Hal Schaefer's long and distinguished career and reputation as a pianist/composer/arranger and voice instructor surely merit fresh attention despite his tentative retreat from the L.A./S.F./N.Y. jazz scene during the past decade. His voluminous credits far exceed the space parameters of these annotations, but a backward glance forms a vital backdrop to Schaefer's jazz solo piano performances on this notable comeback CD.
His extensive experience profile is dotted with rich milestones. Recognized early on as a gifted child prodigy, he was accorded with many awards. En route to being a classical concert pianist, he concertized at age 10. Subsequently he was inspired by the legendary jazz pianist Art Tatum. "I heard a Tatum record on radio and immediately went out to buy it. He changed my life completely!" Schaefer recalls with precision. "I didn't know the piano could be played that way. Tatum's bravura and rhythmic sense altogether in one person with just two hands. I didn't believe it! But I was hooked!" Schaefer adopted a mirror image process in regards to emulating a Tatumesque perspective. "I would play a Tatum favorite -- e.g., Tea for Two and I would stop the record after the first chorus, then sit at the piano and do the same thing." Note that this is a remarkable process in itself.
Under the guise of an older person, at 14 he secured a union card and toured with various big bands including those led by Benny Carter and the iconoclastic Boyd Raeburn. Later, Schaefer's focus on composition and orchestration led him into intensely productive activity - creating music for Hollywood's cinematic industry and for a crowd of movie stars (notably his charts for Marilyn Monroe's famous Diamonds Are A Girl's Best Friend and segments in Judy Garland's A Star is Born). Tireless, Schaefer traversed between 'Lotusland and New York engaged in a whirlwind of eclectic, creative endeavors - for radio, TV, and the stage and recording studios. In relatively more recent decades, he has headed ensembles from jazz combos to orchestras. Moreover, he has devoted inordinate time/effort as a singer teacher and vocal coach - a reflection of his extraordinary track record teaching actresses and dancers literally how to sing.
Amidst this constellation of nucleic activity, Schaefer continues to play jazz piano - the main artery of his artistic oeuvre. Before moving to Fort Lauderdale, Florida in 1992 with his late beloved wife, Brenda, he maintained his jazz chops playing in his evergreen-scented, fresh-air style for ten years at Greene Street - a favored jazz piano and trio bistro in Soho. Likewise, some ten years ago, Schaefer made his recording entitled Solo, Duo, Trio on Discovery Records, illustrating his musical style in the three settings.
Clearly this new CD is the mostly deeply personal recording he has ever recorded because of the tightly bound associated feelings charged with warm, tenacious memories of his wife Brenda.
Many of the tunes bear the tender moments which prompted Schaefer to play in his elegant fashion. His keen sensitivity and wide experience with the songsmiths of America place him in a pivotal perch of being vitally intimate with the essence of lyric messages, enabling him to interpret the songs with the liberty availed to a solo jazz improvising pianist.
As for the solo context per se, there may be a happenstance synchronicity which occurred in the year 2000; curiously it was a time when prominent jazz pianist McCoy Tyner, Chick Corea and John Lewis all cut piano solo recordings . . . and indeed, among others, Schaefer also recorded in 2000 - adding perhaps an exclamation to some propitious karma. Another pertinent reference to Art Tartum is expressed in Schaefer's motivational energy. "Tatum was such a powerful inspiration, he made me stretch and he made me reach!" Playing solo without harmonic obligations for interplay with other musicians or sidemen affords Schaefer free rein to make his statement in its complete florescense and wholly personal spirit.
Cherishing this condition, Schaefer easily played and recorded all of the ballads with just one take. A sampling of his comments about the tunes offer gainful insight of the music's impetus and perceived values.
A lively Too Marvelous for Words opens the CD with "most of what was in back of my heart and soul. I was caught up in the tune, the words and feeling." Schaefer's music emerged with no intended calculation for its interpretation.
Tenderly - "It's a gorgeous piece I wanted to play so I could use my touch on the piano, to try to sing through my fingers."
He asserts few people play Baubles, Bangles and Beads, and he wished to devise and furnish a frame for it. "If I could really begin at the bottom of the piano with a bass player and if I could get that 'walking' at the very bottom, I would hit target. The first note I play is B-flat - the half tone right about the bottom note of the piano. I like it harmonically. It's a marvelous work of art."
