Monday Notes

Abbey Lincoln, Laugh Clown Laugh. From Opera to Jazz

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[Monday Notes no.88] Abbey Lincoln is an inimitable singer, not only because of the timbre of her voice but also for her special ability to sing powerfully and deeply, delivering the words sometimes with gravity and sometimes with sharp sarcasm. Her performance of Laugh Clown, Laugh is beautiful and moving.

The piece tells of the apparent cheerfulness of a clown, beneath which sadness and pain are actually concealed. The theme has its origins in melodrama, in particular in Ruggero Leoncavallo’s opera I Pagliacci; this jazz version, however, comes from a 1927 film.

The lyrics of the song do not reveal why the clown is sad, they merely express the contradiction between his genuine feelings and what others expect of him.

The first edition of ‘I Pagliacci’ by Ruggero Leoncavallo

Music emphasises this contrast, in fact the first part of the piece is played in a brilliant medium swing tempo, while at minute 2’30” the piece slows down, turning into a jazz ballad. The change of tempo expresses the contradiction between how the clown appears and his real feelings.

Although the lyrics are rather repetitive, there are no instrumental solos, the voice always takes the lead. Yet the singer never loses her expressive power, she always sings in an interesting and hypnotic way.

The song also seems to refer to the well-known rule of show business: the show must go on, whatever it happens. It is impossible not to think of other women of jazz, from Billie Holiday to Judy Garland, who in spite of a tormented existence went on stage all their lives, sometimes with their souls full of pain.

Billy Holiday

This piece curiously brings together two very distant worlds, melodrama and jazz. But sometimes music is just a pretext to express universal concepts, Whether it is an opera singer or a blues musician, we always expect the artist to lift us out of our sorrows, and for a moment make us happy.

We never really know whether this role is pleasant or painful for an artist; the clown’s smile is impenetrable. But whatever his emotions, the clown will continue to go on stage, because the show must go on.

Until next Monday!

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