Collette’s Corner: Lady at the Ivories

05 Nov

She’s back and she’s kickin’….Colette has a great post about some wonderful ladies tickling the ivories.

There’s something about a strong, vibrant woman at a piano that just makes me happy.

It looks easy, but it isn’t — playing the piano well, while singing well.

But just try it sometime. The hand-voice coordination is no big feat, perhaps, when you are using simple chords and few pianistic frills or vocal embellishments. But being a double virtuoso really takes some serious musical talent, and the kind of mind that can handle two daunting tasks at once.

Here are prime videos of some women who are their own perfect accompanists — even if they don’t always back themselves up, they got the goods to! Maybe you know some others to add to the mix.

Always, when she’s in the pack, I like to start with Aretha. Schooled in her daddy’s prominent Detroit church, Ree was tearing up the keyboard during Rev. Franklin’s services and singing her heart out at a very early age. (Mahlia Jackson was a mentor.) On her very first recording, in 1960, she played piano on four tracks. (Interesting footnote: the wonderful bassist Bill Lee, father of filmmaker Spike Lee, played bass on the album.)

Aretha’s piano style is gospel-fueled, but it isn’t simplistic. She can really pump it up, with some marvelous flourishes. Here she is performing one of her hottest piano-vocal arrangements, of the great, sexy blues “Dr. Feelgood,” recorded live in Amsterdam in 1968 — “ohhhhhhhhhh, when me and that man get to lovin’……”

— Aretha Franklin, “Dr. Feelgood” live

On an uptempo note, during a 1970 TV show, the Queen of Soul plays rollicking back-up for her incomparable singing of the tune “Don’t Play That Song:”

— Aretha Franklin “Don’t Play That Song”

Aretha is always hot as a pistol in her playing. But there are some wonderful Queens of Cool working the ivories lately too. I think there are a lot of reasons why Nora Jones, for instance, has come out of nowhere (actually the alt-jazz club scene in NYC) to sell so many records. Her tunes (self-written and otherwise) are memorable, she’s so beautiful (without a lot of makeup and glam stuff), her voice has a soft and tender swing to it. But also, she’s a very tasty back-up musician for herself, never doing too much or too little to frame a song. Her gazillion seller always sounds good to me, no matter how often I hear it:

— Nora Jones — “Don’t Know Why”

I also love this mysterioso Nora Jones tune, which begins with spooky, dissonant piano chords and acoustic bass, and moves in such a sinuous direction:

Nora Jones — live in New Orleans — “I’ve Got to See You Again”

It took me a while to warm to this cool kitty, but I finally have. Diana Krall was “packaged” as a sexy, come-hither babe early in her career, with glam fashion shoots she was reportedly very uncomfortable with. She’s really a shy, smart, dedicated Canadian musician who has a dash of great Peggy Lee-type style and a very ingratiating piano gift. And she must be good people, if ELvis Costello hooked up with her! (They just had twins, by the way.) And Tony Bennett adores her (they toured together and sound great as a duo). Love her on a golden Sinatra oldie like this one:

— Diana Krall — “Fly Me to the Moon”

Here’s a somewhat surprising and really enjoyable trio of Diana, Willie Nelson & D’s husband Elvis Costello performing Willie’s classic tune “Crazy.” Her style lends itself especially well to this song, on piano and vocal, and it’s a thrill when the guys join in:

Back a bit, here was a woman who could run a cold fever with her piano playing and shamanic vocals. We’re talking the late, great Nina Simone, who studied classical piano and really knew her way around the instrument. Her arrangements were very inventive for pop music of the 1950s, and they hold up. Here she is on The Ed Sullivan Show, prefacing a very swinging “Love Me or Leave Me” with jazzed-up classical piano settings. Clearly, she knows her Bach and Rachmaninoff:

— Nina Simone — “Love Me or Leave Me”

No one was better at turning a song into a novella than Ms. Simone. She always located the heart and soul of a lyric, and her arrangements were amazing. Here she is in the 1970s, on two entwined songs from the era: from the musical “Hair,” here’s “Ain’t Got No/I Got Life” (she also had amazing hair in this period!):

— Nina Simone — “Ain’t Got No/I Got Life”

Oleta Adams had only a brief flaring of big fame, which is a shame. I hope we hear more from this gal, because she can really project so much emotion with her two instruments. This was her big single, which she also wrote — it’s still a joy:

— Oleta Adams ‘– “Get There”

Let’s bring up the tempo up again, with one of my favorite Louisiana piano gals. You must know her, MM: the first time I saw her perform was at a great bowling alley/nightclub in New Orleans and the joint was really jumpin’. Here Marcia Ball shows Clint Eastwood a thing or two:

— Marcia Ball, “Red Beans Blues”

Here she is rockin’ out with her band, Big Easy style, on a really fun tune about a pooch….or is it?

