Anyone who knows me well knows that this is one of my favorite standards. I have been working on it since I was about the same age as Billy Strayhorn when he first started writing it – 16. It is a very subtle and difficult to play really well. I think I can finally do it pretty good justice now on a good day. One of my favorite straight instrumental performances is by Phineas Newborn Jr. A tragic genius of jazz piano plays a tragic song written by a tragic genius songwriter. What could be better?
For vocal versions it is Johnny Hartman with the John Coltrane Quartet. Of course.
The brilliant and prolific Maurice Jarre passed away on Sunday. He wrote and recorded the entire score to Lawrence of Arabia in an astonishing 6 weeks – in reverse order. He achieved this by sleeping for 10 minutes every three hours for days at a time. One has to wonder if the crazed schedule and sleep deprivation added some useful DNA to the score. I have always loved the romantic, epic hugeness of this music. His aggressive use of timpani seems to perfectly convey the sudden release of trapped energy that one feels must lurk below the surface in vast, quiet spaces. The melody to the main theme is simple and instantly memorable yet it retains a fresh mystery throughout the film. Sadly, I have still only ever seen it on a wheezing 12 inch TV but I have listened to the score many times. It is definitely time to experience the real deal soon.
I’ve been listening to a lot of Blossom Dearie since learning of her death. What a loss.
I had the good fortune to do a recording with her a few years back. I was doing the sound and incidental music for a Children’s TV pilot for my friends Bob and Anniken. They had managed to convince Blossom to record I Wanna Be Loved by You for the theme song. I had been playing a lot of gigs with an excellent bass player (Nick Walker) and drummer (Matt Jorgenson) that year so I offered their services and my studio. On the afternoon of the session, the three of us rehearsed and recorded several instrumental versions of the song. My intention was to run the board when Blossom showed up and let my colleagues be her backing musicians. I was nervous and excited to have Blossom coming over to my humble home studio and found myself neurotically triple checking levels and taping down anything that could rattle. We had been warned that she could be somewhat quirky and demanding. Bill Read makes good mention of this aspect of Blossom in his excellent Blossom post. It was an extremely hot August day and I was going to be forced to turn off my clunking old A/C once we started recording in order to get a reasonable sound quality. Recording in 100 degrees is a lot ask of someone who isn’t quirky and demanding!
Blossom arrived and we ran through the song for her a couple of times with the air still on. She had never performed the song before and decided that she would prefer not playing piano and instead concentrate on the vocal. Yikes – I had not thought of that! Blossom has a refined and inimitable piano style that is perfectly matched to her voice and the idea of me accompanying her filled me with dread. Fortunately, the rumors about Blossom were false that day. She was kind, friendly and professional and she put us all at ease. She sat at the piano with me and showed me a some chord voicings that she felt would work and she came up with a charming arrangement on the spot. She seemed to get a kick out my jerry rigged studio and we all had a good laugh when I stumbled around trying to run from hitting record on the tape machine in the bedroom and playing the piano in the main room. We recorded three takes of the song and she was back in an air conditioned car before the room got too hot. It was just a throwaway session for Blossom but it was a real thrill for me and my mates. This was the result of our efforts:
I was sad to hear of the passing this week of the gifted arranger, orchestrator and composer Angela Morley. Morley’s evocative and subtle work on many of the TV Dramas of my youth (Dallas, Dynasty, Hotel etc) still play in my head as the background music of my childhood and was often many magnitudes higher quality than the show itself. Morley composed the wonderful soundtrack to Watership Down, arranged for Mel Torme, Rosemary Clooney, Marlene Dietrich, Noel Coward, Petula Clark and Dusty Springlfield and worked as orchestrator/arranger and often uncredited composer on many of John Williams’ great scores including ‘The Empire Strikes Back’, ‘E.T.’ and ‘Schindlers List’.
The Roland Juno 106 is a true anolog-digital hybrid swiss army knife that invites deep experimentation like few other synths I have messed with. The single DC0 per voice makes a thin reedy sound on its own but boy can you fatten it up with lowpass filter and the ridiculously fat internal stereo chorus. I have been enjoying the Juno 106 Librarian and I have to say that it is a very well coded tool. If you can run Java on your computer you can run this little app. It uses MIDI SysEx to gain full control of your 106 from the computer. The Juno 106 is one the first MIDI Rolands and one of the last synths to have a really nice gadgety control panel but I don’t have space in my little studio to have it at arm’s length at all times. Over the years I have created a bunch of libraries on tape and now it is possible to maintain these from the editor. You can prototype a bunch of sounds for a song and not worry about over tweaking them and loosing your way back -the editor can act as a version control system for the library revisions.
