Brahms’ Three Intermezzi, Op. 117: Autumnal Lullabies

Composed in 1892, the three Intermezzi for solo piano, Op. 117 are among the final works of Johannes Brahms. Filled with wistful nostalgia, they were written two years after Brahms’ formal retirement at the age of 57. The critic Eduard Hanslick described these brief autumnal works as “monologues” of a “thoroughly personal and subjective character…pensive, graceful, dreamy, resigned, and elegiac.” Brahms once described them as “three lullabies to my sorrow.” Along with …

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Gershwin’s “Nice Work If You Can Get It,” Art Tatum in 1949

Holding hands at midnight ‘Neath a starry sky Nice work if you can get it And you can get it if you try Ira Gershwin’s famous lyric is not about work in the occupational sense. The song’s verse rejects “the man who only lives for making money” and who “works for fame.” Instead, it is the more spiritually informed work of building a loving relationship. The song’s narrator seems to have all of …

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Charlie Parker at 100

Tomorrow marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of Charlie Parker (1920-1955), the American jazz saxophonist and composer. Nicknamed “Bird,” Parker grew up in the thriving Kansas City jazz culture of the 1930s where all night sessions featured such musicians as Count Basie, Lester Young, and Mary Lou Williams. Along with Dizzy Gillespie, he is credited with the birth of bebop, an uptempo style characterized by intense virtuosity, complex harmonic progressions, and …

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Keith Jarrett: Encore from Tokyo

I cannot say what I think is right about music. I only know the rightness of it. -Keith Jarrett The American pianist and composer Keith Jarrett (b. 1945) began his career performing with Art Blakey, Charles Lloyd, and Miles Davis. He remains firmly rooted in jazz. Yet, when you venture into the magical world of Jarrett’s solo piano improvisations, the shackles of category fall away. Pure music remains, with echoes of Debussy, …

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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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