Friday, April 09, 2010

the art of the understatement

It's generally agreed that a period beginning roughly in the early 1940s and ending in the mid-1960s constituted the golden age of the musical. Also during this time many of the "songs from the shows" became a staple part of the jazz repertoire, for both singers and instrumentalists, and this continues to be the case where modern-day artists are concerned. It seems strange that this is so. Aren't these songs rather outmoded now? Aren't they representative of different, perhaps more innocent, times? What's more, if greats like Fitzgerald and Sinatra recorded definitive versions in the forties and fifties, why invite comparison with them by re-recording these songs decades later?

That's not to say there aren't worthy re-interpretations by modern-day artists, maybe in interesting new styles or arrangements, and perhaps these songs are anyway still worthy of a place alongside original compositions but there's sometimes a tendency to wonder, well, if it hasn't all been done before.

At it's worst, this phenomenon can be very bad indeed. In my view, Michael Parkinson's reputation as a broadcaster has almost entirely been shot down in flames since he has begun championing peddlers of lazy cover versions of showtunes. Watch, if you dare, this nauseating clip of two grinning backslappers in a "Parkinson Music Special" (sic) last year. Brace yourself:

BBC4 has a a season of programmes at present on what is known as the "Great American Songbook" (we don't have one of these in the UK, by the way). There have been concerts by a number of greats like Nina Simone, Tony Bennett and Ella Fitzgerald as well as series of documentaries "charting the evolution of pop from Tin Pan Alley to today's billion-dollar industry" and, this evening, a selection of songs from the films of Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire.

Strictly speaking, the films of Rogers and Astaire at RKO appeared before our "golden age of the musical" during a period when the Nazi war machine was clicking into gear in Europe, and although these were little more than fluffy, "screwball" affairs, many of the great American songwriters were contracted to write the music: Cole Porter to "The Gay Divorcee" (1934), Irving Berlin to "Top Hat" (1935), Jerome Kern to "Swing Time" (1936) and George and Ira Gershwin to "Shall We Dance" (1937).

Of course, it's for their dancing which Rogers and Astaire are best known, but their singing style is also an important part of the charm of these films. Neither of them has the strongest voice but their pitch, even on the high notes, is always spot on. It's just what these songs need. They don't have the overblown drama of operatic arias, but they do have witty wordplay, clever rhymes and unexpected and subtle melodic flourishes. The words become so much more meaningful by virtue of being understated.

Towards the end of "Shall We Dance", the characters played by Astaire and Rogers meet at the dockside. Having divorced for the sake of appearances and their showbusiness careers and now on the point of parting forever, they realise that they are in love with each other after all. "They Can't Take That Away From Me" is his remembrance of their time together.

The song, here in its original arrangement, has none of the swinging, almost jaunty, swagger of later interpretations, just a gentle string and horn accompaniment as perfect complement to Astaire's unfussy singing style. It may be a screwball comedy, but the line "The way you changed my life" with its final melodic up-turn followed by the close-up of Rogers's crying face I think is a genuinely touching moment. But then I'm just a big softie...

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