at_Home/at_Play 7: Bye Bye Blackbird

February 28, 2018 at 6:42 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Watch Bye Bye Blackbird (at_Home)

Watch Bye Bye Blackbird (at_Play)

I think comparing these two videos is the best way to understand why I love working with this group so much. We’re able to play the song wildly differently depending on the setting, but I think both performances are effective and powerful.

For me, “Bye Bye Blackbird” is Nancy Harms’ signature tune. It captures her so well – it’s dark and exotic, it’s classic yet surprising, and it tells a story about leaving comfort to seek higher ground.

Nancy always introduces her arrangement by saying that this tune is usually done as a straight-ahead swinger, but she decided to go a different direction with it, because whenever she delivered the lyrics of “Bye Bye Blackbird,” she noticed a depth in them. The song is about leaving what’s familiar in order to take a chance, something that – for those who know Nancy – resonates with Nancy’s own story. Nancy was a small-town music educator before she decided to seek big cities, a singing career, Europe, and adventure through music. Nancy says – and I think rightly so – that leaving one’s comfort zone often seems obvious to other people (“of course he should get out of her bad relationship,” or “obviously, you should quit that job with bad hours”) but even small changes require great bravery for those willing to try something new.

Musically, this arrangement from Nancy and Robert Bell uses a bass ostinato to resituate the tune in a minor key. For our arrangement, we had Lucas play the bass part on the bass clarinet, whose dark, deep moodiness matches the mystery of the tune well, I think. Then, the bridge is an arrival point in major, a kind of “pay off” in the middle of the story. The whole arrangement is a giant swell and the ebb, starting with just the exposed texture of bass clarinet and voice and adding elements, volume, and complexity before receding back to the original duet.

In comparing the two performances, I took a very different approach on the piano. Whereas the Blue Whale performance is more percussive and groovy, with more “flashy” piano playing, the house concert performance is all about mood. My favorite moment in the Blue Whale performance is at 4:44 when Lucas and I organically switch places – he takes the lead and I play chords under him; I love that we can have the kind of unspoken musical relationship that we’re both able to step to the front or the back when the music calls for it. The house concert performance, in contrast, has a clear Debussy/Gil Evans influence and really sounds clearly modal in a way that the other doesn’t.

I’m posting a poll over on my Facebook page about which performance people like better. Feel free to click this link to visit my page and take the poll.

Download the free “at_Home/at_Play” EP here.

Bye Bye Blackbird
Pack up all my care and woes
Feeling low here I go
Bye, bye blackbird

Where somebody waits for me
Sugar’s sweet so is he
Bye, bye blackbird
No one seems to love or understand me
And all the hard luck stories they all hand me
Make my bed and light the light
I’ll arrive late tonight
Bye, bye blackbird

at_Play 6: Hymn of Thanks

February 21, 2018 at 7:29 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Watch “Hymn of Thanks”

“Hymn of Thanks” was the result of my study of Bach Chorales. One of my best experiences in college was doing an “independent study” course with Dariusz Terefenko that was focused on improvising fugues and other Bach-ian styles. As part of the study, he showed me a book which had all of the ways that Bach harmonized and reharmonized the same chorale melodies. This fascinated me and I memorized quite a few of the harmonizations.

Then I asked myself – why couldn’t I harmonize these melodies in a way totally differently than Bach would? So I started writing “jazz” harmonizations of some of these hymn melodies. The melodies are so singable and diatonic that it occurred to me that one could do almost whatever they wanted underneath and it would still sound like a coherent musical idea. One inspiration for these reharmonization was Don Byron’s “Himn.” Listen here.

It wasn’t a far step from these exercises to writing my own hymn-like melody to harmonize.  Once I wrote a simple 8-measure melody, and came up with a harmonization, I decided that this technique could result in an AABA tune, and so I made a bridge in Ab (the original melody is in C) to complement the original.

I originally recorded this piece on Simple Songs (for When the World Seems Strange) as a duet with Jo Lawry, and I must credit her with helping me come up with the form (as well as polishing some lyrics! Thanks, Jo!). She realized that this was a story song and that going through the whole story once, playing a solo, and then going through the story again was too much and we’d have given the ending away! Instead, we play AAB, then do the solos, then do the bridge again and the final A. In this way, we save the ending for the very last time through.

It was my idea to make a solo section where the chords – which generally move at one per beat in a hymn – move twice as slowly in order to give the improviser a better chance at hitting them. I can’t speak for Lucas, but for me, one inspiration for the feel of the solo was the Hank Jones/Joe Lovano record “Kids.” I love the way that Hank can play stride without it seeming cheesy or old-fashioned and how Joe can dance around the changes without ever sounding like he’s playing “out.” Check out a great live performance here.

To download sheet music for “Hymn of Thanks,” click here.

