Tuesday, January 31, 2012

30 Songs In 30 Days

I've been giving some thought to my compositional output as of late. In recent years I typically crank out two or three large-scale works for big band each year. I don't know how this compares to others in my field and maybe I shouldn't care.  It's what I can manage currently, without completely losing balance. But, when I completed my last academic year-end report and wrote "3" in the little box next to "compositions written", I thought "hmm...that sure looks insignificant for someone who bills himself as a jazz composer.

So... here's what I plan to do to remedy the situation:  For the month of February (plus March 1st), I am committing myself to writing a blues head every day, and will post it on this blog.  At the end of this time I'll have 30 new tunes and hopefully will have explored some new musical territory as I tinker with this common 12-bar form.  Plus, writing in this way should serve as a nice, daily compositional warm-up for my other projects.

I expect that some pieces will be better than others, but I will write with the intent that they could all be performed without any public embarrassment. For each piece I'll try to include a few sentences about what I tried to achieve, the methods I employed, etc.  Who knows?!  Maybe this endeavor will help to spark the imaginations of students and other musicians.  

Rather than fighting the winter blues, I'm embracing them.

(Perhaps my favorite album cover.)

Monday, January 30, 2012

the International Language

This was an especially fulfilling week for jazz on campus. Thursday was the premiere of a suite of new music I had written for my 10tet, the New Directions Ensemble. We had a full, enthusiastic audience in UConn's beautiful, newly constructed Classroom Building. The band played splendidly, which made all the hard (and sometimes tedious) compositional work worthwhile. I hope to post some video clips in the near future.

In the weeks leading up to the performance, I had my students read the newly composed music, to make sure there were no errors or unpleasant surprises. It was a true win-win situation. The greatest benefit for them was hearing a band of accomplished professionals sight-read the notes and improvise over the harmonic progressions on which they had previously wrestled. Several students commented on how impressed and inspired they were. It was a valuable reality check for these aspiring, young players.

Then, on Saturday, the great Cuban pianist, Chucho Valdes led my students in a master class. What a marvelous experience! I was proud of how well my students played and Valdes was warm, appreciative and encouraging. He was very gracious with his time, answering many questions and demonstrating at the piano. A translator interpreted his Spanish throughout. It was a special event, providing a reminder of how music is the true international language, and giving insight into another culture. Saxophone student, Matt Baum wrote about the master class in great detail in his new blog, “The Right Changes”. I couldn’t help but smile as I read his impressions and the apparent impact this class had upon him. I think you will too. During weeks like this, I absolutely love my job.

Thursday, January 19, 2012


One week from tonight (Thursday, Jan. 26th, 2012) will be the debut performance of a new suite of music I have written entitled “On the Surface of Water".  It is part of a new interdisciplinary work created with visual artist, Deborah Dancy and videographer, Ted Efremoff. The show takes place at 7:30 p.m., in the new Classroom Building (located between the Student Union and the Center for Undergraduate Education) on the UConn Storrs Campus. Admission is free.

Also on the program is a revisiting of “Beneath the Black Earth”, our first collaborative project, from 2006/07. Both pieces will be performed by the 10-piece, New Directions Ensemble.

“Beneath the Black Earth” was the first major interdisciplinary collaborative work produced within the School of Fine Arts. For Deborah, Ted and me, the project served as an opportunity to produce something unique, which would give our individual work new shape and provide a context for experimental exploration. It was the first step in building a laboratory of ideas and possibilities, as well as planting the seeds for continued dialog and experimentation. When embarking upon this creative venture, we didn't have a fixed vision regarding the final outcome. Ideas stemmed from free musings that lead to the ambiguous, slippery territory of creating.

The resultant piece was presented to an enthusiastic audience on November 8th, 2007 in the Nafe Katter Theatre. Deborah’s digital images were projected on hanging muslin scrims, floating as ephemeral veils, evoking a poetic movement, and producing a haunting and powerful presence in convergence with my musical responses. My accompanying music, scored for cello, alto saxophone, Rhodes electric piano, and percussion, provided a multi-layered element - a synchronistic association to the visual work. It also included improvisational space so that the musicians could respond to what they saw unfolding on the screens. We wove together a tapestry of video images with music inspired by our mutual interests, conversations and spontaneous creativity.

Here is a video of the November 2007 performance.  The band features Kris Allen on alto sax, Greg Heffernan on cello, Rogerio Boccato on percussion and me on Rhodes electric piano.

