#OnRepeat: Nina Simone’s “I Put a Spell On You”

This week is the week leading up to Halloween and, therefore, Nina Simone’s “I Put a Spell On You” has been #OnRepeat, especially because Bette Midler kills her version of this song in the movie Hocus Pocus (a movie I watch every year during this time).

Nina Simone was a songwriter, pianist, arranger, singer and an activist from North Carolina who was known as a Jazz vocalist, but implemented Gospel, R&B, Blues, Jazz, and Pop music with elements of Classical music. She recorded more than 40 albums and her improvisational technique, musical arranging, stage presence and socially conscious performances made her one of the most influential singers of her time. Some of her most well-known songs are “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood,” “Feeling Good,” “Sinner Man,” and “I Loves You, Porgy.”

“I Put A Spell On You” was originally written by the singer and actor, Screamin’ Jay Hawkins in 1956 with a different theme, but–in true Nina Simone fashion–Simone changed around the words and musical arrangement, transforming it into a song about someone madly in love with someone else despite how they mistreat them. Her vocal licks, musical phrasing and her performance of the words made this one of her most well-known songs (it is definitely my favorite). The desperation, angst, and stubbornness conveyed in the lyrics is magnified by Simone’s powerful, deep voice, her use of long straight tones, and intermittent scatting.

Take a listen below:

Here is Bette Midler’s version of this song for reference:

Although I love Simone’s version, I cannot deny that both vocalists perform amazing versions of this classic song, both bringing their own unique interpretation of the lyrics and music.

What do you think? Which version do you like? Leave a comment below!

Continue Reading

Memoirs of a Frustrated Singer – “Skylark Doesn’t Sound Right”

Late night rehearsals were not her favorite. Especially when just getting through a previous four-hour rehearsal with musicians that didn’t practice, didn’t care, and didn’t want to be there. She was tired, both physically and emotionally, and she definitely needed sleep. It was nights like this that made her question whether she truly could be a singer.

“Hey, let’s run ‘Skylark,’ guys,” she said, adjusting her microphone stand.

Sam was noodling around on the drums while William was playing a pattern on the congas.

She held up the chart. “Can we run through Skylark one time? It’s super late.”

Sam looked over at William’s hands and decided to join in. The piano player heard the pattern that William and Sam were playing and he started playing a montuno on the piano.

She shot Todd, the piano player, a dirty look.

He smiled and played the montuno faster.

I don’t have the patience for this, she thought, rolling her eyes. She sat down and put her chin in her hands.

“Alright guys. Let’s run ‘Skylark’ before Tiffany loses it,” William called to the other band members as he slapped one of the conga heads.

She looked down at the ground and sighed. William loved to jam for hours and hours and was easily distracted, whether they had to get stuff done or not. The level of sarcasm in his voice was more than she liked, but she was grateful William had taken charge and got the band back on track. Who knows how long she would’ve been sitting there.

She had never felt she fit the leadership role very well, being more comfortable with the idea of being a part of and working as a team. That’s why she hated when stage crews placed the microphone out front, far from the rest of the band, isolating her. She loved set-ups where everyone was close together, even if it was uncomfortable, because then she felt part of the group. She could interact with everyone easily and react if something happened unexpectedly.

Todd began to play the intro to the song, interrupting her thoughts. She came in with the first verse, but as she kept singing, she noticed something sounded off with he chords that Todd was playing. She tried to ignore it as she continued on to the second verse, but his chord voicings felt like nails on a chalkboard. She winced. She knew her music theory was poor and that if she said something, Todd would ask for specific keys and fingerings. Something that she honestly couldn’t do. She looked at William and Sam, who both gave her uncertain looks.

Sam put up his hand. “Stop. Let’s run it from the top again.”

Todd played the intro to “Skylark” and she came in with the first verse again, but the same issue was still happening. There was no room, melodically, for her to sing. Todd’s chord voicings sat right on top of her voice. “Something’s not right,” she called out to Todd.

“What do you mean?” Todd stopped playing.

“The chords you’re playing don’t sound right,” she said, making a face.

