Since Ed Bickert retired from playing guitar around 2002, his place in a couple of bands I play in – the Mike Murley Trio and the Barry Elmes Quintet – has been taken by Reg Schwager. It speaks volumes for Reg that these were quite seamless transitions; replacing Ed’s unique playing would normally be impossible and generally, his absence has left a sizeable hole on the Canadian jazz scene at large. The Elmes Quintet has released several records with Reg playing guitar, but Murley’s trio hasn’t managed this yet, despite a pass at a live recording at Mezzetta several years ago. This was a hasty one-off which yielded some material that was good, but not quite good enough to release. Reg does appear on Murley’s CD The Melody Lingers On, but that wasn’t just the trio, it features Guido Basso and Tara Davidson as guests along with a chamber ensemble of strings.
Typically, Reg has been pretty quiet on the subject, but Murley and I both agree that a recording by the trio with him is long overdue, especially when you consider how consistently well the group with Reg has played over the last eleven years. It’s criminal really, but that’s how it goes sometimes in jazz, people get busy with various other gigs, bands or projects and before you know it, ten years have gone by and you still don’t have a CD out. The odd circumstance of an old recording by the first trio surfacing and being released recently also set things back unexpectedly on this front.
A move to correct this situation is afoot, we’re planning to record early in June after a three-night stand (with Basso and Dave Restivo aboard as guests) at the Jazz Bistro, May 30 – June 1. A song list is being kicked around, the field is pretty wide open because we all enjoy and are skilled in the art of playing songs. Some tunes we’ve been playing regularly but that haven’t been overdone will likely be included. Recently we played at Chalkers and did a few songs that we’ll likely record; at least I hope so, because each is a beauty in its own way.
The evening’s kick-off was George Gershwin’s “Somebody Loves Me” in the key of F, written so early (1924) that it predates his brother Ira’s collaboration as a lyricist. It’s long been a favourite of mine ever since I heard the 1940 record of it by Lester Young’s trio with Nat King Cole and Buddy Rich; I suspect Murley likes it for the same reasons. Though I like a Gershwin tune (how about you?), this one to me doesn’t sound typical of him, as “But Not For Me”, “Our Love Is Here to Stay”, “The Man I Love”, “Embraceable You” or “Someone To Watch Over Me” do. “Somebody Loves Me” sounds more like a blowing tune, a swing song with a more functional blues quality that reminds me of some of Harold Arlen’s simpler songs, like “Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea”, “As Long As I Live” or “I’ve Got the World On A String”.
Like so many standards, “Somebody” is 32 bars long, but it doesn’t quite follow the usual A-A-B-A format, it’s more like A-B-C-A. The blues feeling is established early, when in bars three and four the melody goes from the major third down to the tonic, then up to the minor third. The melody in the second eight bars begins similarly, but changes in bars three and four (or eleven and twelve if you like), by staying on the major third, as the melody/harmony moves briefly to the relative D minor, then quickly to A minor. This cadence is a dramatic set-up to the bridge which always gives me a thrill, a lift. It’s the best and most dense part of the song, the one that requires the most attention when playing it.
The simple bridge brings a tremendous release. It swings itself, the harmony consisting of just three chords – G minor for four bars, G7 for two bars and C7 for the last two. The melody here sounds like a background riff played by a sax section behind a soloist in a 1930s big band, consisting of just two slightly different simple phrases, each repeating. The last eight of the tune is similar to the first but with a slightly varied melody. I love the wide open space of the song; if you like to swing and know how to, you can make it sound like something. If not, then you’re out of luck, try another tune.
We didn’t play “Who Cares?” at Chalkers, but it’s another less-known and atypical Gershwin song we’ll probably try recording. It’s unusual, an A-B form of two sixteen-bar sections. The melody starts on the major-seventh and while it’s almost entirely diatonic (except for one note), it suggests some unusual augmented chords and other interesting harmony underneath. The song works really well at a medium-up tempo and is a good “blowing” vehicle.
