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The Making of New American Songbooks, Volume 1

Sound American is incredibly excited about our newest release, New American Songbooks, Volume One: a first-time meeting between drummer Greg Saunier, guitarist Mary Halvorson, and cornetist Ron Miles caught on vinyl!

The three musicians agreed to give us a few words about the project for this very special addition to The Big Band Issue in which they talk a little bit about their relationship to the Great American Songbook, why the chose some of the songs they did, and their insights on the chance to work in such a concentrated way with new musicians.

We're also pleased to include examples from their LP to illustrate their work and to illustrate how, we think, they've created something deeply intimate, new, and wonderful.

(Though the limited vinyl edition is now sold out, you can purchase the lossless download edition from New World Records!)

Mary Halvorson: Everything Means Nothing To Me/Last Call

SAOf the pieces you chose for the New American Songbooks LP, can you pick one that you were especially excited to work on and tell us why it felt important to include it?

MHWhen I found out about this project, I thought about which American composers have had the most impact on me, regardless of genre. Of all the artists I thought to include, the first who came to mind was Elliott Smith. I have been listening to Smith's records for several years now, and in my opinion he is one of the great American songwriters of the past twenty years. Each of his albums is brilliant, and his early death was very tragic. I went back and listened to all his records with Ron and Greg in mind, trying to picture which song would work best. When the song "Last Call" came on, I immediately envisioned the guitar line being translated to Ron Miles’ cornet. Oddly enough, I chose this piece without knowing that Ron was also a fan of Elliott Smith, and that he was simultaneously working on an arrangement of "Everything Means Nothing To Me", one of my favorites. Ron and I decided to put these two pieces together into a medley.

SAWhat’s your relationship (if any?) with American Songbook, whether that means “Jazz Standards” or Tin Pan Alley? Have you spent time working with that music? Do you feel any kind of kinship to it?

MHI grew up studying jazz and playing jazz standards on guitar, and I do feel a strong kinship to it. In fact I still spend time practicing and performing standard tunes today. A few years ago I recorded a solo guitar record, Meltframe, which included a few songs from the standard repertoire (Duke Ellington’s "Solitude", Oliver Nelson’s "Cascades", McCoy Tyner’s "Aisha", etc). A collective trio I’m a part of called Thumbscrew (with Michael Formanek and Tomas Fujiwara) recently recorded an album of covers, including some standards, which will be released in the summer of 2018.

SAWhat was it like working together with Ron and Greg on this music? What was the process like for you?

MHIt was great. Both Ron and Greg are incredibly unique individuals and brilliant musicians who have a wonderful energy and positivity. Ron and I have worked together before in a trio with Jason Moran, but neither of us had ever worked with Greg, although I have admired Greg’s playing in Deerhoof for over 15 years. Everyone was excited about the project and it was particularly exciting because I really had no idea what would happen or how it would sound. It felt we were all working together to try to make the best record we could make, and everyone was open to experimenting and adjusting ideas and arrangements as needed.

SAThe idea of the American Songbook probably only exists in jazz circles now, in the concept of "standards". As one of the premiere practitioners of, for lack of a better term, "jazz" guitar, did that affect your decision to stay away from jazz standards for the most part (thinking of the Elliott Smith song and "Jonathan" by Fiona Apple) or were you thinking much more broadly than that?

MHFor the most part, I did try to stay away from jazz standards. To me the idea for this project was to enlarge the concept of American Songbook, and to look to other genres of American music which aren't considered part of that canon but should be. The only tune I chose which falls more or less into the jazz genre is Gary Peacock's "Vignette", from his album Tales of Another with Keith Jarrett and Jack Dejohnette. It's a beautiful composition which holds sentimental value for me, and one which is rarely played in jazz circles, so including that piece did felt like an expansion of the songbook. Even more important than the notion of genre, I wanted to choose compositions which have personal significance and weight. The other two composers–Elliott Smith and Fiona Apple–are great American songwriters whose music has resonated strongly with me over the years, and in my mind those compositions are already great classics.

