Bookminded

books, art, culture, and other things I love

Category: music

Bookminded Recommends: Harry Connick Jr.

The first time I was introduced to Harry Connick Jr., I was a teenager. My friend S. had cassette tapes of the albums 20 (1987), the When Harry Met Sally (1989) soundtrack, and We Are In Love (1990), which she brought back after a trip to her father’s house in Pennsylvania. This was during our high-school self study of the ‘Great American Songbook’—inspired, no doubt by our choir director’s predilection for Gershwin, Porter, Rodgers, and Bernstein.

We favored female vocalists like Etta James, Sarah Vaughan, and Nina Simone. We listened for hours to Mahalia Jackson—and even performed our own rendition of “Precious Lord, Take My Hand” one sleepy Sunday morning in our small Cape Cod town.

But Harry Connick Jr. also made the cut—fitting into our preference for vocal delivery that was never forced—i.e. not the overworked vibrato that punctuated the performances of many of our teenaged choir peers—and always original.

Over the years, my admiration for Connick’s talent and musicality never waned—and in fact, given his prodigious output of albums, I can chart the course of my adult life thus far alongside his musical soundtrack. Some albums hold a special place in my heart—like 1994’s She, Connick’s exploration of New Orleans funk music—which I played on my Discman walking back and forth to class. Or Songs I Heard (2001), a wonderful collection of classic songs from film and stage, that was on repeat during the first two years of my son’s life and is an album that we still listen to often as a family. When I was writing my dissertation, I loved to listen to Oh, My NOLA (2007) as I pecked away at my laptop. (In retrospect, it could have been the metaphor provided by “Working in the Coalmine” that I identified with!)

So given all of this, I was thrilled to have the opportunity to see Connick perform at Lincoln Center’s Avery Fisher Hall earlier this month. What a show he put on! In addition to his mastery of the piano, he also jammed on the trumpet—holding his own alongside Lucien Barbarin on the trombone. Though he covered many standards, like the Cole Porter classic “I Concentrate On You” popularized by Frank Sinatra, he also threw in some originals—like “City Beneath the Sea” from Star Turtle (1996) and even serenaded wife Jill (seated in the front row) with “One Fine Thing” from Every Man Should Know (2013). But perhaps my favorite moment of the evening was when Connick offered a joyful and nuanced rendition of “How Great Thou Art.”
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What a talent and what a night! Although there is now a new generation of fans introduced to Connick through his success as a judge on American Idol, this is a musician and performer with a rich and varied archive of work that proves he has staying power—for sure.

Photos/videos were prohibited (and honestly, it made for a much more enjoyable concert experience, not having people waving their phones around obscuring the view) but I did sneak just this one toward the end. Note: HC is in the far left of the frame.

Photos/videos were prohibited (and honestly, it made for a much more enjoyable concert experience, not having people waving their phones around obscuring the view) but I did sneak just this one toward the end. Note: HC is in the far left of the frame. 😉

Culture Watch: The Intersection of Two Modern Masters.

“We would rather be ruined than changed/We would rather die in our dread/Than climb the cross of the moment/And let our illusions die.”

W.H. Auden’s The Age of Anxiety is not an easy read. As a cultural artifact (published in 1947, as the modernist moment is fading), it is fascinating as it exhibits the underpinnings of all modern literature: the competing sensibilities of loss and liberation. The very form of the poem, an eclogue, gestures toward this sense of loss as it holds on to this classical convention as if to center its subject–how to find meaning in a changing and increasingly industrialized world. That said, the choice of the eclogue, the domain of Virgil and all that is pastoral, is deliberate and disrupts and dislocates the images of metropolitan life we see in the text.  Set in a NYC bar and told through the conversations between four characters, Auden’s poem considers man’s quest for understanding at the dawn of a new era. The poem won the Pulitzer Prize in 1948 and inspired a musical composition by Leonard Bernstein, The Age of Anxiety, Symphony No. 2.

Last weekend, I had the distinct pleasure of attending a concert performance of Bernstein’s piece by Boston’s New Philharmonia Orchestra. In the first moments of the score, I was so moved by the plaintive sounds of the woodwind instruments, I felt my eyes well up. And that emotional connection continued throughout the whole piece. Just lovely. And the performance inspired me to reread the poem this week, which is a good thing. 

