Saturday, December 21, 2013

Thoughts on Jazz and Online Dating

I had a big thing come up where I was to perform and be interviewed on a TV show. I’m pretty sure that on well-known talk shows, the hosts are prompted with questions beforehand and the guests come prepared to tell certain stories. So I decided to be really professional and come prepared with a clever insight about the language of jazz. Unfortunately, the interview was so short that there was no way to work in my material. Later, I tried it out on a musical friend, who said, “yeah, that would have been funny.” Since it may be awhile before I have the opportunity to test my idea on TV, here’s what I was thinking:

People talk about jazz being a language, and learning it is similar to learning, let’s say, French. It’s important to listen to how others speak, how they phrase their sentences, where they put their accents, so that when you try to converse, you don’t sound as silly as Inspector Clouseau, (“Did you say ‘meen-key?’) And it’s not just about pronouncing things correctly. A big component of learning to speak a language is learning how to listen, and respond wisely, thoughtfully and, when you’ve really got it down – cleverly.

Let’s compare this concept to the conversation between two people on a blind date. They met on match-com or some such site. The guy has been rehearsing all week what he is going to talk about. He has one phrase worked up that will definitely wow his new friend and maybe help take things to a deeper level. So as the two are talking, the guy is trying to gently manipulate the conversation so that he can work in his impressive sentence. But the woman won’t stop talking about her cats. The guy just can’t wait any longer, so he finally blurts out:


Good date or bad date? Well, sorry, game over. The evening ends early, and the woman tells her friends, “He was such a jerk, all he talked about was himself. He didn’t hear a word I said.”

Generally, in conversation, we are able to be so flexible, because we are comfortable with the language. When someone throws in an unexpected line or phrase or pun, we can fairly quickly switch gears and respond in a way that makes sense.

Thankfully, in jazz, we are not booted off the stage for playing a well-rehearsed phrase at the “wrong time” in our solos. In fact, the thoughtful and generous musicians I play with have such incredible listening skills, they can take any “new ideas” in my playing and make them seem right. Maybe I will try out a little riff of four notes, and think that, ugh, that didn’t work, I meant to play a B instead of an A on the last note. But the person next to me responds by acknowledging the A, repeating the A, testing the A, and helping me feel like the A was actually interesting. He’s saying “ooh, let me try and see what I can do with that” or “I hadn’t thought of it that way, I see what you mean.”

Probably one of my favorite performance moments this year was at the Chatterbox Jazz Club in October. Playing with the incredible Sandy Williams on guitar, Fred Withrow on bass and Gene Markiewicz on drums. At one point during the soloing, Sandy stopped playing, and asked Gene to stop, which allowed Fred and I some space and freedom in our improvising. Sandy spontaneously yelled out “Yeah, Becky!” during a moment that I was being very experimental. When he started playing again, he responded by repeating and toying around with some of my ideas and of course making them sound brilliant.

When I wrote these thoughts down a few months ago, I couldn't come up with a conclusion...

Saturday, July 6, 2013

What Also Inspires Me

I’m inspired by places I’ve been (Once is Not Enough) and the journey itself (The Long Ride Home.)

I’m inspired by composers (From Mozart to Me, LVB-Bop, Waltz, Anniversary Waltz, Jaggedy Rag, Dizzy ‘N Groovy. . .)

I’m inspired by musicians (Just One Note, le tour de Jack, 5/4/3/2/1, Spring, My Knee Mo’, The Right to Swing, Let’s Try it a Second Time. . .)

I’ve written music for birthdays (Lullaby) and anniversaries (Anniversary Waltz.)

Words can set me off (Egg, Chips (and Beans), Fre(n)ch Frei Fugue.)

I’ve dedicated music to students (Blues for Kathryn) and teachers (Biddle Liddle.)

My music can be scary (Haunted) exciting (Thrill Ride) or soothing (Peace.)

I’ve written in order to learn something new (Midnight at Monteton) and about things I already know (I Know.)

And, of course, I write about love (Moved with Love, Romance, If You Only Knew, Delaney’s Song, Just Like That, At Home, 40’s Love Song. . .)

I’m not done writing yet. I can make something special for you (Call Me.)

Friday, July 5, 2013

What Inspires Me

I’ve been inspired by artists (The Artist) musicians (B-3 Blues) composers (Sailing with Ludwig) interior designers (I’ve Got Designs On You) trains (Listen Up) bicycles (Cultural Trail Theme) the weather (One-O-Four) the seasons (Leaf Movement) and months (Rocktober.)

I’ve written about hope (The Light at the End of the Blues) and despair (Unspoken.)

I’ve been inspired by people’s names (Wise Guy) what they wear (Deux Chapeaux) and what they say (Lip Service.)

