Five Leaves Left: A Tribute To Nick Drake | Jason Parker Quartet

Liner Notes

I’ve been a fan of Nick Drake for years, ever since hearing his debut album, “Five Leaves Left”. It’s been a dream of mine to pay tribute to him with my band and now that dream has come true.

“Why Nick Drake?” you might ask. All I can tell you is that his music spoke to me from the very first time I heard his delicate voice and incredible guitar work. Listening to his music conjures up images of the stark British countryside, fog rolling over the moors, rain sweeping the windows. Sounds like Seattle, doesn’t it? Perhaps that’s why his music resonates with me so profoundly – because it speaks to my sense of place, my home. Whatever the case, Nick’s music touches me deeply. It is also perfectly suited to the JPQ. The songs are fairly simple harmonically, which leaves us ample room to improvise and put our own stamp on them while remaining true to Nick’s original intent and feeling.

Here are track-by-track notes on the album – enjoy!

1. Time Has Told Me


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“Time Has Told Me” is the first track on Nick Drake’s stunning debut album Five Leaves Left. It also happens to be the first song I ever heard of Drake’s. It will always hold a special place in my heart because of that. The original is one of only three songs on the album that features the piano of Paul Harris, and the only one that features slide guitar playing by the great Richard Thompson. It stands out because of this, but also because it is one of the few fully hopeful tunes on the record.

When I was working on the arrangements for the album, I knew that I didn’t want to stray too far from the original on this one. I figured if I just put the music in front of the band and let them read it down, we’d be able to put our own stamp on it without changing things too much. I also knew that this was one of the songs on which I had to have Michele Khazak sing. The power of this song is in the lyrics, and to do it justice I had to have a vocalist.

As for Michele, she was the one and only vocalist I wanted for this record, and the only one I asked. Thankfully, she said yes! She’s a huge Nick Drake fan, and from the first time I heard her sing her own songs I realized that she shares a sensibility and temperament with Drake. I was sure she would approach the tunes with the right mix of reverence and the desire to put every ounce of her own being into them. I think you can hear that in spades in this performance. In fact, after she cut her vocals on this tune she broke down in tears. Now that’s a sign of full emotional investment!

Our track starts with the gorgeous piano playing of Josh Rawlings. I toyed with the idea of having Josh play the actual piano part from the original version to set up the record, but in the end realized that it’d be a stronger statement to have him improvise his own rubato intro. He really shows his gospel/blues chops on this! We did a couple of takes of the tune where he did more extended intros, but after I told him that this would be the first thing on the record, he paired it down to the final version, which is concise and powerful.

The moment where Evan Flory-Barnes and D’Vonne Lewis come in with bass and drums is one of my favorites on the album. Evan’s bass is so deep and resonant and D’Vonne’s hit to the cymbal with the butt of his brush is like a bell tolling the beginning of a wonderful journey. And then comes Michele. The way she caresses each word with restrained but intense emotion makes me feel that she feels each and every ache of longing and love that Drake felt when he wrote the song. Just check out the way she sings the word “cure” at 1:08. She turns it into a three syllable word, and the slight rasp in the middle is completely intentional. The control Michele has over the little nuances of her voice like this was truly amazing to behold. She sure knows how to milk a lyric!

The restraint showed by all on this track is a testament to how much we all wanted to serve these beautiful songs. I’ll admit that the JPQ is often about the throwing off of restraint. At times we all love to throw down! But these songs are so delicate that it’d be a shame to trample them. Josh’s accompaniment, Evan’s bouncy bass triplets and D’Vonne’s masterful brush work are there to support Michele and the song. No more, no less. ;)

Some of my other favorite moments on this track: D’Vonne’s “brush bomb” at 2:58, the way Evan echo’s Michele singing the word “ocean” at 1:36 and his double-stop at 4:37, Josh’s trills at 5:30, and Michele’s achingly beautiful vocals throughout, especial when she crescendos into her upper register. I’d like to think that Nick would’ve dug these things too.