For the upcoming show on Jan. 26th, 2012, we have manipulated and refined this original performance piece. I further developed and re-orchestrated the suite for a chamber jazz orchestra consisting of 3 saxophones, 4 brass and rhythm section.

“On the Surface of Water” also combines music and visual imagery into a transformative sensory experience. The narrative themes running through the work are based in part on probing the lyrical and luminous qualities of water: reflection, mist, fog, movement and the similar properties that exist with human memory. These conceptual properties serve as the artistic springboard for this multi-media collaborative effort. Video images of rivers, streams, mirrors, and similar elements were combined with static digital photographs; created using a medium format digital camera, and found archival images. The combined images were layered into video format that will be projected on multiple screens.

As with the previous work, "Beneath the Black Earth", this project continues the collaborative effort across disciplines and areas, uses technology in an exciting manner, and has expanded the range of the three individual artists' creative experience.

At this point (a week before the show), after having realized the music on paper, I am now drawing my students into the creative process by presenting them with musical drafts to sight read in rehearsals. The music has already undergone a series of revisions based on my observations and the feedback received from student musicians. By presenting the music to students first, I find that I am more inclined to take compositional and orchestrational risks, than if I were to immediately subject my music to the scrutiny of my professional peers.

Although interdisciplinary arts collaboration is not new, there is a renewed interest and focus on collaboration, nationally. Artists must explore new ways to look at, discuss, create and present art if we hope to engage and develop new audiences.

Through the course of the project, I believe my work has evolved, and we have produced a combined effect greater than the sum of our separate effects. Being drawn into the creative world of artists working in different mediums, and being exposed to their interests, passions and processes was insightful and truly inspiring.

I hope you can join us for this exciting debut performance.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Why Go To Church?

I vented in my last post by providing a top 10 list of "Why I Hate Going to Church".  So, if going to church is such a drag for me, perhaps you're wondering why I bother attending?  I'll be honest in telling you that some weeks it is a real struggle. 

This post is written more for my benefit, than any other reason.  In my wife's blog, she recently expressed her desire to be more intentional in all aspects of her life.  I have tremendous respect for this approach.  Here's my attempt to identify and be clear regarding my motivations in heading out each Sunday morning:

  • At this stage in life, raising my kids properly is a primary focus.  I want them to grow up benefiting from biblical/spiritual and moral training.  To an extent, this can be done at home, but I appreciate having the input of others too.  Plus, according to David Murrow's book, there is a much greater chance that my kids will continue in their faith as adults if I, as their father, attend church with them.
  • I am a Christian, a "follower of Christ".  In some people's eyes that might make me appear weak, foolish or illogical, but it's hard to disprove Jesus' historical existence.  I aspire to live my life according to his teachings.  No matter what your beliefs are, wouldn't the world be a better place if everyone tried to live like Jesus?  In addition to reading the Bible on my own, sermons and Sunday school classes can potentially provide valuable insight and reminders.   
  • Although I often feel like an outsider at church, there are advantages to being part of "a community".  I do have some friends there, and my wife and I are benefiting from the parental mentorship we are receiving from older couples who have significantly more life experience and wisdom to share.
  • The Bible makes it clear that God desires our worship.  The church we currently attend refers to both of their Sunday morning services as "worship services".  So, what is worship?  One simple definition is the expression of our love and appreciation to God.  There is much for which I am thankful, and I do this privately in prayer.  But, within so-called worship services, I must admit that I often feel like I'm enduring a form of musical torture.  For me, there is no worship during 60% of a Sunday morning service, ...but I digress.
  • At least in theory, church makes it easy to serve our fellow man and God simultaneously.  I see this as a plus.

Yes, I have frustrations with church.  Maybe I haven't found the ideal church for me, but I'm beginning to think that place might not exist.  Maybe my spirit of dissatisfaction is a good thing. (At the risk of sounding "churchy", maybe God will use this in some way.)  I guess we'll see.

After reading my last blog post, a friend sent me the following video clip.  It's not exactly my style, but it certainly is relevant.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Why Men Hate Going To Church

I just finished reading the book "Why Men Hate Going To Church" by David Murrow.  During a period when I find myself "less than enthusiastic" about attending church, this book has helped me articulate and pinpoint some sources of my frustration.  I won't write a complete synopsis of the book here, but the basic premise is that over time, the Christian church has evolved into a culture which exclusively meets the needs of women and the elderly.  The number of men attending regularly has reduced significantly.  If churches want more men in their pews, changes must be made --- plain and simple.  Murrow has many practical suggestions for revamping church, and frankly, this is a book every pastor from every denomination should read.  I may even buy copies for the clergy in my life.

