First, please watch this. And since it’s less than two minutes, give it your complete attention. I assure you that you will feel well-repaid:
I first began listening to GOLDEN EARRINGS, a series of duets between alto saxophonist Sam and pianist Michael, a few months ago. I was entranced, yet I found it difficult to write about this delicately profound music, perhaps because I was trying to use the ordinary language of music criticism to describe phenomena that would be better analogized as moments in nature: the red-gold maple leaf I saw on the sidewalk, the blackbird eating a bit of fruit in the branches of the tree outside my window.
There’s nothing strange about GOLDEN EARRINGS: it’s just that the music these two create is air-borne, resonant, full of feeling and quiet splendors. Think of quietly heartfelt conversations without words between two great artists.
Coming down to earth, perhaps, here are Sam’s own words — excerpted from an article by Phil Hewitt:
I grew up in Dereham, Norfolk and played the saxophone in school and also in the Norwich Students’ Jazz Orchestra. I gradually became more interested in jazz through my teenage years and went to study jazz saxophone at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama when I was 18 in 2007. Since graduating I’ve been freelancing in London and doing a fairly wide range of jazz gigs. I met Michael on my first trip to New York in 2014 although I already knew his playing from a few records. I’m a big fan of his playing: he’s incredibly tasteful and has a beautiful touch. He is melodic, swinging and really plays what he hears. I think we like a lot of the same musicians: Lester Young, Charlie Parker, musicians from the Tristano school, Hank Jones, Ahmed Jamal, Thelonious Monk. Michael is also incredibly nice, generous and encouraging. We kept in touch and we played a bit informally when he was in London a few times in 2015 on tour with Jane Monheit. I then took part in a summer school run by Jorge Rossy near Barcelona, which Michael teaches on every year alongside people like Albert ‘Tootie’ Heath, Ben Street, Chris Cheek and Peter Bernstein. So after all that I felt like I knew him quite well, and decided to ask him to do a duo recording with me. I really like playing in small combos like duos and trios, and I know Michael does too: you can have a more focused, conversational musical interaction, and I enjoy the challenge of keeping the texture varied despite the limited instrumentation. The recording process itself was fairly old school: just a few microphones in a room with a nice acoustic and a nice piano (Michael’s own The Drawing Room in Brooklyn, New York), one quick rehearsal and no edits. The repertoire is mostly slightly lesser-known tunes from the Great American Songbook and jazz canon – including compositions by Duke Ellington, Jerome Kern, Victor Young, Nat King Cole and Irving Berlin – plus there’s one original composition by me. I really enjoy digging a bit deeper and trying to find tunes to interpret which are slightly off the beaten track, and Michael is a real expert on the American Songbook in particular, so it was great to utilise his knowledge in that respect. It was fantastic to play with someone of Michael’s calibre. He’s played with people like Jane Monheit, Jimmy Scott, Peter Bernstein, Kurt Rosenwinkel and Ted Brown . . . .
The music was both recorded and photographed by the eminently gifted Neal Miner — whom most of us knew as a superlative string bassist. When I received a copy of the CD (released on Jordi Pujol’s FRESH SOUND NEW TALENT label) and wanted to let you all know about it, I asked Sam if he would share his notes on the music, because they were like the music: gentle, focused, and intuitive.
Like most jazz musicians of my generation, I have been introduced to this type of repertoire through listening to and playing jazz, rather than by growing up with it as pop music in the way that, say, Sonny Rollins would have done. However, I have become increasingly interested in the songs themselves. Rollins playing “If Ever I Would Leave You” is amazing, but it is also fascinating to hear the Lerner and Loewe song in its (very different) original form. (I am referring more to American Songbook songs here, rather than compositions by the likes of Charlie Parker and Duke Ellington, which have obviously always existed as jazz performances).
By listening to original recordings, learning lyrics and consulting published sheet music, I have tried to access the ‘composer’s intention’ – something that Michael Kanan, an expert in this area, talks about. We tried to use this as our starting point for interpretation and improvisation, rather than existing jazz versions.
