Showing posts with label Piano Playing. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Piano Playing. Show all posts

Friday, December 27, 2019

Jerry Herman, A Great Broadway Composer / Lyricist

Jerry Herman passed away yesterday.  I think of him as being among the pantheon of great contemporary composers / lyricists, excelling as both song writer and wordsmith.  While Hello Dolly! and Mame might immediately spring to mind when talking about Jerry Herman, to me, La Cage aux Folles, the first Broadway musical to deal openly with the gay community, is the perfect Jerry Herman creation of musical numbers, ranging from the big Broadway tunes one would expect such as ''I Am What I Am'' and ''The Best of Times'' to more subtle, sweet ballads such as ''Song on the Sand'' and ''Look Over There.''  This musical is chock full of memorable pieces.  

However, I truly love two musical pieces from his earlier, short-lived musical Mack and Mabel.  Serendipity led me to them.  When we first moved to Florida, Hershey Felder (an actor, pianist, playwright and arranger), was staging one of his first one-man shows, George Gershwin Alone at The Cuillo Centre for the Arts in West Palm Beach (which later coincidentally became the home of Dramaworks).  That was sometime around 2005 before I began writing this blog so I never reviewed it, but it was a unique work which only a great pianist such as Felder could have created and performed.  It ultimately made its way to Broadway.  But getting back to the connection to Jerry Herman, Felder, after the performance, said a friend of his was in the audience, a well-known upcoming Broadway singer, a young man about Felder’s age, who he invited up to the stage to sing, Felder acting as an accompanist.  Here’s the problem about not writing this blog at the time: I have no recollection of who this singer was.  He said he would sing two of his favorite Broadway pieces, "I Won't Send Roses" and "Time Heals Everything" were from a relatively unknown Jerry Herman musical, Mack and Mabel, and oh did he sing!  The audience was totally moved, captivated, and I immediately made them staples of my own piano work. 

When learning Jerry Herman had died, I listened to my own recording of "I Won't Send Roses" and said to myself, yes, this is how I would like to remember this great artist.  In the original production, it is sung by a movie director “Mack” (played by Robert Preston) to his upcoming star “Mabel” warning her that she shouldn’t expect any of the niceties of romance from him.  It is a brutally honest yet tender song, the words in perfect symmetry with the melody.  It is later reprised in the show by Mabel (played by none other than Bernadette Peters) where she accepts Mack without the roses.

And so, I’ll think of Jerry Herman any time I play this piece, this recording from about ten years ago .

RIP Jerry Herman

Saturday, July 20, 2019

Getting Tall

My rendition of “Getting Tall” was recorded more than five years ago, but at the time, as its digital size was within the parameters of BlogSpot’s own video capabilities, I embedded it in the blog entry with their software.  This rendered it unplayable on mobile devices which are now the primary way my blog and therefore posted videos are accessed.  Thus, I’ve put it on YouTube and this can now be seen and heard in this entry.

Originally I posted it at the same time as “One Song Glory” from the musical Rent and both videos were a departure for me for reasons I explained in the former entry:

“Unlike the other videos I’ve done its close up.  This is not because I’m wild about my hands.  After all, they are, together, 142 years old! : - ).  But the sound was better with my little digital camera nearer to the piano. ‘One Song Glory’ is a genre outside my traditional classic Broadway comfort zone.  In other words, it doesn’t come naturally to me, but sometimes we have to forge into new territory.”

I continued with “the musical structure of ‘Getting Tall,’ from the musical Nine, on the other hand (no pun intended), is closer to the traditional Broadway musical, so I’m more relaxed playing this piece….’Getting Tall” is a very evocative conceit, the younger self counseling the mature version of the same person.”
Learning more, knowing less,
Simple words, tenderness part of getting tall.

Hopefully, that tenderness comes across….”

