarding life, here, Sinatra has no control of his destiny except to make peace with it.

“Elizabeth” opens side 2, giving the narrator’s ex a name and also for the first time personality traits. Here, the narrator acknowledges that “you were all much too much/out of reach, out of touch/when you came to me/I found it could never be.” Perhaps she at one point really did want him but he never felt worthy, thus making the relationship a self-fulfilling prophecy.

“What A Funny Girl (You Used To Be)” tells us more about Elizabeth and her quirky traits that endeared her to the narrator – “always some new recipe/the kitchen always looked like World War III.” The line “We’d spend each night with company/just you, the teddy bears, the dolls and me” has stirred uncomfortable feelings among some listeners who find that it suggests a father describing his daughter, but according to Sinatra expert Ed O’Brien, Jake Holmes said, “They were probably kids together. I wanted to give the sense that they had gone to school together. They had fallen in love and married quite young.” Read that way, the song appears to echo the Beach Boys’ “Caroline, No” – innocent young girl becomes a jaded, distant adult – but its bittersweet tone owes more to Jimmy Webb’s “Didn’t We” (another song that was given a great performance by Sinatra; but I digress).

“What’s Now Is Now” addresses Elizabeth’s apparent infidelity: “You should have told me when it all began…” The music becomes more dissonant and rhythmically complex than what we’ve heard so far (although it’s still not exactly Stravinsky). Despite his resentment, the narrator still wants to work things out: “I’ll forget what happened then/I know it all and we can still begin again.” As before, he clings to the past: “And if you feel at all like me/just let me know and I’ll make it like it used to be.”

“She Says” is the shortest and most musically unconventional song in the set. Sung against a static accompaniment, it has the feel of a classical recitative, serving as a prelude to “The Train.” The song appears to represents the narrator’s first communication from Elizabeth since she left, but the refrain “So she says” sung by a distant children’s chorus casts doubt, perhaps echoing the skepticism of Michael and Peter – kids are often smarter than we think.

“The Train” is the most uptempo song on the record, almost bouncing, reflecting the narrator’s optimism as he awaits Elizabeth’s return at the station. Anyone who’s counted down the minutes to a long-awaited reunion with a loved one will relate: “The crossing gate is coming down, I think I see the train…” but by now we know better. We can only stand by as the foregone conclusion plays out: “The train is slowly moving on but I can’t see you anyplace…” Earlier in the song the narrator reveals, “I wrote so many times and more/but the letters still are lying in my drawer/’cause the morning mail had left some time before.” Was the conversation with his ex-wife in “She Says” then completely imagined?

A final song, “Lady Day”, was included on reissues of the record and on the CD. The focus shifts to Elizabeth, painting a portrait that may be interpreted in different ways, none of which are optimistic: “So many empty dreams/so many bitter times…” Perhaps the harsh realities of the big city made her regret leaving her family; maybe the narrator is imagining it all, still holding out hope that she will come back to the life she knew. Those who believe that the record is about a death, not a divorce, have found support for that theory in lines such as “Her morning came to fast too soon/and died before the afternoon.”

What will become of the narrator, Elizabeth, the boys, the mother-in-law and the other denizens of Watertown? No matter how one interprets the ambiguities of the latter songs, it’s hard to imagine anything too upbeat. As this article points out, “If you listened to Wee Small Hours while you were in your 20s or 30s, you may have thought, ‘This is a great account of loss, but he shall love again.’ Watertown, on the other hand, delivers the devastatingly more realistic message that life, age and class may conspire that we will never again love or dream as we once did.” Seen in that light, does the album offer the listener any kind of hope or redemption? If so, it’s in Sinatra’s ability to find dignity and meaning in the quiet ups and downs of working class life, much as Springsteen would start doing shortly after this album was released.

What drew Sinatra to this concept and what made the Reprise Records suits think it would sell? Perhaps Sinatra wanted the challenge of assuming a role different from anything he had done before: focusing inwardly, not outwardly. As for what made Reprise think they had a hit on their hands, that’s anyone’s guess. The record was a critical and commercial disappointment. Fortunately Sinatra’s prior decades of success were enough for him to be able to easily absorb this blip on the radar of his career. More to the point, especially among connoisseurs, the reputation of “Watertown” has grown in the years since. Generations of listeners have marveled at how convincingly Sinatra steps outside of his celebrity and into Everyman. “Watertown” asks questions without providing answers. It provokes the imagination. It makes the audience appreciate what they have even while mourning what they’ve lost. For the open minded listener, “Watertown” is a unique experience.

For further reading about “Watertown” click here, here and here.

 

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CD Review: Hilton Ruiz, “Strut”

Posted by dlockeretz on October 28, 2015

Note: This CD review is a companion to D Theory #98.

In the fall of 1990, my sophomore year in high school, I came across a CD at the library whose cover, for some strange reason, caught my attention.

