This one is personal.
Linda Martinez was my first jazz piano teacher and an important mentor to me. She was a freelance composer and jazz pianist in the LA area, who tragically committed suicide when she was 29. She was an incredibly gifted musician and generous teacher. You can read her obituary in the LA Times or a profile of her in Yamaha’s magazine before her death.
Growing up, I always saw my future when I looked at Linda. She had studied with the same piano teacher I studied with in my childhood, won many of the same awards, and she was doing all the musical things that I dreamed of. In a way, I felt fated to be just like her.
Of course, when she committed suicide, and I learned more about the demons she was constantly battling due to – what? The difficulty of her career? The fact that she was something of a genius? Insomnia? Family history? – I had to reckon with the fact that I had to find another fate.
Can we choose our fates, though? I don’t truly believe in fate in the literal sense of the word, but I do believe that we can’t run away from – for example – being microcosms of our parents; we can’t change our body type or proclivity for certain vices; we can’t change whatever genetic destiny is tattooed into our DNA.
That’s what this song wrestles with – can I avoid the misery that Linda experienced? Or am I destined to find a similar fate – not suicide, necessarily, but struggling and facing down demons in this line of work.
Oddly enough for such a personal song, the method for writing it was actually a very impersonal exercise. I love the song “Amelia,” by Joni Mitchell and I wanted to try to imitate some of the formal and sonic aspects of the lyric. (if you don’t know “Amelia,” listen to it here). I scanned it line for line, asking what each line was doing and how the rhythm worked and then I wrote my own version. [By the way, if you’re an aspiring songwriter, I’m of the opinion that this is one of the best ways you can learn.]
I’m sharing the “exercise” in full here:
I came to realize that what made “Amelia” so special is that it meditates on three different scenarios – planes-travel-relationships. Joni stuffs so much into one song! I tried to make a slightly different triumvirate – stars-fate-mentorship. I also loved the “confessional” nature of some of Joni’s lines, like “maybe I’ve never really loved.” This inspired me to write the very personal lines, “Maybe I’ve ignored my friends, and maybe I’m not smart.” I don’t know if my lyrics work as well as Joni’s, but these gestures give the song a similarly “epic” scope, I hope.
As you might expect, after writing this lyric, I had a hard time imagining any melody for them other than the melody to “Amelia.” So, I enlisted the help of an incredible melodist – Peter Eldridge (picture below). If you’re not familiar with Peter, he’s an amazing jazz vocalist, singer-songwriter, and an all-around magical person. His most recent projects can be found here. Peter was kind enough to write a beautiful melody and moody chords for my “A sections.” Given Peter’s musical inspiration, I wrote the “bridge.” (Even though all of the stanzas are identical musically in “Amelia,” I decided to treat some of them differently in my song.)
The somewhat virtuosic bass clarinet-piano left-hand line in the bridge was something that I came up with on tour to liven up that part of the song. I owe a debt of gratitude towards wonderful saxophonist/composer Alex LoRe (below) for working on the line with me while he was on tour with us, subbing for Lucas Pino. The ending vamp, which is the final touch, is inspired by the end to Fred Hersch’s piece “Heart Song,” which also vamps a somewhat predictable chord progression that moves through somewhat unpredictable keys. (listen here).
The song ends with, “Oh, Linda, I’m just like you.” It makes a good ending for a song, but I’m not sure that I’m just like Linda. As I approach and now pass the age that Linda was when she killed herself, I solemnly congratulate myself on forging a different path. Of course, a musician’s life is full of challenges and being an artist requires staring down demons, but I’ve gone a different way, and – maybe – escaped my fate.
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Lyrics for “Linda”
By the churning of the ocean,
Through the veils of sable night,
Five stars were shone afire in the diamondlight.
A pentagonal pendant,
A mirror lined with jewels –
Oh, Linda, I dreamed of you.
The embers of the heavens
Are a stamp so deep and pure
They’ll steal your meager breath away with cruel allure.
They’ll show you death’s a wanderer,
And how wise men play the fool –
Oh, Linda, they’re just like you.
(Bridge) Though philosophers are skeptics,
Preachers will attest
That the reapers and the sowers, well, they both are blessed.
So we worship and we squander,
So we’re restless and subdued –
Oh, Linda, we’re just like you.
I miss her, though she made mistakes,
I wish that she could know
How I caressed the silhouette left by her afterglow.
But memories are empty skies
And when I scan the inky hue
I ask, “Linda, could that be you?”
(Bridge) Maybe I’ve ignored my friends,
And maybe I’m not smart,
But there’s a drift I can’t resist in the abyss of stars.
Like a masquerading dancer
Who can be both false and true –
Oh, Linda, that was just like you.
I stepped into a beachside bar
To clear my weary head,
Where fisherman and phantoms gather to break bread.
I saw five stars in those dimmed-down lights,
They glistened and I knew
Oh, Linda, I’m just like you.
Oh, Linda, I’m just like you.