Sleepy Hollow's Songs of Spring
Sarah Vaughan | Photo by William P. Gottlieb c. 1946

The changing of the seasons has long been an abundant source of inspiration for musicians and songwriters, so as we round the corner past Friday’s spring equinox (albeit a snowy one), the Sleepy Hollow team is anxiously looking ahead toward longer days and warmer weather with five songs celebrating the season of rebirth and rejuvenation!

Bonnie “Prince” Billy – “There Will Be Spring”

What better way to start this list than with a song firmly set in the preceding season? As it appears on 2011’s Wolfroy Goes to Town, Bonnie “Prince” Billy’s “There Will Be Spring” is a dreary, near hopeless dirge depicting a child in an ambiguously forlorn situation: “There will be spring/ to the very end/ I’ll sleep to the sound/ of burning winter…my father’s house/ is gone and all/ the houses in his town have crumbled/ I am a child ten inches tall/ and I have grown/ while they have stumbled.” Of course there are few that can make this post-apocalyptic scene as appealing as the masterful Will Oldham (Bonnie “Prince” Billy’s driving force), particularly in the re-interpretation featured on last year’s Singer’s Grave/A Sea of Tongues. In this, imagery of an admired lover is intertwined with the original composition’s sole moment of hope–that of a new purpose: “what will be ours to do today/ is to name every thing that we see/ after what we are/ and who came before/ and the things that run in fear from you and me.” It’s re-imagining at it’s best–creating a new text that is not only important in its own right, but also adds to our understanding of the original and allows us to approach it in an entirely new way.

Bill Evans Trio – “Spring is Here”

Initially appearing on Bill Evans Trio’s 1960 Riverside release, Portrait in Jazz, “Spring is Here” is one of a near countless number of interpretations of this Richard Rodgers/Lorenz Hart song written for the 1938 musical, I Married an Angel. Evans had, in the previous year, made an indelible mark on the jazz world as part of the quintet that performed on Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue, and it is easy to see why Davis was so attracted to Evans’ style, as this album, recorded alongside bassist Scott LaFaro and drummer Paul Motian, would become part of the revered canon of jazz that bridged the rise of small ensembles and the bop era with the avant-garde, and later, fusion era. Each member’s playing, and Evans’ in particular, is immaculate throughout, with no wasted notes and no hesitation. More impressively, Evans and co. succesfully use the template of the “west coast” style of jazz (at the time more popular than critically acclaimed) to create a more forward thinking type of playing that they perfected in later recordings like Sunday at the Village Vanguard and Waltz for Debby. For our purposes, though, their take on “Spring is Here” is as good an approach to the well-worn tune as you’ll find. For two close runners-up, seek out Ahmad Jamal’s rendition on 1955’s Ahmad Jamal Plays (AKA Chamber Music of the New Jazz) and The Latin Jazz Quintet & Eric Dolphy’s bossa-nova inspired version from 1960’s Caribe.

Rickie Lee Jones – “Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most”

Another song with a myriad of interpretations recorded by a vast array of artists (this theme will continue later), we chose Rickie Lee Jones’ from the 1991 covers album, Pop Pop. As much the star as Jones’ distinctive voice (which seems suited to just about anything it pleases), is the production provided by David Was, who, rather than attempting a strict genre study, blends, in this case, elements of vocal and acoustic jazz and the early-’90s coffeehouse singer/songwriter sound to work towards something new. Robben Ford’s guitar and the great Charlie Haden’s bass accompany Jones on this most tender of ballads, where the narrator opines that because there is no chance of love in the coming spring, it is winter that is more desireable. We venture that you, like us, disagree, however you can still enjoy Jones’ take on the standard below.

Broken Twin – “No Darkness”

Last year’s May was our introduction to Broken Twin, the alias of Copenhagen-based singer/songwriter Majke Voss Romme. As we mentioned here in the year-end wrap-up of some of our favorite records of 2014, it was a year that was kind to fans of the female-led, hushed, often melancholic approach that Voss Romme employs on her ANTI- debut. But even if the music sounds like it’s coming out of the depths of a cold, dark Danish winter, “No Darkness” strives to find hope in the coming warmth, with the songwriter beginning, “Today I’ll cut the flowers/ I will walk for hours/ I will breathe in all that grows/ now that spring is coming.” Adding a layer of complexity, though, we learn that the story is one dealing with a lost love, as Voss Romme later admits, “I will fill your space with light…I will fade into the light…and it looks like hope/ for today at least I’ll try.” This willingness to persevere reminds us listeners that even in the most dire of times, the promise of nature’s cycle is able to offer us solace, even if it, like the seasons, can be fleeting.

Sarah Vaughan / Ella Fitzgerald / Louis Armstrong – “April in Paris”

We complete the list by looking ahead to the month of April with two recordings of the classic “April in Paris,” originally written by Vernon Duke and E.Y. Harburg in 1932 for Walk a Little Faster. The two versions presented here, one from 1954’s Sarah Vaughan with Clifford Brown and the other from 1956’s Ella and Louis use almost identical arrangements that may carry unexpected emotional depth to those more familiar with performances of the song from the big band era. Still, it is these musicians’ age and place in time that tell the story here: Ella Fitzgerald (nearing 40 at the time) and Louis Armstrong (in his mid-50s) were well-traveled entertainers who deliver an exquisite, seasoned approach to the tune, turning it into a duet with the now-trademark dichotomy of Fitzgerald’s smooth to Armstrong’s gravel, and featuring a typically brilliant solo from Louis’ astoundingly full-toned trumpet over the backdrop provided by Oscar Peterson’s trio.

In 1954, however, Sarah Vaughan was barely 30 years old, and Clifford Brown, though merely in his mid-20s, was already becoming known as the most promising trumpet player of his generation (sadly he would die tragically in a car accident only two years later). Their take on “April in Paris” is less geared toward popular taste–all fragile honesty, exuding heartache amidst the beauty of a French spring so effective and personal that it is hard to remember that, by this point, the song had been performed consistently for over twenty years. And though Brown was, at the time, one of the most talked about jazz musicians in the country (and, to that end, his muted trumpet solo is nothing short of gorgeous), it is Vaughan who delivers one of the greatest performances of her life, so nuanced and intricate that we immediately know she could be the only one among her peers responsible. Herbie Mann’s flute and Jimmy Jones’ piano accompaniment add to make this one of the true landmark recordings of the mid-20th century. Essential.

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