TROUBLEMAN / “Change Is What We Need”
I was surprised to learn that the pop/jazz standard “Everything Must Change” dates back no further than 1974, when the composer of the song, singer-songwriter and Quincy Jones protégé Bernard Ighner, performed it for Jones’ 1974 album Body Heat. I’d always assumed that “Change” originated earlier: maybe in the Fifties. Anyhow, when I think of Quincy Jones (musically, I mean—those who’ve heard the stories about the offstage Quincy Jones will know why I specify), the first word that comes to mind is ‘professional.’ True to that adjective, the Quincy Jones/Bernard Ighner version is perfectly rendered: classy, evocative, elegant. A touch pretentious? Maybe. But the unexpected funkiness of the groove-and-trumpet break halfway through makes up for any high-falutin’ undertones. Two years after Body Heat, George Benson released his cover of “Everything Must Change” on the album In Flight (which also contains Benson’s well-known version of “Nature Boy,” a song we’ll have to feature one of these weeks). Benson’s version is the one I grew up thinking of as the version. Thanks to the massive success of “This Masquerade” and the entire Breezin’ album, Benson had become something of a crossover star; in New Orleans (as in most urban areas around the country, I suspect) Benson’s tunes were played regularly on the mainstream R&B stations. Coming up, I remember hearing (and liking) Benson’s version a lot. Randy Crawford, whom we featured two weeks ago and who, not coincidentally, got her start as George Benson’s opening act back in 1972, released a version of “Change” the same year that Benson did. In fact, Randy named her debut album Everything Must Change in deference to the tune. Her version, recorded live, is typical Randy: that is, very, very good. One of the things I like best about Randy’s style is the way she never crowds the notes; her silences between the words are as much a part of her performance as the singing itself. As Randy proves during the climactic end of “Change,” she has a real flame-thrower of a voice—when she chooses to, she can whoop and scream with the best of them—but she also has the artistic sense to smolder as much as she burns. Which brings us to the miraculous and inimitable Nina Simone. Her 1978 version shows why she was, and remains, one of the superlative interpreters of song. We’re three versions in, and yet, the way Nina subtly but substantively manipulates the melody leaves me feeling like I’m hearing a different song than the one everyone else is singing. Some say Nina is a jazz singer, and of course, there’s the well-known and oft-repeated cognomen ‘High Priestess of Soul,’ but for me, Nina is a blues singer. Everything that I’ve ever heard her sing has that deep, dark feeling of ascendant melancholy that we’ve never quite come up with a word for…other than ‘the blues.’ The observant reader will notice that all four of the versions I’ve so far mentioned date from the same period: the mid-Seventies. (The bookends are the original from 1974 and Nina’s version from 1978.) In the nearly thirty years since, countless versions have been released, nearly all seeming to follow either: a) the light funk/jazz prototype created by Jones and Ighner and popularized by Benson or, b) the ‘moody ballad’ paradigm as performed by Randy and Nina. (By the way, Kalamu promises a Carmen McRae version that will relight the fire. I can’t wait to hear that one.) In 2004, Mark Pritchard, a London-based DJ and electronica musician decided that someone at some point would need to rescue the now-moldy chestnut from it’s unfortunate position as fodder for over-the-hill lounge acts and aging jazz singers; he further decided that he was that person and the time was now. Pritchard, who performs and records as Troubleman (yes, it’s one word, don’t ask me why), thoroughly dispenses with tradition, creating a junglish mélange of swirling electronic drums, soaring electronic strings, a very prominent electronic bassline and echoing, electronically-enhanced voices, the sum of which is a new context for an old statement. Note too that Pritchard’s version is reminiscent of two tracks we’ve written about previously: the Opolopo remix of Diana Ross’ “I Will Survive” and the Mo’ Horizon’s remix of Nina Simone’s “Images.” Like Opolopo, Pritchard’s reworking of the groove freshened what had become stale; like Mo’ Horizons, Pritchard used the original only as a starting place, as a jumping-off point: there really isn’t much—other than wisps of melody and the main phrase itself—to connect Pritchard’s version to the original. Pritchard even renamed the tune (as, you may remember, Mo’ Horizons did). The name Pritchard chose is “Change Is What We Need,” (from the album Time Out Of Mind), a more demonstrative statement than the reflective tone of “Everything Must Change.” Consider this: the phrase “everything must change”—in it’s original “the new becomes the old” and “winter becomes the spring” context—situates the listener as a passive observer of life’s changes; we are at the mercy of the passage of time and the changes such passage brings. In Pritchard’s hands, the phrase sounds more like “everything must change,” as in, “we demand change.” As