Thursday, August 18, 2011

You're the key to my heart

Many years ago, after an English class in which one of his songs was featured for an assignment...I became a huge Billy Joel fan - and in turn, discovering his organ-and-drums duo Attila, became focused on creating some sort of piano/organ-based band.

I think I'm finally there.

But as much as I derive a lot of inspiration from the Piano Man...technique-wise, I took very few lessons (only did that for a year in 1993), so I can't say I compare. (In terms of songwriting though...that's a topic for later.)

I can't really compare to this person's technique either, but I think his musical approach and eclecticism have informed my own playing and style for some time. And if anyone deserves a little bit more written up about his accomplishments, it's this guy:

The Isley Brothers' Chris Jasper isn't cited nearly enough as a force on the keys in 1970s music, but so much of the band's music centers around his tasteful, smooth work on piano (acoustic and electric) that it can't be overlooked.

On the more conventional end of things are two of the very best piano ballads the group ever pulled off:

"Love Put Me On The Corner" is considered by some as the first great love song of the group, in a time when Jasper wasn't quite officially a member (merely an accompanist). Can't say I disagree - even with all the great songs that came afterward, the devastation and melancholy still come across in that mix of Ron Isley's heartfelt vocal and the introverted arpeggiation on Chris's piano.

"The Highways of My Life" - lyrics written entirely by Ron - begins with a tasteful, warm synthesizer solo before settling into a comfortable piano-and-drums groove. Jasper's run-down-the-scale changes serves the stanza's melody nicely, especially when the synthesizer offers its line up before the vocal segments.

Both of those songs - and the similar "Lover's Eve" - thematically and musically take me to the same place...a quiet room...a piano surrounded by space and time...the aloneness of thought.

A little more outgoing in comparison are these Rhodes piano recordings:

"For The Love Of You" is the quintessential smooth R&B song, its meditation on devotion and sweetness coming out of what was originally a frustrating recording session (according to Wikipedia, Rudolph's original lyrics were tossed aside to his chagrin, while Ron's first vocal take was accidentally erased, forcing him to record the final version off-the-cuff). It's my parents' anniversary song and it's probably what really got me into the Isleys, even though I had heard them on R&B stations in the Bay Area for years.

Not as much of a radio staple - though I first heard it on 102.9 about a decade ago! - "Hello It's Me" for most people is known through Todd Rundgren's original versions (with his band Nazz and as a solo take), a staple of 70s soft rock. While I'm usually one to prefer the songwriter's version of a song over anyone else's (i.e. Jimmy Webb's material), "Hello" is one of the few instances where I sharply diverge.

The jazzy Rundgren version from Something/Anything (often found on oldies stations worldwide) works okay, but lacks the sheer heartbreak and contemplation the Isley cover has. Maybe it's the choice to fadeout the song on a definitive F# minor, or the additional lyrics and ad-libs behind the mic for Ron...or it's those bright fills on the electric piano that Jasper colors up the song with. Maybe it's all those things, but a song about seeming ambivalence becomes way more direct, way more heartfelt...not simply about one forgotten evening, but about a story built on a lifetime now ending, and a man remaining compassionate in the face of losing someone so dear to him.

Ballads were far from the only genre the Isleys dabbled in, of course...

"Ain't I Been Good To You" is a smooth funk workout for its first part, and a dark blues jam in its second. In the first part, Jasper deftly mixes a church-like organ part with a buttery electric piano line, before pounding out block chords for the chorus. Part One always leaves me wishing that there was another minute or three to it!

Part Two slows the pace down, and switches up to shuffle time, though repeating the same lyrics as the first segment. Where the first half of the song simmers with anger and fire...the second half remains intense, but becomes a plea of desperation, with the organ becoming more prominent in the arrangement. The electric piano remains but the organ's Leslie-speaker swirling provides atmosphere for Ron's incantations and Ernie's call-and-response guitar lines.

Take away the organ and the weightiness of the composition simply isn't there.

"Who's That Lady." I remember first hearing this on a flight to Newark in 1998 and getting blown away. It may have made its appearance in a million commercials since, but it doesn't get old.

So much has been made about Ernie Isley's fuzz guitar here, but I can't help and notice the subtle acoustic piano (mixed just beneath the drums) throughout the piece and what sounds like a Wurlitzer electric piano in the instrumental bridge...both elements providing more fullness to the arrangement and structure to the guitar jamming that unfolds.


I know that my mostly self-taught ways can't come close to matching Chris Jasper's skills, but I do have a desire to remain open in terms of song construction and arrangement, a desire for variety in writing that I think fueled his time in the Isley Brothers 3+3 lineup and made it one of my favorite bands ever - a group that straddled the line between rock and soul while blazing its own path for a good 13-14 years.

And here's a nice little recent interview with the man himself, for your perusal. :D


  1. One thing that makes Chris Jasper's playing fit so well is that he's got the chops, but he knows it's not always necessary to use them. Playing to fit into the song and the groove is first and foremost. That's the hallmark of pretty much all the musicians whose work I respect and admire. Just because a drummer can play 32nd note tom fills doesn't mean he needs to do that every other measure, or even more than once in an entire concert if the music doesn't need it. Just because a pianist can run up and down the keyboard in every scale imaginable so fast it sounds like a glissando doesn't mean it's going to make the song sound any better. Not that it can't in some cases. But that's where a truly good musician knows when to break out those chops, and when to just sit back and groove.

  2. I think there's a balance between ability and ego that always has to be straddled, in that never-ending quest for listener interest.

    A few cases in point:

    - Mike Garcon's playing on David Bowie's Aladdin Sane is all over the map - as requested by Bowie himself - and I just cannot imagine the song without all the soloing. It does make it hard for me to play it even though I do like the tune a lot.

    - Christine McVie's piano/keyboard work for Fleetwood Mac sometimes works in its simplicity (Dreams!) but other times becomes highly unmemorable (You Make Loving Fun is catchy, but lacking in substance). I do like her actually getting out of her comfort zone and soloing a bit on the synthesizer on the Stevie Nicks composition Crystal.

    - Trouble, the first Coldplay song I ever heard...not too much arpeggiation but enough to make the song work. The Scientist was a bigger hit but it's not the only song off of A Rush Of Blood To The Head that goes for the block chords.

    I think, as noted in this post, I have an affinity for arrangement and perspective variety, which is where Ben Folds can be frustrating. (Think of how often with the Five the arrangement was "acoustic piano, snarky lyrics, and have Robert Sledge slam the fuzz pedal on bass.") In a way though it makes the better compositions stand out - Alice Childress and Emaline work really well regardless of how much the other songs from the catalog are arranged similarly.