Saturday, November 28, 2009

Of NYC, Maria Schneider and Don Sebesky

Yesterday I made a crazy trip to New York City. A friend and I hopped on a train at the Amtrack BWI station at 3:50 in the afternoon, travelled to New York, grabbed some food, saw a show at The Jazz Gallery, went to a later show at The Jazz Standard, ate a late night slice and hopped on the train home getting in at 6:24 am. I'm a bit tired but also quite inspired.

At the Jazz Gallery I ended up sitting right in front of someone I knew from my days as part of The BMI Jazz Composers Workshop. I particiapated from Sep 2003 to July 2005. Naturally the Stravisky project made it into the conversation. He instantly replied that that had always been a dream/goal of his to do. He had purchased a score many years ago, looked at it and put it off. And it is still off. He did say, as have others, "I believe Don Sebesky did a version of Rite of Spring." And that is true. However, neither myself nor anyone else that has mentioned it has actually heard it. It is something he did for Hubert Laws on a CTI record from the 70s. I have looked it up to find it is all Sebesky arrangements of classical pieces. The Rite of Spring piece is 9 minutes and 10 seconds long. Quite obviously not the whole work. I've sampled the track on itunes but the free 30 seconds doesn't tell me much. I can't purchase the individual track although the $4.99 for the whole album might be a good deal. Anyway, The Marcus Gillmore Quintet with Mark Turner sounded great at that venue.

At 11:30 I was in my seat waiting to hear a big band play the music of arguably today's greatest jazz composer, and my personal favorite, Maria Schneider. Her band holds forth every year during the Thanksgiving week. What a fantastic show. Two friends from college, Greg Gisbert and Donny McCaslin play in the band. Both played an amazing solo that set. And the music gave me goose bumps and moved me very nearly to tears on several occasions. She opened with Concert in the Garden. Ben Monder played another mind bending solo. She followed that with Gumba Blue. Gisbert, Steve Wilson and Ryan Keberle tore up some minor blues on that piece. The Rich's Piece featuring Rich Perry. She closed with Hang Gliding, an amazing musical excursion. Donny played his tail off as did Ingred Jensen. After the set he was apologizing to Maria for his poor playing. She didn't buy it, telling him that his worst nights would slay most other mortals. Great players never seemed to be satisfied with their playing.

After the set I was able to talk to Maria for a bit. I suppose it would be a stretch to say we are freinds. Perhaps acquaintance is the correct word. But I have had numerous opportunities to interact with her. I even shared a table at dinner one time. And she does give me a hug every time I see her. (I know, you're all jealous.) Anyway, last night I actually gave her an invite to the premier of Rite of Spring for jazz ensemble. (May 12, 2010, Baltimore's Contemporary Museum) One of the first things she mentioned was "Don Sebesky did a version of Rite of Spring." We ended up talking a bit about that. She told me that Bob Brookmeyer was on that date . He has told Maria that the first rehearsal was a disaster. But Don knew what he wanted, communicated it and drove on and got a good recording. Her point was to not be thrown off or discouraged by a poor initial reading. Sometimes that can freak a composer/arranger out and make them worry about what they wrote. Point taken.

Anyway, it was an inspring night in NYC. Some great food, great playing, great compositions, great conversations. This type of music is always a boost to my playing and my writing. It makes me want to keep at it. As a matter of fact, it is making me anxious to finish this project so that I can get to some original material for a change. And I'm not to worried about first readings of the music. (I get six more charts read on Tuesday and I'll probably post about that) I have enough new pieces read to not be bothered by what an intitial reading may sound like. But I may just pee my pants if Maria was to actually show up at the premier performance.

Monday, November 23, 2009

The Law of Intertia

That's me in the picture. I'm the one with the "bottle". That's outside a theater in downtown Parkersburg, WV. We had time to kill before a Sunday matinee performance. As musicians tend to do, we entertained ourselves.

Now, I'm no scientist, but if my memory serves me correctly, the law of inertia goes something like this: A body at rests wants to stay at rest, and a body in motion wants to continue in the same direction unless acted upon by an outside force. Now, that's physics. In other words that's a law for physical things. But we all know that the same principle really applies to more abstract things such as the emotional or physical energy to get something done. It's sort of like going to the gym, getting started is half the battle.

For the past 10 days I was a body at rest. I intended to take a weekend off. That's a good thing. I can devote time and energy to other things like my wife and the yard. Those leaves they are a fallin'. No problem. But then something crept in. Just one more day. Then another. Then it's Wednesday. I'm gone from 8 a.m. until 9:30 p.m. teaching at Towson University and then Archbishop Curley High School. I'll get back to it Thursday....nope. And so it went through a second weekend until today.

Finally, back to it. I take a listen to the playback on Finale and everything sounds cool so far. The problem is, it ended with the saxes playing a figure that spills over to the next phrase, but I had no idea where I was going with it. A few more plays and no recollection. So, now I not only have to interpret all this Stravinsky and translate is to a jazz piece but I have to translate my own writing as well and produce some sort of logical continuation of what I have just done. It becomes something like different people writing a story by one person writing one paragraph and passing the manuscript to the next person who then writes the following paragraph. I was really quite stuck for a while. I did manage to finally figure out what to do and how to keep moving.

