Eartha Kitt goes shining

December 31, 2008

The Divine Miss Kitt went shining on 25 December 2008. I first heard her music on an album my sister had. I made a tape of it and it’s been a staple of my collection ever since.

Apart from the songs themselves, what really blew me away was Kitt’s method of delivery. Check out her “Easy Does It” at Rhapsody (click on link 15). She sings not just with delicacy of tone (the volume never goes above mezzo piano), but she caresses each consonant and rolls the vowels in her mouth as if they’re caramel.

The real kicker is the “I’m in heaven/It’s sublime” passage, where the obvious choice would be to sing with a big crescendo and (à la the great Judy Garland) beg the lover for ease and gentleness. Instead, Kitt gets even quieter, making the top of the vocal arc literally sublime. Pure genius.

Then we go to to the opposite end of the spectrum with the classic “I Want To Be Evil” (the dream of many a Good Little Girl, I tell ya). The version I’m familiar with is on the ever-reliable YouTube; for a fascinating comparison, see her live version done years later.

Here she bills and coos through the opening recitative before pulling out all the stops. She belts out the bits that should be belted and pulls back to spit out lyrics like tacks. Watching her live version, you can see how, even though she stays on-mic the whole time, she uses her entire body to tell the story of the song. She’s not afraid to use her claw-like hands or sex up her routine without being vulgar or cheap. 

Eartha Kitt made a huge impression on me long before I knew anything of her life story (which only impressed me more). I was trained Broadway-style and in the classical vein. In that world, you’re either belting so the back row can hear you, or your following the composer’s every indication of texture and interpretation. Kitt made me see the value of delicacy in vocal delivery (huge, HUGE difference from my M.O.).

She also indirectly opened more creative pathways for me to become more of a song stylist. Rather than repeat the standards, I try to find “the music within the music,” even if that means changing a standard 4/4 to a 3/4 or (gasp) delivering a classical piece in Balkan style. “As long as it serves the story.” Kitt was brilliant at this.

I recall seeing an interview of her on Larry King back in the late ’90s or so. She was flirting with him! Larry didn’t know what to do with himself and kept trying to parry her, but was a goner in the face of her mastery. It was hilarious. She was in her 70s and still knockin’ ’em dead.

Like so many old-school performers, Eartha Kitt started performing young and really never stopped. She went where she was loved and she gave 100%. She was an entertainer and an artist. Her singular talent was crafted and reinvented repeatedly to continually appeal to changing tastes and audiences.

She remains a unique, class act. Her kind will not come again.

Here we come a-wassailing

December 18, 2008

‘Tis the season for caroling and I’ve had the good fortune to get my fill.

Monday night I went to Diane Kondrat‘s for her zillionth annual “sing loud and fast” caroling fest. The group included Busman’s Holiday, Nell Weatherwax, Janiece Jaffe, and a goodly group of others I’m too tired to enumerate. But we all sang loud and fast!

Diane’s lyric sheets were from the days when she used to carol outside bars, so she learned that slow, pretty songs tended to lose the audience pretty quickly. But she graciously acquiesced to such lovely classics as Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas, O Come O Come Emmanuel (my fave), and Janiece’s sweet rendition of When You Wish Upon A Star.

We also collectively massacred My Favorite Things and a few others, but had a great time doing it. We got through my second-least-favorite carol, The 12 Days Of Christmas, in record time. (My least favorite carol is the insanity-producing Carol Of The Bells. I swear it was written to drive people out of their minds.)

After all this raucous holiday cheer at Diane’s (they went for almost four hours; I arrived late but ate my share of fudge), the next night’s excursion couldn’t have been more different. The fabulous Rachael Himsel had lined up a caroling gig at the grand opening of a business in Renwick’s Village Center. She had 6 singers and was trolling for a few more. Since I was attending the opening anyway (Renwick is a client of my alter ego), I was in!

The weather decided to turn icy, pelting people with sleet and making travel hazardous. Surprisingly, the event had a great turnout and people crammed into the little offices to see What Was What. All the other singers had skipped out for various reasons, so it was down to me and Rachael! 

We took our place near the front door (Rachael, bless her, put herself in the way of the icy draft so I wouldn’t freeze) and started in. We sang for over an hour as dressed-up businessfolk passed by on their way to see the sights and find the wine. The air was so dry it felt like my voice was actually being pulled from my lungs; it got painful by the end. (I’ve had that happen once before and fantasize of carrying a humidifier with me to all gigs.)

Luckily, Rachael’s voice and mine were a great match. She has a lovely voice and a very nice timbre that stays pretty constant throughout her range. I attempted some harmonies here and there but, between the giant sucking sound leaving my lungs and the din of too many people crowded into a small space, I’m afraid I wasn’t as deft as I would’ve liked.

Patty Pizzo turned up and helped us out on a few tunes, which was a delight. We scarfed a few treats down (we’d been pressed into catering service when we arrived early) and marveled at the harpists who were playing outstanding music in other rooms. 

I discovered that I’d had my fill of Christian carols a little too soon into the gig. I felt uneasy at singing the explicitly Christian messages at a business event. It wasn’t until afterwards that I was able to explore my feelings; I’m so used to being in charge of everything about a gig, I didn’t know how to respond when this one started feeling uncomfortable! Definitely something for me to work on. Rachael was a rock and would’ve done some secular songs if I’d asked, but I just kept thinking, “This isn’t my gig” and stopped myself from even considering to ask. What a moron. Sheesh.

So now that I’ve had my fill of caroling, I’m prepping for a trip to sunny California, where I can escape the Christmas hype and do some serious loafing with friends. I just hope the ice thaws by then….

