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!

Sunday, March 5, 2017

11.) I'll Be Seeing You

Well hello there.  The 11th song of the 24 Standards project is I'll Be Seeing You by Sammy Fain and Irving Kahal.

I was only vaguely familiar with this song before I heard the - wait for it...- Frank Sinatra/Tommy Dorsey recording.  I fell in love with the tune after listening to that a couple times.  I love how the melody keeps climbing in the last eight bars of the tune.  It is a widely recorded song, although I only found a couple recordings that included the verse; those by Vera Lynn and Tony Bennet.  Other recordings I listened to were Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughan, Cassandra Wilson, Willie Nelson, and Brad Mehldau.   But it really came down to that Sinatra/Dorsey recording for me.  That's the one I hear in my head when I think of this song.

On another note...let the "mind games" begin.  The last two recordings (this one and Stardust) were a challenge.  For some reason I've been getting really hung up when I turn the recorder on.  Part of the problem is that I'm working alone.  In solo piano playing I'm required to make everything happen and I must cover all aspects of the music.   If I'm playing with a rhythm section, I can easily stop playing chords and just focus on playing a melody.  But here I have to spread my awareness fully across the instrument and fully across the entire soundscape.  That may be obvious, but it really increases my respect for the great solo pianists that I've checked out, especially when they improvise lines that are just as beautiful as if they were playing with a band.  But mostly my difficulties are from psyching myself out.  "Ok, I made it through that section, don't screw up the next part..." and you know what happens when you think like that.  In most of these recordings I play my arrangement, and return to the same arrangement after the improvised solo.  I often get a little nervous coming out of the improv, especially if there are a couple of challenging spots in the arrangement.  Oh, the joys of the mind.   It's my basic belief that with good focused work, I can practice my way out of any doubt or distraction.  My focus probably suffers sometimes because I'm so interested in (and often obsessed with!) many other things.  In the end though, I know that a broad range of interests helps the music.  If only I was a better at compartmentalizing.  If you have experience growing fruit trees please let me know.

My usual routine for this project is: 1.) Choose a song. 2.) Research it a bit.  3.) Seek out some recordings and listen.  4.) Write the arrangement of the song, usually focusing on the phrasing of the melody first.  5.) Learn my arrangement. 6.) Practice a complete version with an improvised solo.  7.) Record it.  8.) Post it on this here blog.

It's number six that I think is getting me hung up here.   I think I need to get number six happening earlier in the process to get over these mind games that I'm playing.  It takes awhile to know my arrangement well, but it also takes awhile to intimately know the form of the song for improvising.  I probably just need to take more time to do so.  What's the rush, right?

So there's a snippet of what can go on inside a musician's mind.  Of course there are many wonderful things going on in there too, and I'd be really happy if you think of wonderful things while you listen to this one.

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

10.) Stardust

Number ten!  Stardust by Hoagy Carmichael and Mitchell Parish was on my list from the very beginning.  I’ve loved this song for a long time.  I like songs that have a wide range and big arching melodies.  I checked out Carmichael’s original recording which interestingly was instrumental, pretty fast, and it didn’t have the verse.  The lyrics came a couple years later with Bing Crosby’s recording and that’s when the verse also appeared, at least on the recordings - maybe it had been there from the beginning.  This is interesting to me because this is a popular verse - many people know it and play it.  And as for the lyrics, I honestly thought that they were written by Hoagy Carmichael himself before I did the research.  It’s hard to imagine lyrics that fit the music better than in Stardust.  

And now the purple dusk of twilight time
Steals across the meadows of my heart
High up in the sky the little stars climb
Always reminding me that we're apart

You wandered down the lane and far away
Leaving me a song that will not die
Love is now the stardust of yesterday
The music of the years gone by

Sometimes I wonder why I spend
The lonely night dreaming of a song
The melody haunts my reverie
And I am once again with you
When our love was new
And each kiss an inspiration
But that was long ago
Now my consolation
Is in the stardust of a song

Beside a garden wall
When stars are bright
You are in my arms
The nightingale tells his fairy tale
Of paradise where roses bloom
Though I dream in vain
In my heart it will remain
My stardust melody
The memory of love's refrain

I think Stardust is a testament to the power of music.  Music can change my mood instantly.  As I’ve been doing these standards I’ve noticed how nice it is to get reminders about love.  That must be one reason why so many songs are written about it, and in this day and age we need those reminders. 

