Steinway Artist Chad Lawson, who wrote multi-award winning albums ‘The Space Between’ and ‘The Piano’, is releasing a new CD centred on the nocturnes, preludes and waltzes of Chopin on 23 September 2014. Here he speaks about Chopin, jazz and his composition process.
Initially influenced by the TV American Rock and Roll boy band Sha Na Na, Lawson had a classical piano training before moving deep into the world of jazz. After touring with Babik Reinhardt (son of Django) and forming his own jazz trio, Lawson decided he wanted to go back to his composition and classical roots; ‘I wanted to create music that would connect with people. While jazz is a very entertainment-based form of art, I sometimes find it difficult for listeners to associate with. I found it becoming more about the flash of live performances and the “look what I can do” mindset that I’ve never been comfortable with. I would much rather write and perform pieces that are going to resonate with people rather than feel as if I’m only trying to impress them.’
Using classical influences for melody, and jazz to expand his palette, Lawson seamlessly fuses the two for both composing and performing. ‘When I can’t hear colour any more, I return to jazz studies and improvisation’, says Lawson. Whilst the attitude in jazz is ‘don’t borrow, steal’, Lawson admits he has to stop himself from listening to certain composers (who shall remain nameless…) to refrain from being influenced too much by their ideas.
Lawson is part of the Ólafur Arnalds, Max Richter, Nils Frahm movement in contemporary music, the genre-defying – one could go as far as saying genre-hating – movement who slip seamlessly into all and no genres. ‘Music is losing its genre stigmatism. Are we “new-age”? No, I hate that phrase – that was our parents’ generation. But I like the way that music is moving’, says Lawson.
Composition process of Chad Lawson Chopin Variations
It was through Lawson’s 2011 album, The Piano, that the idea to work with Chopin came about. The opening track is a variation on Bach’s Prelude in C. ‘This piece really stuck with a lot of people’, Lawson said. ‘And then once they heard my Nocturne in A Minor and Ballade in C Minor from the same album, tweets started coming in saying “Listening to Chad Lawson perform Chopin’s…” when it was actually my own music. It dawned on me the connection people have with Chopin, the poet of the piano we know him to be – how people who have never played Chopin, or even consider themselves a classical lover, know Chopin as a pianist and composer. So, I took the idea and used the same process I developed with Bach’s Prelude in C Major (below) and began my work on the Chopin Album.’
Lawson played through Chopin’s Nocturnes, Preludes and Waltzes and started circling the strongest points of the melody (see score below). Where Chopin embellished his core melody, Lawson has reduced it, stripping it down to its core. Predicting attacks from critics of making Chopin easier, Lawson said he made sure he could fully play the originals before embarking on the composition process. To exemplify this technique, first-played in the audio below is the central section of Chopin’s Waltz in C# Minor, followed by Lawson’s interpretation of the music.
As he analysed Chopin’s works closer, Lawson realised not only that Chopin was actually working from the most simple of chords – I, IV and V – but also how closely Chopin’s melodic and harmonic ornamentation come to jazz, or how closely jazz strays towards Chopin. ‘I swear Chopin would have been a jazz artist if he had heard Debussy or Gershwin’. Just one example Lawson discovered is the scale at the end of the above motivic passage in Chopin’s C# minor waltz, which is also a form of an A7 bebop scale – a major scale with both a flat and natural 7th (though having a root of F# as it does in Chopin’s waltz does make this an ‘untrue’ bebop scale) – further explained by Lawson in the video below.
It is a huge risk editing the great ‘poet of the piano’. Though subtitled ‘Modern Interpretations on Chopin Works’, Lawson has done more than simply interpret. Could we call this post-modern Chopin? Indeed is it still Chopin at all? Lawson has drawn out a different side to the composer, stripping down and reducing the traditional Chopin, and re-constructing a wholly different narrative. The ensemble-setting with violinist Judy Kang and cellist Rubin Kodheli draws out Chopin’s poeticism and lyricism, ensuring this collection is more than an interpretation; it is a work in its own right…not that Lawson would like to focus on the concept of works, genre or the canon. Ultimately it is eminently enjoyable music.