Friday, February 9, 2018

18.) Blame It On My Youth

Number 18 is Blame It On My Youth by Oscar Levant and Edward Heyman.  This one really goes back to the origin of the project in a couple ways.

This recording is the project's tribute to Keith Jarrett.  It didn't start out that way however.  I was familiar with many of Keith's recordings of the song, but I went about my usual business of finding some vocal recordings to check out.  The one I latched onto most was Frank Sinatra from the album Close To You.  That album and Bill Carrothers' album After Hours where kind of the inspiration for the whole 24 Standards Project.  I was listening to them a lot when I came with the idea.  Ironically, Bill is one of the pianists who improvises arrangements.  But the stuff he was doing was so inspiring.  I knew I wouldn't be able to improvise arrangements on that level, so I began working on writing some out, which is how it all began.

The other way that it goes back to the origin is with Keith Jarrett.  Plainly stated, he is my favorite musician.  He's one of the first jazz pianist I got into.  And it was his Standards Trio records that I heard first and grew to love.  A little side story:  I remember buying the Keith Jarrett Trio Complete Live at the Blue Note 6 CD box set at Best Buy.  I think I was senior in high school.  I brought home and began listening, only to find that one of the discs was missing!  How tragic.  My girlfriend at the time convinced Best Buy to let me return it.  Eventually I picked it up again at the Electric Fetus - a cool independent record store in Minneapolis.  I loved buying CDs there because of how they smelled.  They packed them with incense sticks or something.  And their box sets contain all the discs!

Anyway, as I've mentioned before, Keith Jarrett is also one of those pianists that improvises his arrangements - pulling them out of the air.   You can hear it, and I've also read several interviews of him explaining it.  I was influenced by that early on, and was trying to do that same whenever I played standards.  And it hadn't really occurred to me early on how arranging was such an important part of the jazz piano tradition.  So in a way, this project is a response to my trying to imitate Keith for so many years.  So here we are.  

This arrangement started as the others.  I was thinking vocally when I figured out how I'd do the melody.  But a couple of melodic embellishments popped into my head as I got to the second half of the tune.  I didn't think anything of them at first, but after a while they started sounding a lot like Keith.  So I went and listened to his recording of the tune on the album The Melody at Night With You, and sure enough one of my embellishements was almost an exact copy of what Keith played.  At first I thought shouldn't do it.  But then I thought, eh, why not - this is an educational project.  No harm in quoting my favorite pianist.

Jazz is basically imitation.  You copy your heroes.  Usually though you want to combine enough of your jazz heroes together, plus the other styles of music you like, and your own life experience, so that any one influence is somewhat hidden, or at least the lines are blurred.  I don't want to remake a Keith record.  We already have his.

But this was just one phrase.   So I went ahead and left it in.  However, listening to The Melody At Night With You recording infected me with a vamp ending.  When I started practicing my arrangement, I just had to go to that vamp.  At that point it became some pretty straight up Keith imitation.  A little more than I really feel comfortable putting out in the world.  But at the same time, I'm really interested in honesty, and I'm interested in sharing the "alone in the practice room" version of my music.  Not that I want to share my practicing, but rather I want to share how, when the feeling is right, I really let myself go when I'm alone.  And how yes, sometimes at home I'll play a vamps just like Keith's for a long time.  And damn it feels good - serious nourishment!

Nourishment from playing music is something I believe in.  Sometimes it feels nourishing to play a concert.  But my most nourishing musical moments have happened at home by myself.  And those moments are the best.  The ability to have such moments is what I hope to pass on to all my piano students.

Saturday, January 13, 2018

17.) Long Ago and Far Away

Song number 17 is Long Ago and Far Away by Jerome Kern and Ira Gershwin.  It is as far back as I go with Standards, as it is the first one I ever learned to play when I switched to a jazz piano teacher.  It was the beginning, learning what an F major seventh chord is for example, and at that time it was difficult to learn how to voice enough chords to play a song.  So once I got this one, I played it every day for probably at least 6 months.  I wonder if my parents remember it.  At the time I think they questioned my progress because of how long I played this song.  Fortunately I've learned a lot since then, so hopefully they will like this current version.  

There is no shortage of recordings of Long Ago and Far Away.  For some reason I was drawn to the Teddy Wilson recording when I began my arrangement.  I think people like to play the tune because of the sudden shift from F major to Ab major.  At least that's why I like it.  Tonal shifts like this might be characteristic of Jerome Kern.  I'd have to know why more tunes to say this with accuracy, but both his The Song Is You (recorded earlier in this project), and All The Things You Are (an extremely popular song for jazz musicians to play) contain modulations like this.  After I finished my arrangement and began practicing it, it occurred to me to play around with this tonal shift up a minor third in the solo section.  So every 16 measure I modulate up a minor third without preparing the modulation, meaning I don't play a ii-V or something similar to prepare the new key, I just go there.  (Sorry non-musicians, I realize this post has gotten a little heady.)  It was fun to play, but it also kept me on my toes.  

