A Chance Discovery

Peggy Lee & Jimmy Durante on the air in the 1940s.

I love the old-fashioned image of people gathered around a radio at night to listen, rapt, as their favorite entertainers played music, told jokes, or acted out detective stories. You’d think, then, that I’d have been the first to jump on the proverbial bandwagon when podcasts really started to take hold in this century.

As is so often the case in matters technological and/or internet-related, though, I was late to the podcast party: I started listening to podcasts in earnest less than a year ago. Since then, I’ve become devoted to a number of modern day radio programmes (wordier but more elegant, no?), dedicated to topics ranging from Old Hollywood to food to French history to medicine. I’ve even, to my delight, donned the mantle of podcast guest and podcast co-host as a member of Duchess.

And so it is with all the fervor of the newly converted that I share a recent podcast discovery with you: Music from 100 Years Ago, hosted by Brice Fuqua. I chanced upon this podcast on a busy New York City afternoon filled with too many subway rides. “This looks like it might be good,” I thought, and downloaded a few episodes while waiting for my train. Dear reader, I loathe the subway, so it is no small thing when I confess that I was disappointed when my subterranean odyssey ended that afternoon and I had to put the headphones away.

Fuqua is a host after my own heart. For each episode, he chooses a smart, wide-ranging array of music from the first half of the twentieth century, all centered around a specific theme (god, I love a theme). The topic of any given show might be straightforward—say, the music of a specific composer or year—or completely hilarious, like a recent episode featuring songs about chickens.

Here are a few recent episodes that I’ve especially enjoyed:

Fuqua is knowledgable without being pedantic. He keeps his commentary concise and conversational, letting the music do the talking. I don’t know where or how Fuqua has amassed such a diverse and vast music collection, but his listeners are the beneficiaries, getting to hear rare recordings of hot jazz, 1930s-era classical music broadcasts, gospel vocal groups, singing cowboys, and (much!) more.

Brice Fuqua launched Music from 100 Years Ago back in 2006 and has since aired well over five hundred episodes, all of which you can find on his website (you can also subscribe to the podcast on iTunes). Rather than kick myself for being a Johnny-come-lately, I’m choosing to celebrate the fact that there is so much treasure yet to discover in the Music from 100 Years Ago archives…and I hope that Mr. Fuqua decides to keep his podcast going for at least five hundred more episodes. Happy listening!

 

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The Song Is You

“You’d never know it, but buddy I’m a kind of poet, and I’ve got a lot of things to say…”

He was seated at the piano, playing and singing “One for my Baby (and One More for the Road)” when I walked into Tula’s in September, 2001. “Who,” I thought, “is that?” How was it possible that, of all the singers and pianists in town, I had never met this particularly young and handsome one? As is wont to happen in the brash bloom of youth, our eyes met from across the room and that, as Rick famously said in Casablanca, was the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

I learned that Joshua was stranded in Seattle that week. He’d been visiting his family when the planes hit the World Trade Center in his adopted hometown of New York City, and all the flights were grounded, all the airports closed, so he couldn’t get back to his Harlem apartment. Not knowing quite what to do with ourselves in those frightening and disorienting days after the 9/11 attacks, we both sought sanctuary in the local jazz club.

When I moved to New York a couple of years later, Josh met me for dinner. His relaxed kindness told me that, even though I was broke and overwhelmed and had no idea whatsoever what in the hell I was doing, I had a friend in New York City. A while later, when Ray Passman heard me sit in with Bob Dorough at the Iridium and decided to “present” me in my first New York solo show at the Triad, I called Joshua to play piano. I was as green as grass and did everything wrong, but I still remember the gentle 12/8 feel Josh brought to our rendition of “Tis Autumn,” and how the room seemed to stand still for that tune.

He came with me once to my hometown of Wasilla, Alaska, where we played a Christmas show; we duetted on “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” and switched the roles, with him singing, “I simply must go…” and rebuffing my wolfish advances. He stole the show, of course.

Josh had a way of showing up at exactly the right moment. I had a brief stint singing with a country band, and we played a gig on the Upper West Side one summer night in 2012. To my delight, Josh was in the audience. In fact, he may very well have been the audience. We caught up on the set break, and a few days later he sent me a note asking if I’d like to perform a holiday show with him that November in Pinehurst, North Carolina, where his brother had founded an orchestra. Josh opened that email by asking me, “How ya doing, cowgirl?” I gleefully accepted his invitation, and that autumn, we shared a wonderful weekend of barbecue and music.

