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Waltz, Op 64 No 2
I was flipping through a book of classical music charts, and on a whim started to groove on this. I've always liked the upward gesture at the end of the form: that snaky chromatic line punctuated by a fourth at the end, popping on the tonic note. It's much easier to play in the original key — Chopin was brilliant at writing impressive stuff that falls easily under the hand — but I'm playing it here in C-minor, a much better key for jazzing. At first I thought this was just a cool thing but so many people were so struck by it that I thought it would be a good curtain-raiser.
Composers often like musical puzzles. Sometimes they even insert coded messages into their music. Bach has a piece that's exactly the same played forward and backward. But the problem is that when lesser artists do that kind of thing it can end up sounding pleasing only to the intellect, and doesn't touch the heart at all.
Douglas Hofstadter wrote an amazing book called "Gödel Escher Bach," a tribute to these three great thinkers (the mathematician, the artist, and the composer). It's huge, serious, funny, and a celebration of intellectual pleasure. I wrote a couple of songs (the other one is called "Evergreen Blues") as a tribute to Hofstadter.
The A section contains references to the book; the B section contains a tribute to JS Bach, who actually did the same tribute to himself. It was fun putting the whole thing in a slightly chicken-fried jazz style. One friend said she didn't really follow this technical description but she loved the sassy, soulful sound. Perfect! Exactly my goal. The masters did music that had pleasing secret codes in them, but on casual listening were just satisfying to hear.
Sometimes I sit down at the piano and improvise with no form or direction in mind. It's where I get some of my best ideas. (It's also where I get some of my worst ideas — and discard them.)
But sometimes I start with a particular song in mind and just solo over the changes. This is exactly what you hear every jazz musician do with a classic jazz composition, except that traditionally we play through the entire melody at the beginning and end.
One day, I sat down at my in-laws' grand piano and rambled through the changes to one of my own compositions, called "Goodnight," the first song I wrote for Catherine. The gorgeous vocalist Maggie Worsdale included it in her 2002 album "Joy," accompanied by the Jazz Protagonists. Here, it's just me. Enjoy.
I love to just sit down and make up a catchy blues. That's not much done anymore, especially when it's a blues made up of three identical riffs. I started playing this blues, and noticed right as the solo section began that a recording cable had migrated down to rest on the wires around the B above middle C. I noticed because they made a buzzing sound.
I liked it enough to keep it in, but not quite enough to not reach up and swipe it out of the way. You can hear it: I do a repeated figure that buzzes and buzzes, and then there's a pause while I reach up and swat it out of the way, then the thing resumes normally.
For whatever reason, the jazz standard "Beautiful Love" has always hit me as a near-perfect set of changes.
When a jazz musician talks about "changes," what that means is the chord progression that's associated with a song. "Beautiful Love" has a set of changes that seems to work well for me: it hangs out on solid D-minor, it goes to the right places at the right times, it stays in the same place the right amount. I often end up warming up with these changes, played at about this tempo.
I always call Catherine my "beautiful love." So I title this one "Beautiful Cate." The title made her day; the expression on her face when I showed it to her made mine.
All I'll Ever Need
A long-term benefit of being married to me — perhaps the only one — is that you get a strange sort of music education along the way. I always encourage Catherine, who is quite musically talented, to explore more, including composing music and coming up with ideas.
She wrote this song for me a couple of years ago. She's sung it three or four times for me, and once in front of several hundred Chinese businessmen. (I'll tell you that story later.)
Meanwhile, here, I sat down and strolled through the song, enjoying the satisfying changes. The Jazz Protagonists are considering putting it on our forthcoming album: our version gives it an introspective Bill Evans feel; this version gives it more of a gospel touch.
After the Silver Gig, Catherine said she was flooded with compliments. She's a very private person and not a performer, so people rarely know about her talent. It was real affirmation for her to hear this feedback. Great tune.
Cum On Feel The Noize
A minor heavy metal tune from the 1980s, pretty much the only hit for the group Quiet Riot. This is one of the ones I kept in heavy rotation at my Gunter Hotel gig. Younger passersby loved the fact that I was playing a song in the current top 10, especially one so rebellious; older ones liked the pleasant bossa they heard.
Regardless of its origin, it's a catchy melody, and quite well written. That's one reason why it made the top 10. When that many people respond to a song, it's probably because there's something there worth responding to. Strip away the screaming vocals and distorted guitars, and you've got something that uses the same musical language spoken by Gershwin, Mozart, Jobim.
I wrote this song on my birthday in 2008, at the apartment of a friend, Billy Chan. We'd just arrived in China, and Billy was one of our first new friends there: a superb bass player, a true Christian gentleman, and one of the best laughers in the world.
He picked up his bass and I sat at his beautiful grand piano. I scribbled out a chord structure based on something I'd heard a band do recently, compressing the entire form of Miles Davis's "So What" into four bars; Billy and I played it round and round, as I experimented with different melodies, and finally zeroed in on something haunting and, I think, quite lovely.
I've played this with a few different groups now, each time giving it a slightly different mood. Today, I decided on a simple low drone with slow explorations above it.
"Loong" is the Chinese word for dragon.
The Girl Changes
This tune is what jazzers call a contrafact: you take the changes of a familiar jazz tune and write a different melody to it. Obviously a melody can be harmonized in many different ways, and conversely a set of changes can have several different heads. ("Head" meaning main melody.) Charlie Parker's "Donna Lee," for instance, is based on the changes to "Indiana;" "The Flintstones" theme is based on Gershwin's "I Got Rhythm." You can play the accompaniment to one song and sing the other.
For some time I've thought I should write a new head to the changes of "The Girl From Ipanema," that would make you totally forget about the original. Definitely a tall order: those changes are so distinctive it would be hard to rid your brain of the original song.
Nonetheless, I occasionally fool around with the changes, seeing what I can come up with. In this case I sat down and blammed out a take or three on piano and a single take on melodica. I like the energy of this one: putting it into 3/4 gives it a nice lift. And by now I've scooted the harmonies around (hence the song's punning title) so much that, when a good melody comes to me, the thing'll be almost unrecognizable. That's what I'm always shooting for.
This has always been one of my favorite orchestral pieces. The exotic main theme is based on Serbian folk songs, and expresses Serbia's oppression by the Turks. Later on, the piece turns into a sparkly festival number (it's often compared to the 1812 Overture, and sometimes they get performed together). But that haunting theme is what stuck with me.
The B section plays over a simple ii-V-I, one of the most basic chord changes in jazz. I like how the major key of this section forms a nice contrast, a relief from the dark skies of the A section. Partway through this performance I decided for no good reason to raise the key by a half-step. Sometimes these ideas fall flat; this time it worked like a charm, lifting us up and taking us into new fresh territory.
I especially dig that spectacular flourish about halfway through the song, all the more beautiful and frustrating because I know I'll never be able to replicate that. Glad the tape was rolling.