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Ludwig van Beethoven Most Beloved Piano Favourites
The piano was Ludwig van Beethoven’s favourite instrument. He was a virtuoso at the keyboard, and his compositions for piano “became a vehicle for experimenting not only with the fundamental aspects and techniques of music, but also a means of self-expression.”
Besides occasional pieces and various sets of variations, Beethoven also published 32 piano sonatas. It is one of the most important collections of works in the history of Western music, and it’s really scary how many people have glowingly written about Beethoven’s piano music. Was Beethoven a better composer than so and so? I suppose, it depends on your definition of better, and plenty of people with personal agendas have been trying to tell us that Beethoven was nothing special.
But one thing for sure, Beethoven was able to write the most beautiful and most memorable melodies. I am pretty sure that once you have listened to Beethoven’s most beloved piano favourites, you will sing one or the other tune all day long. One of Beethoven’s most beloved earworms comes from his Piano Sonata No. 8, known as the “Pathétique” The slow movement is frequently heard as the musical backdrop to movie dramas and soap operas. The tune is not really sentimental, but a soothing and comforting song without words.
Commentator writing on Ludwig van Beethoven’s piano music have found “highly original movements glowing with passion, exuberance, heroism, nobility and dramatic pathos.” What that probably means is that the music is telling us some kind of story, real or imagined. And in most cases Beethoven really didn’t tell us exactly what his music was all about.
A personal friend once asked the composer about the meaning of the D-minor Sonata, Op. 32, No. 2, and a seriously grumpy Beethoven supposedly replied, “just read Shakespeare’s ‘The Tempest’.” We still have no idea if the Shakespearean play served as the literary inspiration, but the nickname stuck. The opening movement is pretty stormy and unsettled, indeed, but one of the most beloved piano favourites is heard in the concluding “Allegretto.” It’s a delightful quiet theme that unfolds in perpetual motion, and the obsessive contrast creates a sense of great anticipation.
For the most instantly recognized and most beloved Beethoven piano favourite we need look no further than the Bagatelle Für Elise. We all know this delicious tune, but it’s not at all clear who was “Elise.” Apparently, Beethoven, already 40 years of age fell in love with his 18-year old student Therese Malfatti. Beethoven did believe that the love was reciprocal, and he was hoping to formally propose marriage at an extensive cocktail party hosted by the Malfatti family.
Looking for courage, Beethoven got really drunk and forgot all about proposing. He did apparently play the Bagatelle, but since his handwriting was simply atrocious, it looked like “Für Elise,” and not “Für Therese.” So we still don’t know if “Therese” and “Elise” is the same woman? In the event, Therese married an Austrian nobleman, and the Beethoven dedication might well read “Für Gigons,” Therese Malfatti’s dog.
Beethoven in love is a really thorny subject. He seems to have habitually fallen in love with women that were simply unattainable. The Countess Giulietta Guicciardi was only 16 when she became Beethoven’s student. Beethoven fell in love, and he proposed marriage, which she accepted. Her father, however, wasn’t amused and forbade the marriage “to a man without rank, fortune or permanent engagement, and with a character and temperament so peculiar.”
Once again, there were no wedding bells for Beethoven, but he did dedicate one of his most beloved piano favourites to Giulietta, the Sonata Op. 27, no. 2, commonly known as “Moonlight”. That nickname comes from a critic and poet as the music “inspired a vision of a boat on Lake Lucerne by moonlight.” Beethoven had never been to Lake Lucerne, but he did instruct the performer to use the pedal throughout the earworm opening movement. “The harmonies become like watercolours, seamlessly blending and swimming into each other.”
One of my personal most beloved piano favourites by Ludwig van Beethoven is the second movement of the piano sonata Op. 90. It’s not only great and memorable music, but it is also connected with a great story. The sonata is dedicated to the accomplished pianist Count Moritz Lichnowsky. The Count was seriously surprised to receive this dedication, so he asked what the sonata meant. Beethoven replied that the first movement represents the “Battle between the head and the heart,” and the second a “Conversation with the beloved.”
The subtext here is that the Count had an illicit affair with his future wife, the singer and actress Josefa Stummer. Although still married to his first wife Maria Anna, the illegitimate daughter of Moritz and Josefa was already three months old, and the count was torn between staying with his current wife or whether to elope with his lover. The meandering and obsessive rondo theme in the finale appears no less than sixteen times; talk about love’s obsession.
Ludwig van Beethoven spent the summer of 1804 in the small village of Döbling, recovering from a variety of ailments. He went for long walks in the Vienna Woods, sometimes alone, and sometime in the company of his student Ferdinand Ries. On one such occasion, Ries reported that “Beethoven was humming, and more often howling, always up and down without singing any definite notes.
When I questioned him to what it was, he answered, ‘a theme for the sonata [Op. 57] has occurred to me.’ Once we returned home, Beethoven ran to the pianoforte without taking off his hat. I sat down in the corner and he soon forgot all about me. Finally he got up, was surprised that I was still there and said, ‘I cannot give you a lesson today, I must do some work’.” And that work referred to his F-minor sonata Op. 57, a composition commonly known as the “Appassionata.” The publisher supplied that nickname, but Beethoven did not protest. The opening movement is almost symphonic in scope, and it is certainly one of Beethoven’s most beloved piano favourites.
Ludwig van Beethoven was always a bit of a rebel. In his piano sonatas he constantly experimented with the weight, character and balance of various movements. He was breaking away from the classically oriented compositions—we would say thinking outside the box today—and gradually established his own compositional individuality and originality. Instead of opening the opus 26 sonata with a conventional high-energy movement, he surprises us with a subdued and gorgeous “Andante con variazioni.”
Beethoven was a master of writing variations, and he presents an unforgettably tranquil and ceremonial theme. In five variations he teases various melodic, harmonic and rhythmic possibilities from a theme that must be considered one of his most beloved piano favourites.
The Rondo and Capriccio Op. 129 is better known by the title “Rage over a lost Penny, vented in a Caprice.” That inscription is written on the title page of the composition, but not in Beethoven’s hand. It is possible that Beethoven’s friend and biographer Anton Schindler is responsible for that catchy title.
Beethoven composed this audience favourite between 1795 and 1798, but Anton Diabelli only published it almost 30 years later. Robert Schumann said of the work “it would be difficult to find anything merrier than this whim… It is the most amiable, harmless anger, similar to that felt when one cannot pull a shoe from off the foot.” For Schumann, Beethoven was not just a lofty god, but a highly original composer securely grounded in the everyday. Without doubt, the “lost Penny” is one of Beethoven’s most beloved piano favourites.
By 1803, Beethoven had already become world famous and people from around the world would send him presents. One such present was a piano from the celebrated Parisian instrument builder Sebastien Érard. Beethoven didn’t really like the instrument, but he was greatly interested in some of the changes in construction. For one, the range of the keyboard had been expanded, which in turn produces much greater resonance. “Heavier felt-covered hammers and the advent of steel frames on which to string heavier wires led to an increase in volume, and the invention of the double escapement mechanism allowed notes to be rapidly repeated.”
Beethoven complained that the “action was incurably heavy,” but some of the highly explosive and violent effects in his sonatas would have been impossible without these improvements. His “Waldstein” sonata, one of Beethoven’s most beloved piano favourites takes full advantage of the technical possibilities of the new instrument.
We started this little survey of Beethoven’s most beloved piano favourites with the slow movement from his “Pathétique” sonata. I think it’s fitting that we end this blog with the last movement from this exceptional piano favourite. Beethoven himself provided the nickname, apparently making a reference to a publication by the German poet Friedrich Schiller. Schiller wrote, “Pathos arises when the awareness of suffering is counter-balanced by the capacity of reason to resist these feelings.”
In this sonata, Beethoven experiments with surprising tonal shifts “and the long-term projection of harmonic action.” We also find unusual rhythms and striking dynamic effects placed within the full expressive range and power of his imagination. The concluding “Rondo Allegro” movement is unexpectedly set in the minor mode. Individual statements of the Rondo theme are separated by grand theatrical gestures and by alternating episodes of pianistic virtuosity and devout melancholy.
What a fabulous and unforgettable movement! Since Ludwig van Beethoven wrote so many incredible and unforgettable melodies for the piano, this was an easy yet simultaneously very difficult blog to write.
The fruitful period which produced the singles ‘Penny Lane’ and ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’ as well as the Sgt Pepper album was the first in which the Beatles could be totally devoted to the studio because they were free of touring commitments. They took an unprecedented 105 hours to record both sides of the single and then a further five months to complete the album.
Paul conceived the album as a show staged by a fictional Edwardian brass band transported through time into the psychedelic age and played, of course, by the electronically equipped Beatles. Released in June 1967, Sgt Pepper was the album of what became known as ‘The Summer Of Love’ – a brief season when the hippie ethic developed in San Francisco seemed to pervade the whole of the Western world. For anyone who was young at the time, the music automatically evokes the sight of beads and kaftans, the sound of tinkling bells and the aroma of marijuana masked by joss sticks. Despite this, there were only four songs on Sgt Pepper – ‘Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds’, ‘She’s Leaving Home’, ‘Within You Without You’ and ‘A Day In The Life’ – that even alluded to the social upheaval caused by the changing youth culture.
The rest of the songs were very British pop songs, tackling a range of domestic subjects from neighbourliness (‘A Little Help From My Friends’) and self-improvement (‘Getting Better’), through suburban living (‘Good Morning, Good Morning’) and home decoration (‘Fixing A Hole’), to Victorian entertainment (‘Being For The Benefit Of Mr Kite’). The language of the songs was often deliberately antiquated – ‘guaranteed to raise a smile’, ‘may I inquire discreetly’, ‘meeting a man from the motor trade’, ‘a splendid time is guaranteed for all’, ‘indicate precisely what you mean to say’ – as if this really was an Edwardian production staged by the good Sergeant Pepper and his men from the local Lonely Hearts club.
Yet, the spirit of 1967 suffused the album in significant ways. It was a fruit of the belief that limits to the imagination were culturally imposed and should therefore be challenged. Anything that seemed technically possible was worth an attempt from a climaxing orchestral frenzy on ‘A Day In The Life’ to a note of such a high frequency that only a dog could hear it on the play-out groove.
Sgt Pepper was one of the first records to have a gatefold sleeve, printed lyrics, decorated inner bag, free gift and a cover designed by a celebrated artist. Its reputation as the first ‘concept album’ though is undeserved. Merle Travis’s Folk Songs From the Hills (1947) was a concept album as was Frank Sinatra’s In The Wee Small Hours (1955) and, more recently, Johnny Cash’s Blood Sweat and Tears (1963) and Bitter Tears (1965). Indeed, it’s arguable whether Sgt Pepper was a concept album at all. The only unifying theme was the Pepper song and its reprise and the photographs on the sleeve.
There was no theme holding the individual songs together. “Basically Sgt Pepper was McCartney’s album, not Lennon’s,” says Barry Miles, who was the group’s main contact on the London underground scene at the time. “People make the mistake of thinking it must have been Lennon’s because he was so hip. Actually, he was taking so many drugs and trying to get rid of his ego that it was much more McCartney’s idea.”
Penny Lane is a Liverpool street but also the name given to the area that surrounds its junction with Smithdown Road. None of the places mentioned in ‘Penny Lane’ exists in the lane itself. Anyone not raised in this area of Liverpool might find it , as musician and art critic George Melly once put it, a “dull suburban shopping centre”. But to Paul and John, who had spent their early years in the area, it represented a time in their lives when everyone appeared to be friendly and the sun shone for ever in a clear blue sky. Living in the bubble of fame their memories of childhood were more gilded. As John had observed in ‘She Said, She Said’, ‘When I was a boy, everything was right.’
John had incorporated Penny Lane into an early draft of ‘In My Life’, but it was Paul who made it work. He created a Liverpool street scene that could have been taken from a children’s picture book with a pretty nurse, a jolly barber, an eccentric banker, a patriotic fireman and some friendly passers by. “It’s part fact,” he admitted. “It’s part nostalgia.” At first it sounds as though a summer scene is being described (‘blue suburban skies’) but then rain is mentioned as well as someone selling poppies (November 11). The point is that the song is a series of snapshots, not all of them necessarily taken on the same day.
There was a barber’s shop in Penny Lane, run by a Mr Bioletti who claimed to have cut hair for John, Paul and George as children; there were two banks (Barclays and Lloyds), a fire station in Allerton Road and, in the middle of the roundabout, a shelter. The banker without a mac and fireman with a portrait of the Queen in his pocket were Paul’s embellishments. “I wrote that the barber had photographs of every head he’d had the pleasure of knowing,” said Paul. “Actually he just had photos of different hairstyles. But all the people who come and go do stop and say hello.”
Finger pie was a Liverpudlian sexual reference included in the song to amuse the locals. “It was just a nice little joke for the Liverpool lads who like a bit of smut,” said Paul. “For months afterwards, girls serving in local chip shops had to put up with requests for ‘fish and finger pie’.” Liverpool poet Roger McGough, who was in the music and satire group Scaffold with Paul’s brother Mike, believes that ‘Penny Lane’ and ‘Strawberry Fields’ were significant because, for the first time, British rather than American landmarks were being celebrated in rock’n’roll. “The Beatles were starting to write songs about home,” McGough says. “They began to draw on things like the rhymes we used to sing in the streets and old songs our parents remembered from the days of the music halls. Liverpool didn’t have a mythology until they created one.” Today, because of the song, Penny Lane is a Liverpool tourist attraction and this itself has altered the area. The original street signs were stolen years ago and their replacements have had to be screwed to walls and placed beyond easy reach. The barber’s shop has become a unisex salon with a picture of the Beatles displayed in the window. The shelter on the roundabout has been renovated and re-opened as Sgt Pepper’s Bistro. The Penny Lane Wine Bar has the song’s lyrics painted above its windows.
