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.

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.

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

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.

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…

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Interview With Quinsin Nachoff, Jazz Composer and Saxophonist

Quinsin Nachoff is a Brooklyn-based saxophonist, clarinetist and composer. He has toured internationally as both a sideman and leader in Europe, Asia, Canada and Australia.  In 2011 he premiered a commission for Peter Knight’s 5+2 brass ensemble at the Melbourne International Jazz Festival, Australia and was artist-in-residence at the Queensland Conservatorium, Brisbane, Australia. As a leader he has recordings featuring John Taylor, Ernst Reijseger, Mark Helias and Jim Black. As a sideman he has worked with, among others, Kenny Werner, Howard Johnson, Dave Binney, Kenny Wheeler and Don Thompson.

He has had recent commissions from: violinist Nathalie Bonin for a Violin Concerto that was demoed in January of 2014; the Greg Runions big band and the Toronto Jazz Orchestra for big band works; and clarinetist Peter Stoll for a piece for clarinet and string quartet. He is the winner of a 2007 Chalmers Fellowship, the 2004 KM Hunter Award and was a semi-finalist in the 2002 Thelonious Monk Jazz Saxophone Competition. He won a Canadian JUNO award as a member of Hilario Duran’s big band in 2008.

Originally from Toronto, Canada, he holds both a Bachelor of Music degree and a Master of Music degree from the University of Toronto where he studied with Mike Murley, Alex Dean, Kirk MacDonald, Sasha Rapoport and Frank Falco. He has also studied privately with Jim McNeely, Mike Holober, Donny McCaslin, Rich Perry and Joe Lovano. He has taught at the University of Toronto, Humber College and coached at the Banff Centre the Arts.

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?

It depends on what projects are on the go at any given time. I’m trying to balance being a performer (on saxophone and clarinet) and a composer, so a different focus is needed at different times throughout any given month. If I have a commission, deadline or set goal then I’ll be composing every day, anywhere from two to six or more hours, and doing maintenance practice, one to two hours, later in the day. If I have a concert, tour or recording then I’ll be focused on my practice routine and spend time later in the day looking at scores or listening to music.

In general I prefer to do creative work early in the day for a solid block of time and for several days in a row to allow things to evolve. I find it really hard to do the initial creative work in small blocks of time, but sometimes that’s what my schedule will dictate. A couple of times I’ve had to finish compositions while on tour and that’s been particularly challenging.

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

I always try to come up with a unifying idea for a piece first. This can be anything from a very specific musical element, form idea, mathematical idea, orchestration/colour idea, feeling or gesture, a musical query (what would it sound like if Carl Stalling wrote music in an improvised jazz setting?), etc.

Once I have this initial binding force I’ll start sketching the overall shape and form of the piece and then start filling in some milestones, orchestration and density ideas. If there’s going to be a soloist I’ll think about which instrument and, if the situation allows, who might be playing it – imagining their language and sound in this landscape I’m creating.

I find once I have this general shape the details and the journey start to fill themselves in, usually with many hours of hard work and editing.

Do you compose at the piano or away from it?

I usually do some composing at the piano, some composing sitting somewhere quietly and some composing right into the computer (usually to help check contrapuntal ideas or thick harmonic ideas that I can’t play quickly on piano.)

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

I use MIDI playback to check voicings and form, but I try to imagine the actual instruments playing the parts for a better sense of colour and balance.

Sometimes I’ll use the computer to generate materials that I might work with in a piece - generating random elements or series that would take a long time to calculate by hand.

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

I’ve used Finale since the ‘90s and am really happy with the improvements. It finally feels like Finale 2014 is reasonably usable. I wish the default spacing of items were cleaner, especially when extracting to parts. It still takes a lot of individual movement and placement to get things to not look like it’s been spaced by a computer.

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 did do a lot of transcribing of jazz solos at a certain point, but not that much any more. I started by lifting Louis Armstrong solos from his Hot Five and Hot Seven and worked my way up, in a loose chronological fashion, to more modern players to understand the jazz lineage. I also focused not just on saxophone players (there were many), but pianists (Tommy Flanagan, Monk, Bud Powell, etc.), trumpet players (Clifford Brown, Kenny Wheeler, etc.) and singers (Frank Sinatra, Billy Holliday, Sarah Vaughn, etc.) By playing along with each of these I learned a lot about phrasing, articulation, sound, time feel and language.

