Artist Blog

Oded Lev-Ari: Love the Band You’re With

Sound and music have always had a great power over me. As a child, music brought me a wild sense of pure joy and an urge to move, and I clearly remember the happiness of singing with friends and listening with family. Music was my friend. In fact, it felt so close that I assumed I could simply sit at our family piano and coax those same feelings, that same sense of joy from it without much preparation. So it was only natural that during my first piano lesson when the teacher asked if I could play a song, I said “Yes!”. I walked to the piano and tapped the rhythm to a well-known song on a single key – my primitive cave painting rendition of the song. I felt great pride until I turned around to encounter a bemused disapproving look on my teacher’s face: “Well, that’s just the RHYTHM of the melody,” she said. Deflated, but still determined, I went back home and started practicing.

While sound in general held considerable power over me, I soon discovered my catnip – the thing that made my mind enter a suspended state of wonder and caused me to place the needle on the LP again and again: counterpoint. In my case, it was Bach Fugues. Completely oblivious to the grand formal design and compositional prowess, I was simply mesmerized by the independent movement of voices. Like waves of electricity messaging my amygdala they came; here’s the beginning of a thing, but then another thing starting while the first thing is still going, and another one, and they go somewhere together, hand in hand, and split again – oh, there’s that beginning thing again – and it all sounds so good together. Again!

This was not the same wave of joy that would bring me to my feet while listening to Ariel Ramírez’s 1960s blockbuster piece “Misa Criolla” (A piece which I dubbed “A Great Joy” while jumping around our living room) – it was more of a slow, trance-inducing burn. In fact, I strongly believe that the effect of complex contrapuntal music on my brain made it impossible for me to properly execute it at the piano – I would just get too distracted. But I digress.

As I started to write music, I found myself chasing this feeling. When I consider how this element factors into my work it seems that what I find so compelling about it, is its potential for ease of expressiveness.

Writing Their Song

I’ve been very fortunate to spend time writing for bands. Bands in the old “touring band” sense. A group of musicians who spend a considerable time playing the same repertoire together. One such example is the vocal group “DUCHESS” for which I serve as arranger.

Duchess is a close-harmony 3 part vocal group featuring Amy Cervini, Hilary Gardner and Melissa Stylianou. When Duchess first got together, they’d perform selections from the vast existing repertoire in this style (Andrews Sisters, Boswell Sisters to name just a few), but then sought to expand it with some original arrangements, which I gladly wrote. The group recorded them on their first album just a few weeks, and in some cases a few days after I wrote them.

The short time for rehearsals and just a couple of days in the studio did not seem to hurt the recorded output – the album was very well received, and the band went on to tour extensively. While on the road, the arrangements, like a well-worn comfortable pair of shoes, expanded and contracted, got a bit looser and a bit tighter in places. Usually, the adaptations were rhythmic, and most of them stretched the phrases I wrote, in what became the group’s characteristic “laid back” phrasing.

As an arranger, these changes worry me a bit. I’ve been in situations where a misunderstanding, or perhaps a copying mistake has taken the band on a path entirely different than the one I imagined. I remember when I wrote a part for the Harmonium (the European foot pump organ), but got a Harmonium (the Indian hand pump organ). While I thought the choice of instrument was obvious (“the piece is clearly a product of 1920’s Germany!” “the part calls for two hands!”) I can understand how this could happen. My natural response was to try to clarify my intention even further, provide as much detail as possible and not assume anything, in order to guide the performance along the lines I had conceived.

But in this case, these departures from the written parts were not the result of misunderstandings but rather the result of performing the music night after night, in various settings, different venues and at different points in the set. They were also the results of the interaction between the singers themselves, and they as a unit with the band. While not exactly what I wrote, the performances were swinging, interactive, and flexible.

When starting work on Duchess’ second album (Laughing At Life) I had that experience in mind. I let the style of the band – honed over a lengthy period of playing together – inform my writing. In a way, I entered a collaboration, a feedback loop with the group. “How about THIS for laid back” I thought, when I wrote this phrase:

I can’t know for sure, but this doesn’t seem like a phrase I would have written left to my own devices. I wrote it being keenly aware of the way the three singers sang together. When I presented the chart, the ladies of Duchess reveled in the gooey phrase I provided them with, and of course proceeded to stretch it even further to the next bar – laying back my laid back feel. Lovely!

