Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Response: The Slate Blog: Great American Songbook

In response to The Slate Blog - "Standard Issue:  Why Do Great American Songbook  Albums by Pop Artists So Often Disappoint?", Jeff Turrentine, 28 Feb 2012: http://www.slate.com/articles/arts/culturebox/2012/02/paul_mccartney_s_kisses_on_the_bottom_and_the_problem_with_great_american_songbook_albums_.html?tid=sm_tw_button_toolbar&wp_login_redirect=0
Reply, posted as TIMKAT / Kathryn Ballard Shut
3:32 PM Eastern, Tuesday, February 28, 2012

The "Great American Songbook" is aptly named due not only due to the timelessness and collective memories of the songs found within, but also because a good majority of those tunes demand a level of vocal (and sometimes instrumental) dexterity. These are songs that have so far stood the (relatively short but growing) test of time because they continue to speak to a new generation of listeners each time.

The first secret of this collective Songbook lies in its ability to "tell a story", and this is often where I have been sometimes disappointed in the endeavors of otherwise-great musicians today. Some have failed to sell me on the story, the mood, the feeling, and the context of the original song. As some here have already written, some just blow through the charts unconvincingly, so it feels as though we're being cheated on its meaning. Irving Berlin, Duke Ellington, Cole Porter, the Gershwins, and other Tin Pan Alley writers of the day understood this delicate balance and therefore worked to craft a piece of art -- that also just happened to speak to people and sell!

In the jazz world, there is an educational maxim for instrumentalists to learn the *lyrics* that go with a song, as well as the melody, because it is said that if the musicians know and believe the "story", that sentiment will eventually come out of the instrument, and I believe this is true. It is easy to push buttons on a horn; it is another thing entirely to commmand an audience's rapt attention, to bring it to its feet in excitement, or to tears with feeling. Again, it is a testament to the power of the story, the irresistible coupling of lyrics and music, that allows people to relate to the song and rate it as a 'keeper'.

And finally, as mentioned, there is a technical dexterity that these songs demand of the artist. Outside of the regular "pop" or "rock" parameter of a few chords per chart, these songs constantly change modes to evoke a mood and the melodies by definition are often not kind. The underlying chords are by definition more complex (example: 'Round Midnight) and therefore some of the melodies demand more of the vocalist.

All this said, on a positive note, I applaud today's musicians for attempting to keep an American treasure, the Songbook, alive, but also understand, as a fellow jazz pianist and vocalist, truly how daunting that task can be. I'm truly thrilled that the classics once again cause some chatter!

Best always,
Kathryn Ballard Shut
President, Pianist
TIMKAT Entertainment, Inc.
Denver, CO, USA

Twitter: @timkatent
Tim Ballard on CDBABY: "Great American Songbook" - telling the story at http://www.cdbaby.cd/cd/TimBallard

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