Friday, June 28, 2019

Chris Stamey, New Songs for the 20th Century, 2019

Album Review & Interview

By Henry Lipput

It’s 1962. John F. Kennedy is in the White House; the British Invasion has yet to happen; and the New York Mets have their first regular season. New York City, with its nightclubs, Broadway theaters, and recording studios, is the music capital of the world. And the lights in Times Square glow so brightly that they can be seen all the way to Cleveland.

This is the world to which Chris Stamey, with his remarkable new album, New Songs for the 20th Century, brings us. Stamey is an indie rock pioneer having been in the legendary dbs, worked with the great Alex Chilton, and released more than a few well-received solo albums. But, from a young age, Stamey has kept his ears open to the popular music and show tunes of the 30s, 40s, and 50s. His knowledge and love of this music resonates throughout his new collection.

He has assembled a core group of wonderful singers like Django Haskins, Caitlin Cary (She navigates the shifting sands of love with her vocal on "I Don't Believe In Romance."), Kristen Lambert (She brings a besotted vocal to "And I Love Him."), Millie McGuire (Her "I Fall In Love So Easily" sounds like a lovely solo number from a Broadway show.), and Nnenna Freelon (whose Sarah Vaughan-like take on "Occasional Shivers" is a standout track). I also have a soft spot for Brett Harris and "On the Street Where We Used to Live" because it reminds me of my time living on the Upper West Side and all of the changes to the neighborhood I've heard about. (Is Sal's Pizza still on Broadway?)

Stamey also put together The ModRec Orchestra (named after his home studio Modern Recording) for this recording, a group of musicians that would have made Nelson Riddle jealous that includes Bill Frisell, Nels Cline, and Peter Holsapple. And Branford Marsalis is the featured soloist on the opening track "Manhattan Melody (That's My New York)."

I had the opportunity to interview Chris Stamey by email and ask him about New Songs for the 20th Century and his love of the music from the Great American Songbook.

Chris Stamey by Daniel Coston

Henry Lipput: Hi Chris. You wrote, arranged, mixed, and produced your new album New Songs for the 20th Century. It's an incredible achievement. Congratulations.

Chris Stamey: Thanks!

Henry: You've said the impetus for the songs you've written for the album was all of the sheet music with songs by the likes of the Gershwins, Cole Porter, and Irving Berlin that arrived with a piano at your home. Was this the first time you heard this music or were you familiar with it already and it just sparked your interest in writing new songs in a similar vein?

Chris: It was the music I grew up with -- that, and Chopin, Brahms, Bach, the romantic classics, as well. My father was an amateur pianist and regularly played (and sang) the Great American Songbook tunes at the piano after dinner, especially those from the 40s, WWII era, "I'll Be Seeing You," "Smoke Gets In Your Eyes." And my family went to local theater performances a lot when I was very young.

Henry: The new songs you've written are really terrific and the arrangements have a wonderful 1950s feel to them. How familiar were you with the pop and jazz arrangements that were used during that decade for cover versions of famous songs by singers like Frank Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald?

Chris: I studied them over the last few years, both on my own and in some university courses at UNC here in Chapel Hill. Reading charts, listening to recordings, attending concerts. I've also been writing a lot of string arrangements for pop and rock songs over the last 15 years, for things I was producing or mixing, and was "learning by doing," "learning on the job."

I think the arrangements for "Occasional Shivers" and "I Didn't Mean to Fall in Love with You" on this record were the first successful ones I wrote in that 50s style, and I had help finishing those from composer Allen Anderson, here in Chapel Hill -- although the main ideas were all mine. But I'm no expert. I just dived in.

As I went along, I was able to do this in a more minimal way, for example, the arrangement for "It's Been a While" has very little happening to get in the way of the great live take by the band. But those few spots, mostly viola, make all the difference (at least to me). Surgical strikes are ideal. The arrangement for "I Am Yours" (one of the few "modern"-style songs, harmonically) also has these relatively minimal string lines, just underscoring.

However, another latecomer to the record was "I Don't Believe in Romance;" and, although those massed violin textures are simple, they are bold, simple, loud as can be in the mix, and a crucial part of the construction. So, I guess it just depends. Caitlin's vocal reminds me of (yikes) Julie Andrews there, and I wanted the parts to be as confident and forthright as she sounded.

Photo courtesy of Chris Stamey

In a certain way, this kind of arranging came from a desire to create mixes in a different way than I've been doing for the last three decades. When mixing a vocal pop or rock record, you hope to have a good song, a good singer, a good basic rhythm track, all that.

Then you shape and integrate these things into a memorable listening experience, clearing out places where they bump up against each other or cloud each other. But often the mix calls for some "detailing" to make it dramatically successful. Perhaps a quiet echo effect, triplets that trail over the end of a section. Perhaps a sudden breakdown, where the drums or guitars disappear for a bar. Perhaps volume rides, where crescendos or decrescendos are created with automation.

But I was finding I was reaching into the same bag of tricks too often, I was feeling a bit boxed in (if you can be boxed in by a bag??) and I wanted to find a way to do this, instead, with orchestral instruments, instead, with exact voicings (pitches / timbres) that could slide into drums / guitars / keys / bass, to get more surgical and precise with the ways I was "highlighting" the emotion or the intent of a song and performance.

