Artist Blog

Ben Kono: Voyages – Staying On Point With A Message

In 2019 I released my quintet recording entitled Don’t Blink by the Ben Kono Group, a project that had been funded by a 2013 Chamber Music America New Jazz Works grant. The work is a collection of vignettes that were inspired by my (then) four year old daughter who asked some questions about our environment, the answers of which were difficult to come to terms with. “Will I get to see a glacier? Why did we kill all the passenger pigeons? Why are monk seals endangered?” To my surprise, a project that began over eight years ago continues to maintain traction, and it’s relevance only seems to grow as we see the natural world around us change in ways that make conditions for survival more inequitable for animals and humans alike. My previous recording Crossing included an extended work, “Paradise in Manzanar”, that was inspired by my cousin’s art installation that focused on this infamous Japanese internment camp. In 2022 I will release my third recording as a leader entitled Voyages, another Chamber Music America commission. This project was inspired by my grandfather’s memoirs detailing his immigration from Japan to the United States in 1911, his encounters with racism, the injustices of the war, and his eventual transformation into a community activist through his work with the church.

Finding your voice

It has been said that to choose music as a personal voice is to demand to be heard, and that jazz music in particular is one of the most powerful mediums of protest. While I certainly agree with this sentiment, I can safely say that at no time in my young adult life did I feel the urge to ‘rock the boat’ in the name of a greater cause. I was just too shy and very self-conscious about my ‘other-ness’ as an Asian-American kid in a time and place where drawing attention to that could have negative consequences. And yet, in my formative years it was the unfettered freedom that I heard in Charles Mingus’s “Fables of Faubus” and the anguished cry of protest in John Coltrane’s “Alabama” that stoked my imagination and drew me inexorably into the life of a jazz musician. Finding my new ‘protest voice’ through the freedom of jazz was a cathartic discovery and seemed to fulfill the need to be heard in ways I didn’t really understand. I imagine that for many like myself who lacked the confidence and poise of our nations’ great orators, engaging as a jazz musician was a way to shout out one’s message of protest without the benefit of skillful speaking.

Both Don’t Blink and Voyages are full-length concept albums. They forced me to dig deep into the source material and uncover, like an excavation site, layers of information through investigative research. Don’t Blink started out as an attempt to answer my daughter’s ecological questions and led to more questions of my own: how did we let this all happen and why is it still happening? How can I be part of the solution? What started as a simple musical idea led to a deeper, more informed understanding of our footprint on this earth. I began volunteering for the Riverkeeper organization (riverkeeper.org), loved the work they were doing, and eventually donated much of the album proceeds to their efforts to keep the Hudson River clean. It was a small action on my part, but becoming part of the activist community through music seemed to imbue more meaning to my work as a composer, and I am starting to think about following up with a sequel to the project. In effect, it was the demands of the music that led me toward action.

 

Compositional considerations for Voyages

In a similar way, Voyages has forced me to dig deeper into my own family immigration story. As an Asian-American who grew up isolated from his Japanese roots, the history of my ancestors’ difficult journey has long been hidden from view, partly by geography and partly, I suspect, from the desire to distance oneself from the stereotyping that accompanies being part of an ethnic minority group. Thankfully, I have close relatives who have kept vigil over our family history through photographs and networking within the Japanese-American community. It was my aunt Midori Kono Thiel who translated the first chapter of ‘Setsu no Jinsei’ which detailed the journey of my grandfather Juhei Kono (my ‘ojichan’) across the ocean to this country where he worked on a farm to help support his family, still in Japan in 1911. He was just thirteen years old! As I read his fascinating account, I noticed a lot of imagery in his writing that I imagined would translate well into music: the sound of bells from the neighboring Buddhist temple; the journey across the Pacific on a freighter; the rhythm of working in the fields; the sounds of shamisen and koto—two traditional Japanese instruments that my aunt Midori continues to perform on. As a composer, how all this would be delivered as an effective portrayal required a lot of consideration.

Juhei Kono (on far right) visiting Kono family in Hiroshima, Japan 1930. Hideo Kono, second from left, died in atomic explosion over Hiroshima.

Whereas Don’t Blink was a collection of contrasting vignettes all connected together by the use of a set of ‘leitmotifs’ representing (loosely) beauty, danger, sorrow and hope,Voyages I envisioned more as a symphonic work. The vibe would need to have a timeless feel to it, reaching back early into the last century and carrying forward to the future, so I was in search of a somewhat nostalgic sound that could also bring an element of modernity to my quintet. I decided to expand my ensemble by featuring a string quartet. I enrolled in a string-writing workshop in NYC presented by composer Michael Patterson, and some of the music on this project had their beginnings in that workshop. There are so many pitfalls in writing for strings, especially in a jazz context, and chief among them are WHO would be able to interpret this music. I don’t think I would have taken on this project without the incredible expertise of Sara Caswell, Meg Okura, Lois Martin and Jody Redhage Ferber—all are not only accomplished classical musicians, but all improvise and know how to swing (and on top of that are wonderful people who have been incredibly helpful in the learning process for a relatively green string writer!). This freed me from having to make decisions as to whether or not to write swing figures, and in fact allowed me to feature both Sara and Meg as improvising soloists.

from left to right: Sara Caswell, Meg Okura, Jody RedHage Ferber, Lois Martin

I toyed with the idea of ‘leitmotifs’ again but it didn’t really seem to make sense in the context of this project. I was trying to paint a portrait not deliver a manifesto! I did tap into some of the aforementioned imagery for some of the pieces. “Yobiyose”, or “The Calling Over”, makes use of a repeating string pattern to conjure my ojichan’s journey across the Pacific and the uncertainty that lay ahead (ironically his ship, the Tacoma Maru, which brought over many Japanese Americans was later sunk by an American torpedo during WWII). I also incorporated the use of the traditional miyako-bushi scale (sometimes informally know as the ‘Sakura’ scale due to it’s use in this widely recognized folk song) as well as the use of toms emulating taiko drums. It’s probably the most overtly ‘Asian’ sounding music in the project as my grandfather leaves the Japanese way of life behind:

 

 

“Bata-Kusai!!” (literally “butter-stinker”: an irreverent phrase use by my newly-immigrated grandfather to describe the alien-ness of American food and culture) also hints at traditional Japanese music by opening with a very specific taiko drum ‘swing’ rhythm that was often used in work songs, and the use of pizzicato in the strings to emulate the sounds of the shamisen before breaking into a blues. I enjoyed giving some space to the strings for a collective ‘bata-kusai’ moment between solos! I hope my ojichan would approve of this tribute to the back-breaking work that he, like so many immigrants before and since, have contributed to building this country:

 

 

The Suite

The centerpiece of this project is an extended suite, which I call the Generations Suite (still looking for a catchier title). It’s four movements are entitled Issei, Nisei, Sansei and Yonsei. These are simply the designations for each subsequent Japanese-American generation, the Issei being the first generation to settle in the United States. For this work I decided to use a central melodic theme which reappears in each movement in variation. I spent a lot of time trying to figure out this theme. I was again exploring the use of the miyako-bushi scale. I liked the symmetry of its two tetrachords. The music theorist Fumio Koizumi organized Japanese scales into several basic types using two sets of perfect fourth intervals with a third note that dictated the type of scale. So for example, taking C as it’s root, the miyako-bushi scale would read as two tetrachords: C,Db,F and G,Ab,C. However, I didn’t want my theme to sound Japanese, I wanted it sound distinctly American—whatever that might be. Eventually, I found by inverting the scale you get C,E,F and G,B,C. This variation is know as the ryūkyū scale, mostly found in the music of Okinawa. Not quite what I would call American, but there was an openness to the intervals which I liked—lots of fourths and major thirds.