To download the free “at_Home/at_Play” EP, click here.

Hymn of Thanks
Wise men recommend a prayer
Though you may be filled with angst.

Still, for the memories we love best
Let all the bless’d sing a hymn of thanks.

I’ve been told to treasure wealth
In my friends and not in banks,
We had a flowing treasure chest,
Let all the bless’d sing a hymn of thanks.

I’m thankful for the sun and shade,
The moon that lifts the sagging tides.
I’m thankful for summer love we made,
Before you left my side.

But you are gone and I abide
Solemnly resisting ranks
Of solemn choirs who suggest
That all the bless’d sing a hymn of thanks.

at_Play 5: Kneel

February 14, 2018 at 5:05 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Watch the Video for “Kneel” 

Scroll to the end to download sheet music, read the lyrics, and download a free EP, including “Kneel.” 

“Kneel” is a song inspired by Caribbean poet Derek Walcott’s autobiography, Another Life. In one passage, Walcott describes having a pseudo-religious experience – he takes in the colorful richness of his island of St. Lucia and is moved by its beauty, but in the same glance, he sees the suffering of the St. Lucian people and is moved by the injustice they face. Processing these polar opposites together in one place, this moment brings him to his knees in revelation – or at least, in overwhelming depth of feeling.

The power of the passage and the language that Walcott uses was moving to me, and I tried to turn it into a melody. The melody I came up with is hymn-like and simple, but I harmonized it with chords that don’t quite fit the theme – notice that the D major chord is far outside of the home key of Gb. In fact, I later realized that I’d used a similar progression for my song, “A Single Moment” – listen here.

Another complexity that undergirds the A sections of “Kneel” is the phrasing. Each of the first two phrases of the melody are in 3/4 time but the third phrase stretches to 4/4. That small difference, perhaps, keeps the melody from being too saccharine and predictable. One model I had here was Fred Hersch’s “Valentine,” which seems so sweet and simple, but actually moves freely through metric variation (listen here).

Kneel Sample

The bridge is a contrast, much more harmonically rich and with longer phrases; it’s meant to be lush and beautiful. The rhythm is repetitive, but the chords change color and melody changes shape each time the rhythm returns. I later realized that some elements are similar to the phrasing of Gerald Clayton’s “When an Angel Sheds a Feather,” a song I really admire. This link will bring you directly to the part I’m talking about.

The lyric I’m most proud of in this piece is, “Hear the bugle-colored twilight blowing.” The line feels, to me, like an Escher drawing – it’s got a logic that seems like it could be followed, but each path you follow only leads to more confusion. Twilight can’t blow and just because it’s bugle-colored, that doesn’t mean it will do what a bugle does! However, there’s a certain sparkle, a certain sheen, and a certain regal-ness that all come through in that line, and I’ve always been proud of it.

In terms of form, this piece is a bit odd, as it’s a very traditional song, yet the solo section is a free improvisation, rather than a reading through the form. Interestingly, audiences seem to really enjoy this – particularly if I introduce the thematic tension at the heart of the piece (beauty v. suffering), audiences seem wholly able to accept some pretty dissonant improvisations and allow their imaginations to fill in the content. Perhaps the prettiness of the “head” contrasted with the “ugliness” of an improvisation makes both sides more stark, more interesting.

Whatever the reason, this seems to be audience’s favorite piece, despite (or because of) the avant garde elements. This recording at the Blue Whale is a little funny, as this piece seems almost too intimate for a jazz club – it’s perhaps more in tune with the house concert audience. Here, Lucas and I take chances feeling one another out and – just as our roiling improvisation wants to come to a close – we’re interrupted by a crashing sound of some sort, and Lucas decides to react with a clarinet squeak. This sends us in a whole other direction! Just as the improvisation comedian is trained to say “yes and,” as improvising musicians, we want to accept anything that comes at us. So, kudos to Lucas for such a quick-thinking reaction!

Lastly, I was really honored that Kendra Shank and Geoff Keezer recorded a version of this piece during their live album. Geoff plays amazingly on the recording and Kendra’s vocals are warm and expressive. You can actually watch their live recording here. It could be an interesting comparison!

To download the sheet music to “Kneel,” click here.

To download a free EP with music from “at_Home/at_Play,” click here.

When the body cannot bear it,
When the pity’s too profound,
When mem’ries break like waves against your conscience,
Kneel your knees upon the ground.

Weep for emptiness and fullness,
Cry for pebbles and for clouds,
For curling smoke above forgotten houses,
Kneel your knees upon the ground.

A schoolgirl in blue and white,
Whirling in evening’s light,
A kiss by the boathouse door
Leaving you needing more,
The horns of the harbor heard
Chanting love, word by word,
To live it is raw and rare,
Like a prayer, everywhere…

Feel the soil soft beneath you,
See the hills in ochre drowned,
And hear the bugle colored twilight blowing,
Kneel your knees upon the ground.

at_Home 5: What is This Feeling

February 10, 2018 at 7:28 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Watch “What is That Feeling” 

Scroll down for free downloads and complete lyrics.

