Showing posts with label Bill Evans. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Bill Evans. Show all posts

Monday, May 7, 2018

Under the Radar

When we think of the great body of work which constitutes the Great American Songbook, there is a tendency to forget the great composers who never wrote a Broadway show but whose songs are as much part of our musical heritage.  I’m reminded of this while reading William Zinsser’s Easy to Remember; The Great American Songwriters and Their Songs.  Perhaps I’ll have more to say on the book when I’m finished.  Yet, I will say that the book, for me at least, is fascinating, as Zinsser’s passion for the music is evident on every page, it’s encyclopedic, and finally, he frequently discusses the songs’ construction, both musically and lyrically.  This is my kind of tribute to the music I love.

And, yet, there are omissions.  A composer such as Henry Mancini gets but a passing mention, only because of working with the “vernacular poet” of lyricism, Johnny Mercer, on the song “Moon River.”  But a glaring total omission is the work of Johnny Mandel, perhaps not a household name, unless you hear one of his songs which you would swear was written by someone else.  His oeuvre is not extensive, but he’s written a wide range of idiosyncratic songs and teamed up with some interesting lyricists.  He has, most notably, worked extensively as an arranger for well known singers of his time as well as playing with some of the big bands of the 40s such as Jimmy Dorsey and Count Basie.

He too worked with Johnny Mercer the lyricist on perhaps one of his best known songs, written for a movie, “Emily.” Tony Bennett, Sinatra, and a host of others have recorded it.  The jazz community has adopted this work as their own, particularly the superb interpretation by Bill Evans, a version of which can be heard and seen here, Bill Evans in an intimate setting, Helsinki, 1969.

My mother’s favorite song was “The Shadow of Your Smile,” another film song he composed.  Whenever I visited her at my boyhood home from which I had long moved she’d ask me to sit at our old piano, by then partly out of tune, and play what I didn’t realize was a Mandel piece.

And talk about unusual, he composed the “Song from M*A*S*H (Suicide Is Painless)”, which is also now played in jazz venues.

His work with lyricists Alan and Marilyn Bergman produced two classic pieces, the mystically evocative “A Waltz from Somewhere” which reaches back to another era and one of my other favorites, “Where Do You Start?” about how does one disentangle one’s life from another’s?….”So many habits that we’ll have to break and yesterdays we’ll have to take apart.”

Yet the song which landed me in the sea of Johnny Mandel songs, never tying them altogether until I bought the composer’s Songbook, was “You Are There” as sung by today’s first lady of song, Stacey Kent.

Her rendition of “You Are There" really elevates the composer’s intention: “To be done in a rubato feeling throughout”

Dave Frishberg, a musician who is sometimes best known for his satirical lyrics, wrote the words to this moving ballad and his collaboration with Mandel produced a classic, the story of a lover who is not just absent but is dead.  The ethereal quality of Mandel’s music works with the lyrics:

In the evening
When the kettle's on for tea
An old familiar feeling's settles over me
And it's your face I see
And I believe that you are there
In a garden
When I topped to touch a rose
And feel the petal soft and sweet against my nose
I smile and I suppose
That somehow maybe you are there
When I'm dreaming
And I find myself awake without a warning
Then I rub my eyes and fantasize
And all at once I realize
It's morning
And my fantasy is fading like a distant star at dawn
My dearest dream is gone
I often think there's just one thing to do
Pretend that dream is true
And tell myself that you are there

I offer my own piano rendition of this wonderful work.  Thank you Johnny Mandel for all your contributions to the Great American Songbook!

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

The Great American Songbook Inhabits the Palm Beaches

Some recent events bear witness to the title of this entry.  A focal point, though, is Palm Beach’s The Colony Hotel which has its very own version of Manhattan’s Cafe Carlyle, or any of the well known NYC cabarets, only more intimate.  The Colony’s Royal Room attracts some topnotch American Songbook talent. Also, the Colony’s Polo Lounge Sunday brunch this season featured one of the best jazz pianists, Bill Mays. Sometime ago we heard Mays accompany diva Ann Hampton Callaway (a composer and a great jazz-cabaret singer) at the Eissey Campus Theatre of Palm Beach State College and made it a point to seek him out at the Colony’s Polo Lounge a couple of weeks ago. 
I asked him to play Bill Evans’ Turn Out the Stars, not very frequently performed, a work of beautiful voicing and emotion.  After a break, Mays played it solo, without the bass, effortlessly as if he plays it daily.  To me, it was heartrending. Then we were treated to an impromptu performance by the then featured performer at the Royal Room -- Karen Oberlin.  Amazing how an unrehearsed number by three professionals can be so natural.  Bill Mays’ CD Front Row Seat is exactly as titled – it’s as if he is playing in your living room.

