A Beautiful Delusion

I’ve been reading Faith, Hope, and Carnage by Nick Cave. I highly recommend it. In a series of interviews with Seán O’Hagan, Cave discusses his artistic process, the death of his son, and the way his faith has changed and grown in recent years. I’ve found it immensely inspiring.

Even though neither is “orthodox,” Cave leans toward Christianity and O’Hagan leans toward agnosticism. This makes for some interesting dialogue. At one point, O’Hagan pushes against Cave’s superstition about life’s mysteries, to which Cave responds “Perhaps it is a kind of delusion, I don’t know, but if it is, it is a necessary and benevolent one.” I love that line, and immediately wrote down the phrase, “A Beautiful Delusion.”

You may remember that I’m on a quest to write jazz with deeper lyrics than the typical themes of romance and unrequited love. I thought “A Beautiful Delusion” would be a perfect fit. One of the things I love about the way this song came out is that the first verse could actually be a love song in which a suitor tries to woo a love interest: “You think I’m crazy, but if you listen to your heart you’ll know that we could be lovers.” But verse 2-3 move on to “if you listen to your heart you’ll know there is too much mystery, beauty, joy, and pain in life for humanity to be mere configurations of carbon responding to the world via the chemical soup bowl known as our brain.”

While the lyrical subject is heady, the music is simple and pretty. In fact, when we played it instrumentally at our weekly restaurant gig, a patron rushed up and asked the name of the song. She thought it was a tune from a musical!

Lest you think composing and performing music is always serious, I’ve included an outtake from Thursday’s recording. Even though Ed and Susan are great musicians, there are always snafus when reading a new song. Below is our false start, a conversation about how the song should actually begin, and the successful restart of the song. When I say, “Don’t talk!” I’m not being misogynistic. I’m kidding Susan because every time we record a song she’ll lean over to me and say something during the recording. But even my stern warning didn’t work; you’ll hear on the full recording that she turns to me and says, “So pretty!” at 1:58. I guess the recording could be interrupted in worse ways…

1. A beautiful delusion–
maybe that’s all it is.
An innocent confusion–
that there might be more than this.

A beautiful delusion–
that’s all it is to you.
And though you may be right,
is it your heart or just your mind
that can’t believe it’s true?

2. A beautiful delusion?
Look all around, you’ll see
a thousand aching beauties,
a million mysteries.

A billion stars are shining.
You catch your breath with awe.
When your heart wants to explode
with all the longing in your soul,
it doesn’t seem delusional at all.

2. Ineffable illusion,
a faint remembered dream,
a sorrow for no reason,
a joy inside a pain.

Questions that search for answers
and hearts that yearn for love.
Oh, how do you explain
the little magic of each day?
Maybe this delusion’s enough.


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Psalm 15: Lord, May I Dwell with You?

From my Psalm 15 study notes:

I’ve got to admit: it’s almost depressing reading Psalm 15. Not only is it works righteousness, but it sets the bar impossibly high. Who may dwell in God’s sanctuary? No one…

I believe that if we’re going to take God’s Word seriously, we have to begin with what the text actually says. Too often, we’re quick to explain away something as allegory because we don’t like its primary message. (Song of Solomon, anyone?). Having said that, we also need to dig beneath the surface if we’re going to let the Spirit speak to us through scripture.

Psalm 15 initially struck me as a spiritual checklist for those who want to be close to God: be blameless, speak honestly, don’t take bribes, and hate the wicked. I thought to myself, “How in the world am I going to write a song based on this Psalm?” Perhaps recast it as a confession? (“Forgive us for not living up to these godly traits.”) Or answer the question “who may dwell?” with the answer “Jesus–the only truly perfect One.” “How can we dwell? Only through Jesus.”

In the end, I decided to turn the Psalm into a prayer of devotion. The chorus is a prayer of aspiration, “Lord, may I dwell with you?” and the verses pray for the strength and guidance to live the godly life outlined in the Psalm. The music is in a simple, Taizé-like style, with verses chanted over the chorus. This also allows the chorus to be used independently as a scripture song, focusing on the deeper message of the Psalm: a desire to dwell in God’s presence, knowing God as a refuge and our true home.