But for now, here is my TOP 10 LIST for "Why I Hate Going To Church":

10.  Politics preached from the pulpit.  Don't Christians realize that they are the easy target of political strategists such as Karl Rove?  Entire campaigns have been designed around the gullibility of Christians.

9.  I don't want to be stuck in a conversation with Ned Flanders!  (I'm not joking.)

8.  Resistance to change.  I love change.  Churches don't.

7.  "Christian-ese" and "prayer-speak" and "holy hands".  These staples of Christian culture make any visitor uncomfortable.  Have you ever noticed how Christians in evangelical churches talk and act in a way that one only encounters in Christian circles? 

6. How decisions are made:  The right choice is always the soft one.  Keep the existing people happy.  Defense always trumps offense in established, older churches.

5.  No clear call to action.  I don't remember the last time I left church fired up and ready to change the world.  Isn't that a problem?

4. Values and skills such as risk-taking, innovation, planning/goal-setting aren't upheld. I've offered ideas, but haven't seen any action taken. I could push, but question if it is worth the time and effort. See points 8 and 6.

3.  Lack of productivity.  It is time to start pruning ineffective ministries. 

2.  The music sucks.  Trust me, I'll be elaborating on this point later.

1.  Weekly "alter calls" to the same, already converted audience.  I don't think I have ever seen anyone go up front to declare that they are a sinner who plans to turn their life around.  If the system doesn't work, why keep doing it?  If evangelism is the goal, aren't there more effective ways to go about it?

When this much bothers me about church, the logical next question for you to ask is:  "So, why do you bother going?"  In my next post I'll try to answer this and "Why should churches care if men attend and if they are fully engaged?"

So men, here's your chance to vent:  What is it about church that gets under your skin?  Why do you choose not to attend, or if you go, why are you less than enthusiastic?

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Chick Corea

In a previous post I made mention of looking forward to an upcoming chamber orchestra recording by Chick Corea, entitled "the Continents".  Two of my colleagues from UConn, Louis Hanzlik (trumpet), and Gregg August (string bass) play in the ensemble.  Here is a video clip:

Friday, January 6, 2012

Under The Influence

This is the third installment in a mini-series about albums introduced to me by my students, that have really captured my interest.  After this post I plan to switch gears for a bit.

You may have noticed in my last post that I tend to fixate on the pianist when listening to recordings.  It's a habit that has been hard to break.  While I was a student, I somehow adopted the hardline mindset that if a disc had no pianist on it, I had no use for it.  Back then, I unfortunately allowed myself to lose sight of listening to music for fun.  It was more about gathering information that I could incorporate into my own playing.

I've come almost full circle now, finding myself gravitating towards music without piano so that I can listen without the obsessions stemming from having devoted a good chunk of my life to mastering the instrument.

This Chris Cheek recording, "A Girl Named Joe", has no pianist and represents over an hour of sheer musical delight.  I love the wide palette of sounds Ben Monder gets from the guitar, and the two tenor saxes together create a truly unique timbre.  The tunes are modern, yet often blues drenched and gritty.  There is tons of variety, but the album is cohesive and it makes a strong musical statement.

As I listened to this disc again for the umpteenth time, today for some strange reason, I started to think about jazz's young lion movement of the 1980s, and what utter nonsense it was.  I remember really buying into what Wynton Marsalis said in interviews about the importance of absorbing "the jazz tradition", and how someday one of the young recording musicians would eventually forge the path of innovation for the others to follow.

Well Wynton, innovation and progress came, but it certainly didn't stem from the young lions of the 80s.  All the while that the young lions were getting the attention of reviewers and record labels, there were serious, older artists in the trenches, devoting their souls and lives to the music while very few paid attention.  This "lost generation" includes Richie Beirach, Dave Liebman, Fred Hersch, Dick Oatts, Jim McNeely, George Garzone, and countless others.

Thankfully, for the sake of the art form, many of them turned to teaching.  It is almost a miracle that players like Ben Monder, Chris Cheek and other contemporary improvisers managed to escape the damaging philosophical influence of Wynton, when it was so present in DownBeat magazine during their formative years.  Thank goodness! ...or like Wynton, they might be trying to play the music of Buddy Bolden today.  Instead, the music has vitality and a future.