“Issei” opens with a fanfare in the strings, stating the theme already fully fleshed out with rhythms, dense harmonies and modulations and an appearance of it’s inversion (the miyako-bushi mode) before walking backwards to it’s essential set of pitches—sort of a theme and variations in reverse. When the rhythm section joins as a whole we hear the theme presented at different speeds simultaneously before the piano solo. I wanted to portray the Japanese diaspora during that time—many families, each with a different story but all following a common thread and search for a better life. In the case of my grandfather’s time it was primarily escaping the poverty and injustices brought about by the Russo-Japanese war.

 

 

The second movement, “Nisei”, is a tribute to my two aunts Sumi and Midori. They were of the first generation born in this country and are my connections to family and culture and all things Japanese (including care packages of sembei they would send across country to us every year!). I wanted to use the freely improvising violins to represent their loving, if sometimes contentious, relationship. The theme reappears in inverted ‘Japanese’ form in various fragmented instances.

 

Movement three, “Sansei”, represents my generation and that of my cousins. We are the second generation born here in the U.S. and, I suppose in some ways, more rejecting of our Japanese heritage while also being more curious. The theme is further fragmented and dressed up in a funky hip hop beat. There are occasional glimmers of the Japanese theme, but everything is layered and getting more complex.

 

The final movement, “Yonsei”, utilizes both versions of the theme fairly equally but is even more fragmented. My teenager’s generation seems to hold a lot of angst but also a lot of hope for the future but also a lot of hope for the future, and I wanted to convey the constant shifting between anxiety and optimism in this piece.

 

Like previous projects, many discoveries were made along the way that were unearthed during the investigative process. I discovered a great uncle Hideo Kono who perished in the atomic blast over Hiroshima; I learned one of my uncles spent his middle school years in an internment camp in Idaho during the second world war, one of many injustices inflicted against Asian-American citizens during this time; I learned that the 1920s were perhaps the worst for Japanese-Americans and that many, including my grandfather, turned to the Christian church to assist in ‘Americanizing’ themselves; and unfortunately I learned during the current pandemic that the anti-Asian sentiment I experienced as a child never really went away. Bringing an activist message to your music never goes out of style, it stays relevant. I think the important takeaway here for me is, like everything else, don’t be afraid of what kind of negative opinion you might encounter, or even if you think you might make a difference. You just never know. I brought our Don’t Blink project to Joplin, Missouri—about as far away politically, culturally and ecologically from New York City as you can get—and I was amazed by the enthusiastic reception of the band and our message. By clarifying your position and staying on point it can have a unifying effect on your music, and the music itself can encourage deeper exploration into whatever thing it was you wanted to bring to light. It brings a richness and deeper connection to the process. I’m still trying to find my own voice as a composer and improviser, but I can now say I’m no longer afraid to ‘rock the boat’!


About the Author:

“When the short form ventures give way to the more expansive and patiently crafted soundscapes, Kono moves effortlessly among an entire palette of woodwind instruments, crafting elegant melodies and clear, economical improvisations.”—College Music Symposium.

Since moving to New York City in 1999, woodwind specialist, composer and educator Ben Kono has been attracting attention as a singular emerging voice in the city’s cutting-edge large ensembles like Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society, the John Hollenbeck Large Ensemble, the Ted Nash Big Band and Miho Hazama’s M-Unit. With the release of his critically acclaimed CROSSING on Nineteen-Eight Records, the self-released environmental discourse DON’T BLINK, and as a recipient of two Chamber Music America New Jazz Works grants he has come into his own light as a leader and composer of merit.

Kono’s music is informed both by the rich diversity of classical, folk and jazz music ever present in his childhood hometown of Brattleboro, Vermont, and by the breathtaking natural beauty of the surrounding region. Fostered by his parent’s strong advocacy of the arts and spurred on by a community rich in culture, live music and arts awareness, his passion for music led to studies at the the Eastman School of Music and the University of North Texas. It was here he met future musical collaborators John Hollenbeck, Henry Hey, and Pete McCann, and studied with master educators and mentors like David Liebman, Jerry Bergonzi, Bill Dobbins, Gary Cambell and Rayburn Wright among others.

Following a year long stint with the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra and a five-year hitch with the U.S.Army’s elite touring group the Jazz Ambassadors, Kono’s broad musical training and experience led him to the infinitely varied musical landscape of New York City. Equally skilled on oboe, english horn, flutes, clarinets and saxophones, his wide range of skills and prowess as both a classically trained musician and an improviser quickly garnered high demand as a sideman. He has performed and recorded with Michael Brecker, Freddie Hubbard, Billy Hart, Wynton Marsalis, David Liebman, Bob Berg, Kenny Wheeler, Toots Thielmans, Michel LeGrand, Ted Nash, Joel Harrison, Andrew Rathbun, Donny McCaslin, Manuel Valera, Remy Le Boeuf and Christian McBride; with superstars Patti Austin, Natalie Cole, D’Angelo, Deborah Gibson, Hugh Jackman and Liza Minelli; and he is a long-time member of the John Hollenbeck Large Ensemble, the Ed Palermo Big Band, the BMI Jazz Composers Orchestra, Remy Le Boeuf’s Assembly of Shadows, the Ted Nash Big Band, and many Broadway productions including the entire eleven year run of the smash hit Jersey Boys. He appears on over a hundred albums and soundtracks for film and television, and he has received multiple Grammy® and Tony® awards for his contributions to these projects. The eloquent sounds of his woodwinds have graced the stages of Lincoln Center and Carnegie Hall, and you’re as likely to hear him appearing with St.Lukes Orchestra or the New York Pops as tearing up a solo at elite jazz venues like the Blue Note or the Jazz Standard.

With such a wide and varied experience as a sideman, it is no wonder that his compositional style is imbued with influences ranging from Bela Bartok to the Baka Forest people. As a leader he has led his eponymously named Ben Kono Group in performances and clinics throughout the nation including the Bryant Park New Music Festival, Joplin Pro Musica, Missouri Southern State University, Amherst College, Music Mountain Chamber Music Festival, the Hopper House Museum, The Jazz Forum, Cornelia Street Cafe, the Chamber Music America National Conference, and various venues throughout New York City. Of his debut album CROSSING, Nate Chinen in the New York Times writes “Mr.Kono…establishes his style as a bandleader-composer: cosmopolitan and unflappable, with a feel for rallying his sidemen.”