Halvorson/Miles/Saunier, Everything Means Nothing To Me/Last Call

Ron Miles: I Woke Up In Love This Morning

SAOf the pieces you chose for the New American Songbooks LP, can you pick one that you were especially excited to work on and tell us why it felt important to include it?

RMI am sadly replying to this question the day after David Cassidy passed, so I’m going to say "I Woke Up In Love This Morning." When I was a kid the Jackson 5 and the Partridge Family were our first musician heroes. Of course we didn’t know only one was a real band!

There is a scene in Spike Lee’s Crooklyn where the kids are listening to the Partridge’s that still makes me tear up.

SAWhat’s your relationship (if any?) with American Songbook, whether that means “Jazz Standards” or Tin Pan Alley? Have you spent time working with that music? Do you feel any kind of kinship to it?

RMI think our music has always been fueled by improvisers playing songs, and the magic that certain songs have, the thing that means we can hear them over and over. They retain their integrity while allowing artists from different backgrounds to meet up and find common ground. Through generations, fads, etc. some songs are timeless.

SAWhat was it like working together with Mary and Greg on this music?

RMMary and Greg are so generous. they listen so well and they find rooms that i didn’t even know where in the house!

SAI first became really interested in American Folk music through you and your love for the Carter Family (listening to you play "Wildwood Rose"). How did you first hear that music and how does it fit into your musical voice?

RMSerious study came with playing with Bill Frisell’s bands, but my folks listened to country music our whole life: Ray Charles, Charlie Pride, Loretta Lynn, John Cash. Hee Haw, Grand Ol' Opry. But with Bill and his crew that idea of us and them was obliterated.

Halvorson/Miles/Saunier, I Woke Up in Love this Morning

Greg Saunier: Little Pad/Caught In The Game/Kitty Kat

​I'm not sure that the particular group of songs contained in "The American Songbook" means anything much to anyone now, except to jazz musicians themselves. I played a few of them in high school jazz band in the 80s, but after that the songs kind of disappeared from my life outside of a jazz context. Sometimes I think the "New American Songbook" is nothing more than the folder at the karaoke bar. 

Other times I think there simply is no New American Songbook, both because of the diversity of the American population, and the almost total takeover of culture by corporate mass media. One might think that centralized media of this kind would be bringing the nation into agreement about its culture and its conversations, but in fact it seems to have replaced communal experiences of artforms and cultural movements with atomized ones. The corporate media's constant need for both shallow controversies and rapid content replacement makes it more difficult for traditions or even cultural common ground to ever form in the first place. 

Maybe "Happy Birthday" still works. There's a song that everyone owns, notwithstanding the story that it's actually owned by two old ladies who charge a crazy fee for using it which is why you never hear it in the movies. "We Will Rock You" works too but it's not American. These songs go deep enough that everyone shares them and passes them along. They're so familiar that when one hears them sung, one is not hearing the song, but the singer. Even if the singer is not deliberately trying to "express" themselves, their personality not only comes out, but is the only thing that comes out. That to me is beauty of such a thing as a "songbook." Unlike classical music, which in the age of recording has become increasingly focused on anonymous perfection in performance in the service of the composer sitting atop the musical hierarchy, the songbook puts the performer, or in some cases the arranger, at the top. 

I don't think this LP or anything like it will correct or could correct this loss of the American songbook. We didn't end up choosing "Happy Birthday" or "We Will Rock You" or whatever American song is the most requested at karaoke. Instead I think we went for a Fantasy New American Songbook, a surreal wishlist. We gave ourselves a perverse thrill by choosing underappreciated gems that although they seemed to have the technical makings of a songbook contender - mainly a simple, catchy and easy-to-sing melody, and a strong, archetypical emotion - they were prevented from reaching true songbook-level popularity, either by accidents of chart position, insufficient marketing, being in the wrong musical genre, or serving a too-specific role when they were created or released. 

