In praise of hibernating, returning to old challenges and (sometimes) choosing a slower pace

Glenn Gould’s iconic 1955 recording of J.S. Bach’s ‘Goldberg Variations’ was followed by a concert and recording career that accelerated at a feverish pace for the next decade, leading to his abandoning of live performance in 1964.  It is fascinating to compare Gould’s rendition of the first Goldberg variation from the 1955 recording, made in the midst of a public performing career, with the version from his second recording of the piece over 25 years later, after decades of self-imposed studio hibernation. The slowing of Gould’s tempo is the most obvious and striking change, but the change in piano sound and interpretation is also notable.  These two recordings document not just a musician who has grown older, but one who has matured through choosing a path of intentional isolation as an artist.  (As the biographical movie ‘Thirty Two Short Films About Glenn Gould’ dramatizes, Gould stayed socially engaged through his years of artistic isolation, although often through socially distanced means like extended phone calls.)  Gould’s influence on jazz can be seen in reinventions of the Goldberg Variations that have been made by a number of jazz pianists, including John Lewis and Dan Tepfer, whose most recent performance of his ‘Goldberg Variations Variations’ was in a socially-distanced virtual concert setting during the Covid 19 pandemic. 

In March of this year, with about two weeks notice, I suddenly had to begin teaching online jazz piano lessons during the Covid-19 pandemic.  Where only weeks before I had been sitting in the same room with my students, watching their hands on the keyboard and commenting from a few feet away, I now watched from many miles away as they played their pianos and keyboards at home, listening to the way the FaceTime app made their instruments sound as though they were at the bottom of a swimming pool. As I contemplated how to continue encouraging students to practice in this challenging situation, I made a list of great jazz pianists who had gone through a three-stage process similar to Gould’s with the Goldberg Variations:

1) making a well-known recording of a particular piece at an early or middle stage of their career

2) Going into some kind of hibernation later in their career (in some cases connected with a hiatus from performing), during which they continued their artistic development through studio recording

3) Returning to the previously recorded piece during their hibernation-era recording and finding a significantly different interpretation of it.

What follows are some of my own reflections about the historical context of musical revisitations by Bill Evans, Billy Strayhorn and Keith Jarrett, followed by analysis written by three of my UVM students, Matt Nemeth, Karina Aliyeva and Harrison Massing.  I also added ‘coda’ of my own on vocalist/pianist Shirley Horn and her exploration of slow tempos.  Below is a list you can use to navigate to the different sections of the post, in the event that your interest is more in the history of each tune (addressed in my sections) or analysis of the recordings (addressed in the sections by my students.)

Bill Evans’ return to Young and Foolish (TC)

When The Tony Bennett/Bill Evans Album was recorded in 1975, both Bennett and Evans had been established as leading artists on their respective instruments for more than twenty years.  While the album did not represent a period of literal hibernation for Bennett and Evans – both continued to perform extensively with their own groups during the time the album was recorded – it was an intentional retreat from the ensemble settings in which they had most often been heard (Evans with his trio and Bennett with his band led by his pianist and musical director Ralph Sharon.)

A quote from Tony Bennett about the making of the album suggests that this unusual musical combination was also recorded at an unusual time of day: ‘The best records I ever made are the duos with Ralph Sharon and Bill Evans,’ Bennett said, ‘We just went in there at two-thirty in the morning and went to work.’  A quote from Evans suggests he chose the duo format as an intentional challenge: ‘It was my idea that we make it only piano, though it kind of scared me,’ Bill said. ‘it seemed to be the best way to get that intimate communication going.  A lot of the public wants that big sound – the studio orchestra, highly produced or over produced.  So I thought we’d go all the way in the other direction, and I think it’s timely because a lot of young people are looking for that personal quality.’ 