This is a video clip from Dick Hyman’s excellent series of jazz piano instructions. He outlines several useful patterns for playing block chord across the diatonic scale including mixing in a ‘drop 2′ voicing used widely by Barry Harris, Bill Evans and OP. Drop 2 on piano is a port of an orchestration technique for opening up a closed voicing for a horn section where the second note is dropped down an octave. On piano, it is often played with LH on bottom note and RH handling top 3. Hyman explains that the sweet zone for these types of block chords is middle octaves where the instrument is resonant but they can sometimes work high as well for certain melodies.
This sounds perhaps a little sad but I discovered Buckwheat about 25 years ago as a teenager when my mom bought the soundtrack album for ‘The Big Easy’. Even in the dead of winter in Rochester NY his tracks on that album were able to evoke swampy hot good times. It made me want to learn how to play the accordion – something I still have not done and vow to do soon. The fusion of blues, R&B, funk, reggae and Creole that is Zydeco makes it one of the most vibrant of the roots music forms and has endowed it with the DNA complexity that makes for healthy evolution over the years. Buckwheat himself has been no less iconoclastic with his career and he happily touches on all of those styles on Jackpot! – his latest release. The bonus is that Buckwheat has also returned to his original instrument, the Hammond B3 on several songs. It made me want to hunt down some of the 70’s Buckwheat and the Hitchhikers and Clifton Chenier stuff that features his Hammond playing. In the excellent live show I was lucky to see last month, Buckwheat and his band were the ultimate Lousiana street band. Buckwheat is a warm and natural live performer and it is almost impossible for his shows not to turn into a party. Call me a romantic but there is something about watching a room full of people of all ages, races and sizes getting silly together and laughing and dancing that makes me happy.
I am a pretty serious piano snob so a lot of people have been surprised that I bought a Yamaha Clavinova about 6 months back. I came to this conclusion because I live in an apartment and I sometimes like to wake up at 3AM and play my little heart out. When I used to do this with my (very loud and very awesome) baby grand it resulted in nasty phone calls making me feel I was doing something bad when I was making music which is supposed to be making me feel good. Musical bad mojo is hard to shake and is to be avoided in my opinion. Once again, just like my high school guidance counselor warned me, life is all about trade offs and here I had to make an important one. I decided that I was willing to give up a certain amount of ‘piano-ness’ in order to retain the freedom to play whenever I want. There are others who would say that they would NEVER have purchased a digital piano over an acoustic but my guess is most of these people don’t actually play a lot of piano at 3AM nor do they live in an apartment. It is easy to to have rigid idealistic beliefs when you are not in the trenches. I have not regretted this decision one bit and it turns out the trade-offs were minor. The Clavinova is not an acoustic piano but it is damn close. To put it in terms we can all understand, the Clavinova is not that sad inflatable sex doll that Hopper drags around in Blue Velvet. No this is a true Cylon – a piece of technology that can actually ‘pass’ for the real thing in many applications including recording. It feels very good to play, is always perfectly in tune and I can play with headphones on at a satisfying volume any time I want. …and I do. So take that Mrs Ratouche in 1C! You, Madame, will no longer hamper my musical creativity you intolerant music-hating nightsleeper! Frankly, I pity you.
There are a lot of models of Clavinovas out there. The number of models is actually ridiculously confusing and seems rather excessive but Yamaha must know what they are doing. I ended up going with the CLP-240 which is a mid-level model that has the good piano touch and nice speakers without a lot of extra features like tons of silly sounds, room character-sensing digital effects and cruise control. Highly recommended.
Two of Portishead guest DJd on All Songs Considered a few weeks back. They brought in a varied combination of music that was important to them as a band and were mocked playfully for including Noel Harrison’s cover of Michel LeGrand’s ‘Windmills of Your Mind’ in the list. They defended this track by describing it as a sonic experience that displays orchestration techniques and studio production that is no longer available to us today and is ‘perfectly of it’s time’. This has stuck in my mind because I feel that we often lack language to describe all of the hidden forces of what makes music ‘great’ to us and they kind of hit on something there. It is a bit of a paradox: in order for a song to become timeless it needs to be of it’s time. It is this perception that enables us to connect with the some old songs – ignoring the shifted tides in production, language and themes while we attack other songs for these same failings. If a song is not speaking of it’s own time with honesty and energy it will never speak to another time. OK now I’m confused and I must stop.