November 30, 2009

Christmas Time is Here

It’s that time of year — of course I’m talking about the holidays. I used to be just as jolly as the next guy when it came to the holiday season, but I do admit to feeling a bit like Scrooge every time Thanksgiving and the following month roll around. I can attribute some of that to the gross commercialism that is now part of the Christmas season, which starts in early October, and the fact that working the holidays in a WalMart can now be fatal does not help the overall spirit of the season. I suspect my ambivalence to the holiday season is mostly attributable to Christmas gigs. Probably 15 years ago I started working an increasing number of holiday parties, private events, parties sponsored by banks or insurance companies, you name it. Everybody has their office parties, usually in the evening, often in a private club. Mostly I work these as a solo pianist. I have to acknowledge my teeth-gritting during that first holiday song, which I always try to delay at least until the calendar hits December.

This year my first holiday party came a couple of days after Thanksgiving and I was determined not to play a Christmas song just yet. But as the night progressed I realized this was definitely a holiday party, and I should be professional, so I asked myself what would be the first holiday tune of the year. I chose “Winter Wonderland.” This song has interesting chord changes, an intriguing modulation going to the bridge (up a minor third), and you have to pay attention when playing it.

In the ensuing party I pulled out my standard list: “Santa Claus is Coming to Town,” “Jingle Bells,” the usual suspects. I suppose the problem is repetition and a basic set of mostly uninteresting chord changes and insipid lyrics. “Have a holly jolly Christmas/It’s the best time of the year” is not actually all that inspiring. In spite of this, I do admit a certain envy for songwriter Johnny Marks who wrote this stuff in spades. He wrote “Santa Claus is Coming to Town,” “Have a Holly Jolly Christmas,” and many other Christmas songs, and I’m sure if he played his cards right and had his copyrights and publishing in order, he had many merry Christmases.

One of the oddest things that happens to me along the way during these numerous Christmas parties is an unintentional inserting of the wrong bridge in a Christmas song. It’s as if the parts are interchangeable. Many Christmas songs follow the standard A-A-B-A song form, much like many songs of the golden age, what we have come to know as standards. It’s intriguing how you can play “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” and when you get to the bridge you can play the bridge from “Holly Jolly Christmas”; or you could play “Jingle Bell Rock” and insert the bridge from “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree,” and when you get to the last A you can play “Santa Claus is Coming to Town.” It always happens to me unintentionally the first time. I’ll be playing one of these songs and I’ll get to the bridge and somehow realize I made a transition to a different song and I didn’t even realize it. I do it absentmindedly the first few times, then it’s sort of fun to switch from one song to another and look around the room to see if anybody noticed. I have yet to see anyone indicate they heard it. And by the way, “Jingle Bell Rock” and “Rocking Around the Christmas Tree” are not rock tunes at all, they are both swing tunes. What’s up with that?

Christmas tunes do wear me down, but a gig is a gig, and so I stick it out and try to insert the short list of hip Christmas tunes, which fortunately do exist. Mel Torme’s “Christmas Song” has a beautiful set of chord changes and could actually be re-written with a non-Christmas lyric and be a great tune. Oddly enough, it was written poolside in California in July. “Christmastime is Here” is a another beautiful song, by Vince Guaraldi. I’m also fond of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” mostly because it can be played in a nice, slow 6/8 groove.

This year, Christmas gigs are down — just like the economy — across the board. A lot of those banks and insurance companies that used to have Christmas parties did not call this year and I’m feeling a little out of touch with the Christmas songs. So if you want to send me a Christmas gig I’ll be glad to play “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” in all twelve keys.

Here’s a scenario that has happened to me and I will get some perverse pleasure knowing it may happen to someone else. If you’re in a restaurant with a pianist, and the pianist is doing his best to cover the holiday repertoire, wait until four or five Christmas songs have been played, then go up to the piano and put one dollar in the tip jar and say “how about some Christmas songs?” Then duck.