An avid educator for over thirty years he has served on faculties at University of North Texas, Morgan State University, and the Queens College Preparatory Studies in Music, and has published articles in Downbeat and Chamber Music America magazines. Currently he is Adjunct Assistant Professor of Music at City College of New York and is a teaching artist for the New York Pops. He lives with his wife, teenager, dog, cats and chickens in the beautiful Hudson River town of Nyack where he can enjoy a day of sailing and thinking about music before returning to the hectic excitement of New York City.

 

 

Artist Blog

Annie Booth: Poetry and Composition – Creating New Dimensions

The convergence of poetry and music is no new phenomenon – the power and imagery of poetry have, for centuries, inspired composers of all ilks in pursuit of great artistic expression. Some of my personal favorite musical pieces derived from poetry are actually of the modern era: Fred Hersch’s 2005 masterpiece, Leaves of Grass, based on the poetry of Walt Whitman and Maria Schneider’s 2014 Grammy-winning Winter Morning Walks, based on the poetry of American poet Ted Kooser. These outstanding works bring their respective poetry to life in fresh, original ways. They amplify the essence of the original poems while creating an entirely new dimension in which both the poetry and the music, the poet and the composer live. To me, they’re “desert-island” recordings and they’ve greatly inspired me to try my own hand at the time-honored format.

My door into the world of poetic composition has been the infamous 19th century French poet, Charles Baudelaire, and his collection of poetry, Les Fleurs du mal (Flowers of Evil) – perhaps an unlikely muse! But as an undergraduate student in jazz studies and French at the University of Colorado-Boulder a decade ago, I fell in love with Baudelaire’s beautifully dark poetry in my French literature classes and I began dreaming of a way to connect it to the work I was doing as a budding jazz composer.

This past May 2021, I recorded the entirety of my multi-movement chamber jazz piece, Flowers of Evil (premiered in 2018) and am looking forward towards its 2022 album release. The piece includes 8 of Baudelaire’s poems sung in both French and in English translation and is orchestrated for an 11-piece ensemble comprised of 4 horns, 2 strings, a 4-piece rhythm section, and a featured soprano, Kathryn Radakovich.

When I first began the process of setting Baudelaire’s poems a decade ago, I had no idea what I was doing. I still mostly don’t (in general!) but through the process of writing, orchestrating, and editing this large piece, I’ve developed a handful of strategies for setting poetry to music and other creative ways of using text as source material. I hope that they may help you find some inspiration to dive into a new poetic composition.

 

Starting Points for Poetry & Music (in no particular order)

I. Dig into the poem’s imagery and meaning. It might seem obvious, but creating personal connotations and connections to the poem aids its translation to music. I’ll read the poem several times over and over out loud, eventually recording myself reciting it. After listening back with eyes closed, meditating on the images and emotions I receive, I’ll jot down my own words about the poem. I’m not writing down any “musical” words or ideas just yet – I’m focusing solely on words, phrases, scenery that describe the poem. I might even draw these ideas and use color to help. This process leads me towards the beginning of the type of musical landscape/mood/groove/harmonic scheme this poem can inhabit.

II. Pick apart the structure of the poem. Dust off all of those high school vocab terms – iambic pentameter, metaphor, synecdoche, et al. But in all seriousness, paying close attention to a poem’s structure, syllabic counts, emphasized words, and rhyme schemes can help spark and shape its musical setting.

 

Take this poem, “La Vie Antérieure,” – one of Baudelaire’s most well-known – which I set as the last movement of my piece Flowers of Evil.

 

 

Even if you don’t speak French, you can probably notice that the rhyme scheme is ABBA for the first half (above the light blue line) with 4 line phrases and a very interesting ABB ABB in 3 line phrases for the second half, as indicated in the red (A) and yellow (B) lines.

Here’s an excerpt of a reduced vocal & piano score of my setting of La Vie Antérieure:

ABBA structure of the passage is highlighted in the corresponding yellow (A) and red (B) shades. Mimicking the poem’s rhyme scheme presented me with a unique melody I might not have been naturally drawn to. It was the starting point for me and proved to be an effective one. I created contour in the passage by bringing the second B phrase (mm. 58-62) up to the peak of the entire melody, an F5 on the word musique (which you can probably guess means “music” and was a little bit of cheeky text-painting).

In this case, the mimicked rhyme scheme phrases in the melody work in conjunction with the underlying harmony and rhythm, which were guided by the text’s meaning. I elected for a “rolling” arpeggiated accompaniment texture to match the poignantly descriptive text of nature – sea, sky, and sunset – and aimed to further create motion through the 6/8 meter and 6 bar phrasing.

 

III. Re-contextualize a poem and make it your own. I did this on several movements of Flowers of Evil. I took pretty big liberties with the flow and recitation of some of the poems while still aiming to maintain the big picture meaning and imagery. This idea also allowed me opportunities to be creative with the form of the movement and to allow space for improvisational sections. (A majority of the movements of Flowers of Evil feature sections for improvisation, either open or through-composed).

Take, for example, the poem below, which is the final part of an 8-part larger poem of Baudelaire’s called Le Voyage. I used this last portion of the poem for the basis of the longest movement of Flowers of Evil (the studio version clocks in at about 9 minutes). It’s by far the movement with the least amount of text and the most amount of musical content.

 

In the first two lines, the narrator pleads to a sea captain-personified “death” to “lift the anchor.” (I told you it was dark poetry…) and this became musically translated into a dramatic introduction with a rubato solo piano sea-shanty ditty, low drones in the strings and bass clarinet, and the voice reciting the words in lieu of singing. Although the narrator keeps speaking to “death” in the remainder of the poem, I give the words a new context by making this portion of the poem a “song.” The remaining 6 lines (as indicated as the “body” here) are spread out over the course of the entire movement line-by-line and are sometimes separated by diverse groove feels and textures; the piece oscillates between a French waltz and a grungy half-time rock feel. Re-contextualizing a poem can allow you great creativity with form in this way.

 

IV. Using text as source material for instrumental pieces. I’ve of course been demonstrating techniques for setting poetry in a setting that includes a vocal line but it perhaps goes without saying that poetry can also be used as the inspiration and imagery for instrumental works (one of my all-time favorites is Ravel’s stunning Gaspard de la nuit – based on the poetry of Bertrand). Without strict words to set to music, you can double down on imagery and meaning while using the ideas presented in II. (the poem’s structure as guidance) and III. (re-contextualization of the poem) to start your compositional flow.

Lastly, I want to offer some other creative ways of using text to inspire your writing. You can make even the most banal text – like the instructions on the back of a product or an article of local news – imaginative by turning the text’s phrase structures into a musical phrase. I like to take a piece of such text and improvise over the phrase, recording myself playing it and listening back afterwards to hear if there’s anything there. I’ll do this same thing with poetry, too (I keep a copy of Rupi Kaur’s the sun and her flowers on top of my piano to easily access this process). It can be beautiful to know that an instrumental piece you wrote came from a poem, just as it can also be hilarious to know that an instrumental piece you wrote cam from the back of an “Annie’s Mac n’ Cheese” box. This tool works not only in a compositional practice but in an improvisational practice as well, fueling creativity and forcing us out of the tried-and-true musical paths we tend to take.

