Time to be Frank
25 Friday Nov 2011
I just played in an orchestra concert that was devoted to the vocal talents of Steve Lippia. The music was bouncy, joyous, delightful swing and standard tunes that were the core of the late Frank Sinatra’s repertoire. Steve Lippia’s vocal channeling of Ol’ Blue Eyes is so dead on that were Frank alive, he could have a case for aural identity theft. I loved every minute of it. I had played the same concert a year or two earlier with a different orchestra and loved it then, too, but this time I got to thinking…
Thinking about master jazz vocalists like Steve Lippia or his source, Frank Sinatra – what they do and and how they do it. While I was sous-chef-ing for a splendid Thanksgiving repast yesterday, I used the laptop to tune in to Pandora to a newly-created Frank Sinatra channel (as I am doing at this moment). As I’m sure you already know, a Pandora channel takes your general selection for a theme and then, like a radio station that your wealthy parents own and dedicate to your personal whims and tastes, plays only pieces in that genre (more or less; it occasionally explores the outer limits of what might reasonably be included in that style). So as I chopped, diced, sliced, stirred, and cleaned-up, I got to listen to another assorted stream of that style. Most of it was Frank, but there were appearances of others, including Ella, Mel, Tony, Louis, Dino, Bobby, Nat, Bing, Ray (even), Michael (B.), and more.
Singing jazz or swing standards is not like anything us classical sorts do. At all. Ever. I also moonlight as a (classical) improviser, and I don’t really do it there either. What is “it”? “It” is jazz phrasing. It’s all kind of stuff that we are trained from the first day not to do. It’s stuff that, as a list of actions, almost all comes up in the “wrong” category. For instance:
•Starting a long note under pitch and slowly climbing up to correct pitch by the end of it.
•Portamento (sliding/gliss) between notes
•Starting a phrase before the accompaniment does. Or after.
•Ending a phrase before the accompaniment does. Or after.
•Dragging out some notes so that they take up more time, than, say what the notes would take in a written-out version in, say, a fakebook.
•Hurrying up some notes to squeeze them in in the little time left in the measure because of those aforementioned dragged-out notes.
•Syncopating prodigiously so a lot of notes land “in the crack.”
•Starting a long tone with “straight tone” and ending it with vibrato (that may vary in length or intensity and may be different from other vibrato-ed notes later/earlier).
•Shading/inflecting the pitch of some notes quickly or slowly, such as starting with the major third of the chord and flirting with the minor third.
•Changing the melody when it repeats – changing some of the intervals, adding ornaments, connecting some intervals, leaving out notes, adding notes, changing words.
It’s pretty easy to do any of these and fall flat on your musical face, i.e. sound bad, tone deaf to the style, or just garden variety unmusical or incompetent. The vocalists make it sound easy, effortless, smooth, suave, silky, expressive, and just plain fun. They don’t use those techniques on every note; they use them judiciously – in the right places at the right times. They “speak swing” without an accent. Masters of any sort are who they are because they can make it sound easy. I think, except for the fact that I don’t have a voice, that it feels easier to emulate/imitate Frank & Co. vocally, i.e. when I sing along with the recording. Singing along gives you that same supreme seductive exercise in self-deception as when you sing “Nessun Dorma” in the shower and think, watch out, Pavarotti…. It’s the same feeling karaoke singers get in the bar, that enjoyable but false feeling of mastery and grandeur that the mike and backup tracks impart. It’s much harder to achieve that kind of shower-deception on the horn. Voices slide around much easier; playing the horn, it feels so strange trying to start the pitch low and come up, starting the note earlier, alternately hurrying and dragging, and so on.
That’s a list of what the jazz vocalists do. So why do they do it, i.e. do it like that? Answering ‘that’s the style’ is too glib, too superficial. Why do they do all that “wrong” stuff? Why not just hold out that whole note as we do in classical? Why bend the pitch? Why speed up/slow down? Why start flat on purpose? Why all that syncopation? Why sing complex when you can sing simple?
I came up with two reasons.
