Repertoire, Writing, and a Standards Workshop

Feb 10, 2021

It's February Album Writing Month (FAWM), which means that for the tenth (!) year running, I'll be playing a game with several thousand people I don't know and a couple dozen I've sort of gotten to know, to see if we can all write fourteen songs during the twenty-eight days of February. Each year I get at least four or five keepers, and if I'm lucky, I remember to have fun. This year, I've been in a weekly online songwriting group since March, so I've already written more songs that way than I ever get done during FAWM. When February was the only time of the year I got anything written, it felt really urgent. Now, I'm somewhat participating out of habit, or superstition. Plus, it's year ten, so it would be a lame time to bail out, just before hitting a big round number like that.

Since discovering FAWM, I've sworn by the idea of rising to the occasion of the deadline. But now that I've been writing just one song a week for several months, rather than the three or four a week it takes to complete the February challenge, I'm realizing I have a better shot at getting a song that really feels finished when I have the week to do it. Sometimes I still don't get started until a day or two before the deadline, but when I take advantage of the days available, there's time to really develop something. In particular, I've been experimenting with writing the music first, which I haven't done seriously since before I started doing Album Writing Month.

It's a curious thing, negotiating the intersection of roots music and songwriting. When my friend Peter Keane's album Another Kind Of Blue came out, I interviewed him for Acoustic Guitar. As Peter's a pretty studious devotee of prewar blues who also happens to write really great songs, I was curious what he thought about the relationship between blues repertoire and original music. Peter, having spent a fair amount of time with Paul Geremia over the years, cited Paul's take on the matter: that the prewar blues artists wrote their share of original material too, so if you're playing blues yourself, there's practically an obligation to do some writing of your own. Which makes a lot of sense. And it applies to all kinds of music, really: if "singer-songwriter" wasn't presently used to indicate any halfway poetic post-Dylan vocalist with a guitar playing exclusively their own compositions, one could use it just as easily in reference to artists from Chuck Berry to Bill Monroe, Hank Williams to Louis Jordan.

I discovered early on that it was going to take a certain kind of selectivity to play songs from the blues repertoire I could actually sing. Having never raised sand at a juke joint or, to the best of my knowledge, found another mule kicking in my stall, I determined that writing my own songs was ultimately the best way to play the grooves I loved while having something I could perform without feeling a hopeless poser. So, despite fitful efforts to cover actual blues tunes, I never had much of a balance between the classic repertoire and my own material. At the same time, I grew up hearing my fair share of Tin Pan Alley tunes, both from my piano-playing father and grandfather and from the first jazz records I got hold of. And despite having also never had my old tuxedo pressed or observed the moonlight on the Wabash, I found the lyrics from that body of work to be generally easier to pull off. And when they weren't, there was already a thriving practice of playing that music instrumentally.

As a result, various and assorted standards have weaseled their way into my repertoire over the years, accompanied by a growing desire to play them like a blues guitarist while improvising like a jazz pianist. A ridiculous prospect, probably, but one I have slowly chipped away at in my copious free time, alongside counterpoint, hard bop and the aforementioned perfect tuna melt. At one point or another, "Lulu's Back In Town," "Slow Boat To China," "Exactly Like You," "I Can't Give You Anything But Love" and "After You've Gone" have all been subject to my intermittent attention and, once learned, have served as common cause at a party, a change of pace at a solo show or just something to pick on the couch for my own amusement.

Aside from tabbing out a couple of arrangements for some long-past summer classes, I haven't offered much in terms of teaching standards. At thirty-two bars long, they're bit involved to fit the format of my membership, and a ways beyond what I can comfortably cover in a typical Youtube lesson. But the workshop format I've been doing over the past few months seems well-suited to the topic, so this Saturday I'll be offering a two-hour class on playing and improvising on one of my favorite tunes, "Indiana." Besides presenting both a basic and more syncopated fingerstyle arrangement of the tune itself, I'll spend the majority of the time on a practical method for improvising on a 32-bar tune. Using "Indiana" as a specific example, I'll explain how to play through the changes a few chords at a time and create a vocabulary of fingerstyle licks and phrases along the way, using a stepwise approach you can readily apply to other tunes as well when you're done.

I've made a video in which I play through some of the ideas I'll be teaching and explain more about the workshop. To check it out, and for more information about what's included and how to register, you can click on the link below:

Standards: How To Play And Improvise On "Indiana"