I have now basically finished my tenth chart on this project. "Mystic Circles of the Young Girls" is now ready for lots of proof reading and tweaking (enharmonics, consistent dynamics, etc.) and then eventually part extraction and printing. But better yet, inertia is now for me, not against me. I have once again become a body in motion. I will continue to move in the same direction unless some outside force should start to work against me. I've got the ball rolling again and will be able to keep working with much less effort.

Perhaps this calls for a nap

Monday, November 16, 2009

What The Heck Is That ?

Let me start by saying I have no classical training at all. I have not studied it on my instrument nor have I taken classical theory, analysis, or music appreciation. (Music appreciation classes are generally misnamed as they are usually a class in the history of western classical music to the exclusion or near exclusion of all other music.) I am a jazz musician. In my two years at Berklee College of Music I was never made to practice or study the Creston or Ebert sonatas or the like. Personally I think they are of just about zero value in helping a player whose goal is to play jazz. Arguments for technique development are unfounded. Basic practice of scales, technicals studies and the like cross both the jazz and classical worlds. And if a saxophonist can practice and learn a Michael Brecker or Charlie Parker solo up to tempo he will gain as much technique as anyone playing "saxophone literature". Did I say I have no background in classical music?

All that being said, I do appreciate classical music. Amongst my nearly 1,000 CDs I do have a small "legit" collection. Beethoven and Bartok string quartets. Mussorgsky, Grieg, Copland, Tchaikovsky, etc. I enjoy some more modern things put out by the ECM New Series by composers like Valentin Silvestrov. (No choral music. Just doesn't do it for me.) And when asked to do this Rite Of Spring project I actually already had a recording in my possesion. But what I needed was the score. Easy enough. I went to Dale Music in Silver Sping and got one, opened it and nearly passed out.

First, it's pretty overwhelming to look at the 153 pages, some of which are rather condensed as I later found out, and realize that I have to figure all this out and create a way for this to be presented by a 17 piece jazz ensemble. I tried following the score a little bit along with the recording and started getting lost. That's when I began to discover the way in which the publisher tried to save paper. If an instrument is not playing, it disappears from the score. You may be following an oboe part that's three lines down on the score and turn the page to find that it is now five lines down because the piccolo and alto flute have now joined and their staves,which were previously non-existent, have now pushed the oboe down. Sometimes the score reads straight across the page. Other times the score itself has three "lines" on a page because very few staves are being used. This can be very frustrating.

And then there were the "what the heck is that?" moments. What is "C. ing". Or "Cl. in La". Or "Cl. in Re". Or "Corno in Fa". It was easy to tell that Cl. was clarinet. A little thought and it became evident that the solfegge terms were being used as well. Cl. in La was an A clarinet. Corno in Fa is horn in F. Or a French Horn as we uneducated jazzers would call them. Cor. ing. turned out to be English Horn. I had already figured out that Fagotto was a Bassoon. Plenty of juvenile jokes surround that instrument and it's alter ego. I know the Fl gr. part is flute, but what does the "gr." stand for? Haven't figured that one out yet.And then there's those transpositions as well as clefs I am unaccustomed to like alto and tenor cleff. Hoo boy, this is gonna be fun.
So, I think I have figured out what the heck everything is. And as I have been going along I have been slowly figuring out what the heck to write and who to write it for. I have figured out how in the heck to get improvised solos in the pieces, how to get some hip chord changes, how to deal with form, etc. Now, what the heck am I going to eat for lunch?

Friday, November 13, 2009

Rite of Spring as a work for Jazz Ensemble

So, I have been meaning to start this my first ever blog for quite a while now. I have however, procrastinated quite well. In fact, in much the same manner as I put off starting the project that I am now blogging about. And that is the daunting task of arranging and orchestrating Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring" for jazz ensemble. Or "big band" as these groups were called as they emerged as popular American performers in the 1930s. The genre has not disappeared although they have become a fringe group, at least as compared to rock & roll, country or hip-hop. But they continue to survive as jazz ensembles, jazz orchestras or even the good old word big band. I don't like big band so much as it has too strong of a tie to bands like Glenn Miller that were playing dance music and never digging in to really play some jazz. But, now I'm off on another tangent.

About November of 2008, Brian Sacawa, curator of the Mobtown Modern concert series in Baltimore approached me with an idea. Why not present Stravinsky's Rite of Spring as a jazz piece. Being an arranger and composer as well as a glutton for punishment I said, "hey that's a good idea." Well, nothing more was said until the following February or so when we more or less said the same things. "Let's do it." And off it went into the recesses of my mind.

Well, sometime around April or May I googled Stravinsky, rite, jazz, etc and what do you think I found. The website for Mobtown Modern with a performance date for Rite of Spring "as arranged by award winning composer/arranger Darryl Brenzel". Panic!!!!! Now there's a deadline. May 12, 2010 at the Contemporary Museum in Baltimore. A little more procrastinating and pen finally starts to go to paper in July. Well, actually, I start to input my first notes in the computer.

Anyway, I am currently about 2/3 of the way through the actual writing. I have heard a rehearsal of about 40% of that. My intention with this blog is not only to keep you posted on my progress and all it's inherent hurdles and rewards, but to backtrack through some of the process to let you in on what has happened along the way. And to perhaps even re-think things myself. My goal is to update at least two times a week. We'll see how that goes. Anyway, I hope Igor is not rolling in his grave. I kind of like to think that he would appreciate what I am doing. And I hope on May 12, 2010 that my audience does as well.