Four years ago, another email appeared in my inbox, this time from Josh’s dad. I was in the elevator on my way up to my apartment when I checked my phone and read the news of Josh’s recent hospitalization and subsequent diagnosis of stage IV pancreatic cancer. No treatments could be undertaken or explored beyond keeping him comfortable. In a trance, I exited the elevator and tried, again and again, to turn my key in the lock. It wasn’t until a neighbor in the hallway said, not unkindly, “um, hello,” that I realized I’d gotten off on the wrong floor and was standing in front of a stranger’s door.

I am infinitely grateful for the time spent in the hospital with Josh and his loved ones in the days before his death. Even today, four years later, those hours are too surreal, too painful, too dear to write about. There was singing, there were tears, there was—somehow—laughter, and there was a palpable cloak of compassion enveloping us all that I, an avowed non-believer, can only describe as holy.

It is tempting to withhold forgiveness forever from a world that would silence Josh’s music so abruptly, so cruelly early; he was just thirty-nine years old. But the world doesn’t ask for forgiveness, and anyway, didn’t it give voice and breath and life to Josh’s song in the first place? Where does that leave us? What are we to do with ourselves in this perplexing and infuriating and beautiful life, overflowing with loss and tenderness?

Sing, I think. We are here to sing at full voice, to live right out loud, heedless of the occasional dissonance or cracked high note. And may our music, like Josh’s, be a balm, a window, a catalyst, and—above all—a gift for whomever is listening.

February and March: Looking back, looking ahead

One year ago, I wrote a “looking back, looking ahead” post for all of spring, comprising the months of March, April, and May. I’d like to avoid such a backlog this time around, but here I am, reflecting on February and March, smack dab in the middle of April. The funny/annoying thing is, while February and March were certainly not a snooze fest, they were fairly relaxed (March, in particular), so I don’t really even have a good excuse for my radio silence here.

Duchess has had a lot going on in the past couple of months: our new album, Laughing at Life, was released to critical acclaim in February, and we rode the momentum with the launch of our podcast, Harmony & Hijinks, as well as tours to the midwest and Canada and a standing-room-only four-night run at Greenwich Village’s 55 bar.

In my solo singing life, we continued post-production on The Late Set, my upcoming CD with pianist Ehud Asherie. In the last days of March, I spent a couple of days in Hilton Head, South Carolina singing at the Jazz Corner with Ehud, joined by New Orleans clarinetist Evan Christopher.

A few of the home-cooked meals that brightened February and March: butternut squash and pork sausage done cacio e pepe style; beef stew with anchovies and olives; kielbasa on split pea puree with caraway butter.

February and March were also filled with some lovely meals—both at home and in restaurants—and (probably too much) time binge-watching some fantastic new and new-to-me TV shows on Amazon Prime.

A few meals eaten out and about: savory ramen in Toronto; a pre-Valentine’s Day Spanish-style feast at Brooklyn’s La Vara; a rainy-day visit to Peking Duck House in Chinatown, following a screening of Woody Allen’s “Manhattan” at Film Forum.

Looking ahead, there’s much to tell about April, including recent travels to Mexico and an upcoming Pacific Northwest tour with Duchess, but I’ll save all that for a couple of weeks, when I’ll be writing my end-of-month musings at the appropriate time (!).

In February and March, I…
Blogged about: January. Getting back on my (culinary) feet.

Read: La Venessiana, a Venice-centric blog that, however briefly, transports me to La Serenissima. This article by Tamar Adler about having a “house meal.” I wouldn’t say we have a “house meal,” per se—that is, we don’t do a lot of template cooking—but I find great comfort in the handful of stalwart recipes that we make again and again.

Watched: A whole lot of great shows on Amazon Prime. The Man in the High Castle, which asks the question, “What if the other side had won WWII?” Completely engrossing. Mozart in the Jungle, which boasts a fantastic cast (Gael Garcia Bernal, Bernadette Peters) and puts classical music in the spotlight. Goliath, starring the always-excellent Billy Bob Thornton as a brilliant but troubled lawyer who takes on a wrongful death case against a huge corporation and his old law firm. The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, set in 1958 New York City and centering on a young Jewish housewife’s foray into the world of stand-up comedy. The soundtrack for the pilot was filled with Blossom Dearie, Peggy Lee, and super-young Barbra Streisand. I am delighted—delighted!—that this show was greenlit for two seasons.

