Monday, April 9, 2018

20.) Sweet Lorraine

Song number twenty is Sweet Lorraine by Cliff Burwell and Mitchell Parish.  This is a song I've always liked, but never played.  I was most familiar with the Hank Jones recording, from his record Tip Toe Tap Dance.   That record was recommended to me years ago when I took a lesson with Geoffrey Keezer.  This was back when I was in Eau Claire, WI.  Geoffrey is from Eau Claire and his dad was my percussion teacher.  Tip Toe Tap Dance is great.  Actually I transcribed It's Me Oh Lord from that album and recorded it for one my 12 Films.

Sweet Lorraine is an old sounding song - it reminds me of Fats Waller.  My goal in arranging was to honor that sound, but be myself too, and to keep the melody lyrical.

The arrangement was done for awhile, however I had a little life detour when it came to getting the recording done.  My grandpa Charlie passed away on Thursday March 29.   He was in hospice care from about March 23 I think.  Since it was my Spring break, I decided to go to MN for the week.  I was able to see grandpa while he was still alive, although he was zonked out on morphine.  Still it was nice to be with family for that week.  My grandpa and grandma had five kids, my dad being the oldest, and the family is really close.  In fact I'm the only one of all the cousins that isn't still living in MN.  It's difficult to live far away from them.  It's great to see everyone when I go back, but I always feel like I've missed out on what's happening.  I feel like an appendage, if that makes sense.  We had a nice family reunion at my brother-in-laws micro brewery Back Channel Brewing Co, the day after grandpa passed.  I was also able to spend a lot of quality time with my immediate family, including a stay at down at Dream Acres, the off-grid homestead of my brother, sister-in-law, and niece and nephew.  We made maple syrup!   We boiled 150 gallons of sap, which yielded just over 4 gallons of finished maple syrup.  It was so cool to experience that and just hang out with them.  They're special people.

I tried and tried, but I just couldn't get a decent take recorded of Sweet Lorraine before I left for that trip.   So I had to keep it under my fingers while I was in MN, and I played it at least once a day there.  So my family is primed for this recording I guess.  When I returned home I had a sudden shitstorm of gardening to do, I guess since I missed Spring break time at home.  Mainly it was that I had a shipment of bareroot fruit shrubs, asparagus crowns, and rhubarb root that arrived and they had to be put into the ground as soon as possible.  Let me tell you, planting asparagus ain't a walk in the park - good thing it will produce for twenty years to more!

Finally after I got those plants in on Tuesday and Wednesday, I was ready to get back on the recording horse, so to speak.  This recording was a struggle.  I was doing takes for several days.  There were a lot of mind games going on - a little "red light syndrome".   I think though, that the struggle is mainly due to the fact that my standards have gone up.  I'm not content with any significant "clams" in my performance, or any really off-sounding phrases in my improvised solo.  It's improv, so I shouldn't really care too much.  But again, I'm looking to satisfy the grandmothers with my playing of the melodies of these tunes, and I don't want them to suffer through any weird improvisation.  I want the solos to fit the vibe and be just as lyrical as the song itself if possible.  And I don't have the ability to edit these recordings - to take a solo from one take and melody from another, for example.  So I've got to get a good take all the way through.  I tend to freak out a bit when I've played a good clean melody and solo, then I've got to play my arrangement again for the out head without messing up too badly.  It is very good practice.  As long as I keep that perspective, it's all good.  This performance isn't perfect, but I thought it had some nice things going on, it is.   Four more to go!

Wednesday, March 7, 2018

19.) But Beautiful

Song number 19 is But Beautiful by Jimmy Van Heusen and Johnny Burke.  I knew this song from the Tony Bennett / Bill Evans duo album and as the title track of a great Nancy Wilson album.  I like the tune because of the thematic nature of the melody - the same phrase repeated three times at higher pitch levels.  And there are also these nice pauses in the song..."but beautiful...".

One of my previous projects was The Messiaen Project, in which I composed, recorded, and posted one song a week using the techniques of the French composer Olivier Messiaen.  This arrangment of But Beautiful became a little Messiaen/Standards mashup.  It started out with a desire to create some beautiful dissonance on the second half of the tune - the thematic part I was describing above.  Each time the melody reaches the repeated high note of the phrase, I was hearing some kind of increasingly dissonant sound.  I realized it was a diminished sound I was looking for.  So the first one is a diminished major seventh chord.  The second one is a double diminished chord - two diminished seventh chords stacked on top of each other.  The third one is a...wait for it... a triple diminished!  Whooooo!  I can hear your minds exploding.  When you stack three diminished seventh chords on top of one another, you end up with all twelve tones of the chromatic scale.  The way I did it was to play a double diminished on beat one, and then add the 3rd diminished chord on beat two.  It's dense and dissonant, but it quickly resolves to a chunky major seventh chord, hopefully providing you with some relief.

Messiaen made extensive use of the diminished scale, also known as the octatonic scale, and what he called "the second mode of limited transposition".  After making use of these diminished chords on the second half of the arrangement, as I described above, I thought it would be fun to try to incorporate diminished harmony elsewhere into the arrangement.  I used it in the introduction, at the end, and mainly in the long pauses of the melody, which happen after the lyric "but beautiful".

[I realize this post is getting pretty heady.  Especially if you're not familiar with the song.  Help me out and have a listen to the Tony Bennett / Bill Evans recording.  And for a Messiaen reference I'd recommend the Vignt Regards sur l'Enfant-J├ęsus]

To my ears Messiaen's music, particularly his use of the diminished scale, is full of really bright, beautiful, shimmering, dissonance.  In context that dissonance is not abrasive at all.  He was somehow able to take us along and make us believe.  However, interspersing the diminished harmony with regular major harmony, may or may not be a little weird.  It's difficult when I'm working on these to keep a sense of objectivity.  The objectivity is there the first couple times I try something.  After that it slowly dissipates.  By the time I'm getting some decent takes recorded it's completely gone.  It's really fun to come back and listen to these recordings a month later - the objectivity returns by then.  For now, you can be my objective listener and decide for yourself if it works or not.  In the meantime, I'll start arranging the next one.  Five more to go!  Thanks for listening!

P.S.  Here's the youtube playlist for all the Standards I've uploaded to YouTube!

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.