Sunday, April 17, 2011

Casey Abrams: New American Idol Contestant Is a Messenger With a Jazz Message

Before last Wednesday, I was like more than a few music fans in my instinctive dislike of the American Idol phenomenon. Cheap and showy, lowest-common-denominator entertainment, it was created in the same terrifying cauldron that Fox's 1989 Cops voyeurism and MTV’s 1992 Real World success originally inspired, and which has since produced Survivor, Big Brother, Fear Factor, America's Next Top Model, etc., in addition to permutations like Glee, in a long term strategic response to the 1988 WGA strike, whose effects no member of that union would ever have expected or desired. Like other detractors, I’ve consistently mocked the boardroom mentality that produces this low-cost, writer-free “reality” programming, or writer-lite “unreality” programming in which the writer is a show runner’s joke designer or transcriptionist.

True, like every other person on earth, I’d seen YouTube clips of Simon “Legree” Cowell and read about his bounteous bank account, watched the feel-good videos of tenor Paul Potts’ “Nessun Dorma” and Susan Boyle’s “I Dreamed a Dream.” Pop culture occasionally has its moments.

But in spite of these musical high water marks, I had dismissed the lot of them.

Then last Wednesday, all these prejudices and qualms were washed away in one astonishing tsunami of incredulity as I watched American Idol contestant Casey Abrams, a chubby, red-headed Jewish kid from Idyllwild, California as he accompanied himself on the upright bass and sang “Nature Boy,” the Eden Ahbez standard originally penned for Nat “King” Cole in 1947. Not only sang it, but killed it.

I was floored. I thought, this is American Idol? What have I been missing? Fortunately my wife, a devoted fan of the show, knew the answer(s) to my question(s).

Fan or not, you’ll please forgive my clumsy grasp of the competition’s rules and all the rest of the American Idol culture. I have some catching up to do. Simply, it’s a contest that begins with big un-televised auditions in which the field is winnowed down by a three-person panel, followed by a second phase during which, week by week, Fox TV televises a ten-week round of live performances, during which the contestants are either kept in the hunt, or eliminated, by means of millions of fans’ votes that are submitted online, texted and phoned in immediately following the broadcast. The panel of three judges exerts its influence only in the beginning audition stages, except in one rare instance—the rules state that once per season, if the panel considers a contestant has been voted off unfairly, they can override the popular vote and reinstate the musician. As you might expect, the second-biggest media buzz the show gets each season is when an extremely talented person is unexpectedly eliminated by the voting. The biggest buzz (next to when the final winner is announced) is when the judges find themselves in total disagreement with the vote and can’t do anything about it.

Which happened two weeks ago, with a beautiful, hugely talented ballad singer named Pia Toscano, at one point the odds-on favorite to win it all. When the vote was announced, the studio theatre crowd booed. The judges all blew their diplomatic cool and exploded in resentful anger. Her fellow contestants stared in disbelief. Tom Hanks tweeted: “Don’t have an IDOL habit, but how could the USA vote Pia off? I may be done for the season!” Newspapers made it front page news.

But fortunately for Casey Abrams, the judges couldn’t rescue her only because they had already used their one discretionary veto a few weeks earlier on rescuing him.

Jazz fans the world over should take notice. Jazz musicians should rejoice! Why? Because as soon as Casey’s love of jazz had been validated by this group of three successful professionals, the tide turned. There was no more holding back. He knew this was his hour to shine.

“I don’t think we’ve ever had a musician as talented as yourself,” Randy Jackson told him. The elder American Idol statesman/judge, a producer, manager and bassist who’s played with everyone from Herbie Hancock and Billy Cobham to Bob Dylan, Jackson is joined on the judges' dais by singer/actress Jennifer Lopez and Arrowsmith’s Steven Tyler.

With their vote of confidence he has forged ahead, fearlessly demonstrating show after show exactly what Jackson had enunciated.

So fearlessly, that perhaps my favorite moment so far in all this new Idol pastime came in one of the backstage film clips the show uses. It is a very revealing look at not only this guy’s strength of character, but his artistic integrity and commitment to his music. In the clip (which you can see momentarily, if you haven't already), he is being coached by heavyweight record producer Jimmy Iovine, who is arguing with him over his song choice for the upcoming performance. Iovine is encouraging him to do Phil Collins’ “In the Air Tonight” and quite actively discouraging him from considering “Nature Boy.” But no one who eventually saw Abrams’ performance will ever doubt the artist’s decision to go with his instinct. “It is so hard to find a song that defines me as an artist, and this week, thank God, I have a song that I really just love,” he says in response to Iovine’s criticism, “and the thing is, I don’t want to lose myself in this process.”