Poetry is such a vast and incredible art form and has the capacity to render us composers a bit more inspired, a bit more creative than we were before we interacted with it. If you haven’t done so, I hope you soon try your hand at setting a poem or writing a piece inspired by a poem. And if you’re already a veteran of poetic composition, keep reveling in and pursuing the creation of new dimensions.

 


About the Author:

Photo Credit: Kelly Maxwell

Annie Booth is a versatile and award-winning composer, arranger, and pianist based in Denver, CO. She composes for and performs in several projects she leads including the Annie Booth Trio, Sextet, and Big Band. Booth has received national recognition for her work from ASCAP (Young Jazz Composer Award, Phoebe Jacobs Prize), Downbeat Magazine, the Jazz Education Network (Young Composer Award), Chamber Music America, and ISJAC (COVID-19 Commission Relief Grant), among others. Booth holds Bachelors and Masters degrees in Music from the Thompson Jazz Studies Program at the University of Colorado. When she is not performing, traveling, or composing, Annie is an in-demand educator, on faculty at the Colorado Conservatory for the Jazz Arts (CCJA) and maintaining an active schedule as a guest clinician, artist, and adjudicator at jazz festivals and high school and university programs across the U.S. and Canada. You can learn more about Annie and her music at www.annieboothmusic.com.

Header Image Photo Credit: Kelly Maxwell

Artist Blog

JC Sanford: Arranging for Guest Artists

When I was an undergraduate student at the University of Northern Iowa, I was pretty impressed with my jazz director Bob Washut’s prowess at arranging original tunes by guest artists for our jazz band to play with them. Since then, I’ve had the opportunity to do that myself, including tunes by/for Danilo Perez, Matt Wilson, Dominque Eade, and even Luciana Souza (a chart that has yet to be premiered due to the pandemic but will finally be heard in April 2022). Most recently, I arranged a tune by the great Steve Wilson to be performed by one of my jazz bands at St. Olaf College with Steve as our remote guest artist. I thought it might be useful to share a few of the techniques I use when I’m creating a new arrangement of this type, since hopefully this coming year and beyond we will be having many more guests join us all!

Generally speaking, I see charts like this as a transcription project as much as an arrangement. The reasons for this are twofold:

  1. I think it’s important in most cases to emulate the original recording of the tune as best as possible. This can make it much smoother when the guest joins your group for minimal rehearsal time right before your performance and they’re not trying to figure out complicated reworkings of the form and such.
  2. You can discover a lot of material throughout the original version that you can use as part of your arrangement.

Of course, you can make some of this process easier for yourself if you’re able to choose a particular tune that lends itself to big band writing. Luckily in this case, I had options. As many of you know, Steve Wilson is a well-known versatile saxophonist/flautist, but he’s also a stellar composer, and his tune “Eye of the Beholder” is no exception. It seemed like a big band chart waiting to happen with a fully-voiced, contrapuntal introduction that contrasted the rest of the chart with both material and tempo, specific pre-composed piano and bass lines at times, a complex form with several different sections throughout, and a D.S. al Coda that is slightly varied from previous material, so there was a lot more to work with than if I had to start with a simple head-solos-head situation. I’m going to discuss three major areas of consideration I tend to use in this process that I used in arranging “Eye of the Beholder” (EOTB) for big band.

Where are places for obvious orchestration?

This is the most logical place to start. If you’ve transcribed any accompanying parts (or, in this case, have many of them already spelled out for you), you can just decide what horns or rhythm section instruments you’d like to use to orchestrate those existing pitches. In the lead sheet to EOTB, Steve already has a lot of these voicings written out, so it definitely saved me some time.




This gives you an opportunity to explore timbre quite a bit (sectional writing, cross-section mixing, mutes, woodwind doubles, etc.). In EOTB, Steve already employs a very interesting timbre by having Adam Cruz playing some steel pan on the recording, but I was lucky to have a vibraphonist in my group, so it seemed logical to emulate that sound with that instrument at times throughout the chart.

In one section of EOTB, Steve employs a pretty active bass counterline – a really great texture underneath the moving colorful chords above it. So I gave that to the bass in its first iteration, fortified by bari sax, giving it more presence without making it too heavy.




The upon its return later in the tune, I passed it off to the saxes moved the bass back to the original role of bass notes to fortify the harmonic structure there. Then I immediately followed that with a statement by vibes and piano, still keeping it present but less forceful so that it didn’t draw attention from the now-soloing Steve Wilson.




During a section of the tune, Steve implies moments of quasi-bitonality where his sustained melody slips in and out of conflict with the moving chords beneath it. I wasn’t sure how to handle this with so many additional players, but I decided to embrace and enhance the harmonic nebulousness of that section by creating more structural non-functional clusters.






Are there elements of the original that can be used in other places or in other contexts?

Frankly, this and the following topic are techniques I wish I had used more in this chart, though they’ve been larger elements of previous arrangements of this type of mine. Of course, as I said, a lot of material was sort of laid out for me in Steve’s original tune, so I suppose it wasn’t as necessary in this instance.

One thing that I tried to get a little more mileage out of was the captivating introduction that didn’t seem to make any obvious reappearances in the body of EOTB. So the first thing I did was to have the band play it twice, the first with rhythm section and Steve, similar to the original recording, and once more fully orchestrated with the rest of the horns.




Then I brought back fragments of the bass line of the intro in a couple different contexts through the trombones.


Are there aspects of solo improvisations that can be employed?

This is one I really wish I had done more of, especially given Steve’s incredibly developmental approach to his soloing on this. In the past, I’ve made entire soli sections out of the solo transcription (not a new concept at all, of course). One place I was able to apply a little bit of his improvisation was coming out of his final solo section where I put one of his solo lines into the band parts, gradually increasing the density of the line by adding instruments as it went, helping it to grow into the final climax of the chart.





These are just a few ideas of how to approach arranging a guest artist’s tune for your band. Again, I don’t feel this particular scenario is an opportunity to let my most inventive voice shine by constructing some massive re-composition based on themes of the original tune. There can be plenty of other situations where that would be more warranted. I just hope to write something that is smooth to put together with the guest, is familiar to them and any listener who was familiar with the original, with just some additional colors and material to enhance what already existed, which more times than not, is already hip enough and doesn’t need me messing with it!

 

Original version:

 

Watch the complete new arrangement:

Video Courtesy St. Olaf College. Used by Permission.
 


About the Author:

 

Photo by Asuka Kakitani

Trombonist/composer/conductor JC Sanford is a musician of rare breadth, deeply rooted in the traditions of Jazz and Classical music, yet constantly pushing at their boundaries. Equally at home in many roles, Sanford works regularly as a composer, performer, arranger and conductor.

