Judging songbooks by their covers

Wednesday, 21 March 2007 — 2:26pm | Jazz, Music, Pianism

Confession: I’m not entirely sure, but I think I played with six-time Grammy nominee Mark Murphy last night and had no idea who he was. Consider the circumstantial evidence and decide for yourself: he was a singer, he looked like Mark Murphy (now that I’ve sifted through some recent publicity materials and am in a position to say that), and Mark Murphy happens to be headlining two shows at the Yardbird Suite this weekend. I won’t be able to attend, as I’ll be busy playing Scrabble.

Did you know he wrote the effectively canonical lyrics to “Stolen Moments”? Neither did I. I was too busy dreading having to play in a jam band with a vocalist. Of the jams at the Yardbird I’ve been to this year, there have been at least two or three nights where I had to say to myself, “Why did I have to get the band with a singer?”

See, I’m really glad I play for a choir of fun and agreeable individuals. If it weren’t for them, I suspect I’d have an unrestrained hate-on for singers right now, which is saying something, considering how it was primarily vocalists like Ella Fitzgerald who got me into jazz in the first place. Virtually every jam-session set I’ve played where there was a singer involved has been an experience somewhere along the spectrum between minor irritation and full-on Rocky Mountain trainwreck, and only so much of it could be my fault.

Last night’s set went a lot better. We only had time for one tune with vocals (“I’ve Got You Under My Skin,” for those of you keeping score), but most of the usual problems were absent. It was in a reasonable key. It stayed at a reasonable tempo. The chart was readable enough that the form was reasonably clear. Nobody got completely lost. These might seem like pretty basic expectations, but I’ve learned not to take them for granted. I’ve learned it the hard way.

The only hiccup was a bit of a miscommunication to the band in terms of whether or not we were supposed to give the vocalist an intro, and if so, for how long – so we just hit some chords for about eight bars, wondering why he hadn’t come in. Then he came in.

Decent singer, the guy who upon reflection may or may not have been Mark Murphy.

Decent singers are considerate of their bands. If you ever show up with charts marked in some ridiculous sharp key and ambiguously defined solo sections, then count us off in a tempo you can’t handle without letting us know when you want to come in – all of which I’ve seen happen, while onstage, no less – we’ll take you for a prima donna, and we will break you. More accurately, you’ll break yourself.

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