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

16.) The Christmas Waltz

Song number 16 is The Christmas Waltz by Sammy Cahn and Jule Styne.  This song was written for Frank Sinatra and appears on three of his Christmas albums.  I came to enjoy the song last year during the holiday season.  

I'm a little ambivalent about including a Christmas song in the collection, but I have a few reasons for validating it.  First, the song is written by Cahn and Styne who were a famous songwriting team who wrote a lot of songs that I love and are standards hands down, such as I Fall In Love Too Easily and Time After Time.  So the composers fit the bill.  

Second, Christmas music has always been special music for me.  I not one of those who find it annoying,  especially the classic albums.  This time of year was magical when I was a kid.  And it probably was the most important time for music in our household.  It was played constantly from Thanksgiving until New Years, and it brought us a lot of cheer.  Standout Christmas albums from when I was a kid are The Beach Boys Christmas, John Denver's Rocky Mountain Christmas, and the Alvin and the Chipmunks Christmas.  Now when I hear these albums they bring me back to childhood memories.  They make December feel a little more like it used to - exciting instead of busy as heck.

I worry a little that listeners might be annoyed to hear a Christmas song at other times of year, since it will be placed on an album of all different stuff.  But this song is not one of those Christmas songs like Rudolph or Jingle Bells that everybody recognizes instantly although it has been pretty widely recorded.  And for those that do know it well, my hope is that it will be a little reminder of winter when you hear it in July.  I've come enjoy these kind of seasonal reminders. 

In any case, I think it's a nice song.  I hope you enjoy it in this holiday season and beyond.  Happy Holidays!

Monday, December 11, 2017

15.) If I Loved You

This song is really beautiful.  I like it a lot.  It's from the musical Carousel by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II.  I just heard the early Sinatra recording a couple months ago and I knew right then that I wanted to do the song for the project.  Listening out of context of the show, it's a sad beautiful song.

If I loved you
Time and again I would try to say
All I'd want you to know.

If I love you
Words wouldn't come in an easy way
'Round in circles I'd go. 

Longing to tell you
But afraid to try
I'd let my golden chances pass me by

Soon you'd leave me.
Off you would go in the mist of day.
Never, never to know
How I'd love you,
If I loved you.   

However, in context it's not so sad.  Both the female and male characters sing it to one another and then they totally start making out afterward.  So they do love each other, but they're not ready to admit or announce their love for each other yet.  I haven't seen the whole show but I was happy to see the scene that features this song on youtube.  

The majority of this arrangement was written while I was in Vals, Switzerland.  I was playing at the 7132 Hotel for a couple weeks.  It was a really beautiful place, and really nice to have a break from my usual life.  It was a retreat.  There is a lot one must do to keep a house.  But I have also become what one could call a homesteader.  I am very interested in having meaningful connections to my environment, land (even if only a 1/5 acre lot), and especially my food.  So in addition to the usual cooking, cleaning, maintenance, etc, I spend many hours doing things like gardening, chicken-keeping, fermenting, preserving, and farming.  I am a do-it-yourselfer; a jack of all trades.  And I love that.  But let me tell you, it cuts into your artistic time.  In Vals, I couldn't do any of those things.  I was miles away from my kitchen and my yard.  Suddenly confronted with an abundance of time, I first didn't know what to do with myself.  Pretty quickly I established a nice routine.  After breakfast, I'd do some chi kung, some mediation, some journaling, and some practicing.  After lunch I'd take a nice walk in the mountains, soak in the thermal baths for which the area is famous, practice a little more, then I'd play the gig in the evening.  I was able to write this entire arrangement of If I Loved You, memorize it, and finish the next arrangement as well.  

Coming back to regular life, it became even more obvious just how much time the necessities and the homesteading things take.  But I have to say, I wouldn't have it any other way.  I'm really happy with the path I'm on these days - I find a lot of meaning in it.  And it's okay with me that this project is taking so much longer than I originally anticipated.  

Thursday, October 26, 2017

14.) Peg O' My Heart

Hello.  Long time no post.  I had a lovely summer, which consisted of a lot of farming, gardening, swimming, chicken observing, and not so much standards and piano.  I needed a break.  I had begun working on this one right after Spring Can Really Hang You Up The Most was posted in June, but I only worked on it very sparsely throughout the summer.  I returned to more serious work on the project in October, and now I'm pleased to present Peg O' My Heart by Fred Fisher and Alfred Bryan.

Jazzers don't seem to know this tune.  The only real jazz recording of it is by the Lester Young Trio, and there is a composed phrase in it that really sounds like it was improvised by Lester.  It seems like a natural tune for him, and it's surprising that other jazz players didn't follow his lead and record their own versions.  I found out about the tune from Dan, a student of mine in Beacon.  He had an arrangement in one of his books, and he told me all about the tune and recordings of it by the Harmonicats among others. I liked the tune, and it's short form, which I welcomed especially after the long-ass Spring Can Really Hang You Up The Most.  Even the title of that one is soooo long.