Here are the specifics pertaining to the album that sparked both joy and today's fury:

RECORDED: MAY 19, 1997

CREDITS (production) :
All compositions by Chris Cheek, except "Late Green" by Ben Monder
Produced by Chris Cheek and Jordi Rossy
Produced for CD released: Jordi Pujol
Recorded at Tedesco Studios, New Jersey, May 19, 1997
Mastered at Foothill Digital Studio, NYC
Cover Art by Ana Golobart
Photos by Rebecca Layton
Ben Monder appears courtesy of Arabesque Records
CREDITS (musicians) :
Chris Cheek:tenor saxophone (right channel)
Mark Turner:tenor saxophone (left channel)
Jordi Rossey:drums (left channel)
Dan Rieser:drums (right channel)
Ben Monder:guitar (right channel)
Marc Johnson:bass (left channel)
TRACKS (total time 67:00) :
1.Slide (7:28) [Chris Cheek]
2.September (6:17) [Chris Cheek]
3.Arctic Barbeque (5:57) [Chris Cheek]
4.Lowered (5:42) [Chris Cheek]
5.Late Green (7:37) [Ben Monder]
6.Planet Dance (4:47) [Chris Cheek]
7.A Girl Named Joe (6:29) [Chris Cheek]
8.Then (7:15) [Chris Cheek]
9.Siege (5:53) [Chris Cheek]
10.Water Mile (9:36) [Chris Cheek]

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Not By Chance

Bassist Joe Martin certainly took no chances when assembling the band for this 2009 recording. You can't do much better than Chris Potter (ts), Brad Meldau (pno) and Marcus Gilmore (dr).  It was no surprise for me when I read on his web page that the disc received ample critical attention, including mention on several top ten lists.

As a pianist, I have tremendous respect for what Brad Meldau can do at the keyboard. One can't help but be impressed by his use of inner voice movement and his left hand dexterity/independence. However (for the most part), I've stopped seeking out his trio recordings and going to his concerts because they usually leave me with a headache, rather than the sensation of being uplifted.

I did enjoy hearing Brad within this quartet, functioning as a sideman.  Although he utilizes many of his trademark virtuosic devices, there are moments when he seemingly "forgets" to be acutely cerebral, and just plays great, swingin' jazz.  One such moment is track 6, "Once Before".  Strangely, to my ears, his bluesy ideas are reminiscent of Don Grolnick during the early '90s.

I appreciated how his solos often developed from out of the tunes --- using and developing the motifs from the compositions.  Two other piano highlights were his solo on the ballad, "I Dream" (no one does dark and brooding better than Brad) and the pyrotechnical two-hand independence on the bossa, "Not By Chance".

Compositionally, some tunes are stronger than others, but in general, they all have singable melodies, solid harmonic structures, thoughtful forms and serve as great "blowing vehicles". "The Balloon Song" by Jaco Pastorius intrigues me.  Although I haven't transcribed it, it sounds like an angular 12-tone row played in its various manifestations, in unison quarter notes by the bass and bass clarinet.  The bright tempo and Gilmore's brush work really bring it to life before the groove disintegrates into free, interactive, collective improvisation.  Very cool.

What I think I like most about this album is the symbiosis between the bass and drums.  Joe Martin is a really unique, modern bass player.  He "breaks up the time" in very interesting ways --- sometimes playing fragmented melodies in his bass lines and developing them over time, rather than "walking" in a traditional manner.  Playing off one another, he and Marcus Gilmore create some serious grooves, as well as spacious musical environments.

How the solos were structured within the tunes was another strong point for this album.  On "Caché", for instance, solos begin with trading between the saxophone and piano, leading into conversational improvisation.  I applaud their effort to move away from the overly well-worn path of tenor, piano and bass solos followed by drum trading.  This is certainly something I think about when structuring my own arrangements.

Thanks go to my piano student Mike Verselli, for bringing this fantastic album to my attention.

Monday, January 2, 2012


Since the summer, I've been listening to a lot more music.  This has been a fortunate benefit stemming from choosing to exercise more frequently.  Most days I now look forward to my uninterrupted listening time on the treadmill or stationary bike.

