February 09, 2009
What remarkable skies we have had lately! Coming originally from Iowa, and having vacationed in Colorado in early adolescence, I learned to love beautiful cloud formations: billowing thunderheads of startling whiteness; clouds heavy with rain, dimming skies at midday as dark as dusk, and painting houses an eerie white in that sallow light; glowing pink and orange clouds at sunset, rapidly becoming dull, cold, morose, and gray, as the sun’s rays retreated. Skies of azure blue piled high with billowy clouds are one of the things I have missed most in Southern California, but from time to time, we too are treated with magnificent skies capable of taking my breath away…
Folks unfamiliar with this part of the country think we have no seasons, but that is not true. Changes of season are subtler here than in snowy climes, but they certainly occur, and I find myself anticipating and enjoying each transition as much as I ever did. Pondering these issues got me thinking about seasons, clouds, blue skies, and the ways in which they have been depicted in classical and jazz music. Searching my collection of recordings revealed the following:
Louis Spohr (1784-1859) subtitled the four movements of his Symphony No. 9 in B Minor, Op. 143, The Seasons. Lawrence Ashmore (1930- ) wrote a series of English Folk Songs which he titled Four Seasons. However, the best-known and most popular depiction of the four seasons is the earlier one composed by Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741). This collection of concertos received considerable popular exposure when it was used for the sound track of the 1981 movie, The Four Seasons, written and directed by Alan Alda and starring Alda, Carol Burnett, Len Cariou, Sandy Dennis, Rita Moreno, Jack Weston, and Bess Armstrong.
Antonio Vivaldi was born in Venice, Italy on March 4, 1678. Although ordained a priest in 1703, according to his own account, within a year of being ordained, he no longer wished to celebrate mass because of physical complaints (“tightness of the chest”) which was likely due to asthmatic bronchitis. In any event, being relieved of priestly duties freed Vivaldi to do what he most enjoyed: playing the violin, and composing and teaching music.
In 1725 the publication Il Cimento dell’ Armenia e dell’invenzione (The Trial of Harmony and Invention), opus 8, appeared in Amsterdam. This document consisted of twelve of Vivaldi’s concertos, seven of which were descriptive: The Four Seasons (four of them), Storm at Sea, Pleasure, and The Hunt. Vivaldi transformed the tradition of descriptive music into a typically Italian musical style with its unmistakable timbre in which the strings play a major role. These concertos were enormously successful, particularly in France.
The Four Seasons remains very popular today; Amazon.com lists more than 100 recordings available at that site. You can sample the 12 movements that make up these four concertos here. In addition, a number of jazz musicians have recorded interpretations of The Four Seasons: The Gunter Noris Trio recorded a vinyl disc called Four Swinging Seasons; it has not been released on CD. In 1996, clarinetist Eddie Daniels, with a combo consisting of Alan Broadbent (piano), LACO’s own Patricia Mabee (harpsichord), the late Dave Carpenter (bass), and Peter Erskine (drums), together with our own LACO (conducted by Bernard Rubenstein) recorded The Five Seasons, arranged by Jorge Calandrelli. The Turtle Island String Quartet recorded Danny Seidenberg’s variations on “Winter” from The Four Seasons on their 1995 CD By the Fireside. Finally, flutist Holly Hofmann and pianist Bill Cunliffe recorded “Winter” from The Four Seasons on their 2003 release Just Duet, Vol. 2.
Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958) composed “Three Shakespeare Songs,” one of which was “The Cloud-capp’d Towers”; the selection is included in the 1991 collection Vaughan Williams Weekend, sung by the King’s College Choir, Cambridge, conducted by Sir David Willcocks. For jazz interpretations of clouds, I found “From Ocean to the Clouds,” part of a Suite called “Golden Dawn,” recorded by guitarist Al Di Meola on his 1976 release Land of the Midnight Sun. The Brasilian composer/pianist Sergio Mendes recorded “Clouds” by Fereira on the vinyl disc Easy Jazz, but it has not been released on CD. George Gershwin plays his own “Kickin’ the Clouds Away” on the CD Gershwin Plays Gershwin: The Piano Rolls, released in 1993. Jazz vocalist Kurt Elling sings the Brubeck/Desmond composition “Those Clouds Are Heavy, You Dig?” on his 1995 CD Close Your Eyes. And, in a humorous vein, included in Los Angeles trumpeter and big band leader Wayne Bergeron’s 2007 CD Plays Well with Others is the Tom Kubis tune High Clouds and a Good Chance of Wayne.