STRAWBERRY FIELDS FOREVER
In the autumn of 1966, John went to Spain to film the role of Private Gripweed in Dick Lester’s How I Won The War. While relaxing between shots on the beach at Almeira he began composing ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’, a song he conceived as a slow talking-blues. Further work on the song took place in a large house he was renting in nearby Santa Isabel. The song began with what would become the second verse in the recorded version.
It was a meditation on the conviction he’d had since he was a child that he was somehow different from everyone else; that he saw and felt things that other people didn’t. In the earliest preserved version of his Spanish tapes he starts, “No one is on my wavelength”, later changing the line to “No one I think is in my tree”, presumably to disguise what could be seen as arrogance. He was saying that he believed that no one could tune in to his way of thinking, and that therefore he must either be a genius (‘high’) or insane (‘low’). “I seem to see things in a different way from most people,” he once said. It was only on take four of the songwriting tape that he introduced Strawberry Fields (but without the ‘forever’) and on take five he added the line ‘nothing to get mad about’ that was later altered to ‘nothing to get hung about’. He was already using the deliberately hesitant mode – “er”, “that is”, “I mean”, “I think” – to underline the truth that this was an attempt to articulate concepts that can’t actually be put into words.
On his return to England he worked on the song at Kenwood where the final verse was added. It wasn’t until he went into the studio that he finished the song by adding the opening verse, a fact that helps to explain why the sentiment of the introduction seems out of joint with the rest of the song.
In the completed version a place is made to represent a state of mind. Strawberry Fields (John added the ‘s’) was a Salvation Army orphanage in Beaconsfield Road, Woolton, a five-minute walk from his home in Menlove Avenue. A huge Victorian building set in wooded grounds, it was a place where John would go with his Aunt Mimi for summer fêtes but also somewhere that he would sneak into during evenings and at weekends with friends such as Pete Shotton and Ivan Vaughan. It became their private adventure playground.
These illicit visits were, to John, like Alice’s escapades down the rabbit hole and through the looking glass. He felt that he was entering another world, a world that more closely corresponded with his inner world, and as an adult he would associate these moments of bliss with his lost childhood and also with a feeling of drug-free psychedelia.
In his Playboy interview of 1980 he told David Sheff that he would ‘trance out into alpha’ as a child, seeing ‘hallucinatory images’ of his face when looking into a mirror. He said it was only when he later discovered the work of artists like the surrealists that he realized that he wasn’t mad but a part of ‘an exclusive club that sees the world in those terms’.
SGT PEPPER’S LONELY HEARTS CLUB BAND
Success meant that the public expected the Beatles not only to deliver another artistic masterpiece but a prophetic vision. To relieve this pressure, Paul developed the personae of Sgt Pepper and his musicians, an identity that would give the band more creative freedom. They had become self-conscious as the Beatles but as the Lonely Hearts Club Band they would have nothing to live up to.
Paul conceived the idea on a flight back to London from Nairobi on November 19th 1966. During an earlier part of this holiday when he was in France he had used a facial disguise in order to travel incognito. This had led him to consider how free the Beatles would be if they could adopt a group disguise.
The conceit, however, wasn’t sustained beyond the opening track and the reprise although it succeeded in giving the impression to many people that Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band was a ‘concept album’. “The songs, if you listen to them, have no connection at all,” George Martin admits. “Paul said, ‘Why don’t we make the band ‘Pepper’ and Ringo ‘Billy Shears’ because it gives a nice beginning to the thing? It wasn’t really a concept album at all. It was just a question of me trying to make something coherent by doing segues as much as possible.” Later on, Martin came up with the idea for the reprise, which helped to wrap it all up.
Sgt Pepper and his band achieved the feat of being very West Coast 1967 (you could picture their name on a psychedelic poster for the Avalon Ballroom in San Francisco) at the same time as remaining quintessentially English (you could imagine them playing on an Edwardian summer lawn). Paul had intended to play it both ways, writing old-fashioned lyrics delivered with a satirical psychedelic intensity, and using a title that appealed to the late Sixties vogue for long and surreal band names – Jefferson Airplane, Quicksilver Messenger Service, Incredible String Band, Big Brother and the Holding Company. “They’re a bit of a brass band in a way,” Paul said at the time, “but they’re also a rock band because they’ve got that San Francisco thing.”
The origin of the name Sgt Pepper is disputed. The Beatles’ former road manager Mal Evans is sometimes cited as having created it as a jokey substitute for ‘salt ‘n’ pepper’. Others suggest that the name was derived from the popular American soft drink ‘Dr Pepper’.
WITH A LITTLE HELP FROM MY FRIENDS
Journalist Hunter Davies was granted a unique insight into the Beatles’ writing methods while working on their eponymous 1968 authorised biography. On the afternoon of March 29, 1967, Davies went to Paul’s house in Cavendish Avenue and watched as Paul and John worked on ‘With A Little Help From My Friends’. It was one of the first times a journalist had witnessed Lennon and McCartney composing. “They wanted to do a Ringo-type song,” remembers Davies. “They knew it would have to be for the kids, a sing-along type of song. That was what they thought was missing on the album so far. I recorded them trying to get all the rhymes right and somewhere I’ve got a list of all the ones they didn’t use.”
At the beginning of the afternoon, all the writers had was a chorus line and a bit of a melody. For the first two hours, they thrashed away on guitars, neither of them getting very far. It was John who eventually suggested starting each verse with a question. The line, ‘Do you believe in love at first sight?’ didn’t have the right number of syllables and so it became ‘a love at first sight’. John answer to this was ‘Yes, I’m certain that it happens all the time’. This was then followed by ‘Are you afraid when you turn out the light?’ but rephrased to ‘What do you see when…’.
Cynthia Lennon then came in and suggested ‘I’m just fine’ as an answer, but John dismissed it saying that ‘just’ was either a filler or a meaningless word. Instead, he tried ‘I know it’s mine’, eventually coming up with the more substantial ‘I can’t tell you, but I know it’s mine’.
After a few hours of playing around with words, their minds began to wander. They began fooling around, singing ‘Can’t Buy Me Love’ and playing ‘Tequila’ (a 1958 hit for the Champs) on the piano. “When they got stuck, they would go back and do a rock’n’roll song,” remembers Davies. “Sometimes they would sing an Englebert Humperdinck song and just bugger around and then get back to the job in hand.”
A recording session was due to begin at seven o’clock and they called Ringo to tell him that his song was ready, even though the lyrics weren’t quite there yet. The lyrics were completed in the studio, where ten takes of the song were recorded that night. As John had an injured finger at the time it was initially known as ‘Bad Finger Boogie’ but was later changed to the rather apt ‘With A Little Help From My Friends’.
LUCY IN THE SKY WITH DIAMONDS
One afternoon early in 1967, Julian Lennon came home from his nursery school with a coloured drawing that he said was of his classmate, four-year-old Lucy O’Donnell. Explaining his artwork to his father, Julian said it was Lucy – ‘in the sky with diamonds’.
This phrase struck John and triggered off the associations that led to the writing of the dream-like ‘Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds’, one of three tracks on the Sgt Pepper album that were supposed to be ‘about drugs’. Although it’s unlikely that John would have written such a piece of reverie without ever having experimented with hallucinogenics, this song was equally affected by his love of surrealism, word play and the works of Lewis Carroll.
That the song was a description of an LSD trip seemed to be proved when it was noted that the initials in the title spelt LSD. Yet John consistently denied this both in public and in private, although he was never hesitant to discuss songs that did refer to drugs. He insisted that the title was taken from what Julian had said about his painting. Julian himself recalls, “I don’t know why I called it that or why it stood out from all my other drawings but I obviously had an affection for Lucy at that age. I used to show dad everything I’d built or painted at school and this one sparked off the idea for a song about Lucy in the sky with diamonds.”
Lucy O’Donnell (who now works as a teacher with special needs’ children) lived near the Lennon family in Weybridge and she and Julian were pupils at Heath House, a nursery school run by two old ladies in a rambling Edwardian house. “I can remember Julian at school,” says Lucy, who didn’t discover that she’d been immortalized in a Beatles’ song until she was 13. “I can remember him very well. I can see his face clearly… we used to sit alongside each other at proper old-fashioned desks. The house was enormous and they had heavy curtains to divide the classrooms. Julian and I were a couple of little menaces from what I’ve been told.”
John claimed that the hallucinatory images in the song were inspired by the ‘Wool And Water’ chapter in Lewis Carroll’s Through The Looking Glass, where Alice is taken down a river in a rowing boat by the Queen, who has suddenly changed into a sheep.
As a child, Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland and Through The Looking Glass were two of John’s favourite books. They’d been given to him as birthday presents and in a 1965 interview he claimed that he read both books once a year.
In a later interview he claimed that it was partly through reading them that he realized the images in his own mind weren’t indications of insanity. “Surrealism to me is reality,” he said. “Psychedelic vision is reality to me and always was.”
For similar reasons, John was attracted to The Goon Show, the British radio comedy show featuring Spike Milligan, Harry Secombe and Peter Sellers which was broadcast by the BBC between June 1952 and January 1960. The Goon Show scripts, principally written by Milligan, lampooned establishment figures, attacked post-war stuffiness and popularized surreal humour. The celebrated Beatle ‘wackiness’ owed a lot to the Goons, as did John’s poetry and writing. He told Spike Milligan that ‘Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds’ and several other songs had been partly inspired by his love of Goon Show dialogue.
“We used to talk about ‘plasticine ties’ in The Goon Show and this crept up in Lucy as ‘plasticine porters with looking glass ties’,” says Milligan who, as a friend of George Martin, sat in on some of the Sgt Pepper sessions. “I knew Lennon quite well. He used to talk a lot about comedy. He was a Goon Show freak. It all stopped when he married Yoko Ono. Everything stopped. He never asked for me again.”
When Paul arrived at Weybridge to work on the song John had only completed the first verse and the chorus. For the rest of the writing they traded lines and images; Paul coming up with ‘newspaper taxis’ and ‘cellophane flowers’, John with ‘kaleidoscope eyes’.
Much of Sgt Pepper was written as the album was being recorded, with John and Paul grabbing inspiration from whatever was happening around them. Hunter Davies was with Paul on one such occasion – when he was struck by the phrase which became the basis of ‘Getting Better’. “I was walking around Primrose Hill with Paul and his dog Martha,” he says. “It was bright and sunny – the first springlike morning we’d had that year. Thinking about the weather Paul said, ‘It’s getting better’. He was meaning that spring was here but he started laughing and, when I asked him why, he told me that it reminded him of something.”
The phrase took Paul’s mind back to drummer Jimmy Nicol, who briefly became a Beatle in June 1964, substituting on tour for a sick Ringo. Nicol was an experienced musician who had worked with the Spotnicks and Georgie Fame’s Blue Flames, but he had to learn to be a Beatle overnight. Called in by George Martin on June 3, he met John, Paul and George that afternoon and was on stage with them in Copenhagen the following night. A week later in Adelaide, after playing just five dates, Nicol was given his fee, together with a jokey ‘retirement present’, a gold watch. “After every concert, John and Paul would go up to Jimmy Nicol and ask him how he was getting on,” says Hunter Davies. “All that Jimmy would ever say was, ‘It’s getting better’. That was the only comment they could get out of him. It ended up becoming a joke phrase and whenever the boys thought of Jimmy they’d think of ‘it’s getting better’.”
After the walk on Primrose Hill, Paul drove back to his home in St John’s Wood and sang the phrase over and over, while picking out a tune on his guitar. Then he worked it out on the piano in his music room which had a strange tone that sounded almost out of tune. “That evening John came round,” remembers Davies. “Paul suggested writing a song called ‘It’s Getting Better’. Now and again, they’d write whole songs individually, but mostly one of them had half a song and the other one would finish it off. That’s how it was with this one. Paul played what he’d come up with to John, and together they finished it.”
‘Getting Better’ proved an interesting example of how they curbed each other’s excesses when they worked together. The optimism of Paul’s chorus, where everything is improving because of love, is counterbalanced by John’s confession that he was once a schoolboy rebel, an angry young man and a wife beater. When Paul sings that things are getting better all the time, John chimes in with ‘it couldn’t get much worse’.
Asked about the song years later, John admitted it referred to his aggressive tendencies, “I sincerely believe in love and peace. I am a violent man who has learned not to be violent and regrets his violence.”
FIXING A HOLE
‘Fixing A Hole’ was another Sgt Pepper song assumed to refer to drugs. People assumed that Paul was talking about ‘fixing’ with heroin. But the song really was about renovating his life, allowing himself the freedom to close up the cracks and holes that allowed the enemies of his imagination to leak in. “It’s the hole in your make up which lets the rain in and stops your mind from going where it will,” as he put it.
Although it wasn’t about DIY, Paul may have drawn the images from his Scottish hideaway, High Park, that he had bought in June 1966 on the advice of his accountants. The house, which had 400 acres of grazing land, hadn’t been lived in for five years and was in poor condition from the regular battering of rain and sea winds.