Cole Porter is not my favourite songwriter – Harold Arlen and Richard Rodgers are – but even so, he wrote many of my favourite songs. Mike has taken to playing Porter’s “So In Love” lately and I’m really glad because I’ve wanted to play it more often for years. I’ve loved it ever since playing it in the mid-’80s with singer Anne-Marie Moss, who had the pipes to do it justice. It’s a big, epic song, almost an aria, not to be tackled lightly. It’s from “Kiss Me Kate”, written fairly late in Porter’s career and a few summers ago I chanced to see a Stratford Festival production of that show. Often I’m disappointed when I hear the ‘stage’ version of a song like this, they’re usually showier and stiffer than the jazz interpretations I know and suffer in comparison. Not in this case though, in its original setting the song still just killed me, made the hair on the back of my neck stand up.
The song is rarely done by jazz players because it presents some sticky problems for improvising. For one thing, like a lot of Porter tunes, it’s in double-metre (64 bars instead of 32), so it has to be played pretty fast, which is OK, but the rhythm of the melody is fairly static, doesn’t lend itself to swinging very naturally. For another, its more-or-less A-A-B-A form has a tortuous extended tag in the last section which makes it even longer. Also, I’ve never come up with chord changes for it that weren’t too Wagnerian, so I’ve never really been able to get much out of the tune despite liking the sound of it. Really it’s a singer’s song, yet to me the advantage of playing it instrumentally is that the lyric isn’t in play. I generally like Porter’s lyrics, but despite some nice turns of phrase here, I find these words a little overcooked in places, a bit on the squirmy, S&M side. As in, “So taunt me, and hurt me. Deceive me, desert me.” Take it easy there Cole, it’ll be OK, have another martini.
In the end though, the melody wins out over these quibbles, it’s too beautiful, dramatic and moving to resist. Besides, as he often does, Mike has found some really smart solutions to the song’s trouble spots. He’s worked out some logical, flowing chord changes for it, and gets around the extended tag by adding a simple eight-bar vamp with just two chords, each lasting two bars, then repeating. Extending the song even further may seem counterintuitive, but this interlude provides a resting place and some breathing room before returning to the top to do battle again every chorus. These small emendations have made the song more jazz-friendly and I’m happy to say I’m now able to negotiate my way through it with something approaching relaxation and musicality.
Getting back briefly to the melody of “So In Love” – please – it really is lovely. We play it in Dminor/Fmajor and there are only two non-diatonic notes in the whole thing, despite its length – a D-flat on the bridge and an A-flat much later on in the tag. It’s very rangy, so it begins down low and the first interval is the smallest one possible, a semitone from A to B-flat, which then repeats. After this it begins to climb rapidly in fifths, from A to E, then down a second to D and up another fifth to A. The next logical step in this sequence would be down a second to G then up a fifth again to D, but Porter does something really ingenious here by delaying this big leap until later in the song. Each A section begins the same way, but each one goes a whole tone higher once reaching the G – to B-flat the first time, C the second time and finally up to the high D the last time. This forms its apogee, one of the most soaring climaxes in American song.
These small variations in melody subtly shift the harmony as well, so that each A section is varied enough that, technically, you could say the song’s form is ABCD. Porter achieves similar drama on the song’s bridge, which is fairly simple, moving from the dominant C7 to the tonic F major throughout. But again, in the second half he shifts the top melody note a half-tone higher to a D-flat against the C7, a delicious flat-nine. This is one of many examples in Porter’s ouvre of his fascination with the dialectic between major and minor. He’s forever dropping minor harmony into major keys and vice versa and of course alludes to this in his lyric to “Every Time We Say Goodbye” – “There’s no love song finer, but how strange, the change, from major to minor.” This tonal duality can often create a blues feeling or connotation, but generally doesn’t in Porter’s songs, because he uses it differently. Nonetheless, it’s part of the richness and fascination of his music, rarely more evident than in “So In Love”.
We tackled two ballads, each of them in a sharp key, unusual for jazz. “Detour Ahead” in A major, which is discussed in an earlier post about Herb Ellis so I won’t belabour it further here, and “I’ll Be Around” in the key of B major, written by that great maverick of American songwriting and composing, Alec Wilder. Wilder was an insider friend of many famous singers like Frank Sinatra, Peggy Lee, Tony Bennett, as well as some more obscure ones such as Mabel Mercer, Jackie Cain and Roy Kral. He wrote all kinds of instrumental and chamber music, a bunch of interesting, off-beat songs as well as the definitive book American Popular Song. “I’ll Be Around” is his most enduring and oft-performed song, the only one to really break through into the mainstream and one of the few that he also wrote the lyrics for. I can’t remember who, but someone famous and well-informed once wrote that they thought this was the greatest song ever written. I wouldn’t go quite that far, but it is hard to imagine anyone writing a song much better than this, it’s unique and imperishable.