“Well, what chords? Show me specifically what chords I’m playing wrong. If you can’t point them out, then–”

“I don’t know what exactly you’re playing, Todd, I just know it’s the wrong chords,” she said, feeling herself blush. She knew he would put her on the spot if she spoke up. Just because she couldn’t name every chord Todd was playing without looking, didn’t mean she was wrong. She knew she had a really good ear. Now, though, she felt stupid for saying anything.

Sam got up from behind the drum set and walked over to stand beside Todd. “Let me see what chords you’re playing.”

Todd played the first couple of chords.

“You do know this is in the key of A minor, right?” Sam said, frustrated. He pushed Todd over on the bench so he could sit down and start playing.

“Where on this chart does it say what key it’s in?” Todd said, losing his patience.

“Right there!” Sam pointed to an area on the chart. He started playing the chords of the song. “Tiffany, start from the top. I’ll play along.”

She started singing the first verse while Sam accompanied her. “That feels way more comfortable.”

“Yeah, dude, your voicings were wrong. You’re crowding her too much when you play like that. She’s supposed to sit on top. Not fight to be heard.” Sam got up to go back to the drums.

Todd started running through the chords, playing the voicings that Sam had shown him.

She shook her head. She knew she shouldn’t let it get to her, but being a singer who was severely lacking in music theory was crippling. Musicians already had notions of singers being divas and complainers. Add lack of technical musical knowledge and it would become downright embarrassing whenever any type of issues arose. Moments like the one she just had with Todd would happen more often if she didn’t start studying theory more.

Sam counted off on the drums. She raised her eyes from the floor and started to sing.

Continue Reading

Memoirs of a Frustrated Singer — “Doubt”

“Just get up there and sing. It won’t be that hard,” William said, shrugging his shoulders.

“What do you mean, ‘just get up and sing’? What if they don’t know the key that I sing it in?” she said, looking at him incredulously.

“Tiffany, they’re musicians. They’ll know.” He put his hands up as if to almost physically push her towards the small stage.

She hesitated, looking at the musicians playing. This was as good a place as any to get more experience performing. The restaurant was dimly lit and the few people who were there were too busy talking or eating to notice the music being played. From the looks of it, it seemed as though the musicians were too busy to notice her either. She turned around to sit back down.

“Nope. Go!” William whispered loudly, pointing to the stage.

She gave him a dirty look and turned back around, walking over to the elderly man playing piano. She waited until the group stopped playing completely and turned to the piano player. “‘Willow Weep for Me’? In C?” she said hesitantly.

“In C Major?” the piano player asked, taking off his fedora to wipe his bald head with a towel.

“Yes,” she said, smiling.

“No,” the piano player said, immediately shaking his head.

Her smile turned into a frown as she looked over to meet William’s eyes. What did he mean ‘no’? She saw a look of confusion cross over William’s face as he looked at the pianist. That was the key that she knew the song in and the key she felt her voice fit. The fact that this professional, gigging musician, who’d probably been playing for at least two decades was telling her that the key she had practiced for this song was wrong, made her feel uneasy. Was it the right key or did he just not like the song? Or maybe she had approached him in a rude way, but then, how else was she supposed to say it? What was this guy’s deal? “That’s the key I sing the song in,” she said, standing her ground.

The piano player shrugged and nodded at the other musicians, who started to play.

As she sang through the first verse, she could hear some of the notes that the piano player was playing were off. She looked back to see the piano player grimacing and shaking his head. She finished singing and went around to thank all the musicians. After she was done, she sat back down with William.

“I don’t think he was comfortable playing the song in that key,” William said under his breath.

“Well then he should’ve said that. Not just shoot me down,” she said, shaking her head. She had been nervous enough already, walking up to and performing in a situation she wasn’t familiar with; the pianist’s attitude and response had filled her with doubt. “I don’t have much experience performing at jam sessions. You would think he would be a little sympathetic.”

“Quit acting like a victim. You’ve performed before. There’s really not that much difference,” William said as they walked towards the door.

