88 Photos-The Monochrome Edition
Go ahead and count them all if you want. Take my word for it though, there really are 88 photos of various sizes used throughout the 50th installment of this blog. So as not to bombard you with too much, most of them are at the bottom of this page in the gallery however. With a quick scan I am sure you will have noticed though that all the photos are in black and white, or as I have learned to more correctly refer to them as-in monochrome. You might also wonder why I used such a seemingly random number of 88. There is no mystery here however. The reason for both the choice of monochrome and the number of photos here could not be simpler in fact, so there is no need for any buildup or suspense on my part. Simply put, there are 88 black and white keys on a piano, and together with my own monochrome photos, that was a great combination to utilize for a blog.
Recently I reviewed the music I have used throughout these blogs to this point. There has been quite a bit of folk, rock, country and soul, with smatterings of world music, classical and jazz. But in all of those 49 previous blogs, there has not been one that substantially keyed in (pun intended) on the piano, or any other type of keyboard for that matter. Of course a number of the songs have keyboards of some type on them, but I have never written a blog that was about a piano driven song, or an artist that heavily featured the instrument, so it is time for me to correct that omission. I never took piano lessons, though for a brief time we had one in our house that my older sister did take lessons on at one point. I am not sure where my affection for the piano came however. Whether it came from Dad’s old 45’s of Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard and Fats Domino, or even those old classical vinyl collections (the kind that came in budget box sets) that were once popular. Wherever it came from, I am a huge fan of the instrument itself, and in this blog I will try to express some of the ways in which the instrument has impressed me over the years using a selection of artists and styles coupled with my own photographs.
In terms of the monochrome photography, when I bought my first SLR camera 14 years or so ago, it was a Nikon film camera. I have touched on those early days in other blogs, but every once in awhile I would opt for a roll of black and white film rather than color (some of that early film experimentation has been in previous blogs). When I switched chiefly to digital a few years ago, I don’t think I took one single monochrome shot for the first few years I owned the camera. It is only fairly recently, thanks to some of my fellow bloggers that I have returned to taking them. One reason is because it is the purest form of photography, with a direct lineage to the earliest days of the medium. Secondly, I realized there is a flexibility with monochrome shots, and fewer limitations quite often. Lastly, when I began sharing my photos on the Facebook and Instagram pages for this blog, I received quite a bit of compliments on the monochrome ones especially, so I realized I needed to work them into my photography rotation more. I also realized that maybe my photographers eye, and desire to take a particular photo is best viewed through a monochrome prism at least some of the time.
Other than the photos being all in monochrome, there is no theme behind these photographs as related to the music chosen for this blog. They come from a variety of places, in all four seasons of the year. None have been used in any of the 49 previous blogs. So there are photos taken in various locations throughout New York City. There are photos taken in quiet country lanes and urban landscapes, and even one taken on a Caribbean island. Night time shots and day time ones. In any case, as I began to accumulate more and more monochrome shots, I thought an all monochrome edition would be a good idea, and what better time to do it than for my 50th blog.
The first bit of piano music I am using is a short classical piece by Frederic Chopin. My depth of knowledge about classical music is minimal I must admit. Partly that is due to having more of an affinity for popular music overall, but is also in part due to it being a very daunting task. Sure I know the major composers and might be able to hum a few notes of something by the most famous ones, but that is about it. I have never delved any further into the history of a particular symphony or concerto that I have enjoyed, and I have never explored the many nuances that exist within the genre. Whereas with a lot of the rock and folk music I own I am a completest, seeking out all I can find by someone, I find it harder to do with classical music. Even harder than that is the myriad of different symphony recordings, and featured soloists that exist for the same piece of music, and I find myself bewildered by all the choices. Without being immersed in the classical music scene, it is tough to choose a good performance of a Beethoven or Mozart symphony on your own. So generally, my answer when I am in the mood to buy some classical music is to go for composer first, with little regard for how true aficionados might view a particular recording. In that light, that is how I stumbled upon this little piece by Chopin, Waltz No. 1 in E Flat Major, OP 18. From the moment I heard it I loved the fact that it was sprightly and jaunty, right from the start, with just the right amount of expressiveness mixed in. I also loved that there is only the piano, typical of almost all his work barring a few exceptions. Very quickly even within my own limited understanding of the genre, it became one of my favorite classical compositions. Below is a clip of the Chinese pianist Lang Lang performing it.
Next up is what I would probably call my favorite type of piano music-boogie woogie. The origins of it are much debated among music scholars though the sound of it is easily recognized. The right hand playing a melody that is often improvised, together with the strong repetitive left hand bass notes is pretty infectious to listen to, and very impressive to see performed in person. There were a number of performers of the style starting in the 1920’s (more or less) like Albert Ammons, Jimmy Yancey and Clarence Pinetop Smith, but one composition and artist especially stood out for me. By way of Emerson, Lake & Palmer (about whom more later) I heard Honky Tonk Train Blues by the great Meade Lux Lewis. It is such a wonderful tune, with that rollicking left hand and the driving melody almost tricking you into believing it is a simple thing to play. As numerous piano players would tell you though, it is not, and a great many a player has cut their teeth learning this tune. Lewis actually recorded this twice. The original and shorter version was recorded in 1927, while a longer and better sounding recording on Blue Note Records was recorded in 1940, which is the version I am using here-
In the late 19th to early 20th century in the United States there was truly a lot of interesting things happening with music of all types. Ragtime, the origins of jazz, blues, followed in due course by rhythm and blues all took shape and became popular, helped largely by the record player and radio. In all those musical forms, the piano played a large part, and by the time it came to the 1940’s and 50’s, there was a lot of interplay between jazz and blues, and players were often equally versed in both styles. Adding in a little bit from the country side and you have the birth of rock and roll. One such player who was adept at playing all those styles was Johnnie Johnson. If the name is unfamiliar, just play any of the classic Chuck Berry records-Maybellene, Johnny B. Goode, Rock and Roll Music, Roll Over Beethoven and you can hear him. As Keith Richards once said,
“When I first heard Chuck Berry’s records, way back when, the first thing I wanted to know is, Who’s this guy singing Johnny B. Goode, and the second thing was, Who is playing that god damn piano?”
