The Great America Songbook is both specific and vague. While it consists of pop and jazz standards, there is no complete agreement on which songs are in this category. The music usually comes from pop, jazz, theatre and film, and frequently includes selections from George Gershwin, Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, Jerome Kern, Harold Arlen and Richard Rodgers. Known for catchy, urbane lyrics, many singers have recorded collections of this music, including Ella Fitzgerald, Linda Ronstadt, Rod Stewart, Michael Buble and Willie Nelson. Great vocalists like Frank Sinatra, Ray Charles, Billie Holiday. Joe Williams, Nancy Wilson and Rosemary Clooney have dipped into this rich catalogue. The potential for vocal interpretation and vision make this attractive to vocalists everywhere. However, several instrumental versions of the songs from this "genre" have become a staple of jazz lore. It also challenges the instrumentalists to translate the lyrical contexts without the assistance of vocals.Many consider this a greater challenge.
Michael Kocour (Associate Professor and Director Of Jazz Studies at Arizona State University) has garnered critical acclaim for his "sophisticated" piano technique. He has played with Dizzy Gillespie, Eddie Harris, James Moody, Randy Brecker, Dewey Redmond and The Chicago Symphony. Additionally, he has released six CDs, and appeared on Marion McPartland's NPR show, Piano Jazz. His latest album, East Of The Sun is his take on The Great American Songbook. The opening title track was written by Brooks Bowman for a college review, but has since been covered by Sinatra, Holiday, Tony Bennett, Diana Krall and Charlie Parker. Kocour captures the jauntiness with measured tempo. His runs are agile and finger-snapping with a steady complementary left hand. Harold Arlen's Broadway hit, I've Got A Right to Sing The Blues" is a legendary Billie Holiday record. The gritty sauciness of that version is eschewed for a stride-like arrangement that is jazzy and finger-snapping. Mood nuances are easily articulated with vocals. On "She's Funny That Way", Kocour captures the heartfelt sentiment of love, but manages to expand it with improvisational chording and notation. Everyone remembers Nate "King" Cole's up tempo rendition off "Sweet Lorraine". In this 6:00 cover, syncopated jazz rolls off the fingertips. With a waltz-like bass line, the pianist adroitly executes right hand flourishes.
Gershwin has been celebrated for incorporating jazz elements into Rhapsody In Blue. Jazz musicians have always displayed an affinity for this composer. Kocour cuts loose on "Who Cares?" from the 1931 show Of Thee I Sing. He distills the "show theme" essence of the melody, but with muscular play, via a rollicking bass line and harmonic precision. His version of Cole Porter's unforgettable "It Was Just One Of Those Things" explores the melancholic resonance in decidedly up tempo dynamics. It is original and potently elegant. Harold Arlen's "serious" dedication to love "Come Rain Or Come Shine" is unusually sprightly, but with well-timed bluesy strokes. There is a certain element of eclecticism on East Of The Sun. His take on Donald Heywood's "I'm Coming Virginia" (popularized by Bix Beiderbecke) is energized by an accelerated Ragtime/Blues cadence. It has a festive bounce to it. Kocour captures the Southern relaxed lyricism of Hoagy Carmichael on "Stardust". There is enough inherent jazziness in this song to please any musician. It is always rewarding to hear the more obscure first verse in addition to the recognizable chorus. In a surprising finale, Dion Gibson's forlorn "I Can't Stop Loving You' (which served as Ray Charles reinvention of Country and Western music) is served up as a funky New Orleans-infused boogie woogie number. Maybe it's time to include some country music in the Great American Songbook.
Michael Kocour - East Of The Sun is terrific!