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People Get Ready is a new collection of 13 solo piano arrangements of popular songs by Black musicians, suitable for late intermediate to early advanced players.
Brought to us by Faber Music, the publication presents itself as a “celebration of black songwriters”, offering a selection of iconic works that certainly fulfil that aim, while also tapping into the zeitgeist of the present moment.
People Get Ready is in my view an important and excellent publication, so in this review I will consider each of the 13 songs, include YouTube clips of the originals, as well as adding insights about these new piano arrangements, which have been produced by Faber regular Oliver Weeks.
First things first. The Faber Music publication arrives in a standard format, 32 (white) page staple-bound book with gloss card cover:
After the standard title, copyright and contents pages there’s a short introduction in which we read:
“This book has been compiled to celebrate a stunning selection of music by Black composers and songwriters. The pieces have been arranged in a pianistic style and are suitable for intermediate-level players. The nature, style and genre of the songs vary widely, but the aim is to introduce players to a range of musicians and works that may well be new to them but are nevertheless important classics. Listening to the original songs is recommended before tackling the pieces.”
The Introduction goes on to provide background information to most (not all) of the included songs, focussing particularly on the social contexts in which they were written.
The remainder of the publication is given over to the music itself, each piece taking up two pages, with the final song lasting for three.
The notation is cleanly engraved, and in most cases spaciously so. Fingering is provided throughout, which is welcome and generally very helpful.
Following the editor’s advice, I’m going to take a listen to each of the 13 songs now, embedding YouTube links so that you can enjoy them with me. I will also offer my thoughts on Oliver Weeks’ new solo piano arrangements of each…
Redemption Song • Bob Marley
As the introduction to the book points out, Bob Marley’s anthem to emancipation includes lines from a speech by the Jamaican political activist Marcus Garvey, and it makes a fitting start to this collection.
Weeks’ arrangement is largely true to Marley’s original recording, with just the occasional embellishment or chord change, and lies nicely under the hands, the main challenge being the syncopated off-beat rhythms of the main vocal, which have been slightly simplified here.
Here’s an authorised sample of the first page:
Strange • Celeste
Celeste’s superb debut album Not Your Muse is easily may favourite commercial recording of 2021 so far, the more-so because it so effortlessly fulfils the intense anticipation that preceded its release, fanned in part by her stunning performance at the 2020 BRIT Awards ceremony, captured in the above clip.
Here, the sparse texture and simplicity of the original no doubt helped in the creation of an arrangement that nicely captures the soulful essence of this gorgeous song, including the bluesy inflections of the vocal line. And it’s easy to play, without being over-simplified, making it a perfect choice for the collection!
Home Again • Michael Kiwanuka
Kiwanuka is a British singer-songwriter born to Ugandan parents; after gaining positive attention as Adele’s support, he was signed to Polydor in 2011. This title track from his gold-certified debut album is a lovely showcase for his roots approach.
With its flowing 12/8 timing, gentle syncopation and passages in thirds, Home Again appears more difficult than it ultimately proves to be, Weeks’ arrangement once again beautifully fitting under the hands. The conversion from acoustic guitar to piano figurations is a brilliant success!
I Wish I Knew (How it Would Feel to be Free) • Nina Simone
Billy Taylor’s beloved jazz classic I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to be Free has been memorably covered by many musicians over the years (I rather like the ultra-smooth Lighthouse Family version), but never more famously than by the great Nina Simone, for whom it became a calling-card anthem.
While Taylor’s evergreen version has provided the model for transcriptions in the ABRSM Jazz Syllabus and recent Nikki Iles and Friends, Weeks opts for Simone’s classic and stays close to the harmony, rhythm and figurations. In contrast to Home Again, this arrangement seems to me a little harder than it looks on the page, but is well worth it!
People Get Ready • Curtis Mayfield & The Impressions
Curtis Mayfield’s songs were often infused with social commentary, and People Get Ready became an anthem of hope for the lost generation of African Americans during the time of the Vietnam War and Civil Rights struggles. Its message that better times are around the corner is no less apt and relevant today as each generation finds its voice and triumphs over the adversity of the times.
This arrangement is stunning in every sense, and a joy to play. The choice of D flat major for the key may seem ambitious, but is as musically effective as it is pedagogically useful for late intermediate players. Here is a piano solo which fully resonates with both the warmth and the advocacy of the original. Bravo!
