Chopin’s Berceuse and the Music of Bill Evans

Listen to Frédéric Chopin’s D-flat major Berceuse, Op. 57, completed in 1844, and you might get the uncanny feeling that you’re hearing a jazz improvisation. As its title suggests, on one level, Chopin’s masterwork is a dreamy, gently rocking lullaby. Until the final cadence, it’s built on a sublime harmonic oscillation made up of just two chords. It begins with a serene melody which seems to anticipate the Gymnopédies of Erik Satie, published …

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Duke Ellington’s “Three Black Kings”: A Symphonic Eulogy

Three Black Kings (Les Trois Rois Noirs) was Duke Ellington’s last composition. The orchestral triptych was left unfinished at the time of Ellington’s death in 1974. True to the spontaneous spirit of jazz and guided by superstition, the American composer, pianist, and band leader frequently left pieces incomplete until the day of the first performance. Ellington’s son, Mercer, pulled the pieces together, and Luther Henderson arranged and orchestrated the score. Alvin Ailey choreographed …

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“Pretty Women”: The Marian McPartland Trio Meets Sondheim

“Pretty Women” comes near the end of the first act of Stephen Sondheim’s 1979 musical thriller, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. On the surface, the song appears to capture an amiable barbershop conversation—as Craig Zadan writes, “a seemingly innocent yet passionate anthem to the virtues of womanhood.” Its comfortably gliding melody soars and then falls back into contentment. In context, it becomes spine chilling. It is Sweeney Todd’s calculating way of distracting Judge …

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Bobby McFerrin’s “Baby”: The Human Body as an Instrument

The American jazz vocalist Bobby McFerrin turns the human body into the ultimate instrument. This live concert clip demonstrates the ten-time Grammy Award winning artist’s virtuosity. (At one point, you will hear a spectacular display of polyphonic overtone singing in which two musical lines can be heard simultaneously). McFerrin frequently draws on improvisation and the African musical tradition of call and response. This 1995 album with the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra features …

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Nat King Cole at 100

Sunday marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of the American jazz pianist and vocalist, Nat King Cole (1919-1965). In 1937, Nat King Cole’s jazz trio was formed in Los Angeles. In the group’s original lineup, Cole was joined by Oscar Moore on guitar and Wesley Prince on bass. The trio influenced younger jazz musicians like Oscar Peterson and John Pizzarelli. Around the late 1940s, Cole transitioned to a more popular style, appearing …

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Keith Jarrett’s Improvisation on “Danny Boy”

With Saint Patrick’s Day around the corner, this seems like a good time to pause and take in the sublime beauty of Keith Jarrett’s improvisation on the ancient Irish melody, “Danny Boy.” This melody has been a rich source for jazz musicians, from the jubilant virtuosity of Art Tatum, to the sultry soulfulness of the Oscar Peterson Trio, to the far-reaching development of Bill Evans. Jarrett’s approach finds a songful simplicity and a celebration of the moment. Listening to …

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Remembering André Previn

André Previn passed away last Thursday at his home in Manhattan. He was 89. Previn will be remembered as one of the great Renaissance men of twentieth century music. As a jazz pianist, he accompanied singers such as Ella Fitzgerald and Doris Day and put his stamp on the “great American songbook.” As a composer, he contributed film scores, Broadway musicals, operas, orchestral music, chamber music, and songs. As a conductor, he …

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