Monday, November 29, 2010

Friends in Low Places

A high school friend chastised me on facebook about neglecting my country roots, and I can't have myself being chastised on facebook, so here we go with a Garth Brooks song.  Realized that country is the popular genre in which my ears most instinctively know what to expect, and yet I've never really played it (another thing I avoided for far too long because the jazzheads thought it was uncool). 

I was gonna do some other song today, can't remember what, but realized I needed something fun, that would make me smile, and dance around my living room in a way that no one, but no one, will ever get to see.  Who cares if it's either an "up yours, ex-o'-mine" or a "yeah, I'm an alcoholic, so what" song.  This is country.  If the dog and the pick-up survive the song, you're in good shape.  So much the better if you get to stick it to an ex and then go drinking cheap beer with your ghetto buddies (gimme a break, I live in the city now - our low places are called the ghetto). 

Chord changes and melody, especially on the verse, are typical of old jazz standards, meaning they'd kinda work with any feel (hmm, my inner arranger starts to plot).  Two verses, no bridge, instrumental repeat of second half of the chorus before the beginning of the second verse.  Underlying rhythm on the verses syncopated; on the beat for the choruses.  Purposely rough back-up vocals on last choruses - presumably the friends in low places are singing along in the dive bar.  The thing that struck me most is that the vocal range of this song is over two octaves, from E2 to F#4.  Damn!  That's huge - most pop songs have a range of about an octave, give or take.  And it's active, which is show-people speak for "the lyrics make it possible to create a little scene that's interesting to watch", as opposed to most popular songs, in which the lyrics, even when good, don't go anywhere, and it's all about the voice and the sexiness of the singer and not the story.  Conclusion: this would be a kick-ass audition song for a guy auditioning for a countryish musical.  You're welcome, actors.

Friday, November 26, 2010

I Got You (I Feel Good)

My definition of "standards" has been pretty changeable throughout the year.  It seems like I'm just fickle and inconsistent, but the truth is, I've mostly been sticking to the styles of music I'm most likely to run into in my work life.  For most of this year, I've gravitated toward pop, rock and r&b, because my most embarrassing work moments are when I'm playing auditions for some rock or r&b based musical, and I'm not familiar with the material the singers are bringing in.  I recognize song titles, and can maybe think of a snippet of the song, but don't actually know the feel or how I should play it on the piano.  The piano arrangements are useless - the notes they write for the piano part will absolutely not sound good if played as written: they don't write in any of the accents that any good pop player will instinctively include, and the notes themselves are sometimes suspect, especially in the arrangements of R&B stuff that include the vocal line in the piano arrangement.   It's better to stick to the chords and play the "feel"... but to do that, you have to, um, know how.  Which I didn't, at the beginning of the year.  I wouldn't call myself an R&B master now, but at least I can sort of play a groove if I am familiar with the song or the artist.  So now I complain less about crappy piano arrangements, and more about snot-nosed classical snobs who don't know what they don't know (formerly known as: me).

This is all to say, that's why I've been doing a lot of pop and R&B for most of the year, as opposed to 32-bar jazz standards and show tune favorites.   I think I subconsciously expected to gravitate more toward those songs when I began this project.  But the subconscious urge to be mortified at work less often trumped the traditional definition of the word "standard", and I think my personal definition has evolved to something like:

standard, n.: a song I'm likely to run into in the course of my work, which would be slightly embarrassing not to be able to play by heart, and absolutely humiliating to not at least know of and be able to sort-of-fake

Now I'm working more with some traditional musical theater auditions and the late-night cabaret circuit, and it's more useful to know show tunes and jazz standards, which is why I've been going back to that territory more often.  ...But I don't want to lose my groove, because we all know how hard it is to get that thang back.  So I'm learning a little James Brown this weekend - "I Got You (I Feel Good)" today, and planning on "Get up Offa That Thing" tomorrow.  I'm looking at these as an accompanist - not gonna try to play the melody.  How would I accompany a singer on this, say in an audition situation?  (Is it possible I'm finally learning to look for how to make the best use of my time!??)

I'm trying to do two-song days today and tomorrow, so I'll practice switching feel-gears by doing contrasting songs: "If I Loved You" tonight, and maybe "Embraceable You" tomorrow.  A little more ebb and flow in the pulse, a little more like classical music in the accents and articulations.  It's like switching back and forth between languages - it is, in fact, switching back and forth between languages. 