The brown walls were dark with damp, the only furniture consisted of potato boxes and there was no bath. Paul decorated this property ‘in a colourful way’ as remembered by Alistair Taylor, Brian Epstein’s assistant who accompanied Paul and Jane on their first visit to High Park. “The brown paint made the farmhouse look like the inside of an Aero bar,” he wrote in his book Yesterday: My Life With The Beatles. “Paul decided he’d had enough of it so he went into Campbeltown and bought lots of packets of coloured pens. The three of us spent the next few hours just doodling in all these colours, spreading them all over the wall and trying to relieve the gloom.”
In 1967, in an interview with artist Alan Aldridge, Paul was probed on the drug associations: “If you’re a junky sitting in a room and fixing a hole then that’s what it will mean to you, but when I wrote it I meant if there’s a crack, or the room is uncolourful, then I’ll paint it.”
SHE’S LEAVING HOME
In February 1967, Paul came across a newspaper article about a 17-year-old London schoolgirl studying for her A GCE level exams who’d been missing from home for over a week. Her distressed father was quoted as saying, “I cannot imagine why she should run away. She has everything here.”
The subject of teenage runaways was topical in 1967. As part of the creation of an alternative society, counter-culture guru Timothy Leary had urged his followers to ‘drop out’, to abandon education and ‘straight’ employment. As a result, streams of young people headed for San Francisco, centre of Flower Power. The FBI announced 90,000 runaways that year – a record.
With only the newspaper story to go on, Paul created a moving song about a young girl sneaking away from her claustrophobically respectable home in search of fun and romance in the swinging Sixties. What he didn’t know at the time was how accurate his speculation was. He also had no idea that he had met the girl in question just three years before.
The runaway in the story was Melanie Coe, the daughter of John and Elsie Coe, who lived in Stamford Hill, north London. The only differences between her story and the story told in the song are that she met a man from a gambling casino rather than from ‘the motor trade’ , and that she walked out in the afternoon while her parents were at work, rather than in the morning while they were asleep. “The amazing thing about the song was how much it got right about my life,” says Melanie. “It quoted the parents as saying ‘we gave her everything money could buy’, which was true in my case. I had two diamond rings, a mink coat, hand-made clothes in silk and cashmere and even my own car.
“Then there was the line ‘after living alone for so many years’, which really struck home to me because I was an only child and I always felt alone,” Melanie continues. “I never communicated with either of my parents. It was a constant battle. I left because I couldn’t face them any longer. I heard the song when it came out and thought it was about someone like me but never dreamed it was actually about me. I can remember thinking that I didn’t run off with a man from the motor trade, so it couldn’t have been me! I must have been in my twenties when my mother said she’d seen Paul on television and he’d said that the song was based on a story in a newspaper. That’s when I started telling my friends it was about me.” Melanie’s case was a textbook example of the generational friction of the late sixties. Melanie wanted a freedom she’d heard about but could not find at home.
Her father was a successful executive and her mother a hairdresser, but their marriage was dry and brittle. They had no religion: to them the most important things in life were respectability, cleanliness and money. “My mother didn’t like any of my friends,” says Melanie. “I wasn’t allowed to bring anyone home. She didn’t like me going out. I wanted to act but she wouldn’t let me go to drama school. She wanted me to become a dentist. She didn’t like the way I dressed. She didn’t want me to do anything that I wanted to do. My father was weak. He just went along with whatever my mother said, even when he disagreed with her.”
It was through music that Melanie found consolation. At the age of 13, she began clubbing in the West End of London and, when the legendary live television show Ready Steady Go! started in late 1963, she became a regular dancer on the show. Her parents would often scour the clubs and drag her back home. If she came back late, she would be hit. “When I went out, I could be me,” she said. “In fact, in the clubs I was encouraged to be myself and to have a good time. Dancing was my passion. I was crazy for the music of the time and couldn’t wait until the next single came out. When the song says ‘Something was denied’, that something was me. I wasn’t allowed to be me. I was looking for excitement and affection. My mother wasn’t affectionate at all. She never kissed me.”
On Friday October 4, 1963, Melanie won a Ready Steady Go! mime competition. By coincidence, it happened to be the first time the Beatles were on the show and she was presented with her award by Paul McCartney. Each of the Beatles then gave her a signed message. “I spent that day in the studios going through rehearsals,” she says, “so I was around the Beatles most of that time. Paul wasn’t particularly chatty and John seemed distant but I did spend time talking to George and Ringo.” Melanie’s flight from home took her into the arms of David, a croupier she had met in a club.
They rented a flat in Sussex Gardens near Paddington Station and, while out walking one afternoon, they saw her photo on the front page of an evening newspaper. “I immediately went back to the flat and put on dark glasses and a hat,” she said. “From then on, I lived in terror that they’d find me. They did discover me after about ten days, because I think I’d let it slip where my boyfriend worked. They talked to his boss who persuaded me to call them up. When they eventually called to see me, they bundled me into the back of their car and drove me home.”
To escape from her parents, Melanie married at 18. The marriage didn’t last much more than a year and by the age of 21 she had moved to America to live in an ashram and tried to make it as an actress. Melanie now lives in Spain with two children and a partner, buying and selling Fifties Hollywood jewellery. “If I had my life to live over again, I wouldn’t choose to do it the same way,” Melanie remarks. “What I did was very dangerous but I was lucky. I suppose it is nice to be immortalised in a song but it would have been nicer if it had been for doing something other than running away from home.”
BEING FOR THE BENEFIT OF MR KITE!
In January 1967, the Beatles went to Knole Park near Sevenoaks in Kent to make a promotional film for ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’. “There was an antiques shop close to the hotel we were using,” says former Apple employee Tony Bramwell. “John and I wandered in and John spotted this framed Victorian circus poster and bought it.”
Printed in 1843, the poster proudly announced that Pablo Fanque’s Circus Royal would be presenting the ‘ grandest night of the season’ at Town Meadows, Rochdale, Lancashire. The production was to be ‘for the benefit of Mr Kite’ and would feature ‘Mr J. Henderson the celebrated somerset (sic) thrower’ who would ‘introduce his extraordinary trampoline leaps and somersets over men and horses, through hoops, over garters and lastly through a hogshead of real fire. In this branch of the profession Mr H challenges the world’. Messrs Kite and Henderson were said to assure the public that ‘this night’s production will be one of the most splendid ever produced in this town, having been some days in preparation’.
John began to write a song using the poster’s words. It now hung in his music room and Pete Shotton saw him squinting at the words while he picked out a tune on his piano. John changed a few facts to fit the song. On the poster, Mr Henderson offered to challenge the world, not Mr Kite: the Hendersons weren’t ‘late of Pablo Fanque’s Fair’, Kite was ‘late of Wells’s Circus’. In order to rhyme with ‘ don’t be late’, John moved events from Rochdale to Bishopsgate and to rhyme with ‘will all be there’ he changed the circus to a fair. The original horse was named Zanthus rather than Henry.
Pablo Fanque, Mr Kite and the Hendersons were never more than colourful names to John but records show that, 150 years ago, they were stars in the circus world. Mr Kite was William Kite, son of a circus proprietor, James Kite, and an all-round performer. In 1810 he formed Kite’s Pavilion Circus and 30 years later he was with Wells’s Circus. He is believed to have worked in Pablo Fanque’s Circus from 1843 to 1845. Pablo Fanque was a multi-talented performer, who became the first black circus proprietor in Britain. His real name was William Darby and he was born in Norwich in 1796 to John and Mary Darby. He started calling himself Pablo Fanque in the 1830s.
The Hendersons were John (wire-walker, equestrian, trampolinist and clown) and his wife Agnes, who was the daughter of circus owner Henry Hengler. The Hendersons travelled all over Europe and Russia during the 1840s and 1850s. The ‘somersets’ which Mr Henderson performed on ‘solid ground’ were somersaults, ‘garters’ were banners held between two people and a ‘trampoline’ in those days was a wooden springboard rather than stretched canvas.
At the time, John saw ‘Being For The Benefit Of Mr Kite!’ as a throwaway, telling Hunter Davies, “I was just going through the motions because we needed a new song for Sgt Pepper at that moment.” By 1980, he had radically revised his opinion. He told Playboy interviewer David Sheff: “It’s so cosmically beautiful… The song is pure, like a painting, a pure watercolour.”
WITHIN YOU WITHOUT YOU
George became interested in Eastern thought as a consequence of discovering the sitar in 1965 and, having studied the instrument under Ravi Shankar, made his first explicit statement of his new-found philosophy in ‘Within You Without You’.
Written as a recollected conversation, the song put forward the view that Western individualism – the idea that we each have our own ego – is based on an illusion that encourages separation and division. In order for us to draw closer and get rid of the ‘space between us all’, we need to give up this illusion of ego and realize that we are essentially ‘all one’. Although the view expressed in ‘Within You Without You’ was drawn from Hindu teaching, it touched a chord among those experimenting with acid at the time.
Through a chemically-induced destruction of ego, acid trippers often felt as if they had been absorbed into a greater ‘cosmic consciousness’. The line about gaining the world but losing your soul is taken from a warning given by Jesus and recorded in two of the gospels (Matthew 16, v 26, Mark 8, v 36).
George began to compose the song one night after a dinner party at the home of Klaus Voormann, a German artist and musician he had first met in Hamburg and who had designed the cover for Revolver. Voormann was now living in London, married to former Coronation Street actress Christine Hargreaves and playing bass for Manfred Mann. Also present at the party were Tony King and Pattie Harrison. King had known the Beatles since they first arrived in London in 1963 and he would later work for Apple in London.
“Klaus had this pedal harmonium and George went into an adjoining room and started fiddling around on it,” remembers King. “It made these terrible groaning noises and, by the end of the evening, he’d worked something out and was starting to sing snatches of it to us. It’s interesting that the eventual recording of ‘Within You Without You’ had the same sort of groaning sound that I’d heard on the harmonium because John once told me that the instrument you compose a song on determines the tone of a song. A number originally written on the piano sounds totally different to one worked out on a guitar.”
King’s recollection of the evening is of a typical hip Sixties affair with joints being smoked and lots of cosmic ideas floating around: “We were all on about the wall of illusion and the love that flowed between us but none of us knew what we were talking about. We all developed these groovy voices. It was a bit ridiculous really. It was as if we were sages all of a sudden. We all felt as if we had glimpsed the meaning of the universe. “When I first met George in 1963, he was Mr Fun, Mr Stay Out All Night,” King continues. “Then all of a sudden, he found LSD and Indian religion and he became very serious.
Things went from rather jolly weekends, where we’d have steak and kidney pie and sit around giggling, to these rather serious weekends where everyone walked around blissed out and talked about the meaning of the universe. It was never really my cup of tea but we all got caught up in it because we were young, easily influenced, and around famous people. I remember when the Dutch artists Simon and Marijke, who later painted the Apple shop front, were at George’s, I got fed up with it all and went down the pub. Just as I was walking down George’s drive, Simon and Marijke floated past in yards of chiffon and said in their groovy voices, ‘Ooh. Where are you going, man?’ I told them I was going for a Guinness. They said,. ‘Oh. Say something beautiful for me, will you?’”
In an interview with International Times in 1967, George said: “We’re all one. The realization of human love reciprocated is such a gas. It’s a good vibration which makes you feel good. These vibrations that you get through yoga, cosmic chants and things like that, I mean it’s such a buzz. It buzzes you out of everywhere. It’s nothing to do with pills. It’s just in your own head, the realization. It’s such a buzz. It buzzes you right into the astral plane.”
None of the other Beatles were present when ‘Within You Without You’ was recorded. George and Neil Aspinall played tambouras while session musicians played an assortment of instruments including dilruba, tabla, violin and cello. “The Indian musicians on the session weren’t hard to organize,” remembers George Martin. “What was difficult, though, was writing a score for the cellos and violins that the English players would be able to play like the Indians. The dilruba player, for example, was doing all kinds of swoops, and so I actually had to score that for strings and instruct the players to follow.
“The laugh at the very end of the track was George Harrison. He just thought it would be a good idea to out on it,” recalls Martin.
WHEN I’M SIXTY-FOUR
Paul has said that the melody to ‘When I’m Sixty-Four’ was composed on the piano at Forthlin Road, Liverpool, “when I was about 15”. This places it in either 1957 or 1958, shortly after he joined John in the Quarry Men. By 1960, Paul was playing a version of it at gigs when the amplification broke down. At the time, he thought of it as “a cabaret tune”, written out of respect for the music of the Twenties and Thirties, which his father had played as a young man.
In the midst of psychedelia, the fashions of Jim McCar tney’s younger days were being revived and it made sense for Paul to dust off his teenage song. Twenties pastiche ‘Winchester Cathedral’ had been a UK hit for The New Vaudeville Band in September 1966, and Bonnie and Clyde, the movie that started a craze for Thirties clothing, was released in 1967.
Although the song was written with his father in mind, it was coincidental that he was 64 when it was eventually released. “My dad was probably only 56 when I wrote it,” Paul said, “Retirement age in Britain is 65, so maybe I thought 64 was a good prelude. But probably 64 just worked well as a number.”
The song is written as a letter from a socially inept young man who seems to be trying to coax a female he hardly knows into promising him long-term devotion. The official tone of the letter (‘drop me a line, stating point of view’) paints a convincing picture of this formal young gent who wants to get it all in writing before he signs on the dotted line.
“It was a kind of pastiche,” says George Martin. “It was a send-up of the old stuff. The words are slightly mocking. It was also something of his father’s music coming out because his father had been a musician in the Twenties. Paul always had that sneaking respect for the old rooty-tooty music.”
