My Funny Valentine
by Sean
Please note: MP3s are only kept online for a short time, and if this entry is from more than a couple of weeks ago, the music probably won't be available to download any more.

 

When I was in Riga, Latvia, we went to a jazz bar called Liize. It was mostly empty, there in the basement, and we sat at a booth near the back while a quartet jammed on stage. A woman with bird's hair sang in awkward English, nodding with the cool-and-careful piano player, bass and drums.

It was an open jam, at least officially, but no one joined them for a long time. Finally a barrel-chested man went up and played "Summertime" on trumpet. Then into the room sneaked a pair of men in black suits. One was silent and big - we imagined him as a bodyguard. The other had a pony-tail, a greasy little goatee, a rat's face. We nicknamed him Ratso. He said stuff in Latvian. We made up stories, him as the psychopathic son of the big russian mob boss, the annoying guy that no one dares mess with.

Ratso asked to play the piano and the piano-player made way. Boy did Ratso have a good time. Ratso played boogie-woogie with gusto, he hammed up crescendos, he insisted that we cheer along. As the singer sang he punctuated her lyrics with innuendo-filled piano trills. He threw back his head and laughed. Ratso led the show for well over an hour. Whatta guy.

Later, Ratso left the stage and went to the back of the room, the next table over from us. He chatted with a handsome blonde man who was sitting with two women in slinky numbers. I imagined the blonde man as some TV actor or sports star. He and Ratso laughed and caroused. The band played.

Toward the very end of the evening a man in a sweater got up. He had been sitting there the whole time. He was small, with short brown hair. Late 40s. He didn't talk much. He murmured something to the singer, who directed him to the piano. Everyone else left the stage.

The little Latvian man played "My Funny Valentine". The song by Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart, made famous by Chet Baker. Chet Baker died as he was climbing from one balcony to another at an Amsterdam hotel, looking for money to buy heroin. Six months ago I stood outside that hotel, and I thought about this. The view is of boats.

A basement in Latvia, a little man in a sweater playing the piano, playing so well that I think I stopped breathing. The man played with practice. He bent towards the keys as he played them and then withdrew, listening, sometimes wincing (but not looking at us). I couldn't tell if he was wounded by the sound or soothed by it. He was very careful, like someone could get hurt. He played the melody but he also played more, playing around the tune, playing it with gaps, filling the gaps with long silences and wrong (right) notes. I wrote in my journal, - I do not usually keep a journal (I have a blog, see,) but I kept one then, - I wrote that he was "trying to find the vocabulary for heartache". It was very sad. Very, very sad. The man didn't look at us as he played. He looked at the keys, as if he was trying to read them.

When he was done the man in the sweater gave a little bow and then sat down along at his table to listen.

Almost a year has passed since that night, but I still think of it. The music was so good. The moment was also good - I was with a good friend, we were somewhere that had a ceremonial guard and a Liberty Monument, we had eaten Indian food and were drinking good beer. We had laughed at Ratso, the latvian koopa. That morning, Julian's camera had been stolen at the market. But we were not thinking about that: we were leaving those feelings in the part of our minds concerned with phone-cards and bus tickets and blisters. Well, I was. Maybe as I sat there listening, Julian was seeing that woman with tiny, quick hands.

I remember how dark it was out the windows. I remember that I didn't recognise any of the photographs on the wall, and that I wondered whether my jazz knowledge was that bad or if they were Latvian jazz stars. And I remember the humility with which the little Latvian man played, the way he borrowed a piano, and played, and the way my chest ached, and then the way he thanked us for humouring him. And the way he sat down.

Today I guess I'm still looking for a rendition of "My Funny Valentine" like that one. So I announced a contest - "Send me your valentines!" - I said. I received twenty-nine different renditions, many of them several times. Lots of them are very good. Some are truly excellent. A heartfelt thank-you to everyone who contributed: you brought much light to my eyes. The winner is a version that (like most of the others) I had not heard before this week - so thank you Matt C, thank you David F.