I attempted a lot of walking 10ths in both the arrangement and the improvised solo.  I love the sound of them.  I had worked on them a bit with Garry Dial at the Manhattan School of Music.  However, they are damn challenging to play.  For those unfamiliar with walking 10ths, they are a series of large spanning stretches in the left hand.  Listen to Teddy Wilson for some amazing walking 10ths.   I can barely reach many of them.  And some I have to roll (playing one note just before the other).   I found that they took a lot of concentration to pull off.  So as I began doing takes and listening back, it was clear that my right hand improvisation suffered when I was playing the 10ths because they required too much focus.  It got a little better, but I ended up doing a lot less of them in the end, just so I could pay more attention to the melodic line.  You can hear me fumble around with them at times.  Damn walking 10ths.

Anyway.  This is Peg O' My Heart.  Enjoy.

Thursday, June 15, 2017

13.) Spring Can Really Hang You Up The Most

Lucky number thirteen!  Let me tell you, finishing this song can really hang you up the most!  This was a difficult one to get done.  It's long and repetitive, but with little differences in those repetitions. It was difficult to memorize, and my focus has been all over the place lately anyway.  Life!  Spring!  

The song is Spring Can Really Hang You Up The Most by Fred Landesman and Tommy Wolf.  This song goes back to my Manhattan School of Music days when I performed it with vocalist and pianist Brenda Earle.  I checked out various recordings of it - Ella Fitzgerald, and check out my pal Randy Ingram's recent recording! - but I still hear Brenda's voice when I play it.  I like this song.  It's got some pretty parallel harmony - similar to Keith Jarrett's version of In The Wee Small Hours Of The Morning from the Blue Note recordings, which basically kills me and has always killed me.  And the song has an enjoyable "modulation fake out" coming out of the bridge into the last A section.

When I was growing up in MN, summer was the best season.  Spring was second best.  But after moving to NY, back in 2002, Fall became second best.  I think it's because I moved to the city in the Fall to start my master's program at MSM.  It was such an exciting time.  Spring however became a reminder of probably the scariest transition of my life - that of finishing my degree and entering the real world in NYC.   Crappy jobs, living paycheck to paycheck, unsure if my girlfriend really liked me or not (happy to report that we'll be celebrating our 9th wedding anniversary this July!).   Further more, for many years Spring was always the end of getting paid as my piano students all left for the summer.  There was always this feeling of "how the hell am I going to make it until Fall financially?"  Fall was a relief.  Cooler temperatures, and the return of the my students.   Spring is getting better though.  I love Spring activities, and money isn't quite as much of a problem as it used to be.   But there remains an occasional worried lump in my throat during Springtime.  It is true that Spring Can Really Hang You Up The Most.  

Saturday, April 15, 2017

12.) The Song Is You

The Song Is You is a song I've known for awhile.  I've always liked the tune and the harmony - notably the sound of the modulation coming out of the bridge.  But this tune has always kicked my butt.  It was always difficult for me to improvise on these chords.  So I thought it was worth it to include in the 24 Standards project, you know to tackle the challenge and what not.

Probably what made it difficult for me all those years was that it's often fast.  I best know the Keith Jarrett Trio recording from the album Still Live and they play it very damn fast.  Charlie Parker played it pretty fast too.  For me, improvising at a fast tempo forces me to fall back on rehearsed patterns that my hand and ear know.  I think it's rare to find a musician who can really hear and execute new ideas at burning tempos (Keith is one of them).   This has always caused me to dislike playing fast tempos - which has actually been an issue for my whole career.  I always have an abundance of slow material and I usually have to write a lot before anything fast comes out.  Fast music is overrated, okay.

And when you start checking out these songs historically, with the lyrics in heavy consideration, those fast tempos don't make a lot of sense anyway.  So in returning to The Song Is You, I took the tempo down a bit.   There were a couple recordings that I liked a lot - one was the Frank Sinatra / Tommy Dorsey recording.  (Sorry if this is getting predictable and boring - perhaps I should have done this project exclusively based on the Sinatra / Dorsey recordings.  There just so good!)   Another one I liked was Tony Bennet and Bill Charlap duo.  It's from an album of all Jerome Kern songs.  There is a nice youtube video of Bill playing All The Things You Are (also by Kern) for a radio broadcast and he describes Kern as "The angel at the top of the tree for American popular writers."  

So the chord changes always kicked my butt, and arranging the song did too.  This was the first one that I started over a couple times.  I ended up with a little two voice counterpoint at the beginning - something different than I've done so far in this project.  I'd like to tell you that I think it's nice, but in truth I don't know.  At this point of the process (after laboring over the arrangement, then practicing it nearly to death, doing multiple takes to record, listening back, etc.) I've pretty much lost all objectivity.  I'll have to come back to it and listen in a few days and assess.  And even then it won't be the same as how it will sound to me in a few months time.  Fun with the artistic process!

This is number 12.  I'm officially half way through now.  It's not getting easier at this point, but I think that's okay.   I didn't do this because I thought it would be easy.  Thanks for reading and listening!