March 16, 2010

Jazz Love: Cy Coleman (1)

I just adore this song, and don't know how I missed it:
I'm sentimental, so I walk in the rain
I've got some habits even I can't explain
I start for the corner, turn up in Spain
But why try to change me now?

I sit and day dream, I've got daydreams galore;
Cigarette Ashes, there they go on the floor.
Go away for the weekend, leave my keys in the door,
But why try to change me now?

Often called the "last contributor to the Great American Songbook" Cy Coleman (the composer of "Why Try to Change Me Now"sung by Frank Sinatra, above) had a number of really wonderful hits with people like Peggy Lee, Tony Bennett, and Judy Garland. Some of his better known songs include: "The Best is Yet To Come," "Rules of the Road," and "You Fascinate Me So." And he was a stalwart of the Broadway Musical.

“Why Try to Change Me Now” was written by Coleman specifically for Frank Sinatra to record. It’s perfectly suited to Sinatra’s voice and style: melodic, melancholic, and resigned. In an 2005 article for Atlantic Monthly, I found some back story from Mark Steyn:
"Why Try to Change Me Now?" was Sinatra's final record for Columbia, a flip of the finger to the executive honcho Mitch Miller, who'd been trying to change Frank into Guy Mitchell or Patti Page and saddle him with every witless novelty song of the day. "Why Try to Change Me Now?," a plangent, conversational ballad, was Sinatra's way of saying no, thanks, I'll stick with the music, and in the end the music will win.
Of course, Sinatra was right.

There is a renewed interest in Coleman--2009 saw the release of The Best Is Yet To Come: The Songs Of Cy Colemanwhich features recordings of Coleman's best work by modern artists like Fiona Apple, and Madeline Peyrouz. Apple's recording of "Why Try to Change Me Now" version was featured recently on House M.D., and I immediately fell in love.

Apple's version is lovely. (Why doesn't Apple record more jazz?) It's convicted but vulnerable, and right in her range. She's good, but she's also a little crazy, judging by her somewhat freakish stage presence in this video. But if that's what it takes to sing with such frailty and passion, then, it's worth it.

Above is Coleman's own spur of the moment, charming interpretation. The song is tremendously versatile--it manages to be charming in one version and sad in another, and neither versions are too burdened with emotion to fail on a musical level.

I'm inclined to love Coleman for this anecdote alone, also related in Atlantic Monthly:
"Musical comedy's difficult," Coleman told me once. "When I was doing movies, I used to say, 'Why don't I ever get a good melodrama?' Comedies are very hard; you never get the credit you should. But in a good melodrama you hold one note, change four chords, and you're up for an Academy Award." In their productive periods most distinctively American art forms—musicals, westerns, jazz—were blissfully unaware they were art forms at all. Then they wised up, and mostly with catastrophic consequences. In the 1980s, when the British, through composed pop opera, took up seemingly permanent residence on Broadway, Coleman regarded it as "a Reader's Digest version of opera. It seems to give people the feeling of culture."

You mean it gives them the feeling as opposed to the culture?

He snorted his distinctive, sneezy-wheezy, laughing-gas laugh. "A-hur-hur-hur. That's what I said."
No lover of Les Miserable, Cats or Phantom of the Opera, I would like to add my hearty "Agreed!" and encourage you all to check out Cy Colman's work. (And read more about him here.)

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