But I'm a little sad, too, because I still think of the man in the sweater.

I'll have to keep looking.

---

Gerry Mulligan Quartet ft. Chet Baker - "My Funny Valentine". This is a studio recording from 1952. Chet sounds like he does. He plays trumpet with complete clarity, black birds on a wire. He's at once celebrating, mourning, beckoning. He dips and wheels. He bows. Who is sighing "ohhhhh ohhhhh ohhhhh" in the background? And Gerry: oh. The sax is a steadier, older take on Chet's feelings, but it moves no less incisively. When they come together, it is a kiss: a convoluted a kiss. (The convolutions are two peoples' lives and all their experiences, the winding pathways of fate and will, the happy accidents and great tragedies, and whatever brings them together, tonight, at this moment.) This is much too short, and that is its greatest flaw.

Update 8:54 am EST - I got confused at 2am and got URLs/file-names wrong. (The two Chet Baker/Gerry Mulligan files got mixed up on the upload.) Thanks to Matt for sorting me out - the studio version above should clock in at just under 3 minutes whereas the live version below if 8 min or so, if I recall.

Read my mostly stream-of-consciousness thoughts on the other submissions (as well as a couple more mp3s) after the jump.

[buy]

---

Department of Eagles - "Noam Chomsky Spring Break 2002". Imagine DJ Shadow's gone undercover. His cover? An enormous felt monster costume. He's fifteen feet high, he's purple, and he's roaming the streets. He's got a boombox on his shoulder and it is booming: it's booming the Grizzly Bear album. And just as Shadow rounds a corner, - with nightblack monster beats, snips of memory and crow-croaks, opera-song coming wafting down a fire-escape, - he meets a gang of dancers, real dancers. They're wearing blue and they weave around him, synchronised, stepping only when the piano steps, lifting their hands on the high-hats, and when the monster squints from fifteen-feet above street-level they look like a cloud, like a swirling cloud, a cloud that's coming together and is going to swerve toward midtown. The monster begins to run.

Department of Eagles play a great, thick music - long strips of jazz with indie rock stripes, beats and whimsy. If we play the sounds-like game it gets complicated: like Broken Social Scene on a retreat with The Dirty Three, Four Tet after an all-night Pet Sounds bender. "Forty Dollar Rug" could be by Ween, or The Unicorns, or something. ("Forty dollar rug! Twenty dollar lamp! Playstation 2! Tony Hawk 4!") "Sailing By Night" could be by Elbow. And "Ghost in Summer Clothes" has all the dusty folkness that Vetiver craves but just can't hack. Half of this band is indeed in Grizzly Bear. The other half isn't. The Whitey On The Moon UK LP is very good and you can listen to five more songs (including "Ghost" and "Sailing") here.

[buy!]

---

This video of singing-and-dancing to the Backstreet Boys in a college dorm is exceptional. The things about it that I love: 1) The song (who knew that "I Want it That Way" was good!?); 2) the cast. on his arm.; 3) the roommate who continues playing Counter Strike regardless of what is going on in front of him; 4) the feeling that the guy on the left loves this so much - loves it more than everything else he has ever done, everything else he dreams of, that this is the greatest joy he will ever experience, and that he knows it. [via sillytech]

Tuwa ruminates on musicblogs and PR agents. I'm happy to help out musicians who put out music I like, but first and foremost I need to like it. Yes. One of the things that is great about there being so many more musicblogs these days is that I'm not even tempted to write about lame albums (like recent Tortoise/Bonnie Prince Billy, Jana Hunter/Devendra Banhart, My Morning Jacket, Iron & Wine/Calexico, Vashti Bunyan, Rogue Wave, and onandon), no matter the PR push, my readership's interest, or even how friendly I might feel towards the bands; there's other people who can sort you out, so no one's gonna miss it.