Lord, may I dwell with you?
Lord, may I dwell with you?
Lord, may I know your refuge, my home.
Lord, may I dwell with you?

1. Who may remain in your presence?
Who may live in your holy place?
The blameless, the righteous, and those who speak truth.
Lord, may I dwell with you?

2. Lord, may my tongue speak no ill;
let me do my neighbor no wrong,
pay no heed to the proud, but honor the just.
Lord, may I dwell with you?

3. Lord, help me keep my word.
Let me be generous and honest.
Keep me secure in your perfect will.
Lord, may I dwell with you?

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Psalm 14: We Wait for You, Our Savior

Update: This song is now available at gregscheer.com.

I’m posting this Psalm two days after the Superbowl, which has given people 48 hours to register their disgust at Rihanna’s halftime show. Clutching their pearls and a bag of chips, they have declared it indecent. Perverse. I really don’t have an opinion about that. (Except maybe you shouldn’t be watching the Superbowl if you’re that easily offended.)

I just realized I’m posting Psalm 14 on February 14. Happy Valentines Day!

At first blush, Psalm 14 seems almost as catty as the Rihanna haters. The Psalmist comes out swinging, calling the godless “fools,” “abominable,” “perverse,” and “evil.” Ouch. However, this vitriol is not aimed at random unbelievers (or entertainers who sing suggestive songs), it is reserved for those “who eat my people as they eat bread” and who would “confound the plans of the poor.”

This is a good lesson for those who would engage in culture wars. God gets angry, but not with people who simply don’t believe. No, God gets angry with those who harm the ones he loves–especially the poor. And beautifully, we don’t have to get angry or fight these people; we just have to run to God for refugee.

RiRi, I’ve got your back. I just hope one day you’ll stand under God’s umbrella (ella, ella, eh, eh, eh)*

In times of disbelief and doubt,
corruption and alarm,
the Lord looks down from heaven
to judge the human heart.

The strong devour the innocent
like gluttons gorge on bread.
O God, have mercy on the weak–
give refuge, once again.

We wait for you, our Savior,
to rescue us, once more.
Restore us to your favor;
renew us in your joy.
Renew us in your joy.

*Sorry. I couldn’t resist.

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Psalm 108: O God, My Heart Is Ready (w/ Kate Bluett)

Update: This song is now available at gregscheer.com.

Whenever I get the chance to work with Kate Bluett, I jump at the opportunity. She has a knack for writing hymns that are fresh and insightful, yet draw a worshiper’s attention to the subject rather than the words.

In this case, I told her I would welcome any new Psalm songs she’d like to send my way. Within three days, there was a new rendering of Psalm 108 in my inbox. As I told her in my reply, anyone who rhymes “thrum” and “done” is okay in my book. (Please, let’s call a moratorium on God/sod, sin/within, and died/crucified!)

Since this is a Psalm of morning praise, I wanted the music to be bright and airy. The melody leaps and dives like a brisk ride through a hilly landscape at sunrise. The harmonies float under the melody until finally coming to rest in the interlude. It is a short, simple song, but beautifully satisfying. (If I don’t say so myself.)

1. O God, my heart is ready
to rise and sing your praise.
My soul in you is steadfast;
my song will wake the day.
My pulse reverberating
your name in every thrum,
so I will tell the nations
the wonders you have done.

2. For I have seen your mercy
that towers to the skies,
and I will know your justice
at last when you arise.
But is my hope now fading?
Shall I not see your love?
O God, my heart is waiting:
When will you shine above?

3. The earth is but your footstool,
and heaven is your throne:
Then save your earth from misrule,
whose hope is you alone!
When human strength is helpless,
our hearts turn back to you.
O God, come and defend us
who triumph in your truth!

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Psalm 11: Our God Is Still on the Throne

Update: This song is now available at gregscheer.com.

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.

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.

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.

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

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

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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,” 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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