Notes on Madeleine Peyroux – Blue Alert

I found this track in the KMHD library maybe a year ago. I gave it a listen and the organ work blew me away. I did a cursory search online and it looked like Larry Goldings, one of my favorites, was on organ. Since getting the album and reading the liners, I’ve found that it’s actually Sam Yahel on organ (another phenomenal organist) and Larry Goldings is on Wurlitzer electric piano duty. Madeleine Peyroux is the only singer who has some of Billie Holiday’s je ne sais quois, a sort of smokiness and roughness to her voice. She has her own thing, and doesn’t try to just do a Billie impression, which is the path I’d take… trying to be “the next” anybody is almost always an act of hubris.

Sam Yahel’s work on this track is wizardry. For a few weeks, every time I visited the KMHD studio to build shows, I would listen to it, usually two or three times back to back. The Hammond organ is a very expressive instrument with such a wide variety of tone and color – and it’s kind of a shame that so many musicians (myself included) tend to set it and forget it. It’s tough to manipulate the drawbars and other controls if you’re on a jazz gig, holding down bass with your left hand – which is a great reason to get better at playing the pedals! That’s one of the coolest things about the instrument, being able to morph and transform your sound as you play. I noticed in my experimenting with the Garageband organ plugin that they have the mod wheel fade between two drawbar settings – that’s way more interesting than making it control the leslie like so many other organ clones. Anyway, because there’s bass on this recording (David Piltch), Sam Yahel is free to manipulate the organ’s settings, and does it masterfully. The entrance alone sounds like a filter sweep someone might do on a synthesizer – it’s possible something was done in post-production, but I doubt it. Following the first vocal phrase, he’s got a tone very similar to the wurlitzer with the organ’s percussion turned on. Some of the vibrato is from the leslie, but some sounds like the built-in scanner vibrato on V2 or V3, a setting I rarely use. It can sound too much like a theater organ, especially with the two-speed leslies that people usually play through. It sounds like a one-speed leslie on this recording (fast or stopped instead of fast/slow), which has an older sound to it. Often the organ sound is flutey, probably drawbars 1 and 3 or 4. Occasionally he pulls more out and it’s a dramatic shift. There’s also a great mix of legato and pad foundation followed by some stabs and staccato fills. Great dynamics, as well. I also love the sound of just one drawbar out, which is usually the sound on the fills here. It’s a kind of cold, lonesome sound. I don’t have color/tone synesthesia the way some musicians do, but Hammond organ gives me some – the flutey, single drawbar sounds are a whitish blue to me. The 1st two drawbars out sounds red, the first four or five a kind of brown; all of the drawbars out is orange.

A shout-out to Larry Goldings for playing so sparsely on wurlitzer, only doing what’s required. I consider myself more of an organist, and if someone had me on a recording session playing piano with someone else on organ, it would be hard to leave my ego at the door and just play the tune. I’d probably be trying to pull out fancy fills at every opportunity, mostly for my own reassurance that I can “actually play.” I fully respect playing tastefully – you can play all the notes you know, but the real pros can destroy all that with three perfect ones.

I went back and listened to the original recording of this tune by Anjani Thomas, Leonard Cohen’s backup singer and lover (Cohen is the co-author of the song). It’s nice, but doesn’t do it for me like Madeleine Peyroux’s version does – perhaps that’s just as an organist. It’s interesting to hear it slowed down and done in 3/4 time. It’s got kind of a lounge jazz vibe to it – not saying that pejoratively at all, it reminds me of some of my favorite Chet Baker recordings from late in his career. I think what would have made all the difference to me is having the drums play brushes instead of just beats 2 and 3 on the ride cymbal with a stick. That’s so little that I’d almost rather have no drums at all. I do love hearing a composer play their tune, though – gives you a great window into their intent.