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.

 

Franz Marc In the Rain 1012 Painting Lenbachhaus Waters of March

Waters of March and the Circle of Life

Zur deutschen Version hier klicken:

Franz Marc John Constable Rain Storm Score Tom Jobim

 

Waters of March is a magical, world-famous Brazilian jazz song, written by Antônio Carlos Jobim. The very first time I performed it live was at a Sunday show in Los Angeles. I was nervous. It’s one of these songs you know you have to connect with as a musician. Otherwise the audience won’t stay with you. Besides, it’s such a famous song, you almost have the obligation to take listeners on a musical and emotional journey. So whether live or in the studio – and this is valid for all songs – the challenge lies in finding and interpreting the essence of that specific song. And yes, sometimes we succeed, sometimes we don’t. Interestingly, at my debut of Waters of March not only I, but the whole band connected with it.

Moreover, it took me on a journey, on a quite unexpected journey – into the deep waters of March!

I’ll go back a bit: Waters of March (in Portuguese, Águas de Março) had been a song request from a friend and jazz lover after attending a prior show of mine. Like other songs in my repertoire, it was written by the Brazilian songwriter Antônio Carlos Jobim. My friend handed me a CD, so on my next early morning dog walk, I listened to the enticing version he had given me a copy of. I indulged into delightful notes by no one less than Art Garfunkel – a recording on his 1975 album Breakaway. During the course of the next few days, I dug up and listened to many others, like the original by Jobim and by contemporary female jazz artists like Cassandra Wilson. I immediately loved the flow of the song in combination with such interesting lyrics. He was right. It was a perfect fit for Ipanema Lounge, a musical band project I had founded and later the title of my 2016 album. After all, I had been originally inspired by Jobim – which is why the word Ipanema – from his biggest hit song, The Girl From Ipanema – is in the title. I decided to yet again look deeper into Jobim’s catalogue and to play with some of the songs.

Waters of March in Five Languages

Águas de Março was first released in 1972. Jobim wrote the original lyrics in Brazilian Portuguese and a second version a year later in English. Then, in 1973, another favourite songwriter of mine, the Egyptian-French troubador Georges Moustaki, released a recording. It was titled Les Eaux de Mars with French lyrics that he had penned. An Italian version, La Pioggia di Marzo followed in the same year written by Giorgio Calabrese, an Italian songwriter and frequent collaborator with French pop star Charles Aznavour. Many years later, in 2007, a further adaptation called Solen i maj was written in Swedish by Anders Lundin. The Spanish-French singer-songwriter Sole Giménez penned a version in Spanish in 2009, titled Aguas de marzo.

Waters of March – All Time Best Brazilian Song

Almost 30 years after Jobim had written Waters of March, Brazil’s leading daily newspaper, Folha de São Paulo conducted a poll including more than 200 Brazilian journalists, musicians and other artists. In 2001 Waters of March was named the all-time best Brazilian song. The lasting effects of Águas de Março is also discussed in The Atlantic, including suggestions, comments and videos from many readersListening to many of these versions I once again understood that it was a very magical and philosophical song. But the more I listened, the more impossible it seemed to memorize the lyrics for a live performance…

For Jobim Songwriting was like Psychotherapy

The words of none of the versions – whether in English, Portuguese or French – are constructed to create a logical narrative. There are no recognizable stanza patterns or traceable rhymes either. The lyrics consist of strings of free associations, of singular objects broken out of their original context and then assembled to a collage – moreover, since they are in motion, literally, figuratively and musically, it’s really a montage. It was not unusual for Jobim to write in this kind of stream of consciousness. The composer-guitarist Oscar Castro-Neves recalled that Jobim had told him, that was his version of therapy, which had saved him thousands in psychoanalysis bills. It had indeed been the psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud who, at the end of the 19th century, had developed the technique of “free association” as a clinical method for his patients undergoing psychoanalysis.

Waters of March et l’objects trouvés

In the song nearly every line starts in Portuguese with “É…” (“[It] is…”) and in English with “a”. “It” is a stick, a stone, a sliver of glass, a scratch, a cliff, a knot in the wood, a fish, a pin, the end of the road, and many other things. This technique of listing trivial objects reminds me very much of the art movement “l’objects trouvés”, originally founded by Pablo Picasso and Marcel Duchamp. As early as 1912, Picasso began to incorporate actual pieces of newspapers and other domestic items like matchboxes into his cubist collages. The word collage is derived from the French tern coller (to glue or stick together), resulting in an assemblage. Other artists like Kurt Schwitters, Georges Braque and Hannah Höch also utilized this technique, depicting wine glasses, bottles, cups and calling cards.