Here is the gorgeous concert stage in Newton’s First Baptist Church…as you might imagine, the acoustics are fantastic.



And here is my seven-year-old concert date, who gave the music two thumbs up!



Bookminded Recommends: Empire.

The nineties were my college years and they were also (in my opinion) some of the best years for hip-hop and R&B. Mary J. Blige, Jodeci, Tevin Campbell, and others were on regular repeat on my dorm room stereo. And listening to this album–well, it just takes me back.

So when I saw a promo for the new Lee Daniels produced series Empire, which centers around a hip hop record company founded in the nineties, I was intrigued. The basic premise of the show is this: Lucious Lyon (Terrence Howard) is the head of Empire Enterprises, a business that has brought him great success. He has three grown sons, a beautiful fiancé, and a business that continues to grow. But he also has a past that threatens the life he has built–as well as a future that is uncertain (I don’t want to give too much away here). Part of his past arrives at the beginning of the opening episode in the form of Cookie Lyon (Teraji P. Henson), Lyon’s former wife and mother of his children. She has been in prison for the last seventeen years on drug charges from back when they were a struggling married couple with three young children and a dream. The only problem is that that dream, to start a record company, was funded with the money from Cookie’s illegal dealings. And upon her release, she comes back to claim half of the company–using that information as leverage.

The literary tie-in with the series is that it is loosely based on both Shakespeare’s King Lear and James Goldman’s 1966 play, A Lion in Winter. Though Empire offers a melodramatic, nighttime soap take on these analogues, the musical backdrop (produced by Timbaland) and the acting (Howard and Henson, who previously starred together in Hustle and Flow have great chemistry) is so far enough to sustain this viewer. The first episode is available online here.

Have you seen Empire? If so, what did you think?
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The Weekender: Music in Copley Square.

I have mentioned the studio where I take piano lessons before. Musicians’ Playground is housed in the Piano Factory building on Tremont Street in Boston’s South End. I really can’t say enough about the studio and its owner, Alyssa O’Toole if you are looking to start or continue piano lessons at any age. It is never too late!

Last month, Alyssa had a piano brought to Boston’s Copley Square for an event where she encouraged passersby to come and  learn portions of an original composition titled “Hands”. People from all walks of life, of all ages, and with varying levels of musical training (from none to a lot!) participated.

A videographer was on hand to film the event and to put all of the pieces of the composition together. The video came out really great and it is such a neat concept that I thought I would share it here. If you live in or around Boston, definitely check Musicians’ Playground out!

Out on another school night. Eric Hutchinson at Boston’s Royale.

It is not easy to go out on a Monday night. Especially when the next day is a busy (and early) work day. But for Eric Hutchinson, I will always make an exception.

At the start of this workweek, the Boston’s Royale Lounge was home to a packed crowd ready to hear Tristan Prettyman and Eric Hutchinson on their City and Sand Tour. The doors opened a few minutes past seven, and unlike other shows (like the time I missed Gavin DeGraw perform while I stood outside the venue chatting because I thought he had an opening act), I was determined to get in and set up camp—especially since this one was General Admission. And as an aside, if you are local and ever have a chance to see a show at the Royale, I highly recommend it. Wear comfortable shoes because you will be standing the whole time, but you can get up close and really experience the music in a way that you can’t at a larger venue.

Around 7:30, British singer-songwriter Nick Howard took the stage for a seven-song set that was just fantastic. He was witty and seemed quite relaxed as he engaged the crowd in between his songs. In some ways, his sound reminded me of a cross between James Morrison and the lead singer of The Script. Really great. He is coming back to Boston for a show on April 8, and I will definitely plan to go.

Nick Howard.

Nick Howard.

Next up was indie pop songstress and California native (i.e. the “sand” part of the tour) Tristan Prettyman. Readers may know her name from her previous engagement to singer Jason Mraz, but she is a standalone name in her own right. She sang songs from her earlier albums as well as the new song “Waves” from her latest EP. The highlight, however, may have been her rendition of Iggy Azalea’s “Fancy”—which I loved! Prettyman is such a talented guitar player and natural performer that she is a pleasure to watch.

Tristan Prettyman.

Tristan Prettyman performs in her cool romper.