A protégé of legendary composer and trombonist Bob Brookmeyer, he has performed with the likes of Danilo Pérez, Matt Wilson, Donny McCaslin, and George Schuller. He has been a member of several diverse NYC-based ensembles including the Andrew Rathbun Large Ensemble, Nathan Parker Smith’s prog-rock big band, Andrew Green’s film noir tribute Narrow Margin, British singer-songwriter Joy Askew’s New York Brass, and Joseph C. Phillips, Jr.’s jazz/new music hybrid Numinous.

JC’s original works often defy labels such as ‘Jazz’ or ‘Classical’. While he originally built a reputation through big band writing, JC has forayed into many other areas – composing for solo piano, wind and brass formations and various mixed chamber ensembles. A founding member of the composers’ federation Pulse (with Darcy James Argue & Joseph C. Phillips, Jr.), JC was a member of the BMI Jazz Composers’ Workshop led by Jim McNeely and Mike Abene for 3 years and continued on as the contractor of the BMI/New York Orchestra for 13 more. His works have been performed by John Abercrombie, Lew Soloff, Dave Liebman, Danilo Perez, and a number of universities and high schools across the United States.

JC has appeared on over 30 recordings as a trombonist, conductor, composer, and producer. His 2014 debut CD with the JC Sanford Orchestra entitled Views from the Inside yielded international acclaim and was awarded a 2014 Aaron Copland Fund Recording Grant alongside organizations and ensembles such as the Seattle Symphony, Nonesuch Records, and American Composers Forum. He is also the leader of two small groups, the jazz quartet JC4 (who has two records out on Red Piano Records and Shifting Paradigm Records), and the chamber jazz trio Triocracy (also Shifting Paradigm Records). His new recording, Imminent Standards Trio, Vol. I, will be released on July 23, 2021.

JC is in high demand as a conductor of new original music. He conducts the thrice-Grammy-nominated John Hollenbeck Large Ensemble, Joel Harrison’s Infinite Possibility, the Alan Ferber Nonet with Strings, the Frank Carlberg Large Ensemble, and the Alice Coltrane Orchestra featuring Ravi Coltrane, Jack DeJohnette, and Charlie Haden. He was the curator the “Size Matters” large ensemble series Brooklyn for 4 1/2 years, a unique weekly series that featured large ensembles that performed all original music.

Since returning to MN with his family in 2016, JC has performed as a trombonist in the Twin Cities area with JT and Chris Bates, Davu Seru, Anthony Cox, Babatunde Lea, Zacc Harris, Dave Hagedorn, Mike Lewis, and Laura Caviani. In 2017 co-founded the Twin Cities Jazz Composers’ Workshop alongside his wife and composer Asuka Kakitani. He is currently Visiting Professor of Jazz at St. Olaf College and Instructor of Low Brass at Carleton College. He received a 2018 McKnight Composer Fellowship and a 2019 MN State Arts Board Artist Initiative Grant to record his quartet. In 2019, he was named Musical/Artistic Director of the JazzMN Orchestra. He is also the blog curator for the International Society of Jazz Arrangers and Composers. Learn more at jcsanford.com

 

About the Guest Artist:

 

Photo by John Abbott

Saxophonist Steve Wilson has brought his distinctive sound to more than 150 recordings and ensembles led by such celebrated artists as Chick Corea, Ron Carter, George Duke, Dave Holland, Michael Brecker, Dianne Reeves, Bill Bruford, Gerald Wilson, Joe Henderson, Charlie Byrd, Karrin Allyson, and Don Byron among many others.

Since his arrival in New York in 1987 Wilson emerged as first-call choice for veteran and emerging artists alike, prompting a New York Times profile “A Sideman’s Life”. Since 1997 he has been regularly cited in the Downbeat Magazine Critics and Readers Polls in the soprano and alto saxophone, and flute categories. He is currently a regular touring member of Grammy-winning ensembles led by Christian McBride, Maria Schneider, Billy Childs, and Buster Williams. His work in film includes being artistic consultant to Harvey Keitel for “Lulu On The Bridge” as well as being featured on the soundtrack.

With nine recordings under his name Wilson leads two acclaimed quartets – Wilsonian’s Grain as heard on “Live in New York: The Vanguard Sessions” on the Random Act label, and The Analog Band as heard “Sit Back, Relax” on the JMI label. He is one-half of two dynamic duos – with drummer Lewis Nash as heard on their recording “Duologue” on the MCG label, and also with pianist Bruce Barth that can be heard on their recording “Home” on the We Always Swing label.

A highly respected educator Wilson is professor of music and Director of Jazz Studies at City College of New York. He frequently conducts master classes and has been a visiting artist at Eastman School of Music, Michigan State University, University of Manitoba, University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, University of Michigan, University of Maryland-College Park, and the University of Oregon among many other institutions.

Steve Wilson endorses Yamaha Saxophones, and Vandoren Reeds and Mouthpieces

Learn more at https://www.stevewilsonmusic.com/

JC’s Featured Photo Credit: Asuka Kakitani

Artist Blog

Kris Johnson: 6 Notes From Thad Jones That Changed My Life

Kris Johnson presents his April 2021 article for the ISJAC Artist Blog in Video Format!


About the Author:

Kris Johnson is an award-winning trumpeter, composer, and educator. He has appeared on five Grammy-nominated albums and composed the original score for the four-time Emmy-nominated webseries “King Ester”. Kris toured the world as a trumpeter and arranger with the Count Basie Orchestra from 2008-2019 and served as the Director of Jazz Studies at the University of Utah from 2015-2019. Currently, Kris is a freelance composer, arranger, and educator in Metro Detroit, and the creator and curator of the online educational series “Office Hours with Kris Johnson”.

Kris was recently commissioned by Plowshares Theater (Detroit, MI) in partnership with the Kresge Foundation to compose a musical influenced by Detroit’s historic Black Bottom and Paradise Valley neighborhoods. “Hastings Street: the musical” is currently in development with music/lyrics co-composed by Kris and playwright/actor John Sloan III who also wrote the book. In 2012, Kris received an ASCAP Herb Alpert Young Jazz Composers award and was selected as one of 25 Detroit performing and literary artists to receive a $25,000 Kresge Artist Fellowship. Kris was awarded a grant in 2014 from New Music USA to fund a studio recording of his original musical “Jim Crow’s Tears” with a book by Gary Anderson of Plowshares Theater (Detroit). Kris has been commissioned to write compositions and arrangements for the Count Basie Orchestra, Ken Thompkins (principal trombonist, Detroit Symphony Orchestra), Arts League of Michigan, Karen Clark Sheard, Yolanda Adams, the Clark Sisters, Farmington Community Band, Detroit Symphony’s Civic Ensembles, Ferndale Community Concert Band, Motor City Brass Band, Troy High School, New Trier High School, and many others.

