Being what I am

One of the lessons that I have to understand as a recording artist and concert pianist is this: I can’t play all kinds of music.

That is a humbling thing. It is a hard thing to accept. I have struggled with it. In fact, if you listen to the music on my projects, you will hear me struggling with that reality sometimes. It is not that you hear wrong notes but you sometimes hear me doing something that I am not quite comfortable with.

Sometimes I do it because I have bought into the lie that I have to be diverse in what I do. I warn musicians of that very often but I will admit I fall into the same trap. I start thinking that because I am a professional, I have to be able to play any style. The truth is that there are professional studio musicians that CAN pretty much play any style. They can walk into the studio every day of the week and play a different kind of music. But here is another truth: I will never be a professional studio musician. That is not what I am cut out for.

Many of you know that I have studied jazz for close to 10 years. I have learned a gazillion things from jazz; one of the best things I ever did for myself musically was decide to start studying jazz. But I am never going to be a jazz pianist. It is not my gift (or interest) either.

But on the other hand, next week, I am going to start recording a project of songs that are normally associated with jazz–selections from the American Songbook. (“Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” “What a Wonderful World,” “When I Fall In Love,” “Moon River,” etc.). In spite of what I just said at the start of this post, I am very comfortable doing this project and here is the story as to how this started.

Up until last year, I would never have attempted recording those songs even though I consider them some of the best tunes ever written. They have been recorded hundreds of times by true greats and I thought I had nothing to add. But one day, I changed my mind. It was after a strange phone call from my teacher.

My teacher, Ted, has had a long and successful jazz career as a concert pianist and teacher. He actually was an early teacher at Berklee (the most prestigious jazz college in the country). He has rubbed shoulders with many of the great icons of jazz that are household names. He has developed the most logical system for understanding music I have every seen. Much of what I teach on this site is rooted in his system.

He can play circles around me all day long. I am not even in the same league.

Ted lives in Los Angeles and one day he called me with a strange request. He wanted me to record a few tracks for a vocalist. As it turns out, a relative of a friend had died. She was a Christian and wanted a few hymns sung at her wedding. Ted was asked to play them and as he put it, he did not know how to play them. It is not that he couldn’t play “Amazing Grace” of course. He just did not feel that he knew how to play that style well and he knew that I did.

So I recorded the tracks for him. It took me only half an hour because it is in my comfort zone. The family loved them and Ted was grateful. He told me something that day that helped me: he said that what I did on the piano requires just as much talent as what he does on the piano. Now remember, Ted is one of those guys who can improvise an extremely technical concert on the spot. He can flat wear out a piano in ways I can’t. But he was not referring to technical stuff when he told me that. He was talking about my style and feel I get into the music.

That really helped me a bit and gave me a boost of confidence that I needed right then. I don’t have to play every style. I just have to stick with my style and play it well. And then, a few days later, a thought hit me. Why should I be afraid to record the American Songbook? All I needed to do was play them in my own style rather than as a traditional jazz pianist would play them.

So that is the project I have been quietly working on for 3 months and the one that I am starting next week in my new studio. I am doing those tunes and I am doing them almost completely “out of time” (that is jazz-speak for rubato and very little jazz is rubato). I am actually arranging them very similar to how I would arrange hymns except I am going slightly further out harmonically (but still not as far out as a jazz musician would). I am doing light improvisation but for short periods of time (8-16 bars).

This project will be out quick. It is solo piano and I probably will finish recording within two weeks. A few weeks later, mixing and mastering will be done and it will be available. If you are a jazz purist, you will probably hate it. It is going to be more geared toward people like me who greatly appreciate those great American songs of the early Twentieth Century and don’t think music has to be overly complex to be good. We will see what you think.