After her set, Eric Hutchinson took the stage—though he wasn’t wearing his signature striped shirt, ha ha. He was accompanied by a three-piece band (drums, bass, and guitar/keyboards). As usual, he put on a stellar show. If you haven’t ever heard him live, you are missing out—his is a voice that doesn’t need autotune or studio filters. And his ability to switch back and forth from keyboard to guitar without missing a beat is a gift. I love how he always integrates mashup medleys into his shows too—this time, it was “All Over Now” with Taylor Swift’s “Shake it Off” and Outkast’s “Hey Ya.” Sounds like an odd mix, but it worked! Here is a quick clip of EH that I took before my phone died!

I was a little bleary-eyed on Tuesday morning from the late night, but it was worth it. Three talented performers, a wonderful show, and a great venue. A win on all fronts!

The Weekender: A Little Sunday Music.

This morning my children were singing a familiar standard in church, but it was pepped up midway though with the addition of some Swahili verses! Listen here (disclaimer: I am no videographer).

Then, we stepped outside to hear this great music on Boston Common. First, the ending of “Superstition,”

and then this (note the dancing spectators–LOVE):

Current Events: Beyoncé’s Feminine Mystique

Last year, Betty Freidan’s The Feminine Mystique (1963) celebrated its 50th anniversary, and this past Sunday, while slithering across a stage in a shimmering bodysuit, superstar singer Beyoncé proclaimed herself a FEMINIST as she swayed in front of the illuminated backdrop of the stage where she performed as part of the MTV Video Music Awards. This moment came midway through a medley of the singer’s latest album as she performed the song “Flawless,” which features a sample of novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s 2013 TED talk, “We should all be feminists.”

Photo: Getty Images.

Photo: Getty Images.

Freidan’s work articulates the “problem that has no name”—specifically, the growing dissatisfaction felt by many suburban housewives of the mid-twentieth century—“a strange stirring, a sense of dissatisfaction, a yearning…the silent question—‘Is this all?’” and today, writers like Adichie boldly resist prescribed gender roles by suggesting that girls should be taught that they are not defined by their sex. This is certainly important.

Adichie says, “We teach females, that in relationships, ‘compromise’ is what women do. We raise girls to see each other as competitors, not for jobs, or for accomplishments — which I think can be a good thing — but for the attention of men. We teach girls that they cannot be sexual beings in the way that boys are…We police girls. We praise girls for virginity, but we don’t praise boys for virginity…” All of this is true—there is most definitely a cultural double standard of expectations for the sexuality of genders (e.g. a woman who is sexually active runs the risk of being labeled a slut or worse, a whore—while her male counterpart is a stud or one who has “game”). It makes sense, then, that women may want to appropriate these cultural perceptions and rework them. To proclaim that women can be successful, competitive, strong, and sexual.

Or not.

By many women, Beyoncé has been vaunted not only for her star power nor her own admonitions (“Respect that, bow down bitches. I took some time to live my life. But don’t think I’m just his little wife.”) but rather, for her unabashed public embrace of a multifaceted femininity. She is Mrs. Carter, yet she is Queen Bey. She is a businesswoman and a mother. She is a God-fearing Christian and a sexual being. I get it. But the appropriation—and reworking—of the language and tropes of the oppressor by the (previously) oppressed is nothing new (listen to any rap music or activist rhetoric from the gay community as evidence). And after watching Beyoncé’s most recent performance, I am not convinced that it is an effective strategy. Of course, many would argue that she is not only a Video Vanguard, but a cultural force rewriting womanhood. For example, The Guardian’s Jessica Valenti proclaims that Beyoncé’s feminist act at the VMAs “leads the way for other women” and Slate’s Amanda Marcotte suggests that Bey gave viewers “a pretty good education” on feminism through her performance.

To me, a performance at an event where attendees sport $56K manicures is not real life. And by offering only extremes—a heartfelt tribute to your daughter and a robust celebration of carnal experience—seems to me to be overstating the case. The loudest voice isn’t always the most thoughtful. We get it, Beyoncé Knowles Carter isn’t just one thing—none of us are. And though there is an element of spectacle that the stage requires, I wonder if feminism is more effectively grown in more deep-rooted ways such as the sort that Freidan advocates for in her final chapter of The Feminine Mystique. She writes, “The time is at hand when the voices of the feminine mystique can no longer drown out the inner voice that is driving women on to become complete.” This is still true—but women (and men) don’t need to defer to one bedazzled spokesperson to rally the cause—it must come from within.