Pablo Picasso 1942 Bull's head bicycle seat handle bars metal wielded art
Pablo Picasso Tête de taureau (Bull’s Head) 1942, Musée Picasso, Paris

Aside from painting these objects – or even using photographs – another tendency was to make cubist constructions from various scavenged materials. Most famously introduced by Duchamp’s “Ready Mades“. These are individual objects, sometimes slightly modified and presented as art. His most well-known piece is Fountain (1917), a standard urinal purchased from a hardware store and displayed on a pedestal. Thus, by “simply choosing the object (or objects) and repositioning or joining, titling and signing it, the found object became art.” This was a technique Picasso  also used in 1942: Tête de taureau (Bull’s Head), consits of only two parts, a bicycle seat and handlebars, which were wielded together.

Found Sounds

In music, “Found Sounds” follows the same principle, whereby domestic sounds from the world around us are used. It can be anything, like a ball hitting the floor, a machine motor running or a lift door opening and closing. It was created in the 1940s, by a group of avant-garde French composers, who named it musique concrète (concrete music). In 1948 the French composer, writer, broadcaster, engineer, musicologist and acoustician Pierre Schaeffer composed the piece Etudes aux chemins de fer, which is constructed entirely from sounds found at a train station. The piece is like a musical collage, featuring train whistles and the sound of steam engines clattering along a track. With digital methods available nowadays, this technique is now called sampling as in the musician taking a sample of something else and using it in their work. 

In Waters of March it is the environment, which is dissembled by the storm and the gushing waters, delivering these fragments and debris in the form of words.

The Influence of Poetry in Jobim’s Songwriting

The song lyrics also made me think of one of the 20th century’s most prominent poems, The Waste Land by T. S. Eliot from 1922. Not only is the poem’s form similarly obscure and untraditional – The Waste Land has many shifts in speaker, location and time – but especially the famous first line, “April is the cruelest month” easily conjures up Jobim’s seemingly unusual depiction of March as a destructive and cruel time. The influence of a renowned writer is not surprising, since Jobim was an avid reader of poetry by authors like Rimbaud, Baudelaire, Bandeira and Eliot, many of whose poems he could recite by heart.

The Influence of Weather on Songwriting

It is not unusual for songwriters to use weather conditions in songs. Rain is an especially popular topic, whether in the song Singing in the Rain, which was also a romantic comedy, or the smash hit It’s Raining Men. In the Southern hemisphere, March is the rainiest month of the year, which was Jobim’s initial inspiration for Águas de Março. He is said to have been travelling to his family rancho in Rio de Janeiro state, when a heavy rainstorm turned the roads and landscape to mud, which is also one of the lines in the song, “It’s the mud, it’s the mud…”. In Brazil, March represents the end of summer and the beginning of the colder season. In an article titled “Brazil: Waters of March“, the author, a foreign correspondent for the Al Jazeera media network, describes the rain like in the following:

“It hasn’t been raining more than 10 minutes when streets begin to flood. Thick and murky, it falls in corrugated sheets. Water. So coarse it’s opaque. Nothing but grey. And brown. And more grey. It’s March in Rio.”

Especially in the state of Rio de Janeiro, the weather is typically marked by sudden storms with heavy rains and strong winds, which cause flashfloods, violent flooding and landslides in many places around the city, sometimes killing people. The lyrics of the Portuguese version therefore also reflect this loss and destruction.

The Rite of Spring

This destructive interpretation of spring, reminds me of another groundbreaking piece: Igor Stravinski’s famous ballet and orchestral concert work from 1913, The Rite of Spring, which was so challenging at its time that it famously caused a riot at its première. It was in a similar way a piece of work with no specific plot or narrative, consisting of a succession of choreographed episodes. Stravinsky himself described The Rite of Spring as “a musical-choreographic work, [representing] pagan Russia […] unified by a single idea: the mystery and great surge of the creative power of Spring”.

