Notes On My New CD Five Leaves Left, Track By Track – 2. “River Man”

by Jason on March 31, 2011 · 1 comment

in Five Leaves Left Track By Track, Nick Drake Project

On Tuesday, March 29th, “Five Leaves Left: A Tribute To Nick Drake” by the Jason Parker Quartet was released. Each day thereafter I wrote at length about one of the tracks – how the arrangement came about, what went down in the studio, thoughts about the performances, etc. Click here to read them all.


Click the play button to listen to the track while reading

“River Man” is probably the most well-known song from Nick Drake’s Five Leaves Left. It’s a beautiful, haunting song that’s a bit of a rarity in pop music, as it’s in 5/4 time, meaning there are 5 beats per measure. Because of this, it keeps you slightly off balance, which I’m sure was a conscious and brilliant choice by Drake, who considered it the center-piece of the album.

I had a feeling that it might become the center-piece of our record, too. Vocalist Michele Khazak and I discussed it and decided that a real minimalist approach during the verses would have the most impact. While pianist Josh Rawlings lays in beautiful chords for her, Michele tackles the vocals with a slight vibrato, and gut-wrenching blue notes in just the right places. Her use of dissonance helps keep the listener in that off-balance state Drake was going for. Once again, Michele squeezes so much emotion out of the lyrics you’d think she wrote them herself.

After the first couple verses, I arranged the signature descending string part for sax and trumpet and then turned the soloists loose. Unlike the minimalist verses, I decided to let each soloist dictate where the tune would go. Bassist Evan Flory-Barnes gets the first turn, and plays a beautiful solo that starts out spare and close to the melody and builds in intensity as it evolves. Evan masterfully combines long, consonant notes with quick flourishes and runs as only he can. I know it’s a bit unorthodox to start with a bass solo, but I like to think of all the instruments in the band as distinct voices that all warrant the space to say what they want to say. And dig the well-placed cymbal crashes by D’Vonne Lewis!

After Evan come the first notes on the album from saxophonist Cynthia Mullis. Cynthia has been playing with us fairly regularly for some time now and fits into the band perfectly. From the first time she sat in it was clear that she shares the same ideas about playing as the rest of us and we’re so fortunate to have her along for the ride. What I love about her playing is that she combines aspects of some of my favorite sax players – the big, fat tone of Dexter Gordon, the rhythmic sophistication of Sonny Rollins, the harmonic exploration of Joe Henderson – and forms her own sound and personality out of it all. Cynthia picks up beautifully from Evan, playing inside, outside, all around the beat, and building to a wonderful frenzy, the rhythm section right there with her the whole way. I can’t overstate how much I think Cynthia’s contributions add to the album. In the studio I just wanted to listen to her play!

Michele sings the next verses, using her upper register a bit more. She doesn’t go there often, so when she does it really packs a punch. Then it’s my turn. We did a few takes of this tune, and the one you’re hearing was the last one. I tried a few different things on the first takes, and on this one just decided to open my ears and try to have a conversation with Josh. I use some of the phrases he plays between mine to start my next thought, and he leads me to all sorts of cool places! On this tune I’m playing my flugelhorn, which I hadn’t played much in the past few years. But this music seemed to cry out for it, and I’m glad I’ve reacquainted myself with the “big horn”.

From there we take it out, back down to just a whisper from Michele. I thought it would be cool if she sang the last line, “How they come and go”, by herself, and love the way it turned out!

And you know that cricket-like sound throughout the verses? That was a last minute stroke of genius from D’Vonne. As we were warming up to play this tune, he spotted an old raggedy tambourine lying around in the studio. He asked me to hand it to him, put it on his floor-tom, and proceeded to roll his fingers over it to get that sound. It’s such a little thing, but adds such a distinctive sound to the tune.

One other moment that kills me in this tune is at 7:00, when Josh plays a nice, dissonant chord and Michele finds the perfect note to lay on top of it. I always smile when I hear that. It’s the little things, right???

For comparison purposes, here’s the Nick Drake version of the tune:

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Tomorrow we’ll talk about “Three Hours”, which we recorded on our last album too, and had to rework for this one.

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Bill Berry March 31, 2011 at 2:20 am

loved the track and the post! wasn’t familiar with nick drake before your project, so this is helping me discover him as well. i think i’ll take the approach of reading each post as i listen to the track for the first time.

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