What are your thoughts on this topic? Is it important to emphasize the extremes of female possibility to undermine prescribed gender expectations for women?

Friday Culture Watch: What to Read, Listen, Make, and Do.

To Read
Vogue readers, rejoice! The September Issue has dropped. So you may not have time or energy for much else this weekend.

Photo credit: Bryanboy.com.

Photo credit: Bryanboy.com.

But in case you do, be sure to read the New York Times Magazine‘s feature on Sarah Burton by Andrew O’Hagan, “The Genius Next Door.” Burton is the head designer for Alexander McQueen who finished the annual collection after his untimely death three years ago. She also designed one of the most photographed dresses of the recent past: the wedding gown of The Duchess of Cambridge. In the cutthroat world of high fashion, Burton is seen as somewhat of an anomaly–a genuinely nice person. In fact, when the interviewer asks her who she would name as her hero, she gives the following response: “I think my dad is my hero,” she said. “He works so hard, and he never lies. He believes in family. He’s always been totally fair. And he treats everybody in the family equally.” 

To Listen
Lenny Kravitz (otherwise known as the Hunger Games‘ Cinna) still has it. Though his new album won’t be released in its entirety until late September, three songs from the forthcoming Strut have been released. (PS: How is he 50 years old?)
KRAVITZ
Listen to the audio of the album’s title song here:

To Make
Try a Pimm’s Cup. Wimbledon may be weeks behind us and summer is waning, but there are still plenty of warm sunsets where you can enjoy the classic British cocktail featured at the premier annual tennis contest. It is said that over 80,000 pints are sold to spectators at Wimbledon each year! Invented in the 1840s by James Pimm at the Oyster Bar in London, this drink is refreshing and light–this is the perfect drink to sip while enjoying civilized conversation.

Photo credit: Whitneyinchicago.

Photo credit: Whitneyinchicago.

If you’ve never tried Pimm’s No. 1, it is hard to describe. It is gin-based, but it has an herbal flavor. The recipe is top-secret (supposedly only 6 people know the formula!) but when combined with mixers, it has a lovely taste that is neither sweet nor too heavy. The standard recipe for a Pimm’s Cup is appended below (note: the cucumber garnish and lots of ice are key), but you can play around with the mixers to get the proportion that you like. I like mine with a bit of lemonade and ginger ale.

Pimm’s Cup Cocktail Recipe

Servings: 1
Prep Time: 5 mins
Total Time: 5 mins

Ingredients

  • 2 oz Pimms No. 1
  • 3 oz lemonade
  • cucumber slice for garnish
  • lemon wedge / lime wedge / mint / apple slice / orange slice, for garnish (optional)

Directions

1. Fill a Collins glass with ice.
2. Pour the Pimms No. 1 into the glass with the lemonade and stir and shake together.
3. Top off the mixture with club soda or if you prefer a sweeter cocktail, top off with Sprite or lemon-lime soda. Stir lightly but do not shake.
4. Garnish with a few slices of cucumber, lemon wedge and a few sprigs of mint (optional). Be sure to garnish with lots of fruit (apples, oranges, lemons) to bring out the fruit flavor from Pimms No. 1.

To Do
Catalog your home library. Years ago I bought some software at the NYPL called “Home Library System” or something similar. Of course it was an impulse buy of $100 (I blame it on the aura of the NYPL) and I never used it because the task seemed too daunting. Looking at my bookshelves the other day, I was thinking that it might be time to come up with *some* sort of organizational system as I spent more than an hour the other day looking for a T.S. Eliot book so I could find a particular poem. Now if I had just had a “poetry” section, this would have been easy.

Apartment Therapy has some good suggestions for organizing book collections–here and here. A few years ago, organizing books by color was a very designery thing to do–but I tend to think that organizing by genre would be more useful. And I am interested in trying out this software from Delicious Library. 

Photo credit:  Valerio Mezzanotti for The New York Times.

Photo credit: Valerio Mezzanotti for The New York Times.

Have a fabulous weekend!