Mr. Johnson has performed at some of the world’s most prestigious jazz venues including the Apollo Theater, the Blue Note Jazz Club (US and Japan), Sydney Opera House, Blues Alley, and the Hollywood Bowl. He has also had the opportunity to perform with many jazz greats including the Jazz at Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis, Tony Bennett, Patti Austin, Wess Anderson, Wycliffe Gordon, Jon Hendricks, Monty Alexander, Christian McBride, Jamie Cullum, and many others. As the leader of The Kris Johnson Group, he has recorded several studio albums including “Odd Expressions”, “Journey Through a Dream” and “The Unpaved Road” with Lulu Fall. He has also produced a series of video projects including live performances, virtual big band videos, and his audiovisual album “SAFE” featuring his abstract illustrations and animation. Kris was featured soloist in the 2013 standup-comedy film “Make Me Wanna Holla” starring Sinbad.

Johnson has a keen sensitivity to the nuances of film as is evident in his award-winning film scores for various webseries, documentaries, short films, and feature films. Kris scored the Dui Jarrod webseries “King Ester” which was picked up by Issa Rae’s YouTube Channel “Issa Rae Presents”. The series was nominated for four Emmy Nominations in 2020. Kris received an Outstanding Score award for his work on the comedic web series The PuNanny Diaries at the 2011 LA Webfest and wrote the score for “Searching For Shaniqua” which won HBO’s Best Doc Award at the 2016 Martha’s Vineyard Film Festival.

Kris received his master’s (2007) and bachelor’s (2005) degrees in Jazz Studies from Michigan State University. He was a full time faculty member at The Ohio State University from 2012 – 2015 as a Jazz Lecturer. He is also the former director of Detroit Symphony’s Civic Jazz Orchestra where he led the most talented students in Metro Detroit. Johnson has also served as a Jazz Artist in Residence at Troy High School, Southfield-Lathrup High School, Eaton Rapids High School, and is the composer and co-creator of The Learning Express, a series of workshops that use hip-hop and jazz to teach elementary students about science, reading, and math.

For more from Kris, visit: krisjohnsonmusic.com and www.officehourswithkrisjohnson.com

Artist Blog

Chuck Owen: The problem with approaching composition from an improvisational perspective

When I first started composing & arranging seriously for jazz ensembles as an undergrad at the Univ. of North Texas (then NTSU), my interest was focused primarily on exploring the rich harmonic world jazz embraces – studying and experimenting with voicings and orchestration to create colorful and evocative settings.  Odd meters and complex, disjunct (particularly funk) rhythmic figures?  Loved them too!!  But as to melody??  Well, I largely viewed that as something that I could extract quickly, simply, and intuitively from the harmonic structure.  I mean, that’s what we do as improvisers, right?    And, form?   Frankly, there just didn’t appear to be much to wrestle with; as the strophic use of song form was (and is) ingrained throughout the jazz tradition.  So, most formal considerations seemed pretty codified; with variations limited largely to whether to employ an intro or coda and when/where to use background figures or a sax soli.

As you might expect, my vision of what jazz composition is  . . or can be . . . .has changed a bit since that time . . . . as has my compositional approach.  For the last 25 years, at least; my energy, focus, and struggles (and I have a LOT of these!), seem to have coalesced precisely around those 2 areas – melody and form – that I tended to toss off early on.  Oh, don’t get me wrong, I still love orchestrating and creating evocative voicings as I believe anyone who listens to my work will readily recognize; but I see these now existing in service to advancing the melodic and formal development of the composition. 

Why the change? 

I use analogies to the other arts a great deal in my teaching – particularly literature, film, and architecture.   While comparing a melodic idea to that of a character in a book/movie is certainly not a novel concept, it is an apt one.  If the reader or movie-goer isn’t able to develop a relationship with the main character. . . .and the more personal, the better . . . . they’re typically not invested in the story.  There simply HAS to be at least one character (if not more) that is unique, relatable, intriguing, and evolving.  Stop for a minute – read that list again!!  Unique . . . relatable . . . . intriguing. .  . . . and evolving!  Wow – what a challenge to create a melody in that vein!! 

Likewise, form can be seen as essentially the plot or narrative structure.  If it’s too predictable (or too convoluted for all that matters) we tune out!  I’m guessing we’ve all read books or watched movies in which every scene seems telegraphed from the outset (often just a rehash of another plot) and no matter how many buildings/cars/politicians are blown up, or how stunning the cinematography or prose is, we leave with little we (want to) remember.  It’s not much of a stretch to imagine our listeners would be most intrigued by a formal structure that involved both a logical progression/evolution of ideas as well as a few unexpected twists or turns along the way.

While many of the students I work with seem to greatly admire composers/works which I feel embrace the values just set forth; I’ve often been struck by their resistance to really wanting to spend time (or possess the patience) to fashion the strongest possible melody or work on formal and melodic development beyond largely formulaic practices.  While it’s all too easy to dismiss this as mere laziness on their parts (and sometimes it is!); for the most part, I think that assumption misses the mark.

Actually, I think it’s our background as jazz musicians/performers that often leads us astray!

Oh, that will probably raise some eyebrows . . . and, admittedly, I’m being somewhat purposefully provocative.  However, while I don’t necessarily disagree with the oft-heard adage “improvisation is spontaneous composition”, I’d like to clearly and unequivocally state that “jazz composition is not and should not be confused with improvisation”.   

Composers are endowed with two things the improviser (by definition) does not possess – time and reflection!  Our ability to improvise can (and should!) prove extremely advantageous in coming up with melodic ideas; but the jazz composer must resist the desire to accept the very first phrase that comes to her/him as if its manna from heaven.  Challenge it!  Seek competing ideas.   Evaluate its characteristics, strengths, and weaknesses.  Is it open to being transformed over time and, if so, how?  Tweak it, live with it . . . how does it sit two days later??  These are all luxuries the composer has that the improviser does not.  Take advantage of them!! 

It’s equally important for the composer to recognize that many of the formal structures and devices used to this day on the bandstand are historical constructs of convenience and necessity – devised explicitly to facilitate gigs, impromptu performances, and improvisational settings where musicians are not only working without any notated music, they may never have even met each other before.  Here, there is a clear and compelling NEED to rely on conventional structures . . . to simply call the tune, count it off, and play!  There’s not enough time before each tune to discuss how an expansion of the form during the second solo might build intensity better or how a 13-bar restatement of the 2nd half of the bridge might be the perfect, elegant intro needed.  Strophic repetition of the song form for solos is not only tradition, it’s an absolute necessity . . . . . as are stock intros and codas.

The composer, however, is not constrained by such pragmatism.  We get to dream bigger!  In dealing with form (ultimately, a much, much longer conversation!), recognize how it can be used, effectively, to help the listener understand the context of the musical ideas.  Repetition, in and of itself, is not problematic.  It can be highly effective in giving the listener a sense of grounding and in reinforcing important ideas.  But it should not be employed simply for the lack of anything better to do  . . . .or because of convention.  Even more critically, it is through careful and imaginative use of form that the composer has the opportunity to profoundly influence the flow, contour, and proportions of the piece – creating an actual story rather than merely staging an event.  (I’ll briefly draw your attention to the use of the word “influence” rather than “control”.  While an appropriate subject for another blog, I believe strongly that good jazz composition embraces an improvisational sensibility and seeks to provide those performing the music with creative input and opportunities even in the most highly scored works.) 