For comparison purposes, here’s the Nick Drake version of the tune:

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2. River Man


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“River Man” is probably the most well-known song from Nick Drake’s Five Leaves Left. It’s a beautiful, haunting song that’s a bit of a rarity in pop music, as it’s in 5/4 time, meaning there are 5 beats per measure. Because of this, it keeps you slightly off balance, which I’m sure was a conscious and brilliant choice by Drake, who considered it the center-piece of the album.

I had a feeling that it might become the center-piece of our record, too. Vocalist Michele Khazak and I discussed it and decided that a real minimalist approach during the verses would have the most impact. While pianist Josh Rawlings lays in beautiful chords for her, Michele tackles the vocals with a slight vibrato, and gut-wrenching blue notes in just the right places. Her use of dissonance helps keep the listener in that off-balance state Drake was going for. Once again, Michele squeezes so much emotion out of the lyrics you’d think she wrote them herself.

After the first couple verses, I arranged the signature descending string part for sax and trumpet and then turned the soloists loose. Unlike the minimalist verses, I decided to let each soloist dictate where the tune would go. Bassist Evan Flory-Barnes gets the first turn, and plays a beautiful solo that starts out spare and close to the melody and builds in intensity as it evolves. Evan masterfully combines long, consonant notes with quick flourishes and runs as only he can. I know it’s a bit unorthodox to start with a bass solo, but I like to think of all the instruments in the band as distinct voices that all warrant the space to say what they want to say. And dig the well-placed cymbal crashes by D’Vonne Lewis!

After Evan come the first notes on the album from saxophonist Cynthia Mullis. Cynthia has been playing with us fairly regularly for some time now and fits into the band perfectly. From the first time she sat in it was clear that she shares the same ideas about playing as the rest of us and we’re so fortunate to have her along for the ride. What I love about her playing is that she combines aspects of some of my favorite sax players – the big, fat tone of Dexter Gordon, the rhythmic sophistication of Sonny Rollins, the harmonic exploration of Joe Henderson – and forms her own sound and personality out of it all. Cynthia picks up beautifully from Evan, playing inside, outside, all around the beat, and building to a wonderful frenzy, the rhythm section right there with her the whole way. I can’t overstate how much I think Cynthia’s contributions add to the album. In the studio I just wanted to listen to her play!

Michele sings the next verses, using her upper register a bit more. She doesn’t go there often, so when she does it really packs a punch. Then it’s my turn. We did a few takes of this tune, and the one you’re hearing was the last one. I tried a few different things on the first takes, and on this one just decided to open my ears and try to have a conversation with Josh. I use some of the phrases he plays between mine to start my next thought, and he leads me to all sorts of cool places! On this tune I’m playing my flugelhorn, which I hadn’t played much in the past few years. But this music seemed to cry out for it, and I’m glad I’ve reacquainted myself with the “big horn”.

From there we take it out, back down to just a whisper from Michele. I thought it would be cool if she sang the last line, “How they come and go”, by herself, and love the way it turned out!

And you know that cricket-like sound throughout the verses? That was a last minute stroke of genius from D’Vonne. As we were warming up to play this tune, he spotted an old raggedy tambourine lying around in the studio. He asked me to hand it to him, put it on his floor-tom, and proceeded to roll his fingers over it to get that sound. It’s such a little thing, but adds such a distinctive sound to the tune.

One other moment that kills me in this tune is at 7:00, when Josh plays a nice, dissonant chord and Michele finds the perfect note to lay on top of it. I always smile when I hear that. It’s the little things, right???

For comparison purposes, here’s the Nick Drake version of the tune:

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3. Three Hours


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“Three Hours” has always been one of my favorite Nick Drake songs. In fact, it was the first of his tunes that I arranged for the JPQ. It was that experience, and how well it turned out, that got me thinking about the concept for the new album in the first place. As such, it’s the tune we’ve been playing for the longest – over three years at this point.

It proved to be a tricky one for this project, as we had already recorded it on our last album, No More, No Less. For that version, I decided to strip the song down to it’s barest essentials, which are the signature bass line and one chord (a D7sus chord, for those keeping score). That simplicity allowed us to take the song in just about any direction we wanted it to go, which you can hear on that record (there’s also a great video of us playing the tune at a master class at Cal State Bakersfield on our Spring tour here).