Evans could have been referring to the popularity at that time of younger artists like Joni Mitchell and Neil Young who often mirrored their first-person, confessional lyrics with arrangements where their voices were accompanied by only one or two other instruments, as in Mitchell’s album ‘Blue’ and Young’s album ‘After The Gold Rush’.    On The Tony Bennett/Bill Evans Album and its successor, Together Again, Evans and Bennett chose to revisit a number of songs that both of them had interpreted before in larger group settings.  ‘Young and Foolish’ is a good example of how Evans’ arranging for the duo stands in fascinating contrast to his earlier trio recordings of the same material.  Matthew Nemeth breaks down the musical details of how Evans built his original trio arrangement of ‘Young and Foolish’ and how his approach to the tune evolved in the duo with Tony Bennett:

Analysis of two Bill Evans recordings of ‘Young and Foolish’ – by Matt Nemeth

Bill Evans made studio recordings of the tune “Young and Foolish” by Arnold Horwitt and Albert Hague on two separate occasions, each time with notable collaborators. His first recording of the tune from “Everybody Digs Bill Evans” was with Sam Jones on bass and Philly Joe Jones on drums, and the second was a duet recording with vocalist Tony Bennett. On the trio recording, which opens in the key of C major, Evans begins with a rubato statement of the verse and establishes a strong downbeat and strict time at the top of the form. The bass and drums play flexible jazz ballad time at a very slow tempo. Even within the context of a slow, steady tempo, Bill Evans takes his time with the melody, adding some fills and countermelodies but still leaving large spaces.  In contrast to
many of the other performances on ‘Everybody Digs Bill Evans’, Evans stays
focused on the melody throughout ‘Young and Foolish’.  He plays through the melody twice, modulating up a half step for the second chorus. He doesn’t play the last two bars of the melody on the first time through the form, but rather he modulates up a half
step to Db major and begins the melody (at 3:16) in the new key on the same
beat where last note of the previous chorus lands.  For the first eight bars of the tune in the
new key, Evans halves the harmonic rhythm, and the returns to the original
harmonic rhythm in the B section. He would further develop this technique in
his version of ‘Blue on Green’ two years later on Portrait In Jazz. 

Evans’ duo recording of the tune with Tony Bennett starts right off at the top of
the form (although other releases of the record include a take where they play through the verse preceding the form.) In contrast to Evans’ earlier version with its complex manipulations of the form, this version is a less altered and consequently more relaxed version of the tune.  During Tony Bennett’s vocal, the piano plays strict time in quarter notes in a fashion very similar to the LH pattern in “Peace Piece” (and in the same key). Bill Evans remains in the background until the first B section, where he plays fills between phrases of the melody and breaks his strict quarter note feel.  In his piano solo following Bennett’s introduction of the melody, Evans sticks to the form and the changes, but he
frequently changes his time feel and method of expression of the changes. He
starts with a melodic right hand line and comping with rootless voicings in the
left hand as if there were a bass player.  It’s interesting to note how the absence of
the chord roots doesn’t lead the performance to sound incomplete, as Evans is so
skilled with maintaining a sense of inner voice leading in his chords.   Later
in the solo he pulls back from the bebop style improvisation and arpeggiates
chords. Although he isn’t playing a single note of the melody, his soloing remains melodically grounded. Tony Bennett comes back in to sing the last B section of the melody. While Tony holds the last note, Bill Evans briefly goes back to the stride quarter note feel fromthe beginning, once again closing with an allusion to his ‘Peace Peace’ vamp  (this time between Cmaj7 and Abm6).                                                                                                                                                  

Billy Strayhorn’s unhurried return to ‘Take The A Train’ (TC)

Billy Strayhorn’s recording of his solo album ‘The Peaceful Side’ was a rare venture outside the world of the Duke Ellington Orchestra, the ensemble to which his composing and arranging was largely devoted.  Unlike his other projects outside the orchestra which used subsets of the group (such as a two-piano recording with Duke Ellington and a small group record with alto saxophonist Johnny Hodges), The Peaceful Side includes no Ellington Orchestra players.  Thus this album was a retreat from Strayhorn’s musical world in the U.S. to a different location, Paris, and a different group of players (including the Paris String Quartet and the vocal group The Paris Blue Notes). 