— Marcia Ball — “Play With Your Poodle”

Regina Spektor can be very charming with her rich piano work, and little-girl voice. She reminds me a little of Nina Simone, just in the way her obviously classically trained piano weaves a spell. I’m most taken with her magical cover of this sweet John Lennon ode about “real love.”

Here she is at Lollapalooza in 2007:

— Regina Spektor, “Real Love”

I have to end this tribute with a divine artist singing with the angels now. Her exceptional voice, songs and spirit were inseparable from her piano. She channeled some psychic force no other pop singer has. Here’s the great Laura Nyro singing and playing her still-apt song, “Save the Country”:

— Laura Nyro, “Save the Country”

And rare, rare video of a very late appearance by Laura, at Seattle’s Bumbershoot Festival in 1994, on one of those great old ’50s pop tunes she just loved, Phil Spector’s “Maybe Baby.. This was three years before her very untimely death at 49 of ovarian cancer. (Her mother died of the same disease, at the same age.) She sounds fantastic, and I hope her legacy inspires many other women to follow:

— Laura Nyro, “Maybe Baby (The Heebie Jeebies)”

Someone reminded me last night what a fine pianist Joni Mitchell is, and then I found this gorgeous version of her playing “For Free.” Joni studied classical piano, and that has really strengthened her musical chops. She composes a lot of songs on the piano, and her best album in my book (“Ladies of the Canyon”) is full of piano. I adore this tune, on a rare live performance on British TV:

— Joni Mitchell, “For Free” (on the BBC)

While I thoroughly enjoyed Colette’s “ladies”, there are a couple of newer artists that provide some excellent music from behind the box. One of my favorite new artists is Sara Bareilles. <—–Click here for more Sara. She has toured with Marc Broussard and her song Gravity is one of my current favorite songs:



And then there’s this fabulous piano performance by Cat Power:


Remember Me


and lastly, one of my all-time favorite songs:


Angel, Sara McLachlan

p.s. Marcia Ball RAWKS! She loves playing music and “passin’ a good time”. Here’s a recent tune from Marcia:

Party Town

BTW, The Rock and Bowl is still a rollickin’ good time….my podnuhs, The Boogie Men, play there a lot.


Posted by on November 5, 2007 in music chicks, piano


32 responses to “Collette’s Corner: Lady at the Ivories

  1. ivoryhut

    November 5, 2007 at 6:18 pm

    Whew. For a moment there, I thought you wouldn’t mention Sarah McLachlan. Although I will admit that the first one to come to mind was Diana Krall.

    Of course, as someone who has been known to play a little here and there (get it? IVORYhut?), I’m biased. I think all women who play the piano rock.

    Ok, guys too.

    And guitars.

    Hey, didn’t Janis Ian used to play more piano? And Jennifer Warnes too?

  2. music maven

    November 5, 2007 at 7:41 pm

    Tickle the IvoriesHut…Couldn’t find Janis Ian on pieanny but I sure do like her geetar on At Seventeen. Prepare yourself, Janis has aged…still superb, however.

    Some AWESOME lyrics:

    I learned the truth at seventeen
    That love was meant for beauty queens
    And high school girls with clear skinned smiles
    Who married young and then retired.
    The valentines I never knew
    The Friday night charades of youth
    Were spent on one more beautiful
    At seventeen I learned the truth.
    And those of us with ravaged faces
    Lacking in the social graces
    Desperately remained at home
    Inventing lovers on the phone
    Who called to say come dance with me
    and murmured vague obscenities
    It isn’t all it seems
    At seventeen.
    A brown eyed girl in hand me downs
    Whose name I never could pronounce
    said, Pity please the ones who serve
    They only get what they deserve.
    The rich relationed hometown queen
    Married into what she needs
    A guarantee of company
    And haven for the elderly.
    Remember those who win the game
    Lose the love they sought to gain
    Indebentures of quality
    And dubious integrity.
    Their small town eyes will gape at you
    in dull surprise when payment due
    Exceeds accounts received
    At seventeen.
    To those of us who know the pain
    Of valentines that never came,
    And those whose names were never called
    When choosing sides for basketball.
    It was long ago and far away
    The world was younger than today
    And dreams were all they gave for free
    To ugly duckling girls like me.
    We all play the game and when we dare
    To cheat ourselves at solitaire
    Inventing lovers on the phone
    Repenting other lives unknown
    That call and say, come dance with me
    and murmur vague obscenities
    At ugly girls like me
    At seventeen

