Artist Blog

Neal Kirkwood: Composing With The Mind’s Eye – Translating Image Into Sound

Note from the curator:
Hey everyone. I was extremely honored to receive the ISJAC 2024 Service Award at the Symposium last month! It’s been incredibly rewarding to assemble these blogs and engage with so many different artists these past few years, so it was especially meaningful to know how well these monthly blogs have been appreciated. One thing that I think would enhance this blog experience even more would be for readers to feel free to regularly comment on the article upon reading/absorbing it. Having witnessed such enlightening and stimulating interactions at the symposium, I envision very healthy and beneficial conversations resulting! (Of course, no trolling or negative commentary on the posting artist and/or their work, please.) Let’s be constructive and get some productive and enjoyable discourse flowing! Who knows where the tangents may lead?

Thank you, JC, for inviting me to share some thoughts about my compositions with the ISJAC community. I’d like to focus on a recent composition, “Paddy Harmon’s Dreamland Ballroom, “from my new recording Night City, which features my original compositions for big band.

“Paddy Harmon’s Dreamland Ballroom” is an homage to a time and place in jazz history: Chicago in the 1920s, and the colorful character Paddy Harmon, owner of the Dreamland Ballroom in Chicago, where Doc Cook and his Dreamland Orchestra played from 1922-1927. Paddy financed the introduction of the Harmon mute, used by brass players to create a unique timbre. This piece uses the Harmon mute extensively, both in the trumpet and trombone sections.

I often find inspiration for my compositions in stories of people and places. “Paddy Harmon’s Dreamland Ballroom” is an extreme case, in which I had very specific images and a scenario that guided the compositional process. The first image was a deserted high-ceilinged ballroom, tables and chairs covered with white sheets, the early morning sun filtering through the windows. Ghost-like shapes appear out of the dust and cobwebs, apparitions of dancers and musicians in the dawning light. The musicians take the stage, sketching a skeletal groove with just bass and drums, then filled out by the saxophones and finally joined by an eerie chorus of trumpets and clarinet.

Then there is a dissolve, an eight-bar transition, and a couple appears and dances to a nostalgic ballad theme. Things take on a more solid sense of reality, only to be brushed aside by trills and a return to the opening mood. Then the veil is lifted, the band is swinging, a clarinet solo fills the room, the dancers come to life, the brass roar and growl, the saxes soar, until…another interruption, a return to the nostalgic ballad theme, and finally there one last dissolve into a flurry of trills, and we see again the deserted ballroom, with the early morning sunlight filtered through the dust and cobwebs.

I’m not usually one for such fanciful descriptions of my music, but in this case I thought it might be of interest. It is certainly not necessary to know this scenario to enjoy the music. I hope the listener will be able to find their own story.

Now to a more technical overview. The imagined scenario is expressed through three basic thematic ideas. The introduction employs muted brass and woodwinds alternating and overlapping triads. The Harmon mute becomes a character in drama, used on both trumpets and trombones. I asked the players to use the mutes with stems in, an archaic usage but helpful to achieve the mysterious quality I was searching for. In example 1 of the opening bars, the brass an inversion of a D minor triad, overlapping with an Eb major triad in the flutes and clarinet.


Example 1




This opening acts harmonically and dramatically as a long dominant/expectant prelude to the G minor groove section, the first dance episode. This section is three choruses of thirty two bars each. The first chorus, letter A, begins sparsely with only bass and drums. At letter B. the second chorus, the saxes fill in the space with a riff theme that compliments the bass line. In the third chorus, letter C, four trumpets in Harmon mutes and clarinet join with some tight, eerie harmonies.


Example 2


After the eight-bar interlude, the piano introduces a new theme, the “nostalgic” ballad, soon taken up by the trumpet, played beautifully by David Smith on the recording. Saxes and trombones alternatively provide the background harmonies. A new element is introduced in this section, trills, first in the piano, then in the alto sax, bass clarinet and vibes. This is the catalyst for yet another transition, Example 3, recalling the introduction, leading to a return of the first dance theme, here manifested as a wailing clarinet solo by Dan Block.


Example 3


Backgrounds of muted brass join for the final clarinet chorus, then everything cuts loose with the saxophone soli with brass plunger mute backgrounds.


Example 4

Finally there is a transition to the ballad theme, played by solo piano, followed by the “flurry of trills” and fade out.


Example 5

Here is the recording, I hope you enjoy!



About the Author:

Composer and pianist Neal Kirkwood writes music for jazz and contemporary classical ensembles.  He has composed for jazz big band, classical ensembles, vocal ensembles, solo piano and full orchestra.  He has received commissions from the New York State Music Fund; the New York State Council for the Arts; the Children’s Aid Society; the Jazz Composer’s Alliance and Belgian ensemble Octurn.

As a band leader, Neal Kirkwood has recorded eight CDs: Blue Inventions, Time’s Circle, The Neal Kirkwood Octet, The Chromatic Persuaders, Extrospection; Welcome To My Dream, Piano Stories, and most recently Night City with the Neal Kirkwood Big Band. Currently Mr. Kirkwood conducts and plays in his 17-piece ensemble, The Neal Kirkwood Big Band, in New York City.

Kirkwood has performed and recorded with  jazz artists Pony Poindexter, Bobby Previte, Lindsey Horner, Phillip Johnston, Mike Clark and others.  He has toured internationally with vocalists Bobby McFerrin, Abby Lincoln, Michel Hermon, and Chris Connor.  He works extensively composing for, and performing with, New York’s creative and experimental theater ensembles.  For 20 years he has composed new music every year for Ralph Lee’s Mettawee  River Theater Company.  He has composed songs and incidental music for playwright Jim Neu productions, and composed and performed for experimental theater directors Joseph Chaiken and Anne Bogart.

Born and raised in California, Neal Kirkwood  began piano lessons at age of 8.  He attended North Texas State University and California State University Hayward briefly before settling in San Francisco in 1976 to begin his career as a jazz pianist and composer.  Moving to New York City in 1981, he earned a master’s degree in composition from Mannes College of Music, where he studied with composer Charles Jones.  Mr. Kirkwood was a charter member of the BMI Jazz Composers Workshop, and studied with Bob Brookmeyer and Manny Albam.

An experienced and dedicated educator, he is currently on the faculty of the Third Street Music School in New York City, and teaches piano, composition and arranging privately.  He has presented masterclasses at the Manhattan School of Music and Musikhochschule, Luzern, and was awarded the National Dance Institute Teacher of the Year award in 2007 for his work with public school students in New York City.


Artist Photo by Melanie Futorian, Cover Photo by Mark Torres