Monday, June 02, 2014

Stephen Sondheim with Marian McPartland on "Piano Jazz"

Reflections on hearing Stephen Sondheim's guest appearance on Marian McPartland's radio program "Piano Jazz" on February 23, 1994. Listen here. See an index to many other articles I've written about Sondheim here.

I've been a fan of Stephen Sondheim since 1974, of jazz because of Sondheim (thanks to Cleo Laine's first recording of "Send in the Clowns"), and a fan of jazz pianist Marian McPartland since I first heard her warmth and elegant diction in her conversation with jazz pianists on her public radio show "Piano Jazz" around 1984.   So how did I miss their meeting?  Thanks to the internet, it's there for anyone to hear anytime. 

Near the end of the broadcast, Sondheim thanks McPartland: "I don't often get that kind of treatment."   Jazz musicians haven't picked up on his music so much as on earlier standards, at least in part because Sondheim's songs don't leave much room for improv -- because he tailors his music to the moment, breaking out of the AABA form, often layering in different voices. 

But in conversation with pianist McPartland, Sondheim for once gets to talk about music, apart from lyrics and showbiz personalities.  Here's what I picked up, leaving out things I've read many times in other sources:

  •  the advent of rock and pop music "freed" composers like Sondheim from the pressure to write hits -- allowing him to follow Bernstein's advice to break away from "square" rhythm, to keep the audience surprised
  • Milton Babbitt, for two years Sondheim's graduate level tutor, is "avant garde to the avant garde," Sondheim says, yet loved show tunes.  Babbitt analyzed show music and classical with young Sondheim, including his demonstration how Jerome Kern never introduces the tonic chord of "All the Things You Are" until the very end.  When McPartland asks Sondheim if Kern planned it that way, Sondheim recalls hearing from Oscar Hammerstein how Kern found his melodies and chords by trial and error, phrase by phrase, "though it sounds like he wrote his melodies in one breath."
  • Knowing musical technique is like learning to drive a stick shift, Sondheim says:  once you know it, you use it all the time without thinking.  That's how Kern, Rodgers, and Beethoven wrote.
  • When McPartland comments on Sondheim's "spare" accompaniment in a then-new song from Passion ("I Wish I Could Forget You"), he cited orchestrator Jonathan Tunick for advice to "think orchestrally."  Sondheim has increasingly learned to write first drafts away from the piano, forcing himself to think more of what an orchestra can do to sustain notes, for example. 
  • When McPartland plays "Send in the Clowns," he thanks her for playing a crucial chord in the bridge that Nelson Riddle copied wrong in his arrangement for Frank Sinatra (writing a major third, instead of a sustained fourth).  Most recordings of the song evidently came from hearing Sinatra's recording.  Riddle didn't amend his arrangement, even for a later recording. "That stinker!" McPartland says.
From other sources, I know that Sondheim is not so interested in jazz, but he finds positive things to say about McPartland's versions of his songs.  Her version of "Anyone Can Whistle" is "tender";  he wishes he'd thought of her suspension at the end of the bridge for "Send in the Clowns";  he compliments the "cadences" she came up with to bring an end to "Pretty Women" (which is interrupted without a proper ending in the original score).  For her version of "Pretty Women," he noted how she plays the sustaining pedal with her left foot.  "I learned that from Duke Ellington," she explains, because he liked to turn his body right to connect with his audience, and the left-foot technique gave him that flexibility.

McPartland opined that Lee Remick's original recording of "Anyone Can Whistle" was better than others she'd heard.  Sondheim agreed that this was often the case, even when the original performer lacked the strong voices of other artists, because the songs were written for their voices or at least for their characters. 

A couple more notes: 
  • Sondheim has been given the jazz treatment more since 1994.  "Color and Light" was a CD compilation of jazz interpretations recorded around then;  the Terry Trotter Trio recorded jazz covers of scores for Forum, Passion, Follies, Night Music, Company, and Sweeney Todd - all delightful. More recently, bassist Tommy Cecil has recorded two albums with pianist Billy Mays, improvising on tunes mostly by Sondheim.  Jazz vocalist Jane Harvey did an interesting album around 1990, "The Jazz Side of Sondheim," notable for finding that some of "Could I Leave You?" is based on the pitches for the kids' cat-call, "nyeah, nyeah, nyeah-nyeah nyeah." Long before that, film and opera composer Richard Rodney Bennett recorded "A Different Side of Sondheim" that may still be my favorite.
  • Around 2000, I saw Marian McPartland here in my neighborhood north of Atlanta, at Kennesaw State University.   She was a little lady, chatty and fun.  She took requests, stipulating, "I don't do 'Melancholy Baby' or anything by Andrew Lloyd Webber." 

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