Hilton Ruiz's record Figuring that if the music was one tenth as exciting as the image, I checked it out and scurried home to listen to it. It took perhaps ten seconds of the funky groove of the band’s cover of Lee Morgan’s classic, “The Sidewinder”, to get me hooked. Unlikely as it seemed, I was so enthralled by the music that I almost immediately forgot about the album cover. Not only did I love the record but it inspired me to dig further into jazz. Almost immediately I went from feeling awkward and uncomfortable with the style to a full-fledged jazz snob.

Despite the impact the record had on my life, it slowly vanished from my playlist. Over the next quarter century I started listening to music for pure enjoyment less and less, although I never fully forgot this record. Lately I found myself curious to see if it would stand up to my memory. I bought a copy on eBay (it’s also available at Amazon). Would the same record that appealed to a hormonal teenager trying to make sense of jazz resonate with a 40-year old journeyman? As the late Mr. Ruiz might have said: Sí, señor.

Powered by Ruiz’s exciting piano, a tight horn section and a rhythm section that, while sometimes busier than necessary, never lets up on the energy, this diverse collection of tunes amounts to that all-too-elusive beast: ear candy with staying power. The rocking “Sidewinder” allows each band member to introduce themselves in an hot update of Morgan’s hip ’60s track. Saxophonist Sam Rivers contributed “Bluz”, an angular be-bop melody set over a smoldering Latin groove. Two mid tempo compositions by William Allen (not a band member, perhaps a friend of Ruiz’s?) – “Soca Serenade” and “Aged in Soul” – mix up the feel, both featuring the horn section.

The two longest pieces – trombonist Dick Griffin’s “All My Love Is Yours” and the only Ruiz original, “Goin’ Back to New Orleans” at eight and almost eleven minutes respectively – wear out their welcomes. Both have fun, uptempo grooves and nice interplay between the horns but could have been trimmed to five or six minutes; one doesn’t see the development that might be expected in compositions of that length. The two ballads on the record – the short, lounge-y “Why Don’t You Steal My Blues” and dramatic solo rendition of Strayhorn’s “Lush Life” – are the final two tracks, which seems an odd choice of sequencing. Even if one were to read the 2 1/2 minute “Blues” as a prelude to “Lush Life” ending a high energy record with a ballad is anti-climatic. Thus, when listening to the record start to finish (yeah, I know, I’m old) one is left with the impression that the sum of the parts are greater than the whole.

Nevertheless, reconnecting with “Strut” has been an enjoyable experience for me. The record has long been out of print and sadly, Hilton Ruiz left us far too soon in 2006, at the age of 54. Thankfully, the music lives on and will hopefully create new generations of jazz geeks in the years to come.

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An open letter to a talent buyer who didn’t want to pay my fee

Posted by dlockeretz on September 11, 2014

Dear Ms. _____,

I’m sorry that the 10th St. Jazz Quartet was not able to fit your budget. I understand that in the planning of a major event, budget is a concern. You are correct that there are many more economical options available to you, such as DJs or student ensembles that are willing to charge far less for their services. In many cases, these can be viable choices and I am sure that you be able to find a satisfactory entertainment solution that will fit your budget.

I would also like to respectfully suggest that during future events, you consider allocating extra funds in the event budget for premium live entertainment. To be sure, in many situations the quality of the musical entertainment does not make an immediately noticeable difference, just as if you were attending a friend’s dinner party, it wouldn’t be readily obvious if the dining room table was made from solid oak or from composite. For many people, purchasing a Rolex instead of a Timex is an unaffordable frivolity.

Nevertheless, there are reasons to spend extra money for quality, even on something which, unlike the glassware, chairs or decorations, might well go unnoticed by most of the guests. As veteran musicians we are aware that often times at cocktail hours, the less the music is noticed, the more effectively it has served its purpose. That being said, just as a great chef can expertly season or prepare a dish without calling too much attention to their technique, top-level jazz musicians can enhance the atmosphere of a special evening. Though they might not immediately associate their response with the music at the event, quality entertainment is likely to contribute to your guests’ overall impression about your brand.

We hope that you are able to find an entertainment solution within your budget for your event on the 28th. Please feel free to consider the 10th St. Jazz Quartet for future occasions. Thank you for your time and your consideration and best of luck.

Sincerely,

David Lockeretz

PS – While we are not familiar with the music of “Jon Coltran”, as requested by your associate, we would be happy to play music by the great John Coltrane should you require our services at a later date.

 

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Miles and Manning: Score another one for the music geeks!

Posted by dlockeretz on September 8, 2013

Note: this is a Simulblog, posted both on Positive Music Place and D-Theory.