Listening to those records it is easy to see why Keith said that. Rock and Roll piano was arguably ruled by Jerry Lee Lewis, but what Johnnie did on those Chuck Berry songs was something else entirely. You can hear the subtleties of the blues and jazz players in those recordings. Why showoff like Jerry Lee, throwing the stool back and banging on the piano like a mad man when you can sit there like Johnnie did and slide between styles at the drop of a hat. So Johnnie quietly played on all the hits for Chuck for a number of years, but after the Hail! Hail! Rock N’ Roll film came out in 1987 people finally took notice and he put some recordings out under his own name. 1991 saw the release of Johnnie B. Bad, which featured members of NRBQ, Keith Richards and Eric Clapton. The opening track showcases a lot of the type of piano work Johnnie was using with Chuck Berry, but much more out front. Despite being limited as a vocalist by his own admission, Tanqueray is a lot of fun with a singable chorus, a Keith Richards guitar solo, and lots of great piano work. Like with Honky Tonk Train Blues, I could listen to this style of piano playing for days at a time. Have a listen yourself-
As I mentioned in a previous blog, in my college years I became heavily interested in prog-rock. Lots of Moody Blues, Yes, Jethro Tull, and Emerson Lake & Palmer during that time. In all those bands keyboards played a vital role and for me that was largely the reason why I liked them all. Like a lot of things when you are younger, you often move on and at some point I myself moved away from much of that music, but there are still a few songs that still hold up for me today. So for my next piano selection I have chosen something that grew out of that prog-rock movement. Swiss born Patrick Moraz was briefly in Yes in the 1970’s before joining the Moody Blues for several years. In 1983 together with former Yes drummer Bill Bruford they made an album called Music For Piano & Drums, which is exactly what it says in the title. No other instruments of any kind and no vocals. Just two instruments working together in an untypical context and finding space for mutual creation. The opening piece ‘Children’s Concerto’ set the mood for the rest of the album, and it is not difficult to spot the jazz (and almost a Vince Guaraldi ‘Peanuts’ sort of jazz at that!) and classical elements, combined with slight tinges of prog. The piano in particular has a nice rich sound here since it is not bogged down with any other instruments except for the drums. An interesting album and one that is very niche, but one I will always enjoy.
Next I wanted to showcase something that was lyrics based, and used the piano to accentuate those lyrics. Though there are plenty of great piano players/singers like Elton John, Billy Joel and Ben Folds, in the last couple of weeks a song came back into my head again after many years, due to recent events in the United States. Bruce Hornsby had a massive hit in 1986 with ‘The Way It Is’ a song that was as much a plea as it was a history lesson. In between is some beautiful piano music. I chose this song because the piano accentuates the emotion of this song best I think. I could not imagine this song performed on a guitar in other words. The lyrics sensitivity is aided by the piano, and such have been the various events in this country over the last few months that I think it is an apt choice. I must admit to losing track of Bruce Hornsby over the years, with the exception of him appearing on various Grateful Dead projects. Despite that, I was endeared to his talent early on when I heard him on the radio one time in the late 80’s discussing his piano influences. In about two and a half minutes he gave a demonstration of early Elton John piano lyricism, Leon Russell’s gospel influenced style, and Keith Jarrett’s improvisational playing. What wasn’t to like after hearing that. Using ‘The Way It Is’ in this blog will force me to remember I need to delve into his work more.
To close this out I wanted something that was pure fun. Piano playing that will put a smile on your face and just maybe make you tap the laptop or the couch, or whatever surface is nearby where you are reading this, pretending you are playing a piano of your own. The honor will go to two truly great players, adept in all the styles I mention above, except perhaps the classical (although I bet they could have a pretty good try of that too). Any conversation about contemporary piano players that does not include Jools Holland and Dr. John is not one I wish to be part of. Like most people I heard about Jools Holland first as a member of Squeeze before he struck out on his own. I still have some of the first solo works he did, (charming in their simplicity in many ways) but it was when he began presenting his TV program together with his own big band that he really jumped into the spotlight. Dr. John on the other hand, is one of those names that continually crops up for lovers of the variety of New Orleans music sounds. Over 50 years of making music and continuously exploring ideas makes him a genuine living legend to me. It is not surprising that both men are boogie woogie aficionados, so to conclude this look at just a few of my piano heroes, here is a classic clip of both Jools Holland and Dr. John performing as “The Boogie Woogie Twins” on Night Music, a short lived show that used to be on NBC (and with David Sanborn and Jools Holland as co-hosts is a precursor of sorts to Later…with Jools Holland). I can’t think of a more fitting end to this blog than to watch these two great players at work.
Be sure to check the gallery below for the entire collection of ’88 Monochrome Photos’!
Waltz No. 1 In E Flat Major, OP 18 By Frederic Chopin
Honky Tonk Train Blues-Written And Arranged By Meade Lux Lewis
Tanqueray-Written By Johnnie Johnson
Children’s Concerto-Written By Patrick Moraz And Bill Bruford
The Way It Is-Written By Bruce Hornsby
All photographs by Robert P Doyle All images in this blog are available in limited supply for purchase as unframed prints. Sizes may vary. Contact via firstname.lastname@example.org for details.
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