Will McMillan and Steve Sweeting Find Their Sweet Spot with New CD
In the world of pop, jazz and cabaret vocal performance and recording, good chemistry between singer and accompanist, the kind that results in the whole being greater than the sum of its parts, is rare. We think it may be more common than it is because we are mostly aware of the successful stories. Many successful partnerships, however, don't get the opportunity to be nurtured and developed because life gets in the way. Thus is the story of singer Will McMillan and piano accompanist/musical director/songwriter Steve Sweeting.
Some twenty years ago, they met in Cambridge by chance at a performance event that neither of them recall quite crisply. What they do recall is that they clicked, and immediately began a fruitful performing, recording and songwriting partnership. But Sweeting's personal life and career took him first to New York City, then to more far-flung places in the Far East, South America, West Africa and Europe for many years.
They each pursued their careers separately with occasional reunions to recapture the magic they shared. Now, two decades later, they are reunited to release their new recording Blame Those Gershwins, and a CD release party and performance this Friday, October 2, at Third Life Studio in Somerville. EDGE spoke with each of them to get to the root of their success and how they will evoke that in the recording and their upcoming performance.
EDGE: How did you begin to team up, and what brought about your current reunion?
Steve Sweeting: Will and I were in the same class at Harvard. I had heard about him, but hadn't met him. Then I came back to Boston/Cambridge, and we met at a performance of his or mine, and we said we should work together, and we started on a Sondheim show that was really fun, and then started recording at my place in Allston, which was really fun. I moved to NYC shortly after, but we stayed in touch, and occasionally worked together in either NY or Boston. He also came over to China twice while I lived there, and we even taught our songs to the kids at the school where I taught. I wished we were in the same city so we could work more, but we make an effort to stay in touch and work together when we can. Will wrote the lyrics to three of the songs on the album, and I really felt that Will should be able to record them. I feel lucky to have him as a friend and colleague.
Will McMillan: We were both at Harvard together but didn't know each other. Years later, I think a fellow pianist referred me to him. The first project we worked on was a show of all Sondheim songs, and even though he is a jazz pianist, he can play musical theater, pop, and classical equally well, just like a good athlete can move easily between sports. Working on Sondheim, he was curious to break apart each harmony and rhythm. He knew as much about Sondheim as I did. For Steve's birthday a few years ago, I bought him the recent books by Sondheim, and we read them to each other. When we started out I was paying him by the hour, and he was writing songs and he asked Merle Perkins and me to do the demo of his songs, and it turned into a barter arrangement, and then it turned into one of those rare blessed collaborations and we just split the door of our shows. Then he moved to NYC and we struggled to continue to work together. But when he moved to Shanghai and Bangladesh, it became even more of a struggle.EDGE: Why do you love the old songs?
Steve Sweeting: It happens at different layers. I played in a wedding band in high school and the guys I played with would throw these charts at me to sight read, and one had five flats and then went into D and it was 'Body and Soul.' I loved the craft of the great songwriting like the Gershwins, Porters, Rodgers and Hammerstein. Those songs are so well crafted harmonically melodically and lyrically. I've always been an accompanist of singers, and I love songs that really support the lyrics with a beautiful melodic line, and as a jazz pianist, I love to riff on the melodies and harmonies of these great songs. It's just a treasure trove of material.
EDGE: How has the Great American Songbook influenced your songwriting?
Steve Sweeting: It's always hard to take apart one's own work. I grew up playing pop piano in the '70s and my idols were Billy Joel, Elton John and Stevie Wonder, and I'd have to add Barry Manilow, if I'm being honest. He continued to write really great songs even after I drifted away from him. It was a golden age for piano pop music. Then I got to college where I was really exposed to the great American songbook and the theater pieces. For one thing, I'm really drawn to the 32 bar song structure of American Songbook, especially by Gershwin, the form of AABA was influential to me. Many songs I write are still in AABA form. I'm more at home there than in the pop/rock song structures. I find a great challenge in going from the harmonic forms of the A into B and then back into A.
EDGE: Who are your songwriting heroes?
Steve Sweeting: Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn. They created some amazing melodic and harmonic work. Sondheim would have to be the best in the last 60 years. Add in Jobim and a bunch of Brazilian composers, like Guinga. He's still living and he's phenomenal. He picked up the Jobim legacy and ran with it. He's someone I really admire. One time, I was shopping in a music store in Tai Pei, and going through the bins, and found a book that was $12, sitting there untouched for about 25 years, and no one had ever found it, and it has beautiful arrangements of about 12 of his songs.