On a related matter, I received a comment on my recording of “This Funny World” which I’ll share here. I don’t get many comments as my videos are not heavily trafficked as are so many of the professional ones, but it’s always pleasing to learn that the tree is not falling in a silent forest and there are some people who come forth to express their feelings.  This one is particularly appreciated for the reasons I expressed in my reply:

From “Tom”
I was looking around for the song “This Funny World” by Rodgers and Hart; I had remembered the song from the past and thought how poignant and in many ways also how true the words seem to be.  These words as well as the music begins a chain of events causing a sharp sense of sadness, pity, and regret, and still a realization that life’s journey for everyone,-- to one degree or the other,--  have to say that this funny world has been making fun of them. But I wanted to learn the song and of course put into you-to-bee “How to play (This funny World) and this wonderful looking keyboard came up with a pair of hands on it, I thought to myself --  ok let’s see how bad this guy messes up the song, but to my surprise and delight I could sit through the entire song and drink in every beautiful note and expression, nothing added nothing subtracted it actually was what I was looking for, you have an extraordinary ear and the ability to present the song just as the writers intended.   Thank you.

My Reply:
Thank you, Tom, for your kind comments.  You touched upon both my strength and weakness as a pianist.  I do try to focus on a literal interpretation and play the song as I feel it.  I lack the musical education to render these songs with the kind of voicing and interpretation of some of my favorite pianists such as Bill Evans and Oscar Peterson.  But over the years I tried to commit some of my favorites to YouTube.  I laughed when you said that you found a pair of hands and a keyboard in your search for the song.  My recording device is a digital camera which I’ve learned that when I record a distance from the piano to get my body and all into the video, my living room becomes an echo chamber.  Better be close, very close to the piano for the best sound and, even then, it has noticeable limitations. I’ve recorded 4 CDs in a studio and these sound better, but they are not available commercially.  Also, when I do a YouTube recording, I usually write it up in my blog, and my entry on “This Funny World” is at this link:

Tuesday, July 16, 2019

Have I Stayed Too Long at the Fair?

Billy Barnes is not exactly a household name in the annals of the Great American songbook but he had a successful career as a composer and lyricist.  Maybe his relative anonymity is because so much of his work was for TV rather than the stage, but one recognizable hit alone catapulted him into the company of some of the greats, "(Have I Stayed) Too Long at the Fair."  My attraction to the song is similar to the one I have for Jerry Herman’s romantic ballad, “I Won’t Send Roses,” both bittersweet, haunting, regretful.

It takes an exceptional lyricist to make a great song so memorable.  Barnes’ song crafting created a certain kind of poignancy in this one, rendering it a classic.  One can listen to two completely different  versions on YouTube, Barbra Streisand’s highly stylized rendition recorded early in her career and Rosemary Clooney’s recorded late in hers.  Clooney has the perspective of an older woman with life’s experience to “sell” the song.  After all, it is more about a mature, “successful” woman, now alone “in a carnival city.”

My own piano recording can’t do the song justice without the words and you’ll note the ambiguity of my timing.  The song is written in 4/4 time, but the lyrics cry out for it to be played in a waltz tempo so frequently associated with the merry-go-round of the lyrics and I’m constantly drawn in and then  out of that tempo so my version is simply the way I feel it, wrong timing and all.  But I would like to add this to my YouTube library of some of my favorites.

For a full appreciation, the lyrics are necessary:

I wanted the music to play on forever
Have I stayed too long at the fair?
I wanted the clown to be constantly clever
Have I stayed too long at the fair?
I bought my blue ribbons to tie up my hair
But couldn't find anybody to care
The merry-go-round is beginning to taunt now
Have I stayed too long at the fair?
Oh mother dear, I know you're very proud
Your little girl in gingham is so far from the crowd
No daddy dear, you never could have known
That I would be successful, yet so very alone
I wanted to live in a carnival city
With laughter everywhere
I wanted my friends to be thrilling and witty
I wanted somebody to care
I found my blue ribbons all shiny and new
But now I discover them no longer blue
The merry-go-round is beginning to taunt me
Have I stayed too long at the fair?
There's nothing to win
And there's no one to want me
Have I stayed too long at the fair?

