[Image: “Body and Soul’s” opening measures, highlighting the dotted eighth rest]
From the wonderful Jazz Standards site’s musicological writeup:
Because of its complex chord progressions, “Body and Soul” remains a favorite of jazz musicians. The unusual changes in key and tempo are also highly attractive and provide a large degree of improvisational freedom.
“Unusual changes in key and tempo” might be what I think of (in my musical ignorance) as a weird near-tunelessness. At practically every turn, the song slides around what I’d expect to hear. I can’t imagine anyone whistling it while they walk along, y’know? And the weirdness all starts with that first note.
Well, technically it’s not a note at all. You can see it circled in red at the top of the post: it’s a rest.
Even more technically, it’s a “dotted eighth rest,” i.e., it’s supposed to be held for a duration of one-and-a-half “eighth notes,” or five-sixteenths of a whole one. That musicians can make anything at all from arithmetic like this is why they’re musicians and I’m not.
Which itself is weird, if you think about it. I mean, that’s the actual melody there — what a singer is expected to sing, and how. But that opening rest says to the singer: Wait! Don’t start singing right off the bat. Pause for a split-second. Then start.
And then there’s the so-called bridge…
As I mentioned in Part 1, the lyrics are hard to pin down because they’ve been so elaborated upon by so many performers. In its most common form, singers do two verses in the same “melody,” followed by a verse in a second melody, and wrap it all up with a repeat of the first one. This song structure is often depicted like this: AABA. The second melody — the B — makes up the bridge: a bit of music to carry a listener from the opening of a song through to the end.
“Body and Soul’s” bridge (“I can’t believe it/It’s hard to conceive it…”), unlike those A sections, does seem to have a real melody. And it, well, lilts.* Lyrically, the singer seems to be having second thoughts, trying to convince him- or herself that the sense of abandonment can’t be real. There must be some other explanation — “Are you pretending?” — only to conclude, with a desperate, almost audible thud in the final A verse, You do know I’m still yours, right? Please please please…?
Whatever the musical technicalities, for whatever reason, history makes one clear point: “Body and Soul” is much-loved not only by vocalists (who can appreciate not just the musical nuances, but the emotional ones in the lyrics), but by instrumentalists.
In 1939, Coleman Hawkins approached the song with a tenor saxophone. I have no idea what went through his head when he’d first heard it, or seen its sheet music. But his interpretation seems consistent with mine: this “melody” composed for a Broadway show is riddled with holes into which you could sink jazz’s hooks.
And once Hawkins had hooked it, he shook it — like waving a flag.
Already in his 30s by then, Hawkins knew his way around music (both the art and the business). He’d left the US a few years earlier to travel jazz-hungry Europe as a featured performer with a successful orchestra, with a successful leader: Jack Hylton. (Yeah, that Jack Hylton. The one who’d first recorded “Body and Soul,” in 1930. You can hear that recording back in Part 1.)
When Hawkins returned to America in the summer of 1939, it took him a while to put together his own band. He’d lost touch with American musicians’ pay scales, for one thing, and his hope of assembling an all-star group foundered on that reality. But the ones he did get, though young, were talented. More importantly, they knew when to step aside and just let Hawkins go.
On October 11, in a studio in New York, they’d already laid down a few tracks when someone suggested they record “Body and Soul.” They hadn’t meant to, and had no arrangement ready. But they obliged, unrehearsed, with little or no intention of even using the number on the final album. In just one take:
[Below, click Play button to begin Body and Soul (Hawkins, 1939). This clip is 3:02 long.]
When we listen to this today, we may sort of cock a skeptical eyebrow. We’ve heard so much improvisation; we’ve heard so many riffs — not just in jazz, but all across the pop-music spectrum.
But in 1939, although musicians had noodled around with songs before, they’d never done this.
The first time I heard it, for a moment I didn’t get what all the fuss was about. Hawkins doesn’t enter the song until eleven or twelve seconds into the three-minute length. For about twenty seconds thereafter, he plays what even I can recognize as “Body and Soul” — a shuffling, soft rolling-along version, pleasant, all that. But not exactly, um, revolutionary, no?
