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A Thank You, an Update, and a Remarkable Lesson on How to Play Piano for a Singer
If I taught a class on piano accompaniment, I'd show this video on the first day
I want to thank all of you—both ongoing subscribers, and the new ones who have signed up in the last day in response to the announcement about my new book.
The book is only part of what subscribers will receive here. My current plan is to share one chapter per month, while continuing to send out other articles, essays, and occasional amusements. My best guess is that the book will represent no more than 20% of The Honest Broker over the next year.
Here are some of the other articles that will be coming—but I haven’t yet decided how much will be free and how much for paid subscribers.
The Golden Age of Rock with Horns (1966-1977)
A History of New Orleans Piano in 30 Tracks
Is There Such a Thing as Western Harmony?
Essay on John Luther Adams
My Secret Life as a Social Media Consultant
20 Predictions for the Music Business in 10 Years
Essay on Nick Drake
The Korean Arts Miracle
My 35 Favorite ECM Albums
The Rise and Fall of Hunter S. Thompson (in two installments)
Lester Young’s Last Stand
And much, much more. (I’m starting to sound like an infomercial, so I better change topics now.)
The Honest Broker is a reader-supported guide to music, books, and culture. Both free and paid subscriptions are available. If you want to support my work, the best way is by taking out a paid subscription.
In the meantime, let me share one of my favorite examples of how a great pianist accompanies a singer.
The pianist here is Jimmy Rowles (1918-1996)—who was born 104 years ago today. That’s a name almost unknown to the general public. But jazz pianists hold him in high esteem, and singers always wanted to hire him.
You can hear him on record playing piano for Billie Holiday. He worked as accompanist to Ella Fitzgerald. You can hear him backing Sarah Vaughan—and Carmen McRae, Diana Krall, and other legends. McRae once described Rowles as “the guy every girl singer in her right mind would like to work with.”
I had some dealings with Rowles, who was one of the smartest and funniest musicians I’ve ever had the pleasure to meet. He had a sharp wit, and was almost as creative with words as he was with music.
What makes the track below especially impressive is that Rowles tossed it off without much thought or preparation. And he did it on national TV in front of a studio audience.
Adding to the complexity, Rowles has to deal with an orchestra at various junctures in this short track. And he does it so deftly, you might assume he was conducting too.
As was often the case, Rowles wasn’t the star, merely accompanist to celebrity singer Andy Williams. The song is Jerome Kern’s “The Way You Look Tonight.”
And here’s the back story from jazz musician Charlie Shoemake, who saw it happen in real time. He was so impressed that he remembered the incident years later, and then was delighted that the film clip eventually showed up on YouTube.
Here’s what Shoemake told Doug Ramsey:
“I finished a date and went over to NBC in Burbank to see my wife Sandi, who was a member of the George Wyle singers on the weekly Andy Williams television show. As I got there, they were just about to finish taping and I talked for a moment to Jimmy (on staff at NBC at the time and a member of the show’s orchestra) before he said they had one last number to do. I stood about 30 feet away and witnessed one of the most beautiful piano accompaniments that you could ever imagine. I’ve played this for Terry Trotter and Tom Ranier who, like virtually all pianists, were great fans of Jimmy. They were, understandably, in awe—as I am to this day.”
There’s so much to admire here, but I will simply call attention to (1) the perfect sense of timing and relaxation in the free-flowing tempo; (2) the way Rowles effortlessly moves from following the singer to (at key junctures) leading the singer, in a way that’s so natural it sounds like a conversation; (3) all the nuances in dynamics, passing chords, melodic fills, etc.; and finally (4) the paradoxical sense that the singer is the boss, but the pianist is also totally in command of the situation.
If I taught a class on how pianists should accompany a singer, I’d show this to the students on day one. We could easily spend a whole hour discussing—and enjoying—this one short track.
I’ll be back soon, with the opening section of my book.