3 Ways to Interpret “The Great American Songbook”

“The Great American Songbook” is a term for popular songs that were written roughly between the years 1920 and 1950. Since this was a long time ago, anyone performing these songs now is coming from a different place than the artists were “back in the day,” when this music was more related to the general culture.

There are 3 ways that today’s musicians can interpret these great songs. Since this can be understood most clearly when lyrics are involved, let’s listen to 3 vocal recordings of standard songs and hear their differences.

1. A singer can perform the song the was it was sung by vocalists of the time, such as Ella Fitzgerald and Frank Sinatra. Here’s an example: Lush Life

2. The vocalist can sing the song in a classic style, like in the first example, but with a vocal quality that is contemporary sounding. Here’s a good example of this “hybrid” interpretation: Lush Life

3. Another way to interpret a song is to completely update it, in your favorite contemporary musical style. Check this out: What A Wonderful World

If you play piano or keyboard for vocalists, it’s essential to know what type of interpretation they are going for. Although they may not verbalize it, each singer has a specific interpretive angle they’re coming from, and as their accompanist, you need to let this shape the type of musical support you provide. There’s a lot of great songs from this era, just waiting for you to interpret them. Have fun!

If you’re just getting started with jazz piano, here are 10 Tunes you need to know.

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