Monday, March 26, 2012


The UConn jazz combos hit the von der Mehden stage tonight at 7:30 p.m.  This semester we have four groups, with each assigned to a theme.  Should you attend tonight's concert, you will hear groups playing the compositions of Thelonious Monk, John Coltrane, Wayne Shorter and bebop composers, Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker.

The opening act will be the Brien McMahon High School Jazz Ensemble, directed by Ron Secchi.  They are coming all the way from Norwalk, CT.  Saxophonist Colin Walters, a current UConn jazz student, is a graduate from this school.

If you're still not sold on attending this concert, this should seal the deal: I am playing drums with the John Coltrane ensemble, attempting to play the role of Elvin Jones.  For farcical reasons alone, you won't want to miss this one!

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Bieber Nation

This is just sheer awesomeness.  Pop music with harmony and virtuosity.  Go figure.

My friend Steve Hamilton hipped me to this Swedish trio, "Dirty Loops".  In addition to covering "the Biebs", they've also posted reharmonized cover tunes by Lady GaGa, Britney Spears, and Rihanna on YouTube.  I checked out their web site and an album, including original material is on the way.  This may be the pop band for me.

This is the sort of the direction we had started taking with the now defunct "Jazz Lauds" band, before the plug got pulled on that project. If I were ever to dive wholeheartedly into church music again, playing regularly within a large congregation, I'm pretty sure I'd go this route --- using contemporary worship tunes in need of some added harmonic and rhythmic interest.

At one point I said "never again".  Lately my stance is "maybe someday".  I guess we'll see.

On another note, I couldn't help but notice how much fun these guys are having as they are playing.  You can see the joy in their facial expressions.  On my gig last week in Winnipeg, someone came up to me and commented that I no longer appear frustrated and angry when I play.  At first I thought it was a strange comment, but maybe some truth was expressed.  When they last saw me perform in Winnipeg (fifteen years ago!), I was at the height of my practicing. During my evening performances, was trying to execute all the new stuff I was working on throughout the day.  I suppose things have changed in that now I approach playing with the mindset of trying to have fun, and making things feel good/relaxed, as opposed to forcing new concepts into my playing.

I learned an important lesson from the observations of this casual observer of my performances.  Our attitudes as performers really matters, and are easy to read by the "uninitiated" listener.  If we're not having fun, the audience isn't having fun.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Changes Over Time

Visiting my hometown of Winnipeg last week was a surprisingly stirring emotional experience for me.  This was my first time back since my parents moved to British Columbia several years ago.  After working all day Friday and Saturday, I accepted an invitation to play the offertory at Ness Ave. Baptist, the church where I grew up.  I did a solo piano version of "Sweet Hour of Prayer", a hymn I remembered singing there many times as a youth.  On this day, it was the only hymn to be played, as the music format has changed to rock worship bands.  Back in the day, piano and hymns dominated.  I recall a time when as a teen, I ranked myself as the seventh best pianist in the church and aspired to gradually climb the ranks.  (With that disclosure I am probably revealing far too much about my competitive nature.)

It was strange and rather overwhelming to be back in the church I attended from age 5 until leaving town to attend university.  Between degrees I also attended for a year, and even became a member.  So much has changed, yet there were many familiar faces (although with a few more wrinkles).  Prior to the service beginning, I found myself overcome with emotion in seeing so many of my parent's old friends.  I had to retreat to the men's room briefly to regain my composure.   I was happy to see that the church as a whole appears to be spiritually healthy, and the spoken message was quite inspiring.  The band too was much better than what I have experienced elsewhere recently.

The site of my former high school, Silver Heights Collegiate
I observed many other changes in Winnipeg. There has been much demolition and construction. The new airport is spectacular.   An empty field is now the site of the high school from which I graduated.  Condominiums will soon be erected.  My favorite men's clothing store, Grafton/Stonehouse is no longer present in the malls.  Traffic has increased.  The Jets are back!!!  A new football stadium is being built. There are jazz programs at the University of Manitoba and at Brandon University!  Architect, Frank Gehry is building a mammoth Human Rights museum at the Forks.  The list could go on and on.

Perhaps the most profound change was experienced when visiting my old street, Athlone Drive.  Some of the houses are no longer in pristine condition.  My childhood next-door-neighbor is now well into his 90s.  The passage of time is showing.  I mustered the nerve to knock on the door of my childhood home.  The owner graciously invited me inside and gave me a tour.  To my surprise, they had "gutted" the place.  Not a single room was unaltered.  Many walls were removed.  The interior was gorgeous, modern and tastefully done, but in no way resembled my childhood home.  Very few memories were evoked, because it was no longer the same place.

I'm glad I visited.  I didn't realize that I needed closure, but I sure got it.  That period in time is done.  Gone.  It was a wonderful time --- and in some ways I mourned its passing on this trip.  Winnipeg is no longer home for me, but it will always hold a special place in my heart.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Band Festival

I was in Winnipeg, Canada this week to adjudicate the Manitoba Band Association's Optimist Festival.  The three other adjudicators were Greg Gatien (Brandon University), Ashley Summers (Indiana University) and my former professor, Gordon Foote (McGill University).  Here is a photo of us following our dinner break on the second day:

For two days straight we evaluated and worked with bands from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m..  I believe there were forty-eight groups in all.  It was exhausting but also invigorating to instruct enthusiastic young people and their dedicated teachers.

Repeatedly I was asked, "How do the bands in Manitoba compare to groups in the Northeastern U.S.?"  Honestly, I think the range is quite similar.  Both have their fair share of excellent groups, weaker groups and everything in the middle.

For those who may not know, I grew up in Winnipeg and participated in this festival annually as a youth.  This was my second time returning to adjudicate.  It was a nice reminder of where I came from, and how far I've come.  I could see a young version of myself in some of the teenage pianists.  Being reminded that there was a time when I too naively played exuberant glissandi and Little Richard licks within Count Basie charts, helps me to be encouraging rather than scathing in my role of guiding, steering and educating these young people.

On a similar train of thought, over drinks, Gordon Foote shared with me that after my audition for the undergraduate jazz program at McGill (back in 1988), much debate ensued amongst the faculty before I was admitted.  Then, following the first combo concert in my freshman year, he and Kevin Dean agreed that they "might have made a mistake in admitting me."  I do believe that divine intervention played a significant role in my acceptance, but it also feels good knowing that my hard work and dedication paid off.  As an educator, this too serves as a good reminder, both as I audition/select students and as I try to work patiently with the late bloomers.

Ever up and onward.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Done and Done


It has been quite the journey.  I am fairly pleased with most of the pieces I have written over the past 30 days.  I am particularly fond of these ten: 23, 19, 16, 15, 14, 11, 9, 7, 5, 2 ...although its kind of like choosing your favorite offspring --- it really can't be done!  If there is a standout in your opinion, please let me know.

At some point in the near future I hope record corresponding audio files for each.  I intend to compile and post them on my web site.

This final piece in my 30 day song-writing challenge uses a phrygian blues progression as the improvised bridge within a 32-bar, AABA tune.  I'm calling it "Heart of Darkness".  Nothing says dark quite like the phrygian mode.  Here it is:

While I'm on the topic of darkness...  a couple of weeks ago, two of my friends presented me with the latest beer they had (home) brewed, called "Earl's Heart of Darkness".  Here's a photo:

During the same week, another friend took my photo with his new camera, and then sent me the following mock album cover for my next CD:

Maybe it's just a coincidence, or maybe I really do need to "lighten up".  I may start by taking a break from self-imposed composition deadlines.  I've certainly got enough real ones.

Thanks for joining me on this ride!