RIP Splendid E-zine. They were an astonishing music zine with a beautiful (and absurd) philosophy, and they will be missed. I wish them all the best.

---

And like I said before, click on MORE for my take on the other twenty-eight versions of "My Bloody Valentine" that were submitted for the contest. You can download a couple of them, too.

"My Funny Valentines"

anita baker - anita's dreamy (and sleepy) voice appeals very much, but i simply can't tolerate the smoothie backing. and she too struggles a lot with how to sing that [his?] looks are "laughable", etc. [C]

carmen macrae - maybe pays too much attention to the lyrics and not enough to how she sings it. there's something special when she holds the "staaaay" at 2:20ish, but everywhere else i wonder if she has any real feelings for this [guy?] or if she's just trying to sound neat and funny for him. [B-]

chris gotti - most lovely on trumpet, plaintive and contemplative, but not as sad as i might want. :) [A-]

chet baker (vocal) (2:18 version) - this is the version i know best. chet's so kindly-voiced here, so loving and yet so brittle too. for all his jokes and confidence, you can tell that if his valentine said no, no with a yell, there'd be nothing left for him. (listen to that piano.) [A+]

chet baker and gerry mulligan (live at carnegie hall) - matt c says it like so:

it was a tense meeting between classic old rivals, and this comes across quite clearly in the music. There was almost a fist fight basckstage (Stan Getz, who always despised Chet, was also there) or so the story goes. The audience loves Chet, even though--or especially--as he fucks it up, missing notes, etc. Which infuriates Gerry, who was always jealous, of this boy wonder cum life-long junkie who never practiced, never went to prison (well, not until later in Italy), and never seemed to care about being a professional in quite the same way. But Mulligan has matured by this time too, and he sounds especially good and original on tracks like "For an Unfinished Woman" etc. Chet is nervous, backstage listening, and then he comes on and plays "Valentine" and they bring down the house...) The year is 1974.
mulligan does sound great here, loose and free, and when he joins chet in those closing moments it's a gorgeous sound, a great love come slowly-and-clumsily together. i'm not sure about chet's solo playing: it feels a bit like he's repeating himself, like these things are being pulled from his memory and not from his heart. [A]

chico hamilton - chico's band get caught up in the lovely-sad melody, has too much fun playing that to tread off course. tasteful, tender, but very safe. [A-]

ella fitzgerald - most reminiscent of the rufus wainwright (or i guess the other way around), and not just because of the intro. ella too sings this very well, always sounding present in the word. but HOW DOES SHE REALLY FEEL? how strongly does she feel this? oh jazz singers, stop fucking around! the instrumental musicians know how to strip away that ambience and just FEEL, why can't you? why must everything sound so lovely? (some people had this labeled as by Nina Simone. it wasn't.) [B]

elvis costello - lots of people seem to really like this one. but man, elvis sounds like he's pushing this way too hard: it feels like such a performance, a guy who's gotta sing it like he means it in that mean minute and a half. If someone sang this to you, would you stay? No. [C+]

elvis costello [live] - much better than the studio version, oh yes. you can hear him trying to let go. trying to go into his own head and sing this right. you can hear him trying - oh, in that not-quite-right note around 2:25, listen! they hear it! and there's a grin at the end, a goofy strum cos yeah he knows he hit it. [A]

etta james - i like the way this version swerves from flat clamouring to full-bodied feeling, from question to statement of love. a very pedestrian trumpet solo in the middle, and etta loses the plot a bit after that, but you can feel her trying to regrab it. she goes off course, sadly, looking to the wrong place for those final notes (it's a very different song at the end than at the beginning, but also a much more conventional one.) [B+]

frankie machine - upclose and personal. this sounds lovely and personal, and there's this funny excitement in it like the singers are almost ready to cross over into something darker and truer... but they um don't. why? [B]

gotan project - well, if you want a funny valentine lounge remix, this is the shit for you! the best part is the flute solo, which isn't something i ever expected to say. [B-]