The group’s performances also informed my choice of voicing. I found that in the style of this group, less rapid note changes are easier to sing and tend to swing more. So I’ve learned to prioritize the vocal line over my planned chord changes.

Additionally, I started writing specifically for these singers. This deep familiarity with the group opens a whole new set of creative possibilities; the specific timbre of a singer’s voice, at a specific register often informs my writing, as does the accumulated experience of how their voices sound together. I also find myself considering the personality of each singer when I decide which lyric should be delivered by whom.

I had always focused on serving the song while arranging, and now found myself also considering serving this particular ensemble and interacting with the musicians in a two-way, open-ended conversation.

Love the Band You’re With

In 2016, Anat Cohen and I, collaborators and friends for many years, set out to design a new ensemble for Anat. 2017 marked the 100th anniversary of the first jazz clarinet recording (“Livery Stable Blues” by the Original Dixieland Jazz Band, generally considered to be the first jazz recording), and that gave us a good excuse to consider the history of the clarinet in Jazz, and beyond. We wanted to create an ensemble that would allow Anat – a musical polyglot – to venture into various musical styles with ease.

We hired the musicians and commenced a week-long workshop which served as a lab; we brought everything from re-orchestrated big band charts, lead sheets and unwritten textural and melodic ideas, and explored them with the group. That week established a language for the band and launched us on a journey through two albums and counting, a Grammy nomination, numerous performances in the US and abroad, and some of the most rewarding musical moments we’ve experienced.

The fact that the band’s personnel has remained almost unchanged from those early workshop days, the many performances, and my role as the band’s musical director gave me a great opportunity to integrate my writing to the group more deeply, and continue to consider the interaction between composer, soloist and band.

The band’s repertoire moves between structured, detailed and fully notated selections (Mel Powell’s Oh, Baby! *for example) and completely free, or loosely scripted moments. In my own writing for the band, I use both; the introduction to my composition “Trills & Thrills” could be described as aleatoric. The instrumentalists are asked to play a set of defined intervals using various techniques, growing in intensity, and then relaxing and resolving into a concert A. The following section is fully notated. The solo section that follows and concludes the piece, is labeled “collective improvisation,” resolving into a concert A, as low as it can be played on the different instruments.

After the first hesitation in reading the parts – aleatoric techniques are not something I’d try in a situation where the music needs to be sight-read – and as the texture became more defined for all involved, this section felt organic, and intensely moving. It seemed like everyone had a stake in the musical task they were entrusted with. Musicians were not asked to “play this note this way” but rather to make music within a set of constraints. Of course, playing notated music is not antithetical to making music, but it seems to me that there is a certain excitement, investment and involvement that is sometimes easier to achieve when removing some constraints. Especially when you recognize that the texture I’m after, in traditional notated form, would result in parts that are complex to read.

As we added the piece to our repertoire, the solo section which I labeled “collective improvisation” became a guitar solo (played by Sheryl Bailey,) which dovetailed into a clarinet solo. The trombone (Nick Finzer), trumpet (Nadje Noordhuis), baritone saxophone (Owen Broder), and cello (Christopher Hoffman) then join with melodic lines that serve more as a background to the interchange between the guitar and clarinet. Then, the entire ensemble winds down to a concert A, held for longer than is comfortable. Listening to the soloists and then the band crescendo and then calm things down is always different, and to me, endlessly satisfying. Like watching separate travelers come together, settle, finally rest, and slowly disappear.

The joint guitar/clarinet solo became an audience favorite; true to Anat and my initial mission of exploring all the clarinet can do, it provided a great opportunity to reflect on the place the clarinet can take in a modern setting. When I was commissioned to write a Clarinet Concerto for Anat and the band1Triple Helix: Concerto for Clarinet and Ensemble was co-commissioned by Carnegie Hall and Symphony Center Presents. The World Premiere was given by the Anat Cohen Tentet, featuring Anat Cohen, in New York City on January 12, 2019., I used the solo structure that emerged organically on the road in a more structured setting in the first movement.

