Back in the 1970s when I worked with commercial groups led by John Dougherty, Rebecca Parris, Keith Copeland and Pierre Eugene, before leading Synergy, playing music from the “top 40” pop music was the order of the day. And so when Rodgers and Hart’s You Are Too Beautiful came up on the list of songs to be featured in this current blog series, I had a tough time detaching my musical memory from Joe Cocker’s 1974 hit record, You Are So Beautiful. In fact, last year, I taught one of my middle school age piano students how to play it. She not only learned how to perform the piece in a solo keyboard version, but she also accompanied her grandfather who sang it to his wife at their wedding anniversary party. Of course, those of you who are Saturday Night Live fans, may remember John Belushi’s tongue-in-cheek imitation of Joe Cocker’s somewhat odd performance of the piece as well (link). At any rate, today’s featured selection is in fact You Are Too Beautiful, a tune which I much prefer to play on the piano though it was unfamiliar to me when I began.
In some ways I feel like one of my students when it comes to discovering songs for the first time. Although there are thousands of songs in our American culture and a large percentage of them from the American Popular Songbook, many of these escape our awareness. There is a definite distinction in how different piano students see this situation. Some are open to learning new songs IF they like what they hear. Others only want to work on songs that they already know. As a teacher, I need to accept and address both perspectives so that I can make good on our studio promise: we’re here to help you learn to play the music you love.
Nevertheless, I find myself more like the first type of student when it comes to preparing the performances of these blog pieces. Due to the large body of work created by Messrs. Rodgers and Hart, I did have to set some limits to the number of standard to be featured. So personal preferences for songs I preferred did become a factor. However, I find it ironic that the music for You Are Too Beautiful is in a book of songs I’ve had for many years: (pianist) Dick Hyman’s Professional Chord Changes and Substitutions for 100 Tunes Every Musician Should Know. Needless to say, I come to you with “egg on my face” because I never even attempted to play this tune (though as a professional musician, I should know it). Well I must tell you that once I got to work on preparing it for today’s recording, I could see why Dick Hyman considers it to be one of his hundred.
Interestingly enough, although the sheet music directs to player to play the piece slowly and maintain the 4/4 meter, I did neither- at least for the central section. When you listen to the recording in the audio player on the right, you will in fact hear that I felt a need to flow from my rubato (ad lib tempo) introduction into a medium jazz waltz for the main portion of the performance before returning to the sensitive slow final section. As you may remember from my jazz waltz blog series, I have a real love for playing pieces with this type of feeling. Perhaps this was why my favorite track on my Rhapsody Music play list was a marvelous rendition by jazz vocalist, Kurt Elling recorded “live” at Lincoln Center. Not only does he give You Are Too Beautiful a jazz waltz treatment, but he has assembled a unique and excellent ensemble featuring pianist Laurence Hobgood, jazz saxophonist Ernie Watts (who grew up with my friend John Dougherty mentioned above) and the eclectic string quartet called Ethel. Although the majority of other marvelous recordings were mainly beautiful ballads, there was one that caught my attention because I detected a hint of a gospel piano feeling. South African pianist Dollar Brand who later changed his name to Abdullah Ibrahim included his rendition of You Are Too Beautiful in his collection aptly titled Reflections. As with so many of the great standards, there is always a way for the pianist to personalize his or her performance
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