"It's important for singers to write songs about what's happening in their lives. It's great to sing a standard . . . but it's so much more important for you to add that your story."
- singer and composer Cassandra Wilson
So did you fall out of bed this morning, crawl over to a piano, and start singing, in key, the classic standard "Look For The Silver Lining"? Probably not. But are you now hearing it in your head?
No? You say you've never heard the song? Well, here's vocalist and trumpet player Chet Baker singing the tune. Check it out. I'll wait.
When sung by a great singer, certain songs, be it a ballad or an up-tempo number like ". . . Silver Lining," sound so . . . succinct, that one can forget the technique that's required to sing them convincingly. On Sunday night, Houston composer, trombonist, pianist, and singer Henry Darragh will perform two sets of standards and originals, including songs from his most recent CD Tell Her For Me, at Ovations Night Club.
Were those early songs inspired by Connick? "They were definitely inspired by girls," Darragh says. "That's for sure."
When it comes to singing, Darragh has been compared to Baker, but to my ears, any similarity between the two has to do with the way both make singing a sophisticated song sound effortless, inspiring you the listener to sing along, if only in your head!
Standards or originals, which are more satisfying to play and sing?
"I like both," says Darragh, who also writes his own songs. "I think the standard style is how I write. Maybe with some more modern harmony, but that's how I write and how I think."
For the shows at Ovations, Darragh will be sharing the stage with some of Houston's finest jazz musicians, including Dennis Dotson on trumpet, Andrew Hayward on trombone, Seth Paynter on tenor saxophone, Glen Ackerman on bass, and Richard Cholakian on drums. Cholakian and Paynter, along with bassist Thomas Helton, play around town as the free-jazz maelstrom Core Trio, and all three can certainly hold their own when it comes to more straight-ahead material.
"I love Seth's playing," Darragh says. "He's just such a free player. I found that when I play with him, I play differently. I play a lot freer. Not free like Core Trio free. Just like not having a net you know? Not having all that judgment in my playing."
As a teenager in Pasadena, Darragh seriously studied the trombone, playing both classical and jazz repertoire. But he was drawn much earlier to the piano when he was just four or five years old, thanks in part to his mother who not only played the piano, but led the church choir.
"I was forced to sing in church at an early age," he says. "My mother would lead the church choir. My sister and I would have to do it, so I always sang."
"I didn't take piano lessons until I was 18," he confesses. "It was some years later that I felt good enough to do it."
Darragh began to take singing more seriously while in high school, inspired in part by Harry Connick Jr. who was blowing up at the time thanks to his contributions to the soundtrack for the film When Harry Met Sally. Girls dug Darragh's voice, and in addition to singing Connick's material, he began composing his own songs.
Were those early songs inspired by Connick as well? "They were definitely inspired by girls," Darragh says. "That's for sure."
Several years later, 2002 to be precise, after studying trombone in college and playing in big bands, Darragh began gigging around Houston on piano as a small group musician, playing and singing his own material.
"I didn't take piano lessons until I was 18," he confesses. "It was some years later that I felt good enough to do it. I may not have been ready when I first started!"
Darragh began to hone his sweet and sweetly swinging delivery, and eventually recorded his popular CD of standards and originals Tell Her For Me in 2011 (it's nearly sold out on CD Baby, but still available as an MP3 download). The musicians on Tell Her For Me include trumpeter Carol Morgan, guitarist Erin Wright, drummer Chuck Payne, and current sextet members Paynter and Ackerman.
So to my ears (which have a mind of their own), I hear a little Michael Franks, definitely some Harry Connick Jr., and even a bit of Bob Dorough in Darragh's tone and phrasing. He's also a fine piano player, and remains a formidable trombonist as well.
When it comes to contemporary singers, Darragh is quick to give props to bassist and singer Esperanza Spalding, who always offers a unique interpretation of whatever song she chooses to sing, as well as vocalist Kat Edmonson, whose quirky, musically adventurous approach to repertoire complements her own original compositions.
"I like originality," Darragh says. "(Kat Edmonson) has her own take on things. I heard her sing "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" and it was so different (from) the hundreds of versions I've heard or the way I sing it."
Now at this point, if you have some of the above mentioned songs playing on the radio in your head, or if you've hopped over to Darragh's website and sampled for the first time his version of "Hey There" or (you guessed it) "Look For The Silver Lining," then get out to Darragh's Sunday show at Ovations. Show some love not only for great songwriting, singing, and playing, but for the musicians who make Houston's jazz community such a rich and lively scene.
The Henry Darragh Sextet performs two sets Sunday at Ovations — 7:30 p.m. and 9:15 p.m. The doors open at 7 p.m. Tickets are $12 at the door, $7 for students.