“What is that Feeling” takes its title from a passage by Jack Kerouac in On the RoadOn the Road is one of those books that it seems every teenager or college student has a passionate infatuation with, and I was determined to be “cooler than” liking it myself, but – gosh darn it – that Kerouac fellow can write. It was this passage in the middle that really got me:

“What is that feeling when you’re driving away from people and they recede on the plain till you see their specks dispersing? – it’s the too-huge world vaulting us, and it’s good-bye. But we lean forward to the next crazy venture beneath the skies.”

There so much interesting here – firstly, I love that Kerouac recognizes that there’s a feeling that he can’t name – something too big or confusing or complex for a single word or term to capture it. I love that he asks, “What is that feeling…” instead of attempting to name it.

Secondly, there’s this amazing way he has of zooming in and out, and here he does it to exaggerated degrees – first the “specks dispersing,” then the “too-huge world” and “beneath the skies.” We’ve gone from  microscopic level and all the way to planetary levels in a matter of a few sentences.

Lastly, I loved how he captured the mindset of a traveler, and how beautifully it relates to the psychology of a touring musician. As a touring musician, on each stop, you meet special people, and perhaps visit special places. Just today, in fact, I was in Skagen, Denmark, and visited the country’s northernmost point, where two currents violently collide above Jutland. A generous man named Larss took us to admire this point, which was an important strategic location during World War II, as it is necessary to control trade to the Baltic states. Yet, even as you settle into a memorable spot, you also maintain the excitement to visit the next, place, meet the next group of people, and see something else special. There’s a frantic energy that encompasses this flurry of “hellos” and “goodbyes” that Kerouac captures so well here – a somehow hopeful nostalgia.

Lyrically, I stole a lot from the passage where Kerouac contemplates these mysteries, and the next, in Kerouac, in which Dean and the boys drive through a somewhat haunted terrain. Below, you can see the passage with all the text underlined that I stole from. I tried to find language that fit the song rhythmically and that seemed suggestive in terms of an image.

1b What is That Feeling Source

Musically, the piece is a highly altered blues. The form is still twelve measures, and most of the arrival points remain the same (for example, we still start on the I chord and make it to the IV chord in measure 5), but there are a lot of additional colors in between, and the chords change every two beats. It wasn’t intentional, but the sounds and the approach maybe slightly resemble the work of Charles Mingus. Goodbye Pork Pie Hat comes to mind as at least a conceptually similar tune. The one time the harmony slows is when the “refrain” comes in (“Switching off the headlights”).

Lyrically, there are three verses – we do the first and second at the beginning, then Lucas plays a solo, then the second (again) and third at the end. The longer we’ve played this tune, the more that we’ve emphasized the spaciousness in the last verse, which has my favorite lyric (“the stars are pins”), which I like to play in the top end of the piano for a word painting effect. This third verse is the moment where things zoom in – they go from very general to very specific, mostly because a mysterious “her” is finally introduced into the song, which clarifies the scenario as – likely – one of romantic loss.

I suppose all of life is a bit like being the touring musician. In order to achieve another level or pursue another ambition, you have to leave something else behind. Therefore, in some way, each step in a journey is simultaneously a hello and a goodbye.

Download the sheet music for “What is that Feeling” here.

Download the free “at_Home/at_Play” EP here.

What is that Feeling?

An apparition, to curse and praise,
the face receding on the plain;
The specks dispersing, the inky skies,
what is that feeling you feel?
Switching off the headlights, you park the car and start to cry,
What is that feeling you feel?

The yellow foglight, the rainy bridge,
you cross eternity again;
The two-lane highway is endless night,
the center line is a dream;
Switching off the headlights, you park the car and start to cry,
What is that feeling you feel?

You knew you’d leave her, but who knew when,
tonight you’re driving through the fog;
The sky gets bigger, the stars are pins,
and in that instant, it’s real;
Switching off the headlights, you park the car and start to cry,
What is that feeling you feel?


at_Play 4: One Art

February 6, 2018 at 9:20 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Watch the Video for “One Art”

Scroll to the bottom for free sheet music, link to a free EP, and full song lyrics.

The genesis of the song “One Art” comes from reading Elizabeth Bishop’s beautiful poem of the same name. I’ve read it in a few different classes, but I remember it most recently from a poetry seminar I took at Columbia with Michael Golston. The poem stands out to me in modern poetry because it’s so easily understood, so cheeky, so humorous, so unassuming and colloquial in contrast to the density of your Eliots and Pounds; yet, it wields equal depth and power as any works of those masters. Here’s the poem in full:

The art of losing isn’t hard to master;
so many things seem filled with the intent
To be lost that their loss is no disaster.

