Wednesday, January 13, 2010

The Drums, The Voice & Lady Day

I've been fortunate to have worked with many great jazz vocalists over the years including such artists as Pat Steele, Carol Welsman, Karen Plato, Dionne Taylor, Carmen Lundy, Sienna Dahlen, John LaBelle, Kristin Korb, Louise Rose, Trish Colter and an amazing extended engagement with Montreal's Johanne Desforges. All great musicians !

As a drummer, playing with a vocalist requires a special mindset and sensitivity. These are all important skills to master as a drummer and I always look forward to the opportunity to work with a good singer. This week, while working with some vocal jazz students at a local high school as an accompanist, I was reminded of this and put some thought into the importance of learning the lyrics to the tunes I'm playing. While playing with these talented young students, I purposely quietly sang/mumbled the lyrics to myself while accompanying the students as a personal exercise (I had the lead sheets with the lyrics written on them right in front of me on a music stand!) I sure noticed a new and fresh dimension to these standards that I've played so many times.

Understanding the lyrical aspect of these Jazz standards we play so much is one often overlooked, and not just by drummers - but my most jazz instrumentalists, I think. I believe that as drummers (and overall as jazz musicians), we have to have as many tools as possible at our disposal regarding the piece of music we are playing if we really want to play it properly and explore it throughly. I think that by learning the lyrics to a melody, it would undoubtedly have a positive effect on one's melodic phrasing.

Apparently drummer Art Taylor was renowned for knowing all the lyrics to all of the standards he was playing, as did his frequent employer, tenor saxophonist Dexter Gordon. So perhaps there is something to be said for knowing the words to the songs we are playing ? It's an interesting argument worth exploring.

Anyways, some of my favorite jazz singers include Ella Fitzgerald, Sara Vaughn, Nancy Wilson, Joe Williams, Tony Bennett, Frank Sinatra, Abbey Lincoln and, of course, Billie Holiday.

Here is a favorite clip of mine of Billie Holiday with an all-star band from the 1957 CBS television special "The Sound of Jazz" on the composition "Fine and Mellow":

Apparently the musical dialogue between Holiday and Lester Young here was a special moment as they had not been on speaking terms for some time and were avoiding each other that day. This particular piece represents the last time these two artists would perform together.

As producer Nat Hentoff remembers:

"Lester got up, and he played the purest blues I have ever heard, and [he and Holiday] were looking at each other, their eyes were sort of interlocked, and she was sort of nodding and half–smiling. It was as if they were both remembering what had been—whatever that was. And in the control room we were all crying. When the show was over, they went their separate ways. "

Sadly, both Billie Holiday and Lester Young both passed away within two years of this epic recording.

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