Listened to: Luiz Bonfa, Solo in Rio, 1959, damn near every morning. A lovely way to start the day. At the Supper Club, with Peggy Lee subbing for Jo Stafford. A friend gave me a CD of some rare live radio broadcasts from 1946 and 1949, recorded for the Armed Forces Radio Service, and they are a delight from start to finish (thank you, Stan!). Here’s the Thing, with Alec Baldwin. His interviews with Elaine Stritch and John Turturro had me howling with laughter.

January: Looking back, looking ahead

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Gorgeous Water Island, USVI.

January was cold and gray, both metaphorically and literally. Between December 26 and January 31, I was in the throes of one minor-but-miserable ailment after another. The final tally? Two stomach bugs. One weeklong bout with influenza. Two colds. Oh, and one inauguration. (Zing! I’ll be here all week. Tip your server.)

Oy vey.

There were some lovely moments in the first month of this new year, however. Despite my hacking cough, I had a wonderful gig at Mezzrow with pianist Ehud Asherie. Then, it was off to the Water Island Music Festival for sun, fun, fish tacos, and lots of music (until the final night, when my G.I. system turned against me…again).

Just a few days after returning home from the Caribbean, I was in transit again; this time, for a brief Duchess tour in Ontario. It felt somewhat poetic to be flying to Canada on Inauguration Day, although we were all bummed to be missing the Women’s March. We spent our entire trip cheering on our marching friends and sharing pictures of hilarious protest signs and poignant moments on social media.

I got yer #NewYorkValues right here.

I got yer #NewYorkValues right here.

It was in Waterloo, Ontario that cold #2 descended upon my sinuses, and I made it through that last gig on Sudafed and an act of will. A few short, sniffly hours of sleep, one flight, and one taxi ride later and I. Was. Home.

Sleeping in my own bed for the past couple of weeks has been deeply restorative. The Spanish-themed potluck dinner we shared with a few dear ones last weekend was a balm for both body and soul. Joining throngs of protesters at the #nobannowall protest in Battery Park was invigorating. And I’ve felt well enough to recommence running for the first time in well over a month.

Looking ahead, the new Duchess CD, Laughing at Life, is coming out on February 10; we’re hitting the road again mid-month for a short midwest tour. Our new podcast, Harmony & Hijinks, is now launched and you can listen for free on iTunes, Stitcher, or the Duchess site (I implore you—please subscribe and leave us a review!).

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The new podcast from Duchess. Give it a listen!

The bird and the bee tribute I recorded in collaboration with drummer Charles Ruggiero is in the final stages of post-production, and I’m headed into the studio this week to mix the piano/vocal duo CD that I recorded in December with Ehud.

So, yes. This may be the winter of our discontent, but there is music to be made. Onward.

In January, I…
Blogged about: December. Singer-friend Rebecca Kilgore.

Read: Orphans of the Carnival, by Carol Birch. This vividly imagined novel about 19th-century circus freak Julia Pastrana (a real person) was an engrossing read. Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, by Anita Loos. A tour de force of comedic writing: subversive and rife with social commentary, but dripping with diamonds and “dumb blonde” parlance. Edith Wharton called this book ‘The Great American Novel,’ and I’m inclined to agree. The Muse, by Jessie Burton. This book was a slow burn, but rewarding.

Watched: I Love Lucy. I watched episode after episode the week I was sick with the flu. I used to watch reruns when I was home sick as a kid, and it’s as brilliant and hilarious and comforting as ever. Top Chef. I’m totally addicted. The Young Pope. YOU GUYS. This show is Fellini-esque and beautiful and dreamlike and really, really funny. As a lapsed Catholic, perhaps I’m predisposed to love its irreverence, and as a person with eyes, perhaps I’m predisposed to love looking at closeups of Jude Law…but, whatever the reason, I am obsessed with this show.

Listened to: The Beast, by Jerome Jennings. I’ve known Jerome for almost 14 years (!!) and am a big fan of his, personally and musically—he played drums on my CD, The Great City. Jerome’s debut solo recording is swinging, soulful and socially conscious. He’s managed to pull off that most difficult of feats: he’s made an album that is far-reaching and eclectic, but deeply personal and cohesive. Congratulations, Jerome!