It also has to do with just temperament: The more pure pitches (that live between the frets and between the keys of well-tempered instruments) make music resonate in the brain better. Strings and winds can make microscopic adjustments on the fly to make ensemble chords, and mixes, soar! (Good guitarists also do this all the time, with subtle string-bending, finger vibrato, and tuning adjustments, but it's so hard to constantly work around those well-tempered metal strips glued into the neck.)

So my arranging is coming from that: What is the most minimal thing that can be done to bring out the power of the song, for the very first time it's heard? Often this has to do with the "hinges," or moments of change, in a composition, places where it is transitioning from a verse to a chorus, from an instrumental section to a bridge, etc. Sometimes the hinges need some oil, I guess?

And it also has to do with learning / relearning how to write music on paper. This stuff was all scored. In fact, a companion songbook, called also New Songs for the 20th Century, is coming out in the next few weeks. Right now it will be just for sale at my web site and then soon on Amazon I think.

In our modern life, with ever-decreasing attention spans, you only get that "first listen." There is no time for the music to reveal its subtleties by repetition, usually, unless it's basically worked, dramatically, the first time.

So a mixer or arranger needs to make the song performance as clear as can be. It's the same principle as in writing prose: A well-crafted sentence should be grammatically correct, but its sense also should be clear on the "first read."

I'm still more comfortable writing for strings than for massed winds, but I'm trying to learn more about Big Band arranging now. I've been reading Nestico and Thad Jones charts and listening to Count Basie and Ellington recently.

Henry: You use a lot of fantastic singers on New Songs for the 20th Century. Did you write with specific singers in mind or did you look for singers after the songs had already been written?

Chris: I usually did have singers in mind. Kirsten Lambert, Millie McGuire, Skylar Gudasz, Django Haskins, Caitlin Cary, Nnenna Freelon, Brett Harris, Matt McMichaels, and the rest all have different strengths, and it was beyond inspirational to have them as willing accomplices for this. I was grateful that they brought great chops, excellent pitch, swing, diction. They are all amazing, and I'm so grateful.

Django Haskins by Soleil Konkel
Millie McGuire by Zach Stamey
Kristen Lambert by Addison Sharp
Nnenna Freelon by Alan Mercer

Henry: You were musical director for the amazing Big Star Third concert for which you put together singers and musicians. Do you feel that it prepared you for what you needed to accomplish with your new album?

Chris: I learned a lot about what would work, live, in very pragmatic terms, in the best possible way: making mistakes on the fly, changing things up from night to night, under pressure, seeing what worked! Folks like [Big Star's Third original arranger] Carl Marsh and Kronos Quartet were very patient with me, and I slowly got better as I wrote more and more charts for those concerts.

Henry: Many of the songs by the great songwriters that showed up with your piano were originally used in Broadway shows. When I first listened to your album, I thought it could be songs for a musical for which the book had yet to be written. Have you given any thought to putting your songs on the stage?

Chris: After I had written the first batch of these songs, I constructed a plot around them and recorded a one-hour-long "holiday radio musical" called Occasional Shivers that has been broadcast nationally on a lot of stations around the winter holidays for the last several years. Check it out. It's available as a podcast (free) on iTunes, year round.

But it was "horse before the cart." I had most of its songs first, then had to shape a plot around them! It was tricky. Like a lot of things in my life, I jumped into the deep part of the pool without knowing much at all about drama or plot construction; I keep doing this, not sure why!

I thought I was writing "jazz standards" when I was sitting at the piano, but then after a while I realized the obvious: that so many of those standard songs came from Broadway shows in the first place, before the jazzers got a hold of them. So yes, these recordings of them are somewhat "show-tune" style. But I think the biggest thing for me was just writing on piano instead of on guitar. It's a better slide rule for chords beyond the triad.

There are great guitars on this record, by Bill Frisell, Nels Cline, Scott Sawyer, Brent Lambert, and some by me as well. But there are no rhythm guitars at the core of these songs (I think?). I was thinking specifically about the sound of pre-Beatles radio. (Although Les Paul was doing some great things with his guitars behind Mary Ford then, and having hits, of course, then.)

Although we've talked about arranging with these songs, I was, first and foremost, trying to find a different harmonic language in the basic chord progressions, different from what I'd done before.

Something Mitch Easter used to say about the Beatles when we were kids -- and I think he is right -- is that you could tell every time they learned a new chord, because they immediately used it in the next few songs. You can chart their widening chord knowledge, bit by bit, as the albums were made. Sometimes the covers they did revealed where they learned these new chords or progressions, even.

There are places in these songs on this record where I’m trying to find the new. The change from Fm to Em on the 11th bar of "Lover, Can You Hear Me?" or "On an Evening Such as This," where it goes from Eb maj7 to B (natural) min7 . . . Or the chromaticism of "The Woman Who Walks the Sea" where it resolves a half-step higher or lower than expected . . .

I was excited when I discovered moments like this on the keyboard. This is more what this record is about, to me: my search for more impactful ways to vary the harmonic content in order to make key ("hinge") moments of the lyric have a corresponding melodic impact. To try to find a closer connection between words and melody, and to try to travel down paths that I, personally, have not trod before. It's all about the learning. The arranging is totally fun, but the basic song ingredients (melody, words, harmonization) are ultimately more compelling, to me, than the timbres that shape them. Make sense?

Henry: Thank you, Chris. Good luck with the new album.

New Songs for the 20th Century is out today on Omnivore Recordings.

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