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by Mick Archer
The Difference Between Jazz and Theater Style
Piano Playing with Mark Burnell
In the summer of 2014 I attended an extraordinary event at the Auditorium Theater.
It was a double bill with Judy Roberts Trio featuring Frank D’Rone (his last performance)
and Denise Tomasello backed up by a trio led by Beckie Menzie. I was astounded by the
vast differences in style and sound produced by both of these eminent pianists using
the same piano in the same venue on the same night.
I asked pianist/vocalist Mark Burnell, one of the rare pianists who is a master of both
jazz and cabaret theater-style piano playing, to clarify this stark contrast in style and
I’ve known Burnell for years, and his very talented wife, vocalist Anne Burnell, even longer. I first became aware of him when he arrived in Chicago in the late ‘80s and was appearing at various venues in the Rush Street area where I was competing with him for gigs. I confess to being a bit intimidated by this highly trained, credentialed (MFA from Carnegie Mellon), good-looking singing pianist who also had an interesting vocal group, Cooler by the Lake. But as is my practice, when I perceive somebody to possess more talent or skill than me I seek them out as allies and mentors rather than bad-mouthing them and wishing they would go away. I’ve taken some lessons in choral directing from Mark too, and he was one of the first people I consulted when I decided to get a master’s degree in music liturgy. (He’s been playing gospel music every Sunday morning at Gorham United Methodist Church in Washington Park for nearly 20 years).
Burnell was one of the first people I interviewed when this column began three years ago. And because of his versatility, I thought a return visit, based on the difference between jazz and theater-style piano playing, would be interesting:
… I’ve accompanied countless singers for over 40 years, in every musical style imaginable. My background is jazz, so when I played for vocalists, I used mostly jazz idioms. From my home in Pittsburgh, and all the stops on the way to Chicago, these singers greatly expanded my repertoire of songs and styles. The term ‘cabaret’ gradually became more common, and performances were more often shows, rather than gigs.
In 1998, I was one of the founding members of the not-for-profit organization Chicago Cabaret Professionals, inspired by the Manhattan Association of Cabaret in New York. I started working as a music director for cabaret shows. In 2000, my wife Anne and I were chosen to attend the Eugene O’Neill Theater Cabaret Symposium in Connecticut, and I learned from the great pianists Shelly Markham and Tex Arnold, who played for the legendary Andrea Marcovicci and Margaret Whiting.
In comparing ‘cabaret’ versus ‘club’ singers, the cabaret artists are much more concerned with the show aspect of the performance, concentrating on theme, patter and especially the lyrics of the songs. The audience pays to have that intimate experience with the artist, and listens closely. The average club singer is more accustomed to a loose song structure, pianists who improvise heavily with lots of solos, and a crowd who may or may not be paying strict attention. The singers might not even have met the pianist, because jazz pianists often send subs! The average cabaret singer will rehearse long hours with one pianist, and expect them to play the songs the same way in performance.
When I play for most club singers, I like improvising and experimenting with tempos and
rhythm feels. In a cabaret show, piano solos are fewer and shorter with more emphasis on
the lyric, so I respect the fact that every single word must be clearly heard and understood
by the audience. I pay much more attention to the lyric, and will punctuate certain words
and phrases with chords, fills, or effects that help to bring out the story. In cases where a
cabaret singer is acting or ‘speak singing,’ I may double the melody, or voice many of the
chords with the melody on top. The experience level of the vocalist determines whether I
can use polyrhythmic variations or extended complex harmonies, being careful that my
fills don’t obscure the precious lyrics. …”
One of the great things about Mark is how he uses his skill and instincts as a jazz improviser
to adapt to any situation, even one that contains no jazz at all. Back in the late ‘90s I needed
a partner for a last-minute dueling piano casino gig. Mark fearlessly stepped up. With no
rehearsal time and no book, he flawlessly followed the classic rock, country and Motown
tunes I called and was an excellent straight man for the ribald humor that is a part of this
I asked him to explain how he pulled this off, and as usual, he was modest, stressing
experience rather than talent:
“ … I believe that playing as many different styles of music as possible helps to develop my
overall skills. I play several cabaret shows every year at Davenport’s in Wicker Park and Skokie Theatre. My jazz trio has been at the Tortoise Club for the last four years, and I also play monthly solo gigs at The Signature Room, host open mics, and perform with my talented spouse, Anne.”
He didn’t mention that he also teaches piano, voice and choral directing from his studio in Wicker Park, not far from Davenport’s, where his magic is regularly on display.
Mick Archer teaches voice/piano at the Old Town School of Folk Music and is a columnist for Chicago Jazz Magazine. Contact Mick at www.mickarcher.com.