[Dixielandjazz] A New Approach to Bix

Stephen Barbone barbonestreet at earthlink.net
Mon Dec 1 11:53:08 PST 2003


Steve Barbone

December 1, 2003 - New York Times

Beiderbecke Reimagined, With an Eclectic Approach


      Slithering through the cracks that separate musical genres has
long been a way of life for Geoff Muldaur. Over the years his albums
have blended gospel and bluegrass, country blues and modern jazz, Tin
Pan Alley and R&B. But however eclectic his approach, those who prefer
their music in neatly labeled boxes have tended to agree that he belongs
in the one marked "folk singer." His new album should put an end to that

Mr. Muldaur has, at least temporarily, forsaken Leadbelly and Dock Boggs
for a very different kind of roots music: the recordings and
compositions of the cornet player Bix Beiderbecke, a son of the
Midwestern middle class who in the 1920's brought a new degree of
delicacy and lyricism to jazz, and who achieved his highest profile as a
member of Paul Whiteman's high-toned dance band.

Though little known to the general public during his brief lifetime (he
drank himself to death at 28), Beiderbecke has come to be widely
regarded as the first great white musician in jazz history. Mr. Muldaur
says he has been a fervent Beiderbecke fan since he began listening to
his older brother's jazz records as a child.

On "Private Astronomy: A Vision of the Music of Bix Beiderbecke,"
released in the waning months of the Beiderbecke centennial, Mr. Muldaur
celebrates Beiderbecke's music by reimagining it. In the process he has
also, in a sense, reimagined himself.

Geoff Muldaur, the guitar-strumming troubadour — a familiar presence on
the folk scene as long ago as the mid-1960's, and increasingly familiar
since he ended a prolonged hiatus from performing in 1997 — is nowhere
to be found. His impassioned vocals are backed by a spirited jazz band.
He plays no guitar; in fact, except for one note on the glockenspiel, he
plays no instruments at all. Only 7 of the 13 tracks have vocals — and
Mr. Muldaur himself sings on only 4 of them. (One is sung by his fellow
not-exactly-folkie Loundon Wainwright III, two by Mr. Wainwright's
daughter, Martha.)

The rest of the album is devoted to Mr. Muldaur's evocative arrangements
of five Beiderbecke piano compositions, an otherworldly meeting of early
jazz with Ravel and Debussy. (On Saturday, Mr. Muldaur will perform on
the public radio show "A Prairie Home Companion," live from Town Hall in
New York.)

In a recent telephone interview from his home in Los Angeles, Mr.
Muldaur said that "Private Astronomy" was not so much a departure as a
variation on a theme. "This is what I do," he said. "I explore American
music." No one has ever explored Beiderbecke's music quite the way Mr.
Muldaur has. And no one seems entirely certain what kind of animal
"Private Astronomy" is. That includes Mr. Muldaur, who professes not to

His record company, Edge Music — a division of the classical label
Deutsche Grammophon — has marked it "File under jazz." It is being
played by some folk-oriented radio stations. The National Academy of
Recording Arts and Sciences decided, after some discussion, to classify
it for Grammy consideration in the "traditional pop vocal" category. "If
I had my druthers, there would be a category called `Geoff Muldaur and
all the other stuff you don't know where to put,' " Mr. Muldaur said.
"But I go around the world playing for people who love me, and somehow
they know where to go to find my records."

Whatever else it is or isn't, "Private Astronomy" (which takes its title
from a contemporary of Beiderbecke's, Ralph Berton, who once wrote of
him "gazing off into his private astronomy, blowing something pretty")
clearly stands apart from the jazz repertory movement. There is no
attempt to be
faithful to the original recordings, and little concern for historical

"I've never been a historian," Mr. Muldaur said. "You give me a piece, I
hear what I hear and that's what you're going to get. I wouldn't do a
tune if I couldn't mess it up. That's my job."

Fidelity to the source was not much of an issue when Mr. Muldaur recast
for a jazz-inflected chamber ensemble five dreamily impressionistic
piano pieces Beiderbecke wrote with the help of the arranger Bill
Challis. (The basic instrumentation is violin, cornet, trombone,
clarinet, and alto and baritone saxophones.) Beiderbecke himself
recorded only one of them, "In a Mist," which the composer and jazz
historian Gunther Schuller has praised for using "a chromatic language
far beyond that of most jazzmen at the time." Another, "Davenport
Blues," is a significantly reworked version of a number Beiderbecke
first recorded with a jazz band.

Mr. Muldaur is not the first arranger to tackle this material, but he
said that after taking an early stab at "In a Mist" in 1984 he did
enough digging toconvince himself that no one had orchestrated the
pieces quite the way he had in mind. The other arrangements he heard
"didn't do it for me," he said. "I never heard anyone create the
textures that would evoke the era and would also satisfy the ear of Bix

Using skills that he honed during his nonperforming years, when he wrote
music for documentaries and industrial films, Mr. Muldaur began
orchestrating the pieces in the mid-1990's, concentrating on those
textures while leaving Beiderbecke's notes intact. After an abortive
attempt to record them with a jazz ensemble, he finally got the results
he wanted with a group of primarily classical musicians — among them
Mark Gould, the principal trumpet for the Metropolitan Opera — assembled
with the help of his producer, Dick Connette.

"It seemed to me," Mr. Connette said, "that the approach to take was to
go to these guys, who are great readers and not improvising egos. And
theyturned out to be just the guys to do it."

The album's other tracks are vocals: six songs associated with
Beiderbecke, newly arranged by Mr. Muldaur for a medium-size band, and a
wistful closing number on which he is accompanied only by Butch Thompson
on piano. That piece, "Clouds," is based on an unfinished fragment that
may have been written by Beiderbecke. The trumpeter and Beiderbecke
authority Randy Sandke, who put the finishing touches on the melody,
says he thinks it's Beiderbecke's but can't be positive. Mr. Muldaur
says it's fine with him if it isn't: "I just heard it and it took me

The vocal selections are true to the spirit of the Jazz Age but not the
letter. Arnie Kinsella's lively two-beat drumming is authentic enough,
but the arrangements are full of anachronistic touches: an unorthodox
harmony here, an Ellingtonian growl trombone there. And while Martha
Wainwright's sultry rendition of "Singin' the Blues" is a highlight of
the album, it has little to do with Beiderbecke's 1927 recording,
revered by critics for its solos by Beiderbecke and the clarinetist
Frankie Trumbauer, which contains no singing.

Purists may quibble, but Mr. Muldaur says the initial response from
Beiderbecke aficionados has been warm. To Mr. Muldaur's relief, Mr.
Sandke, who plays on several tracks of "Private Astronomy" and was with
him when he performed this music at Joe's Pub in New York City in
October, gave the project his seal of approval early on.

"This is not necessarily how Bix's school would have done it," Mr.
Sandke said. "But this approach is valid too. It's fresh. I enjoyed it.
It shows the durability of Bix's music, that it can be treated in
various ways and still hold up."

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