Wayne Alpern re-introduces audiences to modern classics on “Standard Deviation”


A Detroit native who lives in New York City, Wayne Alpern creates music that is both original in concept, even if technically tribute songs. On “Standard Deviation,” Alpern takes some of the best known songs of the late 20th and 21st century and re-creates them in ways reminiscent of jazz, but with the feel of the original genres intact.

“Standard Deviation” comes after years of Alpern’s composing complex new music. Here, he embraces his personal history, and infuses popular songs with his knowledge of jazz arranging, and string, brass and woodwind ensembles.

Alpern is familiar with the Motown sound as a Detroit native, but he has worked with talented musicians from a variety of musical traditions. He studied at Oberlin College, University of Michigan, Yale University, City University of New York, Harvard, Juilliard, Wesleyan and the University of Pennsylvania.

In the liner notes of “Standard Deviation,” Alpern claims: “My music is neither radical nor experimental. Its vitality lies in the familiarity of genres, recollection of themes, and the unpretentious interpolation of the dance floor, the saloon, and the iPhone…”

Among the songs that Alpern has made his own through arrangement are “Thriller,” “Ode to Billy Joe,” “Don’t Stop Believin’,” and “Teenage Dream.”

“Thriller” by Wayne Alpern

Perhaps Alpern does not consider his music radical, but listeners might. The re-arrangement of the Michael Jackson classic delights as audiences hear the familiar of the original shine through Alpern’s re-imagining of the song.

The screeching effect that opens the song captures the mild horror of the original and the accompanying mini-film. The bassline is recognizable from the original as well. The other parts, including the lyrical sections, are rendered as strings and horns. Snapping fingers accent the beat and give the song an element of cool, as if it needs such with the bassline and other elements. When the track sounds as if it deviates to refer to “Uptown Funk” by Bruno Mars, it is a smooth touch. So many adjectives, but none do justice to this remake.

“Ode to Billy Joe” by Wayne Alpern

The Bobbie Gentry classic gets updated to a new tempo and fresh instrumentation. Here, though, the lyrics are not replicated in a staccato fashion. Horns are used in long lines to indicate where the lyrics should be. A rock-pop-sounding piano pounds out dancing notes, and a violin weaves strident tones around the piece until it reveals a sound that is almost like that of the original. But clacking percussion mixed with the violin gives the song a feel like that of John Cougar Mellencamp’s “Paper and Fire.” In its subtle muscularity, “Ode to Billie Joe” charms on its own terms, regardless of what listeners might know of the original.

“Don’t Stop Believin'” by Wayne Alpern

The Journey classic seems impossible to re-create without guitars. However, the violins that peel the song open are thoughtful and deep, like a sunrise. The bass that eventually underpins them are a nice touch, and when it pauses to give way to more orchestral sounds, audiences miss it. The song is multi-textured and makes those who know the original appreciate it. However, this version is interesting on its own. The subtle insertion of lyrical lines created by various instruments is beautiful.

“Teenage Dream” by Wayne Alpern

This song has to be the biggest surprise of the album. “Teenage Dream” (originally by Katy Perry) shocks in two ways: one, that it is even included, and two, the way in which Alpern and company give the song a different feel, but still manage to play according to the strengths of the original.

The running bass is augmented by horns. The alto sax replicates the lyrics. The song shimmers with potential passion as captured in the original lyrics. The horns, trumpet, trombone and alto sax seem to divide the phrasing, only to come together again to provide the fullness of the lyrics. At the end, the slowed down tempo allows listeners to appreciate what has happened throughout. Not to mention, gives the bass a chance to shine.

Alpern might not consider his work radical. But certainly it is unexpected, thought-provoking, and when audiences are least suspecting, they find themselves having fun as familiar songs are made new.

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Dodie Miller-Gould is a native of Fort Wayne, Indiana who lives in New York City where she studies creative nonfiction at Columbia University. She has BA and MA degrees in English from Indiana University-Purdue University, Fort Wayne, and an MFA in Fiction from Minnesota State University, Mankato. Her research interests include popular music and culture, 1920s jazz, and blues, confessional poetry, and the rhetoric of fiction. She has presented at numerous conferences in rhetoric and composition, and creative writing. Her creative works have appeared in Tenth Muse, Apostrophe, The Flying Island, Scavenger's Newsletter and elsewhere. She has won university-based awards for creative work and literary criticism.

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