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Let me set the scene – irresponsible lovers are canoodling in semi-lit booths, the jukebox is playing some old tunes by Frank and there’s some people over there who never want to fall in love again. It’s the last bar still open and the piano player mooches over to the battered grand. This guy, we know, is great. He expertly and succinctly slides in words like “iconoclast”, “apropos”, “tumult” and “ludicrous”, he even name checks Constantinople – that’s proper old school.
For those celebrated guys who hit on the standards – Monk, Cohen, Bacharach, even Merle Haggard, Howe Gelb is creating new tunes with cathartic one-liners and malleable melodies that suggest any singer could interpret these dozen American piano ballads and take his offbeat worldview and make it their own. Who wouldn’t want to begin the beguine with the line “World peace declared, no problem spared…”?
These are ‘Future Standards’ by The Howe Gelb Piano Trio, taking an outsider view of early gospel and rhythm and blues both part of the American musical socialization that he touched on with 2006’s ‘Sno Angel’. Now he’s on a jazz-tinged trip, bending the genre, taking it back to his shack, giving an innovative fine tune in the lean-to garage.
Don’t forget, Gelb is a man who’s done acoustic sets where he sings into the pick up of his guitar, he’s rocked out with Giant Sand, re-shaped alt-country and has a back catalogue that’s nothing short of “im-press-ive”. He knows a melody when he plays it.
Now, he’s searching for a way to re-imagine an important genre in the history of song construction and, as ever he’s throwing a spanner in the works, making up words “un-em-barkable” and coming off like Mose Allison on downers, touching on Brubeck’s hand patterns, holding court as a Django-like strummer – Naim Amor – drifts by on an abandoned caboose almost just out of earshot.
In places on ‘Future Standards’, Gelb duets with the equally laconic Lonna Kelley, it’s Parton and Porter (Wagoner) at the last chance saloon, all done up in stuffed shirts, uneasy but perfectly alluring. Gelb’s piano sinks to a pedal-depressed ambience as his cavalier vocal boasts of new love and faded times, all in the best tradition of the American Songbook that he’s pretty damn cleverly adding a new volume to.
T’was something less than coincidental that in the same burg Chet Baker ended it, these sessions began. There in Amsterdam with JB Meijers at the helm, co-producing the first tracks written for what was about to become a standard practice, assembling a brilliant rhythm section as well as offering his own signature guitar, JB aptly provided Howe the gumption to spring board into such uncharted waters with actual charts.
In the end, and only fitting, New York City, concluded these sessions via a visit with Tucsonian drummer, and Village Vanguard bartender, Arthur Vint.. just spittin’ distance from the original ripple effect of a cherished Thelonious Sphere Monk.
“This is an attempt at writing a batch of tunes that could last through the ages with the relative structure of what has become known as “standards”. The likes of Cole Porter and Hoagy Carmichael done up by Frank Sinatra or Billie Holiday,” suggests Howe. “Julie London had a lot to do with it.”
“The challenge with this kind of session lies in the culmination of 3 essential elements;
1st, writing a sophisticated chord structure that allows the melody to weave beyond its confines. Something cohesive and familiar, but still alluring and uncharted.
2nd, a lyrical playfulness. The science of love revealed and revelled, the celebration and the lament, while remaining vulnerable and still intact with new knowledge of where it can only go.
3rd, an offhanded execution. To display each song as if it’s already an old standard. Keeping it intimate and communal in one go. Making it a party instead of making it precious. To deliver the lines with natural serendipity, lingering behind the beat, offering a pause in love’s resignation through resonation.
These moments of melody framed in rhythm and rhyme along the pathway reproducing the species, if only to remind us, to validate, to assure;
We never choose to fall in love… It’s always love that chooses us.”
Howe Gelb’s ‘Future Standards’ is released November 25th on Fire Records.
10th Dec: UK, London – Café Oto
1. Terribly So
2. Irresponsible Lovers
3. A Book You’ve Read Before
5. Ownin’ It
7. Impossible Thing
8. The Shiver Revisited
9. Mad Man At Large
10. May You Never Fall In Love
11. Sweet Confusion
12. Mad Man At Home