I finally brought my Super-Nerdy Spreadsheet up to date the other night, and I still have to make up six songs from the Dark Days.  Then there's the fact that I will be leaving for Japan just before Christmas to see my sister... I will actually lose a day going over there, but I still feel like it's kinda cheating not to learn a song for that day.  And while I'm there, I'm gonna want to hang out with my sister and her family, not slave away at the keyboard, feverishly learning my last few songs... so I want to do some of the prep here. 

Well anyway.  One thing at a time.  Recent songs (apologies for not staying up-to-date with the blog - have been doing more journaling, which requires zero editing as opposed to the minimal once-over I give these before I post): "Stand By Me", "Lean On Me", "All You Need Is Love", "Mack the Knife". 

Back to James Brown.  Groove now, worry later.  Or maybe not. 

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Beauty and the Beast

Well, wouldn't you know it, today I woke up wanting to learn "Beauty and the Beast".   The other day, it was the last song in the world I wanted to listen to and play.  It's on my list more for Rule #2 than #1, though the movie was one of my favorite disney movies as a kid. My theory is that I want to hear it today because I'm sick - achy/tired, think I was running a fever last night.  "Beauty and the Beast" is nostalgic and comforting, and also pretty famliar.  I don't have the energy to start a song from scratch tonight.  I already spent a little time today on "Change the World", which was yesterday's song - I did work on it last night, but gave up and went to bed because I was feeling like crap.  I feel a little better after my 3-hour nap this afternoon but am still only about 70%, so I will learn this simple little Disney song and call it a night.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered


Do this to you?!  Are you kidding?  This learn-a-song-a-day thing was your harebrained idea, not mine!  I was all for something more reasonable, like a song a week, but you said "noOOOOooo, 'my gut says'  that learning one every single day for a year will fix my playing, and also my life.  You said that one a week wouldn't work, you'd get bored and give up.  I had to agree - you're not disciplined enough to stick with anything for a whole week, so I gave in and figured I'd let you sink or swim.

You're an asshole, Voice of Reason.  That's why she always goes with what I say in the end.  Maybe if you were nicer, she'd listen to you once in a while. 

It's hard to be nice when I'm stuck with YOU in HER SLEEP-DEPRIVED BODY!!!

(Long pause, fraught with tension)

C'mon, we're not getting anywhere.  Can't we compromise?  You have to figure it out, I'm no good at compromising. 

Ok ok, so we'll look at the music for your rehearsal tomorrow night, and we'll look at the music for that other rehearsal Thursday morning, and we'll learn one song tonight.  And we'll go to bed before 2 a.m., because we're working on a sinus infection. 

KG (not ready for an agreement):

...And we'll learn a song you really like.

Can I have another graham cracker?

VR (whatever works):

KG (munching on graham cracker):
What song?

"Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered."  Truce?

(they shake hands)

This is the song that made me fall in love with the Great American Songbook.  I was... fifteen?  It was the middle of summer, the middle of Texas, the middle of a typically humid mid-summer, mid-Texas day.  My sister and I were visiting our aunt, our unmarried, artistically-inclined aunt with the canine children, the one who was stubborn enough to defy a father who was determined that none of his children would study art or any of that non-money-making nonsense (and one who was determined, lest I paint a man I never knew as a villain, that his daughters would have skills to take care of themselves financially).  Oh, and that all his children would be right-handed - two natural righties, two born lefties.  Dad caved, but auntie held her ground (Dad retained his natural stubbornness in every other matter, however).

I digress.  We were eating homemade mint chocolate chip ice cream and helping her around the house.  Ella Fitzgerald was on the CD player on repeat.  It was a languid afternoon; who knows how many times the song went by before the lyric "...and worship the trousers that cliiiiing to him" called my attention.    Ooh, this song is kinda sassy, I thought.  Oh my gosh.  Oversexed.  She said oversexed.  In a songWHERE HAS THIS MUSIC BEEN ALL MY LIFE!?

It was the beginning of an affair that is still going strong.  He is dirty and classy at the same time, this canon of popular song.  It took me a really long time - til this year, in fact - to fully own how in love I am and commit to the relationship.  My parents don't really get him.  Mom kinda digs him without really knowing why; Dad flat-out disapproves, but is beginning to come around because he sees how happy this music makes me. 