The English Lyrics

For the English version, Jobim – whose music was already being played around the world by the early 60’s – changed a few elements. His goal was to provide a more life-affirming and universal perspective : He intentionally omitted specific references to Brazilian culture (festa da cumeeira, garrafa de cana), to its flora (peroba do campo) and folklore (Matita Pereira). So consciously holding a listener from the Northern hemisphere in mind, he depicted March as the month which marks the beginning of spring, an awakening. The waters are now instead from melting snow, from thawing, and not from the torrential rains as referred to in the Portuguese original.

Although both versions speak of “the promise of life”, the English one allows for these other, more positive interpretations with additional phrases like “the joy in your heart” and the “promise of spring”, a seasonal reference that would per se, be more relevant to most of the English-speaking world.

Both the lyrics and the music have a constant downward progression much like the water torrent from those rains flowing in the gutters, which would typically carry sticks, stones, bits of glass, and almost everything and anything. The orchestration creates the illusion of the constant descending of notes much like Shepard tones – an illusion that does in sound, what the old-fashioned barbershop pole does visually, just the other way around, that means, it seems to be rising forever.

Original, handwritten score of Waters of March by Antonio Carlos Jobim

Looking at an original score by Jobim, it becomes apparent that he was meticulous about the voicing, whereas many composers notate the chord symbols and melody, leaving the interpretation and therefore the voicing to the musician.

My Interpretation of the Song

Shortly before my first performance of the song, I was actually quite nervous. I wanted to do the song justice by being able to convey these sliding kaleidoscope images both lyrically and musically. I also wanted to be able to transport the ambivalence between tension and flow without over dramatization. Waters of March I think is a challenge for every vocalist. Who wants to sound too monotonous when listing these seemingly endless and disconnected objects? Because what matters is not so much the meaning of the individual words. According to the psychoanalyst Freud, their meaning varies in all of us anyway. It was rather, more about the sounds they create when put together in context with the music.

My musical director and guitarist, Greg Porée and I, had worked on our own arrangement of the song. So if you listen to the recording you will hear that the guitar starts with a very unique lick. Then the piano sets in. Riding on the groove of bass and percussion, I then start singing these strings of words. And that’s exactly how it was live. Very soon, I felt the emotion building up inside me. I felt in anticipation of something wonderous. I felt excited and suddenly realized, I had understood the universal meaning of the song!

Whether in Portuguese or English, streaming through me were all of these “things”, a stick, a stone, a sliver of glass. I was channeling metaphors and symbols of life flowing by in never ending new constellations, each one laden with its own history. Like in the line, “and the river bank talks of the waters of March”, that serves as a metaphor for events in the past and promises of things to come. Suddenly, to me even the English version didn’t feel like a calm stream just flowing along – but like a torrent.

In a similar way to Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, even the English version wasn’t pastoral; a Beethoven or Schubert idea of spring, but an explosive one. Hence, without pain there is no joy. Without destruction there is no beginning. Whether it is the end of a cycle or the beginning of one, a cycle means life: No matter which way around, a beginning implies an end and an end implies a beginning of something new that will inevitably come. These were metaphors for events and situations that are chaotic, surprising, sometimes devastating. It made me feel very alive and that for me in that very moment was “the joy in my heart”.

Listen to my recording of Waters of March here…

*

UPDATE a few years later, on Saturday, September 10, 2016:

Since I first wrote this blog post, in 2013, I have performed Waters of March at many different venues, with different musicians and in different moods. What strikes me is that more and more, it has become this magical song that acts like a dream catcher, moreover, a poetic facilitator of a news bulletin. Like shortly after the Boston Marathon attacks happened in 2013 I almost, while singing, choked on the lines: “The foot, the ground, the flesh and the bone, the beat of the road, a sling-shot stone…” There have been and probably still will be many stories whose journeys I will be taken on and sceneries I will be enticed to visit because of this song’s associative contents and its permanent poetic state of flux, which is lastly what makes this song such a timeless classic.