 Lose something every day. Accept the fluster
of lost door keys, the hour badly spent.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.

Then practice losing farther, losing faster:
places, and names, and where it was you meant
to travel. None of these will bring disaster.

 I lost my mother’s watch. And look! My last, or
Next-to-last, of three loved houses went.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.

I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster,
some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent.
I miss them, but it wasn’t a disaster. 

– Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture
I love) I shan’t have lied. It’s evident
The art of losing’s not too hard to master
Though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.

Elizabeth Bishop(Elizabeth Bishop)

I remember that as I read the poem at Columbia it felt almost impossibly sad. The nostalgia was overwhelming. The essence of nostalgia, I thought as I read the poem, is the recognition that return is impossible. That is, as much as you may long to re-experience an innocent time or to rekindle a lost romance or to see a deceased friend once more – it’s an impossibility from which there is no return. This poem begs us to teach ourselves the acceptance of this impossibility but it also rails against the unfairness of such a world that tortures us with such loss but doesn’t prepare us how to cope.

I often get asked why I write such sad songs. For those who know me, I’m generally a happy-go-lucky person who likes a joke and a froyo more than just about anything in the world. My answer is two-fold: 1) I’m a deeply nostalgic person in ways very few people see; and moreso 2) melancholic feelings are just so much more interesting than pleasure and glee. Whereas we only have one major scale (okay, sure, this is debatable, leave me alone, music theory nerds), we need at least three to navigate minor keys, and this feels analogous to the depths and varieties of feelings melancholy can bring. There’s so much texture to depression, anger, and angst whereas joy seems somehow uniform to me.

It’s not hard to see how I got from the poem to the lyric – they share many concepts, words, and phrases in common. I remember that I wrote this tune in Montreux, Switzerland, shortly after the solo jazz piano competition there. I walked around that city, taking in its beauty, yet at the same time a bit lonely and lost (the competition had been the focus of so many aspirations and preparations, after all), and started mentally piecing together the lyric. I believe that this was the first song I wrote with this group (Lucas, Nancy, and myself) specifically in mind.

A couple musical details – this is an odd song in that it starts and ends in two different keys. It’s not something I set out to do, but I think I could make the argument that ending in D minor instead of A minor, the listener does feel slightly “lost”…in a new key never to return. This also helped to decide on the form of the tune, which includes three statements of the melody rather than any solos. Since the tune really “starts over” after each repetition, it seemed unnecessary and odd to try to create improvisations that might span two, three, or four repetitions. Each statement is self-contained, and hopefully the texture of loss develops and spreads from one statement to the next.

Download the chart for “One Art” for free here.

Download a free EP of music from the video series here.

One Art

I’d like to learn how to lose
By losing something new every day.
I’ll start with my keys and proceed to my shoes,
and soon it will all slip away.

I’ll reject my fortune
and regret my fame
Without choosing who
I’ll forget my friends’ names and faces.

I was so good at losing you
You left me without one final word.
But nothing I’ve tried has helped to erase
the memory of that last look on your face:
You smiled through tears in the winter’s frost
perhaps you knew that without you I’m lost.

at_Home 4: “Linda”

January 31, 2018 at 4:07 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Watch “Linda”

This one is personal.

Linda Martinez was my first jazz piano teacher and an important mentor to me. She was a freelance composer and jazz pianist in the LA area, who tragically committed suicide when she was 29. She was an incredibly gifted musician and generous teacher. You can read her obituary in the LA Times or a profile of her in Yamaha’s magazine before her death.


Growing up, I always saw my future when I looked at Linda. She had studied with the same piano teacher I studied with in my childhood, won many of the same awards, and she was doing all the musical things that I dreamed of. In a way, I felt fated to be just like her.

Of course, when she committed suicide, and I learned more about the demons she was constantly battling due to – what? The difficulty of her career? The fact that she was something of a genius? Insomnia? Family history? – I had to reckon with the fact that I had to find another fate.

Can we choose our fates, though? I don’t truly believe in fate in the literal sense of the word, but I do believe that we can’t run away from – for example – being microcosms of our parents; we can’t change our body type or proclivity for certain vices; we can’t change whatever genetic destiny is tattooed into our DNA.

That’s what this song wrestles with – can I avoid the misery that Linda experienced? Or am I destined to find a similar fate – not suicide, necessarily, but struggling and facing down demons in this line of work.

Oddly enough for such a personal song, the method for writing it was actually a very impersonal exercise. I love the song “Amelia,” by Joni Mitchell and I wanted to try to imitate some of the formal and sonic aspects of the lyric. (if you don’t know “Amelia,” listen to it here). I scanned it line for line, asking what each line was doing and how the rhythm worked and then I wrote my own version. [By the way, if you’re an aspiring songwriter, I’m of the opinion that this is one of the best ways you can learn.]


