Don Shirley Trio: Water Boy

[15 December 2002]

By Valerie MacEwan

When Your Lover Has Gone

“This Columbia high fidelity monaural recording is scientifically designed to play with the highest quality of reproduction on the phonograph of your choice, new or old. If you are the owner of a new stereophonic system, this record will play with even more brilliant true-to-life fidelity. In short, you can purchase this record with no fear of its becoming obsolete in the future.”
Water Boy Album Cover, Columbia Records

Yeah, right.

The listening medium may vary with technological advances, but the song does remain the same. There’s always the “memory” of the song, which often surpasses the quality of its transmission. Music invokes memory, obviously. For instance: the first few chords of “Aqualung” spikes the collegiate curve of recall: Jethro Tull concert, Memphis, Tennessee, autumn 1972, a red Ford Maverick, Betty from Little Rock with her father’s Texaco card, a flat tire, running out of gas on I-40 at 2 a.m. and hitching a ride with a man from Alabama transporting a semi-truck full of Bibles . . .

Or, The Allman Brothers . . . “Ain’t but one way out babe, lord I just can’t get out that door”. The memory tune punches the recall clock, and it’s 1972, on the seventh floor, Pomfret dormitory, University of Arkansas, and there’s a man down there, “might be your man, I don’t know” as the left-behind high school boyfriend arrives and the ever-understanding, new and improved college-model scurries down the back stairs.

So—it’s about The Album. For me, what is to be the criteria used to determine such an entity? Sound quality? Type of recording? Rock? Classical? Jazz? No, the main consideration must be what is associated with the music, the personal historical mental link. I choose the album Water Boy by the Don Shirley Trio because of the subtle influences it played upon my life. It’s the first record album I ever truly listened to, it was my dad’s, I’ve been toting it around since the 1960s and I listen to it at least once a week. Pretty hefty qualifications. I have two copies of it, one, the original Cadence recording from 1961, and another, Columbia Records, which has no date but I think it’s from 1969.

Now that I’m writing about Water Boy, I’ll have to spend some time online, researching Dr. Shirley, the bassist Ken Fricker, and the cellist Juri Taht. He’s easy to find. Duh. Born in 1927, Shirley is still blowing and going, having released his latest album in December 2001. An amazing man, Dr. Shirley has an office in Carnegie Hall, speaks eight languages, and has doctorates in both Music and Psychology. Water Boy is available, along with 14 other recordings on CD.

The album is playing now, as I type this. The scratches I hear remind me of the living room stereo my dad bought in 1964. The console, with its fabric covered, built-in speakers and automatic record changer, was state-of-the-art. The scratches were inflicted upon the record when I was in grade school. As I listened to the album, over and over again on Saturday afternoons, I was in charge of dusting and polishing the living room furniture, vacuuming the carpet, and washing the windows. My dad would join me in the fall and winter. When there was no yard to mow or garden to keep up with, and always after the World Series had been decided (sometimes during, if the Reds weren’t playing or were playing particularly poorly that day) he would join me. His job was to paste wax the furniture with Johnson’s wax, twice a year.

On the album, Don Shirley translates folk melodies into a different language. Part jazz, part classical, this new dialogue is dramatic and compelling. The title song Water Boy is an old prison song. Juri Taht’s cello thuds, projecting an image of rock breaking, a heartbreaking continuous pounding sound, interrupted in the middle refrain by the prisoner’s memories of freedom. The melody then becomes hopeful, but reality breaks in, almost physical in its intrusion and the water boy returns to the reality of the suffering in his life.

Shirley’s interpretation of George Gershwin’s “The Man I Love” is genius. The solo, played with the left hand only, increases in tempo and just blows the listener away as it hits its climax. The folk tune “By Myself”, undoubtedly the most soulful, heartrending introspective piece, is compelling and intricate. “Adieu Madraz”, a remarkable romantic West Indian tune reminiscent of Shirley’s native Jamaica, used to truly trip my trigger even when I was too young to understand what romance was. I knew “adieu” meant good-bye and I felt the sense of loss portrayed in the melody. The album contains music by Richard Rodgers, “This Nearly Was Mine” in which Shirley’s arrangement was influenced by Ezio Pinza’s attitude in his performance of the song in “South Pacific”. Irving Berlin’s “Blue Skies” will make you want to dance, and there’s a fantastic rendition of E. A. Swaine’s “When Your Lover Has Gone” that’ll just send you into orbit.

I will continue to listen to Water Boy, after all, why stop after 40 years? But I’ll buy the CD. When the next generation of recording devices is on the market, I’ll buy a copy of the album in whatever medium is put forth. Not for the superior recording quality, the improved sound . . . no . . . not that. I’ll buy it for posterity. Because I never want Water Boy to become obsolete.

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