But a few seconds later, we aren’t precisely in “Body and Soul” territory anymore. In the background: an unrelenting percussion beat, and traces of other instruments. But in the foreground? It’s as though Hawkins had somehow located a single line running down the center of the music. He’d tied himself to that line, and he kept circling it, never getting beyond a certain distance, all the while playing notes which sprang from the ones before and somehow mutated into the ones following, lightly up, lightly down… And then it ends, with the entire group sounding one soft note, without so much as another glimpse of “Body and Soul.”
I could fill the rest of this post with quotations from musicians and music critics: Hawkins’s “Body and Soul” started a chain reaction which would soon relegate swing jazz to a back seat. The new wave would be called bebop; I’ve never been much of a fan, but I can recognize the moment when the ground started to shake.
Did I say Coleman Hawkins had waved a flag? Oh, yeah.
You want to know what’s frustrating? Knowing — knowing — that “Body and Soul” has been covered hundreds, probably thousands of times… but not being really rocked by any of them.
My self-imposed mission for this post was to find a recording of the song which, like Hawkins’s, transcended, up-ended, or subverted it. I wanted to find, say, that B.B. King or Robert Cray had covered it, and turned it inside-out; that a polka-rock version existed; that Wendy Carlos had multi-tracked it through her Bach-soaked synthesizer; that George Jones and Tammi Wynette — or Bette Midler and Mick Jagger — had dueted on it, joining in together on the bridge…
The shadows of Billie Holiday and Frank Sinatra, apparently, hang over vocalists. The ghost of Coleman Hawkins pulls the strings of even non-saxaphone instrumentals. When someone wants to establish (or confirm) their credentials as a serious jazz musician, they schedule “Body and Soul” for their next session. Otherwise? Crickets.
Well, I have listened to harmonica and mandolin renditions, to trance-music and karaoke versions, to Latin-rhythmed and — yes — Muzak versions. I’ve heard the Four Tops singing it. But they’re all so deferential: so reverential. Nothing, well, knocked me over.
So the “Body and Soul” recording I’ll leave you with is respectful. But it’s by a jazz artist you may not have heard of: Sun Ra, and his Astro-Infinity Arkestra, from 1960’s Holiday for Soul Dance album.
It wouldn’t be quite right to call Sun Ra eccentric, exactly, but he sure was interesting. A brief taste, per Wikipedia:
Claiming that he was of the “Angel Race” and not from Earth, but from Saturn, Sun Ra developed a complex persona using “cosmic” philosophies and lyrical poetry that made him a pioneer of afrofuturism…
From the mid-1950s to his death, Sun Ra led “The Arkestra” (a deliberate re-spelling of “orchestra”), an ensemble with an ever-changing lineup and name. It was by turns called “The Solar Myth Arkestra”, “His Cosmo Discipline Arkestra”, the “Blue Universe Arkestra”, “The Jet Set Omniverse Arkestra”, as well as many other permutations… His mainstream success was limited, but Sun Ra was a prolific recording artist and frequent live performer. His music ranged from keyboard solos to big bands of over 30 musicians and touched on virtually the entire history of jazz, from ragtime to swing music, from bebop to free jazz. He was also a pioneer of electronic music and space music. He also used free improvisation and was one of the first musicians, of any genre, to make extensive use of electronic keyboards.
No weird electronica here, though, in his take on “Body and Soul”: a soulful, blue-drenched, hard-to-find recording:
[Below, click Play button to begin Body and Soul (Sun Ra, 1960). This clip is 5:56 long.]
Note: In the comments for Part 1, RAMH stalwart “cynth” and I remarked on Carly Simon’s version. I do like that very much, but maybe I’ve just over-listened to it (or, by now, to “Body and Soul”!). For the curious, though, it’s here (4.6MB MP3); it’s well worth hearing — among other reasons, for the attention she lavishes on that final long-o syllable.
* Interesting trivia: composer Johnny Green** apparently simply imported the bridge from a chunk of music discarded from an earlier song.
** And a second bit of interesting trivia: Johnny Green also composed the “Betty Boop” theme music. I didn’t even know she had theme music.