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Yesterday’s gift to myself after the Mets’ fifth crushing loss in a row was a trip up to midtown’s famous Colony Music, where I blitzed through the madhouse, quickly and single-mindedly buying the songbooks for Jason Robert Brown‘s The Last 5 Years, and Songs for a new world. I’ve been a fan of Brown’s for years, ever since I saw Lincoln Center’s Parade production, and though I follow and enjoy everything the annoyingly-photogenic Adam Guettel does (looking forward to seeing The Light in the Piazza later this week), and to a slightly lesser extent the excellent songwriting of Jenny Giering and Stephen Schwartz, Brown is far and away my favorite of the current bunch of young New York-based writers of theater-songs.

My unabashed admission to this somewhat-shielded love for theater and cabaret songwriting might raise an eyebrow or two, but it goes back a long way, and I’m just plain tired of hiding it. My own music, much of it instrumental, has precious few hints of the melodist struggling to get out, but since I’m carefully working on building a distinct stylistic merge of the rhythmic drive and shiny harmonic progressions of these contemporary dramatic songs I love, with the dense counterpoint and wide color palette of what I consider is the most interesting and exciting contemporary concert music, it may take a while more for this particular influence to show on my sleeve. The closest I’ve ever come across to this ideal were a few marvelous little dramatic songs by Michael Torke, which expertly mesh his concert-music harmonic style with the melodic craft of a contemporary cabaret song.

What I really enjoy about Brown’s songs is the near-constant rhythmic propulsion, in that almost every song has a subtle rock groove—not the cheesy rock of, say, any song from Jesus Christ Superstar, but a groove sustained by a genuine feeling that bass-supported syncopation is buried deep into Brown’s psyche, and in this respect I find a kindred spirit. Now that you can probably see the proof of in (forgive me) my particular pudding.

But it is his harmonic ear which not only is my main reason for studying his songs, but also stymies me as a composer in much of his music, in that in most cases I wouldn’t even know where to begin to write chords like that. That “musical theater” sound we all know (and granted only some love) comes from those happy major-7 chords, those add9s and root-over-IVs… In contrast, Brown’s progressions have always struck my ear as very fresh-sounding, and as I play through these songs, singing like a idiot as I sustain the fantasy that I’m a rock pianist, the harmonies are chunkier, more blues based, than the standard schmaltz. And in contrast to the usual theater fare of arpeggiation + doubling the melody, Brown’s accompaniments resemble the piano part of Billy Joel song more than anything else, what with the pulsed full chord ‘comping and syncopated bass lines. To that end, his harmonies add a lot of 7′s and 9′s in the bass, plenty of chromatic passing chords (mostly of the blue notes), and a lot of V-IV cadences, much like the 80′s pop songs Brown (and I) grew up with.

And, of course, his melodic ear is top-drawer; every tune is solid and straightforward, but always with a nasty hook that keeps you humming—of course, this is the holy grail of writing for the theater, or for that matter, for a small, dark and smoky room with a 2-drink minimum.

So as the Mets just beat the pants off of Atlanta, I no longer immediately need the easy solace I find in these 9-chords. So now I’l play through these songs just for the fun of diving in to see how these suckers tick…

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