Friday, November 12, 2010

That Kaempfert-Abend in Frankfurt (2008)

This is the continuation of the post from 2009 "A Memorable Musical Pilgrimage"
as originally presented in the "What's New" blog on my website.

So, time to build a trip around this special musical opportunity…and to make it a special one, as it’s my first vacation in too long, as well as my first return to Europe in several years.

The wheels start turning. I can get away for two weeks. The Kaempfert Tribute Concert is the impetus for the trip, but it is just one evening. So, about 12 days to fill with enjoyable pursuits once on the right side of the Pond.

Now, if you read these posts, you know my passions (beyond Kaempfert) include photography. Oh, yes, and trains, and that shooting snowy landscapes ranks high among my favorite activities behind the lens. And a long-standing wish of mine (which had eluded realization for years!) has been to shoot steam trains in the snow. So, Germany in February…hmmm, this might just be the opportunity.

I have a friend in Germany who is also a railroad enthusiast and photographer. We actually met back in 1989 in Switzerland as we both found our camera-laden selves checking out the control cab of a Rhätische Bahn Bernina Line train before its departure from Pontresina. Tom and I had linked up a number of times since, whether in Switzerland or Germany, and had discussed getting together again, so I contacted him, asked if he’d be interested in attending one of the Kaempfert concerts with his lady friend, and discussed my desire to shoot trains (ideally steam trains) in the snow. Tom, being well-versed in European train photography, immediately mentioned the Fichtelbergbahn and Pressnitztalbahn narrow gauge steam railroads in the Erzgebirge region of eastern Germany, the latter in fact having a special weekend of steam activities, beginning just three days after the Kaempfert concert in Frankfurt. He also suggested other places we could visit for train photography, as well as other non-railroad points of interest we could include as a good workout for our cameras. 

And voilà, two weeks in Germany looks like a superb idea. I even – finally – cease procrastinating and buy my first digital single lens reflex camera and a couple new lenses. Of course, traditionalist that I am, the digital SLR will augment, not replace, my trusty film SLRs.

Oops, guess it’s time to hit the “off-on-another-tangent” brakes and return to the intended topic of this account: My Memorable Musical Pilgrimage, Part Two. But, in the event the “Steam in the Snow” or other photography in Germany references piqued your interest, the following link will take you to one of my happiest moments ever behind a camera. Steam in the Snow (Once there, you may sample more of my Germany images – trains and otherwise – by navigating through the folders on my FotoCommunity pages.)

So…on to the Kaempfert concert at the Alte Oper and its many delights – and discoveries!

As mentioned, I invited Tom and his lady friend to be my guests for the “Kaempfert-Abend.” After a most enjoyable afternoon exploring Frankfurt on foot, we settled in for a nice cozy dinner in Sachsenhausen before walking back across the Eiserne Steg over the Main to the Alte Oper. Over dinner, we talked about, among many other topics, music. I knew from previous chats that Tom’s musical tastes ran more to Kraftwerk than Kaempfert. Turned out neither of my guests claimed any familiarity with Kaempfert.

This knowledge led to my first “discovery” an hour later: that of the universality of Kaempfert’s music. For it didn’t take more than a tune or two at the top of the concert for my guests’ faces to light up with the recognition that “Of course! We know this music!” And that gave new meaning to Kaempfert’s rather self-effacing statement (considering his reputation as the father of the Easy Listening genre of music): “If people know my tunes, that’s enough. My music says everything I have to say."

Between thee and me, I’ve always had a wee problem with that moniker “Easy Listening.” I suppose the music business must rely on facile labeling such as this one – makes it easier to design radio “formats” and bins in record shops, among other things. I suppose “Easy Listening” can be interpreted as “relaxing,” but a part of me still feels it implies a sort of dismissive bias toward the craft and substance that Kaempfert and writing partner Herbert Rehbein brought to their melodies and the superbly tight musicianship that marked those many recording sessions at the Rahlstedt studios.

