Monday, September 13, 2010


Wabi-sabi. "What's wabi-sabi" you say? I'm glad so you asked. I happen to be an expert on the subject. Well, actually, I just read about it very recently, but it is a principle to which I have subscribed without ever actually having heard the name before. So here goes.

"There's a beauty to imperfection. This is the essence of the Japanese priciple of wabi-sabi. Wabi-sabi values character and uniqueness over a shiny facade. It teaches that cracks and scratches in things should be embraced. It's also about simplicity. You strip things down and then use what you have. Leonard Koren, author of a book on wabi-sabi, gives this advice: "Pare down to the essence, but don't remove the poetry. Keep things clean and unencumbered, but don't sterilize." It's a beautiful way to put it. Leave the poetry in what you make. When something becomes too polished, it loses it's soul. It seems robotic"

The above paragraph came from the book Rework by Jason Fried and David Hansson, pages 182-3, published by Crown Business. I'd put a proper footnote at the bottom of the page but I don't know the correct way to do so. And wabi-sabi would dictate that rather than look it up and make it all perfect that I just leave it as is instead.

So, I think I have always followed the wabi-sabi principle. I've never been all that concerned with perfection in most of what I do. (That didn't apply to things like preparing my uniform when I was in the military!) I don't care about performances being slick, cool and polished. I want them to be heart felt. Make those attempts at new and exciting things. If you miss, I don't care. It was real. And I like music that is pared down the right way. There can be a lot of things going on in a jazz orchestra arrangement in a good way or in a bad way. So often things just sound so busy all the time. I believe Maria Schneider's music is a perfect example the right way. People come up to her and tell her how complex her music is. But she replies that actually the melodies are so simple that a child could sing them. They are just developed, ornamented and harmonized in the right way. It's really simple music. Bob Brookmeyer would be another example. Sure, there is lots going on. But Bob truly believes in only writing what is necessary. There are no improvised solos in a piece until he feels that's the only thing that can go there. Some of his works for big band have no improvised solos. No cookie cutter charts. Nothing slick for the sake of being slick. And I'm happy for it. I don't like when people tell me to listen to big band chart "X" because it's really cool. I don't want really cool. I want real.

So, I believe the principle of wabi-sabi will reflected in two ways in the Re-write Of Spring project. First, I believe that paring the work down to it's essence was exactly what I tried to do as I arranged and orchestrated this piece for jazz orchestra. Actually, it's probably more like it is what I had to do. We simply didn't have the instrumentation to start with. There was no way we could cover everything going on in the orchestral score. And why would we even try. Jazz is all about stripping things to their essence and then creating something new and unique on top of that. Jazz has often been called the sound of surprise. If we tried to deal with everything, where would the surprise be? We've taken the piece, stripped it down and re-dressed it. The work is very recognizable yet unique.

Second, we are definitely embracing cracks and scratches. There are a few places in the arrangements where I realize it could have been better with a few changes to what I wrote. But I've never been one to do lot's of re-writes. I fix the obvious mistakes, but the parts that were weaker or lacking I don't try to perfect. I leave it as a testament to what I was doing at that time and simply try to learn from it so that I don't repeat the same "error" later on. And we are also embracing cracks and scratches in the performance. The is live music performed by live musicians. And it is difficult music. (I believe I've said that at least a few time before.) 17 people performing music over the course of 75 minutes is bound to make for a few flubs. And so be it. We could take and over dub and do all kinds of pro-tools fixes. But we've chosen to do no overdubs and the number of pro-tools fixes we've done could be counted with your fingers with some left over. And that's how it should be. This is a document of what took place at a given moment in time. And everything about it makes it beautiful.

Wabi-sabi. You should try it. It is a breath of fresh air in such a plastic world of plastic entertainers and plastic products. And you should sample a good batch of it when the CD of The Re-write of Spring comes out.

Now if you'll excuse me, I need to go as I suddenly have a craving for some Japanese food. Some sushi with a good dose of wusabi sounds just right.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

More 2nd Clarinet, Please.