Around the same time, I decided to switch up my listening habits by asking my students for names of their favorite, cutting-edge, modern jazz artists and albums. At one point my iPod was filled only with unfamiliar names. It has been fun listening to albums "blind", without knowing the personnel or having preconceived notions or expectations about the musicians on the recording. Some discs were really enjoyable and downright inspiring. Others... well, not so much. In the next few posts I'll share some of my favorites, beginning with:

Hans Glawischnig - Panorama

I love this album from beginning to end, and it has warranted repeated listening.  For my tastes it has a near perfect balance of raunchy fire and subtle beauty.  Every tune was penned by the bassist leader and there is plenty of variety and interest.  Some of the highlights and standouts were:

  • Line Drive (the opening track), with its rhythmic piano figures and aggressive open fifths in the bass and piano.
  •  His effective use of unison lines (often including the bass!) on many tunes, including in Gypsy Tales and Oceanography, a contrafact melody on How Deep Is the Ocean.
  • Beneath the Waves features some beautiful, interactive / open / loose / out-of-time playing that falls somewhere between early Ornette Coleman and Euro-jazz from the E.C.M. label.  The drums and bass are exquisite here! [This is territory I plan to explore more in my own compositions in the near future.]
  • The ultra expressive arco bass on Orchids and the intro to Barretto's Way.

One of the major disadvantages to digital downloads is not having liner notes.  I'm one of those guys who has always devoured liner notes in an attempt to learn everything I can about the musicians and the music.  I keep them by my side as I listen, to verify who is soloing at any given moment.  It was strange not knowing who all I was hearing.

I incorrectly assumed that the same rhythm section was used throughout, with a few added guests on saxophone and guitar.  I thought I had discovered the world's most versatile drummer and the person I'd be calling for my next recording!  The pianist confused me because I heard Chick Corea-isms, but they weren't consistent from track to track.  I thought it was probably a young pianist under Chick's influence, or that Chick had been practicing some new material and was forced to play differently because he was dealing with someone else's tunes.  I did correctly guess that I was hearing David Binney and Ben Monder on Gypsy Tales.  In fact, the tune sounded a lot like one of Binney's, with its quirky ostinato bass and aggressive, distorted guitar paired with the alto sax.

Just today I checked the internet to confirm the actual roster.  Here it is:

Luis Perdomo, piano - tracks 1, 3-5, 7-9
Chick Corea, piano - tracks 2, 6
Dave Binney, alto sax - tracks 4, 8
Miguel Zenón, alto sax - tracks 1, 3, 7, 9
Rich Perry, tenor sax - track 5
Ben Monder, guitar - track 4
Antonio Sanchez, drums - tracks 4, 8
Jonathan Blake, drums - track 1, 3, 5, 7, 9
Marcus Gilmore, drums - track 2, 6

The album was recorded in 2005 and released in 2008 on Sunnyside Records.

Luis Perdomo will be someone I'll be checking out in much more detail.  What a pianist! --- chops, authority, inventiveness, style and sensitivity all rolled into one.

Miguel Zenón has also been on my playlist since the summer (with his Awake, Jibaro, Esta Plena and Ceremonial albums), so I wasn't entirely surprised to see him listed.  However, the three drummers threw me for a loop.  Listening to the album again with this knowledge, they all offer something special.  I loved how Marcus Gilmore "stirred the pot" and kept things interesting on slower tempos. 

I'm looking forward to a new release by Chick Corea entitled The Continents - Concerto for Jazz Quintet and Chamber Orchestra.  Gilmore and Glawischnig are paired together again.  It should be another great one!

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Happy New Year!

I always enjoy fresh starts and opportunities to evaluate what's going well, what could be improved upon and where changes need to be made.  I'll be making several significant changes entering into 2012, but the one I'm making public today is bringing this blog out of hibernation.

Writing has always helped me to solidify my thoughts.  I see blogging as a great outlet for self expression.  Plus, I love the potential a blog has to put ideas out into the public for consideration and discussion. 

My wife also has a blog, "The Potter's Hand", where she writes about a wide variety of topics ranging from parenting, her faith, eating well, and running.  She is a truly gifted writer, but has taken some time off from blogging recently.  To get ourselves actively writing in the New Year, we have decided to create a friendly competition between ourselves for the month of January.  We've assigned points to things like the number of posts written, page views, followers, comments, etc.  The prize is a Saturday on our own, sans kids for relaxation and selfish pursuits.

So, please check back often and feel free to weigh in on the discussions.  I'll try to keep it interesting.