Thursday, March 7, 2019

Final Reflections

Well here we are.  Another home recording internet sharing project completed.  Usually the end of a project is bittersweet, and sure there is some bittersweetness this time too, but largely I feel relieved that it’s over, even though I loved the music throughout the project. 

This was a challenging project for me.  It was challenging in task, but also in regard to the rest of life.  I’ve written a lot about that on this blog during the course of the project and I won’t elaborate too much on it here.   But there were long stretches of time in which I didn’t work on the project.  It took nearly three years to finish.  The parameters I set allowed for such lapses in work, since there wasn’t a time requirement (no weekly, or monthly publishing goal), the rules were just simply for me to do 24 of these things.   

Was this good or bad?  Sometimes the forcing nature of previous projects was good.  Those forced deadlines probably pushed me into new territory.   Being forced to carry on when I was sick of the subject probably led me to some unusual creative choices in the work.   That didn’t happen so much this time.  This time if I was sick of it, I was able to take time off.  I dedicated a lot of time to gardening, farming, and other homesteading activities, time that likely would have been spent on the project if I were still living in NYC.  But just so you know, I really love my life with all these extra musical endeavors.   It’s really made a difference in my happiness.  

Task-wise, this project was also more demanding.  I had a pretty clear vision of what I wanted these arrangements to sound like, and they were fairly elaborate.   Whereas the content of previous projects featuring original compositions, or improvisations could often be minimal and done quickly if needed.   Learning these arrangements well took some time, but I felt it was necessary to do that and memorize them, if they were going to benefit me the most.   

Getting a satisfactory recording was also challenging.  Ah the mental games...the feeling when you played the arrangement correctly on the way in, played a tolerable solo, then have to play the arrangement well again on the way out, so as to not ruin the take.  That was fun.   

I happy to say that I think the process of the 24 Standards project benefited my playing a lot.   When I sit down and improvise an arrangement, there’s a lot more ideas for me to draw upon.  It was nice to operate in the world of carefully-worked-out jazz piano arrangements, a world that I hadn’t really spent much time in at all.  

Also, I feel quite proud of physical end product of this project.   When I listen back to these arrangements I think they make up a solid body of work.  I like what I came up for them.  I would like to concertize these arrangements sometime.  But that would be difficult, like doing a full-length classical program.   Perhaps if I had had steady solo piano gigs during the project, I would have been able to keep them all under my fingers.  But now it would be a pretty monumental task to prepare them all.  Maybe someday.  I also think it would be fun to somehow publish the written sheet music.  Maybe someday. 

Generally speaking I’m not crazy about my improvised solos on these recordings.  It’s really challenging for me to play nice, honest lines when covering all the bases (basses!).   I’m much better at playing what I hear in my head when playing with a band, at least on standards.  I’m not sure how much you’ll hear of that struggle in the recordings.  Actually the sound of the struggle fades as I listen to each recording more - the notes I played become the “right” ones over time as I get used to hearing them.  

Overall I think the project led to a nice a nice body of work and I think I learned a lot doing it.   If you’d like to enjoy it in its entirety, the blog will remain, and there is also a YouTube playlist of all the recordings.  

Some favorite songs of mine from the project are Ev’rytime We Say Goodbye, If I Loved You, and The Boy Next Door.   I like them all, but those are standout songs to me.  All of those were tunes I hadn’t played before.  

I’d like to thank all of you who listened, read, watched, and offered feedback.  And I’m thankful for the platforms and technology that make it possible for me to so easily document and share another project like this.  

At this time I will not be announcing another project.  I have some ideas, but I also have some other life projects in the works.  I would like to get back to composing some more original music.  We’ll see what happens there.  This time of year, particularly in 2019, it seems kind of inconceivable to start a new project, or even sit down at the piano for a considerable length of time.  Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most I guess. 

With gratitude,


Wednesday, March 6, 2019

24.) I Get Along Without You Very Well

This is it!  The final arrangement for the 24 Standards project is of the song I Get Along Without You Very Well by none other than Hoagy Carmichael.   I first got to know this song from the recording by vocalist Kurt Elling.  This song wasn't on my list, but while I was away in Switzerland it suddenly popped into my head.  I wrote the arrangement in Switzerland - it seemed to fit well, being 4000 away from my wife.  If you don't know the lyrics of this song, the gist is, "I get along without you very well, except when 'this' and 'that'...."   Basically the narrator doesn't get along without her very well at all.  So it was fitting.

I really love the song.  The harmony of the A sections was a little challenging, because it was so simple and repetitive.  It was somewhat difficult to find creative things to for the arrangement, and also challenging during the solo for the same reason.  But I think it came out well.  I hope you enjoy it.  I will follow this post with a post of final reflections, probably in a few days.  Thanks for listening.

Thursday, February 14, 2019

23.) Moon River

Hello there.   The penultimate recording for the 24 Standards project is of the song Moon River by Henry Mancini and Johnny Mercer.  I've always liked this song, but never really learned it before now.

I had this arrangement finished for awhile, had it learned, but got really busy and had to set it aside for awhile.  Ah, life.  But I am fresh back from two weeks of a residency in the Swiss Alps.  I had plenty of time to practice it, and I was performing for three hours every evening.  It really makes a difference.  Despite its flaws (I'll probably never reach my ideal standard of a performance/recording), this recording was far easier to finish after playing that much for a couple weeks.  My ear to hand connection is much better when I've been playing a lot.