For the new record, I wanted to keep the essence of the tune the same, but I wanted to try something different. First of all, I added Cynthia Mullis on tenor sax. This is the perfect kind of tune for her free-wheeling style, and she’d played it a bunch with us live. I knew her addition to the tune would take us in new and different directions.

We took a couple stabs at it in the studio, each taking our own solo, and each take turned out to be 18-20 minutes long. No one needs that. ;) So we decided to try a take where we all soloed at the same time, building one-by-one until it was pretty much a free for all. We only needed one try to get the take, and I’m excited with how it turned out. There’s lots of communication happening between us, different people stepping up to take the lead at different times, and a great arc to the tune.

For comparison purposes, here’s the Nick Drake version of the tune:

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4. Way To Blue


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“Way To Blue” was the hardest tune for me to figure out how to arrange for the JPQ. Until it came to me. Then it came in one second, as if it was always there.

Nick Drake’s version (which you can hear toward the bottom of this post) is nothing but strings and Nick’s voice. Robert Kirby’s string arrangement is so gorgeous and so iconic that it was very difficult for me to hear anything else happening on this tune. I knew I wanted Michele Khazak to sing on it, and originally thought that’d I’d mimic the string arrangements and just use horns to back her. But that seems too literal.

I struggled with it for a long time, trying to find something that would work. I was hoping to get something down on paper before our gig last August, where we were going to play all the new tunes live for the first time. I had pretty much given up at that point and resigned myself that we just wouldn’t play the song that night.

But that day, as I was in the shower (where I do much of my best thinking), I was singing the lyrics and an arrangement popped into my head, almost fully formed. We’d play the “A” sections with a driving Latin groove, swing our way through the “B” sections, and then go to a rubato feel for the bridge. It was one of those moments where the clouds part and it seems so obvious! I got out of the shower, dried myself off, and went straight to the studio to work up the chart. I knew that I could put the chart in front of the band that night and they’d be able to read it down on the bandstand. That’s exactly what happened and it worked out great!

When we got to the studio we worked out the kinks section by section. When it came to the bridge, we were trying to figure out a way to get from Josh’s solo to Michele’s vocal part. We tried a couple things, and then I said to Josh and the rhythm section “just let it fall apart”. I’m not sure they knew exactly what I meant, but when the got there it worked like a charm! They loose the time, Evan and D’Vonne fall away and Josh sets up the bridge beautifully. That’s why I love playing these cats. With the tiniest bit of direction they know exactly what to do. I’m so happy with how that part came out.

When Michele came back to lay her vocals down, she was a bit apprehensive. Of all the songs she sings on, this is the one we changed the most, and she had a bit of a hard time making the mental shift from the delicate original version to our more muscular one. In fact, when we got to the part after the bridge, I remember her saying she didn’t know how she was going to pull it off. Then, of course, she stepped up to the mic and completely nailed it! That one verse after the bridge is one of my favorite moments of the whole record. The way she masterfully goes from her upper range to her low register, wringing so much out of each word along the way, floors me every time I hear it.

Other great moments on this track: the way D’Vonne sets up the swing sections with such authority and drives the energy of the tune from start to finish, the intensity that Cynthia builds throughout her solo, the way Josh’s solo creeps in under the end of mine and the incredible long line he plays starting at 4:35, and of course, Michele’s performance throughout, particularly on the back half of the tune.

For comparison purposes, here’s the Nick Drake version of the tune:

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5. Day Is Done


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“Day Is Done” is the second arrangement I did for this record, and we’ve been playing it for a while now. It’s a song that’s really fun to play, as it has very nice harmonic movement that lends itself well to blowing (soloing) over.

I immediately heard Evan Flory-Barnes starting off this tune on bass, and Michele Khazak singing the first verse over the descending bassline before the rest of the band joined in. The sound of the bass and Michele’s voice go so well together! Then when Josh Rawlings and D’Vonne Lewis come in it’s with great effect.

This was the first tune we recorded in the studio. I figured we were all pretty comfortable with it and it would be a good place to get our feet wet. The version you hear on the album was the third and final take. We all relaxed into it and played well, making this one of my favorite all-around performances on the album. I released this as the first single and have been happy to use it to introduce people to the new CD.