I’m sharing the “exercise” in full here:


I came to realize that what made “Amelia” so special is that it meditates on three different scenarios – planes-travel-relationships. Joni stuffs so much into one song! I tried to make a slightly different triumvirate – stars-fate-mentorship. I also loved the “confessional” nature of some of Joni’s lines, like “maybe I’ve never really loved.” This inspired me to write the very personal lines, “Maybe I’ve ignored my friends, and maybe I’m not smart.” I don’t know if my lyrics work as well as Joni’s, but these gestures give the song a similarly “epic” scope, I hope.

As you might expect, after writing this lyric, I had a hard time imagining any melody for them other than the melody to “Amelia.” So, I enlisted the help of an incredible melodist – Peter Eldridge (picture below). If you’re not familiar with Peter, he’s an amazing jazz vocalist, singer-songwriter, and an all-around magical person. His most recent projects can be found here. Peter was kind enough to write a beautiful melody and moody chords for my “A sections.” Given Peter’s musical inspiration, I wrote the “bridge.” (Even though all of the stanzas are identical musically in “Amelia,” I decided to treat some of them differently in my song.)

Peter Eldridge

The somewhat virtuosic bass clarinet-piano left-hand line in the bridge was something that I came up with on tour to liven up that part of the song. I owe a debt of gratitude towards wonderful saxophonist/composer Alex LoRe (below) for working on the line with me while he was on tour with us, subbing for Lucas Pino. The ending vamp, which is the final touch, is inspired by the end to Fred Hersch’s piece “Heart Song,” which also vamps a somewhat predictable chord progression that moves through somewhat unpredictable keys. (listen here).

Alex Lore

The song ends with, “Oh, Linda, I’m just like you.” It makes a good ending for a song, but I’m not sure that I’m just like Linda. As I approach and now pass the age that Linda was when she killed herself, I solemnly congratulate myself on forging a different path. Of course, a musician’s life is full of challenges and being an artist requires staring down demons, but I’ve gone a different way, and – maybe – escaped my fate.

Download this track and other new songs for free here.

Download the sheet music for free here.

Watch the whole “at_Home/at_Play” series here.

Lyrics for “Linda”
By the churning of the ocean,
Through the veils of sable night,
Five stars were shone afire in the diamondlight.
A pentagonal pendant,
A mirror lined with jewels –
Oh, Linda, I dreamed of you.

The embers of the heavens
Are a stamp so deep and pure
They’ll steal your meager breath away with cruel allure.
They’ll show you death’s a wanderer,
And how wise men play the fool –
Oh, Linda, they’re just like you.

(Bridge) Though philosophers are skeptics,
Preachers will attest
That the reapers and the sowers, well, they both are blessed.
So we worship and we squander,
So we’re restless and subdued –
Oh, Linda, we’re just like you.

I miss her, though she made mistakes,
I wish that she could know
How I caressed the silhouette left by her afterglow.
But memories are empty skies
And when I scan the inky hue
I ask, “Linda, could that be you?”

(Bridge) Maybe I’ve ignored my friends,
And maybe I’m not smart,
But there’s a drift I can’t resist in the abyss of stars.
Like a masquerading dancer
Who can be both false and true –
Oh, Linda, that was just like you.

I stepped into a beachside bar
To clear my weary head,
Where fisherman and phantoms gather to break bread.
I saw five stars in those dimmed-down lights,
They glistened and I knew
Oh, Linda, I’m just like you.
Oh, Linda, I’m just like you.

at_Play 3: Twilit Water, Vanished Music

January 27, 2018 at 1:02 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Watch “Twilit Water, Vanished Music”

This piece kind of snuck up as a group to become one of our favorites. The impetus for the piece was a beautiful poem by Irish poet Seamus Heaney called “A New Song”:

I met a girl from Derrygarve
And the name, a lost potent musk,
Recalled the river’s long swerve,
A kingfisher’s blue bolt at dusk
And stepping stones like black molars
Sunk in the ford, the shifty galze
Of the whirlpool, the Moyola
Pleasuring beneath the alder trees.
And Derrygarve, I thought, was just,
Vanished music, twilit water,
A smooth libation of the past
Poured by this chance vestal daughter.
But now our river tongues must rise
From licking deep in native haunts
To flood, with vowelling embrace,
Demesnes staked out in consonants.
And Castledawson we’ll enlist
And Upperlands, each planted bawn —
Like bleaching-greens resumed by grass —
A vocable, as rath and bullaun.

Even as someone who’s looked at this poem a lot, I don’t claim to totally understand it. The lines that really drew me in, however, were the ones italicized here. What can I say, I’m a sucker for good nostalgia (less so for weird, mouth-related language).

