One for my baby, the piano solo way

Frank Sinatra Sings for Only the Lonely (1958) is one of the Chairman’s finest albums, as he himself admitted, and the 1943 Harold Arlen/Johnny Mercer song “One for My Baby (and One More for the Road)” is among the highlights of the album. Since then it’s been recognized as one of the masterpieces of the Great American Songbook, and certainly one of Sinatra’s.

The version arranged by the great Nelson Riddle for orchestra and solo piano is the version that’s justly entered the pantheon, but in some ways I very much prefer the version below, a rehearsal performance recorded on June 24, 1958, a day before Sinatra and Riddle laid down the track for the album itself. This recording was discovered in 1990 by Ron Furmanek as he was compiling the three-CD collection The Capitol Years, and to my knowledge has not had the reach of the album recording. With only pianist Bill Miller accompanying him, Sinatra achieves a closer intimacy with the listener, the bartender to whom the woozy, half-inebriated singer is disclosing his woes; in this rendition, the song becomes a pained epiphany about the transience of all things, not just a lost love, and the two bars of “You gotta be true to your code” insist upon the value of stoicism and individual integrity in the face of that transience — far more simply and effectively, I think, than the later anthem “My Way.”

Perhaps you’ll agree. In any case, check it out.

Thumbs up

I’m delighted to report that my wife Marilyn Nonken‘s album of music by Scott Joplin and his collaborators, Syncopated Musings from Divine Art, is beginning to garner attention, and not just because I wrote the album notes. (Marilyn will be playing some of these rags — along with a few surprises — in June at the Scott Joplin International Ragtime Festival in Sedalia, MO. A few years ago I wrote about the peculiar role of Sedalia and Hannibal in American culture.)

Joplin biographer and ragtime authority Edward A. Berlin‘s review appears in the new issue of Syncopated Times, and he’s got nothing but good things to say. Quoth Mr. Berlin:

Classical artists may differentiate and personalize their performances with subtleties, highlighting features that might otherwise go unnoticed, using touch and dynamics to separate distinctive lines and to adjust expressiveness. Nonken follows these principles and excels in their execution; her playing is always ultra clean, precise, and well considered. …

Most classical pianists whose Joplin performances I’ve heard play [“Stoptime Rag”] slightly percussively; Nonken plays it generally legato, and in the final strain presents an even smoother legato that’s both unexpected and delicious. …

Not all classical pianists who perform Joplin’s music produce a satisfactory result. I’ve heard recordings and live performances in which the pianist, taking to an extreme Joplin’s caution against playing ragtime fast, ignore its dance music function and adopt a dirge-like tempo that destroys its toe-tapping nature. Others play it with the bombast of a late Romantic piano concerto, a course that overwhelms the music. Nonken joins the group of classicists who understand the character of ragtime and have the skill and temperament to enhance it in performance. I expect that Joplin would have been thrilled to hear Nonken play his music; I know that I am.

I’m not sure you can get much better than that. Berlin’s lengthy review, which also considers the provenance and performance practice of this music through the years, can be found here.

Below, a taste of the album (available on all major streaming platforms and on CD from Amazon) with Marilyn’s performance of the lovely “Reflection Rag”:

A toast to … Scott Joplin

The Scott Joplin memorial near his grave at St. Michael’s Cemetery in Queens, NY.

Today marks the anniversary of Scott Joplin’s death, who left us on this date in 1917. Although he himself is dead, his music etc. etc. You know how it goes.

This may be a good time to remind you that Marilyn Nonken‘s fine album of music by Joplin and his collaborators, Syncopated Musings, is now available on CD and on your better music streaming services everywhere. Marilyn will also be celebrating the careers of Joplin and his friends at this year’s Scott Joplin International Ragtime Festival, to be held in Sedalia, MO, this June. At the festival, she’ll be urging the ragtime form into the future, performing new rags by women composers commissioned especially for performance at the festival. I understand that the theme of this year’s festival is “Women in Ragtime,” so it’s right in keeping with the times.

To brighten up your Friday morning, I offer Marilyn’s performance of “Sensation,” an ebullient Charles Lamb rag “arranged by” Joplin. Marilyn and I will be raising a glass to Scott and his pals at Cafe Katja later today. Cheers!



Reason to celebrate

A few days ago the fine ladies and gentlemen of the United States Postal Service knocked at the door to deliver a large box filled with CDs of Syncopated Musings, the new Scott Joplin album from my lovely wife, Marilyn Nonken. The Divine Art release is scheduled to “drop,” as the kids say, on February 11, but just this morning BBC Radio 3 couldn’t help itself and played “Kismet Rag” from this CD on its morning music program. So they jumped the gun just a bit; that’s fine.

I must say it sounds great. On Tuesday night Marilyn and I lifted our glasses to Marilyn’s esteemed and talented producers Manuel Laufer and Jeffrey Means; recording engineer Paul Geluso; designer Denise Avayou of Avayou Design and photographers Paul Cava and ventiko for the lovely visual presentation (more reason to purchase the CD); and, of course, Stephen Sutton and the gang at Divine Art Recordings.

You can pre-order and purchase the CD or its digital equivalent from Divine Art or Amazon; no doubt it’ll be streaming on one or more of those newfangled internet music doohickeys as well come February 11. And no doubt some domestic radio play will follow.

You can read my liner notes for Syncopated Musings here.



Oh, the shark bites …

For Christmas, my thoughtful brother, aware that I’d just purchased a new turntable and stereo system, dug his way through the racks of a used record store in upstate New York and came up with one of my prized possessions as a teenager — this 1974 reissue of an early stereo recording of Die Dreigroschenoper in German, produced under the supervision of Kurt Weill’s widow, Lotte Lenya. It plays beautifully (dig that Seymour Chwast cover art, too), and I’m looking forward to spending more time with it. (This, along with my daughter, may also be dragging me back to writing more about theatre and drama, as I used to back in the day.)

English-language translations of this Threepenny Opera don’t often catch the sharp, rough inflections of Brecht’s lyrics; Bobby Darin’s suavity doesn’t really approach the gutteral growls of Wolfgang Neuss, say, who sings the “Mortitat von Mackie Messer” on this recording:

But, performed in the right spirit, the English-language “Mack the Knife” can bite. Dave Van Ronk, who once recorded an album of Brecht’s songs, performed “Mack” with his Ragtime Jug Stompers on a 1964 album for Mercury Records; he wrote in the album notes:

“Mack the Knife” is kind of a brainstorm. We think that we do no violence to the spirit of the song in performing it. As a matter of fact, I personally think that if Kurt Weill had been familiar with the form he would have scored the entire “Three Penny Opera” for jug band.

Could be; you can listen and judge below. I’m also waiting on the original cast album of the Richard Foreman/Stanley Silverman Lincoln Center production of 1976, so more then.