I feel very fortunate to have recorded with Michael. His wonderful playing is plain to hear, but he was also incredibly generous and encouraging throughout the entire process of making this album.
Our approach to recording was fairly old fashioned: just three microphones in a room with a nice piano; no headphones and no edits. Neal Miner took care of all this, and his kind and positive presence in the studio made the whole thing a lot easier.
Thank you for listening to this music. I hope you enjoy it.
Dancing In The Dark: Michael takes the melody while I play a countermelody partly derived from the sheet music and the dramatic orchestral arrangement that Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse dance to in the film The Band Wagon.
Cardboard: the melodies that Bird writes are incredible; he is perhaps undervalued as a composer. Michael and I solo together. Some of his lines here are so hip!
Irving Berlin Waltz Medley: three beautifully simple songs. Michael plays a moving solo rendition of “Always”, which Berlin wrote as a wedding present for his wife. Hank Mobley’s Soul Station contains the classic version of “Remember”. I love that recording but the song in its original form is almost an entirely different composition.
BSP: the one original composition here, this is a contrafact (a new melody written over an existing chord sequence) based on Cole Porter’s “Love For Sale”. It was written a few years ago when I was particularly interested in the music of Lennie Tristano, Lee Konitz and Warne Marsh. The melody is heard at the end.
All Too Soon: originally recorded as an instrumental by the classic Blanton-Webster edition of the Ellington band, this ballad was later given lyrics by Carl Sigman.
In Love In Vain: I love the original version from the film Centennial Summer. We begin with Kern’s verse and end with a coda that is sung in the film but does not appear in the sheet music I have for this. Perhaps it was added by the film’s orchestrators? So much for getting to the composer’s original intention!
The Scene Is Clean: there are a few mysterious corners in this tune from the pen of Tadd Dameron, the great bebop composer, and this is probably the most harmonically dense composition to feature here. The version on Clifford Brown & Max Roach at Basin Street is fantastic.
Beautiful Moons Ago: I don’t know many other Nat ‘King’ Cole originals, but this is a lovely, sad song by one of my favourite pianists and singers (co-written by Oscar Moore, the guitarist in his trio). I don’t think it is very well known.
Golden Earrings: another selection from a film, this mystical, haunting song was a hit for Peggy Lee. Victor Young’s harmony is quite classical at certain points.
Way Down Yonder In New Orleans: if this tune is played nowadays it tends to be by traditional jazz or Dixieland bands, but I’m a fan of it. The form is an unusual length and it contains a harmonic surprise towards the end. This take features more joint soloing and we finish by playing Lester Young’s masterful 1938 solo in unison.
Michael Kanan, Neal Miner, Jordi Pujol, Walter Fischbacher, John Rogers and Mariano Gil for their invaluable help and expertise. London friends who helped by playing through the material with me before the recording, lending their ears afterwards and by offering general advice: Helena Kay, Will Arnold-Forster, Gabriel Latchin, Matt Robinson, Nick Costley-White and Rob Barron. All my teachers over the years. Special thanks to Mum and Dad, Lois and Nana.
Sam Braysher, September 2016.
And here’s another aural delicacy:
I think the listeners’ temptation is to find a box into which the vibrations can conveniently fit. Does the box say TRISTANO, KONITZ-MARSH, PRES, ROWLES-COHN? But I think we should put such boxes out for the recycling people to pick up.
This music is a wonderful series of wise tender explorations by two artists so much in tune with each other and with the songs. So plain, so elegantly simple, so deeply felt, it resists categorizations. And that’s how it should be — but so rarely is.
My only objection — and I am only in part facetious — is that the format of the CD encourages us to continue at a medium tempo from performance to performance. I would have been happier if this disc had been issued on five 12″ 78 discs, so that at the close of a song I or any other listener would have to get up, turn the disc over, or put the needle back to the beginning. The sounds are nearly translucent; they shimmer with feeling and intelligence.
Sam’s website is here; his Facebook page here. New Yorkers have the immense privilege of seeing Michael on a fairly regular basis, and that’s one of the pleasures of living here.
May your happiness increase!