I’ve written music for beginnings (The One I Love) middles (Interlude) and endings (A Song in the Key of DAVE.)

My music can be a little sweet (A Little Sweet) or really mean (A Really Mean Boogie-Woogie.) Or a bit of both (Bittersweet.)

I’ve been inspired by family (Daddy’s Kind of Rock) friends (Still Something to Say) and people who anger me (What Might Have Been.)

I’ve written music to cheer myself up (Lemonade) and to cheer up a friend (Squeeze the Cheese.)

I can do tongue-in-cheek (Seriously Blue) lighthearted (Jaggedy Rag) and laugh-aloud funny (Sumthin’ Funky.)

I’ve written about searching (Searching) and finding (I Got It.)

I’m not done writing yet. I can make something special for you (Call Me.)

Creating the Cultural Trail Theme

The first thing I imagined, when asked to write a piece for the dedication of the Indianapolis Cultural Trail (ICT), was a “fiddler in the street.” Perhaps because my friend Dean Franke (Assistant Concertmaster of the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra) is such a willing and able participant for any wild thing I dream up. I couldn’t decide if he should be on a rooftop (that’s been done) or in a tree, or actually on the trail. I began working on ideas that were positive, jazzy and energetic (words that Brian Payne, founder/leader of the ICT, used to describe the mood he was looking for.) And I promised Brian I would find a way to incorporate a bicycle into the piece.

When writing, it’s good to just write, without analyzing what you are doing. Get it all out before you look at the whole picture. I had fun adding clarinet, trumpet and saxophones, and a cool, contrapuntal bluesy section developed from the main theme. But when I stepped back, I was uncomfortably disappointed. After all that work, I didn’t want to admit I was wrong. But I was wrong. Instead of upbeat, the piece came off silly, like something King Louie might have danced to in “The Jungle Book.”

Back to square one, I considered a sketch I had written just after a meeting with Brian, which, at the time of writing, I didn’t think would work. When I teach composition classes at Anderson University, we discuss ways to create mood and feel. Armed with Brian’s words, it would seem that using a major, happy key and creating a melody that traveled upward in pitch would be the best bet. I found it interesting that in the case of the Cultural Trail Theme, I ended up with more satisfying results by doing the opposite of what music theory tells me should work. The piece is in a minor key, and the melody is based on a descending line. Who knew!

Besides getting the main melody right, I had other hopes and goals for the piece. I hoped that I could write something with the right mix of complexity (to keep myself engaged during the writing process and to help the piece remain intriguing after multiple listenings) and simplicity (so that I can whistle it when someone asks me how it goes.) I hoped that it would work to have different sections in the piece sort of match up with various activities on the trail (walking, running, and gliding on a bike.) I hoped that I would be happy with the end product, and also, hoped that the other players and audience would enjoy it.

As the piece evolved, my ideas for instrumentation evolved and changed. When I finally had the bike puzzle figured out, I asked Jack Brennan, an ISO percussionist, if he would demonstrate some instruments, so that I could choose ones that would match the sounds I was making with the bike parts. He invited me backstage before a rehearsal and went around hitting and shaking each of their hundreds of objects until I found the right match (a guiro for the wheel ratchet and vibes for the handlebars.) Freshly inspired, I wrote the percussion parts later that evening.

I ended up writing the piece for 12 instruments – trumpet, sax quartet, vibes, congas, guiro, piano, bass, drums, and “cycla-phone”(what I dubbed the “instrument” made of bike parts) - and assembling the best team I could ever ask for to perform at the premiere.
• The Intro and Main theme – With the idea of “building” in mind, the piece begins with percussion (using bike parts and some “legitimate” percussive instruments.) Horns are added one by one, building excitement toward the main theme. With elements of a fanfare, the main theme is introduced by the trumpet and answered back by a saxophone quartet.
• B section – It has an unusual meter of 5/4, which gives the phrases more length. I was envisioning a bike race – not the beginning of the race, but later in the race when the bikers seem to be gliding. I actually studied a youtube video of a bike race while having this section playing in the background, to make sure it was a good fit. The section features long tones and rich harmonies in the saxophone section.
• Jazz interpretation of Main theme – A variation of the main theme returns, but this time it is tighter, brighter, quicker and jazzier, with the horns taking turns improvising on the theme.

Even though the piece took over two years to write, I try not to think of my mistakes as a waste of time. They are part of the journey. They help me understand what I don’t like, so that when the right thing hits me, it is obvious.

Watch the World Premiere-

By the way, I wrote “A Little Sweet” for Dean Franke, to make up for booting him out of this piece. Watch his Feb. 14 performance with Ingrid Bellman . . .