I fell in love with it hearing Billie Holiday’s version on Lady In Satin, her late-career album with an orchestra. By that point, Lady Day didn’t have much left vocally, all she could do was break your heart and her vulnerability here suits the “always a bridesmaid, never a bride” poignancy of the song. My early experience of playing it with Rob McConnell’s quartet was less than comfortable because Rob played the song quite fast; I later realized he’d taken his cue from Bob Brookmeyer’s version on his album of Wilder songs, 7 x Wilder. I have all the respect in the world for Brookmeyer, but sometimes he could be perverse and sardonic as here, completely missing the essence and point of the song in the interests of projecting something new onto it. If you listen to the melody of “I’ll Be Around” and consider its words and mood, you realize that not only is it a ballad, it’s a really delicate one, so the slower and quieter it’s played, the better.
A few years ago I lent Mike a 1950s Al Cohn record of this song which may have had something to do with him choosing to play it. Al’s arrangement features some interesting key changes in surprising places; Murley really liked it and eventually settled on the key of B. The song is an A-A-B-C, 32-bar form; the last eight being quite similar to the first two, but rising to a climax. I never really figured out the right chord changes for the song’s A sections until I heard Rebecca Kilgore’s record of it in duet with guitarist Bucky Pizzarelli. The chords move up through the key in diatonic steps, two beats each, with a lovely passing G-diminished chord on the last half of the third bar to keep things on track. The high point comes on bar four of the last eight, with a beautiful, gently dissonant C-sharp on a G7 chord.
The melody on the A sections is so simple that it sounds indestructible, almost inevitable. Not only is it diatonic, but the opening phrase is just the triad of the tonic – the fifth, up to the tonic, back down to the fifth, then down to the third. The bridge moves to the related key of E, but the melody begins one semi-tone above the tonic B on a C-natural, which is quite arresting. This continues as it then moves to the key of F-sharp, the first note being an equally unexpected G-natural. The bridge culminates into its last two bars – “Drop a line, to say you’re feeling fine.”
It took a while to adjust to, but I’m glad Murley chose the key of B. The song sounds really good there, but also that key forces me to tread more gently. This is not a song that you play so much as it’s one that plays you. It’s taken a long time to learn this small, hard-won bit of wisdom; namely to play off of the specific song that you’re doing, take what it gives you and above all, to try and never abuse it. Not every song is an invitation to limitless self-expression, we play this one very carefully and are rewarded each time its beauty and special mood reveal themselves.
Speaking of odd keys and such, we’ll also try recording a James Taylor song we’ve been playing, “Mean Old Man”, mostly in the key of A major. This may raise some jazz-purist eyebrows, but many jazz musicians have long admired Taylor for his musical range, harmonic sophistication and great sense of time, among other things. Years ago Pat Metheny wrote a beautiful tune for him called “James” and Norma Winstone has recorded his “Fourth of July”. Besides, “Mean Old Man” is a jazz, or jazz-oriented tune, with a medium-4/4 Count Basie feel and a challenging melody over interesting chords.
The song consists of a verse in tempo – two four-bar sections – with a two-bar transition setting up the eight-bar chorus in A, which is repeated. Overall, the structure is 26 bars in ABCC form. The opening verse moves through several unrelated keys quickly – from C to A, then from E-flat to C, to the set-up of the chorus in A, which is the meat of the tune. The melody, harmony and form are quite ingenious and difficult, you have to spend some time with the song and really know it to play it with confidence. The melody mostly consists of a series of six-note descending phrases, the first three notes being a pick-up into each bar, the final three an answer. While each of these moves downward, each one starts a tone or semi-tone higher than the last, making the whole melody quite rangy. It’s a mouthful to sing and a handful to play. Meanwhile, the underlying chords are logical but challenging; Larry Golding’s deft piano solo on Taylor’s record shows some of their possibilities. For someone stereotyped by many as a simple folk-pop-rock artist, Taylor has written a really sophisticated and complex song here, but one that’s fun to play and listen to.