John claimed that he wouldn’t have dreamt of writing anything like ‘When I’m Sixty-Four’. “John sneered at a lot of things,” says Martin. “But that was part of the collaborative style. They tended to be rivals. They were never Rodgers and Hart. They were more like Gilbert and Sullivan. One would do one thing and the other would say, yeah, I can do better than that and go and do better than that. At the same time, he was thinking – that was bloody good. I wish I could do it.”
An American friend was visiting Paul and, noticing a female traffic warden, a relatively new British phenomenon, commented: “I see you’ve got meter maids over here these days.” Paul was taken with this alliterative term and began experimenting with it on the piano at his father’s home. “I thought it was great,” he said. “It got to be ‘Rita meter maid’ and then ‘lovely Rita meter maid’. I was thinking it should be a hate song…but then I thought it would be better to love her.”
Out of this came the idea for a song about a shy office worker who, having been issued with a parking ticket, seduces the warden in an attempt to get let off the fine. “I was imagining the kind of person I would be to fall for a meter maid,” Paul remarked.
Some years later, a traffic warden by the name of Meta Davies, who operated in the St John’s Wood area of London, claimed she had inspired the song. Not that she had been seduced by a Beatle but, in 1967, she had booked a certain P McCartney who had, apparently, asked about her unusual name. “His car was parked on a meter where the time had expired,” says Meta, “I had to make out a ticket which, at the time, carried a ten shilling fine. I’d just put it on the windscreen when Paul came along and took it off. He looked at it and read my signature that was in full, because there was another M Davies on the same unit. As he was walking away, he turned to me and said, ‘Oh, is your name really Meta?’ I told him that it was. We chatted for a few minutes and he said, ‘ That would be a good name for a song. Would you mind if I use it?’ And that was that. Off he went.”
It may be that Paul had already written ‘Lovely Rita’ and was flattering her a little, although Meta herself was 22 years his senior and the mother of a teenage daughter. “I was never a Beatles’ fan,” admits Meta. “But you couldn’t help hearing their music. My own daughter used to wait outside the Abbey Road Studios to see them.”
GOOD MORNING GOOD MORNING
Paul dominated Sgt Pepper because John had become a lazy Beatle. He rarely ventured far from home, paid little attention to business and was drawing inspiration, not from contemporary art but from the stuff of domestic life –newspapers, school runs, daytime TV.
‘Good Morning, Good Morning’ was an accurate summary of his situation and an admission that he had run out of things to say. It was a song about his life of indolence – the result of too many drugs, a cold marriage and days measured out in meals, sleep and television programmes such as Meet The Wife. “When he was at home, he spent a lot of his time lying in bed with a notepad,” remembers Cynthia of this period. “When he got up he’d sit at the piano or he’d go from one room to the other listening to music, gawping at television and reading newspapers. He was basically dropping out from everything that was happening. He was thinking about things.
Everything he was involved in outside the home was pretty high-powered.” While sitting around in this state of mind, odd sounds and scraps of conversation would trigger ideas. It was a television commercial for Kellogg’s Corn Flakes that gave John the title and chorus of ‘Good Morning, Good Morning’. The black and white commercial featured nothing more than corn flakes being tipped into a bowl. The four-line jingle went: ‘Good morning, good morning, The best to you each morning, Sunshine breakfast, Kellogg’s Corn Flakes, Crisp and full of fun’. The ‘walk by the old school’ was a reference to taking Julian to Heath House, and it’s likely that the person he hoped would ‘turn up at a show’ was Yoko Ono who he had met in November 1966. The ‘show’ would therefore have been an art show, not a theater performance.
A DAY IN THE LIFE
For ‘She Said She Said’, John had combined two unfinished songs but here, for the first time, he put together an unfinished song of his own with one of Paul’s to build the most ambitious track on the album.
John’s songwas prompted by his interminable newspaper reading. The ‘4000 holes in Blackburn, Lancashire’, was picked from the Far And Near column in the Daily Mail dated January 17, 1967, where it was reported that a Blackburn City Council survey of road holes showed that there was one twenty-sixth of a hole in the road for each resident of the city. When John was stuck for a rhyme for ‘small’ to finish off the line ‘Now they know how many holes it takes to fill…’ his old school friend Terry Doran suggested ‘the Albert Hall’.
The film about the English army winning the war was of course How I Won The War, that wouldn’t be premiered until October 1967 but had been talked about a lot in the press.
The man who ‘blew his mind out in a car’ was Tara Browne, an Irish friend of the Beatles and a well-known socialite, who died in a car accident on December 18, 1966. The coroner’s report was issued in January 1967. “I didn’t copy the accident,” John told Hunter Davies. “Tara didn’t blow his mind out. But it was in my mind when I was writing that verse.” The details of the accident in the song – not noticing traffic lights and a crowd forming at the scene – were made up. Paul, who contributed lines to this part of the song, didn’t know at the time that John had Tara Browne in mind. He thought he was writing about ‘a stoned politician’.
Browne was driving down Redcliffe Gardens in Earls Court after midnight, when a Volkswagen emerged from a side street into his path. He swerved and his Lotus Elan ploughed into a stationary van. He was pronounced dead on arrival at a local hospital. The autopsy revealed that his death was the result of “brain lacerations due to fractures of the skull”. His passenger, model Suki Potier, escaped with bruises and shock.
Tara Browne, great grandson of the brewer Edward Cecil Guinness and son of Lord Oranmore and Browne, was part of a young aristocratic elite who loved to mingle with pop stars (but he wasn’t a member of the House of Lords). Although only 21 at the time of his death, he would have inherited a £1,000,000 fortune at the age of 25 and was described on his death certificate as a man “of independent means” with a London home in Eaton Row, Belgravia.
After schooling at Eton, Browne married at 18 and fathered two boys before separating from his wife and taking up with Suki Potier. He frequented London nightspots such as Sibylla’s and the Bag O’Nails and had become particularly friendly with Paul and Mike McCartney and Rolling Stone Brian Jones. For his 21st birthday, he had the Lovin’ Spoonful flown to his ancestral home in County Wicklow, Ireland. Mick Jagger, Mike McCartney, Brian Jones and John Paul Getty were amongst the guests. Paul was with Browne when he first took LSD in 1966.
Paul’s unfinished song, a bright and breezy piece about getting out of bed and setting off for school, was spliced between the second and third verses of John’s song. “It was another song altogether, but it happened to fit,” Paul said. “It was just me remembering what it was like to run up the road to catch a bus to school, having a smoke and going into class…It was a reflection of my schooldays. I would have a Woodbine (a cheap unfiltered British cigarette) and somebody would speak and I would go into a dream.”
The references to having a smoke, dreams and ‘turn-ons’ meant that the track was banned from the airwaves in many countries. There were even some who were convinced that the holes in Blackburn, like the holes Paul had been keen to fix, were those of a heroin user.
In 1968 Paul admitted that ‘A Day In The Life’ was what he called ‘a turn-on song’. “This was the only one on the album written as a deliberate provocation,” he said. “But what we want to do is to turn you on to the truth rather than on to pot.” George Martin comments: “The ‘woke up, got out of bed’ bit was definitely a reference to marijuana but ‘Fixing A Hole’ wasn’t about heroin and ‘Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds’ wasn’t about LSD. At the time I had a strong suspicion that ‘went upstairs and had a smoke’ was a drug reference. They always used to disappear and have a little puff but they never did it in front of me. They always used to go down to the canteen and Mal Evans used to guard it.”
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“Desafinado” by Antonio Carlos Jobim, Newton Mendonça and Jon Hendricks
There has been a healthy dose of Latin songs that have made their way into the Great American Songbook—after all—Central America and South America are every bit as “American” as the United States. Among the composers of Latin jazz standards, the inimitable guitarist/composer, Antonio Carlos Jobim (1927-1994), stands tall. Jobim composed a great many enduring songs that jazz musicians have latched onto as essential Great American Songbook gems.
Newton Mendonça wrote the original Portuguese lyrics, after which the vocalese master, Jon Hendricks (b. 1921), created an English version. The resulting work is an interesting study in both lyrics and music. The Portuguese word “desafinado” essentially means “out of tune,” which justifies Jobim’s pointed use of dissonant intervals and non-diatonic melody notes. The pathway followed by the song explores various tonal centers in search of consonance, and the lyricists beautifully captured this essence.
Form and Melody
The form of this song departs from the common AABA and ABAB, thirty-two bar forms. The eight-bar A theme (measures 1-8) is comprised of two four-bar phrases, each mostly stepwise (walking up a perfect fourth) and shaped like a double arc, ending on the flat 5 of the V/V chord in m. 3 and on the flat 5 of the iii7(b5) chord in m. 7).
A is followed by an eight-bar B theme (mm. 9-16). B can also be divided into two phrases, and begins with a quick interval of an ascending seventh starting on an offbeat, which leads directly into a descending line, first stepwise, then involving leaps that highlight dissonances.
The A theme reappears in the next eight bars (mm. 17-24) before a C theme (reminiscent of B for only the first bar) serves as a transition into a new key a major third higher than tonic (mm. 25-32). A new section begins (D at mm. 33-40) and is melodically characterized by a major second stepping back and forth between scale degrees 5 and 6 in the new key, after which a transposition of the new melody motif (the E theme, up a minor third from the D theme) carries the song to the original dominant (V) to bring the listener back to the A theme in the tonic key.
This A statement ends a bit differently, creating an arc of energy at the apex of the second phrase, so it is called A’ (A-prime).
This modification of A is often a very useful songwriting strategy, as it creates interest and variation, bringing the song around to a fresh ending having a touch of new material. This new material begins with a four-bar phrase of descending stepwise melodic sequences (“We’re bound to get in tune again before too long,”) which connect to another eight-bar melodic group characterized by tonal repetition of the tonic pitch.
Jobim utilized a type of cadential extension here, creating a twelve-bar final theme instead of the expected eight. This final twelve bar segment resembles a coda or “tail” built right into the piece (F theme). When one steps back, one can see that Jobim utilized a loose sonata form here—ABAC represents the Exposition, D and E are the Development (a transitional section), A’ clearly represents the Recapitulation (return of A) and the F theme functions as an obvious coda.
Jobim’s use of motives plays a strong role in this melody’s originality, as does his playing with dissonant tones outside the diatonic scale. Predominant motives include the opening four steps up the diatonic major scale in the very first bar. This melodic and rhythmic motive appears in both forward and retrograde varieties (retrograde in m. 9, with variation at m. 13, then retrograde in sequence with a downward step progression at mm. 57-58). A second motive Jobim employs is the rocking whole step, first cleverly introduced at m. 29 (“like the bossa nova, love should swing.”).
He features this motive in the last four bars of the first major section of the piece, anticipating and announcing the next large section’s primary motive. At mm. 33-48 (the D theme), Jobim combines both motives in an alternating, smoothly flowing pattern, showing his mastery of creating motivic and melodic unity. Hendricks mirrors the more consonant music in this section by using text reminiscent of bygone happy times (“We used to harmonize two souls in perfect time…”).
The motive in the final twelve bars, a repeated tonic pitch, successfully makes the composer’s point of finally attaining concordance (there is nothing more concordant than a unison pitch) following a melody peppered with dissonant leaps and unexpected tonal shifts. Hendricks’ response here reinforces the music with an idealized text depicting two hearts and souls at last abiding in perfect harmony.
As acknowledged above, the lyrics for “Desafinado” were originally in Portuguese, and these are still performed today. Whenever a writer is faced with the challenge of re-setting a text from another language to existing music, there are several important considerations.
First, one must comprehend the difference between a translation and a transliteration. A translation represents the precise meaning of a text in another language. A transliteration merely fits the music into a new language’s pattern of declamation—it may have little or nothing to do with the original text’s meaning.
A competent lyricist will have a full understanding of the original text’s translation before attempting a new transliteration into another language. Some transliterations respect the original text as well as convey the general meaning and theme of the composer’s and lyricist’s intent. Other transliterations seem to start with a clean slate and find alternate ways to convey a composer’s intent (that seems to be the case here with Hendricks’ lyrics).
Either way, tastefully setting the text in a manner that suits the singer and preserves the integrity of both music and lyrics becomes the goal. When studying a word-by-word translation of this original text, one quickly discovers that the Portuguese song’s theme is about a singer feeling hurt by her lover’s disapproval of her out-of-tune singing. She chastises him for not remembering that even those who sing out of tune have fragile hearts.
By contrast, Hendricks’ lyric approach changes the focus of the song to describe two people whose dissonant hearts must be made consonant for love to thrive. Regardless of the version preferred, a comparison of these two very different perspectives lends itself to a deeper understanding of the music and how it can be interpreted. Two lyricists may set the same piece of music using completely different paradigms. In this case, Mendonça spoke from a literal point of view regarding the dissonance expressed in the song title, while Hendricks spoke from a figurative, metaphorical standpoint.
Jobim’s initial harmonic move (between the first and second chords of the piece) immediately sets the tone for a theme of dissonance throughout the song. He moves from a casual I chord to a V7(b5)/V—in no way providing smooth harmony or easy voice leading. He then mollifies the harshness by turning that chord into a minor chord over the same root and moves through a ii7-V7 progression which leads to a surprising vi7(b5), reflecting the previous b5 chord. The melody notes here are those dissonant b5s and b9s.
