Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Three Generations, 88 Keys

I had a lovely weekend in Winnipeg, performing two sold-out concerts with old friends Ron Paley, Will Bonness and the Winnipeg Jazz Orchestra.  Here are the program notes I contributed:

Three Generations, 88 Keys

March 16, 2014 (2pm & 7:30pm)

Ron Paley’s Early Influence

My initial exposure to jazz music was through Ron Paley’s weekly performances on the local CKND TV show, “Friday Night Live”. I watched and videotaped the show regularly. Ron’s big band rehearsed on Thursday afternoons at Silver Heights Collegiate and I would stay after school to hear a few pieces and see the “famous” musicians I was watching on TV.

I started playing piano with the SHCI jazz band, and our director, Jim MacKay, selected one of Ron’s pieces, A Family Jewel for the band. Ron visited as a ‘clinician’ to rehearse us. It was a unique and inspiring experience, at the time, to work directly with a composer. I remember being struck by the piece’s beauty and really practiced it --- even going to the extent of copying Ron’s recorded piano solo. Our band went on to win at MusicFest Canada with this piece in our set.

When I decided to audition for university music programs, I went to Ron for help. He wrote out chord voicings for me, and gave me some scales to apply within my improvisations. At the end of the lesson he refused to take any form of payment. I learned later that there are many ‘now-professional’ musicians who share the same story.

Earl MacDonald, Will Bonness, Ron Paley

Earl Teaches Will

After completing my Masters degree from Rutgers, I spent a year in Winnipeg practicing, teaching and recording my first CD. During this time, I met Will Bonness. I believe he was in the 7th grade when he came to my parent’s home for his first lesson. He played “A Night Has A Thousand Eyes”, in the style of McCoy Tyner. It was incredible and a total surprise.

Socially, Will was very awkward, and only answered my questions with a word or a small sentence fragment at best. I gave him a hefty, challenging assignment at the end of the first lesson. The next week I inquired how he did with it. He mumbled, “fine”. When I asked if he had any questions, he replied, “no”. In addition to perfectly executing what I assigned, he demonstrated the permutations he had worked out on his own. Wow! It was a joy teaching Will each week. As a middle school student, he worked through everything I had done as an undergraduate (and more).

I left Winnipeg to teach as a sabbatical replacement St. Francis Xavier University, but gave Will follow-up lessons when I returned for Christmas and the summer. Later, I recommended him as my successor in Maynard Ferguson’s band. He left his grade 12 year early to go on the road, returning in time for grad! Maynard called me to tell me he loved Will’s playing and thanked me for suggesting him.

Will is such an incredible, inspired pianist, and he gets better every time I hear him. With most pianists, I admit to feeling competitive and want to “out do” them… while secretly hoping they won’t outshine me. But with Will, I simply delight in the fact that I had a role in his musical development.


Rehearsing the WJO

For our program we have selected a mix of material by Ron, Will and me. We will trade off at the piano and in the role of conductor.

I will play Ron Paley’s A Family Jewel as I did back in 1988 with the Silver Heights Collegiate Jazz Band. Ron will conduct. This will be a special moment for me. I know the audience will love the piece too. The melody is so strong, it should be in the standard jazz repertoire and played by thousands of musicians worldwide.

Here is some insight into the tunes I have contributed:

Friday Night At The Cadillac Club was arranged for Maynard Ferguson’s band. In 2002, it won me the Sammy Nestico Award, sponsored by the USAF Airmen of Note.

Sordid Sort of Fellow was composed with Winnipeg trumpeter, Frank Burke in mind. Frank used to tell me all kinds of crazy stories about his connections to Winnipeg’s underworld. To be safe, I will refrain from elaborating, in the event that any of these stories are true.

Mr. Sunshine is the follow-up commission for winning the Sammy Nestico Award.

Dolphy Dance will receive it’s debut performance with the WJO! I tried to stretch the salsa idiom, approaching it from a sideways vantage point, using “hipper” lines and harmonies than one typically encounters. To get my imagination rolling, I pictured saxophonist Eric Dolphy showing up to do a salsa gig in a New York Salsa/Mambo dance club.

Bad Dream is new melody written over the harmonic progression of “You Stepped Out Of A Dream”. It was inspired by a terrible nightmare that continued to haunt me the next morning. Night terrors are reproduced by creating "atypical sonic environments", achieved with unconventional notation practices drawn from contemporary classical composition techniques.

Hit the Road, Jack was commissioned by the other WJO — the Westchester Jazz Orchestra, for their Ray Charles tribute concert. It’s fun and has proven to be an audience favorite.

This concert is a labor of love that has been in the works for over a year. I’m trilled to return to Winnipeg, and am incredibly happy see and visit with dear, old friends – both on and off the stage. Thank you to Richard Gillis, and thank YOU for being here. Enjoy the show.

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