She could tell she was going to get as much sympathy from William as she had from the piano player, so she let it drop. She knew she wasn’t okay with how the musician had talked to her, regardless of how many years of experience he had or how little experience she had. Either way, she didn’t like being treated like that by anyone. This had been a learning experience.

 

Continue Reading

#OnRepeat: The Manhattan Transfer’s “Java Jive”

This week, I’ve had The Manhattan Transfer’s “Java Jive” #OnRepeat. While doing some research for the topic, vocalese, I came across this group and this song, which is actually an arrangement that my choir sang back in high school. Even just thinking about the title makes me automatically sing through my second alto part in my head because I love this song so much and there are so many fond memories attached to it.

The Manhattan Transfer is a Jazz vocal group that was founded in 1969. Interestingly enough, the group initially disbanded after their first album had poor commercial success and a bad creative approach that wasn’t well received. Then, in 1972, another version of the group formed and recorded the album, The Manhattan Transfer. The group’s music consists of Jazz standards, A Cappella, Vocalese, Swing, R&B, Pop, and Brazilian Jazz. They have received several Grammy Awards and nominations for their work, and were even inducted in the Vocal Group Hall of Fame in 1998. Some of their most well-known songs are “Tuxedo Junction,” “Route 66,” “Mystery,” and “Sassy.”

“Java Jive” is a song written by Ben Oakland and Milton Drake in 1940. The song was originally performed by The Ink Spots, a Pop vocal group that was popular during the 1930s and 1940s. “Java Jive” is an upbeat song expressing love for coffee that uses common phrases and cultural references from the 1940s. The Manhattan Transfer’s version of this song is the sound you think of when you think of this group: tight, four-part harmony, precise phrasing and Jazz riffs reminiscent of the 1930s and 1940s. Each voice alone is bright and strong, but together creates a warm, full sound that you look for in a vocal group with just the right amount of swing.

Take a listen below:

 

Do you have a singer or group that you can’t stop listening to? Leave a comment below!

Continue Reading

Musings-Herbie Hancock

behind_hancock
[p.c. : laphil.com]
“Jazz is really about the human experience. It’s about the ability of human beings to take the worst of circumstances and struggles and turn it into something creative and constructive. That’s something that’s built into the fiber of every human being. And I think that’s why people can respond to it. They feel the freedom in it.”–Herbie Hancock

When I read this quote, I automatically replaced the word, “Jazz” with the word, “music,” because Jazz isn’t the only type of music that this statement applies to. All of music is a human experience because you can find instances of people taking their stories and struggles and turn it into some type of creative product across different cultures and in different communities around the world. It is very interesting to see similarities and parallels between different cultures in terms of how music is created, performed and shared. Freedom and progression are two inherently human needs. I believe that this is the element of humanity that Herbie is referring to.

Although music, itself, is mutable, Jazz is one of the few musics that can not only influence, but be influenced by other musics. It relies heavily on improvisation, yet still retains a certain musical format. Decades later, there is still so much freedom and progression in the music that it’s no wonder why people keep turning back to it, responding to it in a positive way. The music is constantly evolving, changing with the times, and yet still retains some of its original quality.

All the while I write this response, I keep thinking that this statement (that Herbie Hancock made) is so Herbie Hancock. He is the epitome of this quote: the type of musician that is able to progress with his music and ideas, staying relevant when so much of the music industry and the world itself has changed. He has been able to become and stay as successful as he has been because he is constantly evolving and adapting, both as a person and as a musician; being part of the human experience.

Continue Reading

#OnRepeat: Ithmara Koorax’s “Mas Que Nada”

This week, I’ve had Ithmara Koorax’s version pf “Mas Que Nada” #OnRepeat. Although I am fairly familiar with some Brazilian music, I haven’t come across Ithmara before, so when I heard this song, it took me by surprise.