His B theme starts with ii7 and proceeds through a circle of dominant chords, but does not find its way back to the V of tonic before he interjects a dissonant major 7th built on the b9 immediately preceding a turnback progression (V7-I) to return to A. Jobim’s unexpected harmonic shifts effectively create the dissonant tension illuminated in the text. The C theme combines the two motives previously described and shifts the harmony from I to III. Not coincidentally, Hendricks’ lyrics beautifully reflect the harmony at this juncture: “Seems to me you’ve changed the tune we used to sing…”
At the D theme, Jobim utilizes a chromatically ascending bass from I-dim7/ii-ii-V7 followed by a typical I-vi-ii-V7 before modulating up a third and repeating the chromatic ascent (in the new key). He then transforms the V7 chord of that new key into a minor ii of the original tonic, moves to a non-diatonic, flat vii chord (Hendricks again catches this, and writes “slightly out of tune” in the measure containing this “wrong” chord) before landing on a V7/V-V7-I progression that returns to the A theme. Harmonically the song assumes a ii-V7-iii(b5)-VI7-ii shape at the point where A digresses to become A’ (m. 55, “sing a song of loving”).
In the four-bar transition (mm. 57-60) that opens the F theme, the harmony passes through an unusual juxtaposition of ii-iv6-I (“we’re bound to get in tune again before too long…”) before extending a cadence via a roundabout V7/V-bVII7-V7/V which finally makes its way to ii-V7-I in the tonic key.
“Desafinado” takes the idea of wordpainting (reflecting textual meanings in music) to a new level in so many ways, and yet, one could argue the reverse if the music were composed first (that the lyricists served as obsequious handmaidens of the music). Either way, both Jobim and Hendricks showed their cleverness by creating a piece of music in which the wedding of music and text are readily apparent in the way the text parallels non-diatonic, melodic pitch choices, dissonant harmonic tension, and the third-related, leaping tonics that wander throughout the A-B-A-C-D-E-A’-F (sonata) form this unusual piece exhibits.
The enduring renown of this piece is remarkable, given its fascinating complexity, and yet, Jobim was careful to balance complexity whenever it occurred with something relatively simple, thereby maintaining the song’s accessibility and relevance for generations of listeners. For example, when the melody was challenging and non-diatonic, he tended toward complementing it with more traditional, gentle-on-the-ear harmonies, never seeking to completely confound those performing or listening to the song.
Similarly, when the harmony explored new territory, the melody tended to be motivic and, therefore, familiar. Such exquisite balance between complexity and simplicity, light and dark, dynamic and static, and dissonance and consonance, appears to be ever present in so many wonderful works that make up the Great American Songbook.
The Godfather: Here are some facts about the award-winning movies centered around the fictional Corleone crime family.
It’s one of the most popular and critically acclaimed movie series in Hollywood history. But when The Godfather was in production, it was anything but a surefire hit. From casting squabbles to the producers’ real-life battle with organized crime bosses, here’s the story you may not know about The Godfather films.
Both Mario Puzo and Francis Ford Coppola came to the project due to money woes
Mario Puzo was a New York-born writer who had published several earlier books to little acclaim, even fewer sales, and had even worked under a pen name as a writer for pulp magazines. By the mid-1960s, he had a large family — and growing gambling debts. Eager to find a subject that he thought would appeal to the masses, he turned his attention to organized crime, which had become a hot-button topic thanks to a series of televised hearings in the U.S. Congress in the 1950s and ’60s. In 1968, he sold the rights for his yet-to-be-published book to Paramount Pictures, who were shocked when it became a runaway bestseller in 1969.
That same year, filmmaker Francis Ford Coppola had co-founded his own independent movie studio, American Zoetrope, with friend and fellow director George Lucas. The new company was struggling, and although Coppola initially turned down Paramount when they approached him to direct the film (he couldn’t even finish the book the first time he tried to read it), Lucas and others convinced him to take the job to secure much-needed funds for Zoetrope.
One of Coppola’s first battles with Paramount was over the film’s setting and budget. Eager to save money, the studio had pushed Puzo to write a draft that updated the action to the 1970s. When Coppola came onboard, he insisted that it remain true to the 1940s world Puzo had originally envisioned. He also refused their suggestion that they save money by shooting outside of New York City (Kansas City was one suggestion), but Coppola once again held firm.
Coppola later said that he was nearly fired several times during the shoot and was convinced that he was saved by winning an Oscar during filming (a Best Original Screenplay Award for Patton). Exasperated with several crew members who he believed were unsupportive of his vision for the film, Coppola fired them, including an editor who was angling for Coppola’s job. One person that Coppola protected? Cinematographer Gordon Willis, whose iconic use of shadows and darkness infuriated Paramount bosses but gave the film its iconic look and feel.
The studio balked at Coppola’s casting choice for Vito Corleone
Although Marlon Brando is considered one of the most respected actors of the 20th century, by the early 1970s he’d earned a reputation for being difficult and unprofessional. So, it was perhaps no surprise that nobody at Paramount wanted to cast him as Vito Corleone. The studio wanted Coppola to consider actors Danny Thomas, Burt Lancaster, Ernest Borgnine, Anthony Quinn or others, but Coppola insisted that Brando was his only choice.
The studio made several stipulations that they believed Brando would refuse, including a low salary, putting up a bond to cover any financial costs due to delays and submitting to a screen test. Coppola tricked the mercurial actor by telling him he wanted to privately film him to work out some ideas for the film. Brando’s stunning on-camera physical transformation into Corleone (including shoving tissues in his lower cheeks) finally convinced Paramount to cast him.
Paramount was also unenthusiastic about casting Al Pacino as Michael Corleone
James Caan, who would eventually play hotheaded older son Sonny, was initially cast as Michael, with another actor cast as Sonny. Producers eventually convinced Coppola to fire the other actor and give Caan the role, with Pacino as youngest son Michael.
Thanks to the real-life mob, the word ‘mafia’ never appears in the first film
In 1970, a group (led in part by crime family boss Joe Colombo Sr.) formed the Italian American Civil Rights League, aimed at eliminating offensive stereotypes and depictions in business and media. The group quickly set their sights on The Godfather, protesting the film from the moment it was announced. But Colombo allegedly took things even further. The shoot was threatened with costly labor shutdowns aimed at derailing production, engineered by the organized crime groups that controlled the unions. Producer Albert Ruddy’s car windows were blown out, and Paramount chief exec Robert Evans claimed to have received phone calls threatening him and his family, including then-wife Ali MacGraw.
In February 1971, just before filming began, Ruddy sat down with Anthony Colombo, one of Joe Sr’s sons, and hashed out a compromise. The League agreed to give its approval if the producers allowed the League to review the script (and remove the words “mafia” or “La Cosa Nostra”) and donate the proceeds of the New York premiere to the League. Ruddy’s public deal infuriated Paramount, who threatened to fire him, but it ended the boycotts and threats.
00:00 blues 03:12 ending a tune 05:38 12 bar blues 06:18 V ↔ I 06:53 half step above I (♯I ~ V) 07:58 half step above IV (♯IV ~ I) 08:42 half step below I (bI7 → I) more specifically (bI13b9 → I) 10:00 “On the guitar, a lot of playing is with forms and continuity” 10:37 half step above IV (♯IV → IV), here using ♯IV13 11:19 half step above IV (♯IV → IV), but changing the root to the b5 (which is the I)
11:56 IV → IV♯dim (IV♯dim ~ (bI13b9) 13:22 turnaround: C9 B7 E7 Am11 D7 G7 (keeping a common tone—the note D) 14:28 12 bar blues (basic) 15:02 12 bar blues (with more subs) 15:58 12 bar blues (with other voicings) — many good voicings 17:32 turnaround 18:06 the importance of continuity in chordal improvisation 21:20 12 bar blues (with voice leading and pedal tones)
22:52 “I’m using a lot of the same grips, they’re bar forms. They’re chords that all guitar players learn and know” 23:53 12 bar blues 24:20 dom7 ↔ m7 25:10 +examples 25:33 the importance of common tones (in changes) 26:47 “Always count 1, 2, 3, 4. I don’t know why” 😂 26:53 12 bar blues 27:07 moving chords down chromatically (C13 B13 Bb13/E A13)
27:46 “you can always move chords either chromatically or through a cycle” 28:35 variation (moving down chromatically) 29:30 12 bar blues (with many 251s), 50s/60s style 30:27 same above 30:57 blues 50s style 31:55 alternative version 33:14 again 33:52 little chordal movement
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Reviving old repertoire
Revisiting music one learnt last month, last year, or 20 years ago can be a wonderful experience, like reacquainting oneself with an old friend, while also making a new friendship. Picking up a piece again after a long absence can be extremely satisfying and often offers new insights into that work, revealing layers and subtleties one may not have spotted the first time round.
One also recalls all the reasons what one liked about the repertoire and why one selected it in the first place. It can be surprisingly easy to bring previously-learnt work back into one’s fingers, and this ease is a good sign – that one learnt the work carefully in the first place.
Concert pianists will have many pieces “in the fingers” which can be downloaded and made ready for performance in a matter of days. This may include 20 or more piano concertos (we recently interviewed a concert pianist who told me he had “around 50” piano concertos in the fingers), most of Beethoven’s 32 Sonatas, many of Bach’s 48 Preludes and Fugues, plus other pieces which are ‘standard’ repertoire: Mozart and Schubert sonatas, works by Chopin, Schumann, Brahms and Liszt, much of Debussy and Ravel etc., and popular ‘standards’ from the 20th-century repertoire.
Careful learning and preparation mean that repertoire can be learnt, revived and kept going simultaneously, and deep, thoughtful practise is essential for ensuring repertoire remains in the fingers (and brain) even if one is not practising it every day.
A work can never truly be considered “finished”. Often a satisfying performance of a work to which one has devoted many hours of study can be said to put the work ‘to bed’, but only for the time being. The same is true of a recording: rather than a be-all-and-end-all record, maybe a recording is better regarded as a snapshot of one’s musical and creative life at that moment.
This process of “continuing” means that one performance informs another, and all one’s practising and playing is connected in one continuous stream of music-making.
Some thoughts on reviving repertoire:
• Recall what you liked about the pieces in the first place. Rekindle your affection for the pieces when you revisit them
• Don’t play through pieces at full tilt. Take time to play slowly and carefully, as if learning the piece for the first time.
• Trust your practise skills. Be alert to issues as they arise and don’t allow frustration to creep in.
• Look for new interpretative and expressive possibilities within the music. Try new interpretative angles and meaningful gestures.
• Don’t hurry to bring the piece up to full tempo too quickly. Take time to practise slowly and carefully.
• Schedule performance opportunities: there’s nothing better to motivate practise than a concert date or two in the diary.
Most Famous Classical Piano Pieces
01. Beethoven – Piano Sonata No. 14 “Moonlight Sonata”: I. Adagio sostenuto 00:00 02. Chopin – Nocturnes, Op. 9: No. 2 in E-flat major 04:53 03. Debussy – Suite Bergamasque, L. 75: III. Clair de Lune 09:11 04. Satie – Trois Gymnopédies: No. 1, Lent et doloreux 13:55 05. Grieg – Lyric Pieces, Book I, Op. 12: No. 1, Arietta 16:43 06. Chopin – Nocturne in C sharp minor, Op. Posth. 18:13 07. Schumann – Kinderszenen, Op. 15: No. 7, Träumerei (Live Recording) 22:01 08. Bach/Gonoud – Ave Maria 25:01 09. Beethoven – Bagatelle No. 25 in A Minor, WoO 59 “Für Elise” 26:44 10. Mozart – Piano Sonata No. 11 in A Major, K 331: III. Alla Turca 30:30
11. Chopin – Preludes, Op. 28: No. 15 “Raindrop” 34:11 12. Debussy – 2 Arabesques: No. 1, Andantino con moto 39:30 13. Liszt – Consolations, S. 172: No. 3, Lento placido 43:38 14. Liszt/Schumann – Liebeslied “Widmung”, S. 566 47:39 15. Mozart/Liszt – Ave Verum Corpus, S. 44 51:14 16. Debussy – Rêverie, L. 68 53:34 17. Rachmaninoff – Rhapsody on a Theme by Paganini: Var. XVIII 57:47 18. Tchaikovsky – The Seasons, Op. 37a: No. 6, June. Barcarolle (Live Recording) 01:00:45 19. Schubert – Four Impromptus, Op. 90, D. 899: No. 3 in G-Flat Major (Live Recording) 01:06:01
20. Mendelssohn – Songs Without Words, Book 1, Op. 19b: No. 1, Andante con moto 01:12:10 21. Schubert/Liszt – Ständchen (Serenade), S. 560, No. 7 01:16:01 22. Tchaikovsky – 18 Morceaux, Op. 72: No. 5 in D Major, Andante mosso (Méditation) 01:21:44 23. Scriabin – Étude in C-Sharp Minor, Op. 2 No. 1 (Live Recording) 01:27:24 24. Rachmaninoff – Six Moments Musicaux, Op. 16: No. 3 in B Minor, Andante cantabile 01:30:34 25. Chopin – Fantaisie-Impromptu in C-Sharp Minor, Op. 66 01:35:55 26. Beethoven – 2 Rondos, Op. 51: No. 1 in C Major, Moderato e grazioso 01:40:03 27. Liszt – Liebesträume, S. 541: No. 3 in A-Flat Major 01:46:28 28. Debussy – Préludes, Premier livre, L. 117: No. 8, La fille aux cheveux de lin 01:52:05 29. Ravel – Pavane pour une infante défunte in G Major, M. 19 01:54:58
30. Chopin – Piano Sonata No. 2 in B-Flat Minor, Op. 35: III. Marche funèbre. Lento 02:01:59 Tracks: 1-3, 6, 11-14, 16, 17, performed by Luke Faulkner Tracks: 5, 7, 18-24, performed by Vadim Chaimovich Tracks: 4, 8, 15, 25, 26, performed by Carlo Balzaretti Tracks: 9, 10, 27-30, performed by Giovanni Umberto Battel
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THE FENDER-RHODES PIANO
An non-acoustic instrumental approach was the development in 1965 of the Fender Rhodes Piano. Bill Evans released in 1970 his first ‘electric’ album From Left To Right, well before Chick Corea, Herbie Hancock and Joe Zawinul worked on it. Bill Evans playing the electric piano is rather controversial. Some purists disapprove Bill Evans playing the Fender Rhodes piano, whereas he should deny his recognisable touch on the acoustic grand piano with his characteristic chord voicings. On the album he swaps effortlessly back and forth from the acoustic piano to the Fender Rhodes electric piano.