I want to bring up something called “back phrasing”.   I heard about it when I was in music school.  It refers to when a singer or instrumentalist sings or plays a melody later in time than originally written.  If a melody was written as four quarter notes in a measure, it might be sung or played as four eighth notes at the end of the measure, or even going into the next measure.   Billie Holiday is famous for doing this.  Keith Jarrett does it a lot too.  I used it a fair amount in this arrangement, but it actually has been a bit of a challenge to incorporate for me.  I’ve been starting my arrangemrnts by writing out the melody in accordance to how I think the lyrics are naturally phrased.   And for whatever reason it seems to be more centered, although often slightly different than what’s on the page.   But I managed to play around with a touch of back phrasing here and I think it worked pretty well.  

There is a recording of this song by Bill Charlap - a pianist that I’ve been listening to quite a bit lately.  Check out the youtube video of him playing All The Things You Are on an NPR radio program - so much great piano arranging stuff in just two choruses!  If I remember correctly, I originally picked up his album titled Stardust when I was in college after I read a 5-star review of it in Downbeat magazine - something I used to do - if it got 5 stars, I’d get it.   Shirley Horne sings Stardust on that record and it stuck with me and is probably the recording I emulated most with my phrasing of the melody.  
Now I have to mention Willie Nelson.  Many of you know that I’m a big Willie fan.  Stardust was the title track of a popular record of his, and I believe it’s one of his hits.  It’s quite nice.  And I really got a kick out of watching Willie perform it in a youtube video.  It was in an episode of the Tonight Show, when Branford Marsalis was the leader of the house band.  Willie plays it with Branford’s band backing him - Kenny Kirkland playing organ, Robert Hurst bass, Kevin Eubanks guitar, I think Marvin Smitty Smith on drums.  I used to listen to Branford a lot back in the college days, but didn’t really care at all about Willie back then - Willie came later.  So it was cool to see this.  They really emulate Willie’s studio recording, except instead of a full guitar solo, he shares the space with Branford.  Interesting to note, Willie seems to do the opposite of back phrasing.  He rushes through the phrases, finishing them early.   I’ve noticed he’s doing this more and more in live performance as he’s gotten older, and he seems to “talk” the words more.  Too much grass for Willie perhaps?  
Okay, enough is enough.  Here’s one of my favorite songs:  

Monday, January 2, 2017

9.) Time After Time

The ninth song of the 24 Standards Project is Time After Time by Sammy Cahn and Jule Styne.  This is one that I’ve played for a long time.  I love the Sinatra and the Chet Baker recordings.  But best of all I love the Keith Jarrett Trio Live At The Blue Note recording.  That box set is probably the most influential jazz music for me.  I know it backward and forward.  I think it was the first large collection I bought.  I remember buying it at Best Buy when I was a senior in high school - a six CD set - but one of the discs was missing!  They let me return it after some convincing by my girlfriend at the time.  But shortly after that I picked it up at the Electric Fetus record store in Minneapolis.  I loved buying CDs there because they smelled good….  They burned incense in there or something and the stuff you bought there kept that scent for years.  Maybe it was a clever marketing trick.  Anyway, that box set was my jam, and I love it more than ever.  I don’t put it on often anymore, but when I do it seems to get better and better.  It’s aged well.  

My familiarity with Time After Time actually made it more difficult to arrange.  I just wanted to play it instead of slow down and work out some stuff.  And since Keith’s recording is spontaneously arranged - so damn beautifully I might add - I just wanted to do the same.  Finally I managed to etch something out little by little.  It’s also more challenging for me to do medium or fast songs as opposed to ballads, because you have to write less - at least that’s what I think sounds best.  I ended up using a certain device quite a bit in my arrangement - something that I’ve heard Hank Jones do a lot, which is melodic fills that are played in octaves.  It seems like octaves would give it too much weight, and it seems like one could do better by harmonizing the line instead, but nevertheless I think it’s nice and adds a classic touch.  When I started doing some takes and listening back, I decided that I best enjoyed the sections of the solo for which I played a stride groove, so I decided to do that more and more - I went for the “feel” at let everything else take a back seat.  I hope you enjoy it.   

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

8.) Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered

Hello!  I'm pleased to share with you the 8th recording of the 24 Standards project.  The song is Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered by the classic American songwriting team of Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart.  It's from a musical called Pal Joey, which I haven't seen I'm sorry to say.  My favorite recordings of this song are those by Frank Sinatra, and Ella Fitzgerald.  There's also one I found by Bill Snyder & His Orchestra.  I hadn't heard of Bill Snyder before, but I enjoyed his version.

