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.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Jan Jarczyk Tribute

On Friday evening I shared a brief eulogy honoring my former composition teacher, Jan Jarczyk.  Jan passed away in August.  His family organized a series of concerts in the cities where he lived and worked, to celebrate his life and music.  This was the third stop, at the Lilypad in Cambridge, MA, following gatherings in Montreal and Toronto.

I was one of three invited speakers, along with drummer Marcello Pellitteri and Jan's daughter, Amaryllis, who read comments by Berklee emeritus professor, Ken Pullig.  Our remarks were interspersed between musical selections performed by a stellar quintet led by tenor saxophonists Jerry Bergonzi and George Garzone.

Celebrating the life and music of pianist and composer, Jan Jarczyk.

I chucked during a story shared by Pellitteri.  Three times he turned in a composition assignment to Jan only to be handed the piece back with the advice, "You can do better."  In my own experience I can attest that Jan certainly did possess the uncanny ability to make us reach to achieve higher levels.

When I spoke, I alluded to Jan's legacy through his teaching and example:  McGill was a special place in the early 90s, because students came from all across Canada to study there.  All regions of the country were represented.  When we graduated, some went back to their home provinces, some stayed in Montreal or went to Toronto or Vancouver, some moved to Europe, and others tried their hand at New York.  Jan's spirit, music and teaching impacted a lot of people, and I hear it in Canadian jazz.  When people say that Canadian jazz has a unique sound of its own, I don't think its a tremendous stretch to say that sound can be traced back to Jan.  I'm not saying he produced musical clones of himself.  He didn't.  He did, however, push us to dive deep into the exploration of harmony, melody and the development of ideas.  I hear Jan in the music of Josh Ranger, Joel Miller, John Stetch, Mike Downes, Bryn Roberts, Jim Head, Tilden Webb and many others.  He's there.

Jan arrived at McGill half way through my undergraduate studies.  If I remember correctly, there were only two full-time jazz faculty before he was hired.  One was a big band expert with a penchant for Sammy Nestico; the other was a "hard bopper" influenced by Kenny Dorham, Lee Morgan and Hank Mobley.  Jan instantly flipped the scene on it's head with improvised solo recitals on piano or pipe organ(!), in addition to his vast catalog of sophisticated, quirky compositions.  He opened our ears to other possibilities, and suddenly it "became cool" to admit to liking Jan Gabarek, Keith Jarrett and other cutting-edge improvisers.  Frequently groups of us would make the trek to hear Jan at Claudio's, a loft jazz club/restaurant in Old Montreal.

But when I think of Jan, I smile thinking of his fun personality as much as I think about his music.  I played a trick on him once, which I outline in the introduction of the following tune, which was performed a couple of weeks ago at a UCONN faculty showcase concert.

My one disappointment in the evening was how little of Jan's music was performed.  I was really looking forward to hearing his tunes played live, but I think they only did two of his pieces:  an Ornette (Coleman)-like melody followed by free improv and "There Is Always Time".  (They may have done one other.)  I heard that in Toronto his tunes were played exclusively --- as they should have been.

Saxophonists Jerry Bergonzi and George Garzone performing at the Lilypad in Cambridge, MA
Bergonzi and Garzone "tearing it up" at the Lilypad in Cambridge.
I wish I could have also attended the gatherings in Montreal and Toronto.  It would have been nice to hear my Canadian friends share their memories.  Since his passing, I have had several opportunities to chat with former classmates about him, but until Friday night I hadn't made the complete emotional connection that he is gone.  Visiting with Jan's wife and daughter was especially touching.  It was a bittersweet evening that I will treasure, along with my other memories of Jan.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Bill Evans' Influence

Reading Peter Pettinger's biography of Bill Evans got me thinking about how much of an influence Bill was on me early on in my musical development.  I listened to Bill, transcribed his solos, and learned his repertoire all through high school and for most of my undergraduate years.  You might say I was obsessed.

Strangely, I haven't listened to those records in a very long while --- probably because most of my Bill Evans collection is on cassette tape or LP.  Maybe its time to bring them out of storage.

It was a nice surprise to see how much video footage there is of Bill on YouTube.  I hope you will enjoy this concert as much as I did.  It's from October, 1966, with Eddie Gomez on bass and Alex Riel on drum set.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

My Man, Thad

To ease myself back into blogging after an exceptionally busy period, I think I'll reinstitute "Wordless Wednesdays", where I post a video that has captured my interest.

Before the advent of YouTube I often wondered about Thad Jones' big band leading.  (I never got to see him live.) Did he conduct in a traditional sense?  Did he conduct from scores or by memory?  Did he stand in front of the band or play within the section?  Was he a stern taskmaster?

Thankfully we now have plenty of video examples to answer these questions and more.  I could watch Thad all day (and have to practice self discipline to refrain from doing so)!  With simple gestures and a big smile on his face, he engages with the musicians and elicits a fun, swinging atmosphere that is sometimes missing from bands today.  He and the band exude joy.

Jazz ensemble directors (myself included) can learn a lot from watching Thad.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

UCONN Brass and Percussion Day

I will teach a session called "Jazz Improv and Lego Building: They're One and the Same" this Saturday, September 13th, at the UCONN Brass and Percussion Day.  My session is from 2:30 - 3:30PM.  If you're planning to attend, please bring your instrument (or some Lego if you wish). 1295 Storrs Rd., Storrs, CT.

