'The Great Jazz and Pop Vocal Albums' Is Not the Last Word on the Subject

Will Friedwald writes subjectively and is not afraid to be cheeky when he thinks audiences have misunderstood an artist or a release.

The Great American Jazz and Pop Vocal Albums

Publisher: Pantheon
Length: 432 pages
Author: Will Friedwald
Price: $33.62
Format: Hardcover
Publication date: 2017-10

Will Friedwald possesses a passionate knowledge of 20th century music. He routinely spouts bits of arcane granular information about an artist, label, or recording that reveals a keen intelligence and a smart sense of wit. If he were an arborist, he could identify a particular specimen by examining its flowers and fruit, identifying the leaf shape and size, inspecting the bark, smelling its essential oils, etc., provide an identifying taxonomy and still remain in awe at the wonder of a tree. However, there's more to a forest -- not only the other fauna, but birds, coyotes, and foxes to name but a few. Friedwald puts his musical choices in context and acknowledges the impact of the Great Depression and other social and historical factors in his discussions, but the history of great albums has much more to do with what was going on at the time one was recorded and released than Friedwald allows.

Consider the title: The Great Jazz and Vocal Albums. Friedwald doesn’t offer a timeline or a definition of his topic. One might guess such a collection would address albums such as The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds, Adele’s 21 or any number of best-selling, critically acclaimed records of the past 50 years. Friedwald selects a few titles from the 21st century and several from the '60s and '70s, but what he considers Jazz and or Pop is far from clear.

Adding insult to injury, Friedwald divided the book into 50 chapters, each listed alphabetically by the last name of the featured musician on the album. While he threads the pieces together by connecting songwriters and instrumentalists that appear on various albums, there's no real continuity to the book. The volume can best be read as a series of separate essays on individual albums. The irony of this is that Friedwald takes great pains in the introduction to praise the idea of a concept album -- which all of his choices seem to be -- that are connected by a grand notion such as when all tracks on a disc were by the same songwriter, from the source material, or constructed to convey a shared mood. The conceit of the book is that these thematically linked albums are the best ones. It’s a shame he didn’t follow the same gestalt mindset when penning this tome and writing about the individual discs.

That said, the book is highly informative and entertaining. One can critique Friedwald for his organizational skills but not his excitement and enthusiasm. One might quibble with statements such as “Yet even in an age of intangible media -- of pure downloads and album-less sound files -- there’s every reason to believe that the songs of (Cole) Porter and the Gershwins and their contemporaries will continue to thrive. Ha, ha, ha. Who’s got the last laugh now?” The “Ha, ha, ha” makes the Gershwin reference more delicious as Friedwald’s allusion to the classic song shows where Friedwald’s heart and soul lie.

No doubt Friedwald would define much of contemporary pop as rock pop, and his biases clearly land on the side of jazz pop. The book features three albums apiece by Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong in addition to two each by Nat King Cole, Bing Crosby, Doris Day, Peggy Lee, Jimmy Scott, Frank Sinatra, Jo Stafford, and Sarah Vaughn. While de gustibus non disputandum est, he has somewhat lousy taste. To choose only one Billie Holiday because the previous discs were mere collections of material distorts the fact that every album release by Holiday has the overpowering central theme of music in the hands of a maestro. Even when various songs are juxtaposed with each other Holiday binds them together with her masterful vocal command. One might admire Lady in Satin for its charms but her reputation is largely due to previously recorded material.

While it's easy to criticize anyone’s personal choices, to include God Bless Tiny Tim as on par with Ray Charles’ Modern Sounds in Country and Western, Nina Simone and Piano! and Frank Sinatra’s In the Wee Small Hours simply because Tiny Tim introduced the author to music of the '20s when the author was just a child seems dubious if not disingenuous. He selected the other albums in large part because of their adult, sophisticated mentality.