We also played (and may record) one of Duke Ellington’s more obscure compositions, “The Feeling of Jazz”, an aptly named song if ever there was one. Duke’s band didn’t play it that often, the best-known version is on the one-off album Duke Ellington & John Coltrane from 1962. Although it has a melody, chords and an underlying form, this is not a song in the conventional sense of the word, but rather a roomy vessel for improvisation, a distillation of mood. It’s a “jazz tune”‘ in the best sense, not calling attention to itself through cleverness so much as offering a sketch and a dance floor that invites blowing. The melody itself consists of a series of sparse, almost abstracted jazz phrases, some of them faintly reminiscent of Oscar Pettiford’s “Blues In the Closet”, both in the normal major key and then translated into the relative minor.
It’s not a blues, yet is pervaded by the feeling of them. The main interest is in the simple but profound chord changes, which seem to summarize and encapsulate the entire history of jazz in just twenty bars, something maybe only Ellington could do. The first four bars in C are close to being conventional blues but not quite, then there’s a transitional four bars which lead to the relative A minor, the “mood indigo” darkening. The tune reaches a rhythmic and emotional peak with a sharply accented quarter-note A on the first beat of bar fifteen, followed by a descending blues phrase using the flatted-fifth down to a lower A in bar sixteen.
At sixteen bars, it seems the tune should end and most composers would have stopped here, but not Duke. He adds a four-bar vamp in C consisting of the familiar I-VI-II-V chord progression from “I Got Rhythm” and countless other tunes, the melody a simple riff of tension-notes. This gives the piece an open-ended, cyclical quality, leading back to the top like a boomerang. Indeed, it’s a hard form to stop playing on, it’s as if Duke is egging you on from behind, saying, “Yeah man, take another chorus, you’re wailing, go baby!” Though I feel this tune and its tempo benefit from drums, I love playing it with the trio. It certainly helps that Reg often lays down some Freddie Greene 4/4 comping, just one of countless examples of him figuring out what’s needed and delivering it right on cue.
The atmosphere of this song is timeless and unlike any other I’ve ever played, I never tire of it. The shifts in key and mood between blues, major and minor are like clouds passing in front of the sun then drifting on, there’s a constant motion of light and shadow here. Jazz has a lot to thank Duke Ellington for and this song reflects his mastery, capturing the history and feeling of the music in twenty bars. The more you appreciate improvisation as a player or listener, the more you get out of this tune. Like a great chef creating a culinary reduction, Duke here has boiled things down to their very essence.
So, those are seven songs we’ll likely record, each of them interesting and special in its own way and taken together, offering a broad range of moods, tempos and feelings. We also play some bebop tunes (like Charlie Parker’s “Dexterity”) and some blues (“Jumpin’ With Symphony Sid”.) A lot of people forget it, but the blues are songs too – really slow, important songs that never quite go away. Although repertoire is significant, I’ve always felt that the key in jazz is not so much what’s being played as how it’s being played, and by whom. This trio was formed by Mike expressly to play songs in a swinging, straight-ahead way, partly because there aren’t many bands really doing that by choice anymore, but also because we really enjoy playing standards and seeing where we can take them, or where they take us. So this trio offers a little bit of all three – the what (songs), the who, and the how (i.e. the way the three of us play together.)
The old saying “three’s a crowd” may be true socially, but not musically; trios are to me the most interesting and open configuration for improvising, regardless of instrumentation. Piano-bass-drums, guitar-bass-drums, piano-guitar-bass, horn-bass-drums, horn-piano-drums, or the horn-guitar-bass of this trio, each has its own dynamic. There’s just something about three – maybe it’s because there are three main building blocks in music – rhythm, melody and harmony – and in a trio each member has to deal with these elements more organically. Because they’re small, trios offer a lot of room and freedom to express yourself, but also demand musical responsibility and accountability; there’s nowhere to hide in a trio and each one is only as strong as its weakest link. The musical ball usually gets tossed around more in a trio, you generally must be a good soloist and a good accompanist to succeed. In short, a trio can allow you to play well, but also demands that you play well.
