Saturday, April 25, 2015

Regrets? I've Had A Few...

I was 17-years old when Jeff Presslaff moved to my hometown of Winnipeg from New York City.  I was a headstrong and impetuous teen, so rather than warmly welcoming him, I viewed him merely as competition. I made the assumption that he was just another cocky American musician rolling through town and was determined not to be outshone by this new jazz pianist.  I used his arrival as motivation to practice harder and made a point of trying to outplay him at jam sessions.

Thankfully I have mellowed as I've grown older and I now value relationships a whole lot more.  If I could do it over again, I would have befriended Jeff, gotten to know him as a person, and tried to learn a thing or two along the way.  Jeff Presslaff is a highly skilled and devoted musician (both on piano and trombone!) and he writes brilliantly.  He's also a really nice guy.

When I returned to Winnipeg last March to play with the Winnipeg Jazz Orchestra, there was Jeff, capably playing in the trombone section.  I really enjoyed the depth of our conversations during breaks.  It was at this time that I learned about his "Compete Rebirth of the Cool" project and was intrigued.  The way he described it, I thought it might make for an interesting programming choice with my student ensemble at some point.  We traded CDs, as I often do with musicians in my travels, and when I listened to it on the plane ride home, I knew I had stumbled upon a winner.

I really like Jeff's idea of using the instrumentation from the original Miles Davis nonet (a.k.a. "Miles Davis' tuba band") and attempting to continue where Davis, Mulligan and Evans left off.  I saw a similar approach when the Wind Ensemble conductor at UConn, Dr. Jeffrey Renshaw commissioned composers to write something using the same instrumentation as Stravinsky's Concerto for Piano and Wind Instruments.

Earlier this week I posted Jeff Presslaff's "Marda Loop", the opening selection from my UConn Jazz Ensemble concert on 4/16/2015.  Here are three more of his terrific pieces from the same concert:

Measure for Measure for Measure:

Sincerely Ours:


All of this music from "The Complete Rebirth of the Cool" is available for purchase on Jeff's website:

Friday, April 24, 2015

Let's Hear It For Dean McNeill

For starters, Dean McNeill is arguably the world's tallest trumpeter.  If he were to play in my big band, I would have him stand on the floor with his section mates on a riser.  But aside from his physical stature, he's also one hell of a composer, as you will hear in the pieces below.  I like how on a composition project inspired by Miles Davis' nonet, he made very thoughtful, subtle references to songs from the original Birth of the Cool recording.

Dean and I were students together at McGill during the late-1980s and we are both from the Canadian prairies.  After graduate school at UNT, Dean returned to western Canada and become a professor of music at the University of Saskatchewan.  We occasionally cross paths now when adjudicating high school bands. It is fun seeing him in the role of music educator.

Two of Dean's compositions, "What Fourth" and "Such Sweet Sadness" were included in my 04/16/2015 UConn Jazz Ensemble concert billed as "The Complete Rebirth of the Cool".  Both pieces were unique, well constructed and unquestionably worth the effort to prepare.

Let's hear it for Dean McNeill!

What Fourth:

Such Sweet Sadness:

Trivia fact: During the early 1990s Dean was the director of the Edmonton Jazz Society’s Little Birds Big Band.  By default, did that make him.... _____ ______ ?

Thursday, April 23, 2015


I couldn't resist trying my hand at writing an arrangement using the "Birth of the Cool" instrumentation.  I call this one "Mishigas", which is Yiddish for... the craziness of this world (lack of sense and order).

The drums are used to outline the three roots in a blues progression.  The melody over top uses a weird scale that resembles harmonic minor with a raised fourth degree.  If there's an official name for this scale I'm unaware of it.

The song starts off and ends in G.  Each soloist plays in a different key; Dmi for piano, Emi for horn and F#mi for alto saxophone.  I added some simple backgrounds to frame each solo.

Check out Alex Gertner on that French horn!  Go Alex go!

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

The Complete Rebirth of the Cool

In response to last semester’s successful presentation of Miles Davis’ “Birth of the Cool,” the UCONN Jazz Nonet prepared Jeff Presslaff’s “The Complete Rebirth of the Cool,” which attempts to continue what Miles started. Six composers from the Canadian prairies are represented: Jeff Presslaff, Dean McNeill, Ken Gold, Will Bonness, Jon Stevens and Danielle Baert. Each was asked to write something inspired by the original album, but to take into account what has happened in the musical world since 1950, when Miles’ nonet dispersed.

Over the next few days I will post videos of all the pieces performed.  Here are the first two:

Marda Loop, by Jeff Presslaff:

Range Of Motion, by Danielle Baert:

Interestingly enough, Danielle and I were in a jazz quartet together while we were high school students in Winnipeg.  We also played in the University of Manitoba's big band before heading off to Montreal to study at McGill.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Insights into Duke Ellington, Bob Brookmeyer, Billy Byers and Gil Evans.

Arranger, David Berger sent me this video on which he discusses the compositional habits of Duke Ellington, Bob Brookmeyer, Billy Byers, and Gil Evans.  He also provides some insights into his own methods.

Like Berger, I am always on the lookout for proven, successful methods to incorporate into my own work.  For my next writing project, composing a series of educational jazz band charts for high school and middle school groups, I will try adopting Ellington's practice of using a reduced score.  I created the following template which is photocopied and ready to go:

big band score paper

I question if working this way might result in less combining of instruments across sections.  But then again, if this truly was the method employed by Ellington and Strayhorn, they certainly were not orchestrationally impeded.

