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Importance of Lyrics to Jazz interpretation?

Discussion in 'Jazz Technique [DB]' started by Jack Clark, Oct 27, 2009.


  1. I've had two pros (Harry Pickens and Houston Person) tell me that the lyrics are important to their interpretations of jazz standards and other pieces.

    So I'm curious as to how many of you pros intentionally learn the lyrics--when there are any, of course--as a part of learning the tune. And do you do this when you're going to be comping, or only when you're going to solo?
     
  2. salcott

    salcott Supporting Member

    Aug 22, 2007
    NYC, Inwood.
    I like to know the lyrics, especially with ballads. Lyrics show you how to phrase the melody (and it's essential to learn the CORRECT melody, not a transcription from a jazz record) and provide another way into the song.
     
  3. Yes. One of my favorite recording artists is Nat King Cole. But I've recently seen a very young Nat Cole singing on an early television show with a smile that didn't at all match the words he was singing at the time. Sounded great, but looked strange.

    I don't think anyone could turn a lyric better than Sinatra and Streisand. But some maybe as good, like especially Tony Bennett. One reason I like Houston Person's and Harry Picken's music-making so much is that I can hear the lyrics coming from their instruments. Houston, especially, just about makes his sax sing the words.
     
  4. (Transferred from another thread to mitigate my unintentional hi-jack of it.)

    Yes! Great example, Kerry. I remember once noticing a "the," as the penultimate note/word of a tune, getting the long, drawn-out treatment, when the last note/word was clearly the one to emphasize. Purely musically, it could have worked either way, but since I knew the lyrics, it sounded wrong to stress the "the" note.
     
  5. Don Higdon

    Don Higdon In Memoriam

    Dec 11, 1999
    Princeton Junction, NJ
    For the third time, I'll tell the story about the great Ben Webster, whose ballad playing was legendary:
    On a gig, in the middle of a solo, he suddenly stopped playing altogether. Someone asked him what happened. Webster said:
    "I forgot the words."
     
  6. Ed and I rant on and on here about how wonderful it is to know the lyrics in many ways, so I won't rant.
    Suffice it to say that I know the lyrics to prolly 95% tunes I can play and that's about .........uh, helluva alot.

    If you don't learn them for yourself, learn them just to correct jive singers. They hate that ****. Really.

    EDIT: Dono, we had a thread years back where we tried to best each other on lyrics. You remember that?
    With the advent of Google it wouldn't float anymore. We also did one on verses.
     
  7. LOL! :^))
     
  8. Chris Fitzgerald

    Chris Fitzgerald Student of Life Staff Member Administrator

    Oct 19, 2000
    Louisville, KY
    It's absolutely essential when the lyrics are good, as in "You Don't Know What Love Is" or "My Ideal", or "Lush Life". In cases like that, knowing the lyrics can really help your interpretation. Other times, I feel like the lyrics aren't up to the standard (NPI) of the music they are set to, as in "Polka Dots And Moonbeams", among others (apologies to those who like those lyrics). In cases like that, I try to forget the lyrics and remember the vibe they were supposed to be about, which can still help.

    One thing about lyrics to standards is that you have to buy into the naivete behind a lot of them in order to really connect to them. For me, it's kind of like the whole concept of "suspension of disbelief" that accompanies certain books/movies which are built on a fantastic or implausible premise. If you reject the premise, the rest won't really matter. With so many of these love songs, you have to really be able to get back to the place in your own experience that was like what the subject of the lyrics is singing about.

    Just last night I heard Kenny Barron play. The music was absolutely gorgeous. Before the concert, he was asked about some of the younger players coming on to the scene, and he talked about how many of them had amazing technique, chops, repertoire, etc., but then said that many of these young lions didn't touch him musically because "they haven't had their hearts broken yet". That's probably one of the best quotes about maturity in musicianship I've ever heard. I think this concept applies to the topic of lyrics as well. When I was much younger, I found many of the standard lyrics extremely corny. Years later, some of those same lyrics strike me as completely devastating.
     
  9. JeffKissell

    JeffKissell Supporting Member

    Nov 21, 2004
    Soquel, CA
    +1
    One of the best quotes ever!!
    -J
     
  10. That's a keeper, Chris. Worthy of a sticky.
     
  11. Gornick

    Gornick

    Jun 23, 2006
    Bay Area, CA
    Great post... I am one who loves the lyrics to "Polka dots." anything having to do with a "pug nose dream" will catch my ear. I mean the whole thing paints this surreal picture that is hard to take seriously. how can you play "Polka Dots" as a tear jerker if you know the lyrics?

    Perhaps that is the point of the tune, which might bring up the next question: How important is it to know the context of the tune in regards to the original production? Might be taking it too far.
     
  12. Roger Davis

    Roger Davis

    May 24, 2006
    England
    I beg your pardon?
     