in, “we must create change.” Last up is Marijah, a reggae singer and percussionist whose light, poppish style is exactly the change we need to counterbalance the weight of five consecutive philosophical treatises. (Note: The throat-clearing sound you hear is Kalamu warming up to excoriate this version, and that’s OK. Lightweight pop-reggae covers are guilty pleasures, I admit, but they’re pleasures none the less.) —Mtume ya Salaam Bonus tracks: - Quincy Jones feat. Bernard Ighner – “Everything Must Change” from Body Heat (A&M, 1974) - George Benson – “Everything Must Change” from In Flight(Warner Bros., 1976) - Randy Crawford – “Everything Must Change” from Everything Must Change (1976) - Nina Simone – “Everything Must Change” from Baltimore (1978) - Marijah – “Everything Must Change” from Spirit Of A Woman (2000) What is there left for me to say? Mtume is up to his tricks. First he selects a zillion cuts. Then he writes about the history of the song. Then he predicts how I will feel about the more trifling of his selections. So what’s left for me to say? Well, for sure there is a reason the song hit during the Seventies, a decade of social seriousness unmatched since, well since the 1870’s when Reconstruction was at its height, which, when you think about it is a good parallel, especially since the 1860’s Civil War is also paralleled by the 1960’s Civil Rights Movement. I don’t know about history repeating itself, but I can recognize reoccurring themes. If you want to grasp the significance of Black music, you’ve got to get with what was happening with our people at a given historical period, for as I said before, and as I will undoubtedly try to find other ways to reiterate: the music comes from and is an expression of our lives. Black music is never merely momentary entertainment, not even when it is created as part of an economic hustle. Note: musical hustling is nothing new—Negroes was buck-dancing and coon-shining for quarters long before BET and MTV. One of my favorite versions of this song is Carmen McRae’s suite-like investigation that features a charging saxophone solo from Grover Washington, Jr. who had a distinctive sound that was a great foil for Carmen’s approach. Grover is given a minute to stretch, so we are pressented with an interpretation of the song not simply as a reflection on what is going on, but also as an expression of activism. Grover’s groove represents us on the move, digging into the guts of the song and charting new directions. And by the way, that’s Hubert Laws doing the flute interlude. Carmen’s reading of the lyric is right up there with Nina’s interpretation. Carmen was like the Miles Davis of vocals—her range was limited. She didn’t strive to hit many high notes. Her artistry was the skill of nuance and a minimalist mastery of space and timing. Listen to how she enunciates her words, how even as she stretches a note there are subtle tonal inflections, a grittiness that bespeaks experience, a painful beauty (i.e. the exquisite loveliness that results when one paints a picture with the indelible ink of tears). While I can’t avoid digging the fireworks (that smoldering flame-thrower image is a monster metaphor, Mtume) of Randy Crawford and can’t deny the majesty of our high priestess, Ms. Nina Simone, nevertheless my heart is in Carmen’s hand. The way Ms. McRae handles up on the sentiments delineated in the song bespeaks a sophistication that most other versions don’t even begin to approach. Carmen McRae deserves our praise and admiration. Perhaps, because she is not bombastic and ostentatious, we easily overlook the subtle majesty of her artistry. But let this be a call to all who have ears, Carmen McRae had few peers when it came to deep and meaningful interpretations of deep and meaningful lyrics. And by the way my assessment of the other versions is: Benson is coasting, were it not for his guitar work, this version would be merely something to take up space until the next commercial interruption. As Mtume noted, Quincy is professional but I also find Quincy emotionally detached, fortunately Bernard Ighner was singing his heart out, otherwise this would have been just another day at the studio. Marijah better keep her day job. And I guess Troubleman is included just to annoy me. Mtume, that trick of citing other remixes and DJ joints we have posted, in no way makes up for the utter facileness of the arrangement and vacuousness of the interpretation, especially when compared to McRae’s extended jazz version. Troubleman’s take is commercial music 101: take something meaningful, put a hip-hop beat on it and foist if off as something wicked. But, when it comes to musical depth, to quote Gertrude Stein: there’s no there there. (I quote Stein because in the literary world of yesteryear, she often worked the way DJs do today: cutting and scratching and sampling, mashing up the words to make them mean something other than what they mean in an ordinary sense when one makes a sentence with subject-verb-object.) —Kalamu ya Salaam
This entry was posted on Sunday, January 22nd, 2006 at 2:25 am and is filed under Cover. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.
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