Sunday, June 28, 2015

My favorite jazz pianist: Erik Satie

I love the piano. I can't play it, but I love both the classical and jazz piano repertoire, and they both form a large part of my music "listening" each week. Erik Satie (1866-1925) is a French composer who is probably best know for his Gymnopedies and Gnosseinnes.....incredible compositions for sure. Most people, even those who do not listen to classical music, have likely heard his works in film, TV or elsewhere. A few years I ago I stumbled onto his Tres Sarabandes. Composed in 1877, they instantly captured me and became my favorite of his works. Take a listen:

This music sounded more like Theolonius Monk to me than anyone else. The movement of the chords, the interesting, dissonant harmony, the varied rhythms, is wonderful and certainly FAR ahead of it's time. Satie was known as an eccentric during his lifetime, and he possessed a sharp wit. He was close friends of both Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel. In fact, it was Ravel who helped propel Satie's music to widespread popularity, playing the second of Satie's Sarabandes at a recital himself in 1911. Ravel later said of Satie:

"Another significant influence, somewhat unique, and deriving at least partially from Chabrier, is that of Erik Satie, which has had appreciable effect upon Debussy, myself, and indeed most of the modern French composers. Satie was possessed of an extremely keen intelligence. His was the inventor's mind par excellence. He was a great experimenter . . . these experiments have been of inestimable value. Simply and ingeneously, Satie pointed the way, but as soon as another musician took to the trail he had indicated, Satie would immediately change his own orientation and without hesitation open up still another path to new fields of experimentation. He thus became the inspiration of countless progressive tendencies. . . . Debussy held him in the highest esteem" - April 27, 1928.

It seemed compelling to me that decades before "jazz" was invented, a Frenchman was creating what sounded like jazz to my ear. But I have never talked to anyone about this and it has remained a thought in my own head. But I constantly return to Satie's music, particularly the Sarabandes.
And then just a few days ago, I decided to Google "Monk and Satie" to see if anyone else heard what I heard. To my surprise, others had.

"There was always a playful quality of Monk's music, in a way reminiscent of Erik Satie, but deeply rooted in the blues." - Richard M Rollo-Straight No Chaser, 2008.


"Unlike the tritone (b5) in the blues scale, which, flanked by both a perfect 4th and a perfect 5th (F-Gb-G) produces a sensuous "blue note" sound, the augmented 4th, which actually replaces the normal perfect 4th, has a very bright clean, surprisingly contemporary sound. In Jazz it became very popular around the Bebop era (50+ years after Satie's experimentations) and famously used by the (also rather eccentric) Jazz pianist and composer Theolonius Monk." - Michael Furstner from his website


"Erik Satie, the talented French composer to whom just about everyone ends up applying the adjective 'bizarre, ' was in many ways the Frank Zappa of his time. Or the Theolonius Monk of his time. Or the Mark Twain of his time (although strictly speaking, Mark Twain was, I suppose, of his time)." - Michael Arnowitt, pianist, in "Big Fish," July,1990.

I have some friends who are jazz musicians and we sometimes play the game, "name your top 5 jazz pianists, or top 5 jazz trumpet players"  etc.....Here are my top 5 jazz pianists; 5) Dave Brubeck 4) Art Tatum 3) McCoy Tyner 2) Theolonius Monk 1) Bill Evans. Monk is a close second though. If you asked 10 pianists to play a C major chord, Monk's would sound different than any of them. Much like Satie, he heard music a different way than anyone else. But as it turns out, Satie was also a jazz pianist, so I will put him at the top of my list now (sorry Bill, Theolonius, McCoy, Art, and Dave).

Here is a video of Monk playing "Ruby, My Dear". See if you can detect similarities to the Sarabandes of Satie.

I hope you enjoyed both of these samples. Even the artwork for these albums is strikingly similar too! Both men have goatees and reflective eye wear! 

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Thank you Charles Barnett, Organist.

"I cannot find words words to thank you as I wish, but if there was an organ here I could tell you." - Anton Bruckner

We all have moments in life that change things. Forever. One such moment for me occurred on July 4, 1977. We attended the First United Methodist Church in Austin, Texas at the time. I was 12 years old. The church organist was a man named Charles Barnett. In addition to his regular duties, he occasionally gave recitals. After church that day, my parents took me to hear him play. It changed my life forever.
I don't know much about organs, but the one at our church was least it seemed big to me. And it was LOUD. And it made so many different sounds. And Charles not only used his hands to play it, he used his feet! Both of them. The quote from Anton Bruckner, a great organist himself, made sense to me. The organ is capable of great expression.
His recital that afternoon featured 3 pieces that stand tall in the organ repertoire: Bach's Toccata and Fugue in D minor, Widor's Toccata from his Fifth Organ Symphony in F, and Variations on America by Charles Ives...perfect for the 4th of July.
Since that afternoon long ago, I have been a huge fan of the organ. A few years later, in March of 1990,  I traveled to Paris with my family and heard the great organ at Notre Dame, as well as a recital given by Vincent Genvrin at Chapelle Des Catechismes de Sainte-Clotilde. (here is that program, which includes the Widor).

Here are links to the 3 pieces above that Charles played at his recital in 1977.

Charles Ives: Variations on America

Charles Marie-Widor: Toccata from the Fifth Organ Symphony in F

J.S. Bach: Toccata and Fugue in D minor

Charles Barnett passed away in 2012. He was also a composer and arranger of music. Here's a great story. On my mother's birthday one year, he wrote a special arrangement of "Happy Birthday" for her and played it in church during the service. He did it in such a way that almost no one had any idea that they were hearing "Happy Birthday". But if you were listening closely, delicately interwoven in an otherwise beautiful sacred organ work, bits and pieces of "Happy Birthday" were dancing beneath the surface. It was perfect.
Thank you Charles Barnett.