Blinded by Your Grace (Part 1) • Stormzy
Stormzy is perhaps chiefly known as one of the world’s most successful grime artists, but this lovely song shows another side to his musicality, influenced by his love of gospel music.
Here the arrangement does an expert job of delivering the detailed inflections of the gospel piano style, providing an object lesson in how to approach this musical genre as a player. Given the freedom of pulse in the original version, and the detailed notation here, players will need to pay particular attention to their timing in order to get the best results.
Wake Up Everybody • Harold Melvin & The Blue Notes
If classic R&B is your thing, you’ll be delighted to find this favourite from 1975 included in the collection! The song was written by Gene McFadden, John Whitehead and Victor Carstarphen; the theme of social consciousness in the lyrics may have been a little out-of-character for Harold Melvin & The Blue Notes, but has helped elevated the song to classic anthem status.
The arrangement here is one of the more difficult in the collection; the original is in E flat minor which suits the hand shape well, but here it is shifted to E minor (easier to read, but perhaps not so comfortable). However, the funky rhythms are nicely preserved.
A Change is Gonna Come • Sam Cooke
Here is another great song written to support the Civil Rights movement in the US, in this case after the singer was barred from a motel in Louisiana that was designated ‘whites only’. Thank goodness that change has indeed come!
The arrangement is another triumph, the undulating 6/8 rhythms well-suited to piano realisation. The syncopations of the vocal line are accurately reproduced in detailed notation that requires careful reading, and the piece is a joy to play as a solo, or indeed along with the original recording.
Didn’t I (Blow Your Mind This Time) • The Delfonics
A huge hit for Philadelphia band The Delfonics when it came out in 1969, Didn’t I (Blow Your Mind This Time) combines soul music with the lush orchestrations that came to characterise Philly Soul moving into the 1970’s. The song has maintained its currency not least through its use in the movie Jackie Brown and cover version by New Kids on the Block.
For this arrangement, Weeks has incorporated the orchestral textures as block chords that also add to the rhythmic drive of the piece.
Sing to the Moon • Laura Mvula
Sing to the Moon is the title track from Laura Mvula’s neo-soul 2013 debut on the RCA Victor label. Nominated for that year’s Mercury Music Prize, the full album was re-recorded with orchestral backing the following year. Based on the quote, ‘Sing to the moon and the stars will shine’ from the book ‘Underneath a Harlem Moon’ (a biography of jazz singer Adelaide Hall) the song speaks of the closeness of relationship between father and daughter.
Oliver Weeks’ arrangement here includes numerous time-signature changes to accommodate the rubato and looseness of timing in the original song. The piece brilliantly maintains the evocative harmonies of the original, and is a wonderful piano solo which can be played and interpreted with considerable freedom.
Lovely Day • Bill Withers
Known for his smooth vocals, soul vibe and great song arrangements, Bill Withers had several enduing classic hits in the course of a relatively short career, including Lovely Day, 1977, which has remained one of the most popular songs of all time.
Weeks retains the E major of the original and delivers an arrangement which expertly captures all the rhythmic nuances of the classic hit. Once again, watch out for the syncopations and finger patterns in the LH.
To Be Young, Gifted and Black • Nina Simone
Written in memory of her friend, the playwright Lorraine Hansberry, who died of pancreatic cancer aged just 34 in 1965, Nina Simone’s 1967 song became another anthem of the Civil Rights movement.
Save for its fabulous opening flourish, which copies Simone’s recording, this is one of the easier pieces in the People Get Ready collection, the C major key and block harmony easy to play. However, there are some tricky LH rhythms which need some care!
Dry Land • Joan Armatrading
The 1970’s was a crucial decade in the development of Black music, so it’s fitting that the collection concludes with Joan Armatrading’s powerful classic from 1975.
Weeks responds to the complexity of the original arrangement with a three-page transcription that stays close to the record while also including his own creative touches. It’s masterful.
Oliver Weeks has really surpassed himself with these superb and ergonomic piano arrangements, and Faber Music must be congratulated for a brilliant and distinctive addition to their catalogue.
In the wake of the BLM movement, a celebration of the immense contribution that Black musicians have made to our shared contemporary culture is certainly timely, and as a genuine fan of many of these songs and artists, I think that this is a brilliant collection of piano arrangements.
It’s been a joy to discover a couple of artists I hadn’t previously listened to, as well. As you are hopefully able to tell, I really enjoyed playing through the whole collection!
Simply, in a word: Brilliant.
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