A musical must-read

Nov 26, 2018, 09:23 IST | Shunashir Sen

Three US artistes showcase the Great American Songbook - the basis of the jazz idiom

A musical must-read
John Di Martino and Warren Vache

You can compare its impact to that which all of Shakesp­e­are's plays and poems have had on English literature, or, closer home, to the imme­a­surable contribution that Rabindranath Tagore's output has had on Bengali culture. The point is that the Great American Songbook is a gi­gantic body of work that serves as the most vital reference point for any ja­zz practitioner.

It's a sort of unoffici­al greatest-hits collection from the re­pertoire of legends from the 1920s to '60s, whose musical innovations ga­ve form and structure to the entire genre. And all later outfits have — or at least should have — studied the standards they framed. You can put it this way — like a devout Catholic is expected to read the Bible, so it is with jazz musicians and the American Songbook.

Now, three artistes from the US — the country whose sons and da­u­ghters helped shape this musical lexicon — will sh­o­wcase some of the tracks that form the bedrock of the Songbook. John Di Martino, Warren Vache and Neal Miner will give Mumbaikars a crash course. They will be joined by city drummer Saurav Ghosh, but won't have much time at all to rehearse with him, since they hit the stage less than 24 hours of arriving in India. But that doesn't matter, because here's the thing — once an artiste is familiar with the songbook, he can have an impromptu musical conversation based on it with peers from anywhere.

"You don't need to read sheet music or even talk to come together and play a track from the Songbook. As long as everybody knows the material, there's no limit to what you can do with it, which is kind of amazing. And I don't think any other type of music has it," Miner says, ahead of a gig the quartet will play in Bandra.

Be that as it may, given the rapid evolution of consumption patterns over the past 50 years, is there a concern that the birth of new audiences has compromised the importance of the Songbook? Is there any dust gathering on its cover? "Well, you know," says Di Martino, "one thing I've have noticed is that we now have this trend of pop artistes going back to it. Lady Gaga is a recent example. And I remember this sarcastic article that said that Rod Steward had taken a hostage of the American Songbook. But I think that was kind of mean.

I actually admire the fact that he introduced this music to a group of young people who might have never heard it otherwise." Vache adds in the same vein that these tracks are just sitting around waiting for people to reintroduce them to a generation of listeners who don't necessarily know them. So, in that sense, it's not as if the Songbook is going to whittle away in the near future. It is, instead, a body of music that is set in stone, and the ravages of time haven't yellowed its pages. Not yet, anyhow.

On Tonight, 8 pm at Bal Gandharv Rang Mandir, Bandra West.
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