Loading ...
Sorry, an error occurred while loading the content.

Clip: Beiderbecke Reimagined, With an Eclectic Approach

Expand Messages
  • Carl Zimring
    http://www.nytimes.com/2003/12/01/arts/music/01MULD.html Beiderbecke Reimagined, With an Eclectic Approach By PETER KEEPNEWS Published: December 1, 2003
    Message 1 of 1 , Dec 1, 2003

      Beiderbecke Reimagined, With an Eclectic Approach


      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
      daughter, Martha.)

      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
      no singing.

      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."
    Your message has been successfully submitted and would be delivered to recipients shortly.