Wednesday, December 19, 2018

If Only In My Dreams

And so the classic song "I'll Be Home For Christmas" ends with that memorable line “if only in my dreams.”

And that is sort of the way I feel at this stage of my life.  Christmases are now dreams of the past, anticipating the holiday as a child and then the pleasures Ann and I had in creating memorable holiday moments for our children as they grew up.  The classic song itself is particularly evocative of the distant past popularized by Bing Crosby and so many others, first recorded at the peak of WW II. 

Undoubtedly it was played frequently by my mother and my grandparents with whom we lived while my father was in Germany at the conclusion of the War, wanting to get home, but he was part of the occupying force and didn’t make it home until right after Christmas 1945.  "I'll Be Home For Christmas" is probably implanted in the recesses in my mind as every time I hear it I feel a sudden melancholy. 

When my father came home he brought a wooden replica of the Jeep he drove in Germany for me.  I don’t remember his return, or getting the Jeep, but somehow that 70 year old Jeep has accompanied me to wherever I lived.  Sometimes when I look at it, I can hear "I'll Be Home For Christmas."

In some past blog entries I’ve posted videos of other Christmas songs I like to play, in particular the following:  “It's Love -- It's Christmas,”  a seldom performed Christmas song, written by none other than the great jazz pianist Bill Evans. And, then, “Christmas Time Is Here” is by Vince Guaraldi, a great jazz musician too but his music will always be associated with the Peanuts Christmas specials.
Finally, there is “Christmas Lullaby,” probably the most unknown Christmas song. It was written for Cary Grant by none other than Peggy Lee (Lyrics) and Cy Coleman (Music). It is the simplest of tunes and lyrics but therein is its beauty.

So, on the eve of this Christmas I post my piano rendition of “I’ll Be Home For Christmas” with fond memories of my Dad and Christmases past.

"I'll Be Home For Christmas"

I'll be home for Christmas;
You can plan on me.
Please have snow and mis-tle-toe
And presents on the tree.

Christmas eve will find me
Where the love light gleams.
I'll be home for Christmas
If only in my dreams.

I'll be home for Christmas;
You can plan on me.
Please have snow and mis-tle-toe
And presents on the tree.

Christmas eve will find me
Where the love light gleams.
I'll be home for Christmas
If only in my dreams

Thursday, June 21, 2018

Musical Notations

My former self speaks to me…….

It sometimes laments not committing more effort into improving my piano skills over the years.  Not that I am gifted, but I am teachable.  Not that I even had the time to pursue more intense lessons being involved my entire adult life in a publishing career that was all consuming.  But I still have regrets about not developing what talent I do have into a higher degree of proficiency at the piano.

I am most envious of those gifted musicians, who can hear a song and then play it, improvise it, embellish it, all without reading a musical score.  It is an extraordinary gift and most of the prominent musicians have that ability. 

Irving Berlin’s story is intriguing.  He couldn’t write or read music.  He never had a lesson although Victor Herbert briefly instructed Berlin, who was already established as a major composer of popular songs.  In fact, he abandoned the effort knowing he didn’t really need those lessons to further his career.

As a youngster Berlin taught himself to play the tunes he heard in his head using the F# scale, thus playing mostly on the black keys.  He found it simpler to just learn them to express his musical ideas (why bother with the white keys : - ).  Remarkable.  As any musician will tell you, it’s a heck of lot easier to compose and play in C Major. 

As he never studied music, and wasn’t a great pianist, he couldn’t transpose.  Most gifted musicians can transpose to another key “on the fly.”  I can’t.  I have to work it out.  Berlin couldn’t so when he wanted to change keys in a song he relied on a mechanical instrument that changed keys for him.  He would write that section of the song in F# and the mechanical transposer changed it to whatever key he wanted.  He also asked musicians to transcribe his music.

Even professional musicians are confounded by Berlin’s abilities and lack of ability.  But the point is he could play without music, music he couldn’t read.  In that regard, he played strictly by ear.