To write the piece, I used a trick that I’ve found is a bit unusual for songwriters. First,  empowered and inspired by the poem, I wrote a piece of music based on the feeling it gave me. Next, I looked through what I’d written and tried to massage some of the words of the original poem into my melody. It’s not hard to see the influence of the poem in the first stanza. The parts I’ve placed in bold come from more or less directly this poem:

The nightingale sings, “Halleloo”
The nightingale sings “Halleloo” while the soft penninsula sleeps.
The kingfisher’s blue bolt at dusk
The kingfisher’s blue bolt at dusk whispers sighs through the vanishing trees.
The river’s long swerve the twilit embrace of blue
Like some vanished song, the music returns to you, the world you knew, comes rushing back to you.

To form the rest of the lyric, I leafed through a book of poetry by the same poet and looked for words which I felt followed my theme and matched the melodic rhythm I was working with. I could have never come up with such incredible language as “soft peninsula” and “glass silhouette” without the help of Mr. Heaney. When I’d filled in the main parts of the lyric, I then tried to use my own imagination to fill in whatever might be missing.


Musically, this might not feel like jazz – most of the harmony is triadic and the phrasing is very even and folk-like. One of the goals for this piece was to seamlessly integrate free improvisation and written material. For an uneducated, or unsuspecting listener, it might not sound like any portion is necessarily improvised, but both Lucas and I have “solos” here, just not in the traditional jazz sense of playing over a background of specific chord changes.

One of the great things about playing in a group for quite a while is being able to watch things evolve. When we first recorded this piece (it’s track 2 on Finger-Songwriter), the second half (after the instrumental) was essentially the same as the first half, but with a different lyric. If you compare this version, you can hear that there’s much more rhythmic movement and sway in the second half, as well as some more exciting (and, yes, maybe even more jazzy) chords. This was the result of playing it maybe as many as 100 times while on tour!

One unlikely source of inspiration for this music is the pianist/producer “Gonzales” (sometimes “Chilly Gonzales”) and his album “Solo Piano.” He’s someone coming from very much outside the jazz world, but I found his mismatched pairings of seemingly straight-forward trains and singable melodies in distant keys intriguing and emotionally evocative. You can hear lots of this music here.  Other pianist inspirations include brilliant British pianist John Taylor (check out his Songs and Variations), and Debussy’s Preludes. 

Download the free sheet music for “Twilit Water, Vanished Music” Twilit Water Vanished Music.

Download the free EP for “at_Home/at_Play” here.

Read the full lyrics for “Twilit Water, Vanished Music” Below:

Twilit Water, Vanished Music
The nightingale sings, “Halleloo”
The nightingale sings “Halleloo” while the soft penninsula sleeps.
The kingfisher’s blue bolt at dusk
The kingfisher’s blue bolt at dusk whispers sighs through the vanishing trees.
The river’s long swerve the twilit embrace of blue
Like some vanished song, the music returns to you, the world you knew, comes rushing back to you.

The glass silhouette, golden gray
The glass silhouette, golden gray, of a cloud the horizon drinks down.
The blackberry sage sings and sways
The bushes are singing praise of wind and waves, they’re singing secret praise.
The juniper buds dark and true the juniper buds dark and true fill with dew in gardens and woods.

The gathering stars dive and play
The gathering stars dive and play a migration of glistening birds.
The river’s long swerve the twilit embrace of blue
Like some vanished song, the music returns to you, the world you knew, comes rushing back to you.

The lilt of her voice, sweet but sad
The lilt of her voice, sweet but sad on the evening she sang “Halleloo.”

at_Home 3: If You Can Read

January 24, 2018 at 4:42 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Watch “If You Can Read”

Scroll to the bottom for free downloads and full lyrics. 

“If You Can Read” is a song based on something I’ve heard my mom say a lot – that if you can read, you can cook. The idea is that cooking is merely a matter of following a recipe. If you do what the recipe says, the dish will turn out fine.

However, I always find cooking to be more than just following the recipe. You need to have some knowledge! When you cook a vegetable until it turns brown…how brown should it turn? Should the whole thing be brown or just the edges? There’s so much I need to know!

I think this idea is true in love, life, and art as well. Just because something should work on paper, it doesn’t mean that it’s easy to execute. Even if you’re a 100% match on OKCupid or your eHarmony quadrants are perfectly aligned, it doesn’t actually mean you’ll have any chemistry, and – even if you do – as I say in the lyric, an actual relationship “takes timing and luck.”

The same thing is true with art. You can study and practice and create, but unless there’s the perfect combination of the right project, the right collaborators, the right space, enough time, and – sure – lots of luck, no artist is guaranteed to make anything worthwhile…much less have professional success

One trick I used to create a lyric here is that I imitated a Paul Simon stanza. Here’s the stanza from his song “Cars are Cars” (listen to the full song here):

I once had a car that was more like a home
I lived in it, loved in it, polished its chrome.
If some of my homes had been more like my car
I probably wouldn’t have traveled this far.