The Everlasting Now

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ca. 1997. Was I ever this young? Apparently, yes.

In the fall of 1997, as an unhappy and broke-ass undergrad, I dropped $80 that should have gone to books (or, you know, food) on a pair of tickets to go see The Artist Formerly Known As Prince at the Gorge Amphitheatre, a stunning outdoor venue in central Washington. Whoever could procure a car and share driving duties with me, I announced to my friends, would be the recipient of a free ticket to the show.

A casual acquaintance came through, having borrowed a car from a casual acquaintance of his, and we ditched class and drove all day to the concert. For hours, long after the crisp fall day had turned dark and downright cold, we danced, sang, and grooved as The Artist (a title that would have been insufferably pretentious on literally anybody else) gave a characteristically astonishing performance.

Driving back to campus in the wee hours of the morning, I felt returned to myself, revitalized by the concert and my newfound knowledge that escaping the stifling confines of my collegiate existence was just a matter of logistics and moxie. A year later, I dropped out of school and moved to Seattle, where my foray into adulthood and professional music began in earnest.

d0dc57a16bfed78a211ac07c10da2821Don’t worry—this isn’t the part where I to try to write a “think piece” about Prince. Much has been (and will continue to be) written about Prince’s genius, his eccentricities, and, of course, his sexuality.  The thing is, none of the articles being written about him are remotely as interesting as his music.

No, my point here is much more pedestrian, really. When I learned that Prince had died, underscoring my heartbreak was an overwhelming sense of gratitude for having had the good goddamn sense to know, almost twenty years ago, that neither the money I spent on tickets nor my skipped classes would matter in the grand scheme of things, but if I missed seeing Prince at the height of his powers, I’d regret it forever.

Of all the things I got wrong in my 20s (ha, like damn near everything), I got one thing right: I took every opportunity to spend what little money I had on live music. As a result, I caught performances by Ray Charles, Nina Simone, Oscar Peterson, Ray Brown, Charles Brown, Shirley Horn, Ernestine Anderson, Gloria Lynne, Abbey Lincoln, James Brown, Natalie Cole, Hank Jones, Blossom Dearie, Anita O’Day, Dan Hicks, Amy Winehouse, and many more musicians who are no longer with us.

Prince himself famously said, “Life is just a party, and parties weren’t meant to last.” But live music is at once ephemeral and eternal, giving breath and color and meaning to this thing called life. So, buy the tickets. Drive all night. Spend a few hours in the everlasting now with a musician who inspires you, and give thanks that you shared time and space on this planet with them, if only for a moment.

February: Looking back, looking ahead

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God, I love Anne Taintor.

From time to time, performers and creatives undergo periods of intense self-criticism and insecurity.  February was that kind of month for me, which was unfortunate, because despite being the shortest month of the year, I did quite a bit of singing (and, therefore, quite a bit of self-flagellation).

I’ve been at this singing thing long enough to know that these bouts of “Imposter Syndrome” are a natural, unavoidable occurrence, and that (perhaps most maddening of all) they are often the precursor to a new period of creative growth. Nonetheless, it’s all too easy to let the voices of negativity drown out the music, and when that happens, a good talking-to from a wise friend is in order.

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Anne Taintor, YOU GET ME.

Fortunately, a good talking-to from a wise friend is exactly what I got one evening.  My friend Evan, a brilliant clarinetist, laughed when I told him how frustrated I was feeling with myself and my singing. We had a gig coming up in a few days and I was disproportionately anxious about it.

This isn’t that important,” he said. “I mean, think about it: anything could happen.  Next week’s gig could be the last time you see either me or [pianist] Ehud.  Is this neurotic shit what you want to be thinking about while we’re making music together? Just relax.  It doesn’t matter that much.”

When our Mezzrow gig rolled around a few days later, I gave myself permission to not care one whit about being a great (or even a particularly good) singer.  Instead, I decided, I’d just enjoy the beauty of the songs and the exuberance of Ehud and Evan’s playing.  A crazy thing happened: not only was that evening the most fun I’d had on the bandstand in some time, it was actually one of the better performances I’ve given in recent memory.

Now, halfway through March, spring feels closer than ever.  The seeds have been sown for a couple of new projects, and I’m going to do my best to carry Evan’s advice with me into the weeks and months ahead.

