Getting Happy with Jenny Lin

When I first heard that Jenny Lin was releasing an album of show tunes, my response wasn't far from the kind of slapstick double-take you might see in, say, an old movie musical.

 Because Jenny is the kind of pianist that other pianists admire for her gravitas, a certain steeliness of mind and fingers that has explored many of the thornier corners of the repertoire.
Jenny plays Messiaen, Cage, Boulez, Pärt, Ligeti, Stockhausen...
Jenny has recorded (superlatively) the complete Shostakovich Preludes and Fugues.

So, show tunes?

You see, I know my show tunes. I was raised on the stuff. The stringent TV-deprivation of my childhood was waived for the annual viewings of Sound of Music and Mary Poppins. When I was a baby, MGM released That's Entertainment, a 50th anniversary compilation of the greatest moments out of its movie musical vault. I cannot tell you how many times, during the first 15 years of my life, my sisters and I watched those videos. Not to mention that a significant number of my childhood afternoons took place at double-feature matinees of old '40s musicals at the beautiful art deco Castro Theater in San Francisco, complete with a live organ show at intermission. In the extremely sheltered environment of my family's alternative reality, Gene Kelley and Judy Garland were superstars in the 1980s. Madonna who?

I also know what I love about show tunes. The gorgeous improbability that surrounds their very existence, the device of exploding a trivial conversation into a virtuoso song-and-dance number. The magic of lyrics and melodies that can express any silly thought at all with an elegance and eloquence that makes your heart soar. The genius of rhyming "bromofizz" with "trouble is" (Guys and Dolls).

I couldn't imagine that Jenny Lin would share my slightly unhealthy fascination with the American musical theater. But clearly there was something about these songs that had compelled her to venture, with her usual musical intensity and commitment, away from her usual musical haunts and down to Tin Pan Alley.

Jenny and I have been ships in the night in recent months. Her new album, Get Happy, has just come out on the Steinway & Sons label, and my new project, Exiles' Cafe, is next in the label's pipeline. So she has been warming the bench for me, in the Sono Luminus studio where we both recorded our projects (giant shout-out to Sono Luminus for their GRAMMY nominations!), and on a promotional circuit of CD release events around the country. But we hadn't met in person until a couple of weeks ago, at a holiday party thrown by Arkiv Music and Listen Magazine. It was a lovely evening, a chance for the Steinway family of pianists to get together and drink too many Manhattans, a sweet launch to the holiday party season.

And I found out that Jenny is not only brainy and sort of intimidatingly profound. She's also very funny, in a dry-witted way, and that she does in fact have her own very compelling reasons for making this record. And the record is, happily, really good!

LD: I have to tell you that I was surprised to hear about this project. When I think of you, it's along some very different lines! Can you give me a little back-story about how you came to the show tunes idea?

JL: I discovered Stephen Hough's arrangements of Rodgers and Hammerstein a few years ago - fell in love with them. Then discovered the Earl Wild, then kept digging, found more. Like Lover by Alexis Weissenberg. Then I thought "Wow, all these arrangers are performing pianists - why not have a project with show tunes arranged by only performing pianists?"

LD: I was raised on the great American musicals and I love them. The play of words and music is just so magical to me, and I love the songs. I think it's fabulous material and I love what you've done with these arrangements. What was your background with the musical theater tradition?

JL: I don't have any background really with musical theater but as a child I heard Begin the Beguine when my father sang it. Then growing up in Vienna Austria, I heard lots of Sound of Music on TV. It wasn't until moving to the US that I learned about Broadway and musicals.

LD: Do you have a favorite piece on the album, or a story to share about a favorite experience preparing the various pieces?

JL: Difficult to have a favorite - depends on time of day! I love Stephen Prutsman's Get Happy, Andre Previn's Blue Moon, and Alexis Weissenberg's Lover is just wild. Probably one of the most difficult pieces I have learned. When I asked Marc-Andre Hamelin to contribute to the project, he agreed right away. I was expecting a highly virtuosic arrangement, knowing what an incredible pianist he is, but he sent Laura - which was the complete opposite. It's very beautiful, very meditative, late Scriabinesque harmonies. My goal with this album is really to put the arrangers first, and not the tunes. It's important to continue the tradition of pianists-arrangers/composers.

LD: It’s an interesting approach, and with these arrangements you’re really embracing this music as a "serious" part of the American musical landscape, and expanding it into the concert rep. Tell me about the audience responses you've been getting. Are people experiencing this solely as "fun" music, or are they taking more away from it too?

JL: Audiences have been very enthusiastic. They are always surprised to hear how "classical" some of the arrangements are. They were expecting just showtunes, but they got something even more. There is a level of seriousness in all these arrangements. There are so many layers, the harmonies are complex, the musical styles used are vast.

LD: I agree, that's what ultimately holds your attention when you listen - the subtleties and stylistic differences. Did you study the original songs very much, for information around the lyrics and phrasings etc? Or did you want to approach these arrangements in a purely pianistic way?

JL: I listened to all the different versions that exist out there - thank you Youtube! - especially by singers - Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, Judy Garland. These guys have great sense of timing.

LD: Yes, and it's amazing how differently they interpret the songs! I have an arrangement of Weill's Lost in the Stars on my new album and I was listening to the many, many versions of that song. It's wild, how many variations of tempo, interpretation...

JL: Wow - looking forward to your new album!

LD: How has the CD release tour been going?

JL: It's going well - very interesting to visit all the different dealers and the local audiences. And I got to play on some of the best pianos - always a Steinway D!

LD: What's next for you? Will you be touring this as a full recital, and/or integrating pieces from the collection into other recital programs? 

JL: I hope to integrate pieces from the collection into other recital programs. I have already done that this past month - it works well.

LD: I would think so. And now you have a fabulous stash of encore pieces!

Jenny Lin's Get Happy is available from Arkiv Music and everywhere CDs are sold.

And from me, to everyone who loves show tunes:

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