Sunday moods

ImageJohn Updike’s short story, “Sunday Teasing” is delicately bitter. The story describes just a few hours in the married life of Arthur and Macy. There is tenderness between them, yet we can’t help but feel that the marriage is doomed. Arthur tries hard but fails to connect with Macy. The problem is that Arthur approaches life with an over-developed sense of irony. At the beginning of the story he reads to Macy from St Paul. He chooses a particular passage that was a favourite of his grandfather’s. “He loved reading that to my mother,” he says. “It infuriated her”.

Macy is not infuriated, but she is clearly frustrated. She detects a flippancy in Arthur that she finds puzzling. And while Arthur’s smart-Alec demeanour is not intended – at least not consciously – to goad Macy, he lacks the sensitivity to see the effect that his behaviour is having on his wife. When a friend joins them for Sunday lunch, the conversation takes an unfortunate turn, resulting in even greater tension between Macy and Arthur, which remains after the guest’s departure.

Supper-time came. Macy mentioned that she didn’t feel well and couldn’t eat a bite. Arthur put Benny Goodman’s 1938 Carnegie Hall Concert on the record-player and, rousing his wife from the Sunday Times, insisted that she, who had been raised on Scarlatti and Purcell, take notice of Jess Stacy’s classic piano solo on ‘Sing, Sing, Sing’, which he played twice, for her benefit.

I don’t want to write much more about “Sunday Teasing”. The more I say, the more that I’ll detract from the quiet, nuanced power of Updike’s story. I do, nonetheless, want to indulge myself to this extent: to delight in Updike’s smart choice of music for the characters in his story, and to delight further in Goodman’s downright sublime rendition of “Sing Sing Sing”.

That Arthur chose this track to play to play to his wife, shows him to be a man of genuine complexity and intellect. That he chose it at a time when there were tensions between them, and when Macy was feeling under the weather, is telling. No true music lover (Macy was raised on Scarlatti and Purcell) could fail to acknowledge the absolute and gleeful mastery of that performance. Yet, at the same time, anyone of refined musical sensibilities (Macy was raised on Scarlatti and Purcell) with a mild headache and filled with concerns about the future of the relationship with her husband, could well be affronted by the pitiless bacchanale that Goodman’s band provides, and the audible vulgar delight with which the audience responds.

The whole track is driven by Gene Krupa’s sensuous, sexy, delirious drumming and along the way we get crisp, galvanising ensemble playing and some brief characterful (disreputably characterful) solos. Finally we get Goodman’s sinuous, insinuating, louche yet soulful solo underpinned by Jess Stacy’s increasingly questioning piano chords and arpeggios. And then Goodman gives Stacy his head, and the whole rambunctious, joyful, party focuses in on Stacy’s off-the-cuff piano impromptu (forgive my seeming tautology: it was inescapable). Stacy begins in bubbly style, true swing, yet calling to mind the ragtime and stride pianists that were his precursors, before embarking on a more exploratory trail. Krupa, no doubt sensing that something special was happening, quietens his relentless beating. Stacy then gives us the eye of the storm; a musing, wayward exploration of the possibilities provided by Louis Prima’s crowd-pleasing chord progression.

Had Stacy played this solo passage in 1960 (rather than 1938), the listener might well have thought it a witty précis of the keyboard styles of the previous 30 years. He sounds at times like Oscar Peterson, even Thelonious Monk. It’s heart-warning to hear the murmurs of approval from an audience clearly appreciating this subtle music as much as they’d thrilled to the breathtaking, brazen rush that had gone before. As he goes on, Stacy introduces more of the teasing, impressionistic figurations with which he’d accompanied Goodman’s solo moments before, and then allows his music to vanish with a succession of insouciant, shoulder-shrugging harmonies. There is raucous affirmation from the audience and, finally, the full band returns, brash and brilliant.

Even without Stacy’s unassuming little miracle of a solo, this performance would have gone down in history. Even when Goodman’s band blows insanely, there’s a flow and logic to the performance. The arrangement has enough textural variety in it to satisfy the most demanding of listeners. The trumpet solo that begin at 5:29 is magical, achieving its greatest effect one minute later when, just as when its chattering threatens to take it far away from the musical material it is based upon, it wrong-foots the listener by meeting the band head-on in a forthright statement of the main tune.

With the addition of the extraordinary piano solo, however, the performance graduates from mere brilliance to sheer transcendence.

It’s heady stuff. Play it loud for it’s as good as jazz music gets. But what of Macy? What might she have made of it? Had she considered Stacy’s subtle and elusive contribution, perhaps she’d have begun to understand her husband better: smart and sassy, to be sure, but perhaps also warm, witty and quicksilver. In all likelihood, though, she’d have heard the swaggering, masculine, unshaven whole of the track and wondered why Arthur insisted upon teasing her.

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Posted in Popular music

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