August 11, 2008

Your modus operandi is really all right

The big news yesterday, of course, was the death of Isaac Hayes over the weekend. I came to Hayes, like every other white kid I knew, through his soundtrack to Shaft, but I think my favorite song of his ended up being "Hyperbolicsyllabicsesquedalymystic,", the nine-and-a-half-minute laid-back epic that's only the third-longest track on his 1969 solo breakthrough album, Hot Buttered Soul. It's the sort of song that, when it comes up on shuffle play, all activity ceases, and I just sit around being an Isaac Hayes fan for ten minutes. I once read an appreciation of the song by some well-known DJ (DJ Spooky? One-half of The Chemical Brothers? The internet isn't helping me out here) who said that he would always spin the song at the end of a long evening, when it didn't seem like anyone else was listening anymore. That gets at what I always found to be one of Hayes' most distinguishing features, the way that, even in the most blazing song, he kept that quality of cool intimacy, like he was leaning in to tell you a particularly juicy secret.

Another story, which I missed, was the passing of Louis Teicher, one-half of the piano duo Ferrante & Teicher, who died at the age of 83 earlier this month. I was a Ferrante & Teicher fan because, well, I play the piano—and believe me, nobody ever really got a pair of grands to sound quite like they did. The Juilliard-trained pair met as fellow prodigies, and embraced their mid-career shift to easy-listening stars with enthusiastic equanimity and confidence. They were often compared to Liberace, but to my ear, their aggressively rhythmic playing was more in the Latin-tinged tradition of such 40s stars as Carmen Cavallero. Here they are, early on, tackling a typically bracing arrangement of a song called "Va Va Voom":

The duo did a fair amount of experimenting with Cage-derived prepared-piano techniques on some space-age lounge records in the 50s—you can hear it on their arrangement of "Fly Me to the Moon." Ferrante & Teicher never approached Hayes' level of non-ironic cool, but I'd bet they insinuated their music into the culture far more deeply than anybody ever realized. (Was that F&T's recording of the "Theme from Exodus" playing behind the floor exercise of a Russian gymnast in Beijing yesterday? Yes, it was.)

Is there any connection between Hayes and Ferrante & Teicher? Well, they both played the piano (check out that solo on "Hyperbolicsyllabicsesquedalymystic"), and they both loved to do covers. And Hayes could drop a pretty lush and syrupy F&T-esque string arrangement when the situation called for it. Beyond that, not much, I suppose. Still, consider this: Hayes' cover of "Walk On By" hit #30 on the pop charts in August of 1969; three months later, Ferrante & Teicher's cover of the theme from "Midnight Cowboy" hit #10 on the same chart. Think that would happen today? Me neither.


Jeffrey Kallberg said...

A splendid example of F&T using prepared piano is their version of "Oye Negra", as seen here:

Jeffrey Kallberg said...

Let's try that YouTube address again:

DJA said...

Great comments. "Hyperbolicsyllabicsesquedalymystic" is sick. Like I say in my followup, Hayes was a brilliant orchestrator.