The UCONN Music Department's open house event is on Sunday from 9AM - 1PM.  It will be a busy and hopefully productive weekend of recruiting fine young musicians.

Monday, August 4, 2014

26.2 Miles

I came very close to completing my first marathon this past weekend, by accident.  I was scheduled to run 20 miles (my furthest distance yet!), but at mile 9 the running app on my phone started acting up.  It jumped from 9 to 14 miles and said I was running at a 6 minute per mile pace, when I was running closer to 9:30.  At that point, I turned it off.  The problem was, I didn't map out my run prior to starting.  Based on the mileage indicator on my app, I had planned to either take a shortcut as I approached mile 20, or do an extended cool down walk at the end.  I ended up estimating my distance which turned out to be 23.5 miles when I clocked it afterwards with my car's odometer. 

For the most part, I felt good throughout.  Around mile 18 my feet were tired, but my legs felt fine.  I "ate" 3 GU energy gel packs along the way (1 every 60 minutes, approximately).  Prior to running I dropped 3 water bottles, two of which I would visit twice on the running route. So I stopped and hydrated at miles 6, 9, 11, 15 and 19.

The route had several tough hills.  At the 4.5 mile point there is a steep 1/2 mile incline on Bousa Rd.  At mile 8, Horse Barn Hill is another brutal 1/2 mile ascent.  Then, at about mile 16 the hills on Hunting Lodge Rd. present a bit of a challenge to tired legs.

I'm training for the Hartford Marathon on Oct. 11th. At this point, I'm feeling strong, and know I can do it, provided I stay injury free.  I have been following a training plan on the RunKeeper app, and now plan to reset the schedule to correspond with the race.  My mileage will decrease and I'll focus more on building speed.  I may be dreaming, but I'd like to try to complete it in under 4 hours.  This tortoise has a ways to go. 

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Tinkle, Twinkle, BAM!

I was going through old videos and stumbled upon this 7-second gem.  It gives a fairly accurate glimpse into daily life in the MacDonald household.

Against my better judgement I feel half-inclined to start a new blog called "Life With Logan".

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Cadence Magazine Review - Mirror of the Mind

This time last year, boxes of my new CD had just arrived and I was busily mailing copies to reviewers.  In truth, hundreds of copies were mailed along with a press release I had written (and a personal note to each reviewer).

In all, this yielded 13 written reviews (to my knowledge), which isn't bad considering how many musicians are vying for critical attention with new discs.  Nevertheless, I hope never again to act as my own publicist; the whole process took a serious toll on my soul.  I hope to delegate promotion to the pros from now onwards.

This week I received notification that Cadence Magazine will publish the following review in their October Issue.  This was a nice surprise when I thought the lifespan of this disc's promotion had lapsed.  Here's the review:



Kris Allen (ss, as, ts), Earl MacDonald (p), Christopher Hoffman (clo), Rogerio Boccato (perc); Westwood, MA, November 2-3, 2012.

Pianist Earl MacDonald has assembled an interesting cast of characters for the Creative Opportunity Workshop on this rewarding and largely enjoyable release. The assertive and hard-swinging saxophonist Kris Allen has recorded with fellow reedmen Chris Bryars and Loren Stillman and as a member of the Illinois Jacquet orchestra. Cellist Christopher Hoffman has worked with Henry Threadgill’s Zooid and Matt Holman’s Diversion Ensemble, and the exceptionally tasty drummer Rogerio Boccato has been heard with John Patitucci, David Binney, and the Curtis Brothers. The use of cello instead of bass pushes the band a little outside of a typical post-bop mindset. The different range of the instrument moves the rest of the group to a higher state of mindfulness to accommodate it. And Hoffman is adept at shifting from the usual function of bass in a band to become a forceful solo voice, which in turn gives MacDonald more to work with. Most of the tunes are originals by MacDonald. The title tune starts things off with a mid-tempo groover, with Allen on alto. From layers of carefully organized melodic patterns, the arrangement carves space for convincing solos by Allen, Hoffman and Allen again to take it out. A repeated piano figure is at the core of the first theme of “A Thousand Memories,” followed by a release that gives MacDonald his first solo of the date. His piano skips and dances attractively, setting the stage for a gruff tenor solo by Allen. A jittery Hoffman playing arco glides in for a solo, then slips back into the ensemble. It’s all over by 3:33, a refreshing change from sessions where everything seems to last too long. MacDonald makes a point of keeping the songs under control; only “Where Thinking Leaves Off” exceeds the six-minute mark. “Beneath” is funky and stark at first, opens up quickly into mid-tempo groove featuring Allen on a fine-sounding soprano. He seems to be equally at home on all three of his horns, widening the band’s range even more. While you might not think of the Beatles’ “Blackbird” as a useful vehicle for improvisation, MacDonald’s reharmonization and tempo shifts work quite well and features a warm soprano sax solo by Allen, a bouncy piano break by the pianist, and a typically spry solo by Hoffman. That’s one of two covers on the disc. The other is the seldom-played “I Never Told You,” by Johnny Mandel and Arthur Hamilton. Premiered on a Quincy Jones orchestra date in 1969, it’s a lovely dark melody. MacDonald’s arrangement puts Hoffman’s sweet cello out front to excellent effect for one of the highlights of the session. I was also quite taken with “Disillusionment,” with its twisty melody and wide-open solos by a snake-charming Allen and Hoffman. The fractured melody of “It Was Whispered” makes for another standout performance. Boccato sounds great on this one, nailing every sharp twist and turn in the atomized, out of tempo middle section. Certainly the weirdest passage on the disc is the theatrical laughter that greets the saxophone solo on “Where Thinking Leaves Off,” followed by a section of random noises and squeaks plus the odd grunt or two. Eventually, they settle into a groove that breaks down quickly, only to reestablish itself before dissipating into a series of overlapping solo statements that converge into a crescendo. At least there’s no more laughing. The album ends with the straight-ahead upbeat groove of “Bottom Feeders,” a satisfyingly bluesy way to wrap things up. A playful MacDonald is followed by Allen, in a mood to explore the full range of his alto while Boccato and Hoffman keep pace. It’s the kind of tune designed to put a smile on your face and leave the listener with a good feeling. At least that’s the effect it had on me. This Creative Opportunity Workshop is well worth hearing.
– Stuart Kremsky