Ithmara Koorax is a Pop and Jazz singer from Rio de Janeiro, Brazil who rose to prominence  in the Brazilian Pop and Jazz scene during the 1990s. She started out studying classical music, but became very interested in Pop music, having played with artists such as Luiz Bonfa, Azymuth, Ron Carter, and Gonzalo Rubalcaba. Her music blends influences of Jazz, Pop, Blues, and traditional and popular Brazilian music. Her vocal timbre and performance style is reminiscent of Elis Regina, especially in her vocalizations. Some of her most well-known songs are “Perdido de Amor,””The Girl From Ipanema,” and “Ligia.”

Ithmara’s version of “Mas Que Nada” is rhythmically and melodically so different from the standard written by Jorge Ben Jor, that the words are your musical anchor, allowing you to sing the song, either out loud or in your head, so you can recognize it. Much of Ithmara’s music is slightly eclectic, bordering on the edge of experimental or what some would call “Free Jazz,” but that’s what makes it so interesting. The timbre of her voice, and how she manipulates it in the song, only adds to the eclectic, ethereal ambience of the music.

Take a listen below:

 

I don’t know too much about Ithmara Koorax, so if anyone has any interesting information  or songs of hers that you think I should listen to, please leave a comment below!

 

Continue Reading

#OnRepeat: Lizz Wright’s “Nature Boy”

This week, I’ve had Lizz Wright’s “Nature Boy” #OnRepeat. This song is actually one of the first Jazz standards I ever sang, and I have always loved revisiting this version whenever I try to find new ways to interpret this song. I believe that trying to find different approaches to performing the same song helps you to develop your creative skills and helps you to progress as a musician; so listening to different musicians’ versions of a standard aids in this discovery. Lizz Wright is a beast of a singer, so she is probably one of the best musical resources to tap for this process.

The song, “Nature Boy,” was first recorded by Nat King Cole and was released in 1948. The song was originally written by eden ahbez, a songwriter who lived a vagabond lifestyle that would later inspire the hippie movement of the 1960s. The lyrics in the song supposedly depict the songwriter’s demeanor and lifestyle, with hints of haplessness, mysticism, and wisdom. The lyrics and music give you the impression that ahbez has experienced great loss or pain, and through this had discovered a common, universal truth.

Lizz Wright, who is a Jazz and Gospel singer, captures the eclectic nature of this song perfectly. She takes the melody and rhythm, manipulating both so much that you would have a heard time identifying the original song within her new arrangement (she has completely made the song her own). Her ability to take rhythmic and melodic risks (using or picking notes or melodic phrases that your ear wouldn’t associate with the original tonality of the song) and the confidence she has when taking these risks make her interpretation of “Nature Boy” incredibly unique and poignant.

Take a listen below:

 

Is there a singer or group that you can’t stop listening to? Let us know in the comments below!

 

Continue Reading

Musings-Stan Getz

p01gfcst.jpg

[p.c. :www.bbc.co.uk.com]

“You can read all the textbooks and listen to all the records, but you have to play with musicians that are better than you.” —Stan Getz

This quote reminds me of another quote: “You are the company that you keep.” If you aspire to greater things, have goals you want to accomplish, or are even trying to change your state of mind, surround yourself with like-minded, similarly goal-oriented individuals because you will naturally strive to do and be more. This is a great quote that applies to all aspects of your life and can be applied to music as well. Both quotes have the same underlying theme: challenge yourself. Push yourself outside of your comfort zone.

Studying music theory, listening to tons of music, and practicing for hours on end can help you become a better musician (in part). However, performing with musicians who are better than you forces you to be on top of your game, experiment, and push yourself further than you normally would. Also, seasoned musicians tend to teach you things in musical situations that you wouldn’t necessarily learn or experience on your own or with anyone else. Which, in turn, creates a more comfortable environment allowing you to push yourself even more.

Pushing yourself only produces real results (musical and individual growth) in real-life experiences or real musical situations. Playing with heavy musicians or musicians that are better than you is—in my opinion—the only way you really learn. You will make mistakes and you will be embarrassed beyond belief. I know that sounds unappealing (who in their right mind would willingly put themselves into a situation where they will most likely look like an idiot?), but it’s the best type of learning environment. “You learn on the job.” The next time you have an opportunity to play, you wont make the same mistake because you’ll remember how you felt when you were uncomfortable. When you were outside of your comfort zone. It’s in these moments of being challenged and being pushed beyond our comfort zone that we grow, discovering who we are as musicians and discovering ourselves.