In addition to being a different scene for Strayhorn geographically and musically, Paris was an important haven in his personal life as well. On the website, Matthew Asprey writes that ‘In Paris, Ellington was a major celebrity. The city was more of a refuge for Billy Strayhorn, a quiet gay man who gave Ellington credit for much of his work. Strayhorn’s former lover Aaron Bridgers was the house pianist at the
gay-friendly Mars Club on Rue Robert Estienne near the Champs-Elysées. Bridgers
appeared as a pianist in the film Paris Blues (miming to Ellington or Strayhorn’s track)… When in town, Strayhorn sat in at the piano. He’d often remain in Paris during the band’s annual European tour.’ 

In a filmed version of ‘A Train’ from a 1965 concert in Copenhagen, Strayhorn, at Ellington’s beckoning, walks onstage with humorous reluctance and takes a solo that sounds artistically constrained but yet still technically brilliant.  Strayhorn’s own version of ‘Take The A Train’ on ‘The Peaceful Side’, by contrast, shows a very different musical personality, and a greater level of control, inspiration and individuality that he was able to inhabit in Paris, away from his role in the Ellington organization. 

Analysis of three versions of ‘Take The A Train’ – by Karina Aliyeva

‘Take The A Train’ was written by Billy Strayhorn in the early 1940s for the band of his longtime collaborator Duke Ellington. The title refers to the directions Ellington gave Strayhorn on to get to his home in New York, Strayhorn wanted this piece to be reminiscent of the style of the era- at a tempo and length conducive to swing dancing, and prominently featuring trumpets, trombones, and saxophones.  The first recording of ‘Take The A Train’ by Duke Ellington and his Orchestra in 1941 pushed this piece into history and forever cemented it as a must-learn for jazz players. With a driving tempo and
great big band energy, this tune became a radio hit and was featured, along with the
Ellington Orchestra, in the 1943 film Reveille with Beverly.  

Not until 1963, on his album “The Peaceful Side”, did Strayhorn record his own arrangement of the song, revealing a very different approach. On this album, Strayhorn was focusing on his unique piano style, unencumbered by the need for fame,
money, or praise. Strayhorn is known to have first aspired to be a pianist and composer
in the classical music world, but due to the racism present during his lifetime
this would have been nearly impossible.   ‘You know, he didn’t play in the swing band,’
Strayhorn’s high school band director Carl McVicker says of his high school
years in David Hadju’s biography Lush Life. ‘He wasn’t interested.  He was a serious pianist and concentrated strictly on the concert repertoire.’ After moving decisively into to the jazz world through his collaboration with Ellington, Strayhorn continued to incorporate elements of classical music into his style and playing. His recording of Take the A Train is reminiscent almost of Chopin. This is no surprise, considering that shortly before the recording of ‘The Peaceful Side’ Strayhorn had been delving into his lifelong affinity for classical music, contributing arrangements to the Ellington Orchestra recording of The Nutcracker Suite.  On his 1963 version of ‘A Train’, Strayhorn plays long stretches of reflective, quiet, and meticulously technical solo piano, joined on the bridge by a shimmering string quartet and double bass.  It is much slower and definitely less dance-oriented than the big band version. This quiet, more insightful version, while it stays close to the melody throughout, includes many improvised fills, tangents, and retinutos – perfect
for listening to when in a reflective mood. 

Keith Jarrett’s return to ‘Blame It On My Youth’ (TC)

While he was in the fourth decade of a career as one of the most successful jazz pianists in the world, Keith Jarrett became ill with chronic fatigue syndrome in the fall of 1996 while touring Europe. As an article in SFGate described it, “He was suddenly overcome by such a profound sense of fatigue that he told his wife he felt as if aliens had invaded his body.”  In a Time magazine article, Terry Teachout wrote that Jarrett ‘staggered off the stage after a concert in Italy, completely exhausted and wondering whether he would ever be able to play again.’ 

One of the effects of Jarrett’s condition was an aversion to music. “My body was telling me that I couldn’t even listen to music if I wanted to maintain at least some level of health,” Jarrett told SFGate. After a year of convalescing, Jarrett’s return to the piano came in the form of short visits to his practice studio.  These visits also included short recording sessions, initially intended for a very small audience, but which eventually became Jarrett’s comeback album, 1998’s ‘The Melody At Night With You.’

