McCartney's 'Live Kisses' Makes Cool Jazz
(Update 09/12/12: By request, we are listing the upcoming DVD, Paul McCartney: Live Kisses; it's on sale at Amazon on November 13, 2012. See below. –EG)
When Paul McCartney chooses a new genre to explore, it shouldn't be a surprise that he does so with great accomplishment. In addition to writing some of best pop songs of all time, he's also taken on film scores, classical works, even fine arts painting. And he's done them with similar mastery.
McCartney has not shown any sign of slowing down his pace or production, even into his late sixties. He continues to tour and do big shows with the vigor of men half his age. So when he decided to do an album of pop standards last year, it was predictable that it would be a workman-like effort, if not a notable record.
McCartney's new album, Kisses on the Bottom, recalls standards from his youth. Its recording is recounted in PBS Great Performances: Live Kisses documentary, recorded live last February and premiering Friday, September 7, at 9 p.m. ET.
McCartney says as the documentary begins, "What really started all of this, was when I was a little kid, the biggest event in our families year, was the New Year's Eve party. We would go to one of the uncle's houses ... everyone from the family would be there. They would roll the carpets back, get the piano out, and sitting with drinks getting merrier and merrier, singing all these old songs."
"Kisses on the Bottom" is a tongue-in-cheek reference to a line from the Fats Waller song, "I'm Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter," that plays with the idea of writing yourself a love letter when your lover is away. It finishes:
"I'm gonna write words oh so sweet,
They're gonna knock me off my feet,
A lotta kisses on the bottom,
I'll be glad I got 'em."
For the Live Kisses documentary, McCartney gathered together a crack group of jazz masters lead by pianist Diana Krall. McCartney, solo singing on a stool without instrument, expressed a bit of humility at the prospect of performing with such seasoned veterans. The sidemen, on the other hand, recounted how professional and accommodating Sir Paul was during the project.
"He lets people do their job," says long-time jazz producer Tommy Lipuma. "And when he does have a suggestion, he puts it in such away that makes everyone very comfortable."
I'm trying to envision a moment where a suggestion from Paul McCartney might not sit well, or somehow, be in any way, unwanted — by any musician, jazz or otherwise. I'm guessing that they would gladly eat the sheet music in front of them if Paul thought it was a good idea. But no matter. The niceties are a good way of saying that the project excelled because of the intimate and collaborative atmosphere that was lovingly cultivated.
Live Kisses starts with McCartney arriving at the venerable Capitol Records building in L.A., where he walks past black and white portraits of Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and other Capitol recording legends who have made records there.
And once he's in the studio with Krall and the other jazz men, the footage also switches to contrasty black and white. It's a nice touch by director Jonas Akerlund to have the recording session go classic, downbeat and monochrome. (Interviews and other shots outside the studio are in color.) The starkness and simplicity of the pictures fit the spareness and elegance of the arrangements of these old songs.
There are some golden moments, such as when McCartney sings "Home (When Shadows Fall)." McCartney's voice is noticeably shakier now in his older years, you can still hear him hit the higher notes as easily as ever, and the subtleties of his voice are up front, without a rock music background.
The majority of the standards here are obviously chosen by the pop-positive side of the Lennon-McCartney duo. He goes into "The Glory of Love" and "Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate the Positive." And fittingly, the author of "Blackbird" reprises 1926's "Bye Bye Blackbird" by Gene Austin, singing:
"Pack up all my care and woe
Here I go, singing low
Bye bye, Blackbird..."
He's not screeching out "Helter Skelter" here — not even close. Time has passed for that, anyway. The height of the Kisses on the Bottom album, and this Live Kisses performance is the original McCartney song, "Valentine," written for his wife Nancy Shevell. When I first heard it performed this year at the Grammy's it sounded like an old song. But it was new, just with an arrangement and chord choices that gave it the uncanny authenticity of a golden solo standard.
That's no accident, and that McCartney is taking the moment to perform standards from the American songbook shouldn't be a surprise. After all, he wrote "Honey Pie" for the self-titled The Beatles "White Album" in 1968 which had the old-time orchestration and singing style of British music hall bands. And before that, there was "When I'm Sixty Four" in 1964, with similar meter and orchestration.
McCartney's been on record about his reverence for the old standards, and said he would consider it the highest achievement to have a song considered as one.
Well, before Kisses on the Bottom, he had a few of those under his belt, didn't he?
(As mentioned above, Paul McCartney: Live Kisses will be on sale at Amazon on November 13, 2012. Enjoy. –EG)