  3. music maven

    November 5, 2007 at 7:45 pm

    In looking for a Jennifer Warnes piano performance, I stumbled on Somewhere Somebody, a cover from the great Aaron Neville’s Warm Your Heart.

  4. shrewspeaks

    November 5, 2007 at 9:14 pm

    Ah Aretha and Nina both in one post!!!

    Not to bring in the long hair stuff…but when I think of amazing females and piano I have to mention Mitsuko Uchida I am transfixed watching her play. She feels every note and rest of this Motzart piece.

  5. Little Deb

    November 6, 2007 at 9:05 am

    Morning all. Great stuff. I have never heard some of these women before. Thanks a bunch.

    I know you’ve done a wonderful previous post on her, but you gotta put Carole King in this one too. I have never been able to hear “I feel the earth move” without playing “air piano”. I’m sure my neighbors back in Ft. Lauderdale are glad that I don’t know how to play the piano.

  6. music maven

    November 6, 2007 at 9:49 am

    Shrew, what is this longhair music you speak of? Motzart…LOL.

  7. jenfera

    November 6, 2007 at 10:08 am

    Carly Simon!

    Also, I love Marcia Ball, even though I hardly know her. I happened to hear two songs of hers one night on a Boston station that plays blues at 6:00. They played The Power of Love and Mobile and I was transfixed by both. Who is this woman?? And I have been meaning to download some tracks ever since. But I haven’t yet, cuz I am a download slacker.

  8. music maven

    November 6, 2007 at 12:45 pm

    Carley, yes. Nice.

    Marcia Ball is a New Orleans icon. She grew up in Vinton, which is Southwest LA — nearer to my neck of the woods.

    She is usually a part of Delbert McClinton’s “Rockin’ the Boat” cruise and is a fixture at JazzFest and many of the festivals around the South. She really is the male version of Dr. John.

  9. jenfera

    November 6, 2007 at 1:09 pm

    I am pretty sure Marcia has played at the Newport Jazz Festival before. I just checked her schedule and she is going to be in my area this Sunday night, but I have family birthday party to go to. Arggh!

  10. music maven

    November 6, 2007 at 1:40 pm

    I’m sure she has played Newport. Too bad about the party. Her show is always HIGHLY entertaining. Maybe after?….

  11. thedingoateyobaby

    November 7, 2007 at 8:01 am

    Women Rock! Whoooooooo!!

    OK, Im settled down now. First of all, its impossible not to start movin’ and groovin’ when Aretha sings “Dont Play That Song”. Oh man she is somethin’ else.

    Second, Angel by Sara McLachlan is one of the most profound songs ever written IMHO. I am never able to listen to it without choking up.

    You see? Thats what music was meant to do. It can either make you cry or make you dance, make you feel make you think, make your heart soar or take you to the depths of despair but it can make you FEEL. And in this lifetime, if your not feeling it then you aint living.

  12. music maven

    November 7, 2007 at 8:31 am

    So true, dear Dingeaux.

    Question for you guys….

    Do you think that “emotional” songs are best conveyed by male or female artists, in general? And does that opinion change if you’re male or female?


  13. thedingoateyobaby

    November 7, 2007 at 11:01 am

    Do you think that “emotional” songs are best conveyed by male or female artists, in general?

    For me personally, its definitely the female artists who move me the most. Aside from the artists that have been mentioned here, Liz Wright, Grace Potter’s Falling or Flying, Beth Hart, Eva cassidy, Joan Osborne, kelly Clarkson, Lucinda Williams, Melissa Ethridge, Ricki Lee Jones and my favorite….Patty griffin. I have left out so many others but I realized a few months back that my iPod is easily 65% women.

    Its not that I dont appreciate a man’s pain at all, its that a woman’s voice seems to speak to me on a more personal level for whatever reason.

    And does that opinion change if you’re male or female?