Mirror of the Mind can be purchased at the UCONN Co-Op Bookstore at Storrs Center and through CD Baby, iTunes, and Amazon.

Sunday, June 29, 2014

New Big Band Composition Debuted by the BMI/New York Jazz Orchestra

My latest composition for jazz orchestra, "It Was Whispered", was debuted on June 27th, 2014 by the BMI/New York Jazz Orchestra.  The concert took place at Christ and St. Stephen's Church in New York City.  Here is the video footage:

To a degree, this piece was inspired by Ornette Coleman. I am fond of the short, folksy, poetic melodies he writes, and wanted to capture this aesthetic within the context of a fully-developed large ensemble piece. My challenge/balancing act was evoking the essence of "free jazz" while retaining enough compositional control to avoid the chaos of mass, collective, free improvisation.

The soloists were:  Satoshi Takeishi (drums), Marc Phaneuf (alto sax), JC Sanford (trombone), Dave Smith (trumpet)

The band roster is as follows:
Woodwinds:  Marc Phaneuf, Ben Kono, Dan Willis, Rob Middleton, Alden Banta
Trumpets:  Dan Urness, John Eckert, Steve Smyth, Dave Smith
Trombones: Tim Sessions, Pete McGuinness, JC Sanford, Jennifer Wharton
Rhythm:  Sabatian Noelle (guitar), Deanna Witkowski (piano), Dave Ambrosio (bass), Satoshi Takeishi (drums)

This was a fun, celebratory way to wrap up my yearlong affiliation with the BMI Jazz Composers' Workshop.

Here I am, posing with the workshop's director, one of my strongest musical influences, Jim McNeely:

Earl MacDonald and Jim McNeely.
...ever up and onward!

Monday, June 9, 2014

New Works For Big Band

The BMI Jazz Composers Workshop will present its 26th annual Summer Showcase Concert on Friday, June 27, 7:30 pm at Christ-St. Stephen Church (120 W. 69th St., NYC). The BMI/NY Jazz Orchestra will be playing new music by Erica Seguine, Migiwa Miyajima, Anna Webber, Tom Erickson, Scott Ninmer, Ann Belmont, Scott Reeves, Miho Hazama and yours truly. Free admission!

Here is the program information I submitted for my selected work:

Earl MacDonald
“It Was Whispered”

To a degree, this piece was inspired by Ornette Coleman. I am fond of the short, folksy, poetic melodies he writes, and wanted to capture this aesthetic within the context of a fully-developed large ensemble piece. My challenge/balancing act was evoking the essence of "free jazz" while retaining enough compositional control to avoid the chaos of mass, collective, free improvisation.

Monday, May 5, 2014

Bill Longo - Downbeat Student Music Awards Winner!

Congratulations to UCONN alumnus, Bill Longo, who won two Student Music Awards this year from DownBeat Magazine, for:
  • his arrangement of "You Don't Know What Love Is" and...
  • his studio engineering of "Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas"
Bill graduated from UCONN in 2002, during my second year on the job.  He was a featured trumpet soloist on the 2002 "UCONN Jazz" CD.

Bill graduates from the Frost School of Music in Miami on May 8th, 2014, with a M.Mus. in Studio Jazz Writing.  In 2007 he earned a M.A. in jazz performance from Queens College, where he studied with my former teacher, Michael Phillip Mossman.

Bill begins his DMA in Jazz Composition ('17) this fall at the University of Miami.

It is exciting and fulfilling to see my former students accomplishing, succeeding and making a dent in the jazz world.

Friday, May 2, 2014

Orchestral Debut

The premier performance of my first orchestral piece, "Dolphy Dance", took place last night at von der Mehden Recital Hall, with the University of Connecticut Symphony Orchestra.  I conducted, which in itself was a thrill.

