Responsibilities of Songcraft

Bill McDonough
October 24, 2005
Ellis Marsalis gives instuctions to a student bassist during a Berklee clinic.
Ellis Marsalis
Phil Farnsworth
Phil Farnsworth

On a blustery Friday afternoon in October, as Red Sox fans streamed past the Berklee Performance Center en route to a playoff game, a group of about 70 Berklee students inside the BPC were treated to the second of two workshops by well-known New Orleans jazz educator and recording artist, pianist Ellis Marsalis.

Marsalis appeared as part of the New Orleans Visiting Artist Series, a Berklee initiative to support musicians whose lives have been affected by Hurricane Katrina and enable students to work with some of New Orleans's greatest musicians.

The 70-year-old Marsalis heads a musically rich family that includes Pulitzer Prize–winning composer and trumpeter Wynton, Grammy Award–winning saxophonist Branford, trombonist Delfeayo, and drummer Jason. In addition to leading an active recording career, Marsalis taught for 12 years at the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts high school and for more than a decade at the University of New Orleans.

As several students and Marsalis took the stage, he introduced the event as "an impromptu session with vocalists." Student vocalists Lucas Madrazo, Ayo Awosika, Jen Hirsh, and Laura Brunner each performed a pair of songs, including such standards as "Honeysuckle Rose," "Round Midnight," "You Go to My Head," and Antonio Carlos Jobim's "No More Blues." Their rhythm section consisted of associate professor of voice Maggie Scott on piano, recent graduate and faculty bassist Esperanza Spalding, and student drummer Lyndon Rochelle.

Following the students' performances, Marsalis took over. While most of his work focused on the vocalists' ability to communicate with the rhythm section, Marsalis repeatedly stressed the importance of thoroughly researching the music to be performed. He said he learned a lesson about such research after playing the standard "A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square" in a hotel piano lounge one night, Marsalis made his way across the room to say hello to pianist Tommy Flanagan. As the musicians exchanged greetings, Flanagan scolded Marsalis for omitting a key part of the song.

To help students avoid such errors, Marsalis encouraged them to buy sheet music for a song they want to sing, find out which musical the song may have come from, and even learn the musical's story line. Such research goes a long way toward helping a vocalist add emotional shape to a song's performance.

After announcing, "We're going to try some experimentation here," Marsalis asked Awosika to rework her performance of "Honeysuckle Rose." After she sang with only a bass accompaniment, Marsalis asked Awosika, "Let's say this is your trio and you had to arrange that tune—what would you tell your bass player?" Awosika suggested that the bassist "walk," which Marsalis followed by asking, "What would you tell the drummer to do?" Awosika told the drummer to "use brushes and drum embellishments."

Awosika admitted her instructions for the drummer could have been clearer and said, "I guess I don't know how to say it." This was just fine with Marsalis who, after all, was there to educate. "What I'm trying to do is more based on being provocative than expecting you to know the answers," he said and then proceeded to give his own direction. "When they get to the bridge," Marsalis told Awosika, "you come in." Turning to the bassist and drummer, he continued, "When she comes in to sing, keep it in 2." He then explained to the audience, "What I asked them to do is fairly simple but produces a certain organization that can play very well in situations where you're playing with people you haven't rehearsed with. You need to find ways to communicate with your musicians and make it as simple as possible."

Preparing to perform "You Go to My Head" with Laura Brunner, Marsalis said, "I'm going to be your accompanist, but I want you to sell the song like a recitative…like you are reciting it to someone." After the duo performed, Marsalis asked for the vocalist's reaction. Brunner said, "It was interesting because I just tried to pay attention to the lyrics." Marsalis quickly pointed his finger toward Brunner and said, "Very good," his most enthusiastic compliment of the afternoon.

Marsalis then offered another tip for exploring a song more deeply. He suggested that students interested in songs composed in other languages (e.g., the songs of Jobim, which were written in Portuguese) learn to sing in the language itself. "If you're going to sing [Jobim], take a little extra step," he said. "If you were going to sing European art music, do you think you could get away with singing a Puccini aria in English?"

Toward the end of the two-hour workshop, Laura Brunner asked Marsalis about his experiences playing for singers. "What I look for is a singer who understands the three principles of music—melody, harmony, and rhythm." Marsalis said. "What I dislike is the tendency of the vocalist to depend on the piano player. I'm in an accompanying role, so don't turn around and ask me this, that, or the other. You figure out what and how you're going to sing and let me respond in an accompanying role."

After speaking so frankly, Marsalis quickly added, "The problems came when singers didn't realize not to take it personally. A good rhythm section never thinks [the vocalist's comments] are personal. Somebody like [former Miles Davis bassist] Ron Carter understands it's not personal; it's about the specifics of the music."

Following the workshop, senior Laura Brunner was clearly appreciative of the opportunity to work with someone of Marsalis's talent and experience. Referring to their performance of "You Go to My Head," Brunner said, "He's amazing to sing with. I didn't have to worry about what the [accompaniment] was doing. I could just sing my song." No doubt her comments would have pleased Marsalis. While much of the afternoon's work had concentrated on a vocalist's ability to communicate musical direction to the rhythm section, Marsalis clearly felt it was an important step in attaining a vocalist's ultimate goal—communicating a song to the audience.