 

Continue Reading

Musings- Miles Davis

miles-davis1.jpg
Miles Davis | p.c.: geneseymour.com

“When you hit a wrong note, it’s the next note that makes it good or bad.” -Miles Davis

I came across this quote while scrolling through social media and it made me think about my undergraduate years at UC San Diego, studying and performing music. Sometimes quotes like these make me think of past experiences and other phrases or thoughts attached to those experiences. The phrase that comes to mind when I read this quote was something that my professor and friend, Kamau Kenyatta, has repeatedly said to myself along with other students: “You’re always a half-step away from the right note.”

Sometimes musicians have a tendency to say that the way in which another musician performed a song or solo was wrong. This usually stems from that individual’s personal experiences (how they learned the music they play, what their ideals are, who taught them how to play their instrument/music, etc.) and should be taken with a grain of salt. They expect to hear things like a particular type of orchestration and certain characteristic licks on instruments, and if they don’t hear these things, they consider the music wrong or lacking, forgetting completely that a lot of work goes into creating that piece of music, whether it is aesthetically pleasing to the ear or not.

Having attended an experimental music program for my undergrad degree, I’ve seen music expressed and performed in all types of ways. Self-expression can be pure and real. Therefore it is hard for me to tell a musician that something that they do is wrong or right. I prefer to offer my own advice and opinion in terms of style and technique, but students (and fellow musical colleagues) are free to take or leave what I have to say.

This way of thinking–being a “half-step away from the right note” and the next note you play determining whether the previous one is the “wrong” note–is a great way  to to approach playing and performing music. I agree completely with this way of thinking, and by extension, Miles Davis’ quote, because it enables an open, accepting environment for creating and self-expression. This also leads to more experimentation in music, and thus progression. For me, music is very human. When I say this, I mean that humans tend to naturally evolve and progress, and since music is inherently human, so should music. The only way to do this is by continually hitting those supposed “wrong” notes, potentially “messing up” that Jazz or Latin standard, adding different notes or licks than what people might expect. Create. Experiment. Find what works for you and your audience. In the process of trying to find the “right” note, musicians not only discover who they are musically, but who they are as individuals.

Continue Reading

#OnRepeat: Chet Baker’s “My Funny Valentine”

This week, I’ve had Chet Baker’s version of “My Funny Valentine” #OnRepeat. I started listening to this song again after I had a conversation with a fellow musician about Chet’s musicality, and I just can’t get enough of his version of this song.

Chet Baker is a Jazz trumpeter, flugelhorn player, and vocalist from Yale, Oklahoma. He gained attention by performing with tenor saxophonist Stan Getz, Charlie Parker, and as a member of Gerry Mulligan’s Quartet. Chet Baker has been associated with West Coast Jazz, BeBop, and the Cool Jazz genres, and his versatility on his instrument, along with his unique vocal sound gained him a lot of recognition throughout his career. Some of his most well-known songs are “Chetty’s Lullaby,” “Il Mio Domani (My Tomorrow),” and “Anticipated Blues.” Had it not been for Baker’s drug addiction issues and subsequent overdose, he most likely would have still been creating and re-creating great music.

Although Chet Baker does have an instrumental version of “My Funny Valentine,” I find the vocal version much more interesting because of how he interprets the words and his delivery of the melody. The lyrics are already intimate enough–loving someone despite all of their little quirks and physical flaws–but when Chet starts to sing the words, you feel as though you’re sitting on the floor of a quiet, dark room with only his voice. Chet has an incredible way of expressing vulnerability and depth at the same time with his performance style. “My Funny Valentine” has and always will be a great standard, but Chet’s performance makes his version of this song the first that comes to mind when you think of this title.

Take a listen below:

 

Are there any versions of a particular song that you can’t get enough of? Let us know in the comments below!

Continue Reading