Here is a video from the concert, followed by my program notes:

Dolphy Dance (2014)
Composed by Earl MacDonald (b. 1970)

Last summer, I ran a Kickstarter campaign to fund the manufacturing of my latest compact disc. Commissioning “a tune” was offered as an incentive. My friend Paul Gruhn ordered a song as a surprise birthday present for his wife Donna, but with the caveat that in couldn’t be “too jazzy”. Apparently she hates jazz. For a jazz composer, this presented quite a problem, but we eventually decided upon something in the salsa style.

After two weeks of listening to Eddie Palmieri, Tito Puente and Mario Bauza recordings, I sat down and wrote a relatively simple piece, trying to adhere closely to the style. Paul requested the title “Donnamite”, which was his wife’s nickname as a stock car racer several years ago. The surprise debut took place on the outdoor patio of Willimantic’s Cafémantic, and Donna was ecstatically pleased.

In hindsight, perhaps I should have let the story end there --- “happily ever after”. Instead, I decided to tinker with the piece. After immersing myself in salsa recordings, I started questioning the importance of melody to the genre. Would it still be “danceable” if the clavé rhythmic pattern was retained, but the predictable melodies were replaced with more complex linear material? Similarly, what if the harmonies were altered; could it still pass as authentic Afro-Cuban music?

As I experimented with taking the melody and harmony further left of center, I began imagining what jazz saxophonist Eric Dolphy might have sounded like had he been featured with a salsa band around 1960. Out of this vision, “Dolphy Dance” was born.

I later added a musical prologue, in the spirit of an orchestral ritornello. It uses the same linear and harmonic material, presented in triple meter, while drawing upon the orchestra’s vast color palette.

Graduating senior, Colin Walters will play the role of Eric Dolphy in tonight’s performance. During his time at UCONN, Colin has worked diligently and his musical development has been significant. Featuring him as a soloist with the orchestra is my graduation present to this fine young man.

Lastly, I wish to thank Maestro Harvey Felder. It was Professor Felder who instigated this collaboration, and persisted when I said “no” initially. He gave me complete freedom to write whatever I wanted, to be myself, and to write jazz, so as to expose the orchestral students to the genre’s authentic, stylistic nuances. This and his inviting me to conduct, reveal his selfless pedagogical fervor. What he accomplished in the orchestra’s initial rehearsals of the piece, prior to handing me the reigns, established a solid foundation upon which I could build.

This was my first experience writing for and conducting a full symphony orchestra. I have a sneaking suspicion it won’t be my last. Thank you Professor Felder for this opportunity, as well as your encouragement and guidance throughout the process.

UCONN Today also published an article in advance of the concert.  Here is a link: Jazzman MacDonald Debuts First Orchestral Composition

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Where Are We? How Did We Get Here? And Where Are We Headed?

Why do most jazz history textbooks (not to mention the infamous Ken Burns jazz documentary) end around 1970 and/or give only fleeting mentions of truly contemporary jazz?  Is thirty or forty years still too recent to comment reflectively? Has nothing of artistic significance happened during this period? Are we waiting for something momentous to happen? Has institutionalized jazz education failed to produce innovators, with new, creative ideas to serve the advancement of jazz’s artistic progression?

I recently reread Eric Nisenson’s highly controversial book, "Blue: The Murder of Jazz", in which the author wrestles with the "current" state of the jazz art form.  It was published fourteen years ago, in January of 2000.  His arguments are worth examination and consideration --- by performers and teachers, but especially by current university music students, who might not be fully aware that the continuum of jazz’s evolution was unnaturally disrupted during the 1980s and 90s.

Nisensen raises some excellent questions which in turn, prompt many addition questions.

Must jazz continue to progress to remain viable?

That jazz was highly progressive from the 1920s to the late 1960s is obvious.  It's evolution is easy to demonstrate through audio recordings, using almost any singular instrument. On trumpet, for instance, one can easily see the following lineage:

(Buddy Bolden) ››› King Oliver ››› Louis Armstrong ››› Roy Eldridge ››› Dizzy Gillespie ››› Miles Davis ››› Lee Morgan ››› Clifford Brown ››› Freddie Hubbard ››› Woody Shaw.

But then we get to the 1980s and 90s and what happens?

We observed the emergence of "The Young Lion Movement" --- a neo-conservative, reaction against the avant-garde and jazz-rock fusion, spearheaded by record labels.  Their primary goal was to market more accessible jazz music in the style of the 1950s and 60s, played predominantly by talented, young, well-dressed African-American men.

Moving from progression and rebellion to recreation represented a radical shift in the jazz world.

What lead to this?
  1. Dexter Gordon’s homecoming in 1976:  After 15 years of residing and performing in Europe, the expatriate jazzman returned to the US to performed a triumphant stint at the Village Vanguard.  These performances led to subsequent recordings and extensive promotion from Columbia records.  Just imagine the impact of Dexter's swinging, acoustic, hard bop sound, transplanted (seemingly from nowhere) into an era accustomed to hearing cross-over, disco-infused, commercial styles!
  2. Wynton Marsalis’ emergence as a charismatic, eloquent, marketable trumpet player, adept in both classical and jazz. He played with Art Blakey at the time, perpetuating the hard bop style of the 1960s.
Wynton was very outspoken in articulating a very narrow definition of jazz, formulated by his ideological role models, Stanley Crouch and Albert Murray.  They were adamant in their narrow definition of jazz, and the adherence to a rigid set of rules.  For music to qualify as jazz, they asserted that...
  • swing is essential
  • the music must be acoustic (minimally amplified and no electronic instruments)
  • the blues is an intrinsic element of jazz
  • jazz reflects and stems from the culture and life of African Americans
These definitions have not only permeated our subconscious thinking, they have even crept into our current jazz history text books (Mark Gridley’s Jazz Styles, for example), despite the fact that each point could easily be argued (and disproved) using recorded examples.