Last month at the Royal Room we also caught Jane Monheit who we saw years ago and who has matured into such a great stylist, with phenomenal range, her latest album, The Songbook Sessions, a tribute to the great Ella Fitzgerald. She gladly posed with Ann for a photo. 

She performed pieces from her album and other numbers with her trio, husband Rick Montalbano on drums, Neal Miner on bass and Michael Kanin on piano, just the perfect combo for classic jazz.  Unfortunately her album (and this is very personal, not a professional observation) included a trumpet player, at times a distraction. I just wonder why the addition of a brass instrument was necessary. The bass, piano, and percussion combo is (to me) ideal for intimate, classic jazz.

Nonetheless, just to tie this together is a YouTube performance by Jane Monheit of Bill Evans’ Turn out the Stars, which was recorded at the Rainbow Room some six years ago.  What a sultry performer, one of our leading jazz first ladies, along with Stacey Kent, two completely different styles but both at the top of their games.

Last Saturday our close friend and neighbor, Nina (the artist who painted “Jessica” which hangs over my piano), who is also a cellist and a singer (do her talents have no bounds?), performed in the Choral Society of the Palm Beaches (S. Mark Aliapoulios, Artistic Director) – at Jupiter’s Florida Atlantic University auditorium. 

This was one of the most diverse programs we’ve seen in a long time, culminating in a partially acted out version of Frank Loesser’s The Most Happy Fella, a Broadway show which was recently performed at the New York City Opera.

The program’s featured performers made it especially enjoyable, vocalists Lisa Vroman, a soprano with extensive Broadway experience (who played Rosabella in that New York City Opera presentation) and Mark Sanders, a baritone who frequently performs with the Gulf Coast Symphony.  They had the perfect chemistry for performing one of the most beautiful Broadway duets ever written, Loesser’s "My Heart Is So Full of You."

But for me the highlight was the appearance and performance of Paul Posnak, who arranged Four Songs By George Gershwin for two pianos, which he played with the Choral Society’s pianist Dr. Anita Castiglione.  The songs reminded me so much of Earl Wild’s arrangement, Fantasy on Porgy and Bess and after the concert I told him so. He was delighted by the comparison, and it was apt.

Not enough praise can be directed to Dr. Catiglione for her nearly non-stop performance during the 2-1/2 hour program, easily transitioning to soloing, to accompanying, from Gershwin, to Irving Berlin, to Rogers and Hammerstein, to then to Frank Loesser and finally to classical, accompanying songs beautifully sung by the 2016 Young Artist Vocal Competition Winners, Mr. Julian Frias and Ms. Celene Perez, both high school seniors with great artistic careers ahead of them.  Our friend, Nina, was instrumental in organizing this competition.

Judging by these events, the American Songbook thrives and its future seems assured in the Palm Beaches!

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

It’s Love – It’s Christmas

We’ve all heard just about every Christmas carol or song ever written, but here’s a rarely performed one composed by the great jazz pianist Bill Evans.  It’s quite beautiful and in the Evans’ mode.  What makes it particularly unusual for Evans – aside from the lightness of the piece – is he wrote the lyrics for it, something he rarely did.  He once said “I never listen to lyrics.  I’m seldom conscious of them at all.  The vocalist might as well be a horn as far as I’m concerned.”  But I guess it was the spirit of the season which led him to write lyrics for his own Christmas song.

It’s Love – It’s Christmas
Dancing to the music low,
The world covered white with snow;
A kiss……..
That won’t let go.
It’s love, it’s Christmas.
Jack Frost
Painting window panes,
A sleigh, Santa at the reins;
A fire, candy canes,
It’s love, it’s Christmas.
Lovers watching a star,
Their dreams so near yet so far;
It’s love, the spirit of Christmas.
© 1991 Ludlow Music, Inc.

Although the reflection on the piano might belie a Floridian presence of Jack Frost, I offer my own recording of Evans' lighthearted Christmas piece, and as we’re taking time off for the holiday, a happy and healthy New Year to all!

Friday, May 3, 2013

Music Makes Us

David Byrne made a profound observation in his recently published How Music Works: "We don't make music; it makes us."  So naturally we are partially defined by the music we listen to. For myself, it is the Great American Songbook, music we sometimes refer to as "The Standards," many coming from the theatre and films or just pieces performed by some of our favorite recording artists.

I've made two CDs in the past several years and for the complete list of the songs see the end of this entry on the Great American Songbook.

Since I made those CDs I've taken some piano lessons, pretty much my first block of lessons since grade school years. Those lessons were abruptly brought to an end by my open heart surgery and although I would have liked to resume them, it is a huge commitment of time. Sigh, if I was only younger! Still, the interim lessons have helped my skills, and I decided to test them with a new CD, and selected some more challenging pieces, diverse ones, from "The Songbook." Appropriately, this album is named Music Makes Us.