What I loved about this is the way the first line says “car” then “home” and the third line returns with “home” then “car.” I later learned that this is a fancy poetic device called “chiasmus,” which is latin for crossing or “X.”

My stanza that imitated Simon went like this:

A cake’s like a lover who makes your heart leap,
You beat all the eggs, and you drape it with sweets.
If only my lover were more like a cake,
My heart wouldn’t mind all the beatings it takes.

Did you notice that here, instead of “car” and “home,” it’s “cake” and “lover” that switch places? I also tried to be clever a la Paul Simon, punning on the word “beat.” The beat can be like you “beat” eggs or like a heart “beat,” depending on the context. I have to admit that I partially stole this idea from the great singer-songwriter Josh Ritter, who has this lovely stanza from “You Don’t Make it Easy Babe” (listen to this song here):

Your friends ask about me you say I can be found
With the cheap romance novels with their spines battered down
Oh the heart has no bones you say so it won’t break
But the purpose of loving is the pounding it takes

I love all of the personification here. The romance novels have their “spines battered down,” but the heart “has no bones.” I modeled the end of my stanza “the beatings it takes” after Ritter’s “the pounding it takes.” (Picasso said something about good artists copying and great artists stealing, right?).

I may have also stolen the idea to repeat the refrain at the beginning and the end of each verse from “Cars are Cars.” Check out the comparison:

Screen Shot 2018-01-24 at 8.22.06 AM


Musically, the most notable thing here is the addition of Dan Ogrodnik on pandeiro. You can probably see from the video, but the pandeiro is a Brazilian tambourine that is used in samba and capoeira music. This song had a lot of empty spaces in it that I didn’t want Lucas or I to have to fill, so adding a percussionist seemed to be the natural choice. It also gave me the opportunity to let Dan and Lucas play a bit at the beginning while I sit back and enjoy.

Poor Nancy has to fire off some rapid-fire phrases about cooking. This goes by very fast and has a lot of words to spit out! Mostly, the harmony stays in a somewhat traditional Afro-Cuban minor vamp, but you might notice that at about 4:18, the main melody repeats but with totally different harmony (and rhythm) underneath it, which propels us towards an exciting end. Since this is a list song (the lyrics really just list cooking techniques), it’s often difficult to create contrasts, and this final reharmonization was our way of trying to make sure that it wasn’t oppressively dull.

Download this track and other new songs for free here.

Download the sheet music for “If You Can Read” here.

To visit my Youtube page to watch other videos from this series, click here.

If You Can Read (Lyrics)

If you can read, you can cook.
If you can read, you can cook.
Measure on a spoon, mix it in a bowl,
Heat it on the stove, serve it when it’s cold.
If you can read, you can cook, you can cook.
If you can read, you can cook.

If you can read, you can cook. If you can read, you can cook.
Buy the berries fresh, at the corner store,
Cook ‘em like a chef, Until they beg for more.
If you can read, you can cook, you can cook.
If you can read, you can cook.

But people don’t come with a clear recipe,
The perfect ingredients bring no guarantee.
You hold them, console them, and hope for the best,
But whether they’ll love you is anyone’s guess.

But lovers don’t boil down to teaspoons and cups –
To locate a soul mate takes timing and luck.
You cook and you clean and you hope and you pray,
And once they arrive, you can’t force them to stay.

If you can read, you can cook.
If you can read, you can cook.
Roast it ‘til it burns or serve it while it’s rare,
Double the amounts, make enough to share.
If you can read, you can cook, you can cook.
If you can read, you can cook.

A cake’s like a lover who makes your heart leap,
You beat all the eggs, and you drape it with sweets.
If only my lover were more like a cake,
My heart wouldn’t mind all the beatings it takes.

If you can read, you can cook.

If you can read, you can cook.
Add some curry paste,
For a little spice,
Salt it to the taste,
And serve it over rice.
Read the instructions in the book,
If you can read, you can cook!

at_Play 2: Whispering Grass

January 20, 2018 at 4:08 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Watch “Whispering Grass”

This is the first cover I’m posting here. This tune is originally by the doo-wop group, The Inkspots. You can watch their original performance here.

It was because of a few odd coincidences that we decided to perform this tune. Nancy was invited by a mutual acquaintance to sing for Bruce Lundvall, a jazz industry legend who was the long-time president of Blue Note records. Unfortunately, he passed away in 2015. I went along to accompany Nancy, and we felt warmly greeted – Mr. Lundvall was very personable and kind. We performed in the same room, we were told, that Norah Jones had first sung for Lundvall a few years earlier, and it felt like one of those exciting New York experiences that fills you with the electricity of possibility.