Nisensen also points out another significant shift: until this time, jazz music always had a direct correlation to the times in which it was created. Blues drenched hard-bop of the late 50s and 1960s, for instance, reflected an era where African-Americans fought for racial equality.  During this time the "Black Power" slogan was adopted, Black pride was prevalent, many musicians adopted African names, the Black Panther movement emerged, etc.

Should jazz be a reflective expression of its times? What if it isn’t? Is it then less artistically valid? If contextually disconnected, are its practitioners thereby musical liars?

In the 80s and 90s, much of the music produced by young lions lacked context.  A clear example is seen in Joey DeFrancesco, an Italian-American teenager from Philadelphia who was playing in the 1950s/60s hard bop style of Jimmy Smith. The music was swinging, bluesy and brilliantly executed, but was void of its original context and intent.  Similarly, Brad Mehdau, an upper class optometrist’s kid from West Hartford, CT was playing in the style of Wynton Kelly. Obviously Brad has developed significantly as an artist since then, and has come into his own.  But at the time, he was just another upcoming, half-done young lion, playing musical vocabulary from a previous era.

Even today, one can see that neo-conservatives uniformly revere and idolize their iconic musical forefathers. They work diligently to play, compose and even dress like Ellington, Monk, Coltrane, Davis, etc. Yet they reject the resolute intents of their forefathers to:

  • play with their own unique sound/material, 
  • express themselves and the times in which they lived, and
  • be committed to their own artistic vision.

Ongoing innovation was an essential part of the history of jazz. Is it necessary for the continued vitality of the art form?

Some people, including writer Tom Piazza, view Marsalis as the savior of jazz.  Wynton brought about a resurgence in the popularity of the music, created a respectable performance venue for the genre at Jazz at Lincoln Center, improved the recorded quality of the string bass, and is an eloquent spokesperson for the music.

Nisensen on the other hand, argues that the dogma of the neoconservatives has:
     a) stifled the creativity of young musicians 
     b) obscured the music of forward-thinking, risk-taking musicians.

We shouldn't forget that during the 80s and 90s there was a considerable amount of progressive music happening, beneath the radar of Downbeat magazine and the record labels who paid for advertising in such publications. We call these musicians “the lost generation”: Don Pullen, Richie Bierach, Dick Oatts, Fred Hersch, Hal Crook, Jim McNeely, Kenny Wheeler, Ed Neumeister, Billy Drewes, George Garzone, Billy Hart, Jerry Bergonzi, etc. Although artists of the highest caliber, who had paid their dues, none appeared on the front cover of magazines or had major label contracts.

The good news is that many of these forward-thinking artists turned to teaching, and have influenced subsequent generations. History has a way of correcting itself.

Why is it important to contextualize the young lion movement?

Today's university students didn't experience the young lion movement firsthand.  They didn't grow up reading and trying to make sense of Wynton Marsalis interviews.  They must be made aware that the continuum of jazz’s evolution was unnaturally disrupted.

We must be mindful of philosophies that have entered our subconscious, through reading and listening to interviews by Marsalis and his disciples.

Building on tradition, rather than dwelling on it may be a healthier approach, if it is concluded that innovation/evolution is an important defining factor for this art form.

Questions with which all jazz musicians, teachers and students should grapple include:

  • How strong a sense of tradition must we have?
  • What aspects of the neo-classicist definition do you accept? What aspects do you reject?
  • What is jazz and which of today’s musicians best exemplify it?
  • What might your next album sound like? Do we need another quintet album in the style of 1957 hard bop? 

Let me know your thoughts... and pick up a copy of Nisenson's book at your nearest library.

Friday, April 25, 2014

The Selfie: Earl MacDonald answers his own questionnaire about jazz composition

At the risk of appearing completely narcissistic, I will answer my own questionaire, which was posed to the members of the BMI Jazz Composers' Workshop.  I had not originally intended to complete my own survey, but am doing so at the prompting of some of my fellow composers in the workshop. Before proceeding, I would like to say thank you to Tom Erickson, Alan Chan, Quinsin Nachoff, Anna Webber, Miho Hazama, Erica Sequine and Scott Ninmer for taking the time to thoughtfully respond.  I appreciate your assistance in creating a resource for likeminded or upcoming composers who will no doubt benefit from your experiences.

Earl MacDonald --- looking bright-eyed and bushy tailed
Do you write music daily?  What is your routine?  Do you write in the morning, afternoon or at night?  When are your most productive hours of composing?  Can you write in small units of time or do you need to set aside larger blocks of multiple hours?  How many hours per week do you devote to composing and arranging music?