So, three months and 21 days later, I have finally returned to the keyboard, computer keyboard that is, to update my two or three followers about what has been happening since May 12. I suppose I should actually start with what did happen on May 12. As you know that was the big day of the premiere of my version of Rite Of Spring and in a nutshell I would have to say it was fantastic. We managed to get the whole band there on time and get a sound check and clear stage in time to open the doors 30 minutes out. That in itself is no small miracle. Getting 17 musicians to one place in the city on time is a major feat. And when the doors opened there was a good line going down the block waiting to get in for the first show. This on a night when there were some major rainstorms. It seems to be common for me. My big CD release concert many years ago at Blues Alley in DC was hampered by snow. Only about two inches. But if you know anything about the DC area, two inches of snow means go to the store for bread and milk, get some movies and wait for spring. (The season, not the Stravinsky work) But I digress.
So, we get a good intro from Brian Sacawa, the concert series curator, and kick it off. The audience is on the edge of their seats but probably not as much as the band. This is very tricky material and we have had very little rehearsal. We made it through without any major wrecks. I think I conducted everything right. There were a few bleeps and blops in wrong places. A few hairy moments. Oh yeah, I goofed the end of the last piece. Supposed to be "off on three". I gave a hold. Some went with it, others didn't. And I forgot to turn on my mic for my solo on the last number. Oops. Even so, the place went bonkers after that show. Tim Smith from the Baltimore Sun was there and wrote a glowing review. The show was also attended by a gentleman that writes for DMV classical and he wrote an amazing review. They are posted on my Facebook page. (Again, you may friend me if you want, just mention something about Stravinsky in the request)
The band was very relieved to get through the show and was wondering how they would endure a second one. A beer did the trick for many of them. And the second show was definitely more relaxed. A mixture or relief and alcohol is a good thing. And, both shows were recorded to 24 tracks so.......
.....we have finally begun to mix the performance. And a difficult task it is. This is really, really hard music to engineer and recording live in very close quarters makes it even harder. For instance, mixing a Basie recording would be quite simple. Once you have a good mix/balance/EQ for the sax section you would barely have to touch it the entire time. You can leave it there for the length of the album. The instruments don't change and individuals very, very rarely end up in a combination of horns from other sections. My arrangement is totally the opposite. The sax players change from saxes to flutes, to clarinets, to bass clarinets. Brass change to various mutes and the tumpets play flugels as well. All in many different intrument combinations. A tutti figure might get played by a combination of one sax, one clarinet, two flugel horns and a trombone in a bucket mute. So you mix those eights bars but have to change everything after that because now the bone takes the mute out and plays with his section, the sax switches to a line w/ trumpets and the clarinet plays a different line, joined by a second clarinet. And we need more of the second clarinet. But we can't boost him too much because he sat right next to the bari player and he is bleeding heavily into the 2nd clarinet's microphone. Me:"More second clarinet, please." Mack McLaughlin: "Can't, that boosts the bari too much." And so it goes. Thank God for automated boards, too. Otherwise we would need four guys on the board with their fingers on all the faders pulling things up and down over the course of a tune. Engineers and their staffs used to actually "rehearse" doing that to mix a tune down to two track.
Anyway, the recording is not without it's faults. In this day of pro-tools one can make all kinds of amazing edits and fixes, provided you have good seperation with your tracks. That's one thing we don't have. So we will have a very honest recording. A rarity these days as everything is so "fixed" in the mix that it isn't really at all reflective of what was actually played by the musicians in real time. We'll have some warts. But it is a recording of the world premiere. How often does that happen?
Anyway, word has slowly spread about the project. I was contacted by some people from The San Francisco Conservatory about the project. I sold a copy of the arrangement to a guy in Australia. By the way, anyone else interested in purchasing the chart? I am selling it for those that would like to perform it with their own band. However, not everyone is so enthused about the work. I applied to do a presentation/clinic about my project at next year's JEN (Jazz Education Network) conference but they didn't want it. Tried for a performance too and they didn't want that either. (This is the organization that has risen out of the ashes of IAJE) They'll probably have yet another Yamaha artist presenting something he prepared just two days before the conference. Ah,...the benefits of corporate sponsorship.
So, I'll try to post again soon and give any estimates I may have about time lines for mastering, producing and releasing the recording. Until then, keep swingin'.