So, really, I owe this song-jewel-paved path in part to Lorenz "Larry" Hart.  Judging from his life's troubled, truncated exterior, he must've had many inner conversations far more self-lacerating than the one I've been having tonight.  But oh, the lyrics he wrote.  And to Richard Rodgers.  Ever notice how the difference in musical language between what he wrote with Hart and what he wrote with Hammerstein?  The man knew how to set words to music.  And Ella, and her musicians, who knew how to bring words and music to life.  I send a special thanks to her pianist, Paul Smith, for giving me a 7-minute song that contains everything I will ever need to know about accompanying a jazz singer.  When he plays, and what he plays when he plays: as the lyrics get naughtier, the piano fills get bluesier.  Yes. Yes. 

My phone just rang - a friend, a fellow musician with whom I have a mutual agreement to call when one of us is having a hard time with life.  He will understand what I've written tonight.  Thank you, Larry Hart.  Thank you, Richard Rodgers, Ella, Paul, everyone.  Life can be hard, and life is long, or else tragically short; it's a real effing drag sometimes, a drag race in which you always feel behind, or about to wreck, or both.  Thank you for filling in the potholes so beautifully.


And by the way, Voice of "Reason", I've stuck with something for nearly a year.  It hasn't been perfect, but I haven't given up.  How do ya like that?  (flips VR the bird and walks away)

Sunday, November 14, 2010


This week's theme has been: crazy.  Examining the darker, stranger side of human consciousness.  This project, this year is definitely taking a toll on my body - sniffles, headaches, fatigue from lots and lots of hours going into non-paid projects (this one, and others that I do for networking/career-forwarding purposes, or at least that's the hope).  I've also been very fortunate to have had plenty of paid work this year, and lots of great friends in a city where there are always at least four of five things happening that I want to go to.  Trying to put a positive spin on "overwhelmed" - I'm overwhelmed because I have so many options, so many things to do, so many directions I could possibly go with my work.  One of my main money gigs is ending, and (again with the positive spin) I'm looking at it as a time to transition.  But to what, exactly?  There is no clear path.  I'm resisting the urge to say yes to every 10-cent gig that comes my way, because then I won't have time to do this or other things that have artistic merit and might pay off later... In fact, all the options that interest me most are invest-time-now-maybe-maybe-maybe-get-paid-later sort ...but the rent's due every month, and now I'm looking at going through at least a phase of a lot more freelance ping-pong - 1 hour here, 2 hours there - to make ends meet while I go after these get-paid-later opportunities.   It's tiring enough to make a person crazy.

Of course, crazy pop songs more often than not fall into the "unhealthy relationship" category:

Tuesday: "Crazy", Willie Nelson, made famous by Patsy Cline - crazy for loving a love-em-and-leave-em type (but ya can't help it, can you?)

Wednesday: "Crazy", Gnarls Barkley - a rare exception to the bad-romance-crazy rule of pop songs.  The perceived craziness of artists: there is freedom in losing your mind and following your "crazy" path.

Thursday: "The Closest Thing to Crazy" - Katie Melua - I have really good memories associated with this song from when it was on constant airplay while I lived in London.  Upon re-examination, I'd say this song falls pretty squarely into the bad romance category.

Friday: "Crazy", Aerosmith - I was really excited by the time this one rolled around on Friday.  Nice when I'm particularly excited about my song. More bad romance.  Why we gotta drive each other crazy, people!?  Geekery:  A lot of harmonic interest in the Crazy songs I chose.  Even in this one - a power chord rock song - the melody contains a lot of flavorful extensions or accented non-harmonic tones (don't know which way they'd be analyzed, frankly, don't really care anymore - they just sound cool). 

Last night's notes: (aka - times when I'm not so particularly excited about my song)
I am tired and i don't feel like staying up any later to learn my song.  Trying to put a positive spin on always having more to do than i have time for.  Really just want to skip learning the song and go to sleep.  At least it's a song i'm familiar with by ear - Crazy For You - Madonna
truth is, i'm not very excited about this song.  nothing against Madonna, and I remember liking the song before, just not excited about it in comparison to the songs i've learned this week. 
Enthusaism, the #1 most important ingredient - actually WANTING to sit alone in my apartment late at night learning pop songs. Nothing else would keep me awake, nothing else would keep me from hanging out more with my friends or doing other things with my time.
Am excited about Crazy ON You (Heart) tomorrow.  Gonna see if I can make that opening guitar solo work on piano. 

