I’ve always viewed my journey with jazz and improvisation akin to someone’s journey with the game of golf – each year, I hope to suck just a little bit less than the previous one. And what’s the most common answer I would get when I asked jazz musicians how to get better at it? “Listen.”
The first time I listened to Keith Jarrett’s album The Melody at Night, With You marked probably the most significant point in my development, not just as a jazz musician, pianist, or even artist, but as a human being. I don’t think it made me “better” at any of those things, but I know without a doubt the experience turned my world upside-down. The album stands on top of my list of “desert island” items for a multitude of reasons, some too personal to share without you buying me a whiskey (or two) first.
As with so much art, some will get it, some won’t. Self-proclaimed jazz “connoisseurs” often turn their noses up at this sort of album with a “this isn’t jazz” label, but I’m willing to guess that’s partially because it dares to be something other than loud and fast. I’m also pretty sure we never held a conclave on who would serve as infallible curators of the entire art form.
I’m not here to preach the gospel of Keith Jarrett, but I owe much to the restrained, unapologetically simple, breathtaking beauty of his playing on this album, and to not at least share it with y’all would be dishonest on my part.
Sam Cooke and the Soul Stirrers is a bit of a misnomer for this first song on the album, which should probably fall under the heading of “Paul Foster and the Soul Stirrers.” It’s not that Sam Cooke doesn’t bring his trademark irreplaceable quality to the song, it’s just that Paul Foster’s unvarnished sound wrenches your soul into glorious hope in a way no one could except for Paul Foster.
I fell in love with gospel music playing services for All Angels’ Church in New York City. I remember being asked to play the evening gospel worship service and realizing I knew nothing about it. Nothing. And so, on the recommendations of sage singers, I started my listening journey with Sam Cooke and the Soul Stirrers.
Probably the most important lesson I’ve taken away from that journey is that there is only one unforgivable sin when singing or playing gospel music: not meaning it. Baritone Reginald Smith, Jr. reinforced this point to me making it crystal clear one summer at Wolf Trap. He often sent me into hysterics telling stories about he and his mom going to various gospel worship services and her various insights into not just gospel music but life. On one particular occasion, after they had finished listening to someone’s virtuosic, vocally impressive performance in church, she turned to him and said, “Honey, the Lord ain’t in that.”
Reggie – if you’re reading this, please publish a book of your mom’s wisdom. I feel like that alone would make the world a vastly better place.
You’ll hear both Foster’s voice and Cooke’s voice crack multiple times in this song, and you won’t care in the slightest. What they mean is far beyond the power of vocal sheen to express.
‘Son’ can be translated as either “sleep” or “dream” in Russian – in this poem by Feodor Sologub, the former seems not only evident but sensually and powerfully personified. I have included this song, not just because it happens to be one of my favorites, but also because we’ll be featuring it among many things on The Art of Pleasure, Steve’s collaboration with me and four Wolf Trap singers happening at the Barns at Wolf Trap on May 31 and June 1. Soprano Laura Corina Sanders will perform this with me, and that Steve has entrusted me with this gem makes my soul giddy.
I think you should come see and hear it. As Kathy Kelly once told me, “Of course you’re biased, Joseph, but I’m not sure that makes you wrong.”
“Son” starts at 10:04 into the video. The measure beginning at 11:58 encapsulates why I do what I do. To me, the music here cries out a longing, an utterly naked desire to be seen and known for one’s entire being. I don’t really know else to put it.
My dear friend and colleague Kelley Kimball introduced me to the music and artistry of Melody Gardot back in 2015, and her music became a friend to me at a time I needed it the most.
You can easily find Gardot’s story with a bit of research, but in summary, a car hit her while she was riding her bike in New York City. She spent the next two years learning how to walk again, along with learning to cope with the short-term memory loss and extreme photosensitivity that ensued as a result. Gardot already being a fine pianist, her doctor recommended music therapy to aid in her recovery.
Gardot learned to play guitar in the hospital and wrote songs that until quite recently she considered too personal to be shared with the public. Though I don’t believe the song I’m sharing with you now is one of those, this song enchanted me from the first chord. Those of you needing an infusion of vulnerability, charm, elegant simplicity, and sensuality in your lives will likely need this marriage of words and music as much as I still do.
These days I find myself more on the vulnerable side of my reality, not the intellectual one, so I give you this week’s selections desiring little more than for you to listen. Listening with an open mind, much less an open heart, too often runs contrary to my noise-filled existence. This first song, “Danny Boy,” appears on Time Remembered, a compilation album of songs that remained unreleased for some time. It marks Evans’ return to the recording studio after a year spent grieving the death of Scott LaFaro, his trio bassist, who was killed in a car accident. Evans showed up to the studio alone, played four tunes, and walked out – or so the story goes.
I share the notion with many of you that time is money, but the 11-minute price tag on this song seems like nothing if you’re willing to sit with him as he musically figures out how to breathe again. The space, sparseness, and tender hesitation of every note he plays in the beginning unravel the knots of my heart every time, and in doing so, remind me of why I do what I do.
For a man whose fingers could fly across the keyboard in a desperate attempt to keep up with his creative genius, Evans doesn’t even start embellishing the melody until after four and a half minutes in.
No sooner has the hurly-burly of the New York season ended than the summer season creeps up from behind, screaming for attention. I just ran a musical marathon that ended with four huge projects in the space of five weeks (in three cities). But pretty soon I’ll be off to Wolf Trap to do something Kim Witman titled Four of a Kind. Why? Well, it has songs from four countries, sung by four singers, and accompanied by four hands. Mine, and those of Joseph Li. I met Joseph last summer and quickly realized I was in the presence of musical royalty. I found that his heart was as warm as his music, and following a strong instinct I decided that we should work on a program together. I knew his playing only from a few YouTube clips, but I had a hunch that amounted to a certainty.
Joe and I just spent some time together in New York working out our duets (played from scores) and our two-piano song accompaniments (improvised, usually with nothing more explicit than “You play high in this one, and I’ll stay low”). Joe is a superb partner, able to hear the onset of a ritardando in the space of two notes, or a change of timbre and articulation the moment it happens. I’ve played with some great pianists: John Musto, Michael Barrett, Chris Reynolds, and now Joseph Li have all made me feel like Ginger Rogers to their Fred Astaire. But wait, not backwards and in heels. No, it’s more like being a pair of Nicholas Brothers:
One of the songs we’re doing at Wolf Trap is Gershwin’s “Hi-ho.” George and Ira wrote it for the movie “Shall We Dance,” and it finds the brothers at the top of their game. Musically complex (an early listener called it “practically a piano sonata”) and lyrically adroit, “Hi-ho” is a true Gershwin masterpiece. But it was simply too long to be included in the movie. It would have needed an expensive, elaborate set, and Hollywood was not seduced by its sheer musical brilliance. Tony Bennett recorded it as a sexy soft-shoe, but William Sharp and I exploited its careening energy when we made our Gershwin CD in 1990. I love Tony B., but I think our “Hi-ho” flies higher. And when Joe and I played it last weekend, my piano started to give off smoke. Watch out, world.
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