But mostly, when I think of musical clouds, I think of the beautiful “Nuages” by legendary Belgian Gypsy guitarist Django Reinhardt (1910-1953); you can hear Django’s version here. “Nuages” has been covered by a host of folks, including Reinhardt’s old partner in the Quintette du Hot Club de France Stephane Grappelli; Oscar Peterson; The Big Three (Milt Jackson, Joe Pass & Ray Brown); Michel Legrand; crossover fiddler Mark O’Connor; and Manhattan Transfer, to name a few.
Maria Schneider is one of the most impressive young composers in America. Born in 1960 in Windom, Minnesota, Schneider has a Bachelor of Arts degree in music theory and composition from the University of Minnesota and a Masters from the Eastman School of Music. A protégé of composer/arranger/band leader Gil Evans and trombonist/composer/arranger Bob Brookmeyer, Schneider, like her mentors, creates unique and celebrated compositions for big bands. Since 2003, she has been a major force in ArtistShare; this innovative and unique project allows fans to show appreciation for their favorite artists by funding their recording projects, in exchange for access to the creative process, limited edition recordings, VIP access to recording sessions, and even credit listing on the CD. Schneider now controls distribution of her recordings herself; they are solely available through her website, although Amazon.com does link to ArtistShare. Her 2007 CD Sky Blue has two tracks appropriate to our discussion: the eight-minute “Sky Blue,” and the 22-minute “Cerulean Skies.”
Among related topics, clarinetist Richard Stoltzman in 2001 recorded composer Stephen Hartke’s Concerto for Clarinet and Orchestra entitled Landscapes with Blues. Bud Shank on flute and Bob Cooper on oboe recorded “In the Blue of the Evening” by Alfred D’Artega and Tom Adair in 1956; the original LP was entitled Flute ‘n Oboe, and the selection has been reissued on the Mosaic Select 3-CD set Bud Shank & Bob Cooper. In the 1950s, The Chamber Jazz Sextet recorded Allyn Ferguson’s “Blue Winds” on the Cadence label; the vinyl disc has not been rereleased on CD. And in 1996 the vocal group Chanticleer recorded Mercer and Arlen’s “Blues in the Night” with the London Studio Orchestra conducted by Ettore Stratta on the CD Lost in the Stars.
Finally, Irving Berlin’s “Blue Skies” has been covered widely. Frank Sinatra recorded it with the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra in 1941. Art Lund sang it in 1946 with Benny Goodman and his Orchestra; the selection was released on the vinyl compilation Singers and Soloists of the Swing Bands, but it has not been rereleased on CD. Tenor saxophonists Ben Webster, The Brothers! (Al Cohn, Bill Perkins, Richie Kamuca), Zoot Sims and Stan Getz all recorded it: Webster in 1944; Sims twice (once in 1956 with Bob Brookmeyer—released on Tonight’s Music Today—and once in 1978 with trumpeter Harry “Sweets” Edison—released on Just Friends); and Getz recorded it with his quartet in 1982 (Concord released it in 1995 on Blue Skies). Dinah Washington recorded it with Clark Terry in 1954, whereas Ella Fitzgerald recorded it with Paul Weston in 1958.
More recently, Violinist Itzhak Perlman recorded it in 1994 with the Oscar Peterson Quartet on the Telarc CD Side by Side. Guitarist Laurindo Almeida performed it in 1996 for Jazz Celebration: A Tribute to Carl JeffersonII. Vocalist/pianist Dena DeRose included it in her 1996 debut album, Introducing Dena DeRose. The Bill Charlap Trio performed it for 2000’s Blue Note CD Written in the Stars. And finally, Southern California’s Tierney Sutton and her quartet featured it on their 2005 Telarc release I’m with the Band.