Volume 1 of the American Piano Music Series
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As a student of the piano for most of my life, I've attended many piano recitals. I've always wondered why the bulk of the standard repertoire was mainly European. Don't get me wrong - I love Mozart, Bach, Chopin, Liszt and Beethoven as much as anyone, but the lack of American music in the concert hall always bothered me.
It's only been recently that I decided to focus my research and energy on uncovering unique American composers that deserved to be heard more in the concert hall. My ultimate goal is to release ten albums of American piano music over the next ten years - an album a year. Each album will focus on seven unique American composers and feature three of their works.
This album, Volume 1, focuses on the following seven composers:
I have decided to thread and dovetail the pieces from each composer in a more programmatic fashion, as opposed to playing the pieces sequentially by composer.
Some of the composers, like Aaron Copland, are well known. Others, like Dana Suesse, are mostly forgotten. But all of them have one thing in common - a unique American voice that deserves to be heard.
There’s a lot of nuance and detail in this music. The very best way to appreciate it is to listen with a good pair of headphones. Try it - It makes a big difference!
I hope you enjoy listening to each of these pieces as much as I enjoyed recording them.
- Corte Swearingen, December, 2020
Notes on the Music
Blues for Jay (Dick Hyman, 2003) - Dick Hyman is a well-known jazz pianist. His command of the keyboard is utterly amazing, but many people don’t realize he’s also an accomplished composer, having written many piano works as well as providing the scores to more than a dozen Woody Allen films. Hyman wrote “Blues for Jay” in honor of the late great jazz pianist Jay McShann. It’s a great representation of the basic American blues style, with each chorus building up in momentum and complexity.
Central Park (Judith Lang Zaimont, 1957) - Much of Zaimont's compositional style is rooted in Romanticism and Impressionism. She has been influenced by several well-known composers, including Berlioz, Chopin, Scriabin, Debussy, Ravel and Copland. “Central Park” is the 4th movement from her piano suite titled American City: Portrait of New York. The entire piano suite is notable since it was written when she was only 12 years old.
Dove in the Window (Donald Ashwander, 1970) - Although Ashwander was mostly known for his ragtime compositions, he also wrote in other forms. “Dove In The Window” is a beautiful example of how he wove folk-like melodies into his piano pieces. This piece is part of a piano suite Ashwander wrote called Traditional Patterns.
The Alchemist (Glenn Jenks, 1991) - The Alchemist, subtitled A Ragtime Concoction, is a lovely example of contemporary ragtime writing. I have to believe that Jenks had the classic ragtime composer Joseph Lamb in mind when he wrote this piece, as the pure poetry of the music bears more than a passing similarity.
Berceuse (Dana Suesse, 1975) - While Suesse was much more known for her jazzy pianistic compositions, here is a lovely little gem that showcases her more lyrical writing. This piece shares a lot of similarities with Erik Satie's Gymnopedie No. 1.
Down a Country Lane (Aaron Copland, 1962) - This gently flowing pastoral piece was written by Copland in 1962 and was commissioned by Life Magazine. It's a great example of the beauty and reflective nature of Copland's later works.
Swamp-Bird (Dana Suesse, 1941) - Swamp-Bird is a very unique piece written by Suesse in 1941. It requires a bit of finger dexterity, but is well worth the time to learn!
Queen of Violets (Glenn Jenks, 1989) - This wonderful piece represents a perfect example of contemporary ragtime lyricism. Jenks evokes a sense of yearning and sensitive reflection with his delicately crafted melodies. This is one of my favorite modern ragtime compositions.
Ragtime Waltz (Aaron Robinson, 1994) - Robinson is an eclectic composer living in Maine. I love the dissonant harmonies he used in this waltz. The piece itself shifts around from key to key, making it a bit demanding to play, but well worth the effort!
The Banana Song (Judith Lang Zaimont, 2003) - This piece is part of Zaimont's piano suite In My Lunchbox. This lovely little tune has a definite Caribbean lilt. The melody came to Zaimont one morning as she was whistling out loud.
Corral Nocturne (Aaron Copland, 1942) - Corral Nocturne is the 2nd movement from Copland's ballet titled Rodeo. While it was originally written for orchestra, the piece became so popular that Copland arranged a version for solo piano. It's a great example of the Americana sound that was so often associated with Copland.
Forgotten Ballrooms (Donald Ashwander, 1983) - This is perhaps Ashwander's most sentimental piano composition, which is why I chose it for the title of this album. Written in 1983, the piece pays homage to long abandoned and forgotten ballrooms - rooms filled with the atmospheres and dramas of long past.
Reflective Rag (Judith Lang Zaimont, 1974) - This piece is part of the suite Two Rags for Solo Piano. Zaimont definitely stretches the boundaries of the ragtime form in this composition, but does so with an intense reflective & lyrical beauty.
Story of Our Town (Aaron Copland, 1944) - Thorton Wilder's stage play Our Town is a well known classic of the American theater. Copland accepted the invitation to compose the musical score for the screen version of life in the small town of Grover's Corners, New Hampshire. While the music Copland composed for the film was for orchestra, he decided to arrange three excerpts for solo piano. "The Story of Our Town" is the first of those excerpts and beautifully captures the spirit and serenity of small town life.
Planxty (Glenn Jenks, 1993) - A ‘Planxty’ is a musical tribute named after someone. It’s in the old Irish harper tradition and Jenks composed this tune in honor of his friend Jim Stewart. Jenks tells the story of a composer he knew that wrote a “Planxty - Jack Daniels” and sent it off to the distillery. A few weeks later, this composer found a case of Jack Daniels sitting on his doorstep, courtesy of the distillery.
Caterpillar Hill (Aaron Robinson, 2004) - This piece is from Robinson's album "Moments in Maine" and was dedicated to his good friend Ed Shreve who died of AIDS in 2004. Caterpillar Hill is in Blue Hill, Maine and was a favorite place of Ed's. His ashes are scattered there.
Old Streets (Donald Ashwander, 1971) - American jazz critic Rudi Blesh said of Ashwander's music - "He draws on memory and the unconscious. The memory may be childhood; or it may be today, remembered while composing at night. But it is always memory, a Remembrance of Things Past." Ashwander's piece "Old Streets" is indeed a memory of times past, of old Southern houses behind their ancient trees. Once again, Ashwander shows us his amazing gift of melody.
Variations on Shenandoah (Dick Hyman, 1998) - This is a lovely set of piano variations based around the American folk song Shenandoah. Hyman draws upon both classical and jazz sources as inspiration for these variations.
Midnight in Gramercy Square (Dana Suesse, 1941) - This is a lovely little minuet written by Suesse in 1941. Suesse lived in New York at the time, so the Square referenced is most likely an area around the current Gramercy Park in Manhattan.
Bluet Rag (Aaron Robinson, 1997) - Bluet Rag is the 2nd movement of Robinson's New England Ragtime Suite. You can tell a lot about quality piano writing when the piece you are playing almost plays itself - when the hands and fingers are able to completely absorb the notes and melodies. Such is the case with this beautifully crafted piece. It's a wonderful example of the traditional ragtime form.
Carousel Memories (Dick Hyman, 1985) - This lovely little waltz was composed by Hyman for the 1985 Woody Allen film The Purple Rose of Cairo.