Five Platters For Your Fourth Of July Picnic
For a jazz fan, patriotic music might conjure thoughts of loud, brassy marching-band fare, uneven performances at sporting events, or simply Kate Smith. For those just getting acquainted with jazz, the notion of the art form expressing nationalistic jubilation might seem at odds with its reputation for complexity and cool.
There are more than a few Independence Day-appropriate sides, however, good for serving up various elaborations on the profound relationship between jazz and our national ideals. As America's birthday approaches, here are five tasty and tasteful offerings for your Fourth of July celebration.
Paul Simon's 1968 ode to a young couple's bus trip captured a generation's yearning, coming-of-age uncertainty about what their country meant to them in a time of turmoil and change. Forty years later, Alyssa Graham, one of the young jazz singers who bring the music of the past several decades into the canon of the Great American Songbook, provided a poignant, openhearted millennial update, propelled initially by guitar and a questing percussive line. The upsweep of the performance's crescendo — as the vocals give way to a gathering wave of drums, piano and harmonica — suggests the country's enduring capacity to inspire hope and wonder in those who traverse it in search of their own identities.
Lift Every Voice And Sing/Star-Spangled Banner
In 2008, vocalist Rene Marie changed up "The Star-Spangled Banner" at a Denver City Hall performance by singing the song's melody and interpolating James Weldon Johnson's lyrics for "Lift Every Voice and Sing," often dubbed "The Black National Anthem." Marie had no idea that her interpretation would touch off a media firestorm that even compelled then-candidate Barack Obama to comment on the issue. The furor helped inspire the singer's latest album, Voice of My Beautiful Country, which includes a studio version of Marie's anthem mash-up; a a spare-but-simmering rhythm section backs the singer as she puts across her message with artful intensity and nuance. Reminding listeners that it's no disservice to acknowledge America as both a promise and a problematic reality, "Lift Every Voice and Sing/The Star Spangled Banner" serves as a fitting testament to the long-running double-consciousness of the black experience in the land of freedom.
Louis Armstrong famously thought for all of his life that he'd been born on July 4, 1900, which would have been highly appropriate: the avatar of modern American jazz coming into the world on the first Independence Day of a new century. Researcher Tad Jones discovered in 1988 that Armstrong had actually been born a year and a month later, but a ceremonial association between the trumpeter and the Fourth of July endures. "Fireworks" gives us a 1928 edition of Armstrong and his Hot Five in fine ensemble form; the solos, particularly from pianist Earl Hines and Armstrong himself, launch forward with a laidback but kinetic heat, but it's the joyous, collective ease of the group that most marks this piece. It's topped off by a graceful cadenza from the once and future Pops.
Rhapsody In Blue
George Gershwin's epic 1924 composition has become a perennial picnic-with-the-Pops July 4 favorite over the years, but few bandleaders and arrangers have been able to pull off the condensed-jazz masterpiece that Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn made of it. The superlative individual voices of the Ellington orchestra are on display here, including Harry Carney's softly shimmering baritone-sax invocation of the famous intro and tenor saxophonist Paul Gonsalves' sensuous glide of a solo. All move beautifully against the multi-hued backdrop of the full band in an inventive arrangement that somehow gets all of the majestic tapestry and texture of Gershwin's work into the confines of a five-minute, concert-worthy miniature, and still comes out sounding Ellingtonian.
America The Beautiful
Has there ever been a more passionate reading of this song than the one Brother Ray delivered? For years, Ray Charles turned down requests to do "The Star-Spangled Banner," saying that the song wasn't a good fit for him, but in 1972 he recorded a Quincy Jones arrangement of this longstanding rival to our National Anthem. Adding his own testifying exhortations to Katharine Lee Bates' lyrics, Charles gave "America the Beautiful" a jolt of power that made its original grandeur glow even brighter. It became a concert staple for the rest of his career.