As a composer, I am almost 100% deadline driven.  In life, I "wear many hats" (husband, dad, teacher, administrator, composer, pianist...), but what's unique to composing is my preference and need for big blocks of uninterrupted time.  I have to plan ahead and map out when it I will be feasible to write.  Once started, I use every moment available to me to complete the piece.  When a piece is done, I often need a week to physically recover, and to catch up on things I have neglected to create time for composition.  Scott Ninmer's response to this question seems much healthier, and is something I might try adopting.  I'm not sure if it will work for me.

Describe your compositional process.  From where do your initial ideas come?
What happens next?  What’s “step two?” (and three...)

Here's some candor for you: I most often I start with ideas I have stolen from other people's music.  When listening to a recording, some small "nugget" might catch my attention; it could be a sonority, a rhythmic idea... whatever.  I will then take that nugget, play with it, and see where it takes me.  As I manipulate it, it becomes my own.

As I develop little ideas into a larger work, I think more about non-musical, big picture concepts --- developing a story, depicting emotions, shapes, contrasts, pacing etc.

Do you compose at the piano or away from it?

In the rooms where I typically write music (my home studio and university office) there are keyboards within an arm's reach of my desk.  I use them often.  That said, I work through musical problems throughout the day, regardless of where I am.  I scribble thoughts in little notebooks and use the voice memos recording function on my iPhone to capture melodies or rhythms.  I plan pieces away from the piano - sometimes in a library carrel.

Do you use MIDI playback on Finale/Sibelius?  How else do you utilize technology in the act of composing?

I do find MIDI playback to be helpful.  Otherwise, I am relatively "low tech".  My electronic keyboard has a record feature, which is helpful when trying to find linear material to layer over top of another part.

What do you wish Finale/Sibelius would improve about their music notation programs?

From what I have seen, very few people create scores and parts that look as good as mine. I use Finale.  It has improved over the years, but I still must spend ridiculous amounts of time moving things around to get my desired look and feel.  This is a real drag. I wish I could click some options at the onset, and then voila!.... when the score is done, the parts are DONE.

Is transcription/analysis and score study something you do regularly?   If so, can you site examples?  Do you find nuggets of ideas this way?

I definitely don't transcribe entire big band pieces, but I certainly figure out, write down and collect ideas that catch my attention. In my youth, I transcribed solos relentlessly.

As the director of a university jazz ensemble, I study scores in preparation for rehearsals, and in doing so, absorb the gist of what's going on formally, harmonically, orchestrally, etc. 

There are some instances where I have gone out of my way to obtain scores to analyze.  These include Kenny's Wheeler's "Music for Large Ensembles", Jim McNeely's Paul Klee project, Maria's "Evanescence", some Gil Evans and a few Fred Sturm's educational charts.

How important is musical innovation to you?

I believe it was Jim McNeely who said "we should be well-schooled in the past, and write in the present, while keeping an eye on the future".  

The jazz I love (throughout it's history) is more or less synonymous with innovation and rebellion.  As a perpetual student of this music, I have acquired the skills to write in the style of my predecessors, but usually choose not to, despite loving their music and finding inspiration in it.  Whether my music is innovative, probably isn't for me to decide or worry about, but aesthetically, I would embrace innovation over replication any day.

What concepts have you explored in your recent work?

"Dolphy Dance" was just completed in both big band and orchestra formats.  It started as an attempt to be ultra-hip within the salsa tradition.  In the spirit of development, I wrote a variation which functions like a ritornello, at the beginning.  The verdict is still out whether it is effective or overwritten.

The piece I am currently writing explores the balance between capturing a "free jazz" aesthetic while still retaining compositional control.  I'm experimenting with constant, parallel structures, chords of ambivalence etc.

On average, how long does it take you to write a piece?

This usually depends on how pressing the deadline is.  On average, I like to give myself a month to write a fully developed big band piece.  My last project dragged on much longer, because I gave myself the luxury of returning to revise.

Typically, how many big band charts do you write per year?  How does this compare with music you write for other instrumentations?

I average about two or three big band charts per year.  I was relieved when I asked this question to Neil Slater, the former UNT One O'Clock Lab Band director, and he gave the same response.

I often adapt my big band charts to fit my 10-piece band as well.  My composing is all project-driven, so the instrumentation for which I write depends upon the specific circumstances.  I just finished an orchestra piece, have another big band chart on-the-go, and plan to write a few sextet charts to premier at a summer festival.  There's always a reason to write.

Do you still practice and perform on an instrument professionally?  How do you balance writing and playing?

jazz pianist
Earl MacDonald at the piano.
I do still perform on the piano.  My gigging and practicing has decreased in recent years.  Three nights per week of gigging was typical for quite a while.  For about a decade I practiced at least eight hours a day.  Now, I may perform twice per month.  I prepare for those performances by learning and reviewing repertoire, and occasionally doing some technical maintenance.  I certainly prepare before recording sessions, practicing not only the tunes but doing plenty of technique for at least a month prior.

Every once in a while I "get the bug" to get back in the studio and "hit the piano" hard.  During the summer months I often set up a practice project for myself, which might be repertoire, transcription or concept based.  There are some Billy Strayhorn tunes that I plan to add to my repertoire this summer.

