Who Am I?

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A nobody; a nitwit; a pilot; a motorcyclist; a raconteur; a lover...of life - who loves to laugh, who tries to not take myself (or anything) too seriously...just a normal guy who knows his place in the universe by being in touch with my spiritual side. What more is there?

04 November 2008

Al Hirt: Java!

I feel sorry for kids these days, music-wise. As I've mentioned, when I was a kid we had "Top-40" radio stations in the 1960's and '70s that played a wide variety of music. So in addition to "pop" groups like the Beatles, the Stones, and the Supremes, I heard songs from "middle of the road" artists like Eddie Arnold, Frank Sinatra, and Louis Armstrong, as well as jazz artists like Ramsey Lewis and country artists like Roy Clark. WABC in New York played everything. It was such a strange mix of things that even my parents could (and did) listen without yelling at us to turn that damn thing down!

The music from the radio formed the soundtrack of our lives. WABC might play a Beatles song (pick one) and then Dean Martin's "Everybody Loves Somebody Sometime," followed by a Rolling Stones song, then Shirley Bassey's "Goldfinger," and finally "The Girl From Ipanema" by Stan Getz/Astrud Gilberto. I didnt' know any better - I thought it was all just...well, music. I liked it all. Such combinations of genre would never fly with kids these days. Radio is too fragmented.

In early 1964 WABC began playing an uptempo little instrumental tune called "Java" by Al Hirt. A native of New Orleans, playing professionally since he was 16, Hirt was obviously influenced by the wealth of eclectic music emanating from that city, and he frequently played with the legendary Pete Fountain with whom he was friends. That his music would be played on the nation's biggest and most influential Top-40 pop music radio station must have been quite a shock to the 42 year-old Hirt.

I hadn't thought of "Java" in a long time...perhaps decades. But since I'd put the instrumental, "Love Is Blue" on my iPod it got me thinking about other instrumentals of the day. So as I do, I went right to iTunes and downloaded the Al Hirt song. As usual, listening to an old song under headphones in stereo is profoundly enlightening. You hear things you never heard before.

"Java" is fascinating to me in so many ways. For one thing, it's short - barely two minutes long. Hirt's trumpet and a ride cymbal dominate the sound. It's a rollicking Dixieland tune with a vaguely Spanish arrangement. iTunes notes that Hirt had "...a propensity for playing far too many notes." Which is true. He plays the hell out of that trumpet. Live versions are different; Hirt crams so many notes in that you wonder where he gets the breath and stamina. If only I could blow like that!

One odd thing about the studio version is that there are no "classic" drums to keep the beat as there would be in a typical rock tune, but rather just that rolling piano underneath and the ride cymbal above, with Al's glorious trumpet providing the melody and two saxophones on harmony. There are other bandmembers, but they are kept low in the mix.

I think I must be wierd sometimes. On the way home from the airport yesterday, I listened to "Java" over and over and over, picking out the various instrumental parts, feeling how they all fit together. With songs like this, I try to put myself in the studio as it happened, as the guys were laying down the tracks. "Java" sounds like it was incredibly fun to record. In fact, it's one of those "perfect" little songs I love so much. It's awesome - there's not a bad note to be heard. All the better is that it's an instrumental, with singers only "oohing" along in the background. Vocals would have ruined it.

Please go up and click on the song. Please listen to it with your headphones on. See if you don't agree that it's an awesome gem. (And even if you hate it, you'll only have wasted two minutes of your time.) In this day of computer-generated or electronically-enhanced instruments, it's nice to hear a virtuoso creating music with nothing but his own breath and a brass instrument. I love the electro-synth pop records of the 1980's, but music like that hasn't got anywhere near the heart and soul of simple songs like "Java."

We lost Al Hirt in 1999. He continued playing in New Orleans almost right up to the end.


Redlefty said...

You bet, man. I'll plug in the headphones and listen a few times tonight and get into it.

Redlefty said...

Very, very good. Like you said, it's just a perfect song.

Although I'll disagree that the electro-synth music of the 80s didn't have the same soul. Prince had it, I think. Many perfect songs on Purple Rain.

Bob said...

Oh please, Prince? Electro-synth? Nah. That guy could wail on the guitar. He plays on a concert version of G. Harrison's "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" and he does a KILLER guitar solo. Killer. I never knew he could play like that. Blew me away.

No, I was thinking more of Britpop groups like early Depeche Mode, Yaz, Flock of Seagulls, A-ha...stuff like that where the "artists" played keyboards to mimic the sounds of real guitars and other instruments.

And yes, Purple Rain was awesome, one of the greats.

Kelly said...

After reading your entertaining comments on Hal's recent post, I thought I'd come see if you'd made the entry you hinted at there.

Instead you took me back in time with Al Hirt's "Java"! Yep... gotta add that one to my iTunes library. Haven't heard or thought about that tune in years. Thanks for bringing it back to mind!