The second release was The Bill Evans Album in 1971, where he plays all his own compositions on acoustic and electric piano with Eddie Gomez on bass and Marty Morrell on drums. He released the albums Living Time (1972) with George Russell and Symbiosis (1974) with Claus Ogerman where he plays long passages on electric piano. New Conversations (1978) is the third and final recording of his overdubbed solo albums with monologues, dialogues and trialogues alternating between the acoustic and electric piano. Finally on some titles of the duo album Intuition (1978) with Eddie Gomez he plays the Fender Rhodes.
Bill Evans: “I don’t think too much about the electronic thing, except that it’s kind of fun to have it as an alternate voice. Like, I’ve used the Fender- Rhodes piano on a couple of records. I don’t really look on it as a piano— merely an alternate keyboard instrument, that offers a certain kind of sound that’s appropriate sometimes. I find that it’s kind of a refreshing auxiliary to the piano— but I don’t need it, you know. I guess it’s for other people to judge how effective it’s been on my records; I enjoyed it, anyway. I don’t enjoy spending a lot of time with the electric piano. I mean, if I play it for a period of time, then I quickly tire of it, and I want to get back to the acoustic piano.”
(From an interview with Bill Evans in 1972 by Les Tomkins (1930). He is an English journalist, singer and jazz aficionado. He was a freelance contributor of magazines like Melody Maker, Jazz News and Crescendo, interviewing jazz musicians, especially famous Americans visiting England).
From an interview in Jazzwise (Sept 2012) by Brian Priestly from 1972, when Bill Evans was playing one of his Ronnie Scott’s residencies. Brian about the Bill Evans Album (Columbia): “ I notice, playing the new album through very quickly, there’s quite a bit of electric piano.” Bill Evans: “Yeah. It’s kinda fun. I would like to straighten out the fact, because the public certainly loves the sound of the electric piano.
And I think with a lot of the electronic music coming into the scene, and electronic instruments versus acoustic instruments, there’s a lot of confusion about the inherent quality of the electronic instrument as opposed to the acoustic instrument. That is, the Fender bass as opposed to the acoustic bass, and the electric piano as opposed to the acoustic piano, and so forth. I might begin by saying I have only positive feelings about the electric piano, or I wouldn’t have used it. But it, to me, is not even really a piano.
You know, it’ s constructed differently, and it has a really different sound. It functions something like a piano, and it’s fun to use in certain places, and very appropriate and has certain qualities that the piano doesn’t have. But to speak of it in the same breath as having the scope or the depth, as a medium of musical expression, as the acoustic piano would be to make a real big mistake. I think possibly electronic instruments will eventually become very musical and maybe have a greater scope.
But so many people ask me – it seems like, every interview, someone asks me about electric piano, because I’ve used it a few times now and maybe they’re curious and all. But I would like to straighten it out that, from my professional viewpoint, it’s still a very limited instrument. And I think it’s tragic that, because of the fact that acoustic pianos are in miserable condition in many clubs, pianists are forced to use electric pianos. And that the sound is novel and consequently. in the pop field and so on, the electronic instruments are very popular, and it tends to confuse the issue. So that’s all I have to say about that.”
(Brian Priestley, Jazzwise)
“I am interested in other keyboard sounds, but basically I’m an acoustic pianist. I’ve been happy to use the Fender-Rhodes to add a little colour to certain performances but only as an adjunct, he later explained. It’s hard for people to recognize individuals on an electric piano. Because it is an electric instrument, it’s hard for a personality to come through”.
A small part of an interview with Bill Evans by Chris Albertson on the stage of The Jazz Set, 1971.
BILL EVANS PREFERENCE FOR A PARTICULAR BRAND ACOUSTICAL PIANO
Jazz pianist don’t have many choices when it comes to the piano that’s at a particular gig. There’s a stereotype that says Yamaha is the jazz piano, but there are plenty of Steinway and Baldwin jazz pianists, with some Bsendorfer mixed-in. Bill Evans to Franois Postif (Jazz Hot): “The trumpet player plays on his trumpet, the bassist on his bass, they reach such a knowledge of their own instrument as they are married with them. The pianist however, he discovers every night a new fiance with whom he must come to an agreement”
“Many clubs pay more attention to their trash cans than the house piano, but I’ve been lucky in this respect and most of the instruments I use are acceptable, though not always in tune.”
Most pianists favor certain grand pianos. Glenn Gould preferred the Steinway and Sviatoslav Richter the Yahama. Oscar Peterson changed from Baldwin to Bsendorfer. Keith Jarrett played the Steinway, Erroll Garner and Dave Brubeck a Baldwin and Bill Evans would became from 1978 a Baldwin artist. The Marian McPartland’s Piano Jazz broadcastings for the NPR were recorded in the Baldwin Piano Showroom in New York, where Bill Evans played also a Baldwin grand.
After he was discharged from the army he moved in 1955 to New York City where he rented an appartment and purchased a Knabe grandpiano. The Knabe piano is known in some circles as “a singer’s piano” because of its somewhat more mellow tone than many of its contemporaries. After he left Nenette in 1978 he moved to a Fort Lee apartment where he installed his Chickering and Sons baby grand piano in the living room, which his girlfriend Elaine gave to him. A Baldwin on loan from the company stayed at Nenette’s home. Chickering and Sons was an American piano manufacturer located in Boston, known for producing award winning instruments of superb quality and design.
The company was founded in 1823 by Jonas Chickering and continued to make pianos until 1983. Chickering introduce the one piece, cast iron plate to support the greater string tension of larger grand pianos. It was the largest piano manufacturer in the United States in the middle of the nineteenth century but was surpassed in the 1860s by Steinway. The Chickering name continues to be applied to new pianos today as a brand name of the Baldwin piano. Regarding the Bill Evans comments, his own piano at home was indeed this Chickering grand. He played a bunch of pianos, he recorded Conversations with Myself on a Steinway, another “overdubbing” CD New Conversations was recorded on a Baldwin grand and You Must Believe In Spring on a Yamaha grand.
It was at a time when Yamaha appeared with a slightly longer key length, which facilitated leverage and improved action when playing higher, deeper in towards the fallboard, on the keyboard. Bill Evans experienced moderate swelling in his hands and fingers due to his chronic hepatitis, and the Yamaha with the slightly longer key was less painful to play for him (Look at the cover of the album Symbiosis).
Bill Evans was a left-handed pianist, who had large hands, able to cover easily four-note chords. When playing the piano, his fingers seem hardly move: an impressive economy of performing to serve a perfect legato. At one point in the late 1960s, he was forced to perform at the Village Vanguard playing piano with his left hand alone because he had numbed his right arm by shooting heroin and hit a nerve and temporarily lost the use of his right hand. People has seen performances at which he played all his solo with his left hand. Without a glance at the keyboard you could not hear that he was playing only left-handed.
He reflects also on how his finger position had changed over the years: “When I was younger, I played with flat fingers. when we possess a lot of vitality and we have a lot of energy, this method of playing permits you to use your energy effectively. As I matured technically I noticed that my fingers curled when I played. Is is a more natural position which was used by Mozart, Haydn and especially Bach.” (Interview with Franois Postif, Les Grandes Interviews de Jazz Hot, 1989)
Do you prefer any particular brand of piano?
“I love the old Steinway action. The Steinway action for the last ten or twelve years however has been a great problem. In fact, I tend to avoid those pianos – the newer Steinways. I prefer a Yamaha to a new Steinway. I don’t like an extremely heavy action and I don’t like a slow action. However, you find that if you play any kind of action for a while, unless it’s really really sluggish or something, you just begin to compensate and get used to it and learn how to handle it. But ideally, I like the old Steinways.”
Do you request particular pianos when you play, or do you have to deal with whatever you find?
“We always try to set things up in front. The instructions are that unless it is a proven Steinway, preferably an older proven Steinway, then I would rather have a Yamaha. Of course, in some places, like in Europe, you get German Steinways, which are marvelous. And once I had a wonderful Bsendorfer in London for a few weeks – one of those really large ones with the nine extra keys at the bottom. The action is really different on the Bsendorfer, but you get used to it soon. It’s a more direct kind of feeling – an even feeling; whereas in the old Steinway there is a little break in the action.
If you push the keys half way down on the Steinway, there’s just a little catch in it, and then it goes the rest of the way down. Anyway, that’s where I stand on preferences now. Of course you sometimes hit other make pianos that are good, but they are few and far between. You can get a good Mason & Hamlin; or possibly a good Baldwin, but I don’t think they work as well – especially the big ones.”
(Interview by Michael Spector, Contemporary Keyboard, March 1977).
A small part of an interview with Bill Evans by Mike Hennessey behind the stage at Ronnie Scotts, London. Bill was having something to eat between the sets when this conversation took place. Bill was booked a week before Oscar Peterson at the Scott Club. They managed to get Bsendorfer to bring in Oscars piano a week earlier so that Bill could have the use of it. He was really very delighted withe such fine instrument (Courtesy of Mike Hennessey’s brother Brian).
From an interview with Ronnie Scott (BBC) about another Bill Evans performance in his club.
How did you enjoy your recent engagement at Ronnie Scott’s? Very much. Especially after the Bsendorfer arrived; the first couple of nights, the piano wasn’t really awful, but it wasn’t tops. But the Bsendorfer is the best of the best, a sure pleasure to work on. In fact, because the piano offered so much more, I found myself, as I was playing, suddenly wanting to try new things— and things I’d fallen into doing the same way, I wanted to do differently. It just served to remind me how much the instrument has to do with the development of how you play music, and how you express it, you know.
The limitations of many an instrument cause me not to get into as much as I could get into. On so many instruments the action is so badly regulated that you’re constantly just being very touchy about trying to make everything sound, if you strike it soft. Not to mention tone— trying to get all the individual tones correct. On a really good piano, you can go from a whisper to a very full sound, and count on whatever you’re doing to speak through the instrument. The Bsendorfer is great— I’d love to have one in my home. (Les Tomkins, 1976)
Francis Paudras from France was a close friend of Bill Evans when visiting Europe. Paudras wrote “The Dance of the Infidels”, a moving jazz memoir about Bud Powell. Bill Evans wrote the foreword and coda of the book. The book served as the basis for Bertrand Tavernier’s film Round Midnight (1986). The second to last concert of the Bill Evans Trio in France was in 1979 in Paris at the Espace Cardin, resulting in two albums: “Bill Evans – Paris Concert, Edition One and Two”, released by Elektra Musician, remastered by Blue Note in 2001. Owner of the Espace was the French fashion designer Pierre Cardin, who opened it in 1970.
The last letter that Francis Paudras received from Bill was from February 16, 1980. It was the request of Bill to send an accompanying letter to the reputable Maison Hanlet (since 1866), the supplier of the Steinway piano. “Dear Steinway friends, I don’t even know your names, the piano has very inspired me, thanks to you. I must confess that I’ve rarely played such a beautiful instrument!” Alexandre Hanlet was so surprised, he had never had such a warm letter, nor from Rubinstein, Richter or Michelangeli.
THE STEINWAY CD 318 OF GLENN GOULD
Bill Evans was Gould’s favourite jazz pianist. His record collection contained seven Evans albums as Conversations with Myself, Symbiosis and Further Conversations with Myself. Glenn Gould’s obsessive quest for the perfect piano was a particular instrument, a Steinway concert grand, known as unit number CD 318 (C to signify its special status as having been put aside for the use of Steinway concert artists, and D, denoting it as the largest that Steinway built). Glenn Gould’s beloved Steinway piano that he used exclusively after 1960 is the instrument that Bill Evans used when he recorded the album Conversations with Myself in 1963 in Webster Hall.
“By the way, Bill is playing Glenn Gould’s piano on that album, the one Glenn kept in New York. When I sent Glenn the test pressing and told him that it was done on his piano, he said “I’ll kill him!” (Gene Lees)
Soon after Bill’s recording Gould finished his recording of Bach’s “D major Partita” on this beloved piano nearby in the the old CBS East 30th Street Studio in Manhattan, a deconsecrated Greek Orthodox church with peerless acoustics. This studio was the venue for many classic sessions including Glenn Gould’s two recordings of the Goldberg Variations. One of the first recordings happened in 1947 when Robert Casadesus recorded a Mozart piano concerto. Miles Davis with Bill Evans on piano recorded here in 1959 the famous Kind of Blue album.
