Writing A Jazz Record

Posted by on Sep 18 2017 | Sarah Sings, Songtaneous

In November of last year, I learned that I received a grant award from the MN state arts board to write, record and release an album of original jazz songs. (Thanks, MSAB!)

In my proposal I said that “I want to sing jazz, and specifically jazz that I write in order to help broaden the definition of jazz vocals in the Twin Cities.” I had already written a couple of jazz tunes and believed I was ready for the challenge of composing an album’s worth of material.

I also knew that it would be an important growth project for me (that certainly has proved true!). Since beginning work on the project, I have worked with new musicians and performed more jazz gigs (both goals of mine). I have also had to dust off and update my transcribing and chart-writing skills.

Now some people might approach writing an album by coming up with a theme for their project or a title for their CD, but I was pretty sure that if I tried either of those approaches I would never start writing. (If you’ve spent any time here, then you know that I am a far better finisher, than starter.) I also worried that having writing “assignments” might send me into a spiral of stuck and procrastination.

So I tried a bunch of other stuff.

  • I signed up for online classes on songwriting and vocal development. And while it was helpful to have some external accountability (one of the classes had weekly check-in calls), I found a lot of the approaches to songwriting weren’t making much happen for me.For example, I tried looking at songs/jazz standards I really liked to figure out how they worked. What did I like about the melody or the chord progression? The instrumentation? The production? And while I truly think this was/is a good idea, I didn’t make a lot of progress with it.
  • Writing titles for songs first did NOT work for me (at all).
  • Thinking about types of songs was a little more useful. I felt like a jazz album should include some kind of blues and some kind of ballad. (Both of which have since manifested. *smile*)
  • Next, I asked myself questions about the jazz songs (all two of them) that I had already written. In doing so, I realized with both songs their melodies arrived first, accompanied or followed very quickly by key words of the song.

Armed with the knowledge that melody and words worked for me (or at least it had two other times), I embarked on another 30 days of spontaneous songs. (Technically, it was 28 days because I did it for the month of February. *smile*)

(I sincerely thought about sharing that project with you here, Dear Reader, but I thought that adding the step of posting the improvs might keep me from creating them.)

After 28 days, I had a lot of ideas to explore. My commitment to myself was that I only had to record one 3-minute improvisation every day, but I frequently recorded two and sometimes three or four. I think this worked because I didn’t approach it as a songwriting activity, I revisited it as a creative/improv outlet.

As I had hoped, improvising every day got the music flowing. In fact, I woke up singing parts of the first verse of Maybe during that month.

Here’s my first “take” of the first verse

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and here is a clip for a performance of Maybe six months later

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Sarah M. Greer is a fiscal year 2017 recipient of an Artist Initiative grant from the Minnesota State Arts Board. This activity is made possible by the voters of Minnesota through a grant from the Minnesota State Arts Board, thanks to a legislative appropriation by the Minnesota State Legislature; and by a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts.

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