Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Sonny Rollins Plays the Brecht/Weill "Moritat: The Alienation Effect

Driving through central Utah the other day, feeling loose and even easy, I listened to Sonny Rollins' album "Saxophone Colossus," recorded in Hackensack, New Jersey on June 22, 1956 (not long before my seventh birthday).

Critics all agree it's a breakthrough album by what Ira Gitler called a "colossal" talent.

And this critic (driving between snow-capped mountains and blooming orchards) shivered with a sense of the sublime -- according to Kant a combination of irrational awe and rational understanding -- awe and understanding in the presence of overwhelming nature, and in the presence, as well, of the Colossus and his side men Tommy Flanagan, Doug Watkins, and Max Roach.

"St. Thomas," first, Rollin's own calypso melody repeated twice and then investigated thematically (-- the thematic variation Rollins admired in Thelonius Monk being the basic modus of this album). The second tune is a jazz standard, "You Don't Know What Love Is," a plaintive ballad that evoked in me what my dad used to call "cogitation." Then Rollins' percussive composition "Strode Rode," named after a Chicago jazz place, drew my close attention especially when Rollins and drummer Max Roach start trading thoughtful fours and I thought how like a saxophone the drums can be, and how like drums the saxophone.

My mind relaxed when Rollins slipped into a song I know well from my German studies, Bertolt Brecht's and Kurt Weill's "Moritat" from "The Three Penny Opera." In fact, I sang along as Rollins stated the theme: Und der Haifisch, der hat Zähne, Und die trägt er im Gesicht / Oh the shark has pretty teeth dear, And he shows them pearly white (Marc Blitzstein's 1954 translation).

And then there was trouble! Swinging the tune, even bouncing it, Rollins adds (or rather forgets to subtract) a note at the end of the the line that ends with Gesicht/white. Where the rhythm had been bouncing along with two unaccented syllables followed by two accented ones (>>!!, >>!!, >>!! >>!), the phrase is supposed to end with a single accented syllable. That's how the lyrics are. That's how the original music is. That's how it has to be sung.

And then more trouble. Rollins repeats the four bouncing bars, as does Brecht/Weill's original, and again adds, or fails to subtract, the note leaving "sight" the last sound: Just a jack-knife, has Macheath dear, And he keeps it out of sight.

Rollins keeps bouncing on: Sight Sight?

Now I'm perplexed. And when I'm perplexed about jazz I often turn to my son Tom, a professional jazz saxophonist and band leader who lives in Brooklyn (click HERE for his BigBangBigBand), or to my favorite jazz singer, Kelsey Jillette (Merrow), another professional from Brooklyn (and my daughter in law).

A question about Sonny Rollins' "Moritat." When he plays the head he swings it in a jazzy way, even makes it a little bouncy, but it's still straightforward enough that a singer like yourself or Louis Armstrong or Lotte Lenya could sing along, in German or English -- could sing along, that is, till he adds a bouncy beat where the lyrics and original music break off. None of the other versions I can find do that ‑‑ Sinatra, Armstrong, et al. Rollins, in later performances, continues to play it his way, which jolts me every time I hear it.

I don't think I'm talking about thematic improvisation here ‑‑ that comes immediately after he plays the head. But maybe I am and just don't know it. Which is why I turn to you: what the hell is going on here?

Kelsey replied almost immediately:
I think you are talking about when he plays the melody and then starts to improvise early.
Basically, when the melody ends, there are still 2 bars (eight quarter note beats) before the top, or beginning of the song starts. those two bars are called a turnaround, because instead of the song resolving in a final and consonant way, the band plays chords that turn the music back to the beginning again. Instead of waiting for the top, he begins his solo early, and plays through the turnaround and on into the form of the song. Doing that gives a soloist a lot of momentum heading into his solo.

And I emailed right back:

I'm talking about before he starts to improvise. He plays four bars and the lyrics require that in the fourth bar there are only three beats + a silent one. The last word of the lyrics in English is "white" and then four bars later "sight." The way he plays it, it might as well be "whiteness" and "sighted." He adds a beat. Then he plays the next four bars, and again adds the beat. Only then does he head into the improvisation.

If you listen to Louis Armstrong play the same head, you'll hear the difference, although there's a bit of talkover in this London performance (like the Rollins recording, 1956) which you can find HERE

And there's an early recording in German of the Brecht/Weill song HERE

I'm not trying to be a purist, but could you possibly sing the lyrics while Rollins plays his version, a live version of which you can hear HERE? What would you do when he continued while you cut it off?

And while we're at it, here are the lyrics with music (click on the music for a larger version) and also a link to a 1955 recording by


Kelsey and Tom and the rest of the Kelsey Jillette Group had to drive from Brooklyn to Ohio for a performance at Shawnee State University, so I haven't received a response. (There's a link to Kelsey's group HERE)

Left to my own thoughts, I turned to the effect the break in what I was expecting had on me. "Disruption" was the first word I thought. And from there, especially in the context of Brecht, it wasn't far to the idea of "alienation." In the service of making audiences think as opposed to feeling, to break them out of their trances, Brecht kept trying to think of ways to disturb expectations. When two characters, for instance, begin to kiss on stage, Brecht was apt to drop a sign in front of them telling the audience to STOP GAZING SO ROMANTICALLY AT THESE LOVERS!

Maybe Rollins is trying for the same thing here. And even if not, even if he's just loosely quoting the tune, he certainly achieved alienation with me.

I've listened and listened again. Thought and rethought. And I'll never hear "Saxophone Colossus" the same way again.

What the hell was he doing?

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