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Rainy Days and Mondays

I was going to start a unit on crazy today, but when I peeked out my window this morning, I decided crazy would have to wait a day, because this was clearly the Monday to learn "Rainy Days and Mondays".  Rainy days are a big enough drag, and the fact that it's Monday just adds insult to injury (though with my schedule, it doesn't really matter what day of the week it is). I've played this song a couple times at my lobby gig - on rainy Mondays, of course - and the refrain is somewhere in my childhood memory, but it's not a song I knew very well before today. 

It's always nice to have companions who "get it", even if those companions are songs.  They're no substitute for friends who get it, but a song will do in a pinch (and is, in some cases, better).  The first time I really listened to the lyrics, the first line: yes.  Yes.  I talk to myself sometimes, and lately, I've been feelin' old.  A year without a single guilt-free day off will do that to a body.  And I certainly want to quit sometimes.  I love how matter-of-fact this song is - it doesn't sugarcoat or shrink away from the suckiness of being blue on a crappy-weather Monday.  It just acknowledges the situation.  Very vipassana-mindful Buddhist-ish. 

Funny thing about this song, the singer seems to have a companion, but she only refers to him in the bridge.  I'd be a little miffed if she were singing to me.  "Oh, so it's the only thing to do, run to the one who loves you??  And how is it funny?!  I just don't get you sometimes."  ...Ah, but there will always be those times, and that's when song companions come in handy. 

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Orange-Colored Sky

So wiped out.  Doing as little as possible today, which includes not working out, and choosing a short song: Orange-Colored Sky.  I was pretty indecisive about songs today... sleep-watched Chess in Concert and thought about learning "Anthem", which is a standard in my musical theater world.  I ran across Orange-Colored Sky sheet music while I was looking for something else and decided to learn it instead.  Downloaded Nat King Cole's version and used it and the sheet music to learn the song. Pretty quick work memorizing it - have played it for probably a half dozen singers in classes, auditions etc, so I was already pretty familiar with it, but as I've noticed, before I started this project, I could sight-read something any number of times and never remember it later.  I practiced it with a drum loop to work on my schwing... always and ever, working on the swing.

A 49-hour weekend - hooray falling back!  I am actually giving myself a weekend, sort of.  I found a stopping place in the never-ending stream of emails around 5 p.m. yesterday and took a 3-hour nap.  I have my church gig tomorrow, but other than that, it's a real weekend!  For those of us who live to work, the to-do list never really gets any shorter, but sometimes the tasks that have piled up in the "urgent" column are few enough that you can just refuse to deal with them for a day or two.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

I Will Always Love You

I feel a little blah about my song today.  It qualifies as a minor violation of rule #1.  I don't dislike the song, but I don't exactly love it, either.  ...but it's kind of a standard, and I admire Dolly Parton.  It's a fine song... but you know me and sentimentality.  This song is basically a long, drawn-out goodbye, and in order to get into it, you have to have a thing for long, drawn-out goodbyes.  So sometimes I bend rule #2; today, I bend rule #1 a little bit.  I have three versions of this song: Whitney, a dance mix of Whitney, and Dolly.  Last week I saw the very talented performer and celebrity impersonator Jason Cozmo do this song as Dolly, and it reminded me I should learn it.  I learned it this morning before my lobby gig, and opened with it.

I-vi-IV-V pop songs notwithstanding, I did decide to mix in a little classical for the benefit of the non-condescending classical music lovers who walk by me every Monday, and was rewarded for my efforts by a woman who was very appreciative of Fur Elise (don't judge, people like hearing things they recognize). Mr. Condescending P. Dude walked past me today just as I was finishing a Mozart slow movement.  I could have proceeded to the rondo, like any well-behaved sonata player would do.  But the triumphant smile he shot me upon hearing that final, intrinsically baroque/classical delayed cadence inspired me... to play a few schmaltzy-twinkly ii-Vs in the key of Eb (not the key of the sonata).  It was an instant, one-time standard I made up on the spot, called "That's What a Piano's For".

A piano is for hitting.  A piano is for hits - hits that are centuries old, hits that no one except the composer has heard yet.  Everything that stands the test of time has to be new at some point.