During that first movement solo, I again provided the cello, baritone, trumpet and trombone with chord changes and the instruction “Play background – long notes.” It is always a joy to hear the four musicians navigate their respective lines, interacting with each other and the soloists, this time, building the energy up into a drum solo, rather than winding down.

Sometimes these free form instructions summon unexpected results. In that same first movement some musicians are instructed to “answer clarinet” along with chord changes stretched over just two beats of a 4/4 bar. During rehearsals, no one played on these changes. I thought I’d wait to see what would happen. No answer came during the recording, or the live shows. In fact – these bars remain silent to this very day. And that’s okay – silence is also a choice.

So perhaps the thing I find so attractive in contrapuntal settings is echoed in these techniques. Perhaps what resonated with me was not the structured, erudite execution of musical form, but rather that the individual voice is free to sing its own song. To flourish melodically. To express itself without barriers, make music, and interact with the voices around it.

And when writing for bands full of creative, curious and collaborative musicians, one can achieve that by suggesting parts custom made for individual voices and allowing the freedom to chart one’s own path within the collective journey. Love the band you’re with, and if your experience is anything like mine, they will return the love many times over.

 


About the Author:

Across a diverse range of work, GRAMMY-nominated composer Oded Lev-Ari showcases his own, individual soundprint, one of cinematic richness and open-hearted lyricism. He has created and collaborated on music that span recordings, stage, and media, reflecting a genre- bending sensibility, expansive creativity, and unique ability to bring out the best in his collaborators.

In 2019, Oded conducted the premiere of his work Triple Helix: Concerto for Clarinet and Ensemble – commissioned by Carnegie Hall and Symphony Center Presents in Chicago, featuring iconic clarinetist Anat Cohen. The piece was hailed as “an Everest” and “a significant addition to the clarinet repertoire” by the Chicago Tribune. The Anat Cohen Tentet, for which Lev-Ari is musical director, recorded the work on their GRAMMY-Nominated album, Triple Helix.

Last year, Oded made his Lincoln Center debut directing performances of Paul Taylor Dance Companyʼs Company B.

Since 2018, Oded has been collaborating with neuroscientist Beau Lotto to explore the perception of music and sound. The two were featured in the NationalSawdust+ series in Brooklyn, and are developing additional presentations to debut in the 2021-2022 season.

Oded has written more than 1000 arrangements and compositions for chamber and wind ensemble, big band and symphony orchestra, and a variety of jazz combos. In reviews for Anat Cohenʼs album Noir, The Washington Post called the it “one of the finest jazz records of the year, thanks in large part to the arrangements by Oded Lev-Ari, which alternate from lush Gil Evans harmonies to hard-charging bebop to a laconic beauty that could accompany a moody European film;” and NPRʼs Morning Edition chimed in, “The arrangements on Noir are anything but black – they are life-affirming and intriguing.” Billboard magazine labeled his work “outstanding.”

“Putting lightning in a bottle is what Oded Lev-Ari specializes in,” said DownBeat magazine in a feature article on Oded as a producer of albums by the likes of 3 Cohens, Anat Cohen and woodwind sage Marty Ehrlich, as well as rising-star singers Amy Cervini and Melissa Stylianou, and vocal trio Duchess (Cervini, Stylianou and Hilary Gardner). Oded – born in Tel Aviv but a longtime resident of New York City – released his debut album as a leader, Threading, in April 2015 via Anzic Records, the label he has owned and directed for the past decade alongside Anat Cohen.

Born in 1975, Lev-Ari graduated from Israelʼs Thelma Yellin High School for the Arts before serving in the Israeli Defense Force Orchestra. From 1993 to 1996, he was house arranger for the Dan Shilon – Live! television talk show. Lev-Ari is a recipient of the America Israel Cultural Fund scholarship, and graduated with honors from New England Conservatory of Music, where he studied with Bob Brookmeyer and Tamara Brooks.

Footnotes   [ + ]

1. Triple Helix: Concerto for Clarinet and Ensemble was co-commissioned by Carnegie Hall and Symphony Center Presents. The World Premiere was given by the Anat Cohen Tentet, featuring Anat Cohen, in New York City on January 12, 2019.