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Sam Braysher
Jazz Standards and
The Great American Songbook

 

 

 

Dance Little Lady Dance Little Man album

 

It is good to have a new album released by saxophonist Sam Braysher - Dance Little Lady, Dance Little Man reflects what you might expect from a musician who has a wide appreciation of the music in its many forms. In the world before Covid-19, you would have found Sam playing in small groups and in big bands in the London area and elsewhere. He also has the initiative to collaborate with other well-known musicians outside the UK. His previous 2017 album, Golden Earrings, was a successful duet excursion with the respected American pianist, Michael Kanan.

This time, his Trio includes Jorge Rossy and Tom Farmer. Catalan drummer Jorge Rossy is known for his work with Brad Mehldau, Lee Konitz, Chick Corea, Kurt Rosenwinkel, Wayne Shorter, Tom Harrell, Carla Bley and Joshua Redman. He is also a highly melodic vibraphone and marimba player, and his ability to switch between sticks and mallets gives the trio an extra degree of versatility. Double bassist Tom Farmer is one of the UK's in-demand musicians and part of the band Empirical. He can also be heard with artists as diverse as Anoushka Shankar, Joe Stilgoe, Ant Law and Ivo Neame.

 

Here's a short introductory video.

 

 

 

Sam says: "It was a real honour to record with Jorge and Tom, both of whom I have looked up to for a long time. As always, I tried to choose an interesting selection of tunes for this set, including some that are rarely played by jazz musicians, although I hope a few of these might at least sound familiar. With the Great American Songbook material in particular, I aimed to learn it deeply Sam Braysher Trioby consulting the original sheet music where possible and learning the lyrics. The three of us of course have a multitude of influences between us, but when preparing these arrangements I was vaguely thinking about the approaches to standard material of Sonny Rollins (especially on the album The Sound of Sonny), Thelonious Monk and Ahmad Jamal.”

Each album has an fascinating playlist of tunes you know and others you are less likely to know, and the variety makes for interesting listening. Golden Earrings includes tunes such as Dancing In The Dark, a medley of Irving Berlin's numbers, Charlie Parker's Cardboard and finishes with Way Down Yonder In New Orleans. The new album Dance Little Lady, Dance Little Man, released on the 22nd April 2021, includes the Gershwins' Shall We Dance, Rodgers and Hammerstein's This Nearly Was Mine, and Dexter Gordon's For Regulars Only, along with Sam's own composition, Pintxos.

You can see a pattern here - tunes from the Great American Songbook and a love of jazz 'standards' but the test is whether musicians can do something interesting with tunes people know well.

Take Heart And Soul from the new album. Sam says: 'Heart and Soul, available as a single, is an interesting song with music by Hoagy Carmichael and lyrics by Frank Loesser. It's not a number that is played loads by jazz musicians (although I was certainly influenced by versions by Bud Powell and Barry Harris), but you might recognise it as a piece that is played (in simplified form) by beginner pianists, as in this example.'

 

 

 

I wonder how many musicians and non-musicians have played this theme on the piano in the same way that we learned Chopsticks? Sam starts the piece on saxophone replicating that simple approach and then, gradually, the Trio take it forward and explore the composition's possibilities.

 

 

 

Sam says above of Heart And Soul that it is 'not played loads by jazz musicians' and that goes for a number of other songs that he 'rediscovers'. How many people remember Walter Donaldson's catchy Little White Lies or recognise Reflection from the animated movie Mulan? Sam proves that jazz musicians can do good things with a good tune.

During lockdown Sam has been writing and teaching including an online talk about Jazz and the Great American Songbook to students at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London. Sam has sent me a summary of the talk and although there is not room for us to include all the information about various composers and examples of their music that Sam shared with the students, the summary displays a comprehensive understanding of the music that we find in his playing:

 

"Jazz standards are tunes that are commonly played by jazz musicians, and which a jazz musician might reasonably be expected to know from memory. Generally, they have become well-known amongst our community because of one or more famous recordings made by jazz musicians.

The majority of the jazz standard repertoire can be divided up into two main categories:

Sam Braysher

 

 

1. Compositions by jazz musicians, which were always intended to be played by jazz improvisers (e.g. Airegin, Scrapple From The Apple, Woody ‘n’ You, Giant Steps, etc).