So, having read to this point, you might be surprised to learn that I continue to use song form as the basis for almost all of my composition.  It’s the jazz tradition I grew up with – and a jumping off point I still find very fertile compositionally.  If viewed not as a rigid pre-fab structure but as a foundation that can support an infinite variety of expandable/collapsible walls, windows, doors, and a few cozy nooks – you’ll understand my comfort level with it. 

I’m attaching a formal outline to “Warped Cowboy” from my last CD “Whispers on the Wind”.  You’ll note both its expansiveness (the piece is over 14:00 long and is comprised of two major themes – each of which employs song form) and, hopefully, its economy.  The solo sections’ chord progressions are based on the prior song forms (primarily the “Cowboy” theme) but have been altered to create not only a better solo environment but to allow for the story to breathe and evolve in a manner that is both logical and continually fresh.  You’ll also notice they differ not only from their original iteration – but from each other as well.  As Stephan King likes to say, “The world moves on.”   You’ll also note the absence of any section marked “Transition”.  In my mind, every moment is a transition of some sort.  By understanding where we are headed we can fashion these moments so that the final arrival or climax feels inevitable, even if not completely expected.   

If you’re interested in delving a bit deeper, study scores for “Warped Cowboy” as well as a number of my other recorded works with the Jazz Surge are available on my website store:  www.chuckowen.com along with the CDs and full charts. 

Listen to Warped Cowboy:

Click here to download the Formal Analysis for “Warped Cowboy”
Click here to download the Motive Sheet for “Warped Cowboy”


About the Author:

Chuck Owen is Distinguished University Professor of Jazz Studies at the University of South Florida.  A nationally respected educator, having established USF’s acclaimed jazz program, he is recognized equally for his unique compositional voice; one steeped thoroughly in the jazz tradition but drawing on a diverse array of additional influences from contemporary classical and American folk/roots music to Latin styles, funk, hip-hop, . . . even country!  The result is an evocative, thoughtful, and frequently quite playful/joyous body of work.

The recipient of a 2009 Guggenheim Fellowship and five GRAMMY nominations, Owen has written for or had his compositions performed by the: Netherlands’ Metropole Orch., Smithsonian Jazz Masterworks Orch., Tonight Show Orchestra, Brussels Jazz Orch., Aarhus Jazz Orch. (Denmark), Scottish National Jazz Orch., Cincinnati Symphony, US Army Jazz Ambassadors and numerous others. 

Owen’s primary creative outlet, however, is his own 20-piece Jazz Surge.  Founding the ensemble in 1995, Owen serves as conductor, primary composer/arranger, and producer of its six highly-feted CDs, including:  River Runs (2013), a stunning 5 movement genre-bending work Rufus Reid described as, “.  .   . . .a tour de force of contemporary orchestral composition” and the Huffington Post called, “a masterpiece of aural sounds”, and  The Comet’s Tail (2009), critically acclaimed as “riotous and joyous” (JazzTimes), “muscular” (Downbeat), and “deserving of universal attention” (All Music Guide).  Both recordings garnered Grammy nominations with Chuck individually honored in 2014 with Grammy nominations for both Best Instrumental Composition & Best Instrumental Arrangement.

The Jazz Surge’s most recent project, Whispers On the Wind, expands on the American folk and roots leanings of River Runs enlisting the evocative violin of Sara Caswell, the luminescent harmonica of Gregoire Maret, and an array of acoustic guitars deftly played by Corey Christiansen.  In it, Owen has created a sound that is drenched in atmosphere – at times buoyant, playful, and triumphant . . . .  at others, melancholy, mysterious, and intimate – but always coming straight out of the American heartland.  Feted with four 2018 GRAMMY nominations (for Best Large Jazz Ensemble recording, Best Instrumental Composition, Best Instrumental Arrangement, and Best Jazz Solo – Sara Caswell) the reviews have been similarly glowing: 
“creative, poetic . . . . wildly personal” – Jeff Simon, Buffalo News
“ an impressive melding of Montana and 52
nd St.” – George Harris, Jazz Weekly
“ episodic, dramatic, and picturesque.” – Scott Yanow, NY City Jazz Record
“. . . an impossibly winsome combination of slow burn with spontaneous combustion. 
                    Reality on a sizzling hot silver platter.” – Carol Bank Weber, Medium.com

Owen presently serves as the founding President of ISJAC (International Society of Jazz Arrangers & Composers).  Previously he has served as President of the International Association for Jazz Education, as a “governor” for the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, and as a panelist (Chair) for the Pulitzer Prize in Music, the National Endowment for the Arts, the Grammy Awards, and numerous regional arts associations.  The Director of the USF Jazz Ensemble for 30 years, he has led the group in performances at international jazz festivals as well as with renowned guest artists. He is the recipient of the USF President’s Award for Faculty Excellence as well as both the Outstanding Undergraduate Teaching Award and Outstanding Research Award.

Chuck’s most recent compositions for jazz ensemble are available on his website:  www.chuckowen.com   Other publications are available through UNC Jazz Press as well as EJazzLines. 

Artist Blog

Bill Mays: The Delaware River Suite

When Paul Read asked me to contribute something to this blog I asked what my focus should be: my arranging, my composing or performing? He said, “Whatever you’re interested in, whatever you want to share.”

I’m very interested in, and quite in love with, a place in Northeastern Pennsylvania where I spend several months of the year. I’ve had a house there for 30 years and in 2007 wrote a suite dedicated to the Delaware River, several places that border it, and my small local town, Shohola (“place of quiet waters,” according to the native Lenape people). I’m a real water person: born an Aquarian, a Navy guy, an avid swimmer and sailor. In fact, I got the concept for the piece while soaking in the Jacuzzi (which is where I am now writing these introductory notes)!

Basically I have a couple of ways that I start compositions. My usual approach is sitting at the piano, noodling some ideas that turn into motifs, that turn into phrases, that end up part of the final result. Another favorite way is sitting in a chair with my eyes closed, imagining a concert stage with the ensemble I’m writing for on that stage and just start jotting down the first things I hear coming from this imaginary band; that gets the ball rolling for me. For this piece I knew I would be writing for piano, trumpet and cello.

The river suite is probably the closest thing to a “theater piece” I’ve ever written. Preceding page one of the score is a map of the Delaware River Basin. Then there’s an opening prologue with pre-recorded river sounds over which my voice sings the praises (think Garrison Keillor) of the Delaware and other bodies of water I’ve spent time on. There is even spoken, countrified dialogue from the trio, based on local lore, in one movement. Even before I wrote a note of the music I knew I would write a multi-movement suite that would start with a fanfare, conjure up the excitement of white-water rafting, the serenity of the “float,” address Shohola’s history, reference the Delaware Water Gap and Philadelphia, and a finale that would salute the Atlantic, where the Delaware empties its waters. So, unlike my other compositions, I had a programmatic shape and the general flow already on paper before starting to compose. Secondly, it was a great treat to write for specific people: me on piano, trumpeter Marvin Stamm and cellist Alisa Horn, known as the Inventions Trio. I had a broad palate with Marvin’s improvisational talents, his ability to wear the hat of an orchestral player, and flugelhorn doubler. In Alisa I had a cellist with a big sound and a singing tone, as well as excellent rhythm and some beginning improv skills. And both of them were wonderful ensemble players. The end result (commissioned by Drs. Frank Osborn and Howard Horn) was the Delaware River Suite.

