Tag Archives: jazz guitar

My Funny Valentine – Johnny Mathis

Mathis’s reading of My Funny Valentine is a troubling record.

My Funny Valentine (like The Lady is a Tramp and You Took Advantage of Me) comes from a Rogers & Hart show called Babes in Arms. The song is sung by Billie to her lover Valentine (Val), who is all the things she says he is: funny, dopey, but sweet. She sees him as he is, loves him anyway, and tells him so, dismissing any fears he may have about their relationship or his need to change.

The long, pseudo-medieval first verse is omitted in many recordings. The classic Sinatra take left it out. Chet Baker left it out. Ella Fitzgerald, in her 1956 reading, included it, yet the tempo she took it at suggests a desire to be rid of it as quickly as possible, so she could get to the good stuff, the real meat of the song.

It’s clear why Sinatra and Baker would drop it – any male performer taking the song on would have to reckon with the gender ambiguity that resulted from a lyric written to be sung by a female character:

Behold the way our fine feathered friend,
His virtue doth parade
Thou knowest not, my dim-witted friend,
The picture thou hast made.
Thy vacant brow, and thy tousled hair
Conceal thy good intent,
Thou noble, upright, truthful, sincere,
And slightly dopey gent

But Mathis wanted to have his cake and eat it too. He includes the long introduction and lingers over it, glorying in the parodic courtliness of Lorenz Hart’s lyric, while the two guitarists play interweaving lines like the left and right hands of a harpsichord player, throwing in every counterpoint idea they can think of.

But sensitive as he is to sound, he seems insensible to meaning. Mathis, in his anxiety to avoid any gender confusion that might come from a man singing a woman’s song, changes the word ‘Thou’ which begins the penultimate line to ‘I’m your’ and spoils the joke; a second ago he had a dim-witted friend. Now he’s the dimwit.

It’s an awful moment. A clanger.

What’s going on here? Could any singer be that deaf to the implications of a pronoun change in a song that is specifically a woman’s song? Surely he would recognise that he had two good options available (drop the verse, or sing it as written and trust the audience would understand that Mathis was only reciting the original text), and that changing the lyric was the worst option possible?

Perhaps. Or maybe something else is going on here. Vocal androgyny was Mathis’s whole shtick as a young singer. His supple, opera-trained voice, with its bell-like purity, high tessitura and heavy vibrato, sounded feminine. It was capable of performing whatever whims he fancied, as the mood took: great leaps landing each time in the middle of the note, or sweeping legato slides up or down the octave.

He revelled in these qualities; his early vocal performances speak of a singer near-drunk on the possibilities of his instrument. Every phrase of Mathis’s take on My Funny Valentine displays his self-confidence. Indeed, the setting of the whole album (Open Fire, Two Guitars – it’s an apt title since double bass apart, all that is present in the arrangements are two jazz guitars and Mathis’s vocal) speaks to his, or producer Mitch Miller’s, absolute faith in his tone and technique, stripping his accompaniment back to the barest bones, letting the spotlight fall solely on that voice.

Still just 23 when he recorded Valentine in 1959 and (as he would remain until 1982) a closeted homosexual, Mathis may not have known precisely whereof he sang at this point in his life. Perhaps he did, but was hypersensitive to charges of effeminacy and so changed the lyrics so he wouldn’t be singing a ‘girl’s song’.

Whatever the reason, Mathis’s version, as beautiful as it is, achieves its beauty by misreading the lyric, tonally as well as texturally. He flattens the song out by approaching the music from one emotional angle only. What makes My Funny Valentine a classic, most particularly in its Sinatra/Riddle incarnation, is the way that singer and arranger acknowledge and mirror each other’s shifts in tone, from playful teasing to romantic devotion and back again. This is why Sinatra’s reading remains definitive, lack of intro verse notwithstanding.