Although not a huge Irving Berlin fan, Schaefer's enthusiasm for How Deep is the Ocean is well taken. "It's the best piece of music Berlin ever wrote - it is special. It's been my favorite Berlin piece for years. I feel the lyric is part of the concept - it's simple, profound, easy and meaningful."
Gone With the Wind has an attractive harmonic feel and pattern of mobility. "The tune is a Tatum kind of thing. I can't explain why it just lies on my fingers that way; it's just natural. The tempo was in the right groove."
Blues for Marilyn was written by Schaefer in memory of Marilyn Monroe and is party to the basis for the title of this CD as she was born on June 1st - Just as Blues for Brenda was written in memory of Schaefer's wife who was also born on June 1st. Could it be another synchronous model! This pair of blues also serves as the fulcrum for the balance of tunes on the disc. Note the first three notes of the first blues say 'Marilyn' and the theme does recycle itself. "In the key of D major, Blues for Brenda create a special sound - classy, well-dressed, modern and sophisticated -- that's Brenda."
I'm Old Fashioned was selected because "I wanted to play it with a feeling that I'm old fashioned. It was also a response to Brenda's asking me to play it for her to sing, so I had the learn the tune to comply."
"I'm crazy about I'm Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter. It lends itself to switching between 2 and 4. The point was to play part of it in 2 and part in 4, and make them compatible. I like the feeling of 2, but I am NOT a Dixie player! It just takes me back in time."
One of Schaefer's choice tunes is Imagination. "I wanted that imagination - the movement of the intangibles and I tried to find it in the harmony." And there is a nice counterpoint in the harmony.
For a change of pace, Schaefer's selection of Meditation fills the bill with its Latin feel. "I've had a strong taste for the key of C. Meditation is in C; I can almost taste its unique true flavor. Every key has its own color."
Another fond memory of Brenda, All the Things You Are recalls her wish to hear it when she was very ill, besieged by cancer.
Smoke Gets in Your Eyes is in 3/4 -- not as a ballad but as an easy swing 3/4. Schaefer gives it his own smokin' dimension.
A Duke Ellington protege for awhile, Schaefer enjoyed playing with his trio during the Ellington Orchestra's performance breaks. Billed as an entree act or relief group, "Duke would introduce my trio and he would say 'and now a REAL piano player!'" Schaefer wanted to interpret Ellington's classic Solitude. "I like the way it ends loudly. Part of it is to reflect my own private solitude, and part of it is to reflect my period of time with Duke and his inner feelings - and the very end is brutal - like falling off a cliff?"
This CD proves Hal Schaefer's music eloquence is sublime, essentially documenting a unique statement and living legacy from an irrepressible musician and spirit.
Dr. Herb Wong
Jazz Educators Journal (IAJE)
When jazz artists cut a tribute album, it's generally to honor a member of the jazz fraternity or sorority, depending on the sex of the honoree. Hal Schaefer's first album as a soloist honors a member of the sorority, and quite a member she was. The object of Schaefer's CD is Marilyn Monroe, with the title June 1st: A Date to Remember commemorating Monroe's 75th birthday. This is not the action of a dedicated fan, but one who was the actress' singing coach, preparing her for roles in such movies as Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. This album is also in memory of his late wife, whose birth date coincidentally is June 1. Schaefer had been in the jazz business for a while at that point, having worked with Benny Carter and with Dave Barbour's Four of a Kind, which backed Peggy Lee. While the title of the album refers to a Marilyn Monroe event, the play list, with the exception of two originals, is a strong nod to Schaefer's major pianistic influence, Art Tatum. While the playing here is not as embellished as Tatum's, the light, lilting touch that marked the Tatum improvisions are found in such tunes as Smoke Gets in Your Eyes, Tenderly, and Gone With the Wind. Schaefer also remembers another major influence and patron, Duke Ellington, with a passionate version of Solitude. Schaefer is from a particular school of piano players, respecting the melody of the song he is playing while at the same time giving it a personal imprimatur. This is a solid solo piano CD and a worthy addition to the recorded piano literature.
Recommended. ~ Dave Nathan, All Music Guide