Back to the standards.

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I am not exactly sure why, but with my new jazz quartet (Jake Leckie on bass, Shareef Taher on drums, and Ben Frock on trumpet and occasionally a little guitar) I’ve been moved to return to some of the classic vocal and instrumental “standards” I started working on fifteen or twenty years ago. At that point, the whole idea of having a jazz quartet was still just a crazy dream I nurtured while procrastinating on a novel I was supposed to be writing. (That’s a long, unfinished story about a long, unfinished story.)

At tomorrow night’s show at Germano’s, we’ll do a couple of Jobim tunes, something from Herbie Hancock, something from Michel Legrand, maybe even a Miles Davis swinger. We’ll do Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire,” which set hearts aflame during our Valentine’s Day show at the same venue. We’ll do “Consider Me Gone” from Sting, because it’s just so much fun to wring every bit of greasy, slinky, bluesy goodness out of a simple two-chord song.

In between, I’ll throw in a couple of my originals. I think the best of my own songs can stand up to the solid hits of yesteryear, can occupy the same set list without seeming weak or out of place. Occasionally I’ve even had audience members tell me they preferred my stuff to the covers we’d done in a particular gig. This is, of course, just about the best bit of flattery a songwriter can hear. Probably one of my best-ever gigs to date took place at Artscape in 2009. I had an awesome six-piece band, and we played an entirely original set, except for one Radiohead cover (“Fake Plastic Trees”). We had an audience of about 20 to start, but by the end of the hour, there were easily 400 people milling around and clapping and cheering us on…for original songs they had never heard before. Talk about instant gratification…That was the day I knew I hadn’t been wasting my time writing songs.

But for some reason, rather than cranking out new material, these days I’m feeling drawn to delve into some of the classic material, arrange it lightly or aggressively, and see what we four can do to hear it and play it in a fresh way. I guess this means that despite the recent foray into Floyd, I’m apparently still a jazz musician at heart….

Maybe reacquainting myself with standards is a way to tap into a deeper level of craft and intuition for the next time I want to sit down and write something new. It’s been a quiet few years for me on the songwriting front, but I’m not worried: fields have to lie fallow for a while before becoming fertile again.