Trios also seem to invite a greater range of possibility in repertoire and musical style or approach than other groups. Some play standards with an emphasis on intricate arrangements (like say, Bill Charlap’s trio), others tackle them more spontaneously (Keith Jarrett’s trio for example.) Some play original compositions with a balance between the written and improvised (like Jimmy Guiffre’s early trios), others are more abstract (Giuffre’s later trios.) Some place a greater emphasis on one instrument (as in the case of Oscar Peterson’s trios) while others involve more group interplay (the various trios of Bill Evans.) And a myriad of other shadings along these lines or beyond them.
The beauty of trios is that they can succeed musically without adopting an overt style or deliberate approach as in the above cases. Really all that’s needed is a consensus – three guys who enjoy playing together (and can) – and a selection of material that works, whatever that may be. In the case of Murley’s trio it’s mostly standards, there’s definitely a consensus and musical chemistry, but there is no particular agenda, style, or preconceived approach. We mostly pick some agreed-upon tunes and fly by the seat of our pants, trusting the songs and each other, leaving any “arrangements” to evolve on the bandstand. It’s a seemingly loose approach but it sounds cohesive because everyone in the band has some focus, listens to and supports the others, plays together. There’s not a lot of ego at work; though we all try to play our best, nobody tries to outdo anybody or reinvent the wheel here. We’re just trying to play some honest music together using songs as a springboard.
I enjoy all of the bands I work with, but Mike’s trio is the easiest group of them all for me to play in. It’s partly because of the simple repertoire, but mostly because of Mike and Reg. They’re just so damn good and easy to play with that an idiot could sound good wth them; trust me, I would know. There’s no fuss or muss, no time or sound issues, no pitch issues apart from my own chronic ones. Because it’s so small and closely-knit, we can play pretty much whatever or wherever we want.
Mike is uniquely qualified to lead a little band like this. He was already a terrific saxophonist when I first heard him about 30 years ago, a muscular player who stood out because he wasn’t as much influenced by Coltrane as many others his age. Mike was more into Sonny Rollins, with traces of Joe Henderson and Wayne Shorter. His playing has continued to broaden and mature and about twenty years ago, Mike got in touch with what he calls “the feminine side of the saxophone”, as personified by Lester Young. He dug into Pres and his children – Stan Getz, Wardell Gray, Warne Marsh, Richie Kamuca and others – while also checking out more songs in the process. He became a more lyrical, melodic player, began to relax more and his sound lightened.
I once had occasion to hear Mike practice at length without him knowing it. He didn’t play anything even remotely fast, it was all very long tones and then the melody to “Yours Is My Heart Alone” over and over, very slowly in various keys, probing and sifting through it until he knew its nuances and had it under control. As a result of all this hard work, Mike has acquired what Ruby Braff once called “the adoration of the melody.” When he plays a melody now, it stays played, is definitive. He also has an unerring sense of picking the right tempos for songs, which is huge. And he swings fully on his own, like Sonny Rolllins or Zoot Sims, he generates as much momentum as a rhythm section, actually makes time. This is rarer than you might think.
As for Reg Schwager; well, I’ve said it before, he has the biggest musical range of any guitarist playing jazz today. He’s too tasteful and modest to show at any one time more than a glimpse of what he’s capable of. But here’s a funny and true story that demonstrates his musical scope. Years ago, I bumped into Reg downtown on Queen Street. He was carrying a plastic bag full of LPs and wearing a big grin, he’d clearly been record shopping. I asked him what he’d snagged and he opened the bag to show some records of music by the modern Polish composer Krzysztof Penderecki and some others by the great Delta bluesman Son House. He couldn’t wait to get home and check these out and I thought…. only Reg. Mostly what he plays with a band is useful and straightforward, creative but common sense. But if you give him a playful musical nudge, as I do from time to time, Reg can make an abrupt left and take you to ‘outsville’ in a New York minute. Maybe comping in two keys at once, or playing a solo on the blues that takes you from Chicago to the hills of Afghanistan in an instant, look out. He knows a million tunes and his time is so strong and flexible that I never miss the drums in this band, unlike in other drummerless ones I play with more often than I’d like.
In all honesty and with no attempt at false modesty, I’m not quite sure what I’m doing in such talented musical company. As long as I can keep on foolin’ ’em though, it’s a joy to share the bandstand with these two, and I look forward to our upcoming gig and recording.
