Here’s all we’d say if we had room on the actual album cover for notes. I’ve long admired liner notes, like those written by Bill Evans on the Miles Davis classic, Kind of Blue. And that’s made me think that it must be the piano player’s job to write the liner notes for an album. So here’s my (Adam’s) take on what we’ve done, though everyone chimed in.
This is our self-titled album, Standards & Substandards. We’d thought of other names for it (Consignment Store Sessions; Songs for Geckos; Unfortunate Introductions; etc.), but frankly there’s nothing more to be said besides the band name, invoking our contrasting sides and what this might look on a traditional vinyl record, one with jazz standards and the other with those songs that we’ve crafted to our own stylings.
When we started playing together — a happenstance miracle that could have only been initiated at one moment in time when we were all assembled by children and forces of the universe — we had no real idea what this would become or if we’d ever do anything more than play in a vegan coffee shop. But one thing led to another and now we get to play bars, weddings, back alleys, consignment stores, markets, and even a studio. And we’d still happily play a vegan coffee shop. Or anywhere, for that matter, because it’s not the output or setting that’s important, as proud of this recording as we are. It’s all in the moment of playing. If you’ve ever been in a dive bar playing a jazz cover of a Sesame Street song and realized that some of your best friends are playing all of the other notes and hits in between everything you’re playing AND there are random people surrounding you all singing along joyfully … well, then you’d understand.
Side A: Standards
At Last (Gordon & Warren)
This is one of the first songs we worked out as a band. Caryn jokes in live performances that any number of people might fall in love with her by the end of this song. Frankly, it’s a pretty serious risk. We’ve witnessed it firsthand.
Fly Me to the Moon (Howard)
A jazz standard that we can play over and over and over. In part, this is because we play it so fast it only lasts 90 seconds. If you’re getting married and you want this for a dance, we’ll slow it down. Maybe we’ll add another instrumental. That should make it last a whole 120 seconds. Funny thing is that I think Ian would play it even faster if he had a chance, and one time he counted it in about 50% faster — just to be funny — and almost gave Caryn a heart attack. Comedy gold.
I think it’s also good to point out that this is the only track you hear anyone’s voice besides Caryn’s: Ian counts us in. In all of these tracks, he’s in an adjacent room with an array of microphones and we all look through that doorway for his cues.
Cry Me a River (Hamilton)
I heard this in the end credits of a The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel episode one night and immediately knew that this is a song that suits us, bluesy and dark. I think Caryn saw the same episode that week and thought exactly the same thing. This is the kind of melancholy that you should play late at night, in the dark, turned up enough to let Tim’s bass shake your floorboards.
There are moments of songs that I cherish. In the bridge of Cry, there’s a downshift that Tim makes on the bass, followed by the sweet major seventh chord and Caryn singing the word “plebeian” (look it up); and then immediately after there’s this sordid, minor change that inspires me to crunch together two dissonant notes as she sings “through with me” and we rally into the emphatic final verse. I just really love that and I’d hoped someone would notice.
If I Were a Bell (Loesser)
At its face, this is a ridiculous song. “If I were duck, I’d quack … If I were a salad I know I’d be splashing my dressing … If I were a bell I’d go ding dong ding dong ding.” But like so many standards it’s spectacular in its complexity. I know you think I’m being facetious, but this song is really hard to get right. Like so many standards, the chord changes are surprising and the rhythm is relentless. People don’t write music like this anymore, which is too bad. It’s become one of our favorites.
Don’t Miss You At All / Melancholia (Ellington & Jones)
We joke about how some members of the band might not always share their feelings, or even admit that they have emotion. But our deep reaction to this achingly beautiful song proves that all wrong. It’s based on a Duke Ellington piano standard, with lyrics added by Norah Jones. This is one of those tunes you can play on a piano to really understand what that piano is like, down in its soul, underneath the strings and soundboard.
Side B: Substandards
Come Together (Lennon & McCartney)
It’s wrong to try to emulate The Beatles, so we just take this incredible song, work in some blues scales, run a funky bass line, and drive it with some effervescent percussion. Caryn sings all the right words, too.
When we play this live, we’re never sure exactly what it’s going to be until we start. Lately, we’ve been playing the tempo much slower and just kind of dig into the blues groove of it. But on any given night it could be different, depending on what we build from Tim’s bass line.
A Night Like This (Schreurs, Van Wieringen, & Degiorgio)
Tim brought this to us from out of nowhere and immediately convinced us that it was worth trying out. It sounds like it should be a standard that’s decades old, but it’s contemporary. And Scandinavian. I don’t know how to categorize this modern classic, Scandinavian Latin, substandard standard. I guess that makes it perfect for us. Also, Caryn whistles, which is always fun.
Sucker (Jonas et al.)
I remember the day Caryn brought this to us. Really, the Jonas Brothers? She said yes, and that she was thinking it would have some kind of syncopated Latin rhythm to it, the most ridiculous thing I’d heard that day. And then five minutes later Ian was running through terrific percussive riffs, as he does. And then Tim threw in the bass line, and I just had to learn how to make sure not to mess it up, keeping the piano underneath it all. There are drum interludes that I truly don’t understand in here, but I’m glad I just kept counting to four and keeping up. I desperately want to watch Ian when he’s playing, but I know it would just make me dizzy and I’d mess up my own part.
Not Today (Caracciolo)
Alessia Cara wrote this honest song about what being down or depressed really is. Sometimes we get submerged by the weight of things and it’s right to honor that. We try to torment this even more by stripping the song back and slowing it down and making sure we emphasize all the minor tones. Listen to the second line where Caryn blues the note. We just follow along as we layer more behind her.
When I saw Sesame Street Muppets playing a Tiny Desk concert (watching it for yourself will be the best thing you’ll do all day), I immediately messaged everyone else in the band and said that they should watch it and that Sing could be a great song for us. I have a healthy record of dumb ideas, so it’s remarkable that everyone agreed and that it’s become one of our favorites. Once we get going on this one, you get to hear each of us playing off one another. I can’t begin to explain what this feels like, especially in a basement bar when you suddenly realize that people are singing along.
In our take on this, Caryn takes the lines, “Sing of good things, not bad;
Sing of happy, not sad,” and slyly sings “and” instead of “not,” embracing the good and bad and happy and sad. Not to put too fine a point on it, but this is what we’re about — and I’m confident that plenty of lessons from Sesame Street would back us up. Melancholia is every bit as therapeutic as At Last.
“Sing” is literal and metaphorical. Unapologetically go forth and celebrate what you and your band bring: Hit the drum, pound the keys, pluck the string, and sing a song. It’s all good and worthy. “Sing out loud, sing out strong” along with us in the bar next time you see us. We’ll welcome your voice.
And finally: Thanks
We are grateful to family and friends who not only tolerate but actively encourage us. Thanks especially to Scott Rogers and The Proper Way studios for recording, engineering, and good advice. Graphic design by Meagan Crowley; photography by Karyn Johnston.