In many cases it does seem like the composers of our songs did intend for them to attain some semblance of songbook-like quality. Three were musical themes highlighted in films or TV shows. One of the songs I arranged, "Adagio Sostenuto" from Vincent Persichetti's Symphony For Band, not only has a simple folksong-like melody that seemed to cry out for a looser performance than it is ever given in concert, but is part of a weirdly limited canon of high school wind ensemble music. It has therefore in fact attained if not songbook status, a kind of "old favorite" or at least "get played often" status among people who were ever in high school band or college. 

Another arrangement I did was a medley of three pop songs that were bids to be hits, submitted to American cultural judgement and failing to make the cut. The Beach Boys "Little Pad" was from Smiley Smile, the album that they ended up releasing after abandoning what must have been the most anticipated and written-about album ever to be not released, at least not until 40 years later, Smile. The song's extremely minimal production, almost anti-production, gives it an avant-garde surface that nevertheless masks a composition perfectly serviceable as a populist songbook contender. In fact the American Songbook itself seems to be a theme of the ill-fated Smile. Survivor attempted to cure their one-hit-wonder status after "Eye of the Tiger" with "Caught in the Game," but this only became a minor hit and the band disappeared. Empress Of is still making new music all the time and may yet have hits, but her song "Kitty Kat" was simply a well-received release by an indie artist too obscure to break into the mainstream. I brought the three songs together because A. I love them, B. I found them to have harmonic and melodic similarities that made them work together, and C. although they may have failed to become big hits as recordings, they nevertheless on paper, as abstract idealized songs, seemed to me to attain a perfectly songbook-level quality. 

We wanted to show that these songs could and should be getting covered all the time, by anybody playing in almost any genre. They are not particularly well-known, but they are simple enough that they can be learned really quickly by the musician and by the listener. We felt that they are "instant classics." Our performances on the LP could have tried to prove this point in one of two ways. We could have tried to play everything as straight as possible, in a ur-version, almost like you were simply reading the score. Or, to show the song's diverse potentials by making versions really different from the original. I.e. demonstrate the song's simplicity through its ability to withstand performance complexity. 

When you have Ron and Mary on hand it would be a crime not to choose the latter. Even though for me doing so meant running the risk of sounding like a total amateur by comparison. It's not just that they play jazz and I don't. That was reason enough for me to wonder why I'd been graced with the invitation to take part in this project. It was that I brought in a Persichetti transcription and Ron remembered playing the piece in high school, and they both immediately put their stamp on it in ways I couldn't have imagined. It was that I briefly entertained the thought that I was the indie rock guy of the group, until both Ron and Mary walked in with intricate, loving arrangements of Elliott Smith songs I'd never heard. Smith was on the same label as Deerhoof! It was that I play drums with what can sometimes seem a bizarre sense of time, but that they were never fazed. 

Athletes define "the zone" as that place where you are reaching for performance that's just beyond your ability. That's how playing with Ron and Mary felt and it was beautiful. Nate comments in the liner notes that I was the one who was always asking to record another take of a song, but doesn't really mention that it was always because I felt that Ron and Mary were TOO far beyond my ability, and I needed another try in order to catch up. They are both so chill and kind and always humored me, and the result is I think something that transcends jazz, classical, rock, or any other music category. 

As soon as the session was over I asked everyone for the chance to edit and mix what we'd recorded. Over the course of the many many hours I spent re-listening to our performances, my admiration for Ron and Mary's genius only grew. Not only were their arrangements brilliant, but their on-the-spot inspirations revealed more and more motivic coherence and cleverness the more I looped them in Pro Tools, trying to get the mix right. The emotional expression seemed to only deepen. The fact that the takes were all so different from each other demonstrated how thoroughly spontaneous this all was. 

I want to thank Nate, Ron, and Mary for putting their trust in me. The arrangements I contributed were songs I'd wanted to play for a long time, if only I could find the right situation. Getting to know these three strangers was such a thrill and playing together and mixing the results made me feel that I knew them even more. Maybe the songbook idea fulfilled its purpose after all, since this LP is the sound of three personalities getting to know each other through shared music.

Halvorson/Miles/Saunier, Little Pad/Caught In The Game/Kitty Kat

The Making of New American Songbooks, Volume 1