Keep it Simple, Sarah

Posted by on Oct 09 2017 | Audio, Songtaneous

Early in my songwriting process, I was struggling because I felt like I was coming up with ideas for songs that didn’t have a lot of harmonic movement. Apparently, one of the beliefs (myths?) I was holding about jazz songs is that they need to have sophisticated harmonic movement (and probably 32 bars of it *smile*). Perhaps I subconsciously absorbed this idea from the legacy of songs from the Great American Songbook. These songs were written by some of our greatest jazz composers — Cole Porter, the Gershwin Brothers, Irving Berlin, Duke Ellington, etc. – and I had heard and learned a lot of them. (So, no pressure.)

Also, the first jazz tunes that I wrote had a lot of  harmonic movement, in some cases two or even three chord changes per measure.

Needless to say I was feeling stuck (and that perhaps I had bitten off more than I could chew *rueful grin*) when some jazz instrumentalists — John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Wayne Shorter, Freddie Hubbard, etc. — came to my rescue.

In the instrumental world, the jazz song seemed to have a whole different function and personality. In some cases, the chord progressions were simpler (in others, they were decidedly NOT), but I noticed that often the melody and chords of the song (aka the head) were just the jumping off point. (Listen to Coltrane’s Giant Steps or Davis’ So What for two iconic examples of what I’m talking about.)

These songs allowed the players to expand and explore the core song idea. They didn’t necessarily need to be complex, just musical. With this observation, I was able to exhale and get moving. I returned to song ideas I had abandoned as too simple or not “jazzy” enough.

Awake is one of those tunes. It was quirky little bird story and melody that came to me during my February of 3-minute solos. But the chord progression was a mere three chords so I had moved on looking for something more complicated. (Silly me, I know from improvising that complicated doesn’t always make the best music.)

Awake was initially a swing song in my mind, but the tune came alive when I changed to a Latin feel (and added some very fine instrumentalists! *smile*).

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Awake live at Jazz Central Studios. Featuring Nathan J. Greer (drums), Steven Hobert (keys), Solomon Parham (trumpet) and Ian Young (bass).

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Writing A Jazz Record

Posted by on Sep 18 2017 | Audio, 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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My Keyword 2017

Posted by on Jan 13 2017 | Inspirational, Songtaneous

This will be the ninth time I have picked a keyword for the year. I began choosing keywords back in 2009 and I have come to rely on this process as an invitation to review the past year and ponder and dream about the year ahead. Focusing on choosing a word allows me to “plan” in a more high-level, dreamy way (rather than a detailed, list-making, this needs to happen first way).

As we know, I am a thinker and I can get stuck in the details of an undertaking. And I admit that I have been a little stuck in the process of picking a word for 2017. Looking back at my words, it seems I have more trouble picking a word when I know I have a large goal or project on the horizon. This year was no exception.


In November, I learned that I earned the opportunity to write and record an album this year. (Thank you, state arts board!) Since I couldn’t start work on the project until January, however, I was able to daydream about the project for the rest of 2016. And, it was kind of fun to think about how I would approach the project and the songwriting methods I would get to try, the musicians with whom I might collaborate and the songs I would write.

That changed new year’s day. It was like an alarm went off and I had overslept; I felt instantly behind. My friend and Sistet member Aimee said to me, “Panic is part of the process.” (She’s right and I’m thinking about having t-shirts made. *wink*). I could tell this panic was affecting my keyword candidates for 2017. My list filled up with goal-oriented, action words – clarity, skill, artistic, act, decide, etc. In other words, things I should do or become.

But in nine years, I have learned that the keyword can’t feel like an assignment. It has to guide, not push and I don’t necessarily have to know how the word is going to work.


Take last year’s word — HEART — for example. I still cannot articulate exactly why I picked it, but, as frequently happens, heart kept turning up. Often, literally, as in February when my grandmother had a heart attack; in April, when a co-worker’s husband died from an aortic rupture and my grandmother also died; and in October when another friend’s father died from post surgery, heart-related issues.

I also felt HEART guiding me as I worked on my album funding proposal and as I processed the events before and after November’s election. Finally, working with HEART, I realized once again that I had to get out of my head about this year’s word.

2017 will be a year for growth, possibly even unruly and unpredictable growth. And while that may fill me with some nervous energy, I’m going to try to learn from and revel in it.

My keyword for 2017 is FLOURISH.

flourish v. — to be in a vigorous state; to grow luxuriantly, or thrive in growth; to sound a trumpet call or fanfare; a condition or period of thriving

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