Spencer Zahn is a New York-based multi-instrumentalist. His latest record, Pale Horizon, is out now on Cascine.
In the summer of 2020 I was spending the majority of my time upstate in Kingston, NY. The usual necessity for me to be in Brooklyn for shows and sessions wasn’t there due to the pandemic so I was able to take time away from my normal schedule. I brought my Yamaha CP-70 piano and upright bass from Brooklyn to my partner’s house and would spend part of the day improvising pieces on the piano. I continued to develop these ideas into songs, which eventually became a collection of piano and bass duets that I would call Pale Horizon.
“In the Days of Slowness”
Some of the songs that inspire me most have an ostinato bass part. A part that maintains the same root motion, while the melody and harmony played by other instruments shift the context of the bass. The first song on the album started as a melody and a single bass note. This song also reflects the physical space I was in. There was quiet and no need to go anywhere during that time. It made me write songs that have a lullaby quality to them.
While improvising and writing songs at the piano, I was listening to a lot of Keith Jarrett. I actually am always listening to a lot of Keith Jarrett. One of my favorite albums of his is called Belonging, which is one of the European quartet records that he released on ECM. The song that I wrote by the same name sounds nothing like the music on Keith Jarrett’s album, but I thought it would be an appropriate nod to his music, and how much his records mean, to name this song in his honor.
Playing the piano each day became my meditation. “Sadly, Slowly” is just that. Two chords played as whole notes that sustain until they can barely be heard. A cascading melody that rings out during the silence. This song is the sound of my mornings during the summer of 2020. I also wanted to represent the feeling of uncertainty that was happening for me at the time.
I wrote “Wake” a day or two before the recording session for Pale Horizon. Andy Highmore played piano on the album and on the second day we recorded this piece. On this song, Andy played the arpeggio on the grand piano and I played the melody on an upright piano with the felt engaged. The recording sessions for the album were in February 2021, during the biggest blizzard of that winter. The way that Andy plays the overlapping arpeggios that accompany the melody reminds me of watching the snowfall outside of Figure 8 Studios in Brooklyn.
When Andy Highmore, Phil Weinrobe, and I got together to record Pale Horizon, we took our time the first morning to get comfortable and find exactly the right sound palette for the album. Andy was sitting at the felt piano and started improvising an intro to the song “Miss You,” which was supposed to be a duet with upright bass but his improvisation and interpretation of the song was so beautiful that we decided not to change anything. This was the first thing we recorded and we only did one take. Andy’s playing has a longing yet optimistic quality to it that I love. And the way that Phil recorded the piano and added a subtle tape delay brings an abstract quality that pulls me in.
“When I Follow”
Similar to the first song on the album, a bass ostinato leads the first half of this song and at the bridge of the tune, both the piano and bass begin to reach out for other harmony. I consciously wanted to keep our improvisations minimal and spacious across the album but this song we played freely. Both Andy and I step out more on this song which is a departure from most of the other material.
“In the Tall Grass”
I like setting limitations when recording music that has a lot of open-ended arrangement possibilities. I decided that this song should be played as written. The piano voicings and bass motion were very intentional during the writing process, so I wanted that to come across in the final studio version. It is really true to the original demo version.
Sometimes I set up a drum machine on top of the piano to make me play in a different style. It’s almost like having a band to interact with. I recorded a demo version of this song in that style, just piano and drum machine. With the drum machine, it didn’t really fit the sound of the rest of the album, but when I muted the drums it had a similar space to the other songs. The title reflects the absence of the original instrumentation and arrangement.
In the style of the lullaby songs, “Goodnight, Faintly” is a song for sleep. It has a dream-like quality as the piano extends the harmony outside of G major. I hope that this song brings some tranquility to the listener.
“But For You”
The piano voicings in “But For You” were the only limitation that I had in mind for this piece. I showed these specific voicings to Andy at the piano on the day of the session and gave him a lead sheet to remember the form. I like handing musicians simple charts that don’t say much about what the song should be or what they should play. A prompt like this is an exciting way to hear the voice of the musician and how they interpret a composition. Below is the original lead sheet for the session.
“How to Say Goodbye”
Almost like a hymn or folk song, “How to Say Goodbye” is a melody that I could hear lyrics for. It could be a ballad sung rather than played at the piano. Maybe some day this song will find another life as a starting point for a singer-songwriter.
“Hana, My Love”
The last song on the album is dedicated to my partner. She is the person I spent the majority of my time with during 2020 and who heard every version of these songs. Since I wrote this song for her, I wanted to play it on piano to finish the album. It’s a love song that is personal to me and brings me back to the moments of stillness in the summer of 2020. I hope listeners find their version of those types of moments in this song.