In February, I…
Blogged about: Bupkis.  Nada.  No writing whatsoever.  Note to self: stagnation in creative output, however small, leads to neurosis, as evidenced by this entire post.

Read: Immunity, by Taylor Antrim and The Kitchens of the Great Midwest, by J. Ryan Stradal, both of which I wanted to enjoy more than I actually did.  The big winner was Vintage, by David Baker, a hilarious, poignant, and extremely well-written debut novel about a down-on-his-luck Chicago food writer on a wild goose chase for an elusive Burgundy.

Watched: House of Cards.  Flawlessly written and acted.  Completely addictive.  I can’t wait to dive into the new season.

Listened to:  Sinatra/Jobim: The Complete Reprise Recordings.  The most iconic male vocalist of the 20th century, singing some of the most beautiful songs ever written, with string arrangements by Claus Ogerman.  Yes, please.

 

January: Looking back, looking ahead

We’re in the heart of winter, now, the time of year when one’s morale can drop as low as the temperature.  The remaining snow is barely recognizable as such, having long since turned various shades of drab gray and brown.  The salt strewn on every sidewalk in New York City is beginning to take its toll on the soles of our shoes.  Sunset is still dispiritingly early, with darkness falling around 5:00pm.  And these first few months of the year are notoriously slow for musicians in terms of gigs.

For the past several years, though, I have had the exceedingly good fortune to be a performer at the Water Island Music Festival, which takes place every January on a tiny residential island just off St. Thomas.  This year, the festival’s always-lovely beach days and musical evenings were further sweetened by the knowledge that we were missing a doozy of a blizzard back in New York City (#sorrynotsorry).

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A change of scene…sun and sand on Water Island, USVI.

It’s amazing what an infusion of sunshine and music-making can do for one’s sense of optimism.  Yes, fish tacos on the beach were heavenly, but so were the braised beef short ribs with chestnuts and dates I made upon our return from the Caribbean.  The days are getting longer!  And I find myself inspired, rather than disheartened, by the prospect of open space on my calendar.  What better time to practice, write, and lay the groundwork for a new project than when it’s dark and cold outside?

2016 is a Leap Year, so this February has 29 days: one extra day in which to savor winter’s hearty food, opportunities for introspection, and crisp, cold air.  I’m looking forward to it.

In January, I…
Blogged about: Jane Monheit.  DUCHESS in Israel.  Acceptance.

Read: A bunch of books (my New Year’s resolution to abandon iPhone games/distractions on the subway and replace them with reading has been transformative), but the standout, by far, was Beautiful Ruins, by Jess Walter.  The storyline, which spans decades and continents, is too sprawling and involved to describe here, but the characters’ respective journeys toward redemption and healing are the heart and soul of this beautifully written novel.  I don’t often cry at the end of a book, but Beautiful Ruins shattered me.  Also read this month: Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen; The Hundred-Foot Journey, by Richard C. Morais; The Four Seasons: A Novel of Vivaldi’s Venice, by Laurel Corona.

Watched: The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. “They alive, dammit!”  I CANNOT wait for the next season to air.  This show makes me howl.  The Intern. I watched this on the plane home from Water Island.  I enjoyed this film, although it’s not without its flaws.  How refreshing, that the central relationship—between a 30-something woman (Anne Hathaway) and an older man (Robert DeNiro)—was not romantic.  Both characters learned from one another in some important ways, although for a film that was ostensibly about a powerful woman, Hathaway’s character still spent a lot of time getting lectured by men.

Listened to: Catherine Russell, Bring It Back.  Good GOD, get this record if you don’t have it already!  From Duke Ellington-penned standards to century-old trad jazz tunes to contemporary R&B, Catherine Russell inhabits a musical world uniquely her own.  She’s backed by a tasteful, supremely swinging band led by guitarist Matt Munisteri.  Every song sounds brand new in Russell’s capable hands.

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Scenes from the Water Island music festival.  Top: All the festival’s performers (plus a few friends) lunching on the beach.  Bottom left: The view from the performance venue.  Bottom right: Big hat, big glasses, big day at the beach.

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Top: The sun setting over Water Island.  Bottom: Boarding the ferry to St. Thomas, en route to the airport, following another wonderful year at the Water Island Music Festival.