In Praise of Doug (and others!)

In Praise of Doug (and others!)

 

I have been blessed to make music with a terrific array of musicians during my musical life here in the Boston area.

In recent years I have worked mostly with pianists, including Doug HammerJoe Reid, Tom LaMark, Mark ShilanskyJoe Mulholland, Mike Callahan, and Steve Sweeting.

Joe Reid fortuitously called me four summers ago — a few months after I had been laid off from my day job of sixteen years at the Cambridge Center for Adult Education — and asked if I might like to do a gig at a local retirement community with him.

This first gig — an hour of songs co-written by Harold Arlen plus a few stories about how they came to be written — has led to over a hundred performances together at public libraries, coffee houses, and retirement/assisted living communities with programs featuring the songs of Dorothy Fields, Oscar Hammerstein II, Larry Hart, Cole Porter, the Gershwin Brothers, Jule Styne, Jerome Kern, and Hoagy Carmichael as well as a program of songs written (by the Gershwins, Porter, Berlin, Styne/Sondheim, and others) for Ethel Merman to perform and a program of winter holiday songs written or co-written by Jewish songwriters.

It has been a fruitful collaboration with no end in sight. Soon we’ll be debuting a one-hour program of songs co-written by Sammy Cahn, and 2018 will bring a program of songs written (by Porter, the Gershwins, Berlin, Kern, Fields and others) for Fred Astaire to perform.

But so far Joe Reid and I have no recorded evidence of our collaboration because we have not gone into a recording studio together…

Tom LaMark, Mark Shilansky, and Joe Mulholland have all been a pleasure to work with as well, but I similarly have no recordings to document our time together.

Mike Callahan is now a professor at Michigan State (and the person conducting and/or playing piano in the Pops concert clips on YouTube — which he also arranged and orchestrated!) I hope to make music with him some day in East Lansing…

Steve Sweeting currently lives in NYC; so I don’t get to make music with him as much as I would like. I have, however, included many recordings that he and I have made together in past blog posts.

Which brings me to Doug Hammer.

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Doug in his backyard with trees and water…

I do not remember exactly when I started working/playing with Doug.

It may have been when Steve Sweeting moved from Brighton, MA to the upper west side of Manhattan (in the mid-1990s?)

I was living as an au pair with a wonderful family on Spring Hill in Somerville, and Doug and his wife were living not far away on the Somerville/Cambridge border.

If I am remembering correctly, Doug had a very intimate but functional recording studio near the back of his apartment — as far away from the traffic of Beacon Street as possible.

He’d come from Chicago to Boston to study at Berklee, had played piano in other countries (which is how he met his stupendous wife, who is French), and then moved back to the Boston area to build a life as a pianist, composer, accompanist, engineer, and producer.

I think our paths crossed because he played with other singers I knew from having taken a class with Mike Oster in the South End.

Maybe some day  Doug can read this blog post and correct or fill in some of missing details…

In any case, I loved the way he played the piano and accompanied singers and built a life with his wife (who is an artist and graphic designer).

And I loved that I could walk or ride my bike to his home studio.

But as many wise texts remind us, life is full of changes.

Doug and his wife decided they needed more space and moved to a new home on the north shore of Boston — where Doug built a recording studio in the lower level of the house and where he and his wife began raising a family.

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Luckily it is accessible by public transportation (a surprisingly scenic bus ride from Haymarket T station), and Doug has also been kind enough to drive me to the nearest T stop, Wonderland, when the weather is horrible or the hour is late.

And his family is willing to be quiet upstairs when someone is recording downstairs with Doug.

There are two isolation booths to the right of the piano (which you can’t see in the photo above) which is where I usually stand when we are rehearsing/recording.

This is what Doug looks like when we are rehearsing/recording.

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One of the many great things about working/playing with Doug is that we are able to record all of our rehearsals in high fidelity.

He is not only a terrific, playful pianist, but he is also a super competent sound engineer and producer.

Over time he has invested in high-quality musical tools — a Schimmel grand piano, great microphones, and endlessly upgraded recording software and hardware (including an Apple computer which almost never misbehaves) — and he is able to switch effortlessly from being an engineer/producer to being a collaborative pianist/accompanist/co-creator and back again.

The songs at the beginning of this blog post are from a show we did called Will Loves Steve, which featured all songs written by people named Steve, Stephen or Stevie. “Love’s In Need Of Love Today” is by Stevie Wonder, and “Everybody’s Got the Right” is by Stephen Sondheim from his extraordinary show Assassins.

They demonstrate how imaginative and improvisational Doug’s accompaniment often becomes when we work together.

He and I have been operating on a very simple guideline — familiar to improv comedians among other creative beings — for many years.

We always say “yes” to each other’s ideas.

Sometimes I have a specific set of images I share with Doug: “Let’s imagine that we are next to the Charles River and someone has started a fire in an old oil drum” or “We’re in a piney woods on the Cape, and a downy woodpecker is hopping up and down one of the tree trunks.”

Sometimes Doug starts playing something interesting on the piano while he is familiarizing himself with the sheet music for a particular song, and I encourage him to pause and hit the record button so that we can start with his fresh idea before either of us has had much time to think about it.

After each take we usually offer each other feedback about what we liked, what we might retain, and what we might like to explore further (“Let’s try going into a Latin feel on the bridge…” or “How about we do it twice as long so that you can take a solo and then we’ll end it with a triple tag at the end?”)

By the third or fourth take we often find ourselves in completely new and unexpected musical terrain.

Then we let that particular song rest and move on to the next one…

I don’t remember what ideas led us to this thoughtful version of “In My Life” by John Lennon.

I think we recorded it when we were rehearsing for a benefit concert (or maybe when we were rehearsing for a show I did at my old high school in Connecticut?)