It was Mr. Ludvall who mentioned this song to us. Later, we pieced together that he had been considering signing a vocalist out of Texas named Kat Edmonson, who – herself – did a version of “Whispering Grass,” and Ludvall was tickled by the inclusion of the tune that he knew from so many years ago. Edmonson’s version (listen to it here) emphasizes the supernatural and mystical nature of the tune, and we felt there was room to highlight its melodicism.

Nancy and I changed the standard 4/4 time to more of a 6/8 sway and I fiddled with some of the harmony. I wanted to play repeated notes and contrapuntal sorts of things the way that Fred Hersch sometimes does at the very top of the piano, which often makes for a pretty, bell-like tone.

In fact, Fred deserves even a bit more credit here. He came to the very first gig that our trio ever performed, which was at the Kitano jazz club in Midtown Manhattan. After the gig, Fred said that he enjoyed it, but that Lucas should add bass clarinet to his arsenal (at that time, he was only playing saxophone and regular clarinet). Inspired by Fred’s recommendation, Lucas started shedding the bass clarinet and now doubles on it regularly, not just in my group but in other projects (check out Jorn Swart’s Malnoia).

It’s the warmth of the bass clarinet paired with my upper register tinkling that make me really love this arrangement, and I think they complement the intimacy and purity of the lyric. Lastly, we reharmonized the last section to make the landing point a little bit later the form and emphasize the “magical” element in the text. I hope you enjoy!

Download the chart for “Whispering Grass” here.

Download the “at_Home/at_Play” EP for free.


at_Home 2: Melancholy Times

January 17, 2018 at 8:36 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Watch  “Melancholy Times”

(Scroll to bottom for free sheet music and audio download.)

This song came about in a simple way – I was sitting in a hotel room in a suburb outside Detroit in the winter time. For those of you who travel a lot, you know that travel is glamorous and fun 20% of the time but very lonely the other 80% or so. You often find yourself in a city where you know nobody, in sterile hotel rooms, eating meals alone, simply waiting for bedtime.

I was contemplating the loneliness of travel as I sat beside the blue tv screen glow that night and realized that this loneliness, this melancholy, was unpleasant in part…but that it was also comforting. The loneliness can envelope you like a warm blanket or greet you like a familiar friend.

I liked to think of the complexity of that emotion, and so I scratched out a poem called “Melancholy Times.” It read like this:

Melancholy Times

It’s the melancholy times that I’ll miss most –
The quiet taxis in the rain.
The still nights in a cold hotel,
The leavetakings, the dial tones.

It’s the melancholy times that I’ll miss most –
The long wait for a twilight train,
The slow walk through a city street,
The coffeeshop, the open road.

It’s the melancholy times that I’ll miss most –
The sad strum of a three-chord song,
The dimmed lights of a small town bar,
The neon hum, the silent snow.

It’s the melancholy times that I’ll miss most –
The cup of coffee on the porch
The lakehouse where it smells of fall,
The suitcases, the afterglow.

It’s the melancholy times that I’ll miss most –
The neighbor’s dog who cries and cries,
The early morning wake up call,
The Christmas lights, the empty show.

It’s the melancholy times that I’ll miss most –
The bleak mid-morning, gray and cool,
The sunset watched by lovelorn eyes
The sleepy morn, the winter coat.

And when our earthly moment’s through
And body slips from flesh to ghost
My friend, I’ll say, again, to you,
“It’s the melancholy times that I’ll miss most.”

I really liked this poem, so I tried to think of a melody to go with it. Unfortunately, I had a very specific rhythm in my head and it wasn’t leading me to a melody that I liked. I decided to send the poem over to Nancy Harms to see if she would come up with anything different. I loved what she sent me – it was haunting and captivating and matched the vibe of the lyrics. You can listen to it here. I put some chords to it and sent it back to Nancy to see what she thought. Check that step out here.

Now we had something that we liked, but I didn’t want this to be a song about depression that sounded depressing. Nobody needs that kind of a downer! So, I added two things – first, a countermelody that added a little bit of motion and complexity. It’s a group of five 8th notes, so it fits in surprising ways against the 4/4 time signature. I was thinking of some “minimalist” music/composers and all the repetition they use when I wrote this countermelody.

Screen Shot 2018-01-17 at 10.49.50 AM

Secondly, I added a little chorale to go between the verses. The song can be a bit heavy on  repetitive materials (there’s a lot of “It’s the melancholy times…”) so we needed a contrasting section. In retrospect, I may have gotten the idea for this chorale from the song “Everything You Need” (by Adam) that the Housewarming Project had been covering. This song also has a “la la la” kind of chorus. (It’s this song)

You can download the sheet music for free here.

You can download the audio file for free here.

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