The Church Of Me
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Kissing in the churchyard, I know a righteous woman

Wednesday, October 02, 2002
"You Are My Sunshine" by the George Russell Jazz Workshop featuring Sheila Jordan (1962)

It immediately starts with a duality. In the foreground, there are some bluesy piano riffs, steadily stalked by martial drums and solid bass. In the background, three horns play at 3/4 of the rhythm section's tempo, sharing between them a series of six-note bitonal chords. The rhythm section is improvising conventionally on the tune in question. When they get to the end of the first "chorus" the horns sound an anxious, still bitonal fanfare.

Steve Swallow's bass ostinato leads us into the main body of the first section of this piece; the horns, now at half the speed of a more active rhythm section, solemnly play the tune you've heard a million times. But George Russell has given the melody a new minor key harmonisation. What could have been celebratory is now regretful and poignant. The ambience is very Kind Of Blue (in itself, a record hardly imaginable without Russell's Lydian Chromatic Concept of Tonal Organisation to precede and influence it). Again, after one chorus, the band again wind down to a halt.

Now, Russell's piano slowly and delicately plays the melody with augmented fifths. The horns now sound low bitonal moans, the clouds reluctantly parting to admit the sunrise which Russell's piano represents. There are three different tempi here but the overall effect is arrhythmic. Nothing sounds resolved.

Then the band move into a brighter tempo, but with the horns now improvising on the modality of the same minor key reharmonisation. There are quickfire, waste-no-time solos from Don Ellis (trumpet), Garnett Brown (trombone), Paul Plummer (tenor sax) and finally Ellis again before the rhythm section briefly doubling the tempo, Russell's piano chords sounding increasingly agitated, while the five-syllable title melody is stated at funereal tempo by the horns above.

Then the whole band shuts up.

Enter the voice of Sheila Jordan.

She sings the first verse, avoiding any easy melodic or temporal references, completely out of tempo and against a backdrop of complete silence. She starts almost with a whimper. It is like the recorded voice of a murdered child - so innocent and yet so doomed. She steadily increases her volume when she encounters desire: "You'll never know dear...How much!...I (confident)...want (not so confident) (the battle is lost)." The "please" starts as a passionate wail but quickly subsides into the concluding and parallel whimper of "don't take my sunshine...away."

And similarly the second verse, at least to begin with. Is Russell going to let her sing the whole song acappella? No - after the opening, newly refuelled with desire, "The other night dear..." the opening six-note bitonal horn figures reappear behind her, with the same martial drums (Pete La Roca). Adulthood is now upon her, confirmed by the entry of the bass on the final line of the second verse, the quickening up of the drums, and the emergence of a reluctant major key mid-tempo swing as she now ecstatically declaims "You are my Sunshine! My ONLY sunshine!" and the band settle easily into a blues workout. But not for long - again, after the almost orgasmic "PLEASE" the ecstasy now turns into agony "Don't take my sunshine - AWAY!", the "away" stretched over 12 bar lines as the horns resettle into tonal uncertainty.

And finally, destruction. An impossibly fast bebop tempo ensues with discordant Taylorish piano hammerings, over which the horns, still at half tempo, now SNEER the melody in an apocalyptic atonal disharmony. Constant Lambert once remarked that the unfamiliar reharmonisation of the National Anthem would be far more profoundly disturbing to the listener than anything by Berg or Webern in their sternest 12-tone mood, and indeed this is frightening. Spat out in a Celine black comedic style, the horns tell us that death is indeed the end. And as they end their fanfare of death, the rhythm section speeds to a terminal halt and the piano beats itself against the wreckage. The final chord sounds like the last coffin nail being hammered in.

(In fact, the original intention of the piece was to present an aural picture of the mining community in Jordan's native Western Pennsylvania, which had seen better days even by 1962. Russell and Jordan paid a visit there, toured the region and sang in working men's clubs of an evening, including a straight reading of "You Are My Sunshine." The aim was to convey the feeling of pride which still remained in an economically almost devastated community)

posted by Marcello Carlin Permalink
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