Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Michael Feinstein's American Songbook DVD set




This Three-Park Series on PBS is subtitled "Cultural History, Intimate Biography, and a front-row seat at great live performances." It is all that and more. The cultural history revolves around how the "American Songbook" was once focused on movies and plays, how it became a propaganda arm of the Allies in WWII, and how things changed after that war.

The intimate biography is of Michael Feinstein, not that intimate perhaps, but focusing on his acquisition of artifacts from the 20th century American Songbook, in order to keep the 21st century from forgetting them. This is the part that engaged me the most. Feinstein knocks on doors of collections both grandly indexed and-- just as likely-- sadly dilapidated. He zeroes right in on items of merit, if you believe the DVD, but editing must have helped. Though his scouting is far more glamorous than my own similar journeys, the end result is, for old musical memorabilia, the same. A temporary reprieve from the landfill.

People just don't have time to see what's on those old tape reels, acetates, records. Confronted with hundreds of pieces of historic sheet music from a relative, the inheritor is often overwhelmed. But I'm not. Michael Feinstein is most certainly not. We wade through these things because "lost" and "lost but not forgotten" are basically the same, in our narrow view. As Nicholson Baker has written, preservation of originals is something to be done for its own sake, even after all the proper digitizing has been duly accomplished.

Disk Two has two hours of archival clips showing some of the wartime uses of music for propaganda, such as Army sing-a-long films (long before Mitch Miller). The care taken in song delivery and offering the singer as a surrogate for the girl back home is striking. It is easy to imagine Frank Capra directing these. Other gorgeous live clips include Frank Sinatra in the 1940s, 50s, and 60s (Feinstein has a show called The Sinatra Project), and examples from Bing Crosby, Paul Whiteman, Rosemary Clooney, Alice Faye and many more.

The clips of Michael Feinstein's show are also very good, showing a performer in complete command of his material. Interestingly, his approach to romance, though fully drawn, lacks a female counterpart. He is only shown singing either alone or with other guys. I miss the guy-girl thing from network television in the 1950s and 60s. Those made-for-TV duos were strange bedfellows often as not, but the song seemed more "acted" sometimes.

Not much of a quibble for 5 hours of viewing, which I found myself watching with a permanent smile. It was sent along via a dear friend and patron of our store, who ordered me a copy of this great program directly from the producer, shopPBS.org. I have a link above if you want to buy it from amazon. Stash it with your other great 21st century collections of 20th century standards-- by Sting, Rod Stewart, Diana Krall, John Pizzarelli-- and everyone else in the gang that sang Heart of My Heart.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

In pursuing my as yet unrequited aspirations to play jazz, I've noticed the tradition among real jazz musicians of using these classic "American Songbag" tunes as points of departure for improvisations, including modest detours from the original melody as well as the most epic "outside" voyages imaginable. The point is that this is universal material here which, like the Bible, the Qur’an, the Tanakh, and Buddhist scriptures, is likely to be considered in the collective as the “sacred texts” of the jazz world from now on. Even though I have too many interests pulling me in various directions to learn to play socially-acceptable jazz on the guitar in this lifetime, I can still use my two books of Barry Galbraith transcriptions—which include the compassionate provision of TAB by author Jim Lichens for slow readers like me—to occasionally engage in do-it-yourself reproductions of these classic songs. For a clumsy practitioner of chord-melody guitar like this east Texan, even attempting to play these beautiful, timeless melodies (e.g., “All the Things You Are,” “My Funny Valentine,” “As Time Goes By,” “I Can’t Get Started,” and “Our Love is Here to Stay”) is satisfying.