There’s Casey Abrams, treading on the world stage and getting seriously Big Time, professional advice from a producer who has worked with everybody from John Lennon and the Raspberries, to Eminem and Lady Gaga. But instead of taking the advice and singing the Collins tune, which he considers would be the safe--but wrong--path, he follows his heart.


That night he went out on stage and absolutely tore it up with “Nature Boy.” Killed it like you've rarely heard it done since Cole and Sinatra were doing it. Once again the panel of three judges couldn’t contain themselves, and effused and enthused over his performance, and the crowd went crazy for him. It was clearly the most artistic performance of any so far. Had he taken Iovine’s advice, we never would have heard him do that highly idiosyncratic, unsafe, uncommercial, but crazy beautiful version of “Nature Boy.”

Or heard what came next.

Thursday April 14th, the night following this triumphant performance, he showed what a real jazz artist he is. There have been many great jazz players over the last hundred some years, but the best have always been defined by their ability to amplify and enhance what they do in their collaborations with others. Miles Davis… added to John Coltrane, Cannonball Adderly, Bill Evans, Jimmy Cobb and Paul Chambers results in a Kind of Blue. Throughout his earlier performances Abrams had shown a clear understanding of this, but this particular Thursday he really showed it in a duet with fellow contestant Haley Reinhart.

American Idol is broadcast on back to back nights, as I’ve now learned. On Wednesday the musicians perform pieces competitively and the fans vote. Thursday’s program (in American Idol culture, Results Night) consists of a drawn-out, dramatic disclosure of who is still alive in the contest and finally who’s been dropped, punctuated by live performances from a mixture of well-known guest artists and some of the contestants themselves.

Meet Haley Reinhart. From the beginning it’d been obvious she has tremendous vocal abilities: beautiful, bright tone, sharp technique, great range, and power to burn. But she had been all over the map in her song choices. The week previous she’d impressed the judges with her version of Janis Joplin’s “Piece of My Heart” but she had left me cold, very cold. Not because of anything technical. Not even because she couldn’t do a blues rasp, because she could. Because her heart wasn’t in it. Worse yet, her soul wasn’t in it. If you happened to be around when Janis Joplin was singing, you’ll remember she arrived like a fiery comet. It’s tempting to say she was a white singer who sounded like she was black, but the blues aren’t about race. They aren’t just about specific notes or flatting certain intervals. The blues are about feeling something. It didn’t seem to me she could feel it. The worst part of it is, a couple broadcasts earlier I’d heard her do Bill Mack’s “Blue,” the tune he’d written in the early 1960s for Patsy Cline to record, but hadn't had the chance. Because of Cline’s untimely death, he’d held out hope of some day recording it right, in 1997 finally giving it to the supremely talented 13-yr-old LeAnn Rimes. They won a Grammy with it. The problem, for me, with Rimes’ nearly perfect impersonation of Cline, was that it sounded like... an impersonation, an imitation. But a few weeks ago when I heard Haley Reinhart doing “Blue,” I was across the house, not even watching the program, and when I heard her singing the chorus I thought it was Patsy Cline and raced across the house to stand in front of the TV and listen to her. Patsy Cline’s singing isn't the same as Bessie Smith's, but it's as authentic as the blues gets. Like Joplin, she laid open her heart and soul when she sang, and for just those few moments, so did Haley Reinhart. I hope Bill Mack was watching.

So… Last Thursday when I saw Haley Reinhart of Wheeling, Illinois, join Casey Abrams as he sang the opening lines of “Moanin’,” I held my breath. I knew instantly that Abrams would be going for the glory, but uncertain which Haley would show up. The song, written in 1958 by pianist Bobby Timmons for Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers (a killer assemblage which included Lee Morgan, Benny Golson and Jymie Merrit) was so popular that after the eponymously titled LP was released, the classic Blue Note recording became forever more known as Moanin’. To longtime jazz fans the tune is amongst a small handful of the most recognizable ever recorded. That’s a lot of jazz and blues tradition for two kids to roll into a song with.

As it turned out, a third Haley appeared, and this one was so fired up and filled with the jazz spirit that she was shooting sparks. She and Casey were howling, growling, harmonizing and singing the blues with such commitment that when it came time for a quick round of scatting they just fearlessly scatted. On live television. On American Idol. Who knew?

And it was their fiery, boisterous chemistry that did it. Casey Abrams, jazz messenger, had taken Haley Reinhart’s wandering eye and focused it straight at the pinnacle. Instead of two American Idol contestants standing next to each other, what we got to see was two artists and three talented backup vocalists collaborating in a most intimate way, as they dusted off a classic 53-year-old jazz standard and made it relevant to millions of people who had never heard it before (it’s true—when you look at some of the YouTube video upload titles, you’ll see what I mean: one of them is given a Gen X cultural frame of reference with the title “Casey Abrams: Why Don’t You Do Right (Jessica Rabbit Song).” But that’s okay. Call it anything you want. I’ll take that many people hearing "Moanin'" for the first time any way I can get it.