At some point I would like to record solo piano and trio CDs.  But the unresolved questions are:  What repertoire will I tackle, and how will I approach the music so that it comes across as being unique, and not just another "stock" solo or trio disc of standards?  I don't want to come across as a clumsy, subpar replica of Cedar Walton.

When you think about it, writing big band music makes no sense.  It takes hours to write and prepare the music.  It’s exorbitantly expensive to assemble a band for performances, let alone recording.  The audience for it is miniscule.  Very few performance venues have the space or money for a big band.  Big band CDs sell poorly.   So….   Why are you interested in writing big band music?  Why do you do it?

I have chosen not to lead a professional, performing big band for the reasons above.  For my "Re:Visions" CD, I hired top-flight musicians to record my music, but we never performed as a unit.

In some ways, I regard the university jazz ensemble I direct as "my big band".  With my students, I can try, hear and prepare my new musical creations, whenever I want.

I write for big band because it is the default large ensemble within jazz education.  I work as a professor and clinician (among other roles) in this field, and can market not only my music, but my services as a guest conductor and soloist. 

Do you have a job outside of being a composer?  How do you support your composing and band leading “habit”?

Following my time on the road with Maynard Ferguson, I was hired as a full-time music professor.  It's hard to believe that was almost 15 years ago.

Grant writing funds most of my artist pursuits, and helps prevent me from dipping into personal/family finances to support my projects.  I try to keep the two separate whenever possible.

Define success from your vantage point.

If I was a touring member of Joe Lovano's quartet, the composer-in-residence for the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra, had a mantle full of Grammy awards, routinely won critics polls, and was annually featured on the front cover of Downbeat magazine.... YET, had a failed marriage and didn't play an active role in raising my kids, would I still be a success?  (This is sounding strangely similar to the beginning of 1 Corinthians 13.)

Similarly, if I headed the top university jazz program in the country, but was universally regarded as an asshole, would I have accomplished anything of worth?

The above listed accomplishments may (or may not) transpire, but how I spend my life outside of music --- as a husband, dad, neighbor, friend, colleague, etc. --- is to me, even more important than what I do professionally.

Rather than finding success in the stuff I've done and accumulated, I want to focus more on relationships.  Ever since the Newtown massacre, and specifically Ana Marquez-Greene's funeral, I have adopted and embraced the phrase "love God; love God's people" as my personal motto.  I've got a long ways to go, but my eyes were opened on that day.

What are your career goals?

At times in my life, I have had unhealthy obsessions with my career goals.  With varying degrees of success, I'm trying to achieve a better work/life balance these days.  But when I am working, I try to do so in a focused manner. with specific pursuits in mind.

My goals have definitely shifted over the years, and continue to change.  I'm fairly good about setting goals, and accomplishing them ahead of schedule.  When I was twelve, I dreamed of one day playing the organ at Winnipeg Jets hockey games.  I did this full-time by age fifteen.  At twenty, I decided I'd like to be a music professor or a touring jazz musician.  I've done both.

Conducting and writing for the leading European jazz orchestras is something I'd like to pursue.  I imagine it would be fun to work with the Frankfurt Radio Big Band (hr-BigBand) and WDR big band, as well as the Brussels, Stockholm and Swiss jazz orchestras, to name a few.

I'm considering writing a series of educational big band charts for high school bands.  If I commit to this, it might be in conjunction with a goal of conducting all 50 All-State high school jazz bands within the next decade.  We'll see.

When I read the bios of other musicians, I take note of the the grants, fellowships and awards they have won.  I compile lists, and then dig around on the internet to see if I'm eligible to apply.  If so, I add the deadlines to my calendar and strategize accordingly. 

Why did you enroll in the BMI Jazz Composers’ Workshop?

I felt like I needed a tune-up.  I saw some repeated occurrences in the music I was writing, and wanted to get out of some ruts, by benefitting from the critical eyes and ears of Jim McNeely and Mike Holober.  I liked the idea of putting myself in a group with young composers (straight out of grad school and eager to make their mark on NYC) to see if I could "make the hang" and keep up.

Do you have a degree in composition?  What training have you had in composition?  What have you done to supplement your training?

My degrees are in jazz performance.  I took one jazz composition class at McGill with Jan Jarczyk.  I studied arranging with Christopher Smith at McGill and Michael Mossman at Rutgers.  In 2001 I attended Dave Douglas' composition workshop in Banff.  I participated in the BMI Workshop in 2003, 2007 and again this year.  Books by Gil Goldstein, Ted Pease and Charles Wuorinen have been helpful.  I took some private lessons along the way with Jim McNeely, Mike Abene, Maria Schneider, Mike Mossman and David McBride.  I subscribed to Bob Brookmeyer's online ArtistShare composition project, which was insightful.

What do you enjoy doing outside of music?  What non-musical things/topics capture your interest/imagination?

  • Much of my time outside of work and music is devoted to my family.  This weekend's agenda includes teaching my daughter to ride her bike without training wheels, and going to soccer practice.  I skateboard and BMX with my son, read books to/with them, take them to lessons, etc. Every day we all hike in the woods behind our house.
  • I run.  I did two half-marathons last year, and plan to do a full marathon this year.
  • I blog.
  • My wife and I started a christian service organization called "Acts of Mansfield", where we engage in regular acts of community service.   We're also meeting regularly with a group of christian friends, dreaming, and prayerfully considering planting a new church in our town.

