Tag Archives: J.S. Bach

Musical Imprints

10 Feb

I rarely listen to an album from start to finish. Maybe it’s because there’s too much music out there to waste time on deep cuts. Or, more likely, it’s because of my short attention span. Either way, I remember responding differently to new music as a kid. I know this is in part because children process new experiences differently than do adults. But I also believe it is my dad’s extravagant love of Bach, Stevie Wonder, and jazz in all its variations that influenced my 9-year-old self’s understanding of music as much more than a background thing.

My siblings and I liked to explore our dad’s stack of CDs. To an outsider, the juxtaposition of jazz saxophonist Cannonball Adderley’s Autumn Leaves with J.S. Bach’s Goldberg Variations might seem eclectic. But to him, it was a cohesive collection of musical excellence. “I love all music, all good music,” he’d tell us. He believes there is an objective musical hierarchy, apart from personal preferences. In harsher terms: if you think what Drake outputs is every bit as good as what Earth Wind and Fire did, you’re kidding yourself. This absolute objectivity can be frustrating, like when I confessed Vivaldi’s Four Seasons were my favorite piece of classical music, and my dad countered that J.S. Bach is the best composer, not bothering to add the modifier “of the Baroque period.”

I distinctly remember listening to Handel’s Messiah for the first time. My older sister, younger brother, and I reluctantly sat at the dining room table as our dad started the record player. Suffice to say the mechanical inner workings of our turntable had gone awry. The tenor’s vibrato in Comfort ye my people sounded more like farm onomatopoeia. In 2019, I attended for the first time a live performance of the Messiah. THe following year, I listened to the entire masterpiece just before Christmas. It is still a chore; I’m not used to the operatic singing or the two-hour story arc. I will grow to like, nay love it, with continued listening.

Other musical firsts were more immediately gratifying. We were drawn to Sly and the Family Stone’s Anthology by the cover photo of Sly substituting an open jacket for a shirt, chest hairs visible. Why on earth did our straight-laced father own such a provocative CD? Because: from the feel-good jam Dance to the Music to the slowed down funk of You Can Make it if You Try, it grooves. If You Want Me to Stay, with it’s pulsing bass line, horns fading in and out, and raw vocals, “is just cool.” My dad, perhaps for the first time in my hearing, used “cool” to describe what has come to be my favorite Sly song.

There’s so much more: Oscar Peterson’s Night Train, Billy Joel’s The Stranger, Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Cole Porter Song Book, Henry Mancini’s The Pink Panther, Blood, Sweat & Tears, Antonio Carlos Jobim, Ray Charles, Sarah Vaughan, Dinah Washington. But my dad’s most listened to artist, and the one I’ll end on, was and still is Stevie Wonder. It’s odd my dad and his younger brother became hooked on Stevie Wonder, given my grandfather’s general dislike of jazz. While my grandmother was a classically trained pianist and instilled in her children a deep appreciation for music, her influence extended no further than classical music and hymns. My dad cites the musical program within his Willingboro, NJ school district as broadening his exposure. By the time my dad was in high school, he and his younger brother Kirk had purchased Stevie Wonder’s Talking Book, FulfillingnessFirst Finale, and Innervisions. They would listen to these three albums over and over. Joy inherent to Stevie Wonder’s musical artistry continues to awe my dad.

High standards are binding. They demand value judgements. They force us to view the world through a critical lens. They make us feel small and at times mediocre. But they also make us better citizens and better users and makers of culture. I sometimes shrink away from my dad’s high musical standards, wanting to bathe my ears in forgettable pop music. But it is those same high standards that make my nose tingle, a physical response to sheer beauty, when I listen to Barber’s Adagio for Strings or Bill Evan’s piano rendition of Danny Boy.