Entirely by chance, I found myself confronted with jazz standards because a friend's mother asked me to play the piano for her once a week on Sunday afternoons. Songs by Rodgers and Hart, Cole Porter, Ray Noble, and others were my natural choice, always sticking to the melody and familiar harmonies. On my own, not for my friend's mother, I began doing pure improvisations, and also improvisations on ragas. Then, one day, I wondered about finding a new way to improvise on jazz standards, or more precisely, taking the advice of Bill Evans, finding a personal approach to improvising on these songs. It was then that my left hand seemed to take on a life of its own, improvising bass lines in the manner of an acoustic bass, together with my right hand playing the melody. And after the melody was stated, my left hand continued on, while my right hand began improvising, too, conceptually reminiscent of the Johann Sebastian Bach Two-Part Inventions I memorized while a teenager even if the left hand was more of an accompaniment to the right hand unlike the Bach whereby both hands are entirely equal. At first, this was rather frightening, like walking a high wire. With practice, I began to get more comfortable, and while playing there was the sensation of navigating a sea of dissonance with sirens of consonance calling over the waves in the distance.
Jazz standards are the ragas of jazz, historically speaking mostly of the swing and modern jazz eras. Like ragas, these songs are perfect vehicles for improvisation, possessing limitless developmental possibilities. Every song has its own unique rasa or mood, together with a distinctive musical and literary personality, as is the case with ragas in the first two instances, with text or words varying according to the artist, not being set like with jazz standards. Without these songs there would be no swing and modern jazz as we know it, of course. The jazz standards are works of compositional and lyrical genius, matching the genius of the improvisers who excelled within their musical and poetic regions. It is impossible to separate the music from the lyrics, the two domains being utterly inextricable, woven into the hearts and minds of those great masters as one entity even when rendered by instrumentalists.
I'm not sure what to call what I am now doing with jazz standards, except to say I feel part of the lineage from Lennie Tristano to Lee Konitz, having studied with Lee, and afterwards becoming close friends. While he expressed enthusiasm for my meruvina compositions, Lee retained the hope that one day I would play a form of jazz. In fact, the last time I spoke to Lee on the phone, a few months before he left us, he again voiced the wish for me to begin playing jazz, too, in addition to my composing. I feel he felt I was part of him, and he wanted to be alive in me in the form of jazz, believing I had the ability to develop a new way of interpreting this musical tradition.
By chance, I met Phil Schaap on John Coltrane's birthday in 1990. We ran into each other in the hallway at WKCR FM at Columbia University where I had been interviewed many times regarding my music for meruvina, including giving live concerts on air. When I met Phil he was hosting the John Coltrane Birthday Broadcast, and I must have said the right thing because he invited me to join him in the booth, which was thrilling. We talked joyously about jazz while music was playing, pausing in-between tracks for Phil to make his pertinent comments for the benefit of listeners. At one point, I told Phil how Equinox was my single favorite track by Coltrane, and some years later was honored when I happened to hear Phil state on air how Equinox was a great favorite of musicians.
During the hours we spent together that day in the booth, I asked Phil what he thought the future of jazz might bring, and he pondered my question before answering that his best guess was it might involve developing innovations of Lennie Tristano. Now, having gotten my left hand playing bass lines cue from Tristano, not to mention how Lennie's historic use of multi-tracking anticipates what I do with the meruvina, I feel like Phil was predicting what my personal approach to jazz might be, hitting a grand slam in terms of accuracy.
Among the composers and lyricists represented on these six new albums, Al Dubin appears four times; Jule Styne, Sammy Cahn, Rodgers and Hart, and Harry Warren all appear three times; and Ray Noble appears twice. Others appearing at least once include Hoagy Carmichael, Henry Mancini, Johnny Mercer, Johnny Green, and a number of others not quite as famous in terms of numbers of masterpieces, but they all contributed at least one timeless gem, as are all the songs included on these six albums.
Describing my jazz improvisation approach to David Amram on the phone, he said it reminded him conceptually of Chet Baker, a most astute insight transcending how the actual music is worlds apart. Lennie Tristano and Frank Sinatra have been my main conscious models, with John Coltrane and Lee Konitz so deeply a part of me as to be subconscious.
Sinatra and Tristano are artists I've studied and enjoyed through recordings and YouTube videos, both of them sharing an Italian American heritage together with my first jazz teacher, Rollan Masciarelli. Watching David Amram play piano live several times impressed me with his natural, tactile approach executed with absolute reverence for the piano. Asking David about this, he explained how he had sought the counsel of Thelonious Monk for pianistic advice, most of the time they spent together being at the home of Baroness Kathleen Annie Pannonica de Koenigswarter. Monk related to Amram how magical the piano was because one was able to actually see all the notes while playing, an observation so obvious we tend to overlook it like the best chess moves.
I wish Lee was still here to hear what I'm doing with the songs he loved so deeply, telling me he felt especially close to jazz standards with the majority of the composers and lyricists being Jewish American. The last words Konitz spoke to me on the phone were "bye-bye," a tender phrasing never used with me before, like father to son.
Regarding Indian classical music influence on my piano playing, my sense of tone and improvisation touched by artists like Pandit Jasraj, Ravi Shankar, Shivkumar Sharma, and Anindo Chatterjee, among others, is an aspect more elusive to discern given my usage of standards as opposed to ragas here.
Not Like Before, Somebody Whisper and Wonderful Schemes were recorded during one afternoon session on August 10, 2021. For A Whirl, The City Sleeps and Bounce the Moon were recorded during one afternoon session on August 27, 2021. Both sessions were rather different in terms of both the performances and the recording characteristics, this being as it should be, reflecting varying circumstances.
I would love to share stories I have about each one of the standards included here, my personal relationship to each of them being memorable, but it seems these notes have already become quite lengthy, so perhaps I will write a separate essay about them. One anecdote I will share pertains to the Satori album by Lee Konitz. Lee gave me a copy of his new album during the summer of 1975 when I studied privately with him, mentioning how a friend had quipped responding to the title, "Satori Night Is the Loneliest Night of the Week," a play on "Saturday Night Is the Loneliest Night of the Week." At the time, I really didn't know that song at all, and have only learned it recently. Coincidently, a friend gifted me a personal letter she received from the lyricist of the song, Sammy Cahn, represented on these new releases by "I Fall In Love Too Easily" from the Somebody Whisper album, "I Should Care" from the Bounce the Moon album, and "Saturday Night Is the Loneliest Night of the Week" from the Wonderful Schemes album.
While I expect returning to pure improvisations and raga
improvisations at some point, my present focus is exploring jazz
standards. Honestly, I had not thought it was possible to find new
ways of interpreting these songs, and am completely surprised, at the
same time grateful for a medium to begin directly expressing my deep
involvement with jazz that has served as a basis for compositional
inspiration previously. There have been countless hours listening to
jazz live and on recordings becoming very much a part of me.