Psalm 11: Our God Is Still on the Throne

There are many, many ways to set the Psalms to music. Some of the most popular choices include metrical, responsorial, and verbatim Psalm settings. Each approach has its merits and I try to use a variety of approaches from Psalm to Psalm and sometimes even mix and match within a Psalm. What I really want is an approach that honors the original Psalm text–including its form–while making the song understandable to the common churchgoer.

When I began working on Psalm 11, I quickly ruled out a word-for-word lyrical setting. Some of the Psalm’s meanings are obscure (scholars can’t agree who is suggesting that the Psalmist flee like a bird, for example), some of it is archaic (arrows are not high on my list of fears), and some is vitriol that probably shouldn’t be included in group singing (“the wicked…he hates with a passion; fiery coals, burning sulfur, and scorching wind will be their lot”).

The Psalm’s primary message seems to be that there are a lot of scary things out there; even some of what you thought was a firm foundation is no longer reliable, but God is still in control. I decided to use verse 4 “The Lord is in his holy temple” as the primary chorus image: “Our God is still on the throne.” From there I fleshed out the verses using as many of the images in the original Psalm as I could. I’ve included a side-by-side comparison below so you can see how the original Psalm was transformed into a song.

VERSE 1
When my heart tries to sing
in the shadow of your wings,
but my fear’s all I hear:
fly away, fly away.

And when doubt fills my soul,
feel I’m losing control,
and even friends want to know
why I stay.

CHORUS
Our God is still on the throne.
We are not alone,
for God sees us, God hears us;
we are not alone.

From the heavens, our God reigns,
and his children see his face.
While the ones who’d do them violence
fade away, fade away.

Oh, our God is bringing justice, holiness, and love.
Our God is still on the throne.

VERSE 2
When the night closes in
and the shadows grow thick,
and I don’t know what dangers
await.

When the foundations I had
start to crumble where I stand.
And everything feels like sinking sand.

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Charlotte

One of the keys to composing is filling a need. Break up songs? Dime a dozen. Songs about Toothpaste? There’s plenty of room there for newcomers. Settings of Psalm 23? Yours needs to be better than the hundreds of well-loved versions that have already been written. But if you set Psalm 7 to music, yours might be the most popular, simply because the competition is so thin.

The same is true with jazz. When working on a new song, I try to write something that will fit the musicians well while filling a gap in the existing repertoire. For example, our violinist loves to play Hoagy Charmichael’s “Georgia.” It’s an irresistible song that lets her get her fiddle on. It also fills a need in a lot of setlists: songs in “two” that bridge the gap between upbeat swing and full-on ballads. But you can only play “Georgia” so many times.

Goodbye “Georgia.” Hello “Charlotte”!

“Charlotte” is close to Georgia on the map and it’s similar to “Georgia” in musical style. Though it shares the easy swing feel and opening rising minor third of “Georgia,” it quickly parts musical ways. Some of the traits that make “Charlotte” “Charlotte” are the syncopated rising lines that end each phrase of the melody and a few sudden shifts in harmony, especially in the B section. Those shifts tripped up the musicians during solos because the song was brand new to them. I have no doubt it will become second nature when “Charlotte” takes its rightful place in the pantheon of jazz standards.*

*That was a joke.

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Sehnsucht

“Sehnsucht,” is the German word for “longing.” It connotes more than a garden variety longing, though. It carries the deeper sense of longing for something that is out of reach or a longing that can’t even be put into words.

I decided to name the song “Sehnsucht” because the melody is built on a series of non-harmonic notes that give it a deep sense of yearning–of reaching but never quite arriving.

This recording has all the background noise and botched notes you’d expect from sight-reading a new song in a restaurant, but hopefully you can hear the longing in this jazz ballad despite the racket.

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Hotel Husband

Here we are, starting the year off right with a new song!

I was away in Detroit with my wife this week. She was training for a new job, so we decided it would be fun to work during the day and vacation at night. I didn’t expect to compose anything while I was away. My plan was to catch up on business and bass practice. (The hotel guests and staff were probably surprised to hear the sound of a string bass coming from one of the rooms!)

Keith Urban, Nicole Kidman’s hotel husband

The fact is, though, that when I play I usually end up writing something, too. In this case, I jotted down some ideas for a simple jazz tune. I was inspired by listening to Oscar Peterson’s Night Train. The songs are so simple but are a wonderful launching pad for the musicians to solo. I began to think of the many great jazz tunes that are short and simple–Solar, Blue Bossa, All Blues, etc–they are no more than 16 measures long but they pack perfection into such a tight frame.

While I wouldn’t call “Hotel Husband” perfection, I was pleased that it was compact, coherent, and (dare I say) quite a pleasant tune.

You may be wondering how I got the title “Hotel Husband.” You’ve heard of a “stay-at-home dad” or maybe a “house husband” of a working woman. Jen decided that coming back to me in our hotel room made me her “hotel husband.”

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Tuhan Adalah Gembalaku/You, Lord, You Are My Shepherd of Love

One final song for 2022.

An Indonesian friend introduced me to this setting of Psalm 23, which he’ll use in his ordination service. It’s simple, lovely, and has some interesting melodic twists and turns. Since I was learning it anyway, I decided to translate it into English so that those of us outside Indonesia could enjoy it. This wasn’t as easy as it sounds, because Indonesian uses many more syllables than English to say the same thing!

