Over the past six months I have been engaged with studying and performing the music of Lennie Tristano, Lee Konitz and Warne Marsh. My studies have renewed my longtime interest in the canon of great American standards. I have decided to write a little bit about a few of the songs that I have been exploring most recently.
My friend Jesse Rimler of Kapowski recently turned me on to the book American Popular Song by Alec Wilder. I don’t know how I’ve gone so long without reading this book. It’s an amazing resource for anyone interested in songs from the first half of the 20th century.
Composed by David Raskin for the film of the same title. The movie, directed by Otto Preminger, is classic noir and totally worth watching.
The melody is hauntingly beautiful and complex, using lots of rich upper chord tones in the first 8 bars. According to Alec Wilder, before the lyrics had been added the publishers of the song unanimously agreed that such a complex melody could not be published. It wasn’t until they heard Johnny Mercer’s beautiful lyrics that they changed their mind. Interestingly Preminger has apparently gone on record saying he dislikes Mercer’s lyrics, which don’t have any strict correlation with the film itself.
I first learned the song out of a fake book when I was in junior high. My inspiration to play the tune came from a girl I had a huge crush on named Laura. Check out Ella Fitzgerald’s version.
My Shining Hour (1943)
Composed by Harold Arlen with lyrics by Johnny Mercer for the Fred Astaire film “The Sky’s the Limit.” Alec Wilder describes the song as representing “…sexless innocence and distilled simplicity.” Your life will not be complete until you’ve seen this clip from the movie. The magic of neon lights! The harmony around 0:35″ gives me goosebumps every time.
Guitarist John Klopotowski wrote a great line on this tune entitled “A Worthwhile Hour.” It’s our newest addition to the Quintet repertoire.
I’ll Remember April (1941)
Composed by Gene de Paul, the author of Star Eyes and You Don’t Know What Love Is. The song was originally sung by Dick Foran in the Abbot & Costello film “Ride ‘Em Cowboy.” I haven’t seen this film, but apparently it features the screen debut of Ella Fitzgerald.
The tune is unique in virtually every respect: the harmony rotates around G Major, modulating to the flat mediant major (Bb) and submediant major (E) during the bridge. This is especially wild in relation to the harmonic stasis of the A sections which start with an 8 bar pedal over G (4 bars of G Major, 4 bars of G minor). Alec Wilder considers the form to be A-B-C-D-A-B, though I would reduce that simply to A-B-A (I can’t think of another widely played standard with this same structure). What really seals the deal is the beautiful step-wise melody in the first 8 bars.
Lennie Tristano used the harmony as the basis for one of his most intricate lines entitled “April.” I’m particularly fond of this version from the complete Half Note recordings of Lee & Warne. Lee’s opening phrases are so good.
Theo Padouvas and I spent the last couple weeks learning this line by ear off the record. We’re totally pumped to perform it for the first time this Sunday.