1) Variety. The success of every composition depends on the proper balance of unity (what you can predict) and variety (what you can’t). Too much unity and the listener is bored. Too much variety and the listener is frustrated. A 50/50 balance is just right, where the listener can guess what’s coming next about half the time. The melodies of these jazz songs are memorable and fairly simple, both of which ratchet up the predictable factor. So how to keep them from getting boring? Variety comes from the performer’s personal interpretative choices – stretch it here, hurry it there, vibrato, syncopation, little stabs of dynamic, varying note lengths, and so on. Go to Pandora. Start your own Frank Sinatra channel. Listen closely and see what I mean. The tunes and the voices that sing them are mesmerzingly beautiful – they go down easy and seem simple. But listen to the detail on every single note and how the phrases are built out of those notes: very, very complex (if you’re skeptical – try to notate the line in fine detail – a very, very difficult task that will require you to invent many new symbols and signs to account for the many small inflections not available in stanard notation)! The nuances of pitch, rhythm, dynamics, articulation, wordplay, and vocal timbre are astonishingly richly textured, and add up to superb expressive music.
2) Expression. None of the tracks were unaccompanied. All vocal lines have a band supporting them, contrasting with them, providing solid beat (predictable) plus phrase end fills, occasional bridge choruses, and rhythmic punctuation along the way (variety) against which the vocal lines can create their magic. Starting a pitch low creates a lot of tension against what the backup band is doing on pitch. Rushing/dragging or syncopation creates tension against that solid beat. When the note finally gets up to pitch or the rhythm finally sorts itself out, the transition from tension to resolution is very satisfying on several levels. It’s exactly the same reason that Mozart and Beethoven gave us (hornplayers) those sharp, nasal, sfz on-the-beat “wrong” [stopped] notes that resolved a quarter note later to the “right” note. Tension – release: the basis of all art, at least the source of attraction and interest in art. Tofu is healthy, but it needs soy (or other) sauce as counterpoint to be interesting. Having only tension is crazy-making; being completely tension-free is brain-death boring. A balance of sweet and sour makes life and art interesting. Discovering that exact balance – there’s the artistic rub.
Singing swing is irresistibly fun. But improvising jazz phrasing goes against years of training to be right… on… the… beat, training to always follow orders and play the ink and nothing but the ink. It feels… disobedient, wrong, or possibly illegal, but the feeling is also alloyed with joy and a kind of sensual/aural pleasure. Guilty pleasure! Most horn players acquired their first acquaintance with swing playing Spike Shaw’s Fripperies. But reading a written rendition of the style (or any style) is not the same as making up your own stuff. Re-creating can be wonderful, but it’s not and never can be the same as creating. Speaking Spanish is not the same as reading phrases out of a Berlitz tourist language book. But – especially if you do some listening to the vocalists and then try it out on your own, the process develops relatively quickly, and you experience – if not any sort of perfection – that satisfying feeling of DNA-deep delight in trying to solve the puzzle, deal with challenge instrumentally. Humans were made to create, which is to say made to solve problems. The swing singers in one sense are doing the same thing that we (classical players) do – they are performing a set (written) melody. But where we dare not stray very much from the Inked Path, their style and ability allows them to take the melody out for a spin, and a little different spin every time. We try to play it the same every time (consistency is the grand virtue of classicists); their challenge is to tweak it a bit different every time.
Listen to Frank & Co. enough and certain thoughts will finally bubble up: What would happen if I tried doing what they do? What would happen if I tried those techniques on my classical material? Would I go straight to hell, or just purgatory? Or would I learn something new about expression? And how would I go about it, anyway?
The first step would be to listen with new (or renewed) ears to jazz vocalists. How they create phrasing magic with their countless micro-choices at every step along the way. This kind of listening will transfer easily and well to other styles of music.
Then get out your horn and try to play along with them (don’t use a fakebook – figure out the tune by repeated listening plus trial and error). Do it again and again, adding interludes of listening to go back and pick up more detail. See how close you can come to the fine details of expression these folks do so well and (seemingly) easily.
Then go to your computer and input the chords to one of Frank’s standards in the accompaniment program Band-in-a-Box (it has an interface that only a mother could love, but is superb at creating a jazz rhythm section accompaniment). Now: play like they sing it, with all the rich detail. Repeat many times. And make every time a little different.
Then see what happens when you apply this phrasing to something like a Mozart Concerto or the Beethoven Sonata. Draw the blinds, close the doors – don’t get caught by the classical police. You may not ever play the results of your experiments in public, but you just might take your ability to play expressively to new levels (since most of the time we just concern ourselves with pitch and don’t think a whole lot beyond a basic level of expression).
It’s all great fun in any case, and I apologize for that. I know, music is supposed to be serious.
But go ahead, I won’t tell anyone. Time to be Frank for a while.