I wrote in the first part of this account about how, when a sound is so well ingrained in our musical awareness – say, like a classic Kaempfert arrangement – it’s sometimes a bit “unsettling” to hear a different arrangement or hear the tune played by a band or orchestra of different makeup. I admit to falling into this trap for the first short while, that night in Frankfurt.

It’s a tribute to those original arrangements on my countless LPs and CDs of Bert Kaempfert tunes that every note of Manfred Moch’s trumpet parts, every propulsive swipe of Ladi Geisler’s “knack-bass” or Rolf Ahrens brushes on the drums, the precision of the ensemble in “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love,” or “Remember When,” or "Snowbird" or countless others...well, they’re all good and trusted friends, of whom one never tires, with the ability to raise my spirits whenever I hear them. (And the worse some of the contemporary pop cacophony becomes, the more I cherish them.)

So, yes, I suppose I was expecting a more “exact” recreation of the Kaempfert arrangements with the excitement, of course, of hearing them “live” for the first time. For whatever reasons - economic realities, perhaps, being a part, or the desire to “modernize” maybe - the ensemble was smaller than the typical Kaempfert recording orchestra, or, for that matter, the orchestras he conducted in videos I’ve mentioned elsewhere, such as the superb 1979 televised concert or the 1967 television performances marking the introduction of color TV transmissions in Germany. And the arrangements, as played by the Berlin Jazz Orchestra, were new, some of them more toward jazz ensemble than the “classic” Kaempfert orchestra (although a smallish string section was included). Fortunately, the choral aspect of Kaempfert was honored and the Berlin Voices filled the bill nicely, adding a new jazz flavoring on such tunes as “Spanish Eyes” and “Remember When,” as they backed up Sylvia Vrethammar’s vocals.

Well, whatever “discontent” I felt was most definitely short-lived. Indeed, some of the more jazz-attuned arrangements Jiggs Whigham led – including his sensuous trombone line in “I Love You So” – spoke eloquently to the timeless and versatile appeal of Kaempfert’s melodies. If you’d like to hear what I’m referring to, there is a CD, made in conjunction with an earlier set of concerts in 2006. And, as there was a video recording crew at the concert, my hope is that a DVD is in the works.

The supple-voiced Swedish jazz singer Sylvia Vrethammar has a wonderful association with Kaempfert’s music. I first enjoyed her while watching the Marc Boettcher documentary I wrote of in Part One, and even more in the full-length Kaempfert Concert DVD I purchased as a result of watching the documentary. So, the fact that Ms. Vrethammar would be joining Jiggs, Ladi Geisler, Herb Geller (saxophone/flute), and Ack Van Rooyen (flugelhorn/trumpet), all core players of the Kaempfert band in the 60s and/or 70s, was another reason this concert was a “not-to-be-missed” event for me. Her presence was vivacious and magnetic and she’d clearly not lost her touch with a Kaempfert tune.

There was also piano showman Joja Wendt…and a young man with whom I’d not been familiar but who has been introducing new and younger audiences to the music of Bert Kaempfert – jazz vocalist Marc Secara.

So, between Marc and Sylvia, lots of reminders of how wonderfully those Kaempfert instrumentals enhanced the popularity of so many popular singers – Al Martino, Dean Martin, Nat King Cole, Jack Jones, Andy Williams, and of course Frank Sinatra, to name a few – when lyrics were added. And I must say Marc Secara’s reading of “Lonely is the Name” at that concert (you can hear it on the CD) rates right up there with the best of Kaempfert vocals – Superb.

Yes, that evening left me glowing, and very happy that all my nocturnal internet research (described in Part One), led to planning a trip to Germany around this “Kaempfert-Abend.”

©Steve Ember
For a short sample of that evening in Frankfurt...Please enjoy (and one fine day, we might get to enjoy the entire video)

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September 18, 2018 at 3:36 AM  

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