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Jeff Simon: Some books, records for last-minute gifts

Jeff Simon

Rudolph and his scarlet nose certainly gave it a run for its money. Other singers tried to match it with their own Christmas records, whether they were Jingle Bell Rocks or Holly Jolly Christmases. But Bing Crosby's "White Christmas" is never likely to be challenged as the all-time Christmas record. Look at it this way: As long as there are TV weather people in the Eastern and Middle Western States of America, there will be December reminders of Bing and his "White Christmas."

Here, according to Gary Giddins in one of the major books of the season — "Bing Crosby: Swinging on a Star: The War Years 1940-1946" — is how the song was looked at when introduced in the Bing Crosby/Fred Astaire movie "Holiday Inn": "Few participants anticipated great things from the song he sang. ... (Composer Irving Berlin) knew he was treading on dangerous ground, removing Christ from Christmas and advancing snow as the essential metaphor in a requiem of longing ... recasting Christmas as an American holiday of all faiths or no faiths. In this secular carol, he took the opposite approach he had in 'God Bless America,' which challenged the National Anthem by replacing martial fireworks with beneficence."

"White Christmas" has been in the American brainpan ever since. Not so much was its singer Bing Crosby, at one time one of the most popular, beloved singer/actors in America and an inventor of a style of performance all his own, instantly imitated by Dean Martin and Perry Como and countless others.

Subsequent history didn't go Bing's way. Stories about his belief in being a paternal "disciplinarian" were blown apart not only by the resentful four sons of his first family,  but by his own instantly and grotesquely dated tales of the virtues of using a studded belt for spankings. His frequent coldness to other performers was legendary.

It was more than a little incredible — and continuingly puzzling — that Crosby has had, for 25 years now, one of the greatest biographers in the history of show business in America — jazz and film critic Gary Giddins — determined to know the facts and reclaim him from unwarranted abuse. Never mind those of us who'd have much preferred Giddins to have continued on as a constant presence as a critic, essayist and columnist. What he has done in two volumes now has been to create two-thirds of one of the greatest American showbiz biographies.

In its first volume, "Pocketful of Dreams," he proved to the satisfaction of many that at the beginning of his career, Bing Crosby could be considered the "hippest white man in America." Now, 17-years later in Vol. 2, he describes the literary effort of his life this way: "I'm a middle-class Jew and child of the '60's who loves jazz more than anything in the world and did not expect to dedicate a third of his life to a working class Catholic pop singer whose celebrity began to fade shortly after I was born" (in 1948).
Whether or not Giddins' heroic effort on behalf of his subject changes American cultural history, his books are, for interested readers, models of the way such books should be researched and written. His achievement is singular no matter how puzzling some of us have found its purpose.

A few more last minute suggestions of books and records to give at this, the calendar's giving time of year.

DANCE IN AMERICA: A READER'S ANTHOLOGY edited by Mindy Aloff, foreword by Robert Gottlieb.

If the only dance commentary you know comes from the judgemental pros on TV dance contests, you probably ought to know how great a tradition dance commentary is in America and this is the book to show you. You'll never get a better idea of it than you will in these 100 selections spanning three centuries. The pieces are listed alphabetically by author, which means it begins with Joan Accocella in the New Yorker in 1989 reviewing "Black and Blue" ("with every roll of the dice, out shakes some new wonder") and ends with Edmund Wilson, no less, in 1925 on the Ziegfield Follies ("Will Rogers mounts the block about which the Tiller Girls are wheeling").

The dance writers include a wildly varied assortment — Edwin Denby, Lincoln Kirstein and Jill Johnston, among them. So do the dancers and choreographers — George Balanchine, Merce Cunningham, Jerome Robbins, Isadora Duncan. And literature is abundantly represented, too. Nevertheless, would you believe an American dance book including Emily Dickinson and not Bob Fosse?

BUFFALO TRACE: A THREEFOLD VIBRATION by Marc Coppello, James Morrison and Jean Walton.

Are you ready for a book that, among other things, contends "Buffalo was itself a kind of Paris of the Rust Belt?" I hope so because this thoroughly remarkable and original book is about one of the primal, but least known Buffalo experiences — the way life was lived and perceived inside the minds and hearts of those who arrived from elsewhere to be part of the near-miraculous English department of the State University at Buffalo in the 1980s. "It was the perfect city," writes James Morrison, "just close enough to what was familiar and just far enough from it, genuinely urban, yet posing few of the threats of a real metropolis."

Here was a class of Buffalonian that spent days studying with the likes of John Barth, Donald Barthelme, Leslie Fiedler, Lionel Abel, Charles Olson and Robert Creeley and the rest of their lives in such contemplations as this, years later, from Mary Capello: "I've always said that what made Buffalo interiors so divine was the fact they were conceived as an antidote to the ... imperatives of the weather and the Victorian houses off Elmwood Avenue now loomed even larger, not smaller than I pictured them." I think this is not only one of the essential — if eccentric — books on the Buffalo bookshelf, but is also one of the finest books you'll ever read about the experience of going to a truly great graduate school to study English.