Some of my favorite moments: Evan and Michele playing together at the start and the end of the tune, Cynthia’s bluesy wailing, the way Michele sings the verse after the sax solo, completely making it her own, the poignant simplicity of Josh’s solo, and D’Vonne’s egging him on with the cymbal crashes as he comes to a climax…those kill me!

For comparison purposes, here’s the Nick Drake version of the tune:

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6. ‘Cello Song


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This was a really fun tune to rearrange. The original (which you can listen to below) is built around Nick Drake’s driving guitar arpeggios, congas and a beautiful line played by cello. Since we had none of those instruments in our band, I gave the driving rhythm to Josh on the piano, had Evan play the cello part on bass with a bow, and took the melody on trumpet, with Cynthia filling in behind me. In the intro, I took Drake’s top line and gave it to trumpet and sax, as I did with the cello line between the verses. All in all I think spreading out the guitar and cello parts worked out great.

Once we got to the solos, we settled into a bit of a gospel feeling over the first part, which is a one-chord vamp. When the chord changes for the back half of each solo it’s a nice break from the vamp and a great way to lead into the next solo. That really took shape in the studio over the 5 takes we did of the tune. The one on the album is the final take, which is the case for many of the tunes. Seems like we got better and better as we went along.

Some of my favorite moments in this one: When Evan comes in with his thumping bassline after the bowed section, which he comes back to throughout the tune, the interludes between the choruses, and how everyone handles them a bit differently, and the way Cynthia weaves her way inside and outside the chords during her solo. And check out D’Vonne’s almost New Orleans-esque drums rolls at the beginning of my solo!

For comparison purposes, here’s the Nick Drake version of the tune:

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7. The Thoughts Of Mary Jane


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“The Thoughts Of Mary Jane is one of the tunes we changed the most from the original version. Nick Drake’s recording is typically built around his guitar playing and a beautiful flute line. I don’t know where the idea to do it as a samba came from, but as soon as we played it the first time it brought a smile to my face. As austere as the original is, ours is fun and bouncy!

As we were rehearsing for our first gig playing these tunes, I asked Cynthia Mullis if she’d consider playing flute on it. She hemmed and hawed, saying she hadn’t played her flute in a long time and such. I didn’t press it, as she didn’t seem into the idea at all. Over the ensuing months, I might have mentioned it once more, but pretty much let it go. Cynthia is fabulous on the tenor sax and I knew she’d do a great job on that horn.

So, we get to the recording studio, and Cynthia is still playing tenor on this tune. She asked if she could overdub the intro, which seemed like no big deal. So we cut the tune, she soloed on tenor, and all was good. This was actually the last tune we put on tape, and as everyone else was packing up and saying their goodbyes at the end of three long days of recording, Cynthia sheepishly came up to me and said, “You know, I brought my flute with me.” I couldn’t believe it! I hadn’t even considered that possibility! Of course, I was thrilled, and told her so.

After everyone had left, Cynthia pulled out the flute and started warming up. I joined Doug Haire in the control room and told her to take a stab at it. She had transcribed the flute line from the record and tried to play that over our samba version of the tune, and it just wasn’t working. The stiffness of the original line just didn’t mesh with the loose samba feel. I suggested that she just play what she felt over it, perhaps alluding to the original but making it her own, based on what she was hearing. That’s all it took, and she was off!

This has turned out to be one of my favorite tunes on the record because of Cynthia’s great playing on flute. She captured both the vibe of the original and the vibe of our version all in one! And then when she comes in on the tenor to solo she kills that too. Gotta love it.

It was also Cynthia’s idea to overlap the tenor and trumpet solos a bit, giving a little variety to the way we transitioned. And it was fun to blow with her at the end too. I even slipped in a quote of one of my favorite Charlie Parker Tunes.

For comparison purposes, here’s the Nick Drake version of the tune:

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8. Man In A Shed


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If any song on Nick Drake’s Five Leaves Left could be said to swing, “Man In A Shed” is as close as you’ll come! Danny Thompson’s bass line is so filthy, and Paul Harris was asked back to lay down some nice piano. Because of this, I decided that our version should take that swing to the next level!