Mathis’s reading remains an enigma. He picks endlessly surprising routes through the text in the company of his two guitarists, with note and phrasing choices that are inspired and frequently thrilling. So while his reading of the song ultimately comes over as gauche (whatever the reason), Mathis’s remains one of the very finest, and most predictive*, versions of one of the greatest songs in the canon.

johnny mathis

*With the clean electric guitars, the androgynous falsetto, the voice of almost limitless potential held back only by its limited emotional palette, Open Fire, Two Guitars reminds me almost constantly of Jeff Buckley. It’s often uncanny.

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That’s the Way Love Goes – Janet Jackson

I wasn’t a huge fan of this when it came out. Janet Jackson has never been a particularly commanding vocalist, and with That’s the Way Love Goes being sung softly against a very prominent groove, the record didn’t seem to contain much Jackson at all. I was, what, eleven at the time, without a good stereo of my own to listen to it on, so I only heard the song on little radios and in my parents’ car; with the low end being inaudible in that context, a lot of the point of the record was lost with it. And truth to tell, the song was thematically a bit adult for the 11-year-old me to really relate to.

Now, I find myself really taken with the sexy, unhurried groove. Musically, the track still contains traces of new jack swing (of which Jackson’s producers Jam and Lewis were early pioneers, along with Teddy Riley) but crossed with the more naturalistic (often sample-based) sounds of the then-infant genre of hip hop soul. The triplet swing is still hinted at, but the drum sound is more natural, more expensive-sounding, less brash, than it would have been in the late 1980s. Early NJS had used the Roland TR-808 to program complex, layered grooves that would have been very difficult if not impossible for a single human drummer to recreate. That’s the Way Love Goes samples its drums instead, from James Brown’s Papa Don’t Take No Mess, then augments them to make them bigger (the time stretched, quantised, heavily compressed and as a result somewhat shaky Brown groove is clearly audible in the mix though). It sounds more grown-up than true NJS had done; muted earth tones rather than stark primary colours.

The drums aren’t the only signifier of adult sophistication, though. The jazzy guitar, playing lead licks in parallel fourths on what sounds like a big-bodied archtop guitar (an updated Breezin’-style George Benson kind of thing) and chord voicings with 6ths and major 7ths, does much to define the mood of the record.

But ultimately, it’s Jackson’s voice – very confident and intimate, soft and gentle without leaning too heavily on the breathy half-whisper that was already a cliché in slow jams and bedroom records – that really sells it. It deservedly won her a Grammy for Best R&B Song; she’s won six Grammys in total, but That’s the Way Love Goes is the only one to win for songwriting. All things considered, it’s probably her best single, despite strong competition from her Control hits.

janet

In the Meantime – Helmet

Helmet were a band apart in their prime. East Coast, not West. Cerebral and detached compared to their Seattle peers, yet capable of the same volcanic aggression. Often labelled ‘avant metal’ by critics, but having nothing in common with commercial pop-metal, and only a passing similarity to thrash. Helmet, then, didn’t fit neatly in anyone else’s box. They seem in retrospect to have been fathers to the heavier math-rock bands. Listen to the way drummer John Stanier changes time from four beats to three under the repeating riff during the middle section of In the Meantime – all of math rock is there, in the same way that all of surrealism is in the first three lines of ‘Prufrock’.

They are, however, a hard band to love. Page Hamilton, Helmet’s singer, songwriter and guitar player, often comes over prickly and defensive in interviews, trying to convince the world to see his music the same way he sees it: as derived from his jazz guitar studies. Hence the reading of the standard Beautiful Love from Betty, which changes suddenly from a clean solo guitar playing in a chord-melody style to squonky heavy rock that seemingly bears no resemblance to the jazz guitar still playing softly in the right-hand speaker. It’s a curious beast, not really a hybrid, more of a superimposition (Hamilton is apt to talk about such concepts in interviews, so conceivably that might have been the point).

