CÆCILIE NORBY / “Calling You”
I believe in zeitgeist, the spirit of an era. The trick, of course, is to accurately define the era. Once that is done, identifying a zeitgeist is infinitely easier. In my cosmology there are three periods to modern history:
1. Emergent Western religions (in chronological order: Judaism, Christianity, Islam.
2. Colonialism (and its corollary: nationalism) / Imperialism
3. Post-Colonialism / Global Capitalism
(Yes, I know this is a music website, but bear with me. I think this intro is necessary to fully grasp the topic of this week’s Covers post.)
America is in the contradictory position of being the leader of both post-colonialism and global capitalism. Although today, the political and economic vectors of this position sometimes run in parallel but increasingly move in opposition to each other, during the 19th century and for most of the 20th century, there didn’t seem to be a contradiction. One could be anti-colonial and capitalist, indeed, capitalism was often viewed as inherently anti-colonial because in the waning days of the 18th century, capitalists were often conspicuous in opposing the political status quo, a status quo built largely on slavery and imperialism.
Hence, America is seen as the land of the “free” due in large part not only to the Civil War but also to the American constitution: all men are created equal, etc. That these noble ideas were not applied to all people does not negate the value of the ideals in and of themselves.
Without going further into the political/economic backdrop let’s advance to our musical thesis. Either in whole or in essential part, American music is black music and black music is not only democratic in structure, black music also simultaneously emphasizes and authenticates the individual. In simpler terms black music is all about individual expression (freedom) within a collective environment (community).
In classical music, the goal is to have a note sound the same regardless of who plays that note. In black music the note is supposed to reflect more than the ideal. When sounded, the note is also supposed to reflect, indeed to identify, the maker of the note. In black music, sound is identity. John Coltrane’s b-flat sounds significantly different from Sonny Rollins’ b-flat. Aretha hitting a high c is significantly different from Minnie Riperton hitting that same high c even though both may be accurately (by euro-centric standards) hitting the note.
Or, as our people knew and articulated in many, many different ways: it ain’t what you do, but the way that you do it. How you sound making a sound, how you take “a” sound and make it “your” sound. Due to a number of factors, which I will not go into at this time, the black music approach to music making became known as the black way of doing things. From there it was but one small, albeit false, step to assume that only blacks wanted to or could do the black way.
So on one hand you have the black sound as the standard for “sounding,” i.e. creating, American music and on the other hand the racist notion that only blacks could do it. Thus, almost immediately the hippest non-black American musicians were those who could sound like blacks. Do I need to go further in explaining why Elvis is often called “The King”? Essentially, what is argued is that Elvis is the best at being white and sounding black.
We at BoL don’t buy into racial essentialism. Black music is a culture, an aesthetic and as such can be understood, enjoyed and produced by any other human on the planet. Sure, it helps tremendously to be born into a culture within which black music is either dominant or broadly available but it’s not necessary.
And that brings us to Cæcilie Norby, today’s feature. I focus on her covering American music precisely because of the clarity her example brings to the discussion.
Mtume, you have a stated discomfort with people singing in languages that they did not speak as child. I suppose it’s the accents that get to you. This is especially the case for those who cross languages to sing in English.
What do you think of Cæcilie Norby?
Ms. Norby is Danish. Her father is a noted classical composer and her mother an accomplished opera vocalist. Her home background is non-English and classical music-based. So how is it she sounds the way she sounds?
She didn’t grow up with it. There was one Nancy Wilson record in the home (which she listened to over and over) but as for her background:
My early musical background is Puccini's operas, "A hard days night" with the Beatles, Jesus Christ Superstar, Strauss´ Electra, Count Basie and ABBA. I didn't think in genres, only in the categories of good and bad music. And I still do.While I’ve included one original, “A Poem & A Prayer,” which makes obvious use of her classical background, the focus here is on how well Ms. Norby works within the jazz tradition even though that is not directly part of her birth culture. Wether one is American-born or is black is not an essential limitation on whether one can express one's self within black music.
Jazz specifically and popular American music in general offer a framework within which the individual is encouraged to fully express one’s self howsoever that self is defined. There are critical elements of jazz: improvisation, blues tonality, rhythmic emphasis. These elements are not fixed in one static form but rather are alive, are what Amiri Baraka accurately calls the “changing same.”
Rhythmically, jazz from South Africa is distinctly different from Cuban jazz, and both are different from American jazz but all are easily recognizable as jazz. The profoundness of the music is that it remains itself even as it reflects the origins and cultures of who ever is creating it in the moment.
Undoubtedly, 20th century American masters are the founders of jazz music and have set the standards for jazz but they are not ipso facto the only standards, nor are they the only masters and thus there is room for others.
I thought it was interesting that Ms. Norby noted a parallel to the blues in the Scandinavian personality.
Over all I have the feeling that the Japanese people are generally enthusiastic about and interested in Scandinavian culture—music, design, architecture and history. They love rather everything that is different from their world. But at the same time they care very much for their own old traditions. When it comes to Scandinavian Jazz music, I think perhaps they are drawn by the melancholic and blue atmosphere some people say we have up here. (laughs) So let's export it!