While there are many Psalm 23 songs to choose from, this one has a gentle spirit that cuts right to the heart of the Psalm. The song really helps us feel the complete trust the sheep feels for the shepherd. It makes the metaphor personal, so we can offer the words of Psalm 23 as our own prayer.

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A Quiet Conversation

I’m not a particularly legit jazz musician. Yes, yes, I gig and know more or less what I’m doing (though I don’t/can’t always do it), but I don’t have a ton of jazz street cred: I don’t have thousands of tunes memorized, blistering bebop solos, jazz degrees, or time spent on the road paying my dues.

I have no illusion that I’m a modern Charlie Parker or Duke Ellington. Instead, I see myself more in the tradition of Vince Guaraldi, Claude Bolling, or even Dave Brubeck–slightly off the beaten path, experimenting at the edges of the genre.

My latest experiment is “A Quiet Conversation.” It is a breezy little thing that starts with a simple melody. But wait! When the first melody comes around again, it is now in conversation with a second melody. Like any good counterpoint, both melodies sound complete on their own, but when combined they sound even better, commenting on each other like any good conversation.

While the composers mentioned above may only be footnotes in the history books of jazz, they all composed melodies that have been heard and loved by millions. That would be okay with me.

Note: The first recording is a demo created by Band-in-a-Box with synth flute and clarinet solos played by yours truly. If you want to hear the same piece played by two real bassists (both me) click on the second recording.

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Stollen Moments

Sometimes a great title is just too good to resist.* In this case, my wife and I drove past a billboard that mentioned Stollen, the German answer to fruitcake, and I immediately knew I was destined to compose a jazz Christmas song entitled, “Stollen Moments.”

A Moment of Stollen

This destiny was fulfilled a few days later when I produced this song. Like “Stolen Moments,” the jazz standard to which it pays tribute, my song begins with a four-chord riff. (But my song is in C major, rather than C minor–Christmas is supposed to be a happy time!)

A further confirmation that I was destined to write “Stollen Moments” was a shopping trip to Aldi on a recent vacation in Freiburg, Germany. As you can see in this picture, I encountered genuine German Stollen, sold in the days leading up to Christmas. Those luscious little loaves fairly cried out to me, “Compose us a theme song!”

Oh, the house is quiet, all the kids in bed,
wondering what the morn may bring.
So we’re cuddled here, eating Santa’s snack
in the glow of the Christmas tree.

The only gift on my Christmas list,
the only present that I need
are these times with you– they’re my wish come true
and my only Christmas dream.

All these Stollen moments with you
make my Christmas dreams come true.
Every season is grand, you and me, hand in hand.
Oh, how I love these Stollen moments with you.

*See, for example, “Night and DayQuil.”

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Once in Royal David’s City Live at Baylor University

One of the great joys of composing is when a fine musician performs one of my pieces in a way that really makes it come alive. In the case of this recording, there were three fine musicians: Hunter Morris on violin, Kathy Johnson at the piano, and Chris Martin on cello.

This was the prelude at a recent Baylor University Advent service, and I couldn’t be happier with how it sounds!

If you need a last minute instrumental piece for your Advent or Christmas services, you can find the music at www.gregscheer.com. The original was written for violin. I recently completed a version for cello solo.

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Night and DayQuil

A few weeks ago I had a cold that kept me down for nearly two weeks. It was so bad that I even canceled a gig! I never cancel a gig.

I was downing DayQuil and NyQuil faster than a drunk doing shots on payday. At some point, an idea broke through the fog: “‘Night and DayQuil’ would make a great song title.” Of course, this is a play on Cole Porter’s classic song, “Night and Day.”

Once I had the title, all I had to do was write the song. So I put on my work pajamas and sat down at the piano to write. If you listen closely you will hear faint echoes of Cole Porter’s tune, but mostly it’s its own thing.

A few things I especially like: The rising fourths at the beginning of the tune are bold and create an instantly recognizable musical fingerprint, but don’t sound overly pedantic. Throughout the whole song, the melody floats above the harmony like oil on water; it makes total sense to the ear, but I would pity the freshman theory student who had to figure out how the melody relates to the harmony! Most importantly, it worked. A jazz tune can be a great and interesting tune, but just not feel natural when you improvise over the changes. When we played this Thursday night, it felt like an old friend.

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Don’t Take Me for Grant, Ed

One friend describes me thusly: “Not as funny as he thinks he is.” Perhaps. But I totally crack myself up. The latest iteration of “Greg Scheer, comedian for an audience of one,” is the name of my latest jazz tune: “Don’t Take Me for Grant, Ed.”

You see, Thursday night’s gig was with new-to-me violinist, Grant Flick. I wrote him a jaunty tune that felt like something Stéphane Grappelli would play. As I tried to come up with a title, I thought it would a nice touch to make it a word play on the name Grant. Voilá! “Don’t Take Me for Grant, Ed.”

Having told the spine tingling story of the song’s name, let me tell you the nail-biting tale the music itself. When we premiered the song Thursday night, it was clear that the song was not quite right. Yes, the bold downward movement of the first two chords (Bb, A7) quickly captures the ear. And the melody is positively fetching. (If I don’t say so myself.) But when we took turns improvising on the form it was confusing. Muddy. Indecisive.

I had another gig the next evening, so I spent some time that day streamlining the song–mercilessly hacking away anything that hindered the song’s flow. The result was the same song, but in a more nimble iteration that fairly skipped through the venue!

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