It’s rare to hear the name  Miles Davis mentioned on any non-jazz radio station–especially a sports station–so when it happened yesterday morning I assumed that either I needed another cup of coffee to clear the fog from my head or that there was another Miles Davis being discussed; perhaps a little known tight end for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

But no, it was the Man with the Horn; the jazz legend who gave us “Kind of Blue”, “Birth of the Cool”, “Bitches Brew” and much more.  Exactly just was Miles doing on the “Weekend Warriors” sports talk show?

The guest was David Epstein, author of “The Sports Gene“, and he was discussing a theme from his book: parallels between the thought processes of great athletes and great musicians.  Epstein said (paraphrasing here): “Musicians like Miles Davis and Steely Dan* are known more for what they don’t play; how they use space to shape their music; defining what’s there by what’s not there.  Similarly, an amateur quarterback, like me, would look downfield at all of the wide receivers to decide where to throw the ball while Peyton Manning looks at where they aren’t, because that’s where they will be as the play develops.”

So there you have it – an example of how seemingly disparate worlds have parallels.  In high school, the star quarterback and marching band geek may be on opposite sides of the social spectrum, but in achieving greatness after graduation, they just might have something to teach each other.

* Epstein didn’t actually mention Steely Dan; I just felt like dropping them in.

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The Goldberg Variation: A New Take on the L.A. Music Scene

Posted by dlockeretz on January 20, 2012

Everybody know that the music business sucks–especially in L.A.–but it’s not often that we see someone proposing any kind of solution.  There are those who refuse to play for free or for marginal pay; there are those who jump on those gigs and even buy tickets to their own shows.

In a recent article, L.A. musician Dave Goldberg doesn’t offer any kind of magic solution, but he presents an interesting alternative perspective to the musician/club owner conflict.

The crux of Goldberg’s article is that restaurant managers/talent buyers/etc should see good music as a long-term investment.  Even if a band might not bring enough people for the club to show a profit on a given night, Goldberg argues that restaurants should be willing to spend extra for premium entertainment, just as they do for quality food and decorations.  Patrons who come to see a specific band are following the band and not the venue, Goldberg says.  By establishing themselves as a venue for premier entertainment by booking bands based on musical merit rather than draw, a club or restaurant can help their reputation, just as they can with good food and service.

Will restaurant owners buy it?  Will musicians adapt this new perspective when negotiating gigs?  Only time will tell, but props should be given to Goldberg for providing a different angle.  For more information about Dave Goldberg, click here.

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CD review: Colonel Bruce Hampton & The Aquarium Rescue Unit, “Mirrors of Embarrassment”

Posted by dlockeretz on December 12, 2011

Sometimes rediscovering a record can be like getting a call from an old friend.  Such was the case with this album from an Atlanta group with an unlikely name: Colonel Bruce Hampton & the Aquarium Rescue Unit.  “Mirrors of Embarrassment” was one of my favorites in the late ’90s, although over time, I gradually forgot about it.  But anyone who read my review of the Zombies’ “Odessey and Oracle” knows that I sometimes find some of my best material at thrift stores, and that’s what happened here.  Given the record’s relative obscurity and the fact that I don’t exactly remember how I lost my original copy of it (probably a casualty of a move), it’s not out of the question that the CD I found at the Salvation Army store might be the exact one I used to own.

There are a lot of good things about this record; chief among then being that while each individual member of the group – vocalist Hampton, guitarist Jimmy Herring, bassist Oteil Burbridge, mandolinist Matt Mundy and drummer Jeff “Apt. Q258” Sipe – is quite a talent on their own, they blend well together to make a cohesive group.  Similarly, they meld different styles that shouldn’t go together – funk, bluegrass, swing, blues, country, rock, spoken word – smoothly, without making it seem like a gimmick.  In fact, the Unit’s sound is a good argument against labeling musical styles.

On the opening track, “No Egos Underwater”, Hampton’s vocals, which straddle the fence between spoken word and singing, layer nicely over a funky groove based around a recurring blues riff.  Next is “Lost My Mule in Texas”, in which a country-styled vocal and mandolin riff go hand in hand with another funk groove.  Other strong tracks include the odd-timed “Lives of Longevity” and the uptempo “Dead Presidents“, both of which feature Herring and Mundy matching each other’s blazing riffs, a la the Allman Brothers.

Slower songs include the shuffling “Memory is Nothing but a Gimmick” and the ambient blues “Trondossa.”  The last song, “Payday”, is a medium-tempo shuffle, with a final bit of spoken word to close out the record.

This is not necessarily a CD for everyone’s tastes; don’t expect to have the songs stick in your head, at least not immediately.  But it’s well worth checking out, especially for fans of music a little off the beaten path.  If you’re tired of hearing the same stuff on the radio day after day, this one might just do the trick for you.

