Archive for category Piano

Greg Murphy: Blues for Miles

She told me to always shake everything out, towels, clothes and shoes, before using them as the spiders made temporary homes in the creases of things at night attracted by the warmth. I did not know how much veracity there was in this but the other morning while shaving I had seen a spider crawl out of the skirt that she had left on the bathroom floor.

Her sister was sick and she had to go and help her out. Occasionally it is good to sweetly suffer the blues induced by finding oneself alone. The rawness makes all sensations both good and bad more acute and the inherent poetics of everything rise to the fore.

Late at night, two empty bottles clang. It is the pantomime of an amour as the bag that they are in comes to rest on some side street next to a dumpster. Footfalls like applause, the last man left in the theater who refuses to leave until he is sure that he has seen everything.

I wondered if thoughts could have a sound. And if they did, would they vary from person to person? To be even more specific, did the type of thought dictate its sound? For the erotic, a breeze like sigh, work, the metallic clang of a steam driven piston.

While just a cerebral meandering to while away what hours remained until dawn, it did present the concept of the personal/universal aspects of a thing. This concept could easily be applied to art. The best art in any medium shares this property. It is embraced and treasured by many over the course of generations yet for each person, it has somewhat of an individualized meaning which resonates in a personal way.

Miles Davis (May 26, 1926 – September 28, 1991) is one artist whose oeuvre has touched many people deeply and personally. His many fans can all agree on his greatness yet the reason why varies for each person. Blues for Miles by pianist/arranger Greg Murphy offers up evidence of this personal/universal effect.

The album is no mere stylistic homage but a way in which to show some of what Miles meant to him not via the work’s structure but rather in mood and spirit. The album’s program is a mix of standards and originals which along with the band’s interplay keeps things interesting.

“My Shinning Hour” starts the album off. This standard from the pen of perennial Great American Songbook scribes Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer was originally for the film “The Sky’s the Limit” (1943) but is probably best known to jazz fans through the John Coltrane cover. John Coltrane’s version from the album Coltrane Jazz (Atlantic Records 1961) marked the first appearance on record of his classic quartet.

Greg eschews any comparison by injecting heavy Bossa Nova inflections. With a fat mid-range tone the trumpet maintains the familiar melody while all around him dances percussion and drum flourishes. The perfect foil which meshes with the horn while not becoming merely a twin is the low end bass groove. The piano breaks are lyrical and like the rest of the song, fun. Punctuated with whistle and percussion breaks one finds themselves suddenly thinking of carnival and the softly murmured innuendos of the sun.

“Brother Can You Spare a Dime?” is taken as a solo piece. It shows the contemplative aspect of Greg’s playing. Written by E.Y Harburg and Jay Gorney (1930) for the musical Americana it was in the vernacular of the depression, portraying the broken possibilities of the once seemingly limitless potential for every American. Despite the Republican right thinking it “Red” propaganda and trying to have it cut from the show it remained and continued on well after the depression in the lexicon of great standards.

Greg is no stranger to this song having previously (2012) recorded it as the theme song for the HBO documentary “Redemption”.   We all get down but not every musician can play the blues. Greg displays an authenticity not in any specific blues-based structure but in an organic soulfulness.

There is a power to the performance deriving from simplicity which is not meant in a pejorative way. Any attempt at doing a deconstruction or re-imagining are avoided in favor of a straight reading which allows the song’s inherent power and Greg’s voice to come through unadorned and without any distraction. Tinged with melancholy but bearable on account of its beauty, it is a rainy day with all the leaves of the trees dripping silvered jewels.

“Hat Trick” is another original. It is free jazz not in the genre sense but in the band allowing different components from several genres to meld without concern of adhering to any specific formula. The band on this album is comprised of musicians with whom Greg has a history, having played together in various incarnations. This song has a slow burn, offering up permanent evidence of how much fun the ensemble would be in a live situation.

The start of the song finds the bass releasing deep drone like pulses. The brush and cymbal work on the percussion is the whispered encouragement to do something interesting and in nocturnal colors. When the piano initially enters, softly, it sounds almost akin to an older model keyboard so valued by today’s turnbulists. Soon though it is metamorphosis into grander, fractured ivories playing in elliptical patterns which mirror that of the bass, punctuating its own pattern with rapid asides.

The trumpet and tenor saxophone are two long things which entangle even as the stretch out, wisps of smoke, coils of rope or deeply abstracted thoughts. As the piece continues on the front line of horns separate with the trumpet then tenor taking solos which would not sound out of place on the Impulse label of the 1960’s.

A dramatic cohesiveness is created not because all the musicians play in unison but because each of the smaller patterns executed within the piece bolster the others.

This album is no mere tribute nor does it seek to concern itself with offering up the next artistic evolutionary step. Instead it displays what inspirations one generation of artists gleamed from another. An informal meditation on the enjoyment from works that we find ourselves constantly going back to, something which we can all relate to in our own way.

