Hangin’ with Mike Kanan, partI

Mike Kanan Photo
Mike Kanan is a great accompanist. But he’s pretty humble about his achievements in this regard. I personally find accompanying a vocalist extremely challenging and was definitely primed to get some first-rate advice from a pianist gigging with some of the major vocalists out there. But surprisingly his whole approach is very down to earth and his philosophy about it is very practical and has been arrived at by working things out over time, as well as through discussions and experiments with fellow musicians (to be referred to in follow-up parts).

As some of his comments might suggest, one of his most important assets may be his grounded personality. Even the practicing he does, by his own account, is not very advanced, but rather very specific and grounding in its purpose. So all in all he’s a very grounded person personally and this pervades in his musical approach and the impression he gives to others which works well for him and those who hire him.

Which creates a sort of hilarious contrast to me. Because I’m sort of the roller coaster semi-nervous personality type. Case in point. When I arrived at his studio I realized I had dropped my cellphone back in Queens. This prevented me from being able to call him to open the door. When I got on the F train I had my headphones on and I was fiddling with stuff per usual and I thought I heard something drop. I looked at the platform and saw nothing so I thought it was my imagination and let the doors shut. It wasn’t my imagination. Funny thing was later I went back to the platform and it turned out it had fallen in the gap between the train and the platform and it was lying on the tracks. I jumped down to get it with people staring at me, thinking I had lost my mind. In a fit of masochism I thought about “What if a train came bearing down on me, would my arms go all jelly on me as I tried to hoist myself up?” For a second I felt that weakness then ended my nut-job fantasy and hoisted myself up, half-giggling to myself. The phone was fine. Pretty sturdy little thing. Lousy phone but it can take a pounding apparently.

Below is the first part of what should be several installments of my get-together with Mike

JR: How did you manage to become the preferred singer’s accompanist these days?

MK: Well I don’t know about that…

JR: Did you just kind of fall into it?

MK: More or less. I’ve gotten some gigs that way and it’s wound up…whatever… It’s something about my personality that seems to function well in that…(type of setting)

JR: Well it has to be more than that. Singers can be real divas. If they don’t like you, they’ll tell you in no uncertain terms.

MK: Some. Although I have to say just about everyone I’ve worked with has been really good. The two principal well known ones -Jane (Monheit) and Jimmy Scott have been great to me personally and –just in terms of working with them– it’s very easy.

JR: How do you approach rubato accompaniment? Don’t you find that a little bit challenging?

MK: I do. That’s the hardest. You went right to the hardest thing.

JR: To figure out exactly where to be and…

MK: Yeah. It’s hard. For me, rubato playing is playing in time.

JR: Yeah

MK: And that’s the thing I think most people miss. If I’m doing a song with a singer and she says, “OK let’s do this rubato” and I don’t know the song, the first thing I say is “let’s do this in tempo first” then do it rubato

JR: That’s interesting.

MK: Because how am I going to get a sense of the phrasing?

JR: Well… sometimes they’ll phrase it differently rubato.. where they “back-phrase” etc.

MK: That’s the whole point. There has to be a starting point.

JR: Do you feel that’s develops over the course of your relationship with a singer or..

MK: Of course it does…

JR: Or does it kind of like (snaps fingers)

MK: If you’re lucky that kind of falls into place. If you happen to have this magical connection to a vocalist, sometimes that just happens. That’s happened very seldom with me. And I’m still learning how to play rubato. I still think that I’m so-so.

JR: Really

MK: But, somebody like…

JR: Well you’ve done duets with her so you must’ve done a fair amount of that kind of thing- intros and

MK: Yeah. But Jane and I have been working this October will be 8 years. So we’ve had chance a lot of time to work a lot of things out.

JR: right

MK: And Jane is the kind of singer who pretty much does the same thing each time

JR: She gets her thing down

MK: She gets her thing down, whatever her interpretation is and she’ll stick with it. For the most part. She’ll change little things here and there. She–just as a specific case– she’s very clear about what she wants and with her it’s very much– she’s in front. She’s directing things.

JR: Who calls tempos? Does she?

MK: Ah.. Usually… well. You mean in a band setting?

JR: Yeah. You get up on stage and (snaps fingers). Because that’s another thing that’s difficult too. Calling the right tempo. To have a good tempo memory

MK: Definitely. I suck at that

JR: Really.

MK: That’s one of my least favorite things.

JR: I used to work with this vocalist named Barbara King and always remember I used to feel that –in retrospect–“Oh, I my God I counted that off way too fast”. Or “I counted that off way too slow”.

MK: My feeling about tempo…I think that singers should count off the tempos. Most of the time they don’t want to. I think there’s two reasons for that. A lot of them are just insecure about their band leading skills, which is unfortunate. And like in Jane’s case, she doesn’t want to be the one counting the tempos. She wants it to– her background is musical theatre– so she wants everything to be like a show and the tunes should just start.

JR: Well she has two sides though. She has that and her jazzy side. She has the ability to go either way.

MK: Yeah. But well anyway we’re getting into so many different topics all at once.

(This was sort of bad interviewing on my part. The point I was trying to make but being completely unclear about is that I understood Jane also had a reputation of being well schooled jazz musician and not a typical diva so counting off stuff shouldn’t be an issue for her. But the main miss I made here is if Mike doesn’t like counting tempos and Jane wants the tunes to just start, how do they start? and by whom? Guess we’ll need to follow up with that at a later time)

MK: (continued)The tempo thing. My feeling about that is I hate being married to one tempo for a tune. I always feel like, we’re in a different place every time. What came before the tune. What’s going to come after it. How is the audience responding? Maybe they need to be goosed.

JR: Right

MK: I mean there’s so many different things that affect tempo. But ultimately the singer is the one who has to phrase and has to tell the story. So the singer really should be the one determining the tempo. Maybe that’s going to happen ahead of time.

JR: So if you were to, let say on- do you do Alfie? (he did a duet with Jane on her last album)

MK: We haven’t done it in some time

JR: if she were to ask you to introduce it what would you do?

MK: Well that one was rubato. Do I even remember? How did we start this. (Sits back at the piano)

JR: What key?

MK: “A” major.

JR: A major? Wow

MK: I think what I was doing with that was I was starting in some another key and she would talk over my introduction (Starts playing light high chords descending in inversions in Ab major) So I’d be doing whatever and then at some point I would just (plays a low and resonant E7#9 chord)

JR: transition?

MK: And then I would try to lead the E natural in (the melody cue note) and she would sing the first phrase (sings, “What’s it all about, Alfie?”) And then I was just play that first sus chord and then we were off.


MK: Where did you hear that?

JR: No. I’ve never heard it

MK: So how did you know about it if it wasn’t on the Cd?

JR: What happened was I was surfing, looking for the album on Amazon and… What was it called? Surrender? And I decided to look at the liner notes for the album on Amazon and they referred to the cut of Alfie which..I was going, “that’s not on the album”.

MK: Oh that’s right they didn’t put that on the album. There’s a whole story about that record

(Explanatory note. At that point Mike thought perhaps I was present for one of Jane’s live performances of Alfie–and so his demonstration of how he handled the tune live with chords, patter,signal chords etc was what he showed me. What I was hoping was he would should me how he voiced and handled the studio version, which I have yet to hear because it is not available on most -I believe- online purchase versions)

More next time!

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