    I cant answer that. I know that Van Morrison can freaking make me feel like Im having a spiritual rebirth every time I listen.

  14. thedingoateyobaby

    November 7, 2007 at 11:25 am

    Oops! I forgot Beth orton. I love her version of Ooh Child. Its beautiful.

  15. thedingoateyobaby

    November 7, 2007 at 11:31 am

    Sorry but along with Van I have to insert Elton’s name as well. Dozens of profound songs by him and my most “recent” gem by him and bernie is “This Train Dont Stop There Anymore”.

    I’ll shut up now.

  16. Little Deb

    November 7, 2007 at 12:11 pm

    Just speaking from my limited personal experience about the male/female thing. I think that men are influenced more by the physical appearance combined with the voice and song meaning. This might be a poor example, but when we were watching AI, and when Kathryn sang “Over the Rainbow”, my husband had tears in his eyes. While I think she did a nice version of the song, it certainly didn’t bring tears to my eyes.

    And dingo, you always have a wonderful way of saying things that I wish I could express. So true about music making you feel.

    “And in this lifetime, if you’re not feeling it then you ain’t living”.

  17. thedingoateyobaby

    November 7, 2007 at 12:21 pm

    Hey Little Deb, how ya doing girl? Im still thanking you for re introducing me to Buffett’s A Pirate Looks At Forty.

    I totally get what you said about McPhee. Yes, she did a lovely job with that song, no question but did she MOVE me? No. Eva Cassidy moves me, Katherine didnt even come close.

  18. jenfera

    November 7, 2007 at 1:59 pm

    MM, I don’t think the gender of the singer necessarily makes a difference for me. When Taylor Hicks sings The Right Place and he sings it just so, that’s emotion. Dude knows how to convey. Although a quick perusal of my music collection shows that I am opposite of dingeaux – far more men on there than women – it doesn’t mean that the girls don’t move me sometimes too. Annie Lennox consistently amazes me with her soaring voice – she uses it to emote and not just spew notes. Know what I mean? You know, I think Annie is the only woman I have ever seen in concert, not counting the AI show. And even then, it was when she was touring witih Sting. Not sure if I have a point or not anymore.

    The party is about 2 hours away from the Marcia Ball show (you know, if I wanted to change that live show men-only streak this weekend) so I’d probably have to leave real early. And, I’d have to call in a favor to a friend who might be able to get tickets because it is sold out.

    Today I found out that Mark Cohn is playing the same venue the very next night! Gah. I’d love to see him. Has anyone heard his new song – Listening to Levon – yet? Taylor fans could definitely pick up a different meaning from it –

    I was lost
    I was gone
    Listening to Levon

    Okay, done babbling for now!

  19. music maven

    November 7, 2007 at 3:46 pm

    I guess I find a certain vulnerability of a man’s heart breaking via song is highly appealing to me. It’s a different emotion, however, than the comraderie or relating to a woman singing a heavily emotive song.

    Like Susan Tedeschi singing Angel From Montgomery. Even John Prine’s version doesn’t stir the same feelings because for me, she is singing something she feels while he is singing something he observed.

    Perhaps it’s a certain kind of emotion that is best conveyed by a male vs. a female. Like Harry Chapin singing Cats in the Cradle having more impact coming from a guy who’s reflecting on time wasted, etc. I don’t think that a woman singing that song conveys the same emotion. Conversely, a woman like Janis Ian singing about being an ugly duckling in At Seventeen, just wouldn’t be the same coming from a man.

    That might sound sexist but I think the songs that expose vulnerability appeal to me most from men, but songs about love and life resonate with me more when done by women.

    Having said that, taking a song like The Star Spangled Banner — for me, I get much more emotional when a man sings it than when a woman does.

  20. shrewspeaks

    November 7, 2007 at 4:41 pm

    I am really having trouble pondering this question..I go back and forth…Women, men, men women.
    I think it comes down to individual delivery. I dare anyone to define one is better than another in these comparisons of same songs different genders:
    I’ve been loving you…

    Take It to the Limit…

    I’m just sayin’ For me it is the connection with the tune and lyrics not the wang doodles.

  21. music maven

    November 7, 2007 at 4:55 pm

    Nah, got to say that no woman, not even Tina, can do I’ve Been Lovin’ You as effective as Otis (or Marc Broussard, for that matter).

    And I was all ready to bow up for The Eagles on Take it to the Limit and then you whip out Etta on me. Not fair. Etta rules. On that song or any other.

