The True Story Of A Vocoder Love Ballad

Sometimes a melody just captures your ear in a way that renders you powerless to resist. I've written before about "For You," the R&B-ish ballad recorded by both Stefon Harris and Robert Glasper last year. It draws its power from Casey Benjamin's weirdo vocoder falsetto, a la Peter Frampton. (Or perhaps in spite of the vocoder? To each his or her own, I suppose.) Anyway, I was so struck by this that one day this winter, I tried to figure out the chords, and transcribed the melody:

I love you, wonder if you lo-ove me too
T____, you're the only one who knew
Darling, can't you see: my heart's for you

Maybe someday they would deny us what we gave
Maybe that day has come and gone away
Maybe it's today: guess we shall see

When all is said and done
I'll be here with open arms
No one can take your place
Your touch and smiling face
Ohh, T____ can't you see
We make history
It's up to you

A clip of that melody is re-embedded here for your convenience too (from Stefon Harris and Blackout, Urbanus):

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That's my best stab at the lyrics. (I presume there's no urtext form of this anywhere, but someone tell Casey to holler at me if he sees mistakes.) Kind of an asinine love song, but so many great R&B songs are, no? What bothered me far more than that is that I couldn't figure out who he is addressing with "T____." Some girl named Tiquan? Tie-wah? Tae-kwon?

Taiwa. I was listening to this week's episode of The Checkout when the Marc Cary Focus trio started playing "Taiwa," a tune written by drummer Sameer Gupta. Check out the whole studio session here.

I immediately recognized the melody as the same as "For You," but missing the B-section. Sure enough, the trio confirmed this during their interview with Josh Jackson. Gupta said that the piece started as a tribute to a South African pianist named Moses Taiwa Molelekwa; he and his wife died in a mysterious double-murder before Gupta got to meet him. An interview and the beginning of a Molelekwa performance:

A little Googling brought up this press copy, which details the further history of the song. Pianist Marc Cary plays with Stefon Harris' Blackout ensemble, and brought his trio's "Taiwa" to that band one day. Blackout workshopped the piece, eventually adding lyrics, a bridge, and woodwind and string arrangements. Thus, "Taiwa," elegy for a late (and relatively obscure) pianist, became "For You," electro-acoustic love jam for robots.

There seems to be something very "jazz" about this process, where one musical idea can be seized upon by someone else, revised completely, and reinterpreted. I think of Herbie Nichols' "Serenade" — or, as it's far better known, Billie Holiday's "Lady Sings The Blues." Can you share any other such examples of collaborative re-working?

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Related At NPR Music: Stefon Harris and Blackout play "For You" for a JazzSet bonus set. "For You" also made the Ten Great Moments From Jazz Recordings In 2009 list.

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