grant green with yusuf lateef - lateef's on hammond organ. multitudes live in those oscillating notes. if this was a little more plaintive i might fall in love with it. green's guitar is both lyrical and intricate, but he holds back too much. it's v. striking when lateef lets loose after the green solo, things suddenly PUSHING, PULLING, withdrawing hesitating and PUSHING again. marvellous (till he goes bluesy-lame and 'oooh oooh ooh yeah' at 4:44. [A-]

jimmy smith - can't play this because kelly didn't send me an iTunes unlock code! :) sorry, kelly!

jackie gleason - i think my favourite part of this recording is the way it sounds like gleason's playing at the back of a room (i guess he is), echoing, outshone by the strings. he's strident and bold sounding, but still (because of how far away he is,) lonely. and that's about right. [B]

jimmy giuffre - strange to hear this being worked-through by clarinets, oboe and bassoon, but the chamber-music vibe works fine. I like how the sourness of the sound affects the vibe, the way certain bits sound so much sweeter while others feel awkward and very hard to reach. It's also interesting to hear such a complex arrangement, so many things in harmony and counterpoint - a crowd singing the song, each in a different way. [A]

johnny smith - languorous, slow. the drums are the only thing that bring smith's guitar forward. it's like he'd linger on each note forever if he could, if that cymbal wasn't still moving, making him pull himself outta bed and into the next bar. but i wonder if that's really necessary... [B+]

lenny breau with dave young - these two work so great together, but lenny's much too busy for me - it's again the desire to fill the song with sounds, rather than to use the gaps. the melody for me is so much stronger when there are big empty holes... the more it gets filled in, the more maudlin it becomes. by the fourth minute, Breau's stuff just sounds like wallpaper. Young's much more successful - when his bass drifts off from the melody to work through something else, i'm there beside him. not really "Valentine", though! [B]

matt damon - yes that matt damon. but this is good. because he can't sing, see. he sings flat as chet - i'm beginning to suspect that my barometer is unfairly set at "chet baker" to begin with... but anyway. i like how it sounds like damon is concentrating really hard, like he's trying to say it right, to not say too much or too little, or to say it in a way that is too much or too little. reminds me of vincent gallo. (but what the HELL is that saxophone doing? shut. up!) the only problem is that i really wish for him to take the song somewhere else in its last half - that is, to have made a journey from beginning to end, to not just be in the same emotional place. and he doesn't quite. [A-]

michelle pfeiffer - this is like the sarah vaughan only cheesier and michelle can't sing as well. wispy != honest. [C-]

miles davis quintet - beautifully recorded, and it feels like the band's so close they're touching... but i wonder why miles doesn't go deeper? he skirts around the song, riffing on the melody's beauty, fast and slow, but i keep waiting for him to dig into something harder hotter softer colder. [B]

nico - i like nico a lot. but this is one song where her weird outsider robot voice does not play well. there's no vulnerability at all, except in the warbly bionic effects, which isn't a very good way to go. what is the point of this? it is neither pretty, moving or interesting. it's bare of feeling. [C]

over the rhine - that's a voice that could brule a creme brulee... but i wonder if there's enough acknowledgement of the words: there's so little recognition of what it means that [his?] looks are "unphotographable", etc. I believe her love, but wonder if she's singing the right words for this feeling. [B]

ray brown trio - THIS guitar (and the bass too) know what they are playing: listen up, breau. it's played slowly, sometimes mechanically (which is right), like saying words and over in your head (and when they're said out loud they sound different). i suppose it makes sense that they'd decide to have some fun with it in the middle, even if that bores me. [B+]

rufus wainwright - i kinda hate rufus wainwright, and controversially so, so i was very pleasantly surprised by this. But ultimately the emotion of it was ambivalent - not undecided, wavering, just ambivalent. [A]

sarah vaughan - this is ok. [B]

