My Spanish Repertoire

Víctor Meléndez, Poster design for National     Hispanic Heritage Month, 2019

I recently performed with my Latin jazz band, Frances Livings’ Ipanema Lounge at the West Covina library in California in honour of National Hispanic Heritage month, which is celebrated each year, from September 15 to October 15. For me it was a welcome occasion to dig a little deeper into my Spanish repertoire. In this blog post I would like to share my love of some of these often highly romantic and rhythmically enticing songs and some of their backgrounds.

During National Hispanic Heritage month the focus is on the histories, cultures and contributions of American citizens whose ancestors came from Spain, Mexico, the Caribbean and Central and South America. Especially significant is hereby, the 15th of September because it is the anniversary of independence for Latin American countries Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua. In addition, Mexico and Chile celebrate their independence days on September 16 and September 18, respectively. Also, Columbus Day or Día de la Raza, which is October 12, falls within this 30-day period.

I always love the process of searching for new songs to explore and interpret. So I spent a fair amount of time searching for new material and came across some beautiful songs to add to my Spanish repertoire ­– some written by contemporary songwriters, others deemed meanwhile almost classic. Since the venue I performed at was a library, a place of knowledge with most likely, information hungry patrons, I thought it would be nice to also provide some background information to some of the songs and music styles – which would ultimately, also honour the specialness of these Latin compositions for the occasion.

La Puerta by Luis Demetrio

Long before I even imagined that one day, I would develop such a passion for singing jazz songs in foreign languages, I fell in love with “La Puerta”. It is a slow, heart-felt ballad that was written by the Mexican singer and songwriter Luis Demetrio (1931-2007). I haven’t been able to find out when it was exactly written or recorded for the very first time but in 1957 “La Puerta” was placed among the great favorites of the Spanish-speaking public, interpreted by the famous Chilean singer Lucho Gatica. It has since then been made popular by contemporary singers like Luis Miguel and Laura Fygi. For a very long time it was the only Spanish song I had in my repertoire – but that was before I moved to Los Angeles…

I later discovered that Demetrio co-wrote another favourite song of mine, “¿Quién será?”, a bolero-mambo better known to the English speaking world as “Sway”. Like often falsely assumed however, Demetrio didn’t co-write the song with his fellow songwriter Pablo Beltrán Ruiz (1915 – 2008) but sold the rights to him. Beltrán recorded the song for the first time with his orchestra in 1953 as an instrumental cha-cha-chá. Dean Martin’s 1954 tongue-in-cheek recording with the Dick Stabile orchestra in English was then the first version to achieve considerable success in the United States. Norman Gimbel (1927 – 2018) who in the 1960’s became famous through his lyrics for “The Girl From Ipanema”, which is probably the most famous Antônio Carlos Jobim song, wrote the English lyrics for “Sway”. I recorded both “La Puerta” and “Sway” on my 2016 album, inspired by Dean Martin and the Mexican pop-singer Kalimba, I recorded it half in English, switching to the Spanish lyrics in the first chorus.

Hoy by Gian Marco

Another song really wanted to introduce at the library performance – and that I simply love singing live (ideally, with a minimal instrumentation of guitar, bass and percussion) –, is “Hoy” (which means in Spanish “today”). This contemporary ballad, written by the Peruvian singer-songwriter Gian Marco Zignago, known as “Gian Marco”, became popular after Gloria Estefan recorded the song on her Spanish album, “Amor y Suerte”. Estefan is the original Latin crossover international star. First as lead singer of Miami Sound Machine and then as a soloist, she has achieved success in both languages, English and Spanish.

Especially for the occasion of Hispanic Heritage Month I thought it would be interesting and relevant to introduce “Hoy” because it addresses the topic of being an immigrant, of your heart belonging somewhere else. Gian Marco wrote the song, after immigrating to the United States. Its lyrics, carried along by a beautifully crafted flowing melody, sounds like a love letter to a person with many beautiful metaphors, but is ultimately a love letter to his home country Peru that he left when he moved to Florida to pursue his music career. “Un camino empinado” (a steep path) for instance, is a reference to the Andes that are the longest continental mountain range in the world, and extend from north to south through seven South American countries: Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, Chile and Argentina. The line “tengo el mar del otro lado” means as much as, I have the sea on the other side, which refers to when he lived in Miami, saying in an interview that his ocean is “the Pacific, not the Atlantic”.

In his official video for the song he even integrated some of Peru’s traditional instruments: towards the middle, you can listen to and watch traditional Peruvian music and dancers. His musicians are playing a small guitar called the “Charango”, which is a native Peruvian instrument. A charango is a relatively small string instrument, around 65 cm long, similar to the size of a ukulele. It typically has ten strings in five courses of two strings each, but many other variations exist. Traditionally, they were made of armadillo shell, today superseded by wooden parts. Some designs however, still imitate the patterns of armadillos on the rounded back. Interestingly, and somewhat serendipitous (why it caught my attention maybe), is that as a spiritual animal totem, the armadillo symbolizes that it is time to define your own boundaries and space. It also symbolizes trust, peace, pacifism, balance, complexity, and compassion.