Classical performance completely relies on the ability to read musical notation.  Of course there is still room for a performer’s interpretation of the composer’s score.  Many concert performances by pianists, with or without the orchestra will be performed without the pianist consulting the musical notation, or just having it there for a passing glance to be in synch with the orchestra.  These are remarkable pianists being able to internally assimilate large and complicated works.  It’s really the ability to “see” the score or to sight-read “silently.”  They simply hear it in their heads.

There are also jazz pianists who can not only play by ear, but have been trained classically, and can thus sight read such as Bill Evans and Oscar Peterson.  They were double threats at the keyboard, using their incredible knowledge of musical theory, voicing, and virtuoso technical training to interpret a song.  Both Evans and Peterson were comfortable playing solo or with a jazz group, without having to read music for any performance.  To them, playing was like speaking a language they were born with and then studied to know the entire vocabulary and usage.  A gift few have.

Hearing it in one’s head is the most salient characteristic of a jazz performer, particularly one performing in a “jazz jam” with other jazz performers without any rehearsal, maybe never having played with the other.  Jazz performers who are playing a piece they are not familiar with use a lead sheet and/or a chord chart.  Lead sheets consist of the melody line in the treble clef and the accompanying chord for the bass and for “filling in.”  I can read a lead sheet or “fake book” music, they’re usually synonymous. 

I have “fake books” for most of the Great American Songbook, a favorite repository from which jazz artists take their pieces.  But just having the melody line and the chords does not make one “jazz jam worthy.”  Jazz artists can take a chord chart which corresponds to the lead sheet and improvise using the song structure, usually returning to the melody itself at the end of the jam. 

In order to do so, the jazz artist must be able to follow the melody in his or her head, as well as follow the rhythm.  Jazz jam artists “hand off” solos to one another.  The music can become very abstract, but all participants in a jam are speaking the same language.

I have put to rest the fantasy of jamming, although I could do some.  It would just be too anxiety producing for me.  I now accept the fact that I’m an inveterate soloist; just enjoy playing as I do, not at a professional level, but simply for the joy of revisiting the classics of the Great American songbook and play them for myself or for others as part of a structured program.  My playing adheres mostly to the melody, improvising mostly for the bass based on the chords. 

I started this entry about my distant self talking to me in the present.  Rick Moore, the very gifted jazz keyboardist who is the founder of the Jupiter Jazz Society (an “organization committed to presenting ’live’ improvised music and promoting Jazz education throughout the Palm Beaches”), wrote a piece he calls “Song for Cherie,”  a song for his wife.  She is really the organizer of the Jupiter Jazz Society.  I was struck by the piece as it reminded me in some ways of Bill Evans’ original work, my favorite jazz artist.  Rick’s work has clockwork simplicity to it, and although a waltz (Evans wrote many), a beautiful jazz feel to it, particularly the B section.

I asked him whether he would share the lead sheet with me which he was kind enough to do, so I could have the enjoyment of playing it.  You can hear the composer himself play the piece at this link. 

He’s composed many pieces over the years and will be issuing a CD of them in the future.  It is something to look forward to.

It made me think of my nascent songwriting efforts from decades before.  They are mostly uncompleted pieces, simply because I’ve never had any training either in theory or in composition.  Also, there was the time factor.

One of my finished pieces was called Annie’s Waltz.  Ironically, both Rick and I wrote songs to the women in our lives in 3 / 4 time.  I wrote a brief blog entry about my piece ten years ago but Google Pages pulled the link to my recorded version.  That entry makes reference to it being written the year we were married, 1970.  But I’ve found the original and it was written in Jan. 1969, just about the time we started dating seriously.  In a few months, that piece will be 50 years old.  50 years!!!  Here is a photo of what I wrote, warts and all given the passage of time and the worn edges of the music.  It’s a simple piece, but heartfelt for this mere amateur.

As I’ve had difficulty posting what I recorded, I have simply posted a You Tube version.  I’ve learned to accept less than perfection with my little digital camera and even reluctantly and nostalgically to accept the fact that I’m a soloist, not destined to be a jazz performer and I’m ok with that.  I just enjoy playing.  All the videos I’ve posted can be found here.