Maxwell Chandler


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Remembering Two Great Ladies:

I recently attended a concert which offered up a bill comprised of multi-generational musicians. With the older guys, were one to not watch them play but listen only, there would be no sense of having lost a step; no reduction in power or chops. The night had been dedicated to the recently departed Mulgrew Miller, a joyous sendoff yet a reminder too that the clock never stops ticking down.

Now added to the sad parade of names, Sathima Bea Benjamin and Marian McPartland. While I currently have a very full up schedule, I could not let these two passings go unremarked upon as I greatly admired both women and our paths ever so briefly intersected. This is by no means meant to be any kind of definitive, scholarly obituary but more a personal memento mori .

I had the pleasure of interviewing both women back when I used to bleed ink for All About Jazz. With Marian, I scored the interview basically as luck of the draw; I was up next in the bullpen to conduct an interview.

Her importance of place in modern jazz can never be overstated. Besides her own performances and recordings, her Jazz piano show did not so much humanize a diverse array of greats as add further, deeper layers to already compelling artists. I did thorough research so that I could ask the questions that I knew were expected of me but also more obscure ones as to try to do a definitive interview that covered her long career.

I was given an East Coast number to call and a time. I called at the appointed time, on the dot but no one picked up. Being her home phone number an answering machine came on.  I did not feel it right to leave a message, I may have been wrong, and so hung up. A minute later my phone rang, that familiar voice sounding a little annoyed asked me;

“Did you just call me and hang up?”

I explained who I was and why I had called; asking if now was a good time to do the interview to which she said yes. A few questions in and she paused for a moment, asking me;

“But why had you hung up without leaving a message?”

As we continued on she realized I was not merely asking the standard run of the mill questions and warmed up to me. She was surprised that I had found out about her father having offered her one thousand pounds to stay in school at her career’s start. The interview was conversational and rich with jazz history.  Two of my favorite moments:

Prompted by my questions, she went into great detail about the day of Art Kane’s photograph “A Great Day in Harlem” (1958). Among other thing Thelonious Monk holding up the taking of the photo as he tried on all combinations of jackets and hats to try to look different;

“[Thelonious] Monk wanted to choose an outfit so that he would look different from everybody else, but he wound up looking just the same as everybody else. He kept trying on different jackets and hats; I forget what he eventually wore.”

I asked her about having toured briefly in the 60’s with Benny Goodman. This was when Rock and Roll had already deposed Modern Jazz as soundtrack for youth, artists and bohemians, let alone the older genre which Benny Goodman had helped create. He did not like her playing and she asked;

“Benny I know you don’t like my playing. Why did you hire me?” He looked at me in sort of astonishment and said, “I’m damned if I know.”

The tour would be stopped with the death of President Kennedy.

She was a great lady and one of whom I was honored to have briefly interacted with.

The Sathima interview I got under different circumstances. I unintentionally became the go to guy for artists who were deeply genre defying; doing interviews with people propagating odd mélanges of the downtown sound or modern improvised classical. The benefit of these assignments was that I was turned onto artists I would otherwise not have discovered. The other type of interviews I was given were artists who had pedigree and an abundance of talent but their stature, to the more casual listener, was not on the same level as Miles or Sonny Rollins. These assignments I relished, as to me regardless of what tier they were placed on by other jazz writers, they were heroes.  Again, I did my research finding far less information and what I did find seemed the reiteration of the same basic history from previous articles. At the time I was to do the interview, she was living in New York doing light club gigging and a soft promotion of the reissue of her A Morning In Paris album.

From the very start she was friendly, exuding a warm, earth-mother kind of vibe. She was beyond generous with her time, I had to keep changing tapes in my machine, both of us laughing as I had to tell her;

“Wait, please wait I must change the tape again.”

Eventually I ran out of questions to ask, we talked about the nature of creativity, cooking and Africa. She said that she liked my name and sort of sang-said it several times as she was mulling over the answer to one of my questions. Her life would make an amazing movie with no need of embellishments for the drama. She talked about not being well known in America and the hard logistics of trying to keep a band if not together as a permanent unit then steadily working for live dates, all without a trace of bitterness or regret. It seemed after a while; more that I was talking to a friend than being granted an interview. As we continued to chat I made bold by asking her about the pizzicato violin of Svend Asmussen, from the Paris album. As great of a musician as he was, to me it at times is distracting from the other things going on. She told me a fantastic story “off record” then as we continued to talk, changed her mind and said that I could put it in;

“So while we were doing this “Nightingale In Berkeley Square” he said now you are going to work with a trio. And then I did “Spring Will Be A Little Late This Year” and other things, “Darn That Dream…” And while we were into that the door opened and in walked… Svend Asmussen. And Ellington said “Oh, hey—you are just what we need… I want you to play with her but listen and this is important…Please do not play the melody. She is the melody.” So is that not beautiful? Ellington said “You can play anything else but you don’t play the melody.” So that’s why he played all the pizzicato, which I found sometimes like really annoying me. But what could I do? I wasn’t in control of this. I wasn’t going to tell him.”