Still, the bulk of the entries included here shine with wisdom. Friedwald eloquently exposes the genius behind Armstrong’s singing voice, the emotional resonance of Peggy Lee’s vocals, and the hidden glory of Sinatra’s ability to phrase. Friedwald provides the details of a song and its performance as an instructor who has lived with the material. He writes subjectively and is not afraid to be cheeky when he thinks audiences have misunderstood an artist or a release. The results may be insular. For example, calling Jo Stafford a soul musician, even an Anglo-American brand of one, is a stretch. But making his private feelings into pronouncements gives the author the freedom to say what he thinks and feels without restriction. Or, per the Friedwald quote mentioned earlier, “Who’s got the last word now. Ha, has. Ha.”

In this case, he does. The rest of us may only read and judge the contents for ourselves.


Cover down, pray through: Bob Dylan's underrated, misunderstood "gospel years" are meticulously examined in this welcome new installment of his Bootleg series.

"How long can I listen to the lies of prejudice?
How long can I stay drunk on fear out in the wilderness?"
-- Bob Dylan, "When He Returns," 1979

Bob Dylan's career has been full of unpredictable left turns that have left fans confused, enthralled, enraged – sometimes all at once. At the 1965 Newport Folk Festival – accompanied by a pickup band featuring Mike Bloomfield and Al Kooper – he performed his first electric set, upsetting his folk base. His 1970 album Self Portrait is full of jazzy crooning and head-scratching covers. In 1978, his self-directed, four-hour film Renaldo and Clara was released, combining concert footage with surreal, often tedious dramatic scenes. Dylan seemed to thrive on testing the patience of his fans.

Keep reading... Show less

Inane Political Discourse, or, Alan Partridge's Parody Politics

Publicity photo of Steve Coogan courtesy of Sky Consumer Comms

That the political class now finds itself relegated to accidental Alan Partridge territory along the with rest of the twits and twats that comprise English popular culture is meaningful, to say the least.

"I evolve, I don't…revolve."
-- Alan Partridge

Alan Partridge began as a gleeful media parody in the early '90s but thanks to Brexit he has evolved into a political one. In print and online, the hopelessly awkward radio DJ from Norwich, England, is used as an emblem for incompetent leadership and code word for inane political discourse.

Keep reading... Show less

The show is called Crazy Ex-Girlfriend largely because it spends time dismantling the structure that finds it easier to write women off as "crazy" than to offer them help or understanding.

In the latest episode of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, the CW networks' highly acclaimed musical drama, the shows protagonist, Rebecca Bunch (Rachel Bloom), is at an all time low. Within the course of five episodes she has been left at the altar, cruelly lashed out at her friends, abandoned a promising new relationship, walked out of her job, had her murky mental health history exposed, slept with her ex boyfriend's ill father, and been forced to retreat to her notoriously prickly mother's (Tovah Feldshuh) uncaring guardianship. It's to the show's credit that none of this feels remotely ridiculous or emotionally manipulative.

Keep reading... Show less

If space is time—and space is literally time in the comics form—the world of the novel is a temporal cage. Manuele Fior pushes at the formal qualities of that cage to tell his story.

Manuele Fior's 5,000 Km Per Second was originally published in 2009 and, after winning the Angouléme and Lucca comics festivals awards in 2010 and 2011, was translated and published in English for the first time in 2016. As suggested by its title, the graphic novel explores the effects of distance across continents and decades. Its love triangle begins when the teenaged Piero and his best friend Nicola ogle Lucia as she moves into an apartment across the street and concludes 20 estranged years later on that same street. The intervening years include multiple heartbreaks and the one second phone delay Lucia in Norway and Piero in Egypt experience as they speak while 5,000 kilometers apart.

Keep reading... Show less

Featuring a shining collaboration with Terry Riley, the Del Sol String Quartet have produced an excellent new music recording during their 25 years as an ensemble.

Dark Queen Mantra, both the composition and the album itself, represent a collaboration between the Del Sol String Quartet and legendary composer Terry Riley. Now in their 25th year, Del Sol have consistently championed modern music through their extensive recordings (11 to date), community and educational outreach efforts, and performances stretching from concert halls and the Library of Congress to San Francisco dance clubs. Riley, a defining figure of minimalist music, has continually infused his compositions with elements of jazz and traditional Indian elements such as raga melodies and rhythms. Featuring two contributions from Riley, as well as one from former Riley collaborator Stefano Scodanibbio, Dark Queen Mantra continues Del Sol's objective of exploring new avenues for the string quartet format.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.