November 21, 2009

The Lost Verse

Last week my wife and I attended a stage version of the musical “The Wizard of Oz,” part of Utica’s Broadway Theater League performances. Most of us have seen the movie countless times as part of our childhood, less of us have seen the stage musical, and few of us have read the original book by L. Frank Baum. If you are familiar with the 1939 film you know that the first and most recognizable song is “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” True to form, the initial vocal offering we heard in this stage production was this song, but the first line was not “Somewhere over the rainbow,” the first lyrics from Dorothy were:

When all the world is a hopeless jumble
And the raindrops tumble all around
Heaven opens a magic lane
When all the clouds darken up the skyway
There’s a rainbow highway to be found
Leading from your window pane
To a place beyond the sun
Just a step beyond the rain
Somewhere over the rainbow …

This is a classic example of the genius of the songwriters of the thirties and forties: the Gershwin Brothers, Cole Porter, Harry Warren, Rogers & Hart, Irving Berlin, and in the case of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” Harold Arlen and Yip Harburg.

The section of “Over the Rainbow that we rarely hear is called the verse. The craftsmen of that era were able to create songs that could stand on their own even when one third or more of the composition was snipped out. Do you recognize the lyrics of this song?

I was never spellbound
By a starry sky
What is there to moonglow
When love has passed you by
Then there came a midnight
And the world was new
Now here I am so spellbound, darling
Not by stars but just by you

Did you get it? The next lyric would be: “At last, my love has come along.” Yes indeed, this is the never-heard verse of the song “At Last” made famous by Etta James, originally from the movie “Orchestra Wives” that featured the Glenn Miller Orchestra (written by Harry Warren and Mac Gordon).

I am so impressed by the fact that these composers could write a verse (usually at a slower tempo than the chorus to follow) set up the song lyrically and musically, flow into the chorus familiar to us, and make that verse completely disposable.

One clue to this phenomenon that you’ll see in the better music books is that the majority of these songs with “lost verses” came from musicals or movies. The lyrics to the verse were closely connected to the story line happening at that moment in the script. If you look back at the verse to “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” you’ll see references to what has happened in the story thus far and a foreshadowing of what will happen. It’s easy to see in this case because we know the story so well. Yet the chorus certainly stands on its own without this set-up information.

This verse-chorus arrangement also provided for an effective layering of music and tempos. A typical verse was slow and rubato, allowing the singer to emote, almost always followed by a brighter tempo kicking into the part of the song that people would be whistling as they left the theater, or so the producer hoped.

How about George and Ira Gershwin’s “I Got Rhythm” — how many people have ever heard these lyrics?

Days can be sunny
With never a sigh
Don’t need what money can buy
Birds in the trees
Sing their day full of song
Why shouldn’t we sing along?
I’m chipper all the day
Happy with my lot
How do I get that way
Look at what I’ve got
I got rhythm — I got music …

One of the most familiar songs in the history of popular music has 24 bars of music that are never heard. These lost verses do provide an outlet for new interpretations by up-and-coming artists. I have often seen a reviewer phrase: “and this new singer has taken the trouble to sing the rarely-heard verse.”

I wonder if it was the prescience of the great songwriters of that era that guided their craft, methodically thinking ahead as they composed, knowing that their A sections would be discarded and the choruses would stand alone to live on in cover versions separate from the original setting. The first time I looked closely at the music for the Beatles tune “Here, There and Everywhere” I understood why Paul and John mentioned people like Oscar & Hammerstein as influences. The song starts out with their brief version of a verse: “To lead a better life I need my love to be here.” It sets up the song with a slow, out of tempo intro, followed by the part that we know so well. The song certainly would have stood on its own had they taken a razor blade and just cut out that piece of the tape. It’s a lost art. I can’t say I’m all that familiar with current Broadway, but I don’t see this craft from Andrew Lloyd Weber.

If you listen to jazz stations at all there may be occasions where you hear a singer sing something unfamiliar. Most likely it’ll be slow and dreamy. At some point a familiar song will reveal itself. You may then say to yourself, Aha! A Lost Verse!

See if you can determine this wistful song from a classic movie:

This day and age we’re living in
Gives cause for apprehension
With speed and new invention
And things like third dimension
Yet we grow a trifle weary
With Mr. Einstein’s theory
So we must get down to earth
At times relax, relieve the tension
No matter what the progress
Or what may yet be proved
The simple facts of life are such
They cannot be removed.

And the answer is?