Some of the songs in this album are close to my heart for mostly idiosyncratic reasons, which I will explain. But first here is the complete list:

My Man's Gone Now, Bess You Is My Woman Now,  I Loves You Porgy (from Porgy and Bess, music by George Gershwin);  The Rainbow Connection (from the Muppet Movie by Paul Williams and Kenneth Ascher); Never Never Land (from Peter Pan, music by Jule Styne); Alice in Wonderland (from the Disney animated film, music by Sammy Fain); Over the Rainbow (from The Wizard of Oz, music by Harold Arlen); Johanna, Pretty Women (from Sweeney Todd by Stephen Sondheim); No One is Alone (from Into the Woods by Stephen Sondheim), Till There Was You (from The Music Man by Meredith Willson); Getting Tall (from Nine by Maury Yeston); Why God Why (from Miss Saigon music by Claude-Michel Schönberg); If We Only Have Love (from Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris by Jacques Brel); It's Love - It's Christmas, Letter to Evan (by Bill Evans); Seems Like Old Times (by Carmen Lombardo); Laura (by David Raksin); Here's to My Lady (by Rube Bloom; lyrics by Johnny Mercer); Two Sleepy People (by Hoagy Carmichael; lyrics by Frank Loesser); What is There to Say (by Vernon Duke and Yip Harburg); I See Your Face Before Me (by Arthur Schwartz; lyrics by Howard Dietz); Time To Say Goodbye (or "Con te partirò" by Francesco Sartori)

The first three are from Porgy and Bess by George Gershwin. There are many other Gershwin pieces I love to play but Porgy and Bess stands alone as a folk opera.  What can one say about such a consummate musical genius other than he was a prodigy who died too early but nonetheless flourished in all musical genres, from popular songs, to Broadway, to opera, to the concert halls.

Then I play four songs that are whimsically fairy-tale focused -- think rainbows and wonderlands.

From there, I move towards Broadway, the first three pieces by the reigning king of the Broadway Musical, Stephen Sondheim, all favorites of mine, two from Sweeney Todd and the breathtakingly haunting No One is Alone from Into the Woods.

A few months ago we saw an inspired revival of The Music Man at the Maltz Jupiter Theatre. I had forgotten that the beautiful ballad Till There Was You was from that show, and I couldn't get it out of my head until I decided to include it here.  We've haven't seen Nine, based on Federico Fellini's film 8½, but I found Getting Tall in my Broadway Fake Book and found myself playing it over and over again.  Very poignant and so included here.  On the other hand, we saw Miss Saigon in London, and thought Why God Why was a show stopper -- certainly as moving as some of Claude-Michel Schönberg's other pieces in his more famous Les Misérables.

That section concludes with If We Only Have Love from Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris which is the first Broadway (actually off Broadway) show that Ann and I saw together when we were first dating -- in 1969. As such, it has special meaning to me. That song is the concluding piece from the revue.

A brief shift, then, to two pieces by Bill Evans, his one and only (to my knowledge) "Christmas piece" -- It's Love - It's Christmas -- and the other a musical "letter" to his only son, Evan, soon after he was born. If I could be reincarnated as a professional pianist, it would be in the Bill Evans mold, but he was truly one of a kind.

Then a group of songs, classic standards, such as Two Sleepy People by Hoagy Carmichael, which is my little hat tip to the late and great Oscar Peterson whose rendition of this song is the best I've ever heard.

Finally, and appropriately, I conclude with the now well known (thanks to Sarah Brightman and Andrea Bocelli) Time to Say Goodbye, which is also the last piece I recorded at my session at Echo Beach Studios in Jupiter, Florida, a recording studio that is mostly frequented by professional musicians -- which brings up the difficulty of the process itself.

I had one three-hour block to get everything recorded, to get it right as best I could.  Three hours to make a 45 plus minute CD. Not only is it imposing, sitting alone in the recording studio before a concert grand piano with microphones all around, with the control room behind a glass in which my technician (the very competent and understanding Ray) is monitoring events, but it is exhausting as well. The fatigue factor took its toll, especially with the longer, more complicated pieces, when I had to flip pages of music quickly while also trying to avoid that sound being recorded.

The other difficult issue is simply being able to translate what I "feel" when playing the pieces and the recording studio is not the most conducive place for that. It becomes a technical performance which if one is a professional, perhaps that is good enough, but for me, I need that feeling factor. It is sort of like having to make love in a public place. Nonetheless, I had established big goals for this CD, worked towards them, and I'm happy I did it, even if those results may not be the same as in the privacy of my living room playing my own piano.

I'm not sure whether I'll do another CD again.  Between my three, I've recorded about 75 songs.  I'm somewhat content with that. The piano has been and will continue to be a big part of my life. I've been lucky enough to have a little talent, and a big love for the Great American Songbook genre, and the time to play for pure enjoyment.  But never say never again!