For those of you who love these Brazilian jazz and Bossa Nova classics, here’s a whole playlist, including lots of different variations of Águas De Março / Waters of March:

Oil painting by John Constable, Rain storm over the sea (Seascape Study with Rain Cloud) circa 1827
John Constable Rainstorm over the Sea, circa 1824-1828
Franz Marc In the Rain 1912 Fauvism Blauer Reiter Lenbachhaus
Franz Marc, In the Rain, 1912

 

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songwriting when love falls apart melancholy female jazz songwriters mp3

When Love Falls Apart ~ The Beauty of Melancholy

 

A poet is a nightingale who sits in darkness and sings to cheer its own solitude with sweet sounds.”  ― Percy Bysshe Shelley

Songwriting about something painful can be cathartic but it also means revisiting pain. After the initial spark for the song When Love Falls Apart, it felt odd, even paradoxical, to want to write something beautiful about something so sad. Which is however, ultimately, what melancholy is all about and that was the core emotion I wanted to express. After all, When Love Falls apart is about a break up, which was very difficult and painful at the time. To this date, the song is still very emotional for me to sing. It can be like being transported back in time. So writing the song became quite a process.

How Co-writing Became A Way To Unburdening Pain

I had almost completed the lyrics. I had a hook and was pleased with my melody for the chorus. But the verses were still incomplete. I was obviously procrastinating, trying to avoid getting in too deep. That’s exactly why I needed some support, some structure to build on. I needed to unburden myself from some of the pain. So I asked the classical guitarist and jazz composer Greg Porée for help.

Greg came up with some lovely additional chords. So using them as a base to lean upon, I wrote the rest of the melody. Rather, it then just wrote itself. Suddenly, the song was finished. Ironically, however, the song marked both an end and a beginning: “When Love Falls Apart” was the very first song Greg and I wrote together.

The next step was therefore to notate everything in a chart. Here’s a copy of the original:

songwriting when love falls apart melancholy female jazz songwriters mp3

The Magic of Handwritten Charts

Handwritten charts are per se something very personal and are frequently of sentimental value for songwriters. I always keep an original, handwritten manuscript of all of my songs, whether it’s one by a co-writer or one of my own. It’s like keeping a baby picture of your child although it’s already grown up. For me, a song has “grown up” when it has been professionally recorded. Once the song is on Spotify or iTunes that kid has basically moved out and has started a life of its own.

Collections of Music Scores and Charts

If you’re interested in music notation, I found a lovely visual collection of other composer’s music scores. The Morgan Library & Museum in New York houses one of the finest collections of music manuscripts in the United States. In addition to a large collection of musicians’ letters and first editions of scores and librettos, its collection of manuscripts (by classical composers like Mahler, Brahms, Chopin, Debussy, Mozart, Schubert, and Richard Strauss) spans six centuries and many countries.

There are many other archives and libraries with collections of original scores worldwide but also some that have been scanned digitally and are available online.

Hand-writing music has been a tradition in jazz for many, many years. With Finale, a powerful and involved music notation software, a handwritten look using special fonts can even be emulated! Have a look at this article, which explains the principle.

Recording When Love Falls Apart

But I digressed slightly. The next step was to record the track as a demo, with voice and guitar. That’s where I kind of left it. It wasn’t until playing an unplugged show at the famous singer-songwriter venue Genghis Cohen in Los Angeles, that I felt I needed to also release it. Maybe because that evening, accompanying me on classical guitar, was my co-writer. We performed the ballad for the first time live.

The way the song came to life and people connected to it, motivated me to record it as a single to just “get it out there”. Although I was already working on songs for my solo album it just felt right to release that version as a single – just with voice and classical guitar.songwriting when love falls apart melancholy female jazz songwriters mp3

After recording it in the studio, I started designing the cover. I felt very much inspired by a very tender and touching quote by Virginia Woolf.

“The melancholy river bears us on. When the moon comes through the trailing willow boughs, I see your face, I hear your voice and the bird singing as we pass the osier bed. What are you whispering? Sorrow, sorrow. Joy, joy. Woven together, like reeds in moonlight.” – Virginia Woolf

Melancholy is one theme that runs rampant through her writing. Her image of a singing bird amidst a moonscape depicts this pensive emotion so well. It is interwoven with both sorrow and joy, profoundness and beauty – which is exactly what I had attempted to create in the song.

My ballad “When Love Falls Apart” grew out of exactly these feelings of deep sadness, which via beauty, gave way to melancholy.

Listen to and purchase an mp3 of When Love Falls Apart here:

 

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You can purchase my music and spoken word – which I hope you will. If you find joy and inspiration in my words, would you like to provide additional support? Please be lovely and consider a donation of your choosing – from anywhere between a coffee and a nice dinner. I will deeply appreciate it.

 

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