Friday, December 31, 2004

Great Recordings That Miss The Point

I can't say much about Artie Shaw that hasn't been said -- the man swung a mean clarinet and married more beautiful women than I'll ever even get to meet -- but there's one thing I'll say: his signature recording, "Begin the Beguine," is a classic recording that almost completely misses the point of the song. Cole Porter's song is a sensuous, passionate Latin dance number. Shaw turned it into a chipper swing number; he made it a hit by taking the Beguine out of it. It's like that Lawrence Welk recording where he played the William Tell Overture in polka time; it just misses the point. And yet Shaw's "Begin the Beguine" is a terrific recording, proving that a great popular song is almost infinitely durable and malleable: twist it out of shape, change the style and the rhythm and everything, but the strength of the melody will still be as great as ever.

(Milton Babbitt once wrote that the difference between a traditional melody and the melodies of avant-garde composers is that traditional melodies retain a recognizable shape even if you change the rhythm and phrasing and even some of the notes, whereas, say, a melody in the twelve-tone system is unrecognizable if you make such big changes. That's why we will never see a jazz-improv album based on the melodies of Pierre Boulez.)

Anyway, what are some other examples of great recordings that miss the point of the songs they purportedly contain?

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