Monday, August 1, 2011

Amy Winehouse, Frank, and all that jazz

Amy Winehouse died a few days ago. A lot has been written about the many extra-musical aspects of her career and death, so I won't add anything on that, although there are quite a few things from her story that I don't understand.

The first time I saw her was on Jools Holland's programme, on BBC2, back in 2003. For those who don't know it, former Squeeze and currently boogie-woogie and big band pianist Holland introduces—briefly—all sorts of bands playing live, one tune at a time, in a circular set, so each band is facing all the rest. By all sorts of bands I mean anything from new artists to old stars: in one ocassion he had "bad boys of jazz" The Bad Plus playing beside masters of 21st century rumba catalana Ojos de Brujo.

One of the tunes Winehouse played was this—she was just 20 at the time:

This and the other songs she played (like this one), left me open-mouthed. The delivery was somewhat rough, but it was obvious that she could sing, she could write, and she had a personal and functional guitar style (and she knew a few chords beyond your regular strumming stuff). In hindsight, it was also refreshing that she looked like a regular girl, with no image issues.

After that I got Frank, her first album. I'm not at all interested in anyone's "jazz cred"—I can't see why anyone would want any of it—and I think some of the things said in this interview are pure dross, but hearing her scat Sarah Vaughan's solo on "Lullaby of Birdland" over her own guitar comping (a simple bass line plus chords) as the introduction to her CD, surprised me. "Stronger than me" follows suit, with her telling her boyfriend off for being a sissy and not living up to his being an older (than her) man, all this over a drum machine, her own guitar, and a trumpet solo at the end.

"You sent me flying" was even more dramatic. Interestingly, the melody at the end of its first line, "... and my new Badu", seems indeed borrowed from her idol Erykah Badu ("On & On"), but in the jazz tradition it goes as far back as Duke Ellington's "Echoes of Harlem" via Cab Calloway's "hi-de-ho"s. The lyrics kept telling an engaging story, and although the drums seem to enter a bit late in the song, it works and it is one of the high points of the album. For some reason, perhaps because it lasts less than two minutes, the next song, "Cherry", with its Brazilian-like rhythm and upbeat atmosphere—you can "hear" Winehouse smile—is embedded in track 2 (from 5:19 onwards).

One of the things that will make this record dated is the fake vinyl cracks and pops. "Know You Now" has plenty of those, as well as a rimshot in all four beats of each bar. It's another good, strong song, although the drums are a bit overwhelming. Plenty has been written on the influences on Winehouse as a singer. A pretty obvious one, at least to my ears, that I've never seen mentioned is Carmen McRae, and nowhere is as clear as in this song. Next up, "F**k Me Pumps", is a bittersweet, at times funny, and quite accurate portrait of a kind of woman that's easy to spot in London at night.

In this day and age, anything pushed by a big record company has to be taken with a pinch of salt, but if Winehouse did indeed write her own lyrics, she was quite a storyteller. "I Heard Love is Blind", her very frank confession of infidelity to her partner is engaging, and musically, like everything thus far, is worth a few listens. That said, both "Take The Box" and "What Is It About Men" work better for the stories they tell than for the music.

Back to the "jazz cred" issue, "Moody's Mood For Love" is next. Although Winehouse's version is rhythmically looser than the original, she sticks to James Moody's solo. I've read some criticism regarding her choosing this tune, but I cannot see why, and the kind-of-Jamaican rhythm works well. As for her singing, she sounds like she was truly familiar with this kind of material, and I find somehow funny that so many people unaware of or uninterested in jazz have heard some Charlie Parker material through this recording. Like I explained elsewhere, the bit that goes "oh, baby, you make me feel so good..." is typical Parker (it appears in "Moose the Mooche", 0:54 here), and "am I insane or do I really see heaven in your eyes?" is sung to the melody of "Country Gardens", an English (!) song that Bird used regularly as a coda. Still on the jazz side of things, the refrain to "October Song" is the melody of "Lullaby of Birdland", Englishman George Shearing's standard made classic by Sarah Vaughan, who gets a namecheck.

After an instrumental segment attached to "Moody's...", apparently called "Teo Licks", comes another tune from the jazz canon, perhaps best known as recorded by Billie Holiday, "No Greater Love". This sounds more like a filler, with its sleepy atmosphere, especially after "In My Bed" comes on, with its more contemporary and forceful rhythm base. Musically it revolves around the tension between the verse and the refrain, but it doesn't quite jell.

The last third of the record somewhat loses some of its punch, and it'd have been interesting to know if this is the bit Winehouse didn't agree about with her producers. Her strong womanhood is one of the themes of the album, and it comes up again in "Help Yourself", with an interesting arrangement that in parts sounds like it had been taken from Billie Holiday's Decca recordings, although according to the credits no horn section is present as such.

The end of this album—of its UK version anyway, some tunes are missing in other countries—comes with "Amy, Amy, Amy/Outro", another victim to this silly fashion of hiding tracks. It starts with "Amy, Amy, Amy", a self-referential ditty. This ends at 4:12, and it's followed by a segment with an MC urging people to leave the show against the background of an instrumental take of "Stronger Than Me". At 5:07, and over a crackle-and-pop background, "Brother" comes up, more a test than a prize for the faithful who get this far—or who left the thing playing and forgot about it—, because finally, way down at 9:21 of this final track, "Mr. Magic" comes up, one of the strongest points of the CD that could but shouldn't be missed. Although this version is modelled on Grover Washington's, you can hear Carmen McRae in it too. Her influence, especially from her later recordings, is rather notable throughout the album. Here, Winehouse seems to follow Washington's phrasing closely, with a touch of McRae's laid-back delivery.

After Frank, I got to see Amy at the Shepherd's Bush Empire, and although the hair-do and the tattoos weren't there yet, the change in attitude was. The band was terrific and the show was alright, but she didn't play any guitar and insisted in trying to do some dance moves—something at what she was painfully clumsy—. Years later we had her second album—I think it was the other way around in the US—but her and Mark Ronson's recreation of 1960's pop didn't appeal to me. I thought she had a lot to offer by being original, without taking cover under the all-too-familiar references to past pop music and classic girl-bands. All the extra-musical brouhaha around her didn't quite help, either.

Rest in peace, and thanks for the music.


Ehsan Khoshbakht said...

Good and "frank" piece. Though I didn't know her at all, you made me read it from the beginning to the end, cause I think I know the type she was presenting.

PuroJazz said...

While I am not familiar with AW..I enjoyed your post. I must add that Jool s Hollad was the resident asshole in the legedary Sudday Night pogram brodcast weekly on NBC in the early 90. Holland was the '"color " side kick to David Sanborn, totally miscast and redundant...added nothing but embarrassment to the show...was soon fired.