Throughout its history, jazz has borrowed liberally from the body of work now generally known as “The Great American Songbook” and this has been a win-win situation. The GAS has provided jazz with an almost inexhaustible and infinitely renewable backbone of repertoire, while jazz adaptations of many of these songs have found hidden depths in them, kept them alive longer than might have been otherwise expected. Jazz has also developed its own repertoire from within, thanks to composers and songwriters like Ellington, Fats Waller, Thelonious Monk, Horace Silver and countless others. In recent years, there has been a greater emphasis placed on musicians writing and performing their own compositions and some of these originals have become increasingly complex and abstract, moving beyond the simplicity of the song form with mixed results.
Given this recent trend and the rampant proliferation of singers these days already performing songs from the GAS, one might be tempted to ask, “Why play standards?” Well, there are lots of reasons. For one thing, we stretch out on these tunes more than we would in playing them with singers. For another, Mike, Reg and I each play in several bands that are mainly devoted to a repertoire of either originals or highly-arranged versions of standards or jazz tunes; either way, a lot of the music is specific and written. This is both challenging and rewarding, involves some discipline and choosing to play standards provides us with an alternative, more of a chance to cut loose without having our eyes glued to sheet music all the time. Also, playing songs is a tradition each of us has come up in, we want to use the skills we’ve honed in doing this, while also keeping that tradition alive.
Then there’s the nature of the songs themselves and what they offer. The period of roughly 1920-50 was a Golden Age of songwriting when giants roamed Tin Pan Alley, writing tunes astonishing in quality, quantity and variety; to ignore this body of work altogether is utter folly. It’s no accident that many tunes in the GAS have survived so long and remain relevant today; they were written by masters and have stood the test of time chiefly by dint of the indelible melodies they offer. These songs have proven extremely adaptable to various tempos, styles, rhythmic feels, harmonic tinkering and other adjustments in aid of improvisation. As seen in the above discussion, they have complexity when examined closely, but unlike other compositional forms, songs are essentially short and general, sketches rather than cathedrals. They offer a structure of rhythm, melody and harmony in some sort of balance, with enough simplicity to allow the freedom needed for improvisation.
Also, because they’ve been around a long while and have some place in our collective consciousness, some emotional resonance and meaning, standards include both jazz players and their listeners alike. This can be desirable, something to hang your hat on, some context to hold that which will become less familiar, i.e. improvisation, which, if done properly, is not really predictable or recognizable. What defines these songs first and foremost is a melody, and once the melody is stated it stays in your mind as a signpost, suggests other melodic ideas, allows you to hear more clearly, to play by ear. It also invites the audience in. Some hard cases may see this as an easy play for popular acceptance, but jazz isn’t played in a vacuum or a laboratory, ultimately it’s played for people.
The old saying has it that “familiarity breeds contempt” and some musicians may feel playing old familiar songs breeds complacency and the “same old, same old”, but I beg to differ. Starting with a simple, familiar melody gives you room to go somewhere and the freedom to sound like yourself. Some people seem to feel boxed-in by playing songs, but I feel like they’re an invitation to improvise with more freedom and meaning, even if you’ve played a song many times. Lee Konitz is a great example of this. Now in his eighties, he’s basically been playing the same thirty or forty tunes his whole career, but continues to find more in them as he delves more deeply into their content and possibilities.
I played a concert with him a few years ago that taught me many things, including how far you can take improvising on the song form if you keep an open mind and know the songs well enough to really hear things in them and distill these down to an essence. Of course not everybody is Lee Konitz, but that’s not the point. The point is that when I hear great musicians playing songs in their own way – be it Konitz, Ruby Braff, Sonny Rollins, Stan Getz, Johnny Hodges, Jack Teagarden and countless others including Mike Murley and Reg Schwager – they all sound different and they all sound like themselves. I think this is because songs encourage musicians to sing on their instruments and singing makes them humanizing.
In the end, the attraction of songs is that they form a language, they’re a meeting of music and literature. This is partly because they have lyrics, but even without the words being sung, songs still have a narrative line in their melodies and structures, they have meaning and involve story-telling. We all crave stories – to tell ours and hear other people’s – it’s why we converse and read books, watch movies, go to see theatre. Music can be story-telling too, as Lester Young meant when he said, “All those notes are very nice, Lady ——, but can you tell me a story?”
© 2013 – 2014, Steve Wallace. All rights reserved.