Stanley J. Michalak, my dad, paid his way through college by playing jazz piano at parties and in nightclubs. By the time I was born, he had moved to playing classical music, and I was permeated with his tone for years. We started playing piano and drums together in 1999. Since then we have produced 3 CDs together.
The Four Moods
The Four Moods was my Dad's band during later college. I find his technicality on piano quite impressive for a college student! Below are some photos of the band and some of their recordings in 1958 and 1959 at Mandy's in Reading, PA. The last two photos in the gallery are from an earlier band of his when he was playing at Penn State. The song "The Courtesan" was an original by his group. I'm super excited that these photos and recordings exist!
What is Jazz: by Stanley Michalak
On August 21, 2012, Dad gave a lecture at Millersville University entitled "What is Jazz" as part of the Lancaster Piano Festival. Dad's focus in this lecture was mostly on piano jazz and key pianists in the history of jazz from its inception up until the 1970s, but it did also include a few modern pianists as well. What I love about these recordings is hearing his voice, his responses to the recordings that we played in the classroom, and his demonstrations at the piano to illustrate some music theory. It's not only a captivating lecture, but a great way to hear his voice and character.
Take a Walk on the Mild Side
"Take a Walk on the Mild Side" was recorded in August 26-30, 1999. I had just come home from college with my drum set in my car. When I heard my dad playing piano, I wanted to play along. Although I had just been playing heavy metal in college, I could still remember some training from my high-school jazz band. I found my old pair of brushes, set up my kit across from the piano in the living room, and Dad dug up his old fake book.
This album was recorded with a dual pair of 1993-era Radio Shack microphones going directly into a CD recorder. (I'm still amazed by the sound of those relatively inexpensive microphones). Because neither of us had been playing jazz in several years, we stuck to slower ballads. My step-sister Terri quickly caught on: "where are the faster songs, guys?" Ever the sharp wit, she came up with the title for this album, playing off the milder side of this ballad-only album. My drumming is a bit heavy at times, but my Dad's playing is amazingly lyrical, and this is one of my favorite recordings showcasing his tone.
"Happy Hour" was recorded in two sessions during 2010. The first session was August 18-22 in our living room in Lancaster, PA. I like that you can hear the occasional ding of clocks or other family noises as we played and recoded. My nephew, Michael Vargas, was interested in the drums so I taught him a quick drum beat. He picked it up very quickly and my Dad hopped on the piano to play along with him. This led to the "Mike on the Sunny Side" track. The second session was recorded in Portland, Oregon on October 16 and 18 at Reed College where my wife, Julie, taught Chemistry at the time. Spending time with Dad and Bev meant walking around during the day and cooking with cocktails at night. Happy hour was always a fun time for us: the cooking prep was completed, the food was in the oven, jazz records were playing in the background, and we were chatting about life over martinis. This album is an homage to those great times.
We made several improvements with this album. Dad and I had been making a focused effort to play together as often as possible over the years. Here, we added several faster ("up") songs where we'd trade 4s (these are 4-bar solos on piano then drums). On the technical front, my CD recorder had stopped working by this point so I purchased a brand new Zoom portable 4-mic recorder especially for these sessions. Along with some new brushes and jazz sticks, we also rented a proper jazz drum set for these recordings. The sound is clearly better as a result of these improvements. Yet, as with the first album, we were still only drums and piano at this point. We were missing a bassist. To remedy this, I loaded our recordings into my computer, grabbed my Suzuki electric bass, and taught myself how to play bass by studying the fake book sheets and playing along with our recordings.
Wish You Were Here
This album was recorded on August 20th, 2012. Dad was able to get the amazing Philadelphia-based bassist, Kevin MacConnell, to come play with us for this recording. Prior to this, Dad had been taking jazz lessons from the local Mark Huber (whose album "Standards" is one of my favorite records of all times). With Mark, Dad had been working on more modern voicing and rhythmically complex pieces. I had been practicing my drum solos at jazz open mic nights in Portland. So, after a few sessions of practice, Kevin came into our living room for a little over an hour to record this album. I pushed record on my portable Zoom recorder just as Kevin was setting up his bass. We started right in with a blues warm-up in F, which became the first track of the album. Shivers of excitement moved down my spine as I heard Kevin and Dad play off each other on the very next song we played, "Body and Soul." I knew I was in for a real treat for the rest of the recording session.
Playing with Kevin was fantastic. Not only did his musicality on bass add a new dimension to our music, but Kevin was a teacher as well. When I asked him for feedback on my playing just after our first take of "You Don't Know What Love Is", he replied "don't play so much kick drum on ballads." It's true; I had been tainted by my rock background and was dropping the kick on beats 1 and 3. "Just keep the beat with the hi-hat on 2 and 4, and that'll lighten things up," he said. I wanted to play the song again, and you can hear the difference it made on Take 2, and the subsequent recordings of "That's All" and "Tenderly". Removing the kick drum not only removed a unnecessary driving thud, but opened my body up for more interesting syncopation and fluidity. This lesson has stuck with me in all my playing since.
The album title "Wish You Were Here" is for Bev; she had suffered from a bad grease burn and was in the hospital during our recording session. Bev has always been with us during practicing, playing and recording over the years. Her presence was sorely missed during our recording with Kevin, so we made sure to play and record Dad and Bev's favorite song "My Funny Valentine."
For more information about Kevin MacConnell please see: