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