  13. Sam Sherry

    Sam Sherry Inadvertent Microtonalist Supporting Member

    Sep 26, 2001
    Portland, ME
    Euphonic Audio "Player"
    Exactly. Music has to work as "music."

    As Brother Few once said, 'You have to play with the band on the stand, not the band in your head.' If you aren't a singer and you stop because you forgot the lyrics, you're playing with something that is not there (even if you ARE Lester Young). In the unlikely event that anyone is listening to me play I can only hope that they are hearing a bass, not lyrics.
     
  14. MLysh

    MLysh

    Oct 11, 2007
    MD/DC/VA
    Chris wrote:

    "One thing about lyrics to standards is that you have to buy into the naivete behind a lot of them in order to really connect to them. For me, it's kind of like the whole concept of "suspension of disbelief" that accompanies certain books/movies which are built on a fantastic or implausible premise. If you reject the premise, the rest won't really matter. With so many of these love songs, you have to really be able to get back to the place in your own experience that was like what the subject of the lyrics is singing about."

    I think this is especially true for those of us who grew up with Dylan, Cohen, Lennon, McCartney, Mitchell, et. al., as initial musical/lyrical influences and then became jazz listeners and players later. So many lyrics to standards make me cringe. For every human truth I find in one line there seems to be a dated metaphor or sentiment expressed in the next. Of course, most of what we consider standards are songs from the Golden Age of Broadway Musicals; talk about suspension of disbelief!

    Now, before the usual suspects jump on me with both feet, let me say that I love the melodies and harmonic content of these tunes. How could you not? And, there are plenty of them that I resonate with wholly. I would say, however, that I doubt that the lyrics are what's keeping these tunes in the jazz vernacular.

    I remember an interview with Tony Bennett right after the release of the first Bill Evans/Tony Bennett album, where the interviewer asked Tony about whether he agreed with the sentiment expressed in the lyric to the song "When In Rome." Tony, rather sheepishly admitted that, no it wasn't a philosophy he subscribed to, but he liked the melody and treated it the way a horn player would, trying not to get too caught up in the meaning of those particular words.
     
  15. Chris Fitzgerald

    Chris Fitzgerald Student of Life Staff Member Administrator

    Oct 19, 2000
    Louisville, KY
    Lyric pet peeve #1: Lyrics added later to bebop tunes.

    [​IMG]
     
  16. Bruce Lindfield

    Bruce Lindfield Unprofessional TalkBass Contributor Gold Supporting Member In Memoriam

    Not a big Mark Murphy fan, then....;)
     
  17. Roger Davis

    Roger Davis

    May 24, 2006
    England
    Dat Dere. ..................Ugh!
     
  18. Ed Fuqua

    Ed Fuqua

    Dec 13, 1999
    NYC
    Chuck Sher publishes my book, WALKING BASSICS:The Fundamentals of Jazz Bass Playing.
    Not that i disagree with DURRL (the lyric to WEAVER OF DREAMS is particularly stupid), but it's not just emotional interpretation we're talking about. When I was learning ISN'T IT ROMANTIC (and prior to my own lyrical contribution, ahem) something did not seem rhythmically or melodically right, I couldn't hear what I was trying to get out. As soon as i heard the lyric (read out) BINGO, that's what the line is.

    But just general melodic phrasing
    I spend each day
    so Lonely
    I long for you, dear
    for you
    dear
    only

    as opposed to

    I spend each
    day so lone
    ly
    I
    long for

    etc etc etc
     
  19. Putting it that way, I think you're probably right about most tunes. But some . . . Well, for example, the lyrics may be awkward and dated, but it's hard for me to think about the tune to "Body And Soul" without hearing the words. And even if you just recall the sentiment they express: "I'm all for you, Body and Soul." That woman would have to be completely gone on her man. And it only took seven words to convey that.

    Or how about the lyrics to "Love Letters (Straight From Your Heart)." Pure poetry. Of course, the young and the vintaged see this stuff differently, as Chris pointed out in Kenny Barron's line about hearts yet unbroken. Or maybe sometimes it's a matter of dated society, as when Doonesbury's college co-ed, Alex, asked her grandmother: "What's a Thank You note?"

    And there's that old story about someone mentioning that Jerome Kern had written "Ol' Man River," and Mrs. Hammerstein replying, "Mr. Kern did not write 'Ol' Man River.' My husband wrote 'Ol' Man River.' Mr. Kern wrote 'dum, dum, dum-dum.' "
     
  20. MR PC

    MR PC Banned

    Dec 1, 2007
    It's possible. There are different views of a secret. I'm always ready to listen to someone sing with their heart and convince me I've got more to experience.

    Always!:)

    As far as memorizing lyrics to the Great American Songbook goes. The Rain Man had a pretty good memory.
     

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