I. Prologue: Narrowsburg Deep
II. Rapid Ride at Skinner’s Falls
III. Float
IV. Shohola Hoedown & Campfire
V. Rollin’ Down the Water Gap
VI. Philadelphia
VII. Toward the Ocean

I’ve pointed out some salient features of each movement with sound and score samples below, with the complete score and recording of the piece at the end.


Prologue: Narrowsburg Deep: I suppose Aaron Copland was over my shoulder when I decided the fanfare that opens the piece should primarily consist of the interval of a fifth, should be short and to the point, and majestic.

Rapid Ride at Skinner’s Falls: Fifths occur often throughout the piece, as in the piano accompaniment figure and in the  melody of Rapid Ride:

   Following the theme each instrumentalist improvises over a four-chord, four-bar pedal, with accompanying figures that echo the movement’s introduction:

Float: If you’ve ever been in an eddy of a river and heard and seen the pops and plops of bugs and fish you know how fascinating a sound it can be. I wanted to convey that random, plopping sound, so I chose a twelve-tone row to start the journey. I tried many rows, finally settling on one simply because it sounded pleasing to me; it happened to contain several half-steps.

Seven iterations of the row occur, passing the row between instruments and using rhythmic and octave displacement. Later in the movement the three instruments, in rhythmic unison, choose their  own notes in an atonal free-for-all.

   

Shohola Hoedown & Campfire:  Here’s my Garrison Keillor moment! The Hoedown kind of wrote itself, it just fell out of me. A typical “fiddler’s-fifths” opens the tune, then Alisa has the melody, after which she provides bass “slaps” under Marvin’s melody. Country meets jazz for some choruses of trumpet and piano improv. Meant to be fun and humorous there’s even a horse’s (trumpet) “whinny” and a “Yee-haw” from the group.   

For the Campfire section I became film-scorer for a moment and wrote a plaintive (think harmonica) melody to kick off the first spoken story.

Rollin’ Down The Water Gap: I thought about cascading water with its forward motion and downward movement, and that gave me the idea of constructing the melody in descending half steps. The right hand of the piano doubles the trumpet/cello melody, with chords that include half steps and crunchy voicings, and this is set against an ongoing boogie-woogie pattern in the left hand (this was  lots of fun but my left hand almost fell off by the end of the movement!) The 24-bar melody is built on just four chords, and improvised solos are on a 24-bar blues

I was thinking like a big-band arranger when I gave trumpet and cello punchy rhythmic background figures behind the piano solo.    

 A “shout chorus” follows where I have cello, trumpet and piano playing in rhythmic unison. I wanted a crazy, fun effect so I have the right hand of the piano playing clusters with the palm of the hand, the cello playing “scratchily” with the bow and Marvin tooting on his mouthpiece, kazoo-style!   

Philadelphia: The city of Philadelphia, located along the Delaware, has always fascinated me. I kept intoning the word “Philadelphia, Philadelphia” over and over again and that gave rise to the rhythm of the melody (primarily based, again, on fifths), and probably suggested the jazz waltz feel. After a  short opening piano statement (which hints at the melody to come) the cello and trumpet each play the theme, followed by improv solos.     

Sometimes you realize, after the fact, the internal logic of a motif. I wasn’t sure where this little recurring background melodic segment had come from, but realized after recording it that it was based on the descending minor seconds in the preceding movement. Funny how the mind works…

Towards The Sea: Before the main theme, the piano (and cello) have a rhapsodic, rubato duet that sets the mood. Again, the interval of a fifth plays a prominent part, and the underlying harmonic scheme is a series of ii-V-I progressions. 

When the tempo starts it’s an undulating 12/8 groove, suggesting the feeling of being in a boat and  rocking gently. The melody (Ravel on my mind) consists of long, held tones over cello and piano 12/8 figures.

Throughout the movement several small snippets of previous themes briefly reappear. And I didn’t realize it till after I’d finished writing the movement, but I actually quote seven notes from God Bless America (in bars 69-71— “from the mountains to the oc-”), so thank you, Irving Berlin.

This composition was the centerpiece of the album, Delaware River Suite, and I was thrilled that Inventions got to perform it at some of the referenced locations: Narrowsburg, NY, Philadelphia and Delaware Water Gap, PA.

 


About the Author:

Pianist Bill Mays’ career as a professional musician spans the last 55 years and includes a multitude of musical endeavors. Following four years as a bandsman in the U.S. Navy Bill spent 15 years as a session player in the Hollywood studios. In 1984 he re-located to New York City, firmly establishing himself as an in-demand sideman and leader of his own ensembles. He has worked with jazz legends Benny Golson, Shelly Manne, Red Mitchell, Gerry Mulligan, Bud Shank, Frank Sinatra, Vanguard Jazz Orchestra, Sarah Vaughan, and Phil Woods. His many recordings as a leader (solo, duo, trio and sextet) are well-documented on the Chiaroscuro, Concord, DMP, Palmetto, and Steeplechase record labels.

A prolific composer and arranger, Mays has written many extended suites for bass, flute, woodwind septet, and pieces for big band and orchestra (New York Philharmonic, Carnegie Hall Jazz Band, Turtle Creek Chorale, WDR Big Band, U.S. Air Force Airmen Of Note). His latest recordings include Phil & Bill (with saxophonist Phil Woods), Side By Side: Sondheim Duos (with bassist Tommy Cecil), Life’s A Movie (with cellist Alisa Horn and trumpeter Marvin Stamm), and Front Row Seat (solo piano). Mays’ songs have been used in the movies Anamorph, Burn After Reading, Hamlet, Looker, and The Fifth Estate. His keyboard work has been heard on hundreds of film soundtracks, among them Fargo, Fur, Godfather 2, Hail, Caesar!, Jaws 2, Julie & Julia, Rocky 2, Superman, The Big Lebowski,  and The Spanish Prisoner.

Last year Mays received rave reviews with the publication of his first book, Stories Of The Road, The Studios, Sidemen & Singers: 55 Years In The Music Biz.

Awards and Honors:

  • Arranger, pianist and producer on Grammy-nominated Bop For Kerouac (Mark Murphy/Muse)
  • Pianist on Gold Album Paradise Cafe (Barry Manilow/Arista Records)
  • “Talent Deserving Of Wider Recognition” in the piano category, Downbeat Magazine
  • Nominated for “Most Valuable Player” Award, Los Angeles
  • International Society of Bassists: “Friend Of The Bass”
  • Performance grants from Meet The Composer, Mid-Atlantic Arts Foundation, N.E.A., PennPAT

Website: www.billmays.net