Is this partially the explanation for why her rendering of ballads is so moving? Listen to “Midnight Sun,” a song written about the Scandinavian clime. I like the jazz arrangement and her understated approach to the lyrics. For sure she experiences “midnight sun” as a seasonal reality rather than simply as a lyric metaphor.
Then there is the way she handles Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.” Again, isn’t it impressive the way the song unfolds, starting with solo bass and moving to full orchestra with voices and horn obbligato over a rhythm vamp—the horns, the rhythm, the scatting voices coming from jazz, the strings and arrangement coming from her classical background.
“Here’s To Life” is straight-ahead jazz, gracefully done with a bed of strings, a solo trumpet and flowing guitar lines supplying romantic support. Cæcilie never over reaches, keeping her voice mainly in the middle register.
On “What Do You See In Her,” Cæcilie’s Nancy Wilson roots are fully revealed. Fortunately that is Caecilie’s beginning and not her ending point. On the out chorus Caecilie reveals her own personality. In terms of finding her own voice, she is much more successful on “Never Let Me Go.” Here you would not mistake her for Nancy.
“African Fairytale” is a cover of Wayne Shorter’s “Footprints” to which Cæcilie added original lyrics.
All my lyrics are based on true stories from my own life or from somebody's life who is very close to me. But to blur the naked truth I will always add a slightly different angle to it. That's where the fiction comes in. Or I will simply use my imagination.
For an example on "My corner of the sky", my second album, I wrote lyrics to Wayne Shorter's wonderful tune "Footprints". A text about a scenery from some savanna in Africa. Even though I never have been to Africa… What I didn't know, but surely made a little twist on the lyric, was that Wayne Shorter actually did think about Africa when he wrote the music!
“Calling You” is a song on my all time favorites list and this version makes the cut for my top five. Again it’s her restraint that attracts me. I like the way she slides across the intervals when she draws out the syllables to put two or three notes where normally one would be. She is harmonically impressive.
“I Loves You Porgy” is from a guest spot on guitarist Aske Jacoby’s album, Clubbing. Here Cæcilie draws on her rock roots combining it with Jacoby’s R&B-inflected arrangement. Born September 9, 1964 in Fredriksberg, Denmark, from 1983 to 1993 Cæcilie Norby co-lead (with Nina Forsberg) a popular rock group called One-Two. There must be upteen-thousand recorded versions of this song, yet Cæcilie and Aske find their own niche and mine it for all its worth. They deserve the wild applause from the audience.
We round out the set with “A Poem & A Prayer,” an original co-written with her husband, bassist Lars Danielsson. It is a fitting benediction and gives a taste of her range as a musician outside of jazz and rock. Certainly look forward to more music from Danish vocalist Cæcilie Norby.
These selections by Cæcilie Norby are drawn mainly from two albums with the exception of the last two cuts "I Love You, Porgy" and "A Prayer & A Poem," (which is from a new album with big band). Fortunately that last track was without the big band—I was unimpressed with the big band arrangements, which, to my ears, lacked the rhythmic subtlety of Cæcilie vocal work. Here is where you can get the music:
"Midnight Sun," "Hallelujah," "Here's To Life" and "Never Let Me Go" are from First Conversation (Blue Note - 2002).
"What Do You See In Her," "African Fairytale" and "Calling You" are from My Corner Of The Sky (Blue Note - 1997).
"I Loves You, Porgy" is from Clubbing (Stunt - 2002)
"A Poem & A Prayer" is from I Had A Ball (Copenhagen Records - 2007).
—Kalamu ya Salaam
What do I think
What do I think of Cæcilie Norby? Is that the question? I think she can sing. What'd you expect me to say? And I don't hear an accent anyway, so that part is irrelevant. Overall, I enjoyed all of these tunes, but I was really digging "African Fairytale." That's a great record. I like the vocal performance and I like what Cæcilie did with the lyrics, fitting them to Wayne Shorter's well known melody. But the band. The band! Wow. I had to know who was playing. I especially liked the drummer and the pianist. Turns out there are several drummers and pianists on the album, so unless Kalamu has the lineup in the CD jacket, it's going to remain a mystery.
I like the feature track too (both Cæcilie and the band are in fine form), but this song's been done enough for me. I already have two keepers: the Jevetta Steele original and an atmospheric cover by Gabrielle Goodman. I'm gonna stick with those.
As Kalamu mentions, there are times when Cæcilie does sound uncomfortably close to Nancy Wilson. (I'm thinking of "What Do You See In Her.") That clear, clean phrasing and the way she bends notes upward on single syllable words—"HoOOW did she get into your arms...."—and also the way she suddenly increases her volume on this word or that. All of those things are straight out of the Nancy Wilson playbook. I don't have that much to go on, but my first impression is thatCæcilie is strongest when she's singing her own lyrics.
—Mtume ya Salaam
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