 

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Frances Livings performing live with jazz band Ipanema Lounge at Genghis Cohen 2016-07-05

Genghis Cohen ~ L.A.’s Legendary Singer-Songwriter Venue

 

 

Genghis Cohen

I love playing concerts with the full band at one of my favourite music venues in Los Angeles – the famous singer-songwriter club Genghis Cohen. It is primarily a Chinese restaurant but it has a lovely, separate music room with a stage, lighting and a backline. I usually perform there every two months and often try out new songs, like in February, I presented my new single, Ma Solitude. Naturally, I always play songs from my latest album, Ipanema Lounge (2016) and a include a few from The World I Am Livings In (2013).

Genghis Cohen is a Hollywood staple and has now been around for 35 years. That’s a long time for the fast-moving and ever-evolving restaurant scene but also for a music club. I always look forward to being there. The atmosphere is very artist friendly and some of my favourite sound people work there. Over the years, I have played there with different musicians and in various constellations. And sometimes, mostly by chance, I have even met stars like Jackson Browne, Stevie Wonder and most recently Annie Lennox, who was there to see her daughter, Lola Lennox perform.

The “Original” Genghis Cohen

The original owner, Allan Rinde, opened Genghis Cohen in 1983. He was Jewish, hence the “Cohen”. He had been a staple in the music industry for decades. I luckily got to meet him on many an occasion, occasionally dropping in even after he sold the restaurant 15 years later.

Allan was a former publicist, a journalist, the West Coast Editor of Cashbox. He sadly passed away suddenly on December 16, 2012. Allan was head of West Coast A&R at Columbia, where he was behind Billy Joel’s first hit, “Piano Man,” and he was the man who helped break the Jesus Christ Superstar album.

A close friend and colleague, the songwriter and producer Artie Wayne, who had over 250 covers recorded by such artists as Michael Jackson, Aretha Franklin, and Tony Orlando wrote a wonderful blog post here, covering years of insider stories in and around Genghis Cohen, their years in the music industry and of course many celebrity encounters.

In 1998 Allan sold the restaurant to Raymond Kiu, who had been a waiter at the restaurant for 14 years. After his death, his son Denis Kiu took over, who however, died prematurely, at the age of only 43 of a heart attack. A lot has changed in the last few years but that said, atmospherically, not that much.

That is why this article from 1998 in the L.A. Times still, in a way, rings true and names some of the reasons why I still love playing there: “The Cantina [the music room] is configured like a church, with benches functioning as pews, and a stage functioning as the altar. The room is warm and inviting and manages to make both the performers and guests feel at ease. In fact, they are. Too many clubs are set up to incite little interaction between audience and performer, but the family-like comfort of the Cantina inspires a bit of camaraderie.”

The music room is only one part of the complex that consists of the restaurant, the bar area and the closed off music room. The restaurant section sports red leather booths, dim lighting, red accent walls. There’s a bit of Old Hollywood charm, along with self-conscious kitsch — that has however, slightly diminished since the most recent restauranteurs took over in 2015.

 

Staying in Touch…

27_Band_Frances-Livings_Ipanema-Lounge_Molly-Malones_2016-02-22-cropped

 

We had a marvelous time playing last month at Molly Malone’s and the audience was full of praises too which is always very satisfying! Like the following tweet expresses:

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Saxophonist Zane Musa Songs of the Soul Frances Livings Poet

Songs of the Soul ~ In Memory of Zane Musa (1979 – 2015)

 

Zane Musa – the first time I saw him play was at a small, hole in the wall jazz joint. It was the summer of 2005. I was on one of my first visits to Los Angeles from Germany, where the guitarist Greg Porée and I had met. We had been working together at a small theatre in Hamburg. Drink in hand, we sat down, shortly before the show was to begin. So here we were on a date at this – dump.  Secretly, I was thinking very dismissively,

“What is all of this? This is not a proper city! This is not a proper jazz club! L.A. is so ugly. It’s like a barren, flat and never ending suburb, punctuated every now and then by strip malls, like this thing here…”

But Greg swore, these were really good players.

Whenever I had attended jazz concerts in Germany, the venues in which they were held were mostly historical theatres, lovely outdoor venues, like parks or on the waterfront. They always mirrored the anticipated beauty and specialness of the music. I therefore simply didn’t expect much walking in to that dumpy little bar.