One thing I was thinking about as I edited the video is the display of emotion that a performer does or does not show.   As you'll see, my big balding head moves around a lot when I play, and is only exacerbated by my camera angle.  I'm almost completely unaware of these movements when I play.   Some performers, such as Keith Jarrett, show a lot of emotion through movements, facial expressions, and vocalizations.  Others are dead still, and show only complete relaxation of the face - classical pianist Frederic Chiu has many moments of stillness.  And I think both are very effective.  I'd love to be still sometimes, but, at least nowadays, I'm a bobbler and a scowler, and a sometimes sing-along-er.  Somehow I think these idiosyncrasies help me get out what I'm trying to get out.  I remember seeing one or two videos by Hal Galper (pianist and jazz educator) who is insistent that students show no emotional reactions, in the form of movements, facial expressions, and vocalizations, to their playing.   I think that my own emotional responses cause me to flub notes sometimes.  There are some moments where I hit the cracks in the solo on Moon River, which probably could be avoided with some checks on my emotional response.  But it would be a real challenge for me to be still - as I mentioned above, I'm only mildly aware of my movements while playing.  And I'm not sure it's worth it.  I tend to like seeing emotional reactions, especially in improvisors.

This arrangement makes some significant nods to one of the primary influences of this project, pianist Bill Carrothers.  You could say my introduction, filled with augmented and diminished chords, is directly influenced by Bill's treatment of In The Wee Small Hours, from his After Hours record.  Augmented and diminished chords are rather moon-like aren't they?

Anyway, I hope you enjoy Moon River and are not too distracted by my big dumb head.

One more to go!!!

Sunday, November 11, 2018

22.) Star Eyes

One of my main objectives in this project has been to be true to the melody and the lyrics of the songs I've chosen.  That means that I learn the words even though I'm not singing, and I try to phrase the melody in a way that makes sense with the lyrics.  However, with Star Eyes by Gene de Paul and Don Raye, I don't think I held up that objective so much.  The reason for this is that I had a preconceived idea of the rhythmic feel and tempo I wanted to use, which I thought would fit well into the whole project, but didn't fit so well with the lyrics.  Namely, I wanted to do this tune in a straight eighth feel, like it has often been done by many instrumentalists over the hears.  We used to call it a Latin feel.  I don't know, do we still call it that?  I hadn't done anything with this rhythm feel yet in the project, so I thought it would be a nice change.  And it would provide a little contrast in the body of the recordings, should you decide to listen to them all as a set.  (I've created a 24 Standards YouTube playlist so you can do just that if you want to.)   In fact, most people go to a swing feel on the bridge and the last four bars of the tune, but I felt like keeping the Latin feel throughout the tune so as to maximize the contrast.   There are vocal recordings of the tune that have nice and natural phrasing, but they are slower.  If I had mimicked them, I would have missed out on what drew me to the song to begin with - the contrasting rhythmic feel and tempo.

As you may have noticed, this project has been very ballad heavy.  While I didn't set out to do a project of mostly ballads, I've found them quite a bit nicer to work with - I've got a lot more time in each measure to put it counter melodies and other arrangement ideas.  A challenge when doing faster tunes is hearing what I'm writing at the faster tempo.  I have to simplify.  I think the faster the tempo, the simpler one must be.  Having attempted to keep that in mind for Star Eyes, I still think it sounds a little busy.  Keeping it much simpler would seem a little pointless.  I might as well just improvise an arrangement instead.  This is a big reason for the project being dominated by slow and medium songs.  That and the fact that I just don't like playing fast tunes, especially solo piano.

I had fun working on this one.  Only two more to go!

Technical note:  There is a weird humming feedback on the recording when certain notes and chords are played.  I think it might have had to do with the mic placement.  It sucks, but I didn't want to throw the take out for that reason.  Besides most of you will probably listen to it through your super high fidelity* smart telephone speakers and not notice it.  I tried EQing it out, but I don't know too much of what I'm doing there.  Apologies for the dumb feedback.  


Sunday, September 30, 2018

21.) I Should Care

Wooowhee has it been a long time since I posted an arrangment!  Thanks for your patience.  I felt like I had a good productive run on the project last winter.  And then something happened called The Growing Season.  April came and it was just time to get out there and plant, and then tend to those plantings, and then and then.   I had a nice summer in the garden and at Common Ground Farm, where I worked part time for my second season.

This arrangement actually came in a spurt right in the middle of the season, back in July.  I had had the hankering to compose some original music, but I felt like I needed to finish this project.  So I went to work.  I actually learned it too, but then August happened, some traveling, some day trips (epic swim holes!), and anyway, here we are.  Purtnear October and I'm just finishing it.  I'm not upset that it took this long.  I've come to accept that my life is pretty broadly focused these days, and I know I can get this project done eventually.

The song here is I Should Care by Alex Stordahl, Paul Weston, and Sammy Cahn.  I have three favorite recordings of this tune.  Thelonious Monk did a solo version that was slow and rubato, from the album Thelonious Himself.  I listened to it regularly back in college, and I decided to mimic his rubato feel.  Another favorite is by the Bill Evans Trio on the album How My Heart Sings.  I really love the phrasing in Bill's solo on that record.  I can only hope that it had some impact on my improvisation here.  I also love the early Sinatra recording - no surprise there!

Anyway, welcome back to 24 Standards.  Things should get more regular now that it's Autumn.  Thanks for listening.  Onto the next one....

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!