Clever though this have been, the band were always at their best when their ferocity was tightly focused, and so their finest moment remains In the Meantime, the near-title track of their album Meantime, released in 1992. Meantime was their first major label record. The band had been the subject of a bidding war the previous year; with labels desperate to find the next Nirvana, industry eyes had simultaneously lighted on a group on Amphetamine Reptile that had the right guitar sound and attitude.

In the Meantime is a furious song, beginning with drummer John Stanier rolling around his toms and bashing his cymbals, while Hamilton makes squealing tremolo-picked noise. Then, over a held D, Stamier plays half-time on the hats while stomping out a syncopated hip-hop kick drum beat. The band then drop in with the song’s main riff, over the same beat as before, before the rhythm section shift to simpler pattern, which Hamilton syncopates against with one D chord. This same feel will power the verses along, but before the first verse has even started, they’ve burned through enough cool ideas to keep many bands going for a whole song.

Key to all this, of course, is John Stanier, now in the experimental rock group Battles, who record for Warp. His reputation as a powerful and inventive drummer is even higher today than it was twenty years ago, but even then he was grabbing the ears of the Modern Drummer crowd. He is typical of a generation of American drummers who have hands schooled in the marching-band tradition and a bass-drum foot schooled by hip-hop. His complex, busy kick drum work throughout In the Meantime is a masterclass. I imagine it’s somewhat galling to Page Hamilton that his old band is known to a generation of kids as the band that the Battles guy with the really high cymbal* used to be in.

Hamilton is fond of saying that Helmet’s heavy rock swings**, but really I don’t think that’s quite accurate. Stanier tends to swing more nowadays with Battles. Twenty years ago, playing heavy rock with his left hand and hip-hop with his right foot, he was more machine-like. Certainly he had less of that back-of-the-beat feel that, say, Matt Cameron had, let alone rock drummers of an earlier era (Levon Helm or Ringo, say). Music that swings feels good. Listening to Helmet is designed to make you feel tense, clenched. If Helmet had swung, they wouldn’t have been so heavy, so claustrophobic. They’re not too well known in their own right now, and Hamilton can never resist an invitation to intellectualise, recontextualise and justify the music he made twenty years ago***, but In the Meantime is one of the greatest records of its era, and you don’t have to listen hard or long to hear their influence on later heavy rock bands of all kinds.

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Helmet live, early 1990s. Photo by Bill Keaggy

 

* Stanier plays with a crash cymbal around seven feet in the air: Modern Drummer: What’s with the super-high crash? John Stanier: I didn’t want any cymbals but the hi-hats at first. Then I was like, “Okay, I’ll use one,” but I didn’t want it near me because I’d use it too much. So I set it high so I’d have to work to get to it. I wanted it to be significant; I use it as a marker. It’s like a master reset button when I go to the cymbal. Plus, it looks cool.

** ‘I’ve had great musicians like Danny Kortchmar, the great guitarist and producer, and T.M. Stevens from The Pretenders, and Steve Jordan, who works with Keith Richards, say to me, “Helmet’s the only heavy band that swings. You guys really swing. There’s a groove to it”.’ Interview with Page Hamilton, Invisible Oranges

***’Then my manager tells me James Hetfield said Helmet is one of his top five bands of all time and you’ve had Elton John and David Bowie say that they love your band. Musicians are still inspired by what you are doing.’ Interview with Page Hamilton by Justin M. Norton, About.com; ‘So many musicians like the band – and I’m talking guys from Gene Simmons, who told me I was the future of music, to Tommy [Lee] and Nikki [Sixx] from Mötley Crüe, and David Bowie and Elton John. A wide variety of people have told me they like the band. I think that they get that there’s this other musical mind at work in there. It’s not just hardcore, it’s not just metal. It’s got all these elements in it, but harmonically and feel-wise, it’s interesting. I also was friends with the Pantera guys, and Dimebag Darrell said, “I told you you were going to influence me”.’