And all that … in jazz
Putting it together with just piano, bass and drums
Features and Interviews
Thoughts shared, souls bared: Company is back on Broadway
Perfect relationships: Critics evaluate Company’s revival
Act II: Bruce Sabath is Larry in Company
Thrilling transformation: Sweeney Todd is coming to the big screen
And all that … in jazz: Trotter Trio interprets Sondheim
Farewell to the garage: Signature Theatre performers reminisce
No obstacles now: Signature’s Eric Schaeffer looks back and forward
Encores! assembles an all-star cast for Follies
Biography of a Song: “Sooner or Later” from Dick Tracy
Reviews and Reactions
Sweeney Todd in Sarasota
Company in Seattle
Side by Side by Sondheim in Chicago
West Side Story in Portland
West Side Story in Houston
A new staging for Merrily We Roll Along in California
Follies (times two) in London
Merrily We Roll Along in Barcelona
Recording review: Simply Sondheim
Book review: Marni Nixon’s autobiography, I Could Have Sung All Night
Recording review: Brian Stokes Mitchell
Recording review: Candide (1974 Broadway revival)
Upcoming Sondheim shows in the U.S., Canada
And all that … in jazz
Putting it together with just piano, bass and drums
by Robert Sokol
Covering the scores of Broadway musicals in a jazz mien was not a new idea in 1994. “It’s the kind of album I grew up loving. In some cases I liked them even better than the original cast album,” recalls Bruce Kimmel, the driving force behind more than 100 cast albums and compilations for the likes of Bay Cities, Varése Sarabande, Fynsworth Alley and now Kritzerland. Leonard Bernstein’s score to West Side Story, along with many other shows from the ’50s and ’60s, received the jazz treatment from artists such as Stan Getz, Stan Kenton, Shelly Manne and Oscar Peterson.
It was, however, Kimmel’s ambitious brainchild to set all of Stephen Sondheim’s scores to a new downbeat. He was searching for an arranger when Steve Lawrence’s son David recommended Terry Trotter. Kimmel got one of Trotter’s CDs, and before the first track was over, he agreed.
“It was a perfect fit!”
The son of a classical pianist, Terry Trotter started playing piano at the age of 4, started losing interest at about 13, “and then my mom found a piano teacher whose style was very Teddy Wilson jazz-inspired. I fell in love with jazz. Then after studying it for a couple of years, I really fell in love with classical music, too.” Sage advice from his friend Leonid Hambro, a decade-long touring partner of Victor Borge as well as a longtime pianist for the New York Philharmonic, helped him make a decision. “Leonid said, ‘You could probably get into the top 5 percent of classical pianists, but that’s not going to be enough to survive. You really have to be in the top 1 or 2 percent to make it there. But as a jazz pianist you can do so much more. And you can still play classical music.’ So that pretty much cinched it for me.”
Trotter’s classical training and quick skills made him a popular studio and tour musician for many years, playing and recording with Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gormé, Frank Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald, as well as 12 years with Natalie Cole. During his Steve and Eydie era, Trotter first experienced another musical Steve in the Broadway production of A Little Night Music.
“Nick Perito, Steve and Eydie’s musical director, wanted to take me to this show. I wasn’t in the mood for a musical because I wasn’t really interested in that style of music. Mind you, I did see ‘People’ in my 20s and enjoyed it, but I never pursued the genre.” As if to prove the point, Trotter laughs good -naturedly when he is told that the show he probably saw was Funny Girl. “Yeah … with Streisand!” A few years later Trotter found himself playing second piano for the Los Angeles premiere of Side by Side by Sondheim at the Huntington Hartford Theatre (later the Doolittle and now the Ricardo Montalban Theatre). “Steve was there with Hal Prince the week before we opened. He was delightful. He had wonderful, pointed but polite suggestions about the music, and I had many conversations with him. Interestingly, when Bruce told him I would be working on the jazz CDs, my name didn’t ring any bells with him!”
Born within a generation of each other, musical comedy — or musical theatre, if you prefer — and jazz are among the few uniquely American performing art forms. But they are distant cousins at best. A musical aspires to tell the same story night after night, whereas rendering a song in jazz is much more like the fairytale trip “into the woods” that Sondheim would write about years later. There are so many paths to follow. And the heart of jazz is in the meandering, where a voice or an instrument will go on a freewheeling solo flight, always returning just in time to finish the musical journey. Trotter agrees.
“Sondheim’s songs are also so much a part of the journey of the show for which they are written,” he says, “that sometimes they don’t lend themselves to being easily adapted outside of that context.
“It was a challenge,” he acknowledges. “We began with Passion. I was completely unfamiliar with the work when I got the score. I started on ‘Happiness’ by just messing around, keeping the melody intact but playing with variation on the chords. I spent a lot of time with each song looking for the springboard into improvisation. Sondheim’s tunes are not A-A-B-A songs like a lot of the classic American songbook. They’ll have a weird number of bars or no bridge. It was tough to find places for the other musicians to work from.”