This song presented a challenge in my desire to effectively represent the lyrics in my arrangement simply because there are a lot of lyrics - three full verses and choruses.  So I decided to focus on my favorite verse and chorus which happen to be the ones that Sinatra sings.

As I proceeded to arrange the song, an opportunity presented itself for a "Chopinesque" treatment of the bridge.  I few months ago I became obsessed with a video of Martha Argerich performing Chopin's Scherzo No. 3 at the Chopin International Piano Competition in 1965.  Her winning of this competition brought her international fame.  I encourage you to check out the video - her playing is stunning and effortless.   What I love about the Scherzo No. 3 is the very simple melody alternating with the "rainfall" phrases in the upper register.

When I first saw this video I was inspired to pull out the score and see what was happening, and perhaps learn to play the piece.  What I discovered was that the rainfall had a very different sound at the very slow tempo that I was able to do.  The questions that arose were "Was Chopin able to sit down and improvise the rainfall phrases?  If so, did he need to play them slow in order to write them down on the page?  OR, was he able to sit away from the piano and write these phrases note for note on paper and know exactly how they would sound at a faster tempo?"  My theory is that there was both happening, but moreso it was the latter.  I think that what separates a "heavy" classical composer and a guy like me is the ability to do this.  While I might attempt it, and yes, have a rough idea of what I write will sound like,  I really don't know until I sit down at the piano to play it.  And most often I'm composing at the piano anyway - figuring out what notes I want by playing them, then writing them down.   But if you look at the output of the great composers it seems there simply isn't time for this checking everything at the piano, and my guess is that Chopin often worked that way.  The only evidence of otherwise is that Chopin's music is often eerily well suited to the hand - the flashy phrases are usually easy to play and make the pianist sound impressive.   He obviously was a pianist.  Another theory is that some other genius transcribed his improvisations and then Chopin later organized it.  His music often does sound improvisational.  Maybe you know how he worked, and maybe it's been researched at written about.  I'm just speculating, but if you know, please share....

Anyway, after spending a couple weeks with the Chopin score it was obvious that I would need a lot more patience and time and miracles to sound like Argerich!  I gave up, but it left an impression, and I remembered the concept when I arrived at the bridge of Bewitched.  What's so interesting is how different it sounds when played slow.  In my emulation of the idea, there was a definite leap of faith.  I only hoped that the phrases would sound how I wanted them to at a faster tempo.  I think it worked.  But to be sure I'll have to forget about it for a while and come back in a month and see how they sound.  Right now it's all too fresh.

I guess all that we know is that the artistic process is very personal and very different from individual to individual.  And that's a lovely thing.  I really love hearing about how others do their work and I hope you enjoy reading about my process a bit.  One thing for sure is that we need to be making and appreciating honest art more than ever.

Apologies for the mic distortion at the end of the bridge.  I got a little louder than expected there.  

Thanks for reading!  I hope you enjoy Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered.

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

7.) Ev'rytime We Say Goodbye

For the seventh song of the project, I chose Cole Porter's Ev'rytime We Say Goodbye.  It was first performed in 1944 by a singer named Nann Wynn in a musical revue show called Seven Lively Arts. I did some hunting for it, but was unable to find a recording of that show, or any version by Wynn, unfortunately.  But this is a very popular tune and there are many great recordings to hear.  I am fond of the Chet Baker / Paul Bley duo on the record called Diane, and also Ella Fitzgerald's recording from the Norman Granz Songbooks series that she did.  Ella hasn't had a mention yet in this project, but my wife recently got me hooked on her and she's sure to get more mentions here in the future.

Since starting the project there has, for the most part, been a trend toward simplicity.  The older arrangements are a little busier and have more going on than the new ones.  Maybe you don't hear it so much, but it's there at least in my head.  Some of these songs just don't want to be messed with too much.  Ev'rytime We Say Goodbye is one of those.  The melody has a kind of purity and suspense to it that I didn't want to detract from with a bunch of extra ideas.  I play it slow.  It's just a touching sad and beautiful song to me.  I don't think there's much else to say.  But before I move onto the next piece, I'd like to recite the lyrics to you.  Interesting to note is that Cole Porter was one of the few composers who wrote his own lyrics.  Perhaps that's why I find this song to be so pure.  And I'm a sucker for the "from major to minor" lyric and harmonic alignment.

