The Pleasure of His Accompaniment

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Among the numerous items on his résumé, Garry Dial can include playing piano for Frank Sinatra. Not in concerts, however. Dial was someone Sinatra asked to work the ivories at his Waldorf Astoria quarters while people dropped in for chats. Not a gig to sneeze at, as there can't have been many musicians whom Ol' Blue Eyes eyed for such a personal assignment.

But if Dial had never accompanied Sinatra, the Manhattan School of Music staffer and independent coach, who's currently helping Ben Stiller prepare for his keyboard duties in the Broadway revival of John Guare's "The House of Blue Leaves," would still know plenty about accompaniment. At his Midtown Manhattan home and studio recently, he was happy to dispense any number of tips to Back Stage.

A Little Knowledge Is a Discordant Thing

The bearded and friendly Dial—ever ready to illustrate a point at the piano—has firm ideas about what singers need to know about working with accompanists. He starts by referring to steps, or categories, the first being form. When a singer is beginning work with accompanists—whether just a pianist or multiple musicians—it's a problem already if the singer "is limited in knowledge," he says.

Dial relates an anecdote about a singer who, working with a combo and asking for a "blues," bridled when what she heard was hurrying her. After some unpleasant discussion, the problem became apparent: When she said "blues," the musicians immediately started playing in a 12-measure mode. All blues are written in 12-measure segments, and she hadn't thought of that. What she had wanted was a bluesy cast to a 16-bar song.

The point, Dial stresses, is that "you can't use adjectives to describe what you want. It's too vague. You can't say 'traditional.' What does that mean? You have to describe the form. How many measures are there in the song? It can be a 32-bar song. Most 32-bar songs are AABA, but it can be AAB." These are terms most singers understand, but many—often newcomers—don't and need to.

"Before we get to rhythm, rubato versus tempo," Dial says ("rubato" means loose interpretation), "you have to decide who's leading who, the piano player or the singer." He talks about decisions that a singer and accompanist make as to whether notes or chords precede, follow, or land simultaneously with the singer hitting a word. Here, of course, he's talking about the very mechanics of collaborating on how a song will go.

"Sometimes," Dial suggests at the piano, "I'll play a chord, and with my pinkie I'll hit the note the singer will sing." Different singers want different combinations of chord-note placement, he says. Referring to Hilary Kole, with whom he's worked for several years, he says, "She never wants the chord before. Except one time, when she insisted the chord needed to precede her."

Moving on, he says, "Now comes the rhythm feel—jazz, bossa, three-four. You have to explain the feel." Again he goes technical, noting that "most jazz singers have piano players influenced by Oscar Peterson or George Shearing." He gets so technical that he brings up "Shearing blocks" and, at the 88s, plays a series of solid chords most musicians will know the feel of.

Three Needn't Be a Crowd

Remaining steadfastly technical, Dial goes over the differences between a solo piano accompanist and a pianist with drums and bass, as well as the especially tricky inclusion of guitar. With solo piano, the bass line—perhaps stride or bossa nova—is supplied by the pianist. That can change when a bass player joins, and it's even less likely in the presence of drums. Dial points out that once the guitar comes in, care must be taken that there's no competition between pianist and guitarist. One lays back while the other is providing the rhythm. He also prefers it when the pianist isn't "playing in the same vocal range as the singer. Playing in a lower range provides a cushion."

Dial turns to "the singer's taste" and talks once more about being specific. He emphasizes that saying the word "Latin" to a musician is problematic. At the piano, he plays a series of bouncy salsa riffs, then switches to a sequence of fluid bossa chords. Musicians might even be annoyed at anyone confusing a Brazilian feel with a Puerto Rican one, he says, reporting that he once slipped a few of the latter riffs in with the former and was told in no uncertain terms to jettison them.

Taste, Dial goes on to explain, also involves how the singer wants to shape the song. He mentions some physical and vocal indications. Pointing to the head, he says, signals to musicians that they should return to the top of the song. Saying "bridge" means, naturally, returning to the bridge (or B section) on the second go-round and, as he says, "cutting out the first 16" bars. A singer going to a tonic note as a song's last phrase approaches indicates that he or she is planning an extended "tag," usually an additional two repeats of the ending.

After reviewing everything he has relayed, Dial tells another anecdote, about a singer who ran through a series of potential songs for a set and ended by asking the musicians, "What should I do?" The answer came back from one of them: "I want you to be the leader." As Dial puts it, "The accompanist is there to humbly serve the music. The more the singer knows, the more she or he can lead the band."

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