2. Songs from the American Songbook, which were, generally speaking, not originally composed as jazz tunes, but have nevertheless been adopted by jazz musicians. It includes lots of tunes you are probably familiar with (There Will Never Be Another You, Body and Soul, All of Me, Bye Bye Blackbird, etc).

 

It’s the second category - standards from the American Songbook - that we’re looking at here. The American Songbook is not a literal book, but rather a loose body of work by lots of different composers who wrote songs for musical theatre, film or stand-alone pop songs between (approximately) the 1910s to the 1960s. This golden age of American songwriting roughly coincided with what many consider to be the “golden age of jazz”.

There is a long history of jazz artists interpreting popular songs, dating back to 1917 (and probably earlier), when the Original Dixieland Jazz Band played Indiana on the very first jazz recording. Since then, most major jazz musicians have dealt with the American Songbook, at least to some extent.

Why? Many classic jazz musicians loved the American songbook because it was the popular music their generation grew up with. Between the 1930s and late ‘50s, the harmonic and structural language used in jazz compositions and popular songs was fairly similar, so jazz improvisational language rooted in bebop and swing (and beyond!) tends to work well over this material. Plus, these songs are considered timeless works of art, and the possibilities with regards to interpreting them are endless.

Most songs have a verse, which is essentially an introduction. Lots of these are now all but forgotten, although some are still commonly played (e.g. Stardust, Lush Life, Spring Can Really Hang You Up The Most). The chorus is the main section of the song - the part we tend to be familiar with, and which jazz musicians generally play over.

 

Things you might like to think about when playing standard songs:


● No matter how you ultimately want to interpret the tune, learning the melody thoroughly is a good place to start. The authentic sheet music (PDFs can often be found online) can really help you learn it exactly as the composer wrote it. Otherwise, you could find a non-jazz recording with a strict statement of the melody to help you learn it really accurately. The website Second Hand Songs is very useful for this.

● Try to at least become familiar with the lyrics, even if you ultimately forget them. Lots of great jazz musicians always learnt the words to the songs they played.

● The true essence of a song is in the melody and lyrics. The harmony is an accompaniment and is more open to interpretation. Check out a range of jazz recordings: think about which chords you like, and be aware of what changes other people might play.

● You can also find extra details in the sheet music, which might add depth to your performance of a song: a verse that no-one plays, a written interlude, harmony that is completely different to the ‘standard’ changes.

● Are you interpreting the song, or someone else’s interpretation of the song? (There’s not necessarily a correct answer to this but it’s worth thinking about).

 

“I like to learn the songs from sheet music ‘cause I like to know exactly note-for-note the way the songwriter wrote it, with his bass notes, his original chords, and then make my changes from that foundation…There might be one bass note or one chord that the songwriter put in there that is just right for that situation. Better than any substitute chord. And that’s why I just like to check it out with the sheet music, even if I make the changes later.” Teddy Wilson

Sam's notes about 'verse' and 'chorus' reminded me that, at times, readers have corrected me when I have written about the Great American Songbook. I used to call the 'verse' the 'Introduction' and thought the 'chorus' was the piece in the middle of the song - as you would find in a pop song ot church hymn. Sam explains: 'It is confusing because with lots of song forms (e.g. modern pop songs, and I think church hymns as well, as you say) we tend to alternate between verse and chorus, but that’s not really the case with Songbook-type songs. The contrasting bit that you’re referring to is the “bridge”, the “middle eight” or the “B section”. Occasionally I think it might also be called the “channel”, but I believe that’s an antiquated Americanism. Lots of these songs (just talking about the chorus now) have an AABA structure. So the whole chorus is 32 bars, comprising four eight-bar sections. The A sections all have the same melody and harmony (although different lyrics each time), while the B (the bridge) is completely different, to provide a contrast. It’s still part of the chorus though. So, in My Funny Valentine the bridge is 'Is your figure less than Greek? Is your mouth a little weak? When you open it to speak Are you smart?' Hope that makes sense!'

Now I know!

And so to finish, here's another single Sam has put out from Dance Little Lady, Dance Little Man. The song One Note Samba is again a number we all know, another tune that begins simply and then gives musicians a chance to, as they say on TV talent competitions, "make it their own" - as Sam does with this whole, enjoyable album.

 

 

 

Details of Dance Little Lady, Dance Little Man are available on Sam's website here.

 

 

 

Sam Braysher

 

 

 

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