A while back, I was playing with the minor blues form. Songs like “Sugar” or “Stolen Moments” are so simple, yet seem to provide endless possibility. I actually sat down at the piano and sketched out a half dozen directions a minor blues tune might go. As I played with each of those, a few songs began to emerge. “Sky Blues” is perhaps the most straight forward of all of them. Not as low down and greasy as “Sugar” or as smooth and mysterious as “Stolen Moments,” but with a charm all its own.
It is a bright tune for a minor blues, hence the name, “Sky Blues.”
After a long absence (from blog posting, not from composing), I am back with a series of new jazz tunes. You may be aware that my jazz group, Outside Pocket, just came out with an album titled Grace Notes. But you know my motto: “Can’t stop. Won’t stop.” Even while Grace Notes was in production I was writing new music. Over the coming weeks I’ll be posting the fruit of that labor, in the form of a casual read-through recording session with Steve Talaga.
Today’s song is “Flutter.” It is a breezy tune that ascends, dips, and floats like the butterflies that visit our house’s monarch waystation. On a future recording, I could hear flute on “Flutter,” but for now Steve creates his own magic on the piano.
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Sorry I haven’t been posting regularly lately. Sometimes the music business gets in the way of the music itself…
I’m back with a new Psalm. This draft has been in my idea folder since 2020 when I read that Psalm 136 was something of an addendum to the Songs of Ascents (Psalms 120-134). You’ll remember that I set all 14 of those Psalms to music in my Pilgrim Psalms project. At the time I jotted down some ideas for the song, put it in my idea folder, and promptly forgot about it. But this week I stumbled across it and decided it was time to complete it.
You’ll remember that Psalm 136 is a long Psalm with the repeated refrain, “His love endures forever.” That suggested to me a call-and-response style song, with a leader singing the bulk of the text and the people responding. While “his love endures forever” gets the job done, the Hebrew is much richer. The word “love” encompasses loving-kindness, grace, mercy, and compassion. I arrived at a repeated refrain of “The gracious love of God will never end.”
The Psalm is divided into five sections: a prelude of thanksgiving, creation, salvation (from Egypt), leading (through the wilderness), and final praise. This is represented in the song’s five verses. (Purists beware: I left out the bits about God killing Og, king of Bashan, etc.)
Musically, it is similar to many of my Pilgrim Psalms; it is a simple call-and-response that could be led without music. It is music for the journey. And we could all use a little encouragement on the journey, couldn’t we?
Give thanks to the Lord. Give thanks to the Lord. The gracious love of God will never end.
1. Give thanks to the Lord. Our God is good! Give thanks again to the God of gods– the God of gods and Lord of lords– for God alone works wonders.
2. The heaven’s expanse was God’s design. God’s hand rolled out earth o’er the ocean wide; created the sun, marking days with its light; the moon and the stars, keeping watch over our nights.
3. Our God visited us in our misery, and broke the chains of captivity. God’s mighty hand pushed back the sea, and led us through. God set us free!
4. Through weary years in the wilderness, the light of God shone upon our path. Dangers and foes, without, within; God’s love became our promised land.
5. The humble and poor are God’s delight. God sees our need and hears our cry. All creatures are sustained by God’s loving-kindness. All earth gives thanks to our God on high!
I had an idea for a jazz tune: it would be a minor blues in A minor, but instead of heading to the D minor chord as its next move, it would move down to a G minor. [I know, I know, what an exciting life I live with all these important decisions.]
Well, I had it pretty much done–I had even named it “Mode Blue”–when I began playing around with the chords and found myself writing a completely different tune over the same harmonic sequence. The new tune was equally fetching. I couldn’t decide between the two.
But wait… Something began to change. The new tune started to feel different. It didn’t want to be a minor blues swing at all! It wanted to be more of a smooth jazz tune. Who was I to argue? Since it was no longer a blues, I named it “Blue Turned Green.”
Maybe someday I’ll record “Mode Blue” and put the two songs side by side so you can decide which one you like better.
In Psalm 17, the Psalmist is being pursued by enemies and calls to God for help. The six-part Psalm includes an initial appeal for God to hear, a proclamation of innocence, a petition (save me!), an accusation of the wicked, another petition, and a final word of confidence that God will save.
While I’m sympathetic to the Psalmist’s plight, the bulk of the Psalm is taken up with the Psalmist explaining to God just how good he is (“If you try my heart…you will find no wickedness in me”) and just how bad the enemies are (“They close their hearts to pity; with their mouths they speak arrogantly”).
Samuel Terrien claims the song is chiastic (a mirrored text joined at the most important verse) focusing on verse 7, which he translates as: Make a miracle of love! That phrase became “Show me the wonder of your love” in this new song, and became my way into the entire Psalm. Once I had the refrain, I built around it with a six-part structure that mirrors the original.
And there you have it, your new favorite musical rendition of Psalm 17!
1. Lord, listen to my cry. Hear me, O God of might. Don’t let me suffer defeat.
You know I’ve always tried to walk the path that’s right and keep my heart from deceit.
I call on you, O God who listens, hear my honest plea. If you don’t save me, no one will. Come rescue me. Come rescue me.
Show me the wonder of your love. Save me when I’m pursued. Make me a miracle of trust. Let me find me refuge in you. Let me find me refuge in you.
2. When I from danger flee, God, hide me in your wings. Only your strength keeps me safe.
So many enemies are all surrounding me, ready to pounce on their prey.
Rise up, O Lord, and overthrow the ones attacking me. God, prove your power. Prove your love and set me free. Come, set me free.
Show me the wonder of your love. Save me when I’m pursued. Make me a miracle of trust. Let me find me refuge in you. Let me find me refuge in you.
Show me the wonder of your love. Let me look on your face. Fill me with your holy light. And remain with me all my days. And remain with me all my days.
A few months ago, I accompanied my wife to Detroit. She attended training for a new job while I stayed behind as a “hotel husband.” Since I had only a bass to work out my musical ideas, I gravitated toward ideas that were playable on that majestic, yet cumbersome instrument.
I called this song “Americana” because it has so many echoes of classic American folk tunes and their roots. It is expansive like “Oh, Shenandoah,” pentatonic like “Were You There,” and bears the same four starting notes as “O Danny Boy.” It is not jazz in the traditional sense, but as you can hear in this recording it lends itself well to improvisation.
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.
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?
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.)
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.
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!