After this record, Hampton left the band, and with a revamped lineup–including Oteil Burbridge’s brother Kofi on keyboards and flute – they released “In A Perfect World.”  According to the band’s website, the original members got together in 2011 to perform at the reopening of the Georgia Theatre.

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Happy Birthday Pat Durkin

Posted by dlockeretz on December 2, 2011

Patrick Durkin does his thing

Most people will probably never know who Patrick Durkin is, and that’s too bad.  To have heard of him, you’d probably have to be a regular at a Boston bar such as Jacob Wirth’s or Durgan Park, but should you be fortunate to happen into one of the establishments where he’s a regular, you’ll be glad you did.  Listen to him play and you’ll understand why people lament when a bar replaces live entertainment with karaoke.

I used to play with Pat in the late 90s, in a piano/vocals, bass and drums trio format.  We’d tear through one cover song after another, in all kinds of styles.  Often, the more inappropriate the song was for our instrumentation, the more we’d enjoy playing it.  Pat’s the type of guy who likes to honor audience requests, even if he can’t play them perfectly.  He gets that most bar patrons would rather hear the songs they like at 90% than ones they don’t care about at 100% (and that the threshold gets lower as more drink is consumed.)  We would bust out “Pinball Wizard”, “Stairway to Heaven” and “Rock and Roll All Night” – not exactly typical cocktail piano repertoire – and I even attempted to follow him through Bruce Springsteen’s “Jungleland” one night.  At a New Years’ Eve gig, a customer requested James Taylor’s “Fire and Rain.”  We got through the first verse before Patrick cut us off and said, “Sorry, that song’s just too depressing for New Year’s Eve.”

Off the stage, Patrick recorded several CDs of original songs.  His writing reflects a wide variety of influences: as a piano-based singer songwriter, he’s certainly got a touch of Billy Joel and Elton John, but also brings a wider depth of musical perspective, drawing on other muses such as the Beatles, Ellington, Gershwin and more.

Of course, it’s easy to be nostalgic about my earliest professional shows, and about the late 90s, those prosperous Clinton years, when 9/11, Enron and the housing crisis were still years away.  But even back then, I could tell the difference between what felt like a “dues-paying” gig and one that was pure fun.   Patrick Durkin’s shows were events; it wasn’t just another band at a bar.

In addition to his musicianship, Pat has a lot of other interests, including literature, travel, gardening and more.   Oh yeah, he’s been known to throw back the occasional pint, too.  He has been married for the last decade-plus and has a five year old daughter.

So have a great birthday, Patrick Durkin, and know that your former bass player fondly remembers those gigs – and perhaps we’ll team up again someday.

For more information about Patrick Durkin, visit www.patrickdurkin.com.

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Remembering Gil

Posted by dlockeretz on May 28, 2011

Gil Scott-Heron died yesterday (May 27th, 2011) at age 62. Best known for “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised“, and “Home Is Where The Hatred Is“, Scott-Heron has often been considered a sort of godfather of rap and hip-hop. His spoken-word performances touched on a lot of difficult topics: racism, drug abuse, poverty and more.

“Revolution” became a sort of mantra for me when I discovered it in my early 20s, about the same age as Scott was when he recorded it.  Whether Gil Scott-Heron would have been insulted, amused or flattered (or any combination thereof) by my adopting his anthem to my own drama, I’ll never know, but what I do know is that for a while, that song meant something to me as few others have.

While I have never been a huge fan of hip-hop music, I have always been discouraged by people who are dismissive of the entire genre (or any genre of music, for that matter).  No, it doesn’t all sound the same, any more than the Beatles sound like the Police, than Bach sounds like Stravinsky, than Ellington sounds like ‘Trane or than Johnny Cash sounds like Zac Brown.  There are some things about Gil Scott-Heron’s work that still sound out, more than a generation after it  was created:

  • Very little profanity, other than the occasional “God damn.”
  • Celebration of a culture, notably in “Lady Day and John Coltrane.”
  • Hope for the future, as in “Save the Children.”  (The message in this song is a lot easier to take coming from a 21-year old Gil Scott Heron than it would have been coming from a couple of suits phoning it in.)
  • Calling out people on self-destructive behavior (“I know you think you’re cool because you’re shooting that stuff in your arm”) and for ignoring their history (“It’s a little too easy to forget that you were a Negro before Malcolm.”)
  • Humor (“Talking about blowing the white boy away; that’s not where it’s at, yet”); (“I think I’ll send these doctor’s bills air mail special…to Whitey on the moon.”)

Add this to some great musicianship from a cast that includes jazz legends Ron Carter, Hubert Laws and Bernard Purdie, and you’ve got quite a package, one that certainly evokes a certain time and place but still sounds relevant today.

While “Revolution” and the rest of Scott-Heron’s catalog eventually moved out of heavy rotation on my playlist, I’ve always been impressed by the emotion and energy he put into his work.   He’ll be missed.

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