  22. shrewspeaks

    November 7, 2007 at 5:10 pm

    Alrighty then…Aretha Respect vs. otis…or how ’bout Aretha’s Change is Gonna Come vs. Sam’s…I am not saying better or worse…just as beautiful delivery.

    I can’t choose one gender over another.

  23. music maven

    November 7, 2007 at 5:18 pm

    See, I see those as “signature” hits for the original artist so it’s hard to pick anything other than the original — except for Etta…because you know, she’s Etta. Ree Ree comes close too.

    I think you’re right, Shrew, that maybe it’s individual, specific songs and what they convey. I’ll try to dig up a song that is done by a male and female that conveys similar emotion, for me.

  24. shrewspeaks

    November 7, 2007 at 5:35 pm

    Besides…my point used the phrase “wang doodles”, that right there is worthy of respect. 😉

  25. music maven

    November 7, 2007 at 5:40 pm

    Ok. This might be a little crazy, but THIS song is equally as moving for me done by BOTH Frank Sinatra and the great Ree Ree. However, we’re talking about two of the most fabulous singers evah, so I’m not sure it makes any point whatsoever…but it sure is superb.

    What Now My Love?

    Must say that Ole Blue Eyes and Babs doing I’ve Got a Crush on You is equally gratifying, as well.

    Perhaps the older standards parlay better?

  26. music maven

    November 7, 2007 at 5:41 pm

    Yep, wang doodles is right up there with gobsmacked.

  27. ivoryhut

    November 7, 2007 at 6:44 pm

    I’m just thinking that Shrew could have knocked you over by typing twang doodles instead.

    I am in MM’s camp regarding which songs move me the most. Something about a man baring his vulnerability in a song can really get me. That’s why new(er) artists like Ray LaMontagne, Damien Rice, and Ryan Adams can have such a profound effect on me. When they sing, you can almost hear their heart breaking.

    On the other hand, if it’s something I can totally identify with, then usually a woman’s voice hits home harder. Especially if it’s raspy or gritty or almost-whispered, which for me just adds so much to the emotion.

    Then again, a great song is a great song, and there is no lack of great artists, male or female, that can deliver it right to the gut.

  28. colette

    November 8, 2007 at 12:14 am

    Hi y’all!

    Happy to hear my little piano riffs helped start an interesting, if impossible!, debate.

    I’m in the dingo & others camp that the distinctions between men and women tend to blur with music — even in terms of sound. I mean, listen to those falsettos on Little Richard, Brian Wilson and Eddie Kendricks (the high voice in the Temptations)!

    Vulnerability, passion, intensity combined with musical genius…..that’s not about gender! I remember when the great jazz singer Sarah Vaughan caught some flack for recording “Maria” from “West Side Story.” But, hey, it sounded great on her pipes.

    I hope I am turning some of you who don’t know her well on to Laura Nyro. She’s a musician who could put an audience into a divine trance, utterly unique. Check out that Italian-american diva when you’ve got the chance!

    Among her songs (can’t find her own version of it on the web), a favorite is “Stone Soul Picnic…” If anyone can find her singing that, please post it!

    PS MM, you are truly diversified in your tastes! “The Star Spangled Banner” has been an utterly absurd song for me — a sort of marathon to test vocal ranges. EXCEPT when Marvin Gaye sang it at a Detroit Pistons game…..But of course, Marvin could sing the dang phone book brilliantly.

  29. shrewspeaks

    November 8, 2007 at 3:29 pm

    I love Laura Nyro…Stoney End is one of my favorites of her’s (tagged here with Wedding Bell Blues)

    I discovered Nyro at about the same time I came upon another phenom…Phoebe Snow Here to bring the debate full circle…is Ms. Snow singing Sam Cooke’s You Send Me

  30. jenfera

    November 9, 2007 at 10:29 am

    We missed a good one! Alicia Keyes.

  31. annie lennox fan

    November 17, 2007 at 9:28 pm

  32. Den Knee

    October 31, 2009 at 10:27 am

    Hey, I don’t mind you using my video, but please get the venue right: The live clip of Laura Nyro with her Harmony Group doing “Oh Yeah, Maybe Baby” was shot at Point State Park in Pittsburgh, Pa. in 1994, thank you very much! (smile) Thanks for mentioning Laura in your blog. Any new exposure that may make another fan is always a good thing.


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