tom barman (of dEUS, i think) - great clumsy mealy-mouthed vocals here. barman certainly knows what this song is, tries to sing it as it is. what's missing is a something else: something other than what's there to begin with. you gotta outdo chet, yeah, but you can if you try. and you can hear him sort of give up, put his hands up, "what can i do?" at the end. [B+]

victoria williams - why does she have such a weird cutesy voice? oh, i guess it's on purpose... For Victoria it's a kid's thing, I guess. But there's too much adult vibrato, too many weird phrases ("greek" figure?) for this to really go. "funny valentine" doesn't sound as naive as she thinks it does. but the folky "each day is valentine's day" at 1:40ish is really sweet, a hand that squirms its way into yours. [C+]


For more versions of "My Funny Valentine", check out this podcast, composed by Brendan as he tried to decide which rendition to send me.

Posted by Sean at November 3, 2005 3:00 AM
Comments

Metamusic festival!

Anyway, that department of eagles track does, incredibly, live up to your description. I might include it in the music-buying bender I feel is coming...

Posted by Matthew in London at November 3, 2005 6:33 AM

That's a pretty good live Elvis version, Sean. But where's it from?

Posted by dymbel at November 3, 2005 8:13 AM

You should, Matthew!

David - I have no idea. :( Maybe the person who sent it to me (my notes are at home) can tell us...

Posted by Sean at November 3, 2005 8:19 AM

" Chet Baker died as he was climbing from one balcony to another at an Amsterdam hotel, looking for money to buy heroin."

It strikes me that's as good a story as any. Even if it risks painting Baker as a Genet-like character. He wasn't really a thief. More often he charmed people into helping him, it seems. But in short, anytime the temptation to invoke that malignant (and most likely false) meme of "the tragic junkie suicide" can be avoided, well that's cool. Chet was actually doing pretty well at the time, and his death came as a surprise to many close friends.

At least that's according to James Gavin's wonderful biography, recommended as highly as his CD (on which the above is track #1). The CD has the same title as the book: "Deep in a Dream" (incidentally, Chet's own personal favorite song (mainly for the lyrics), if not, admittedly, the one for which he "is known").

Thanks for the terrific post.

Posted by Matt at November 3, 2005 9:35 AM

You sneaky devil, putting tracks in past the jump. :-) I like it.

All good tracks, and some spot-on writing about them. Do you teach classes?

That BSB video just made my day. What a great thing to wake up to. How in God's name did you recognize it as CounterStrike, though?

Thanks for the mention. It's an odd post I made; I'm ambivalent about it. It's cranky, scornful of the radio, and yet also a bit insecure. That's funny too. ^_^

Posted by Tuwa at November 3, 2005 9:55 AM

Hey it's Frankie here - thanks for the kind words about my little version of such an amazing song. Believe me I've sung it a hundred times better than the version I recorded late at night on a crappy stereo mic that I got from a junk shop. Feel free to link to my take as it’s a free download from the frankiemachine.com website.

One of my personal favourite versions is by FSK (Freiwillige Selbts Kontrolle) - I'm not sure you have that one on your list - unless it is the Over The Rhine version mis-labelled - but I couldn't agree more with your choice of winner..

Posted by Frankie Machine at November 3, 2005 10:38 AM

Hey Sean,

Where would one (or rather, I) get the version by Tom Barman?

I would very much like to hear that.

Ross.

Posted by Ross at November 3, 2005 11:54 AM

the i+w/calexico ep is incredible. listen again because you have made a mistake.

Posted by jeremy at November 3, 2005 12:34 PM

Aw, c'mon - the new Rogue Wave fricken rules! I know, I know - I should start my own MP3 blog.

Posted by David Isbister at November 3, 2005 2:07 PM

Ross - the song is on its way to you.

Matt - Thanks to YOU for sending it, and for giving my silly reminiscence some deserved context.