Trotter gave Sondheim’s melodies free rein by stripping them of their lyrics, and he hopes he helped further deflate a once-popular commercial theatre axiom in the process. “I don’t buy it when people say [he] can’t write melodies. I think he has a wonderful and very unique melodic sense. In creating the recordings, I was sometimes able to take just his lead-in to a song and develop a movement out of it. Those little sections are intensely melodic in their own right. I just had to extend a few things here and there.”
But not too far: Insistence on musical fidelity is a long-noted Sondheim trait. Singers as gifted as Betty Buckley have had their egos bruised by straying too far from Sondheim’s original intentions.
“Bruce told me I had some freedom there as long as I honored the harmonics of the songs. So I played the melodies truthfully, but with what I felt was a jazz sensibility, and then looked for opportunities to improvise, because that’s what jazz is.”
It’s a tribute to Trotter’s craft and artistry that the recordings sound so rich and richly made. “We were recording direct to two-track, so there’s not a lot of room to change things after the fact. And we were only budgeted for three four-hour sessions per score, and that was it. I usually had about two weeks to prepare a show, while working on other projects simultaneously.” Trotter would extract parts of songs and create arrangements, leaving only chord symbols to mark the improvisational solo segments. On five of the six CDs, Trotter’s keyboarding was supported by Tom Warrington on bass and Joe LaBarbera’s drumming.
“I’m pretty good at hearing a score when I read music, and I love poetry, so I love to read lyrics,” he says. “Those skills allowed me to really understand the scores to shows I had not previously heard and find the color and intent of the show pretty quickly.” Surprisingly, Sondheim had no input in the development or execution of the recordings over the entire four-year run. But there was appreciation, and while Trotter eschews celebrity career memorabilia, one item is framed in his study. Typed on the simple but elegant notepaper a lucky few have come to know, it reads:
Dear Mr. Trotter,
I’ve just listened to the tape of the Forum album and I think it’s about time to thank you profoundly for the work you have been doing on my scores. I’m not very familiar with the world of jazz, but your music has whetted my appetite — and not just for my own shows. Please convey my admiration and gratitude to your colleagues too.
February 8, 1996
In 2001, while planning to perform at the JVC Jazz Festival’s Sondheim & Jazz tribute at Carnegie Hall, Trotter experienced a detached retina while on tour. That kept him off that stage and still hinders his vision. Semi-retired, he now focuses his energies on composing and arranging music for his own projects.
“When I first started these recordings, it was just another job. But I so fell in love with the music that I was delighted every time Bruce came back and said ‘OK, let’s do another one!’ I’d be working on other projects, so I’d be squeezing them in wherever I could. I think I had less than a week on one of them. The blessing in that was that I didn’t have a lot of time to worry about the result. Bruce is a real hands-on producer, and so much of the credit for the success of these recordings has to go to him. He is great at inspiring direction when you might be stuck on something.”
Kimmel’s praise for Trotter is equally high. “He’s fantastic to work with. You give him a phrase or a feeling, and he knows exactly where to go with it.” Both men would like to see a coda for the series.
“I’d love for Terry to do Evening Primrose and then selected songs from other shows,” Kimmel says, but he admits that “it might be a little weird for me because the other albums are now owned by someone else.” (Kimmel produced the six albums for the Varése Sarabande label and then parted ways with the company when it pulled the plug on its theatre division.)
For Trotter the experience was a very special career marker. “I’m somewhat eccentric and quirky. I like opposites. I like to go against what’s obvious and create a new way of responding to what’s already there, as long as it still connects to the original. I think [these CDs] were the first time that something like this was ever attempted [for musical theatre], and I think they succeed on that basis. I feel I had an affinity for the music and that was wonderful. I’m very proud of this work.” |TSR|
ROBERT SOKOL is a freelance writer and graphic designer in San Francisco.
SIDEBAR FOR STORY: The Trotter Trio and The Sondheim Six
Unlike Sondheim, who sometimes tinkers with past works, Trotter is disinclined to go back and re-think his recordings. “Jazz is an improvisational medium. You do it and then you let it go. It happens right then and there in the moment.” But he offers fond memories of six remarkable recordings:
Passion … in Jazz (1994): It was the first and it was the hardest one to adapt because several of the songs are not structured in any traditional, song-like way. “No One Has Ever Loved Me” really made an impression on me. It became my ballad. I love that tune.
Sweeney Todd … in Jazz (1995): The hardest thing was the opening, “The Ballad of Sweeney Todd,” because, from a jazz perspective, it just goes on forever! I couldn’t turn pages because that makes noise, so I had two music stands on either side of the piano and the music was wrapped around me. First take, I got about four minutes into it and thought, “Oh, this is going pretty well!” and, of course, blew it immediately and had to start over! We added a guitarist and Lorraine Feather, daughter of jazz critic Leonard Feather, sang “Not While I’m Around” for us.
Company … in Jazz (1995): This was one of the easiest and most natural transitions to jazz. We again had a guitarist on this recording because I wanted that particular flavor for “Another Hundred People” and some other tracks. I decided “Ladies Who Lunch” should have a hardcore John Coltrane jazz approach. I didn’t want it to get too precious.