When we can’t leave the house, music often helps us feel as though we’re somewhere else. Jazz, that soul-stirring, uniquely American sound, is especially good at transporting us to happier places and exotic locales. Whether you’re new to the jazz scene or a veteran of swing, the standard is something that feels familiar to us all.
Standards are pieces that have stood the test of time and continue to inspire new generations of musicians to reinterpret them in countless covers. I’m always one to reach for the vinyl, but you can find all the mentioned songs and renditions on Spotify, YouTube and iTunes.
Composed and recorded in 1954, Erroll Garner’s “Misty” is one of the most relaxing pieces of jazz piano music ever written. The first three notes set a serene mood, gently unwinding and landing on the tonic, a G7 chord. The piece is sewn together with Garner’s glistening scales; he drifts up and down the keys with a grace and ease reminiscent of a feather swinging back and forth as it floats down toward the ground.
Garner has an incredibly unique sound and style that is present through every moment of this recording. Noted by Scott Yanow, an American jazz reviewer and historian, as “one of the most distinctive of all pianists,” Garner’s touch and virtuosity is unparalleled. Leading the rhythm with his left hand and tying together each end with his right, Garner’s inventive technique has a “pitter-patter-like” essence, but is unquestionably deliberate.
Most pianists lead with the right hand and fill the chords with the left. “Misty” is sprinkled with sudden momentary pauses, a characteristic stop-and-go heard in many of Garner’s arrangements. This effect helps me, and hopefully everyone listening, to remember that even when we must make abrupt pauses in our daily lives, we can always pick up right where we left off. In more ways than one, Garner’s “Misty” can help you unwind and put your mind at ease—even if you’re feeling as “helpless as a kitten up a tree.”
There are many other adaptations of this piece, but two of the best are one by Frank Sinatra and another by Ella Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald delivers the lyrics in a soft and endearing tone, making the song more personal and drawing the listener deeper into the feelings of the lyrics. When those famous words are expressed in that instantly-recognizable full velvety timbre that is the voice of Sinatra, you feel inclined to sit and listen—and you’ll be glad you did. Each of these renditions, well worth the listen, has its own interpretive sound and keeps “Misty” afloat in the sea of jazz standards.
“Stairway to the Stars”
Recorded in 1963, Dexter Gordon’s album “Our Man in Paris” transforms our surroundings and brings us to refreshing settings through the artful ambiance he gives rise to on the tenor saxophone.
This was somewhat of a comeback work for Gordon and only goes to show that even jazz musicians get better with age. All of Gordon’s recordings have an enthralling draw and “Our Man in Paris” is no exception.
My favorite piece on the album is “Stairway to the Stars.” We hear the voice that speaks through Gordon’s horn sing with a gentle timbre. Listening, you’ll find yourself sitting at a fancy dinner party, or at the least out of the house with quarantine on hold. The influence of Lester Young, one of Gordon’s inspirations, is clear in Gordon’s choice of notes and the mature prudency with which he plays them, as each phrase sets the stage for the next.
Sarah Vaughan and Johnny Mathis both have popular covers of “Stairway to the Stars” and are two personal favorites, along with Gordon’s instrumental rendition. With impeccable control of her voice, Vaughan strikes each note and lyric perfectly, from the lowest tones to those among the stars. Mathis, bringing his signature romantic smoothness to the song, adds a memorable grace to his rendition. If you’re one for words, these are both worthy renditions.
Certain songs have an undeniable ability to whisk us away and place us in a happier setting or time, but none do it as elegantly and effortlessly as “Stardust.” Composed by Hoagy Carmichael in 1927 and recorded by Artie Shaw and his orchestra in 1940, “Stardust” is one of the most beautiful songs from early modern American music, possibly the song of the 20th century.
Wandering around my home in this pandemic brings to mind Carmichael, who was almost the same age as I am, wandering around his college campus when the first few notes came to him in a whistle. With its captivating melody and poetic lyrics, “Stardust” can evoke a flood of emotion that instantly cradles your heart. Recorded hundreds of times with various covers by artists with backgrounds in all different genres, “Stardust” is a “song that will not die,” as the lyric goes.
Jazz giants like Sinatra, Fitzgerald and Nat King Cole each left their own mark on the piece—Cole’s rendition being one of my favorites. A gifted pianist, Cole’s cover is nothing less than magical. His voice has a lifelike presence in all his recordings, but this recording especially, as though he’s singing right in front of you.
Alongside its venerable tenure in jazz, “Stardust” has also been recorded by many artists outside the genre, most notably Willie Nelson. Nelson’s adaptation has a folksier sound to it, coming from a traditional country background, but it still has the same beautiful presence.
When recording, Nelson was often questioned about whether he could draw in younger crowds with decades-old music. This question was answered when he began performing the piece live. It was an instant hit and many young fans even believed it was an original.
This ability to inspire various adaptations and deliver an always pertinent message with an ageless appeal is what makes “Stardust” a standard. It strikes a chord with every generation—be it past, present or future. In our current grief-stricken world, it is important, if not necessary, to take a step back every once in a while and remind ourselves that better times are on the horizon.
“Stardust” has a melody that almost seems to stumble from bar to bar, never quite settles. It is a song of youth and love, and while these can be two of the most ephemeral things in life, they seem to be two of the things we think of the most, and understandably so, especially now.