Who knows what we’ll see next Wednesday? These are live performances on live television, so anything can happen. What I do know is I wouldn’t miss it for the world.

Does it bother the jazz elitist in me that I'm looking forward to seeing the highest-rated program on television? No. Do I think jazz does better when it is marginalized, or marginalizes itself and stuffs itself uncomfortably into a corner with other musical forms that are not a big part of popular culture? No. For one, jazz was once the most popular music in our culture--the first Gold Record ever awarded was for Glenn Miller's "Chattanooga Choo Choo" when 1,200,000 copies of the 78 had been sold. For another, even in times when other forms have been more popular, the separation from jazz has been but a very thin, porous membrane that allows the musics to migrate back and forth between genres. John Coltrane's "My Favorite Things" and Miles Davis' "Someday My Prince Will Come" were arrangements of Disney movie music, some of the most popular music of the day. Jazz has always borrowed proudly from popular culture. It's a pleasure to see someone borrowing some jazz.

This has been a remarkable year so far. It was just two months ago that Esperanza Spalding won a Grammy for Best New Artist, the first time it’s ever happened for a jazz musician. This alone would have signaled 2011 as a year of momentous change. But now we have a young jazz artist blowing people away on American Idol as he paves the way to a big career. Could this be a banner year for jazz and popular culture? Or is that reading too much into Esperanza’s or Casey’s accomplishments? After all, sea changes in popular musical taste really are difficult to forecast. Remember when Norah Jones won five Grammys while selling two million (on its way to 10M) copies of Come Away With Me in 2002? Remember how many people saw that coming? The execs at Blue Note probably still keep their oxygen tanks and defibrillators next to their desks. No matter what Jimmy Iovine predicts will happen, there will be plenty of surprises for everyone.

This could be the year of the jazz bassist!

* * * * * * *

Casey Abrams singing Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ “I Put A Spell On You”

Casey Abrams singing Hoagy Carmichael’s “Georgia On My Mind”

Haley Reinhart singing Bill Mack’s Blue”

* * * * * * *


Anonymous said...

The biggest clue into Casey's talent his his teacher Marshall Hawkins. Marshall has played bass with some of the best including many that you mention.

charlotte said...

It was a search for news on Casey Abrams that brought me to your site. I also have little experience with American Idol, trying to follow it loosely each season to converse with my 80 year old mother about, who is an avid fan. However, when I saw a youtube clip of him doing Georgia on My Mind, he had me hooked. Now I find myself surfing the net for news on how he is being received, and voting non-stop each Wednesday night. I look forward to his impact on popular music culture and now Haley's also. Thanks for the post.

Bill E said...

This is a such a good article and sums up my feelings and experience so perfectly.

Just like Carl, I had never watched the show and dismissed it as pure garbage. That was until a few weeks ago when a friend of mine showed me a youtube clip of Casey doing "Georgia on my Mind" and the Casey/Haley duo doing "Moanin'". I was shocked and encouraged. Unfortunately, the first time I tuned into "Idol" Casey was already getting the boot. Even so I've been watching to see what Haley does and even voted for her last week. I'm hoping that she wins it but even if she doesn't I think that the two performers have brought a new audience and new credibility to the show. Even more importantly, they have exposed a generation of viewers to music that they otherwise never would have seen. The impacts are already being felt. Esperanza Spalding is receiving new attention due simply to Casey's brief mention of her during his performance of "Nature Boy" and she thanked him publically on her facebook page. Old videos on youtube of Carole King and Nat King Cole are getting tens of thousands of views just because of Haley and Casey's performances (Charlotte, have you noticed this?). If they play their cards right they could indeed change the path of popular music, at least for a little while. I hope to see more of them after the show is over and especially together because they compliment each other so well.

Bill E.
Hollywood, FL

Anonymous said...

Haley & Irvine Mayfield, God Bless The Child, Mayfield Playhouse, NO, LA

Carl L. Hager said...

Hey there, Anonymous. Thank you for the video link to this terrific performance of Haley's. She is a supremely talented singer and song stylist with a bright future ahead of her.

Anonymous said...

Updates on Casey & Haley
Haley & Casey released BICO as a holiday single.
Casey signed to Concord and has an album due.
Haley is releasing a Pop album with Jazz (& Soul, Funk. Rock)influence.(One way to bring jazz to the public).

Album: Listen Up! (5/22)
Single: "Free" (4sale via digital download)