I stand firm on the Rogue Wave and that phenomenally unadventurous-and-dull Iron and Wine/Calexico atrocity. The people who applaud it do the whole genre a disservice, say I.

As for "how do I know it's Counter Strike", I don't. Maybe it's not. I've never played Counter Strike. But I can PRETEND that it is.

The full update on the Backstreet Boys dudes has now been discovered, here, along with another video:
http://www.tian.cc/2005/10/asian-backstreet-boys.html

Apparently they scored a Motorola marketing deal out of the whole thing, so good on them! :)

Posted by Sean at November 3, 2005 6:49 PM

Erm, that was amazement, not disbelief. As you were--

^_^

Posted by Tuwa at November 3, 2005 11:04 PM

STILL LUV YA !!

Posted by Zaidie Ben at November 4, 2005 8:03 AM

I love that you like jazz!

Posted by Evangeline at November 7, 2005 11:52 AM

Wow! Here I thought "In the Reins" was loaded with some beautiful songs from a couple of complimentary acts. I didn't realize I was compromising the integrity of 'the genre,' whichever one that may be. Kudos!

Careful, Sean. This is just me talking, but such blanket snotty assessments do a disservice to your site. Unless you're looking to land a gig at Stylus--in which case, well played.

Posted by chris at November 7, 2005 1:36 PM

Hi Chris.

I'll admit that your comment stung. I'm a little unsure, though, about how to react. I was being totally honest and not trying to sound snootier-than-thou: I think that this is a sleepy, pleasant sounding release, but totally lacking in any of the stakes (be it sadness or joy), or even the musical intricacy/storytelling, that I enjoy in music. I spend a lot of time defending alt.folk (or even, say, Coldplay's "Parachutes") from the people who call it "safe, harmless, boring" -- and here comes a record that IS safe, harmless and boring, and it gets all the acclamation it doesn't deserve. Obviously this is just my opinion - but isn't that what a blog is for?

Is it really a "blanket snotty assessment" to call an album I don't like "lame"? To call it "phenomenally unadventurous-and-dull"?

Seriously - I'm asking if whether I was doing something truly inappropriate or whether you were just feeling indignant that I disliked an album you enjoyed.

Posted by Sean at November 7, 2005 2:53 PM

i'm astonished that no one sent you the Jerry Garcia/Merle Saunders version of My Funny Valentine. one of my favorites....i guess i should have sent it in.....
nice blog by the way
rgds
will

Posted by will albers at November 8, 2005 3:30 PM

"my bloody valentine"?? ah, a freudian slip: transparent, and accessible. twenty-eight covers of them would be rapturous! (if not feeble-minded.)

Posted by redux at November 9, 2005 12:23 AM

So, I used to sing a little. Mostly dumb classical crap in small groups, but I was in Cal's jazz choir for a while. Fun. We weren't any good. Who cares?

Anyhow, we did MFV. Our best performance ever (of any song) was the time we got hired for a couple ducats to sing for a very late birthday or anniversary. Old folks. A couple who maybe saw Chet Baker perform the song in the fifties. Or made out to it in 1952. Something like that.

We weren't any good.

And you know what? For this number, they cried anyway. It's such a fucking great song. Whew. Punk rock.

Parenthetically, I kinda hate jazz. Unless it's good. Chet is good.

Posted by wcw at November 10, 2005 12:01 AM

in regard to that backstreet video, i feel that these two kids might have been influenced by the video on this page:http://www.maladroit.com/chin2/

or more specifically the video is: http://www.nata2.info/humor/movies/chin2.mpeg

it's the same deal, two asian kids. But I feel this one is funnier and I believe it was around first. Just thougt you might be interested

Posted by mitchell at November 11, 2005 3:45 AM

Is there anywhere I can download Matt Damon singing it? Please email me at POTCjedi@aol.com if you can tell me where I can download it! Thank you!

Posted by Shannnah at November 13, 2006 11:16 PM
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