December 30, 2016


There is a long list of things I could resolve to do in 2017. After giving it some thought I have concluded that improving my speaking skills takes precedence. I am referring to eliminating extra words when I speak; words and phrases such as you know, I mean, so, at the end of the day, right, okay, ad infinitum. When did these meaningless inserts become ubiquitous in our everyday speech patterns? We hear them in ordinary conversation, and we note their constant presence with broadcast professionals.
Coincidentally as this resolution became an idea, I was reminded of the succinct beauty of Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. Lincoln delivered his 272 word reflection after sitting through a 2 plus hour speech from then-noted orator Edward Everett. Lincoln paid tribute to the casualties of both the North and the South, and marked the significance of the Gettysburg Battle in our history, without one wasted word. In a convoluted fantasy I began to speculate on what Lincoln’s message would have sounded like if it included the omnipresent verbal tics we have come to expect in English language today. With apologies to Lincoln:
So four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, I mean, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.
Well now we are engaged in a great civil war you know, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. So we are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. I mean it is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.
But, I think, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate -- we can not consecrate -- we can not hallow -- this ground okay? The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. Here’s the point. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. Right? At the end of the day, it is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. Well, it is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us -- that from these honored dead we take increased devotion you know, to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion -- that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain -- that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom -- and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth, you know what I mean?

The function of this exercise is to remind myself to edit my speech as I would edit my writing or my playing. I can make an analogy to my improvisation style, which I believe is economical and devoid of pointless flourishes. Several veteran jazz improvisers acknowledged that it took them decades to determine what not to “say.”

December 20, 2016

Jingle By Request

This blog entry was prompted by a request from Fred, a loyal blog reader.
Holiday recordings typically live out their lives as background music. Every store at this time of year pipes in the familiar tunes by a multitude of artists. Even in the home, holiday music is usually turned on to provide ambiance. I’m happy to say that Béla Fleck and the Flecktones’ “Jingle All the Way” CD rises far above that level of listening. If you choose just one holiday recording to actually sit and listen to, you can’t go wrong with “Jingle All the Way.” We spoke of this inventive release in our blog in December of 2014, and the constantly shifting arrangement of “The Twelve Days of Christmas.”
The album opens with “Jingle Bells” and employs the arranging scenario of “everything, including the kitchen sink.” This 3-1/2 minute version of the standard of holiday standards, includes the sound of a galloping horse, a flute, a rather disco-ish repetitive bass line, synthesized percussion, bluegrass banjo picking, and (best of all) Tuvan throat singers vocalizing the lyrics to “Jingle Bells” in what I assume is their native Tibetan language. If you put this cut on at the typical background music level, your curiosity will draw you to the volume control so you can give a good listen to what is actually going on. Highly recommended.

December 14, 2016

No Nobel Prize for These Lyrics

I count myself among the many fans who applaud the Nobel Prize Commission’s decision to honor Bob Dylan for his lyrics. His life’s work certainly stands up when compared with many of our most celebrated authors and poets. I do wonder if they’ve opened a door for other songwriters. What about Lennon/McCartney, Joni Mitchell, or Oscar Hammerstein?
There were plenty of people who felt this prize was a bad decision. Perhaps it is an unfair competition to consider lyrics when they have the obvious benefit of music. Or perhaps some of those objectors couldn’t separate Dylan’s writing from the opposite end of the lyric spectrum, the subject of this blog. I am speaking of those nonsensical phrases, often earworms, that seem to have no reason for being except to be matched with catchy musical riffs.
This is not a new concept. Composers since Bach’s era and before frequently extended melodic lines by hanging out on one particular vowel. To acknowledge the holidays, a well known example is the song “Angels We Have Heard On High.” The hook to the song employs the word “Gloria.” In this traditional French carol, the O vowel in Gloria is extended for four full measures, an interesting and effective compositional tool.
Frankie Valli did much the same in the Four Seasons hit, “She … eh … eh … eh… eh … erie Baby.” Working musicians know that the bar will erupt in sound and sing along when the band arrives at these meaningless “words.”
These hooks are most obvious when they became the song titles. A short list includes the 1960 one hit wonder “Alley Oop” by the Hollywood Argyles; a 1963 hit by the Crystals, “Da Doo Ron Ron”; in 1964, “Do Wah Diddy” by Manfred Mann; and Ob La Di, Ob La Da” by the Beatles in 1968.
More often, these verbal licks are contained within the song. When I hear them I often get the impression that the songwriter may have been stuck trying to fill in a measure or two, and just resorted to an effective consonant/vowel combination. They often become the hook of the song, the most memorable part.
See if you can name these tunes. The following are verbal riffs. See if you can name the tune and the artist. You can post your guesses in the comments section. I’d love to see more if you can find some to share with us.
1. Fa-la-la-la-la…la-la-la-la
2. Heidi-heidi-heidi-ho
3. Thumpety-thump-thump
4. Bop-shop-a-lu-bop
5. Sha-la-la-la-la-la-la
6. Boom-shaka-laka-laka
7. Na-na-na…na-na-na-na
8. La-la-la-la-dee-da-da, La-la-la-la-tee-da
9. Ooka-chaka-ooka-chaka
10. Ba-da-ya
In addition to his writings worthy of the Nobel Prize in Literature, Bob Dylan may have penned an ultimate syllable-only tune. His 1970 LP “Self Portrait” included what is essentially an instrumental song entitled “Wigwam.” Throughout the song Dylan reinforces the melody with a lengthy series of one syllable sounds. It’s the kind of thing a songwriter might do as they’re searching for the actual words, only to eventually decide that the syllables suffice. It is truly a memorable tune that speaks to the power of a hook that is not dependent on words for its strength.