LAKE EFFECT DAYS: Brief Stories by Phillp Sultz.

Brief indeed, are these stories — a page, mostly. It's about a life of 88 years that began between World War II and the Korean War among guys "who didn't look or act alike but they had a sense of who they were, sort of proud for some reason, without much to show for it." Sultz is, by trade, an artist who has written portraits of Buffalo people from a generation whose full delightful particularities are unexpected and compelling.

Some records for last-minute searchers:

CANNONBALL ADDERLEY, "Swinging in Seattle: Live at the Penthouse 1966-67"

Terrific liner notes, to be sure, but the truth about these airchecks from a Seattle club in the mid-'60s is they give you a very workmanlike portrait of Cannonball's quintet at the time.

There was never a time in his life when Cannonball Adderley needed more than two bars by himself to grab your attention. But he doesn't commane your attention often here the way he so often could, nor does his cornet-playing brother Nat. This was the Adderley Quartet on the job before a chamber-sized crowd, always flirting with inspiration but never quite plucking it in purest form out of the ether. Three stars.

AARON GOLDBERG, "At the Edge of the World"

The big news here in this otherwise ordinary piano trio recording is that the drummer is the decidedly out-of-the-ordinary Leon Parker, a very creative percussionist who has spent years being close to invisible on record. Would you believe a version of "Poinciana" that is like a witty answer to Ahmad Jamal's? Three stars.

MELISSA ERRICO, "Sondheim Sublime"

I would hereby like to apologize to Stephen Sondheim for entirely too many decades of taking him for granted and not listening to his songs as attentively as they deserved. The fact is when you hear a singer who's as devoted to Sondheim's songs as Errico, every bit of her understanding makes them emerge as the genuinely sublime things they can be. Errico is a stalwart of New York Theater and, with her theatrical inflection, performs these with just a piano trio in a very cabaret-like way. Frankly, when listening to an amazing song like "Loving You" I couldn't help wondering what Sarah Vaughan would do with it in the tradition of "Send In the Clowns." What would Ella have done with "Not While I'm Around." Maybe Errico's are not my ideal performances of these songs, but they're great enough to show listeners just how magnificent a body of work they are. Four stars.


Muscular, linear, horn quartet jazz without a piano to bathe the solos in protective harmony. This is just the powerhouse bassist McBride and inventive drummer Nasheet Waits providing stark rhythmic propulsion to Josh Evans' trumpet and Marcus Strickland's reeds. One of the fine jazz quartet records of 2018. Four stars.

EAGLES, "Legacy" (12 CDs, DVD and Blu-Ray)

And what a mixed legacy it is too in complete form. Fans, of course, will probably want the complete works. Rather than all the studio albums, though, it seems to me one disc of greatest hits does the job (which it did to set commercial records when it came out.) As a live band, too, they're much better after a few years when Joe Walsh arrives to lend grit and artful craziness. Some of the songs are great, always—to be sure "Hotel California." But "Desperado" seems to me a whole lot better coming from Linda Ronstadt than it does on the group's self-pitying version. At their worst, their popular form of "country rock" can sound so baby-powdered and diapered that its musical hybrid is infantile. Three stars.

FRANZ SCHREKER, Birthday of the Infant Suite and Other Works performed by the Berlin Radio Symphony conducted by JoAnn Falletta.

No, this is not the disc that recently won Falletta yet another Grammy nomination (that was for music by Daniel Fuchs). But it's yet another example of Naxos' perfectly placed faith in Falletta to unearth rarities and total obscurities and make them living and ripe music for the repertoire. In that regard, nothing is likely to compete with Falletta and the BPO in the cause of Gliere's Third Symphony but this Straussian opera suite is a winning example of what happened when late-Romanticism met the early 20th century orchestra. Three Stars.

YUJA WANG, The Berlin Recital: Works of Rachmaninoff, Scriabin, Ligeti and Prokofiev performed by pianist Yuja Wang.

It isn't only Rubinstein, Horowitz, Schnabel, Richter and Glenn Gould to whom I'd like to show the arrestingly provocative cover of this disc but also Alicia de Larrocha, Ruth Laredo, Dame Myra Hess and Angela Hewitt. The bare-midriff and leg trying to sell an entirely different idea of a classical piano virtuoso would, no doubt, elicit very interesting commentary. Lest one think that the beautiful young Chinese-Canadian pianist is less than serious about her art, consider the repertoire here which is not for exploiters. Rachmaninoff Preludes and Etudes Tableaux give way to Scriabin's 10th Sonata, Prokofiev's Eighth and some etudes by Gyorgi Ligeti. This is demanding music requiring fire and poetry and intellect. And Wang has all the bases covered. What she chooses to uncover for the sake of recorded commerce is between her and the venerable Deutsche Grammophon record label and the rest of us shouldn't intrude. Three and a half stars.

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