Zoom H2 digital recorder

December 18, 2008

Wow, what a sweet piece of technological goodness. The Zoom H2 has been reviewed extensively elsewhere, so I’ll just say how it meets my needs. 

It has the best recording quality I’ve heard from a low-end digital recorder (I got mine for $180). I’ve been using the Olympus D-10 for years and have been really happy with it. Then I heard the H2 at a recording session with Lara and Kevin and fell in love. I did a side-by-side comparison recording of Kaia and the sound on the H2 completely blew the D-10 away.

In the Kaia recording, both recorders were on the ground at the center of our semi-circle. The H2 made us sound like we were in a cathedral (I think I need to try a 90 degree recording pattern instead of 120 degree) plus was clear enough to pick up each individual voice. I was stunned and amazed to discover that a few singers were singing the wrong note on a piece we’ve been working on for some time. I listen to all the recordings repeatedly from the D-10 but had never heard this small dissonance. The H2 made it pop right out.

The one thing lacking from the H2 is speakers, no matter how tinny. Instant playback to check levels or even just to ensure you got the start of a piece has to happen through the (included) earbuds or by jacking into an amp. This was a bit tedious in our recording session because Kevin had to keep switching cords; one while we recorded and another for playback.

I’ve barely scratched the surface of all the amazing things the H2 is capable of, but I look forward to exploring. Check out more info:

CNET’s online review
Portland Music Company website
Where to buy: Sweetwater!

Speedy crawdads

December 6, 2008

Today we started recording Lara Weaver‘s children’s songs album. She, (her husband) Kevin MacDowell (AKA Kid Kazooey), and I clustered around a righteous handheld digital recorder and learned/ran “Fishin’ Medley” 3 times.

In the meantime, I’ll say what a treat it is to work with Lara. She is so open and vibrant and ready for anything. She has a vision for each piece but also allows it to grow organically as others give input. I have no idea how she so graciously makes it seem like everyone’s piece equally when it’s really hers, but it’s truly a gift.

For all his clowning elsewhere, Kevin is a professional when it comes to studio work. He wastes no time in fluffy conversation. He gets his equipment tuned and ready to go, and stays focused throughout the session. He’s there to make music, and it really makes you want to step up and give your best.

For my part, I felt a bit unprepared and tried to get into the groove as quickly as possible. Lara handed me a new (solo) verse when I walked in and then let me completely change the tune — indeed, I changed it every time I sang it, since I had no idea what I was doing! I love singing with Lara — we have a very similar New Orleans jazz feel on some pieces — but I admit I am stymied by the word “crawdad.” She has a particular pronunciation that I haven’t quite nailed yet. “Crawdad.” Hm.

It’s fun singing backup with the lyric sheet right in your hand. There’s lots of repetition and little pressure. The worst part every time is listening to the playback, since all you do is pick apart every slightly off-pitch note and brain yourself for being an utter loser in the face of this other talent. 🙂 

We got a pretty good recording last time through but the balance was a little off on “my” verse, so next week we’ll record once more before going on to the next song. I’m doing some Leon Redbone-sounding trumpet sound effects on one piece in the medley and I hope to perfect the lip-buzz so I’m not spitting quite so much. This is quite the groovin’ sound, unlike any kids music I’ve heard before, and I’m looking forward to continuing the journey. Apparently Lara’s already got us a gig with Sophia Travis in February, so maybe I’ll need to learn the words by then!


Bing & Satchmo/Contrast & Concord in Singing

December 3, 2008

Today I went down to the Bus-Chum for a free showing of High Society, the lame musical adaptation of The Philadelphia Story. Bing Crosby was improbably cast as C.K. Dexter Haven, a flimsy excuse to give him the most musical numbers. Louis Armstrong and his band were also in the picture, spliced in at odd intervals.

Bing and Satchmo sing a duet — Cole Porter’s famous Now You Have Jazz. It got me thinking how a basic principle of design applies equally to music. Good design exhibits elements of contrast and/or concord. Take a swash cap and pair it with a serif typeface and you have contrast. Combine a monoline script with a monoline decorative border and you have concord. But take an italic typeface and pair it with a script and what do you have? Conflict!

Same thing with music. Bing Crosby was not a jazz singer by any stretch of the imagination. He was an old-style crooner with the smooth sounds of a wind instrument. Louis Armstrong, who seems like jazz incarnate, is Crosby’s vocal opposite. His voice is brassy, rough, and edgy. 

It’s because of this contrast (plus their mutual respect as musicians) that helped make Bing and Satchmo a popular combination on jazz tunes. The contrast in their voices, delivery, and mannerisms complemented each other nicely.

For an example of concord in music, check out Bing singing with the Andrews Sisters. They all share the same smooth sound and delivery. Their stagecraft is in the same vein: smooth, smooth, smooth. And oh so “nice” — this is a sound and method of delivery that is entirely inoffensive. It lacks the edginess of Satchmo’s New Orleans sound and is part of the long tradition of toning down “race music” to make it more palatable to Caucasians. (It’s probably obvious where my tastes lie, eh?)

What about conflict? Bing and Danny Kaye. It’s obvious in this clip from White Christmas: I Wish I Was Back In The Army. Danny Kaye’s voice has more elasticity than Bing’s, and he goes wide on pronunciation for comic effect. His physical comedy is more crisp than Bing’s, making the latter look lazy. While Bing was the more experienced singer, Danny’s expressiveness draws your eyes to him and makes you tilt an ear to hear him.

If you don’t hear the lack of blend in their voices when this clip starts, wait for Rosemary Clooney and Vera Ellen to come on. Their blend is so close that it sounds like one person singing: concord. 

The same elements of contrast, concord, and concord can be explored through instrumentation, but that post can wait for another day. Or for someone to leave a comment!