EDGE: I've had [Billy Strayhorn's] 'Lush Life' running through my head all day.
Steve Sweeting: Biking though the streets of Shanghai with my family I used to sing that song to introduce the locals to it. (He begins to play the song on the piano while singing along to demonstrate the complex melodic intervals and tightly ascending harmonics of the closing line.)
EDGE: What kind of music do you love to play most on the piano?
Steve Sweeting: I think the beauty of my music life is that it isn't focused on one thing. In jazz, I love ragtime, stride, swing, show music, bee bop, I love Latin jazz, and free jazz and free improve with other musicians. I had a music friend, who plays the Erhu, a two-string instrument, and we just riffed together for five days. Then I'll play a Bach concert and love that. The challenge, is that it is hard to get time to practice my own work. I've been playing Gershwin for 40 years, but my own work far less.
EDGE: How spontaneous is your songwriting? Do you ever plan out time to do songwriting and sit and wait for inspiration to arrive?
Steve Sweeting:I rarely wait for inspiration. I go to the piano and I write. I do it pretty regularly. If I'm working with a lyricist, that's great. We go back and forth. Usually what I do is record my improv, then come back and transcribe it, and play with it for a while, then put it on the computer and pass it around to get some feedback from some people, and if people still want to listen to it I'll build it into a song. Some stuff dies along the way.
EDGE: Will, what about Steve Sweeting's songs appeal to you as a singer?
Will McMillan: They have some of the luxurious delicious chords that a Sondheim or a Maltby and Shire or Jason Robert Brown might have. His songs are exquisite to sink into. He's a very good craftsman, and there is something satisfying about a well-constructed well-rhymed song. In the song 'Blame The Gershwins,' it's such a tour de force, with all these references to the greats. It is one long bow to all those songwriting champions on whose shoulders we now stand. In his lyrics, he knows which vowels work well on a certain note within a singer's range, in addition to telling a good story
EDGE: You have also worked with Steve as a lyricist. How has that worked?
Will McMillan: I was shocked he wanted to include on the recording all three songs for which I've written lyrics. I was honored, and surprised. Putting words to his melodies, I had the same challenges and tried to meet them, of putting the right syllables with the right pitches. The one I like the most is 'Stuff,' and seems unfortunately more relatable now than 20 years ago when I wrote it. So many of us are blessed to have so much stuff, and then it begins to take over our lives, such as why am I spending so much time fixing the roof and caring for the lawn, instead of enjoying them. The more I read about songwriters, I am fascinated to read that Johnny Mercer fit his words into a melody given to him. Hammerstein gave the lyrics to Rodgers. As my own songwriter, I work in both directions. Steve will just send me a CD with twenty melodies and ask for some lyrics.
EDGE: Will the show on October 2 consist entirely of songs from this recording or will there be other material?
Will McMillan: We will be singing all the songs from the recording, plus another tour de force song that we rehearsed but haven't had time to record. But there will be also other material. It's going to be at least a third Steve at the piano, improvising over some American Songbook standards. Then, he will have a friend or two from NYC to join us on a song here or there.
EDGE: Is there any kind of thread musically or lyrically through the songs of this recording?
Will McMillan: Strangely enough, lyrically, a few of the songs go to the power of breath and being in the moment. Being present, taking a breath, can you dare to take a breath. The power of spontaneity. And there is this song, 'Let's Go to the River,' which is about being spontaneous, having no agenda.
EDGE: When you went to China to visit Steve, and performed for his class, the Chinese students felt the lyrics to 'Let's Go to the River' were too subversive for their Communist Party tastes. Why?
Will McMillan: Steve taught music for at least a couple of years in China at this school where his son was attending. In jazz, and Steve is a jazz musician, mistakes and straying from the written music or break with the plan was so different from the rigid regime of memorizing 3000 characters of the language, or their tradition of obedience and rigid adherence to rules and what is written that a song that talks about breaking the rules, breaking with routine, was shocking to them. I think Steve secretly delighted in my singing Sondheim's 'Everybody Says Don't' and teaching them 'Let's Go to the River,' both of which really challenged their cultural norms.
Will McMillan and Steve Sweeting will perform Blame Those Gershwins, the Songs of Steve Sweeting, Friday, October 2, 8PM; at Third Life Studio, 33 Union Square, Somerville, MA 02143; Tickets $15 tickets in advance; $20 at the door (cash only).
Bobbi Carrey and Arlington resident Will McMillan return to Scullers Jazz Club in Boston with their show, "In Perfect Harmony: Celebrating 10 Years of Collaboration," on Thursday, November 14.