I knew Evan would love that bass line, and as soon as he heard it he launched into “fat man swing” mode with a huge smile on his face. Much of Evan’s music shies away from that kind of swing, but when he wants to, he can lay it down with the best of ‘em. Add to that Josh’s bluesy licks and D’Vonne’s rock-solid time and you’ve got yourself a winner!

We recorded this on the third and final day in the studio, and it is take one (of only two) that you hear on the album. We all came in with renewed vigor after a long day two, and this was the first thing the whole band tried, after Josh and I laid down “Saturday Sun” as a duo (we’ll talk about that in a couple days). Obviously, the freshness served us well.

I had to coax D’Vonne into the little solo at the end, and I’m glad I did. He got the chance to open up a bit after playing so subtly on most of the record. His solos are always so musical and killin’!

And while I don’t like fade-outs on jazz records all that often, I thought this was a good candidate. It feels as if the song might’ve gone on forever! Be sure to dig Josh’s Art Blakey quote at the very end too.

For comparison purposes, here’s the Nick Drake version of the tune:

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9. Fruit Tree


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I think of “Fruit Tree” as Nick Drake’s manifesto. It speaks directly to his frustrations about fame, life, and being unappreciated in his time. It also foreshadows his ultimate demise with lines like

Safe in the womb
Of an everlasting night
You find the darkness can
Give the brightest light.
Safe in your place deep in the earth
That’s when they’ll know what you were really worth.
Forgotten while you’re here
Remembered for a while
A much updated ruin
From a much outdated style.

It’s clear that even before he released his first album he was thinking about the nature of the life he had chosen, and was already resigned to his fate. Kind of amazing for a 19 year old to be that aware of his impending fate.

The power of this song is definitely in the lyrics. Even so, I elected to tackle it as an instrumental. I wanted to see if we could capture the spirit of it without using words. When we got around to recording it on the last day, we had only played in once or twice previously, so we had to find our way through it right there in the studio.

I decided to keep it simple and have Cynthia and I trade the melody back and forth, line by line. The song feels kind of like an internal conversation to me, so I thought it’d be cool to approach it that way, with Cynthia and I acting as two voices inside Drake’s head.

One of my favorite things about this tune is D’Vonne’s drum beat. It’s so simple but so huge! This was one of the only things that Don Gunn and I put some different effects on in the mixing process. I wanted it to sound as big and “rock-y” as possible. I also really like the way Josh and Evan handle Drake’s guitar line on piano and bass.

For comparison purposes, here’s the Nick Drake version of the tune:

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10. Saturday Sun


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“Saturday Sun” marks the end of Nick Drake’s classic debut album Five Leaves Left. It’s a gorgeous, melancholy tune that is the perfect period at the end of the sentence. It’s also the only time Nick played piano on the record, showing himself to be accomplished on that instrument as well.

I knew that this would be a song that Josh could really sink his teeth into. The bluesy, gospel playing is right up his alley. We tried a couple takes with the full band at the end of the second day of recording. It had been a long day, and I don’t think any of us had much energy left to give it. The takes were fine, but I knew that I wanted to try again when we came back on the final day in the studio.

Josh and I were the first ones to arrive, and as we were warming up and getting ready, I asked Doug to roll tape and told Josh I wanted to run the tune with just the two of us. It was a spur-of-the-moment decision, and it turned out to be the right one! Five minutes later, when we ended the tune, I turned around to see Evan and D’Vonne sitting in the control room with Doug. They were all smiling, and Evan said matter-of-factly, “That’s the take”. There was no need to even try again. We knew we had it. The simplicity of the piano/flugelhorn duo fit the tune perfectly and makes a great end to our album.

For comparison purposes, here’s the Nick Drake version of the tune:

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So there you have it. “Five Leaves Left: A Tribute To Nick Drake” by the Jason Parker Quartet, track by track. I hope you’ve enjoy these little glimpses into the tunes and the arranging/recording process. If you haven’t yet downloaded your copy of the album, please do so at the link above. All downloads are on a “pay what you think it’s worth” basis, so you’ve got nothing to lose! If you want a copy of the physical CD, you can purchase that too.