Ev'rytime we say goodbye 
I die a little
Ev'rytime we say goodbye 
I wonder why a little
Why the gods above me 
Who must be in the know
Think so little of me 
And allow you to go

When you're near there's such an ere 
Of Spring about it
I can hear a lark somewhere 
Begin to sing about it
There's no love song finer 
But how strange the change
From major to minor
Ev'rytime we say goodbye

Monday, September 12, 2016

6.) Stars Fell On Alabama

Hello!  Remember me?  Remember this project?  It's been way too long since I've posted.  Needless to say, I'm way behind and I'm definitely leaving behind the idea that this will be done in a year.  August was difficult for this project.  I spent a week at the Kushi Institute playing music with bassist Thomas Morgan.  It was great.  When I returned home, my parents were visiting, and we painted our kitchen cabinets and did some hiking, swimming, and eating out.  After they left we continued to do some painting.  Then it was time to get our teaching schedules worked out.  So it's been busy.

I actually had this arrangement completed before I went to the Kushi Institute, but I didn't begin learning it and memorizing it until after my parents left.  And that's the most difficult part, as I've mentioned before.  Plus I've been soaking up all the end of summer in the Hudson Valley as I can.  It's been great.  I didn't rush to learn this one, and I didn't rush to get the recorder out.  It actually made it much easier when I started recording today.  I just knew the arrangement better.  

I've always been a fairly disciplined person.  I like routines.  I like to set myself up on a schedule of activities or courses of study and stick to them.  I did that for my piano practice in college, for yoga practice, meditation practice, as well as all these internet projects.  New York City helps with that sort of thing.  There's not much nature to get you out of the house, going places is mostly a pain in the ass, and there are amazing musicians doing amazing things all around you.  Well, now living upstate, things are a little different.  Many of my other interests are demanding my time.  Although I'm still close to NYC and still involved in playing there, I'm not immediately surrounded by musicians who's successes make me feel like a failure if I take a day off.  I'm quite happy about this actually, but it's just interesting to note the effects of this change.  

When I was in college, it was about learning jazz vocabulary and learning to physically play piano.  It was the building materials.  Of course that never stops completely.  But post school has been much more about getting inspired to use those building materials in a personal way.  And often the inspiration is coming from sources outside of music.  If you think about it, music would be pretty dull if it existed in its own bubble separate from the other arts, nature, and the rest of life.  I'm feeling super inspired by my surroundings now, but there isn't as much of a feeling of urgency with the work.  I'm okay with that, as long as you are.  What's the rush?  I'm a fourth done with this project now.  There's a long way to go.  But I'm excited about it.  And I'm starting to feel the desire for creative expansion.  There's plenty to expand upon within the parameters of "straight ahead" solo piano arrangements and I plan to stick to the format.  As my ideas are "used up" a contraction occurs and new things are squeezed out.  

The sixth song is Stars Fell On Alabama, music by Frank Perkins, lyrics by Mitchell Parish.  I learned this song years ago from the album Cannonball and Coltrane.  I love the way Cannonball Adderly plays this tune on that record.  I checked out the first recording version by Guy Lombardo, as well as several others, including Sinatra again.   They're all good.  This tune is pretty hard to screw up.  (Let me try though!)  It's just a good melody.  About 15 years ago I made a little home recording at school of a few tunes that I gave my relatives for Christmas.  Stars Fell on Alabama was on it, and it was my grandma's favorite.  A couple of older friends of mine have heard me practicing this arrangement and they all know the tune well.  It's just a classic.  

I tried incorporating the lyrics, or at least the title, into my arrangment with some possibly corny "falling" motifs.  The intro has some improvised "stars falling", and there is a continual descending theme happening, first in the bassline, then in a middle voice.  I reversed the direction of it in the last A section with a sequence of ascending harmonic seconds.  I think I've heard this sort of thing called word painting.  It's fun, and hopefully not too obvious.  Another fun thing about the lyrics that you won't get from my arrangement - you'll have to check out some vocal versions - is the necessity of some sort of east coast or old fashioned accent in order to make the lyrics rhyme with Alabama.  

We lived our little drama (dräma)
We kissed in a field of white
And stars fell on Alabama last night
I can't forget the glamour (glamah)
Your eyes held a tender light
And stars fell on Alabama last night
I never planned in my imagination
A situation so heavenly
A fairy land where no one else could enter
And in the center just you and me, dear
My heart beat like a hammer (hammah)
My arms wound around you tight
And stars fell on Alabama last night