The grand piano CD 318 came to Ottawa’s Library and Archives Canada auditorium in 1983 and was used for the concerts of the Ottawa International Jazz Festival. In the years as the Jazz Festival has staged concerts here, several jazz pianists have played on this CD 318, like Fred Hersch and Brad Mehldau. At a jazz festival concert in 2004, pianist Bill Mays, joked: “I sat down to play a bebop piece on the CD 318 and Bach’s F-major Invention came out.” Nowadays it resides in the Canadian Museum of Civilization and no pianist is playing this famous grand piano.
After hearing a concert of Bill Evans on a Yamaha piano Glenn Gould, the most loyal of Steinway advocates, switched to a Yamaha piano, because the clarity and touch of Evans’ piano style resembled his own. Bill Evans was also impressed by a number of late Yamaha’s and chose on request of Max Gordon a new Yamaha house piano for the Village Vanguard.
THE SPACE-AGE PIANO
Bill Evans unveils his “Space-Age Piano” at the Cafe Au Go Go, 152 Bleeckerstreet in Greenwich Village. Bill Evans came by his new piano, one of only three in existence, during a tour of Sweden. While playing at the Golden Circle Club in Stockholm, he gave the first public performance on a specially designed “space-age” ten-foot concert grand made by George Bolin. Bolin is a Swedish cabinetmaker turned acoustician who has also built guitars for Andres Segovia.
The Bolin piano, a gift from its maker, is strong on innovations. It is made of welded steel, rather than the usual cast iron. The metal frame is mounted so that it can be tilted to provide the best acoustic environment. The sound-board, built after eight years of research, enhances dynamics and offering the player firmer control and a greater balance between keyboard registers. The new piano represents Mr. Bolin’s ultimate desire, to produce an instrument that gives the pianist the sensation of playing “directly on the the strings” as a guitarist would. Bill Evans says: “It is one of the most unbelievable instruments I’ve ever played. I fell in love with it the first time I touched it.” (Robert Shelton in The New York Times, October 12, 1964).
Pianist Roger Evans states on his site the following anecdote about New York born pianist Barbara Holmquest of Swedish descent (1921-2010): “Barbara Holmquests lifelong fascination with pianos led to her performance at New Yorks Town Hall on a new type of instrument which could be ‘tuned’ to a halls acoustics. The piano, created by Georg Bolin of Stockholm, had a striking Scandinavian modern design and was featured at the New York 1964 Worlds Fair. While the piano was in New York, jazz great Bill Evans was performing on it at the Village Vanguard until Holmquests October recital. When the day came to move it to Town Hall, Evans refused to let it go, so Holmquest and her agent had to get a Court Order to get possession of the now cigarette-burned instrument for her evening performance.”
Dan Morgenstern: In this quest, Evans will be aided by what he describes as “one of the most thrilling things that have happened in my career”—a very special gift. At the Golden Circle in Stockholm, Evans performed on a piano built on new structural principles: a 10-foot concert grand designed and built by George Bolin, master cabinetmaker to the Royal Swedish Court. “It was the first public performance on the new piano,” Evans said. “One night, Mr. Bolin came in to hear me and expressed respect for my work, and before I knew it, my wife had negotiated with his representatives for me to be able to use the only such piano in the United States-—it was on exhibit at the Swedish Embassy—for my engagement at the Au Go Go. It is one of only three, I think, in existence in the world right now. And after the engagement, the piano will be mine as a gift. Mr. Bolin dedicated it to me.
“It came at a perfect time, because I didn’t have a piano of my own just then. It is a marvelous instrument— probably the first basic advance in piano building in some 150 years. The metal frame and strings are suspended and attached to the wooden frame by inverted screws, and the sound gets a kind of airy, free feeling that I haven’t found in any other piano. Before this, Bolin was famous as a guitar maker—he made instruments for Segovia and people like that. To build an instrument like this, a man has to be as much of a genius as a great musician.” Such gifts are not given lightly and are an indication of the stature of the recipient as well as of the giver. Whatever music Bill Evans will make on his new piano, one can be certain that it will do honor to the highest standards of the art and craft of music.
Dan Morgenstern, Down Beat, October 1964.
The Bulgarian born pianist Alexis Weissenberg (1929–2012) recorded Ravel’s Valses nobles et sentimental and Stravinsky’s Petrushka on the Bolin grand piano. The piano was also used by the Swedish band ABBA to record a number of their hit singles including Mamma Mia, Dancing Queen and Waterloo.
BILL EVANS PIANO TUNER: EUGENE “GENE” MANFRINI
Eugene “Gene” Manfrini (1928-2008), musician and piano expert was Bill Evans piano tuner. Manfrini was blinded in a medical accident when he was 3. At 5, he was enrolled at the Institute for the Education of the Blind, and in his 14 years there learned the piano, violin and organ and became an honor student. Manfrini entered the College, undertaking “general studies,” which the College required in order to prove himself. In February 1949, he was officially admitted. After graduating, Manfrini went back to his high school, took up piano tuning and built his tuning and rebuilding business, later counting clients such as Irving Berlin, Arthur Rubenstein, RCA, Columbia Recording, Frank Loesser, Harold Arlen, Thelonious Monk, Dave Brubeck, Bill Evans and Julliard.
Nenette Zazzara, Bill’s wife, remembers the blind piano tuner: “He would come on the subway and Bill or I would fetch him and lead him up the staircase of our small house in Riverdale. Often he would come when Bill was on the road as Bill would call ahead and ask me to have him tune so the piano would be ready to go when he returned. I spoke to him about how well he got around and how he could blind navigate through our house to the piano studio.”
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Dans Wigmore, il y a “More” et en effet la fameuse salle de récitals située à Londres s’engage, malgré la situation sanitaire catastrophique, à proposer -très probablement- plus de concerts que partout ailleurs :
100 concerts en 100 jours et plus encore : le confinement étant prolongé au Royaume-Uni, le Wigmore Hall (prestigieuse salle de concerts londonienne) prolonge sa série -presque- quotidienne de concerts gratuits (avec retransmission en direct, puis disponible pendant 30 jours).
Dans un premier temps, le Wigmore Hall prévoyait une jauge de 56 spectateurs (soit seulement 10% de sa capacité) montant progressivement à 112, mais pouvant tout aussi bien et à tout moment retomber à 0. C’est effectivement la jauge nulle qui sera la règle jusqu’à mi-février au moins dans ce Royaume terrassé par le nouveau variant du Coronavirus.
Nous vous donnons ainsi rendez-vous pour suivre l’intégralité de cette série de concerts : vidéos déjà disponibles et rendez-vous à venir.
C’est le fameux baryton Christian Gerhaher qui ouvrit les festivités en chantant le retour à la musique grâce à un programme Schubert et Berg accompagné par le pianiste Gerold Huber. C’est d’ailleurs un autre fameux baryton qui refermait ce premier cycle de concerts (le 22 décembre 2020) : Sir Simon Keenlyside accompagné par Malcolm Martineau.
Une soirée réunit même un trio à cordes, deux pianos, l’acteur Simon Callow et la soprano Lucy Crowe, une autre le trio vocal Sarah Fox (soprano), Kitty Whately (mezzo-soprano) et Alessandro Fisher (ténor) accompagnés par Joseph Middleton au piano. Montrant un certain optimisme vis-à-vis de l’évolution sanitaire, le Wigmore Hall programme même des chorales pour la fin décembre : Tenebrae, Stile Antico et The Cardinall’s Musick.
John Coltrane composed these words in December 1964, as part of a poem he called A Love Supreme. He included the poem in the inside gatefold of an album by the same name, released the following year. That same year, a young couple in San Francisco heard Coltrane in concert, sharing a jolt of higher purpose when he seemed to fix them in his sights with the bell of his saxophone.
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That couple, Franzo and Marina King, went on to establish a church devoted to Coltrane and his spiritual message, incorporating A Love Supreme as their chief liturgical text. Their house of worship — known today as the St. John Will-I-Am Coltrane African Orthodox Church — has survived decades of change in a gentrifying city, while making a few notable revisions to its charter.
In this 20-minute documentary short, Jazz Night in America pays a visit to the Coltrane Church, thoughtfully tracing its winding history — including a tumultuous period when Alice Coltrane, John’s widow, bestowed and then revoked her support. We’ll delve into the spiritual mysteries of A Love Supreme, from “Acknowledgment” to “Psalm,” and consider what it means to be of service — to a calling, to a community, and to the music that sparked it all.
John William Coltrane (September 23, 1926 – July 17, 1967) was an American jazz saxophonist and composer. Working in the bebop and hard bop idioms early in his career, Coltrane helped pioneer the use of modes and was at the forefront of free jazz. He led at least fifty recording sessions and appeared on many albums by other musicians, including trumpeter Miles Davis and pianist Thelonious Monk.
Over the course of his career, Coltrane’s music took on an increasingly spiritual dimension. He remains one of the most influential saxophonists in music history. He received numerous posthumous awards, including a Pulitzer Prize in 2007, and was canonized by the African Orthodox Church. His second wife was pianist and harpist Alice Coltrane. The couple had three children: John Jr. (1964–1982), a bassist; Ravi (born 1965), a saxophonist; and Oran (born 1967), also a saxophonist.
Personal life and religious beliefs
Coltrane was born and raised in a Christian home. He was influenced by religion and spirituality beginning in childhood. His maternal grandfather, the Reverend William Blair, was a minister at an African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church in High Point, North Carolina, and his paternal grandfather, the Reverend William H. Coltrane, was an A.M.E. Zion minister in Hamlet, North Carolina. Critic Norman Weinstein noted the parallel between Coltrane’s music and his experience in the southern church, which included practicing music there as a youth.
In 1955, Coltrane married Naima (née Juanita Grubbs). Naima Coltrane, a Muslim convert, heavily influenced his spirituality. When they married, she had a five-year-old daughter named Antonia, later named Syeeda. Coltrane adopted Syeeda. He met Naima at the home of bassist Steve Davis in Philadelphia. The love ballad he wrote to honor his wife, “Naima”, was Coltrane’s favorite composition.
In 1956 the couple left Philadelphia with their six-year-old daughter in tow and moved to New York City. In August 1957, Coltrane, Naima and Syeeda moved into an apartment on 103rd St. and Amsterdam Ave. in New York. A few years later, John and Naima Coltrane purchased a home at 116-60 Mexico Street in St. Albans, Queens. This is the house where they would break up in 1963.
About the breakup, Naima said in J. C. Thomas’s Chasin’ the Trane, “I could feel it was going to happen sooner or later, so I wasn’t really surprised when John moved out of the house in the summer of 1963. He didn’t offer any explanation. He just told me there were things he had to do, and he left only with his clothes and his horns. He stayed in a hotel sometimes, other times with his mother in Philadelphia.
All he said was, ‘Naima, I’m going to make a change.’ Even though I could feel it coming, it hurt, and I didn’t get over it for at least another year.” But Coltrane kept a close relationship with Naima, even calling her in 1964 to tell her that 90% of his playing would be prayer. They remained in touch until his death in 1967. Naima Coltrane died of a heart attack in October 1996.
In 1957, Coltrane had a religious experience that may have helped him overcome the heroin addiction and alcoholism he had struggled with since 1948. In the liner notes of A Love Supreme, Coltrane states that in 1957 he experienced “by the grace of God, a spiritual awakening which was to lead me to a richer, fuller, more productive life. At that time, in gratitude, I humbly asked to be given the means and privilege to make others happy through music.”
The liner notes appear to mention God in a Universalist sense and do not advocate one religion over another. Further evidence of this universal view can be found in the liner notes of Meditations (1965) in which Coltrane declares, “I believe in all religions.”
In 1963, he met pianist Alice McLeod. He and Alice moved in together and had two sons before he became “officially divorced from Naima in 1966, at which time [he] and Alice were immediately married.” John Jr. was born in 1964, Ravi in 1965, and Oranyan (“Oran”) in 1967.
According to the musician Peter Lavezzoli, “Alice brought happiness and stability to John’s life, not only because they had children, but also because they shared many of the same spiritual beliefs, particularly a mutual interest in Indian philosophy. Alice also understood what it was like to be a professional musician.”
The last of these describes, in Lavezzoli’s words, a “search for universal truth, a journey that Coltrane had also undertaken. Yogananda believed that both Eastern and Western spiritual paths were efficacious, and wrote of the similarities between Krishna and Christ. This openness to different traditions resonated with Coltrane, who studied the Qur’an, the Bible, Kabbalah, and astrology with equal sincerity.” He also explored Hinduism, Jiddu Krishnamurti, African history, the philosophical teachings of Plato and Aristotle, and Zen Buddhism.
In October 1965, Coltrane recorded Om, referring to the sacred syllable in Hinduism, which symbolizes the infinite or the entire universe. Coltrane described Om as the “first syllable, the primal word, the word of power”. The 29-minute recording contains chants from the Hindu Bhagavad Gita and the Buddhist Tibetan Book of the Dead, and a recitation of a passage describing the primal verbalization “om” as a cosmic/spiritual common denominator in all things.
Coltrane’s spiritual journey was interwoven with his investigation of world music. He believed in not only a universal musical structure that transcended ethnic distinctions, but also being able to harness the mystical language of music itself. His study of Indian music led him to believe that certain sounds and scales could “produce specific emotional meanings.” According to Coltrane, the goal of a musician was to understand these forces, control them, and elicit a response from the audience.