Doug’s solo on this take is one of my favorite things that we have ever recorded together.

 

In the past decade Doug has been devoting more and more of his time and energy to composing and recording CDs of original piano — and increasingly orchestral —compositions.

You can click here for a link to his YouTube channel if you are curious.

Those of us who love to perform with him have been both excited to see his star as a solo artist rise and also sad because it means that he is less available to perform with singers…

Ahh, yes.

Life is full of changes.

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But so far he is willing to continue to work/play with singers in his recording studio.

Hurrah!

He and I are slowly but surely working on a CD of my original songs — which I write using a ukulele and are then transformed by his inspired piano playing.

I do not know when this project will be finished, but I am enjoying the process — one song, one session at a time.

Thank you to Doug Hammer for being born, pursuing a life in music, and working/playing with me on various undertakings for over two decades.

Thank you to Doug’s web site for the photos (probably taken by his talented wife) I have included in this blog.

And thank YOU for reading and listening to yet another post!

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This Moment

This Moment

 

I love this song by John Bucchino.

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I thought of it often as I was carrying boxes from my sister’s apartment in Laguna Niguel, CA to a 16′ Penske moving truck parked about 100 feet from her front door.

A monarch butterfly would appear every few hours — flapping from flower to flower before drifting away on a gentle breeze.

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And I would find myself singing this song.

I don’t know what inspired John to write it, although I am guessing that he must have some sort of meditation practice.

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I first heard it sung at the Yale Cabaret Conference I participated in many years ago… and immediately wanted to learn it.

I practiced the lyrics over and over again one summer as I walked up and down a sandy path through a scrub pine forest en route to Head of the Meadow beach in North Truro, MA.

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Pianist Doug Hammer and I have performed it several times since then (that’s Doug playing in the recording at the beginning of this blog post), and Mike Callahan did an arrangement which I got to perform with him as part of a Timberlane Pops Orchestra concert in New Hampshire.

It is a perfect example to me of a “wisdom song” — which helps me to re-align with my better, wiser self whenever I sing it.

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Writing this post inspired me to search on Pixabay for some butterfly images, and I was astounded by what I found.

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The idea that earthbound caterpillars can transform themselves into winged butterflies — that they can literally dissolve themselves and re-form their molecules into a new type of being — has fascinated and inspired us human beings for millennia.

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I am also inspired by the paths they take — paths which do not travel in a straight line from point A to point B yet manage to cover vast amounts of mileage none-the-less.

Butterflies have a inner sense of where they are headed, but they also follow and respond to whatever flowers and breezes appear along their journey.

This seems to be how I, too, am moving through my musical life here on planet earth.

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I looked online to learn more about the current health of our butterfly populations.

First I was directed to a relatively new company called “Butterfly Health” that seems to specialize in adult diapers…

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Then I found a lovely story about vineyards in eastern Washington which “stopped using harmful pesticides and created natural habitats with native shrub-steppe plants around the vineyards to keep out harmful insects (e.g., mealybugs) and attract beneficial insects (e.g., parasitic wasps) that feed on pests.”

These vineyard saw a significant increase in butterflies — from an average of five different species to more like twenty different species!

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The article noted that “butterflies don’t protect the vineyards or provide wine growers with economical benefits, (but) they are pollinators and an important element of the ecosystem. Furthermore, having butterflies flutter around a vineyard increases its aesthetic appeal and provides proof of earth-friendly pest control practices.”

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Amen.

I also found articles that were more discouraging, such as one in the great English newspaper, The Guardian.

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It reports that “more than three-quarters of Britain’s 59 butterfly species have declined over the last 40 years, with particularly dramatic declines for once common farmland species such as the Essex Skipper and Small Heath…

‘This is the final warning bell,’ said Chris Packham, Butterfly Conservation vice-president, calling for urgent research to identify the causes for the disappearance of butterflies from ordinary farmland. ‘If butterflies are going down like this, what’s happening to our grasshoppers, our beetles, our solitary bees? If butterflies are in trouble, rest assured everything else is.'”

Deep breath in.

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Deep breath out.

What, I continue to wonder, will it take for enough of us human beings to wake up and take significant actions so that the extraordinary species extinction we are now experiencing on planet earth can slow down…and maybe even stop?

Why are so many of us seemingly oblivious to what is happening to our ecosystems and unable/unwilling to make wiser choices?

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I recently visited a friend’s house (his/her second home, actually) and saw a small vat of RoundUp that I assume s/he is using to take care (??) of weeds in his/her lovely garden.

It was sitting alongside an aerosol can of pesticide to kill wasps.

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This is an extremely well-educated person who loves the views of nature from his/her home overlooking a beautiful river.

Yet s/he is completely oblivious to the increasingly well-documented scientific research linking herbicides and pesticides to all sorts of profound disruptions in the overall health of a wide variety of ecosystems. And disruptions to our own human metabolisms — since we human beings are deeply rooted in nature from an evolutionary perspective and share many of the same biological pathways/systems as our animal and plant cousins..

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I know that beautifully photographed and persuasively written advertising messages from the makers of herbicides and pesticides contribute to our human ignorance..

And lots of us think, “Oh it’s just a little bit of RoundUp or a little bit of wasp spray…”

But it all adds up and takes a cumulative toll on a wide variety of plants and animals and bacteria and fungae which we dearly need to be functioning in balance with each other.

Another deep breath in.

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And another deep breath out.

Thank you to Pixabay for these wonderful photographs of butterflies.

Thank you to Doug Hammer and John Bucchino for their tremendous musicality and songwriting expertise.

And thank YOU for reading and listening to another blog post.

What steps — small and/or not-so-small — have you taken in your life to help keep life in balance here on planet earth?