Honesty in music is a tricky concept. For many musicians there’s a ‘truth’ that’s inherent in the music and it’s their job to uncover it. Or, there’s a personal truth that can be expressed only by removing all the tricks, licks, patterns and technique that musicians spend their life acquiring. It’s about accessing something that’s made ‘real’ by the imperative of its existence. It’s what’s left when the unnecessary has been excised.
I’ve known of Becca Stevens’ singular interpretations of jazz standards for a long time, so I was excited when Chris said he wanted to work with her and Greg Ruggiero on a record. In fact, I first became familiar with Chris’s music from his longtime work in Becca’s band. Becca and Chris have played together for well over a decade, having met when they were both studying at the New School in Manhattan. For Becca, Chris embodies the most integral trait for a bassist. “Whatever note he chooses to play is always going to feel like home. There’s no bullshit there.”
Becca left straight from the second day of this recording session to the airport. She was flying to Georgia to visit her grandmother, Phyllis Hudgins. Phyllis had been suffering from cancer for a long time and had decided, with the help of some courageous medical professionals, to turn off her pacemaker.
When Becca had last spoken with Phyllis, she had asked her if there was any particular standard that her grandmother would like Becca to record. Phyllis requested “My Funny Valentine.” Phyllis remembered a rendition by Becca when she was still in high school. Becca sang the melody and while the band was soloing, she danced with her grandfather, Phyllis’ late husband. Phyllis told Becca, “You can sing it to me because ‘my figure is less than Greek, and my mouth is a little weak’.”
Despite being covered by nearly every great jazz singer of the modern era, ‘My Funny Valentine,’ is not a lyrical masterpiece. When you imagine a young lover singing it, it’s saccharine in its sentiment, and rings false in its perception. As the music critic Will Friedwald wrote: “‘My Funny Valentine’ is a man’s idea of the way he imagines women think about men.” But at this session, parts of the lyrics kept on breaking free from their canonical meaning and fastening to Becca’s childhood memories. As a very young girl, Becca used to play with her grandmother’s curly hair, often to Phyllis’s exasperation. “Stay little valentine, stay,” became this selfish call, to hang on for a couple more days so that Becca could see her again. After the take, we discussed ways to “fix” the end of the first chorus. Becca had become overcome with emotion right after the lyric, “don’t change a hair for me…” We went so far as to plug in a new vocal track before realizing what should have been clear from the start. The take was perfect as it was.
Chris starts and ends this record with songs from the great Ornette Coleman. “What Reason Can I Give” which has some fragmented, beautiful lyrics from Ornette himself, and Chris’s solo interpretation of “Peace.” “Peace” is from Ornette’s iconic album The Shape of Jazz to Come, and its boldness is derived from its clarity and simplicity. It’s the kind of melody that feels discovered more than composed. As Chris plays it, it’s a simple story, clearly told. A truth spoken.
Last May in Georgia, Phyllis Hudgins’s family gathered around her, they spent her last days telling stories and jokes. But mostly, they played music.
– Elan Mehler