Sondheim Duos
Sondheim music without lyrics? Two jazz musicians uncover a new sound for Sondheim lovers

December 2, 2013

Sondheim music without lyrics? Two jazz musicians uncover a new sound for Sondheim lovers.

DC jazz bassist Tommy Cecil tells of the time a few years ago when he was playing a gig supporting New York pianist Bill Mays. He asked what songs they might play, and for the first time in Cecil’s over thirty years playing jazz gigs, a song by Stephen Sondheim was called up.

“Literally, that was the first time anyone I’d ever backed up a Sondheim tune” says Cecil. The song was “Send In The Clowns” from Sondheim’s A Little Night Music and Mays had an arrangement of it that struck a chord for Cecil.

He says that what is called “The Great American Songbook” of showtunes and popular standards is often grist for the mill of jazz players who love to improvise using their strong melodies. “But Sondheim’s tunes don’t really lend themselves to jazz improvisation in the same way that a Cole Porter or Richard Rodgers song does” he says, adding that “they are less linear, less symmetrical” and not confined to traditional 32 bar AABA formats.

He feels that many of Sondheim’s songs are more challenging and offer greater variety of material to explore. That first exploration of “Send In The Clowns” started a partnership that resulted last year in the release of a CD titled Side by Side – Sondheim Duos with just Mays and Cecil. No drummer, no combo, no other soloists. Cecil and Mays traded off the leading role, often going back and forth within a single song between being in the forefront improvising on the melody and being in rhythmic support of the other. This is serious jazz music making, not merely pretty muzak of the “light jazz” school.

To celebrate the release of that disc, Cecil and Mays played a gig at DC’s Blues Alley, a club where Cecil has backed a host of big name jazz instrumentalists and vocalists including Charlie Byrd and Shirley Horn. His career has included sets with Mose Allison and Tommy Flanagan.

Mays first established his credentials on the west coast as a studiomusician as well as a freelancer who played with Shelly Manne, Bud Shank, Tom Scott and Stan Kenton’s Jr. Neophonic Orchestra. He worked recording gigs with the likes of Dionne Warwick and Frank Sinatra and eventually relocated to New York.

Now a second disc is being released, Our Time – Sondheim Duos, Volume 2.  Of course, the release requires a return to Blues Alley for yet another CD Release Party. It will be Monday night, December 9.

The first disc had featured seven songs composed by Sondheim. It also contained two for which Sondheim had written the words for another’s music – “Something’s Coming” which he wrote with Leonard Bernstein for West Side Story and “Small World” which he wrote with Jule Styne for Gypsy. All the music on the second disc was composed by Sondheim. It includes eleven numbers from nine of Sondheim’s shows including “The Best Thing That Ever Happened” from Road Show.

Each number is a formal arrangement by either Cecil or Mays, but each arrangement leaves plenty of room for improvisation on individual solos. When asked how similar the performances at Blues Alley may be to the versions on the CD, Cecil said “the arrangements will be the same, but how we solo will be different and they may be different lengths.”

He points out that this was true in the recording studio last May when they recorded the album. He said “I remember that the final version of ‘Finishing The Hat’ was a lot less intense than in our original arrangement. Originally we looked for more volume and dramatic build. Bill suggested a more gentle approach and it seemed to work nicely.”

The CD Release Party for this second disc isn’t until next Monday but one reaction to the recording is already in. Cecil says that Stephen Sondheim wrote him to say “I love the new recording. Thanks for doing it.” You can judge for yourself Monday night, December 9 at Blues Alley, 1073 Wisconsin Avenue NW.

They will play two sets – one at 8 and the second at 10. Admission is $25 with a $12 per person minimum per show.