North Carolina: A State of Music
James Taylor, Carolina on My Mind
John Coltrane, Giant Steps. In reference to this classic jazz composition, Robert says that John Coltrane represents "just that-a giant step in the development of jazz and a giant step in terms of jazz playing." Out of respect for the genius of the man, Robert doesn't carve any major new territory here. He lets the originality and vision of the piece stand for itself, as it pours through his delicate pianistic touch.
Elizabeth Cotten, Freight Train. This familiar folk song, though not strictly a blues, still bears that signature mood. Robert honored the "locomotive feel" in a creative way, with almost a reggae groove, while keeping the essential folk motif alive with his lyrical right hand. Just when we think we know where he's leading us, he tags the tune with another Carolina blues, Thelonius Monk's classic Straight No Chaser.
Mike Cross, Uncle Josh. This is one of those endearing comedy sketches that the inimitable Mr. Cross uses to leave an audience howling with laughter. Robert recognized that beneath the comedic intent of the lyrics, Carolina's favorite clown-bard had composed a very strong melody. Robert sticks to the tune very closely here, but adds a lot of grace notes before and after the main melodic line, and also alters their rhythmic placement. His reharmonizations are squarely in the twentieth century classical vein and reminiscent to me of Prokofiev.
Roberta Flack, Killing Me Softly. Roberta Flack, best known for her smoky voice, is an Asheville NC native. Even though she's not the composer in this case, Killing Me Softly, is probably her signature tune. In Robert's words, "I have always loved this song. I kept it in pretty much the same popular music vein - the same tune, the same chords, just a slightly different feeling."
Kay Kyser, Woody Woodpecker Theme. While attending law school at UNC- Chapel Hill, Rocky Mount native, Kay Kyser, was invited to take over the Carolina Club Orchestra. Many members of that unit followed him in the meteoric rise of his big bands. The Woody Woodpecker Theme, written by George Tibbles and Ramey Idriss, is probably their most recognizable tune. The melody is light and comedic, but watch where Robert takes it.
Squirrel Nut Zippers, It Ain't You. The Zippers are, at this writing, the latest band of North Carolina musicians to hit the national big time. Many of us have their CDs in our collections, but Robert takes this tune by Jimbo Mathus and Katherine Whalen in some new directions. The pickup and the first four bars of Jimbo's guitar solo "just slayed" him, so he elected to play with it harmonically in a few different ways.He preserved the swing feel of the song, but changed the chords under the melody to give it more drive in the solo piano context.
Thelonius Monk, Rhythm-A-Ning. Robert considered a lot of different tunes by this seminal North Carolina jazz voice before settling on this variant of the familiar I Got Rhythm. Monk, as usual, throws us a rhythmic curve ball-note the little quirk in the beat at the end of the A section and watch how Monk continues to develop it through the bridge. He references Charlie Rouse's sax solo on the original recording, and also Monk's own unique solo. In the middle of the arrangement, Robert tantalizes us with a taste of his own original melody, Petite Adrienne, which is based on the same chord changes.
James Taylor, Carolina On My Mind. The third or fourth time most Tar Heel folks heard James Taylor's signature song, they knew that people would be singing it a century from now. But after hearing it ten thousand times, we begin to fear that sad alchemy: a work of genius being trivialized and overplayed into a cliche. Watch how Robert breathes new life into the melody while perhaps hiding it more deeply than he did with any other song in this collection. The chord changes are all there and so is the tune if you listen carefully, but the composition is elaborated into a Baroque tour de force in the style of Bach, which blends in a miraculously seamless way into a gospel feeling in one verse and the bridge. Robert speaks with poignant hilarity of the impact James Taylor had on his life. When Taylor hit the big time, Robert was at Syracuse University, feeling very ostracized there for his "southerness." Suddenly, with the explosion of Taylor's tune on the pop charts, Chapel Hill became one of the brighter stars in the Firmament of Hipness, and Robert says his luck with the ladies improved markedly.
The Red Clay Ramblers, Hot Buttered Rum. According to Robert, it was the "sweetness" of the Ramblers' tune which attracted him. Alluding to the British Isles origins of much Carolina folk music, he gradually develops the chord progression over a Celtic drone while bringing in the melodic line. Notice the little interlude interspersed among the first three verses-it develops into its own separate motif after the fourth verse, then everything comes together in the folk music feeling of the final verse.
Robert Griffin, Lullaby for Lindsay. Robert wrote this tune in 1999 in honor of his daughter Lindsay's twenty-first birthday.