My American Songbook Project: S’About Time

Honor the Song

Getting to the emotional core of a song and staying true to that – while bringing your own life experiences, abilities and hearing to a song is really hard. There are so many ways to get off the content of the song and go away from it. Covering or rearranging a song usually works anyway, but being able to really interpret the song, trying to stay true to what I imagine is the core of it’s original inspiration is one of the hardest challenges for me – as an artist.

My brain loves the old, pretty songs from Tin Pan Alley songwriters. I sing these songs, to myself, all the time. The lyrics are an anachronism but the melodies are beautiful, eternal and especially fun for any singer.

From Throw-Away Ditties to Classics for Crooners

Of course, most of these songs were disposable, quick mood setting pieces for a movie or stage play.   I suppose they became classics because they were covered some many times and for so long.  They were covered for so long because of the pretty melodies and creative opportunities.

Pop artists like Rod Stewart, Willie Nelson, Bob Dylan, Linda Rondstadt have taken a whack at these old chestnuts. Commercially, the albums have been successful. Willie Nelson just did a new one and Bon Dylan is supposed to.

Lots of jazz and middle of the road artists do the mandatory trip through the songs of Gershwin, Harold Arlen, movies of the 30’s-40’s, etc.. My favorite versions are by Chet Baker. Another crazy junkie musician life but his versions are so simple and direct. The recording engineering is crystal clear and unaffected and lo-fi engineering. If only, all vocal albums could be thus. Baker sings like a brass player. All breath, control, and long phrases. Very effective because it is unaffected.

Campy Covers

My main reason for doing these covers is the versions I hear don’t satisfy me. Chet Baker’s come the closest. Many are unsatisfying and sound mannered, over arranged and campy.

Lots of time musicianship wins. Skill with an instrument, or arrangements or styles or even engineering and recording techniques take over. Mannered and stylized version, especially of these classic songs, are the norm. While I love the songs and appreciate most of the versions by the classic artists: Billie Holiday, Mel Torme, Nat King Cole, Doris Day, even Dinah Shore! I’m a big fan of Julie London (who is pretty much ignored) and will cover “Girl Talk” (as did Tony Bennett). I will comment on different versions of each song as I record it.

Even the newest Willie Nelson album sounds pretty much like a throw back, with poppy swing versions. I am not a big fan of most male singers or Sinatra versions since they seem to mask the emotions of the pretty lyrics and melodies with the style of the moment. Commercially understandable but eventually the “Come Fly with Me” repetitive arrangements get shallow. Sinatra’s album – “Frank Sinatra Sings For Only The Lonely” is great and he sounds as vulnerable as the songs require. Still, a bit over arranged, but great tempo restraint and well engineered. “What’s New?” is great. Actually, the whole album is a male vocalist triumph, but a very different artist from the Vegas Rat Pack, “Chairman of the Board” performer.

Sinatra could really feel a song and sing about those feelings! Of course, commerical concerns were more of a priority – except now, in posterity.

I don’t find the Sinatra imitators of much value or singing anything interesting. They seem best suited to a reverse-pop approach of trying a Sinatra-like style on modern songs. So, Michael Buble sounds best on the uptempo current songs. Really, there aren’t any contemporary vocalists who seem to both honor the sone and bring them into our current times – without making them sound like quaint museum pieces.

I say that these songs updated with a rock, and singer-songwriter sensibility will work with current young listeners.

The Scholarship of the Song

Not trying to be geeky about this but my craft demands endless critical listening and feeling and thinking about a song, what it is trying to say, how it sounds internally to my ears and brain and and then the big challenge – to create what I hear in my head in my performance, and eventually, a recording or two….There is a research and scholarly part of this for my art. With the easy availability of so many different and historical versions of each song, it is fun to dig into all the recordings. My ears and brain takes me on an discovery adventure to get to the heart of the song!

My brain loves to go as deep as I can into my experience of a song I am covering. I like to live with a song for a long time. They are my best friends!

So, let’s see how it goes. Oh yes…..

Set List

My goal is to do updated versions of these songs – reinterpretations, I suppose.

  • The Very Thought of You
  • Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square
  • I’m Old Fashioned
  • Can’t Take That Away from Me
  • Embraceable You
  • Blame It on My Youth
  • For All We Know
  • On the Street Where You Live
  • Stardust (of course)
  • The Way You Look Tonite
  • Girl Talk
  • They All Laughed
  • A Foggy Day

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