Music has the power to….

  • [from the listener's perspective:] counteract tedium, inspire, cause riots, evoke reflection, soothe the disturbed, conjure memories, soften hardened hearts...
  • [from the composer's perspective, we can:] express joy/elation, sorrow, anger, frustration, pay tribute to someone/something, bring attention to a cause or situation, shape/reinforce/manipulate emotions etc.
Art Blakey's quote, "Jazz washes away the dust of every day life", is a favorite of mine.

I compose music because....

  • I can.  Only a very select, few people have the ability to write music (even among musicians).  I want to develop this gift to the best of my abilities.  
  • I find it challenging and mentally stimulating.
  • there are few greater feelings than hearing your own envisioned work, successfully brought to life.
  • it might accomplish one of the attributes listed in the previous question.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Interview With Composer, Alan Chan

I first met Alan Chan in June 2011, when we were both international finalists at the ArtEZ Jazz Composition Competition in the Netherlands.  He won.  I lost.  And that is all I have to say about that.

It has been fun to reconnect with him this year in the BMI Jazz Composers' Workshop in New York City.  I appreciate that Alan and the other workshop participants were willing to complete my survey of questions about their compositional practices.  Their responses have been insightful and I hope this blogging series will serve as a resource and source of inspiration for many students of (jazz) composition.

Alan Chan’s music often takes inspiration from his life experiences as a resident in America, East Asia and Europe. His "genre-shaking" works can be heard in an array of venues serving Classical (Taiwan National Concert Hall), experimental (the Stone, NYC) and jazz (Vitello’s in Los Angeles). His works have been performed by Brussels Jazz Orchestra, Taipei Percussion, Hong Kong Chinese Orchestra and La Jolla Symphony, among others. Alan Chan Jazz Orchestra’s EP “Rancho Calaveras” is currently available from Amazon, CD Baby and iTunes.

Do you write music daily? What is your routine? Do you write in the morning, afternoon or at night? When are your most productive hours of composing? Can you write in small units of time or do you need to set aside larger blocks of multiple hours? How many hours per week do you devote to composing and arranging music?

I am a seasonal writer – due to my occupation as a freelancing musician, I find myself composing mostly when I am working on composing projects for my band, the BMI Workshop or when I receive a commission. When a project comes, I would normally write in the course of from 10 days to three weeks, with a more robust daily routine. Afternoons, night times and late night hours works best for me. I usually don’t stay up until dawn as I usually feel guilty for not going to bed!

Describe your compositional process. From where do your initial ideas come?  What happens next? What’s “step two?” (and three...)

There are always ideas that pop up in my head constantly. What matters the most is if the idea stays in my head and how to choose an idea or ideas to write about. A lot of times I like to draw connections.

Do you compose at the piano or away from it?


Do you use MIDI playback on Finale/Sibelius? How else do you utilize technology in the act of composing?

Not so much. I use Finale solely for notation.

What do you wish Finale/Sibelius would improve about their music notation programs?

I am pretty happy with that, as long as it doesn’t crash!

Is transcription/analysis and score study something you do regularly? If so, can you site examples? Do you find nuggets of ideas this way?

I find doing transcriptions myself is the best way to understand the music, rather than reading from a borrowed score.

What concepts have you explored in your recent work?

I have explored different stylistic and emotion expressions of the big band. And recently, I am looking into writing new pieces for big band and solo instruments.

On average, how long does it take you to write a piece?

It varies ---- especially when considering the amount of time to conceive a piece. The writing usually takes shorter, however. I’d say from 10 days to 3 weeks.

Typically, how many big band charts do you write per year?  How does this compare with music you write for other instrumentations?

It varies, because I also spend a lot of time revising my music.

Do you still practice and perform on an instrument professionally? How do you balance writing and playing?

I play the piano professionally, although usually for gigs of a more classical nature.

When you think about it, writing big band music makes no sense. It takes hours to write and prepare the music. It’s exorbitantly expensive to assemble a band for performances, let alone recording. The audience for it is miniscule. Very few performance venues have the space or money for a big band. Big band CDs sell poorly. So…. Why are you interested in writing big band music? Why do you do it?

The musical potential of big band music is great – it is the kind of music where you can explore color, harmony, texture and orchestration that is only comparable to orchestral and wind ensemble music.

Do you have a job outside of being a composer? How do you support your composing and band leading “habit”?

I work as an administrator for several music organizations, copy music for other composers, and do piano gigs and other music-related odd jobs that are not appropriate to discuss here :-p

Define success from your vantage point. have a happy and healthy life.

Why did you enroll in the BMI Jazz Composers’ Workshop?

It's a place to create and experiment, to meet and exchange with other like-minded people.

Do you have a degree in composition? What training have you had in composition? What have you done to supplement your training?

Classical composition degrees from UMiami, UMKC and USC (Southern California)

What do you enjoy doing outside of music? What non-musical things/topics capture your interest/imagination?

In alphabetical order: Cooking, drinking, food, film, friends, hiking, swimming, traveling, wondering and ZZZ… (sleeping)

Music has the power to….

capture memories.

I compose music with the goal of....

creating a better world…