Tuesday, June 19, 2007

I Wished on the Moon, Billie Holiday

I Wished on the Moon, Teddy Wilson and his Orchestra, July 2nd, 1935

Song by Dorothy Parker and Ralph Rainger

Roy Eldridge, trumpet
Benny Goodman, clarinet
Ben Webster, tenor saxophone
Teddy Wilson, piano
John Truehart, guitar
John Kirby, bass
Cozy Cole, drums
Billie Holiday, vocal

Donald Clarke says this:

Billie clearly liked the words and the sentiment of “I Wished on the Moon.” On her very first syllable, the first-person pronoun, she comes in ahead of the beat, then lapses into her swinging version of Southern languor: she has announced that the song is worth listening to, so that we tune in. In the second line of each verse, she omits the pronoun entirely; as for the last line of each verse, "Warm April days" and "It all came true" have the same number of syllables, but entirely different accents; she makes short work of that little inconvenience, and we don’t even notice it. Her singing is not so much lazy as conversational, yet never at the expense of the song; her vocal colour is unique: it is not slick but has a rough edge on it, like the voice the girl next door might have. And her time and her phrasing are that of a musical genius. This is both pop singing and jazz singing at their best; but then it is largely thanks to Billie that the two became almost synonymous, at least for a while…No arrangements and no amount of rehearsal could have resulted in better music, for these musicians were not only among the best of their kind, but they made a living performing every day for live audiences. They were recording their own work, not manufacturing product. (Wishing on the Moon: The Life and Times of Billie Holiday, Donald Clarke)

Let’s meet some of the boys in the band. Here is what Gunther Schuller says:

Benny Goodman: More often than not one is struck by the fluency of Goodman’s musical ideas. Without being terribly original and certainly not profound, they are pleasing, generally in good taste, and at worse, innocuous. (Gunther Schuller, 14)

Teddy Wilson: Wilson has always been one of the most consistent of improvisers. This consistency is achieved… to some extent by taking very few risks stylistically and technically, by constantly improvising within a limited stylistic compass. Big surprises are rare in Wilson’s playing, and in fact there is a certain general predictability about his work. Listening to a lot of Wilson recordings in succession can become somewhat monotonous. Many solos duplicate each other, and the Xerox effect can have a numbing effect. And yet, one is not inclined to use the word “cliché” in regard to Wilson’s work, in part because it is, even at its least inventive, always in good taste with ample displays of his refined touch and clean sense of structural balance. (Gunther Schuller, 508).

Roy Eldridge: Eldridge’s risk-taking is that of an exuberant youthful virtuoso performer rather than that of a seasoned master composer. There remained in Roy’s performing throughout his playing days a boyish, devil-may-care spirit which in his younger days was fed by an enormous physical energy and technical facility. (Gunther Schuller, 452)

Ben Webster: I think Webster was a great poet, perhaps one of the few true poets jazz has had. He used notes and melodies, rarefied and precious at the end, like a poet uses words and metaphors, reduced to their quintessence and innermost meaning. As with most truly great art, Webster's cannot be fully explained. And when he played, it didn't need to be (Gunther Schuller, 590).

Introduction 00 – 07

Teddy Wilson on the piano establishes the tempo and the key. He plays four bars, which you should be able to count out by picking up the beat and counting out 1 – 2 – 3 – 4 four times until he stops playing.

These four bars are worth listening to as an introduction to Teddy Wilson's style. He moves effortlessly across the keyboard, and is unafraid of dazzling arpeggios. This is showy, but Teddy is not showing off. His work is precise, clean, and thoroughly engaging.

First AA chorus 08 – 42

This song is composed in a somewhat unusual, very simple format. Each chorus consists of 32 bars – you would count out 1 – 2 – 3 – 4 a total of 32 times for each chorus - broken into two similar sections of 16 bars each. Each section is given a letter, and since both are identical, the form is identified as AA. This is unusual because typically the form includes a B section - and sometimes a C as well - which provide contrasting material. There is no bridge in this song; we hear the tune and hear it again, and then repeat until the end. The result is, as I say, simple, and less dramatic than most songs that include a bridge.

In the first chorus Benny Goodman takes the first (clarinet) solo - first A – accompanied by Ben Webster (tenor sax) and Roy Eldridge (trumpet). Teddy Wilson plays the next 16 bars – the second A - bringing the first chorus to a close. Goodman and Wilson often played together, and their easy musical relationship is evident here. This is not a great tune, and neither soloist is trying very hard, because they don't need to; in fact, it would sound wrong if they did. It sounds right.

Second AA chorus 43 – 1:16

The second chorus follows the same sequence: Goodman, then Wilson. As is usual in jazz numbers, the second time something is played it is given more expressive qualities. Where before they were content to lay down the melody with some embellishments, here the embellishments are more prominent.

To me, Goodman’s solos on these choruses are more than just fluent, though fluent they are: easily confident and assured, melodically sure-footed and engaging, an exemplary if somewhat raffish complement to Teddy Wilson’s elegant piano and Roy Eldridge’s bouncy and brassy trumpet and Webster's warm, subtle undertones.

Third AA chorus 1:15 - 2:22

The third chorus (AA) is Billie’s vocal. Donald Clarke, quoted above, refers to her evident love of the lyrics. It is not just the feeling, when Billie Holiday sings, but the nuances of feeling that make the difference. Her attitudes engage not just the listener but the other players and the words themselves.

I wished on the moon for something I never knew;
Wished on the moon, for more than I ever knew;
A sweeter rose, softer skies, warm April days
That would not dance away.
You can hear Ben Webster's obbligato accompaniment come in as she sings about softer skies and warm April days. Players usually know the lyrics to the songs, and often the best of them will do various things to enhance them. Here, it seems to me that Webster takes his cue from these words - sweeter, softer, warm, dance away - and fits his music to the qualities they suggest.

I begged up a star to throw me a beam or two
Wished on a star, and asked for a dream or two
I looked for every loveliness, it all came true;
I wished on the moon for you

The lyricist, Dorothy Parker, was a New York writer of short stories and poems. She wrote some wonderfully funny and acerbic stuff, but these 8 lines are not among them. Doesn't matter.
Fourth AA chorus 1:22 – 3:01

The fourth “out” chorus (A) is the ensemble with Eldridge on trumpet taking the lead, with Goodman on clarinet filling in. Typically, the final chorus in a jazz number brings everything together and in a more expressive manner than before.