The small stage was only dimly lit. My eyes fell on this lanky, dark haired, good-looking guy. I watched him as he just stood there, swaying almost unnoticeably to the venue’s background music – or to his own? His horn hung around his neck and cupping its bow, he lightly cradled his instrument. He seemed oddly detached and lost, clutching his saxophone.

The Saxophone in Jazz

The saxophone is obviously a staple in jazz music. I personally however, associated the sound of this instrument with the sickly sweet and whiney notes of players like Kenny G. dwindling annoyingly from supermarket and car radios. Having gained most of my listening experiences in the eighties and the nineties, a saxophone was the epitome of elevator jazz. But then the band started and this disinterested seeming guy started hitting his first notes; delving deeper and deeper into the music, spiralling into almost delirious solos – my jaw hit the floor. Zane Musa was the most brilliant, moving saxophonist I had ever heard live.

BANNER_Songs-of-the-Soul-Zane-Musa-without words

After the performance, on the way out, I grabbed some of these square, flimsy paper napkins from the bar and in the car I just dotted down every thought, rushing through my head. In the following weeks the poem Songs of the Soul evolved. I only told my husband that Zane inspired the piece. Nobody else. I was somewhat embarrassed by the impact he had made on me –

I had a musical crush on him.

Once the poem was completed, I felt as if I needed to deepen its intensity. I had only just started a new project recording some of my poetry. Nervously I contemplated asking Zane to play on “his” poem. I wouldn’t tell him of course that it was about him. My goal was to recite the piece and ask him to respond in a duet, as if he was at a live jazz gig, improvising on the spot. I wanted to capture a complete performance –also of my reading– rather than the usual studio procedure of assembling tracks for overdubbing and editing.

The Recording Session of Songs of the Soul

A few weeks later, I arranged a session with Nolan Shaheed at his studio in Pasadena, an environment that has now, over the years, grown into a very “safe” place to record. There I stood, in the vocal booth, Zane opposite to me in another one. We were connected by sight, large earphones and the piece and separated by the thick studio glass of the individual chambers. I didn’t read the poem out to him before we were ready to record. I wanted his reaction to be spontaneous.

So in dialogue with my recital of the poem, Zane played his musical interpretation of Songs of the Soul. The atmosphere was electric and invariably I achieved my concept in only two magical takes. The first recording was wonderful, very soft, sensitive and flowing but the second take had a lot of passion. That was the one we then mixed and mastered. Even in the somewhat disconnected and sterile environment of a recording studio, I experienced Zane as inventive and daring. He would blend Middle Eastern quarter notes with American jazz. I was impressed by his ability of delving into the music like into the depths of an indigo coloured lake that lied within him.

In the Recording Studio again…

A few years later in 2013, I was recording my first solo album, The World I Am Livings In, with eleven of my original songs. I couldn’t resist asking him to play a solo on my song Only Time Will Tell. It’s a very sad piece about fearing your loved-one will one day emotionally leave your once passionate relationship. So I needed some melancholic magic. I booked a session at Nolan’s studio and Zane played a short but very moving solo on soprano saxophone. While he was still in the recording booth, Nolan whispered to me that his older brother, the tap dancer Chance Taylor had only just committed suicide – the day before. Songs-of-the-Soul-Cover-tree-with-lightening-Frances-Livings-Musical-Poetry

My feelings shifted like waves. I went from being very moved by Zane’s playing over incredible empathy for such a loss to total disbelief that he had even showed up for the session. It seemed like too much! How was that possible, despite the pain, the shock and the anguish? At the same time I knew that sometimes that’s the very thing you have to do.

You show up and play, you sing, you write your heart out in order to not collapse. You keep going.

It was such an emotional situation because at the same time, I was also grateful for the fact that sometimes, when playing music, it’s like being handed a piece of that other person’s soul. It’s a very delicate and precious moment and I wanted to thank Zane and give him a piece in return. Greg and Nolan knew it but I had never made it public that Zane had inspired me to write Songs of the Soul.

So ever so slightly bashful, I told him that morning. His head was bent down, his eyes cast to the ground. Slowly, he lifted his gaze and through those tinted glasses he often wore, he looked at me almost with the eyes of a child, his heavy eyelids framed by dark eyelashes, batting slowly two, three times. Everyone who knows Zane will know the look. I will never know to date whether he had sensed this anyway that the poem was basically about him. I didn’t know what he thought at all – he wasn’t exactly an open book when it came to words.

What I do know is that Zane didn’t care about compliments; you couldn’t charm, bribe or seduce him into niceties. He poured himself into his music because he wanted to, rather, had to. So I didn’t judge or ask. But I had wanted to give him something back after he had given me these two heart-wrenching improvisations on his instrument and after the devastating loss of his brother. I wanted to simply say – I care.

