Clip: Beiderbecke Reimagined, With an Eclectic Approach
Beiderbecke Reimagined, With an Eclectic Approach
By PETER KEEPNEWS
Published: December 1, 2003
Slithering through the cracks that separate musical genres has long been a
way of life for Geoff Muldaur. Over the years his albums have blended
gospel and bluegrass, country blues and modern jazz, Tin Pan Alley and R&B.
But however eclectic his approach, those who prefer their music in neatly
labeled boxes have tended to agree that he belongs in the one marked "folk
singer." His new album should put an end to that idea.
Mr. Muldaur has, at least temporarily, forsaken Leadbelly and Dock Boggs
for a very different kind of roots music: the recordings and compositions
of the cornet player Bix Beiderbecke, a son of the Midwestern middle class
who in the 1920's brought a new degree of delicacy and lyricism to jazz,
and who achieved his highest profile as a member of Paul Whiteman's
high-toned dance band.
Though little known to the general public during his brief lifetime (he
drank himself to death at 28), Beiderbecke has come to be widely regarded
as the first great white musician in jazz history. Mr. Muldaur says he has
been a fervent Beiderbecke fan since he began listening to his older
brother's jazz records as a child.
On "Private Astronomy: A Vision of the Music of Bix Beiderbecke," released
in the waning months of the Beiderbecke centennial, Mr. Muldaur celebrates
Beiderbecke's music by reimagining it. In the process he has also, in a
sense, reimagined himself.
Geoff Muldaur, the guitar-strumming troubadour ? a familiar presence on the
folk scene as long ago as the mid-1960's, and increasingly familiar since
he ended a prolonged hiatus from performing in 1997 ? is nowhere to be
found. His impassioned vocals are backed by a spirited jazz band. He plays
no guitar; in fact, except for one note on the glockenspiel, he plays no
instruments at all. Only 7 of the 13 tracks have vocals ? and Mr. Muldaur
himself sings on only 4 of them. (One is sung by his fellow
not-exactly-folkie Loundon Wainwright III, two by Mr. Wainwright's
The rest of the album is devoted to Mr. Muldaur's evocative arrangements of
five Beiderbecke piano compositions, an otherworldly meeting of early jazz
with Ravel and Debussy. (On Saturday, Mr. Muldaur will perform on the
public radio show "A Prairie Home Companion," live from Town Hall in New
In a recent telephone interview from his home in Los Angeles, Mr. Muldaur
said that "Private Astronomy" was not so much a departure as a variation on
a theme. "This is what I do," he said. "I explore American music." No one
has ever explored Beiderbecke's music quite the way Mr. Muldaur has. And
no one seems entirely certain what kind of animal "Private Astronomy" is.
That includes Mr. Muldaur, who professes not to care.
His record company, Edge Music ? a division of the classical label
Deutsche Grammophon ? has marked it "File under jazz." It is being played
by some folk-oriented radio stations. The National Academy of Recording
Arts and Sciences decided, after some discussion, to classify it for Grammy
consideration in the "traditional pop vocal" category. "If I had my
druthers, there would be a category called `Geoff Muldaur and all the other
stuff you don't know where to put,' " Mr. Muldaur said. "But I go around
the world playing for people who love me, and somehow they know where to go
to find my records."
Whatever else it is or isn't, "Private Astronomy" (which takes its title
from a contemporary of Beiderbecke's, Ralph Berton, who once wrote of him
"gazing off into his private astronomy, blowing something pretty") clearly
stands apart from the jazz repertory movement. There is no attempt to be
faithful to the original recordings, and little concern for historical
"I've never been a historian," Mr. Muldaur said. "You give me a piece, I
hear what I hear and that's what you're going to get. I wouldn't do a tune
if I couldn't mess it up. That's my job."
Fidelity to the source was not much of an issue when Mr. Muldaur recast for
a jazz-inflected chamber ensemble five dreamily impressionistic piano
pieces Beiderbecke wrote with the help of the arranger Bill Challis. (The
basic instrumentation is violin, cornet, trombone, clarinet, and alto and
baritone saxophones.) Beiderbecke himself recorded only one of them, "In
a Mist," which the composer and jazz historian Gunther Schuller has praised
for using "a chromatic language far beyond that of most jazzmen at the
time." Another, "Davenport Blues," is a significantly reworked version of a
number Beiderbecke first recorded with a jazz band.
Mr. Muldaur is not the first arranger to tackle this material, but he said
that after taking an early stab at "In a Mist" in 1984 he did enough
digging to convince himself that no one had orchestrated the pieces quite
the way he had in mind. The other arrangements he heard "didn't do it for
me," he said. "I never heard anyone create the textures that would evoke
the era and would also satisfy the ear of Bix Beiderbecke."
Using skills that he honed during his nonperforming years, when he wrote
music for documentaries and industrial films, Mr. Muldaur began
orchestrating the pieces in the mid-1990's, concentrating on those textures
while leaving Beiderbecke's notes intact. After an abortive attempt to
record them with a jazz ensemble, he finally got the results he wanted with
a group of primarily classical musicians ? among them Mark Gould, the
principal trumpet for the Metropolitan Opera ? assembled with the help of
his producer, Dick Connette.
"It seemed to me," Mr. Connette said, "that the approach to take was to go
to these guys, who are great readers and not improvising egos. And they
turned out to be just the guys to do it."
The album's other tracks are vocals: six songs associated with Beiderbecke,
newly arranged by Mr. Muldaur for a medium-size band, and a wistful closing
number on which he is accompanied only by Butch Thompson on piano. That
piece, "Clouds," is based on an unfinished fragment that may have been
written by Beiderbecke. The trumpeter and Beiderbecke authority Randy
Sandke, who put the finishing touches on the melody, says he thinks it's
Beiderbecke's but can't be positive. Mr. Muldaur says it's fine with him
if it isn't: "I just heard it and it took me somewhere."
The vocal selections are true to the spirit of the Jazz Age but not the
letter. Arnie Kinsella's lively two-beat drumming is authentic enough, but
the arrangements are full of anachronistic touches: an unorthodox harmony
here, an Ellingtonian growl trombone there. And while Martha Wainwright's
sultry rendition of "Singin' the Blues" is a highlight of the album, it has
little to do with Beiderbecke's 1927 recording, revered by critics for its
solos by Beiderbecke and the clarinetist Frankie Trumbauer, which contains
Purists may quibble, but Mr. Muldaur says the initial response from
Beiderbecke aficionados has been warm. To Mr. Muldaur's relief, Mr. Sandke,
who plays on several tracks of "Private Astronomy" and was with him when he
performed this music at Joe's Pub in New York City in October, gave the
project his seal of approval early on.
"This is not necessarily how Bix's school would have done it," Mr. Sandke
said. "But this approach is valid too. It's fresh. I enjoyed it. It shows
the durability of Bix's music, that it can be treated in various ways and
still hold up."