“I started taping it in December of 1997, as a Christmas present for my
wife,” Jarrett recalled in an interview with Terry Teachout for Time
magazine in 1999. “I’d just had my Hamburg Steinway overhauled and wanted
to try it out, and I have my studio right next to the house, so if I woke up
and had a half-decent day, I would turn on the tape recorder and play for a few
minutes. I was too fatigued to do more. Then something started to click with
the mike placement, the new action of the instrument–I could play so soft–and
the internal dynamics of the melodies of the songs. It was one of those little
miracles that you have to be ready for, though part of it was that I just
didn’t have the energy to be clever. Also, I’d just stopped drinking
coffee.” He laughs. “So the album ended up being about how you play
melody without cleverness. It’s almost as though I was detoxing from standard
chordal patterns. I didn’t want any jazz harmonies that came from the brain
instead of the heart.”

Harrison Massing analyzes the version of Oscar Levant’s ‘Blame It On My
Youth’ that Jarrett plays on ‘The Melody At Night With You’, an earlier version
of the tune Jarrett recorded with his trio, and an iconic rendition of the tune
by Chet Baker from the late 1980s. 

Analysis of three versions of ‘Blame It On My Youth’ – by Harrison Massing

Chet Baker’s 1987 recording of ‘Blame It On My Youth’  is in the key of Bb major at a tempo of around 40 beats per minute. He sings the melody very softly in a low register. His phrasing is extremely relaxed, loose, and often falls behind the beat, drawing
out every phrase — especially “blame it on my youth” so as to bring a meditative poignancy to the lyrics and the tune as a whole. The context of the recording — being a year before his death — makes his interpretation of the melody seem much more haunting, because it sounds like he recorded the tune knowing he didn’t have much time left.

Keith Jarrett’s 1991 version is in the key of F major and comes
in at around 60 beats per minute. Jarrett’s interpretation of the melody
— played on piano — stays within a range about 2-3 octaves above Baker’s.
His phrasing is faster, making each phrase distinct; whereas Baker’s phrasing
is harder to divide into clear segments, Jarrett plays each phrase (such as
“blame it on my youth”) rather quickly and leaves a significant space before
moving on to the next. His interpretation is also more complex; he incorporates
more flourishes and accents, while Baker’s notes were bare and unembellished
(except for tasteful vibrato).

Jarrett’s 1998 recording is also in F, but slower, at around 50 beats per minute, although the rubato in this version makes the tempo hard to pinpoint. His interpretation of the melody in this one reminds me much more of Chet Baker’s version than Jarrett’s 1991
version does; like Baker, his phrasing is much more drawn out and much simpler,
although still in a higher range.  Jarrett’s second version of the tune also resembles Baker’s in its focus on the melody and its intentional lack of ornaments and fills. This version feels meditative, and has some of the poignancy of Chet Baker’s recording, although without the lyrics and context of Baker’s version, it doesn’t have quite the same level of incredible

Coda: The Quantum Mechanics of the Ballad: Shirley Horn on ‘How Insensitive’ (TC)

Like Gould, Strayhorn and Jarrett, the iconic jazz vocalist and underrated jazz pianist Shirley Horn often managed to find new meaning in familiar pieces through returning to them and choosing slower tempos.  Horn’s  1981 version of the Antonio Carlos Jobim tune ‘How Insensitive’  is radically slower than the version by Joao Gilberto, who likely introduced the tune. In a 1999 version of the tune, Horn not only took an even slower tempo than her own 1981 version, she began with a rubato intro as well.  One of Horn’s career goals seemed to be the exploring of increasingly slow tempos, which she used to draw new levels of meaning from songs. While the slower tempo of Horn’s 1999 version can be challenging to listen to at first if one is used to Jobim’s tempo, it does allow her to isolate particular notes and lyrics, revealing them to be worlds within themselves, much like a physicist exploring an atom with an increasing levels of magnification and discovering previously unseen particles. 





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