That Night When Others Played Their Hearts Out…

And ironically, sadly and magically, that’s exactly what his fellow musicians did for him almost exactly two years later: They played their hearts out, hoping to give Zane back a piece of their souls:

On Monday, February 2nd, 2015 the jazz community received the incomprehensible and devastating news that Zane Musa had passed away. He had been on tour in Florida with the trumpeter Arturo Sandoval who himself had been a protégée of no one less than Dizzy Gilesby. At first the whole incident was perceived as a freak accident. But later we learned that tragically, Zane had taken his own life by jumping from the top of a park deck. He was only 36.

Two weeks later, on Monday, February 16, 2015, we celebrated Zane’s life: Organized by his family and three of his closest friends, the keyboarder Dennis Hamm, the bassist Ryan Cross and the drummer Tony Austin. I was asked if the recording of “Songs of the Soul” could be played and whether I could say a few words about how it developed. Of course I was more than honoured that I could contribute something.

For years, the Sofitel Hotel on Beverly Boulevard has been a slightly more glamorous venue for Monday night jazz sessions that Zane had often attended. Generously, the management once again supplied their venue, this time for Zane’s memorial service.

The large conference room was packed. Some of the guests had to stand in the back. I can only guess that there were at least five hundred people attending. Zane’s sister, his mentors and close friends shared very personal stories. Pictures of him growing up, tap dancing and playing his instrument were shown, and Zane’s peers and close friends played live music. Zane’s brother Chance, an award winning tap dancer was also commemorated. A slide show that Dennis had compiled, with pictures of Zane playing, illustrated Songs of the Soul. It marked the end of the well over three hour memorial. Finally, a brass band led the attendees downstairs to the piano bar. A lively jam session started to take place until closing out at 2 am in the morning.

I don’t want to speculate at this point why Zane ultimately made the decision to end his own life. It seems so much like such a contradiction of his brilliance and success. Moreover, he wasn’t some unpopular nerd, shunned and bullied. His family, friends and peers loved, respected and revered him. Couldn’t he get professional help, one may be temped to ask. But we know of others, whose idea of suicide has risen to loom over them like a black sun. We know of others, whose yearning to cease corporal existence will more often than not, lead them to their final definite act.

Your Elusive Creative Genius

I would rather more like to end this excursion on honouring Zane with someone else’s words. This is an excerpt from a talk in February 2009 by the writer Elizabeth Gilbert on “Your elusive creative genius”:

Centuries ago in the deserts of North Africa, people used to gather for these moonlight dances of sacred dance and music that would go on for hours and hours, until dawn. They were always magnificent, because the dancers were professionals and they were terrific […] But every once in a while, very rarely, something would happen, and one of these performers would actually become transcendent. […] time would stop, and the dancer would sort of step through some kind of portal and he wasn’t doing anything different than he had ever done, 1,000 nights before, but everything would align. And all of a sudden, he would no longer appear to be merely human. He would be lit from within, and lit from below and all lit up on fire with divinity.

[…] And when this happened, back then, people knew it for what it was, you know, they called it by its name. They would put their hands together and they would start to chant, “Allah, Allah, Allah, God, God, God.” That’s God, you know. […] Incomprehensible, there it is — a glimpse of God. Which is great, because we need that.

But, the tricky bit comes the next morning, for the dancer himself, when he wakes up and discovers that it’s Tuesday at 11 a.m., and he’s no longer a glimpse of God. He’s just an aging mortal with really bad knees, and maybe he’s never going to ascend to that height again. And maybe nobody will ever chant God’s name again as he spins, and what is he then to do with the rest of his life? This is hard. This is one of the most painful reconciliations to make in a creative life.

When I first came to Los Angeles –which is now almost ten years ago– the experience of such incredible talent and level of musicianship moved me profoundly. I knew, there was likely no return. To that date, I had only heard on recordings by the very best, the amount of brilliance as I then did and continue to hear live. I felt in awe, and as an artist myself inspired, challenged and frightened. In some way, Zane epitomized a lot of these feelings and conflicts. I have always highly respected his talent, passion and hard work. When he played, he invested everything – including his torment, which was what I saw that very first evening with such intuition I suppose, because it mirrored in a way some of my own. But did I have that courage?

Rest peacefully, Zane.

L. A. Jazz Scene Reels from Untimely Death of Zane Musa, by Tom Meek in LA Weekly, Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Zane Musa Memorial and Celebration of Life, event page with many comments and eulogies on Facebook

An interesting, older article praising the talent of a young Zane Musa appeared in 1996 in The Los Angeles Times: “They’re Young, Gifted and Gigging: Zane Musa, a Name to Remember, Opens New Jazz Talent Series” by Don Heckman in The L.A. Times, April 4, 1996.

 

DOWNLOAD Songs of the Soul here:

 

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