More and more I am drawn to the idea of returning to paper and pencil, rather than sitting at a computer, entering notes.  The question is: To what degree will the process affect the imagined music?

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Maria Schneider Orchestra at the Jazz Standard, NYC - 11/28/2014

I had absolutely no desire to play big band music back in 1993, when I began my jazz graduate studies at Rutgers University. I felt I had played enough Sammy Nestico and Bob Mintzer charts, and I was back in school solely to hone my piano chops under Kenny Barron's tutelage. I remember walking into my mandatory ensemble audition and requesting NOT to be placed in the big band. Mike Mossman, the ensemble's director countered, "But you don't know what music we're playing this semester. Have you heard Maria Schneider's band yet?"  I admitted I hadn't, to which he replied, "Go to Visiones on Monday night to check out her band, and then report back to me on Tuesday to let me know if you still have no interest in big band music."

That Monday night in September, 1993 my life was forever changed. I had no idea that a big band could be a such an effective vehicle for self expression, or that such a variety of orchestrational colors could come from just seventeen players. I bought Maria's Evanescence CD that evening, and was hooked; the course of my life took an unexpected turn.

Fast forward twenty-one years (not to mention heaps of big band writing, performing, conducting and recording, etc.)...

Maria Schneider Jazz Orchestra
The Maria Schneider Orchestra at the Jazz Standard
One of my former UCONN jazz students, Matt Baum now works at the Jazz Standard night club in New York City, as executive assistant to the club's artistic director. He invited my wife and me to be his guests during one of Maria Schneider's tenth Anniversary Thanksgiving week performances at the Jazz Standard. We chose to attend the early set on Friday night, Nov. 28th.  In a word, the show was "brilliant".

They played the following material:
  • Journey Home
    • featuring trombonist Ryan Keberle
  • A Potter's Song
    • dedicated to Laurie Frink
    • featuring UCONN Music alumnus (!!!), Gary Versace on accordion
  • Night Watchmen (middle mvt. from "Scenes from Childhood")
    • featuring Steve Wilson and Mike Rodriguez
  • Gumba Blue
    • featuring pianist Frank Kimbrough, trumpeter Greg Gilbert and trombonist Marshall Gilkes.
  • Home
    • a new Rich Perry feature written for the upcoming release, "The Thompson Fields"
  • Arbiters of Evolution
    • another new piece, featuring saxophonists Donny McCaslin (a.k.a. Dwight Schrute!) and Scott Robinson, whose facility in the bari's upper register is beyond remarkable.
There aren't many bands in the world with such a stacked roster of soloists.  Every solo was jaw-droppingly awesome.  Describing highlights would be superfluous, as these players don't need my adjectives to affirm their validity.

Maria Schneider and Earl MacDonald
Maria Schneider and Earl MacDonald.  The Jazz Standard, Nov. 28, 2014

I look forward to Maria's next CD.  It was recorded in August, is currently being mixed, and will be released on April 21st.  Seeing this timeline was a good lesson for me.  It is interesting to see how much carefully calculated planning goes into the release of her discs.  To learn more about her ArtistShare crowdfunding project, click on the link.   

What a fun and inspiring evening.  I think I'll sharpen my pencils, roll up my sleeves, and get back to the business of writing my own big band music.  My creative batteries are recharged. Thanks Matt and Maria!
Matt Baum and Earl MacDonald at the Jazz Standard, NYC
With my former UCONN Jazz student, Matt Baum who now works at the Jazz Standard in NYC.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Birth of the Cool

This semester, the UCONN Jazz Ensemble and I prepared the music from Miles Davis' "Birth of the Cool" album.  It was a thoroughly enjoyable undertaking. I witnessed considerable growth in the individual band members as they carefully studied the album and worked to replicate the stylistic nuances of the original players.
Birth of the Cool
Miles Davis, Lee Konitz and Gerry Mulligan in rehearsal (circa 1948)
Here we are performing at the Co-Op Bookstore in Storrs Center on November 13th.

Boplicity, by Miles Davis and Gil Evans.  Arranged by Gil Evans.

On his own initiative, the bari sax player learned Gerry Mulligan's recorded solo.

Moon Dreams, by Chummy MacGregor and Johnny Mercer.  Arranged by Gil Evans.

"Moon Dreams" may be my favorite of the album's twelve charts.  It is not surprising that a critic who heard Davis' nonet perform in 1948 said "the music sounds more like that of Maurice Ravel than it does like jazz... it is not really jazz."

I love how this music stemmed from musicians' discussions about the future of jazz and drew from contemporary classical music they had heard on recordings.

Move, by Dezil Best. Arranged by John Lewis.

This performance took place earlier on Nov. 13th for the high school students at Norwich Free Academy. As a teacher, I am encouraged by the trumpet player's solo.  He is starting to incorporate some solid jazz vocabulary into his playing.  This wasn't happening a year ago. He's still working on execution at this tempo, but a year from now, if he continues on his current path, I believe he will be "a force to be reckoned with".

Deception, by Miles Davis.  Arranged by Gerry Mulligan.

This is my second time preparing music from "the Birth of the Cool".  The first time (back in 2002,) I acquired the music directly from Gerry Mulligan's widow, Franca.  The charts were a mess and full of inconsistencies, which made rehearsals difficult.  This time around I bought the published, edited music from, which made for a much more pleasant experience.

Rouge, by John Lewis.

Our final performance of the year will take place on Monday, December 1st at Black-eyed Sally's in Hartford.  The club is hosting a "College Night" where bands from UCONN, the Hartt School, WestConn and the Berklee College of Music will each play a set.  The evening will culminate with a collective jam session.

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