He said, “I would like to bring to people something like happiness. I would like to discover a method so that if I want it to rain, it will start right away to rain. If one of my friends is ill, I’d like to play a certain song, and he will be cured; when he’d be broke, I’d bring out a different song, and immediately he’d receive all the money he needed.”
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In 2002 Norah Jones, age twenty-two, released her debut full-length album, Come Away with Me. A low-key, acoustic work that defies categorization but includes hints of jazz, traditional pop, country, and folk; the CD is the kind of recording that would ordinarily have sold several thousand copies, earned admiring reviews in the music press, and then faded from view. In the beginning, that is exactly the path the recording seemed to take. But to the surprise of many, including Jones herself, Come Away with Me continued to sell steadily month after month, thanks to outstanding reviews, positive word-of-mouth, and unexpected radio play.
It took nearly a year, but eventually the album reached the number-one position on Billboard ‘s album chart, selling some three million copies over twelve months. By 2004 it had sold eight million copies in the United States and an additional ten million worldwide. Far less well known than her fellow nominees, Jones earned five nominations for Grammy Awards. On February 23, 2003, the night of the 45th Annual Grammy Awards, she went home with an armload of trophies, winning for every category in which she was nominated.
Her follow-up album, Feels Like Home, followed a different, steeper path when released in 2004: Jones’s second effort shot straight to number one, selling one million copies in its first week alone.
“I’m not soft-spoken and romantic, at all. I must be, somewhere deep down, otherwise I wouldn’t like that kind of music. But I’m only like that when I’m on stage. I’m pretty much just loudmouthed, obnoxious, and silly.”
From NYC to Grapevine and back to NYC
Jones was born in New York City in 1979. Her mother, Sue Jones, is a nurse and music promoter. Her father, Ravi Shankar, is a world-famous musician hailing from India. Shankar became widely known for his association with the Beatles and other Western musicians; he taught Beatles’ guitarist George Harrison how to play the sitar, a long-necked Indian stringed instrument, of which Shankar is considered a master.
As early as age three, Jones began showing a keen interest in music, closely watching her father when he played his sitar. At age five she began singing in her church choir. She learned to play several instruments in her youth, primarily studying piano. Shankar and Sue Jones, unmarried when Norah was born, separated when she was still a young child. Sue took her daughter to live in Texas in a suburb of Dallas called Grapevine. Jones lived there for much of her childhood, having no contact with her famous father for ten years. Her musical influences during that time came from her mother’s record collection. She felt especially affected by the works of great jazz, soul, and blues singers, including Etta James, Aretha Franklin, and Billie Holiday. Jones also spent countless hours listening to recordings of musicals such as Cats and West Side Story.
Brit Crooner Jamie Cullum
Norah Jones’s surprising success with a style of music that generally doesn’t reach the top of the Billboard charts has paved the way for similar artists, performers who now see the potential for widespread success with their more traditional musical styles, and whose labels are now more willing to invest in their music. One such performer, Britain’s Jamie Cullum, has crafted a jazz-influenced style for his singing and piano playing, a blend of old-time pop standards and cabaret-style jazz with the occasional rock tune thrown in for good measure.
With Twentysomething, Cullum has taken his native country by storm, selling more records than any other jazz artist in United Kingdom history, and outselling a number of major pop acts as well. He made a splash in the United States when his album was released there in 2004, with many critics comparing his swinging style to that of Norah Jones and Harry Connick Jr., and to the croonings of another famous performer, the late Frank Sinatra.
Just twenty-three years old at the time of his 2003 U.K. release of Twentysomething, Cullum took his newfound fame in stride, considering it the result of many years of working hard and paying dues. He has been playing guitar and piano since age eight, and he began playing for audiences in clubs and bars at about age fifteen. Encouraged in his love of jazz by his older brother, Ben, Cullum grew up admiring jazz greats Oscar Peterson and Dave Brubeck. In an interview with WWD magazine, he related that he was also heavily influenced by other types of music: “I grew up listening to Public Enemy and Kurt Cobain and the Beastie Boys and Guns N’ Roses.
That’s really the influence that pervades what I do.” He studied film and English literature at Reading University in England, releasing his first album, as the Jamie Cullum Trio, at age nineteen. His second release, Pointless Nostalgic, earned considerable airplay on British radio and earned him a dedicated fan base. The success of that album sparked a bidding war among record labels, with Universal Records winning out. Still in his early twenties, Cullum was signed to a multi-album deal worth over one million dollars.
Cullum has attracted attention for more than just his recorded music: his live performances indicate a young man with over-the-top showmanship. He does more than just play the piano: he bangs on it with his fists, pounds the keys, and occasionally kicks the keys for additional emphasis. When asked by WWD about his exuberant style, Cullum replied: “It’s a very spontaneous thing. I just let myself go at the expense of looking like an idiot all the time and getting really hot and sweaty and not being very classy.”
While some reviewers have criticized Cullum for lacking subtlety, others have praised his boundless energy onstage and applauded his efforts to bring lighthearted fun to music that is usually played with a more serious tone.
During her high school years at Dallas’s Booker T. Washington School for the Performing and Visual Arts, Jones explored her developing passion for jazz. On her sixteenth birthday she gave her first solo performance, singing and playing piano at a coffeehouse on open-mic night, when anyone brave enough can try his or her hand at performing for the public.
During that period Jones also played in a band called Laszlo and tried her hand at composing jazz tunes. She earned recognition from the highly respected jazz magazine Down Beat, winning their Student Music Award (SMA) for Best Jazz Vocalist two years running and also winning an SMA for Best Original Composition. After graduating from high school Jones enrolled at the University of North Texas.
She spent two years there, studying jazz piano and giving solo performances at a local restaurant on weekends. She also became reacquainted with her father, and the two developed a close relationship. The summer after her sophomore year Jones decided to head to New York City and try her luck making it as a musician there.
Pounding the pavement
Working in a restaurant during the day and performing in downtown clubs by night, Jones felt excited to be part of the city’s jazz scene, rather than just studying music in a classroom. She decided to stay in New York, forming a jazz trio, and also performing with other jazz groups, including the Peter Malick Group.
While her professional life revolved mainly around jazz, she began listening often to country music. She told Texas Monthly, “It’s funny, but I got into country music when I moved to New York. I was homesick, so I listened to [renowned country singer-songwriter] Townes Van Zandt.” She created a demo recording of her solo work to send to record labels in the hope of getting a deal, but after a year of passing her demo around with no success, she began to feel discouraged.
On the evening of her twenty-first birthday, Jones gave a performance that connected deeply with a notable member of her audience. Shell White, an employee in the accounting department of the revered jazz label Blue Note, was so struck by Jones’s talents that she arranged for a meeting between the young singer and the label’s chief executive officer (CEO), Bruce Lundvall. After meeting Jones and hearing her sing, Lundvall signed her to a record deal on the spot. Lundvall explained to Time magazine’s Josh Tyrangiel that such impulsive decisions had been made only twice in his career at Blue Note (the other artist was jazz vocalist Rachelle Ferrell). Lundvall described the essence of Jones’s appeal: “Norah doesn’t have one of those over-the-top instruments. It’s just a signature voice, right from the heart to you. When you’re lucky enough to hear that, you don’t hesitate. You sign it.”
“Snorah” Jones makes good
Jones began her relationship with Blue Note by releasing a six-song EP, a less-than-full-length recording, called First Sessions. This CD includes several songs that later showed up on Come Away with Me. For her debut full-length recording, Blue Note paired Jones with veteran producer Arif Mardin, who had worked with such legendary performers as Aretha Franklin and Dusty Springfield.
When she and Mardin began recording Come Away with Me in May of 2001, Jones showed a preference for a spontaneous style in the studio, aiming to capture the intimate and natural qualities of live performance. She recorded fourteen songs for her debut; Jones wrote a few of the tracks but left most of the composing duties to others, including her boyfriend, bassist Lee Alexander, and New York–based songwriter-guitarist Jesse Harris. She also recorded two songs made famous by musicians legendary in their respective fields: country king Hank Williams (“Cold, Cold Heart”) and revered jazz-pop composer Hoagy Carmichael (“The Nearness of You”).
Released in early 2002, Come Away with Me earned positive reviews. Music critics expressed appreciation for her distinctive voice and authentic, understated style. Many critics wrote of Jones as a promising new artist, a refreshing change of pace from the slick packaging of pop stars like Britney Spears.
Even the most admiring reviewers, however, did not predict that the album would gradually become a smash hit and that Jones would become Blue Note’s best-selling artist ever. Come Away with Me became so successful that it seemed to be everywhere: on the radio, on television, playing over the public address system in shopping malls. Jones recalled to Tyrangiel that she heard one of the album’s tracks in an unexpected place: “Once on a plane—you know how they play elevator music before you take off?—they played one of the songs.”
The album’s exposure became so great that a small backlash arose, with some music journalists declaring that the attention was nothing but hype, and criticizing Jones’s music as bland and boring. Some even started calling her “Snorah Jones,” a nickname Jones found amusing rather than hurtful. She confided to Tyrangiel, “My mom calls me Snorah all the time now.”
The “insanity,” as Jones frequently characterized the buzz surrounding her debut, seemed to reach a peak when the album was nominated for eight Grammy Awards. Competing against such high-profile artists as Bruce Springsteen and Eminem, Jones swept the awards ceremony in February of 2003.
The album won all eight awards for which it was nominated, with Jones receiving five awards and the three others going to producer Mardin, the album’s engineers, and songwriter Jesse Harris for “Don’t Know Why.” Among Jones’s victories were trophies for Album of the Year and Best New Artist. As the ceremony progressed, Jones began to feel overwhelmed, as she related in Texas Monthly: “I felt like I was in high school and all the popular kids were in the audience and were, like, ‘What’s she doing up there?’ I felt like I had gone in a birthday party and eaten all the cake before anyone else got a piece.” Some aspects of her newfound fame pleased her, especially the positive reception from most critics and her increased ability to control the direction of her career. But for the most part Jones retreated from the spotlight. She preferred the idea of being a member of a group rather than a solo star, telling Billboard ‘s Melinda Newman, “Deep down, in my gut, all I want to be is part of a band.”
In the beginning, she didn’t feel entirely comfortable performing in concert, making music videos, or talking to the press. Jones sought a quiet lifestyle, unexpected for such a young musician, preferring low-key get-togethers with her bandmates to late-night partying at clubs.
A homey follow-up
When work began on a follow-up album, Feels Like Home, many music-industry insiders speculated that it would take a miracle for the second album to sell as well as the first. Such predictions did not faze Jones. Her primary focus was the music; she was eager to branch out on her second album and explore different styles, having shifted away from jazz and toward country in her listening habits and writing.
For Feels Like Home, Jones took a greater role in the songs’ composition, writing or cowriting six of the album’s thirteen tracks. The album was recorded after a series of collaborative sessions with bandmates, with each member contributing to various aspects of the project. Guest artists included country-music mainstay Dolly Parton and, from the influential rock group the Band, Levon Helm and Garth Hudson.
After the phenomenal success of her debut, people throughout the industry—record label executives, music retailers, and journalists—as well as millions of fans eagerly anticipated Jones’s follow-up. Released in early 2004, Feels Like Home was snapped up by one million buyers in its first week, resulting in an instant rise to the numberone position on Billboard ‘s album chart. Determined to let her second album’s reception happen somewhat naturally, Jones pressured Blue Note to devise an understated publicity campaign that wouldn’t blanket the television and radio airwaves with commercials for Feels Like Home.
Blue Note CEO Lundvall told Billboard ‘s Newman, “We’re not hyping the record. We’re not going out there and advertising all over the world.” For her part, Jones remained calm under the intense pressure of following up a debut album that had sold more than eighteen million copies worldwide. She related in Texas Monthly: “It’s funny, but I don’t want to know about sales. I don’t want to read any of the reviews; I don’t want to see any of the articles. I just want to do what I do and have it be as unfussed-with as possible.”
Music reviewers varied in their responses to Feels Like Home. Some expressed a wish that Jones would break out of her mellow approach and make edgier music. David Browne of Entertainment Weekly concluded that “Jones’ voice conveys warmth and contentment but little in the way of urgency or intensity.” Others felt that she had failed to commit to a specific style, instead sampling from a variety of genres. A few complained that Jones had written or chosen too many mediocre songs, relying on her lush vocals to overcome any writing shortcomings.
But numerous critics found plenty to love in Jones’s second release. Tom Moon wrote in RollingStone.com, “Far from blanded-out background music, Feels Like Home … is a triumph of the low-key, at once easygoing and poignant.” Matt Collar wrote for All Music Guide that, with Feels Like Home, “You’ve got an album so blessed with superb songwriting that Jones’ vocals almost push the line into too much of a good thing.” At the PopMatters web site, Ari Levenfeld wrote: “While many critics of the album complain about the slow pace of the music, relegating it to little more than background music, it’s hard to believe that they were paying attention. There simply isn’t another singer working in pop music now that holds a candle to Jones.”
Millions of fans seemed to agree with Levenfeld’s assessment, finding Jones to be a breath of fresh air in a stale pop landscape. She is a musician who has sought success but not necessarily stardom, and who seems more likely to share the spotlight than grab it for herself. At a time when young pop singers belt out every note with over-the-top passion, Jones opts for subtlety, understanding that a low-key voice stripped to its essence can pack a greater punch than one bellowed out at top volume. Tyrangiel explained, “She never fails to choose simple over flamboyant, never holds a note too long. She may prove to be the most natural singer of her generation.”