04 July, 2008

It don't mean a thing, if it ain't got that swing

Some people may think that it's odd for me to write about an musician from Argentina on the anniversary of our nation's birth. Given the fact that jazz music is the quintessential American art form, and given the plurality of our heritage, I think Oscar Aleman is the perfect musician to celebrate.

Aleman was born in Argentina in 1909. He was a performer from an extremely young age. First, he played with his family, but by the time he was ten he was performing through necessity: an orphan street musician. The back story of many jazz musicians is dark and cloudy (I think this is often true of artists in general). Traumatic events often seem to bubble below the surface of certain types of people. They shape their personalities indelibly, but sometimes only manifest themselves in unorthodox ways, bursting to the surface in fireworks of genius like Kerouac's roman candles. Piaff, Reinhardt, and Aleman all seem to be these kinds of musicians, creating from necessity. Aleman played Gypsy Jazz similar to Reinhardt and Grappelli, at one point even playing in France. He was friends with Django, and had the opportunity to perform with many American musicians during his French tenure. In the 1940s, Aleman returned to Argentina where he would live for the rest of his life, always teaching and performing music.

If you listen to Aleman's recordings, you will get a good sense of his talent and his originality. His "gypsy jazz" was unlike the popular jazz of France and America, and even differed from mainstream "gypsy jazz" itself. Listen to his cover of "Limehouse Blues" and compare it Reinhardt's version. You'll notice that where Reinhardt hustles, bustles, and swings, Aleman strolls and meanders at a jaunty pace that lacks the rush of city life. Reinhardt played fast and loose, but Aleman played with a little more care and a more subtly nomadic swing. "Whispering" is a layered lullaby of the highest sonic quality. It's an eccentric creation that does not have an easily definable melody and because the guitar really stands on its own, but it captures an emotion, movement, and softness that is highly sophisticated for a song so stripped to its foundation. "Besame Mucho" on the other hand, is a more angular song that's full of twists, turns, and short stops. It could be the best theme music for PBS's MYSTERY!. Listen to "Swingin' On A Star" (a song I've always enjoyed) and you'll hear Aleman stretching the melody with his guitar solos. His solos are malleable and dynamic like those of Santana and Hendrix, if not quite as dramatic. "Delicado" incorporates- more noticeably - the Latin American element, than any of the other Aleman songs I've heard. It is delicate, but with strong syncopation and a traveling melody that drifts away from the center and back again. Last, but not least, "Pere Mi Eres Devina" is intensely edgy for jazz music of its time. It honestly reminds me of some of the Doors' more winding, jazzy compositions. There's drama, distinction, and heady swing on this song, and it has to be one of my Aleman favorites.

1 comment:

Jo said...

Thank you so much for this precise portrait of Alemán as an artist!

Jo at http://oscar-aleman.blogspot.com/