She was an amazing woman, whose acquaintance I feel lucky enough to have made. I would like to think that if my interview did not help her in any professional way, it at the very least pleased her.

Farewell to two great artists whose artistic lights will never dim.

Maxwell Chandler

August 21, 2013 Midtown

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A New Soundtrack for Old Feelings: Dave Deason’s From Another Time

French composer/pianist Erik Satie (1866-1925) was a proto modernist in music and occasionally, writing. His work provided inspiration for later generations’ genres such as minimalism; ambient et al. His music could be stately or playful. The length of his compositions drastically varied from thirty seconds to extended suites for piano.  According to him, every composition was the perfect length to suit its purpose. While he retained his eccentric playfulness, as he grew older he began to further solidify this theories. He envisioned what he termed Furniture Music. This would be music that went with and added to the ambiance of a room or place. This was an early precursor to things like John Cage’s (1912-1992) composition 4’33 (1952) in which the concert hall remains completely silent for said amount of time, the ambient noise of the venue being the composition, changing from venue to venue. The Swiss architect Le Corbusier (1887-1965) was offered a pavilion for the worlds fair (1958) in which he envisioned a sort of installation with music to match the atmosphere of the place as created by Satie or his more discordant Gemini and Organized Sound progenitor Edgar Varese (1883-1965).

Although what Varese and Satie did stylistically was drastically different, both sought to draw inspiration from and enhance an area’s ambience through music and it’s, on Satie’s part at least, subtle integration to the place. These theories would later morph in the hands of others into occasional gimmick or camp and can be seen as the immediate precursors to muszak. Now with the advent of MP3 players and other technology one can travel anywhere and bring hundreds of albums, held in a device no bigger than a pack of playing cards. The convenience of technology has made it so that in a variation upon what Satie had envisioned, one could have the right music providing the soundtrack regardless of where they are.

This ability to have the right music to suit any situation or place should have made it so that music is now looked at and assessed differently. The best music posseses components of art and entertainment but that which leans more in one direction is of equal value when presented at the right time.

Dave Deason is a Portland based composer and multi-instrumentalist (piano/woodwinds). His latest album From another Time is mood music but not as termed in a pejorative way. The entire CD is thematic, not necessarily in subject but more importantly, in atmosphere. The basic description would be ballads possessing an all pervading lushness and sweetness as can be experienced by the kiss from eating one of the better dark chocolates, or the chill good Whisky produce as it is sipped. The tracks alternate between Dave on solo piano or with string section.

One of the reasons this album works so well is Dave’s strong background in classical music allows for richer layering of instrumental voices, never having the flat feel that even some of the “bigger” names in jazz have fallen into with their “With Strings” albums. Using all originals and not going with the traditional fare of standards for this project, he also avoids falling into the trap of making an uneven marriage between classical and jazz which often leaves fans of both indifferent.

“Nocturne” opens the album, a perfect aural mission statement. This piece shows how the strings are present not just to serve as filling but as an active part of the overall composition and execution. “Nocturne” conjures up scenes from an imaginary black and white movie, the heroine out on a balcony, wind making her dress gently sway as the eyes of the city blink neon below. Towards the end of the piece the strings swell over the soloing of the piano and you know someone is going to get kissed. This piece also serves as an initial introduction to the impressive sonics of the album. There are no empty spaces to slacken the tension, nor any over use of studio magic to make the sound come at one block like or overly cold, as can be a danger in this digital age.

“Elegy” is the first solo piano piece. Dave is once again well served by his classical background as his playing shows strong melodicism and crisp articulation. This is by no means a straight out jazz album and the piano never lapses into overtly virtuosic soloing which would take the listener out of the mood.

One of my other favorite solo piano tracks is “I’m Calling You”. With its repetition of a melodic phrase which weaves and disappears through a sort of stuttered and descending structure. With its air of mystery, this shows influence of 20th century composers such as Anton Webern (1883-1945) and impressionistic elements akin to Maurice Ravel (1875-1937).

“From Another Time” is a melancholy piano remembering something while the string section commiserates with it. It is richly textural, offering what could be the artistic illegitimate child of Nelson Riddle and Max Steiner. At the halfway mark in the song is plucked bass playing over soaring violin and bowed cello added to by a shimmering piano.

This album is inspired by a feeling of a bygone time yet does not feel inauthentic as we are listening to one of our contemporaries looking back over his shoulder at what had come before, inspired by it yet not seeking to trap it under museum glass. The album is sixty minutes long with pristine sound and brief liner notes. Having done scoring work for the independent film From Kilimanjaro with Love (2008) has also inspired and left its mark on Dave, as the album has an overall cinematic feel to it, a tone poem for the celluloid age.

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