Sing, O Muse…

Yesterday, while driving home from a family vacation, I made an attempt to block out the voices of bickering siblings behind me (those would be my children) by flipping through the satellite radio stations. For the music stations, the 80s and 90s on Sirius are my favorites and occasionally a little Pop2K, where I can indulge my affinity for early aughts boy bands (N’Sync et al–you know you like them too).

As I flipped between the stations, I knew every song by heart. T’Pau? Check. Billy Ocean? You know it. Lavert? Of course.

When I made a technical comment on the abrupt tonal shift from the chorus to the bridge of Rick Springfield’s “Don’t Talk to Strangers,” my husband piped up. “You must have logged a lot of hours listening to these tunes if you still remember them word for word after not hearing them for at least a decade.”

The interesting thing was that I had no good explanation why I could sing all of the words to such a diverse range of songs from the days of yore (ha!). I hadn’t, in fact, “logged lots of hours” in front of a radio. Bon Jovi’s “Never Say Goodbye” was never my teenaged anthem, yet I can still sing every phrase of the song with emphatic expression. Nor did I drive around singing Rob Base’s “It Takes Two” or Boys II Men’s “Mowtownphilly” (well, maybe I did to the last one). But I wondered how it was that I remembered all of these lyrics, when I have to write down a shopping list.

Turns out, we remember things differently when they are set to music. Is it the melody that helps us? Or is it the lyricsResearch suggests that it is the latter. If we think back to many of the early epics, we remember the stock phrases (e.g. Homer’s “rosy-fingered dawn”) that populate the poems—could it be simply that we look for patterns (like song choruses or stock metaphors in poetry) and that once we find them, we intuitively commit them to memory? It is an interesting topic to consider—how text and melody and memory intersect.

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Book Tunes (later renamed Sparktunes) was an interesting project conceived of by Jonathan Sauer and created with rapper Abdominal to use music as a mnemonic device to summarizes complex literary plots. Here is a sample of a Sparktune that summarizes the plot of The Scarlet Letter . It is a great concept.

Are you able to remember song lyrics that you haven’t thought about in ages? How might we apply this skill to remembering other important things?

Friday Culture Watch: What to Read, Listen, Make, and Do.

To Read
For thirty years, John Carey has been a professor of English literature at Oxford as well as a prolific reviewer of books. He is perhaps best known for his “literary activism”—or his emphatic insistence on the value of reading. In fact, the final chapter of his autobiography, released earlier this year, contains a final chapter titled “Why Read?,” which concludes, “Reading is freedom. Now read on.” Readers might be familiar with his argument in What Good Are the Arts, where he suggests that literature is the only art capable of reasoning, and the only art that can criticize. In Carey’s mind, Literature has the ability to inspire the mind and the heart towards practical ends far better than any work of conceptual art. I have been thinking quite a bit about Carey this week after having an impromptu conversation with an employee at my favorite clothing store. She told me how she was reading a classic work of literature each month as a self-improvement project and enthused about how much she was learning about the world and herself from this endeavor. I didn’t need any convincing about the benefits (and likely results) of such a project, but for those who do—or those who appreciate confirmation of their perspectives—John Carey is one to read.
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To Listen
Have you seen the movie Begin Again? If not, you should. Afterwards, you are going to want to run out and download the soundtrack featuring Keira Knightley and (yes), Adam Levine. It is a great summer soundtrack. Download it, pour yourself an ice-cold lemonade, and enjoy this perfect blend of indie-pop.

To Make
This simple meal—Shrimp with Orzo and Feta—has been a staple in my house since I discovered it in a Sunday Boston Globe feature on easy dinners back in 2009. Though the recipe calls for frozen shrimp and spinach, you can easily substitute fresh ingredients (I do). It is super-easy and SO delicious. Trust me! Serve with a leafy green salad and a glass of Vermentino and you will be in heaven.

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To Do
Learn a new skill. Have you heard of Skillshare? It is an online learning community where you can acquire valuable real-world skills in tech, media, design, and the creative arts. Want to take an online screenwriting course with James Franco? Done. Want to learn how to do fashion watercolors? Try it (I did!) Learn the tools to take better photographs? There are many classes to choose from. Most courses are less than $20, or you can sign up for a monthly membership for unlimited courses.

What are your suggestions for things to read, hear, make, or do this weekend?