I have spent time studying the scores of: string quartets in particular (Bartok, Mozart, Beethoven, Shostakovich, Ravel, Debussy); some orchestral and chamber works (Korsakov, Stravinsky, Ravel, Debussy, Xenakis, Ives, Messiaen, etc.); and recently Violin Concertos (Stravinsky, Prokofiev, Bartok, Weill, Ligeti, Berg, etc.) I’ve been checking out some Brian Ferneyhough and Thomas Ades scores lately. I’ve also been going through Bob Brookmeyer, Maria Schneider and Gil Evans scores to try to learn more about the specifics of big band composing.

I find looking at scores is just another way to learn and improve the craft in addition to listening and daily practice. Having analyzed scores and transcribed solos certainly informs the language and approaches that I can draw on to improvise and compose.

How important is musical innovation to you?

The music I find most interesting, irrespective of genre, is unique, personal and creative. Sometimes it happens to be innovative.

What concepts have you explored in your recent work?

One of my big goals this year is to simplify my big band music to something that can be read in a 20-minute reading session. I tend to gravitate towards complex structures and ideas and I’ve been trying to pare things down to something more readable but that is still a language that is interesting and honest for me.

Some of my big band pieces this year explored: three superimposed rhythms; a simple triadic sus4-3 resolution stacked and manipulated, often through common-tone modulation; and a tone row derived from a blues scale and its missing chromatic notes with stylistic hints of Mingus, Monk and Muddy Waters. I demoed a Violin Concerto commission in January and some of the concepts in that work included: a loose tango using the Fibonacci-series to rhythmically expand the clave; long tone rows used less sequentially and more cyclically; and layering of different influences such as a ballad movement overlapping Berg, Strayhorn, Messiaen, Gil Evans and Stravinsky influences.

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

It really depends on the instrumentation and the flow, but I generally find that on a really good day I usually write about 30 seconds of music. I’m a slow, but obstinate, writer. I sometimes compose whole sections that end up on the cutting room floor, or spend hours obsessing over a voicing, progression, process or orchestration. Sometimes these will get repurposed, but sometimes its just part of the process to get to an end result.

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

Before joining the BMI workshop I had not written a lot of big band music, but had been commissioned by two big bands to write pieces. This inspired me to want to learn how to write more effectively. This year I’ve been challenging myself to write a new piece for each BMI reading, so five over the year.

Over the past few years I’ve been completing a Violin Concerto commission that we just demoed in January (three movements approximately 35 mins of music. I used some of the same players who do the BMI readings.) I have a small group record in the can for alto and tenor sax, keyboard instruments and drumset (with Dave Binney, Matt Mitchell and Kenny Wollesen.) I wrote music for a commission for brass quintet, drums and saxophone that I premiered in Australia and a shorter classical commission for clarinet and string quartet premiered in Canada.

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

Yes, I practice and perform on saxophone and clarinet in equal measure to my composing. Keeping them in balance is a constant struggle, but I wouldn’t be happy giving either up. On the good days the two feed into each other: it feels like I’m playing with the ear of a composer and writing with the insight of a performer. It will feel like the languages and processes intersect. On the not so good days I’ll feel out of synch with the instruments and not in a clear headspace to compose.

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 big band is a standard instrumentation with a rich history of unique artists composing for it. I have played and continue to play in many big bands. I’d like to develop a voice writing for it.

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

I teach part-time, perform and record to try to make it work.

Define success from your vantage point.

Being able to compose and perform music with the most creative and skilled musicians and composers I can.

What are your career goals?

As a composer some projects on the docket involve new music for my group with string quartet, sax, bass and drums; an orchestral work; foray into a vocal work; more concertos (for piano, for French horn); and more big band works.

As a performer I’d like to continue to have the opportunity to work with the exciting composers and performers that make up the NYC scene.

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

Shortly after moving back to NYC I subbed in to several of the BMI readings. I have also subbed into, or now work regularly with, the big bands of many of the composers who have come through the workshop. I really like the atmosphere and the focus on original music. I studied some years ago with Jim and see the workshop as a great opportunity to work with him and Mike. I also see it as a chance to meet, work with and learn from other dedicated composers.

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

I have an undergraduate degree from the University of Toronto in Jazz Performance. I also did my Master’s degree at the University of Toronto while on faculty – where I was able to study Baroque counterpoint as part of the degree along with classical clarinet. My parents were musicians and did electronic music in the ’70s (they had one of the first MOOG synthesizers) so I was exposed to a lot of contemporary classical music as a kid. (You mean everyone else didn’t grow up listening to Stockhausen, Schoenberg, Xenakis, Cage and Bartok?)

I’ve supplemented my training with lessons, studying of books, recordings, scores and the opportunity to perform with some great composer/musicians.

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

I like reading fiction. I’ve recently read Michael Ondaatje (Cat’s Table), Haruki Murakami (IQ84) and Gao Xingjian (Soul Mountain). I’m also a big Salman Rushdie fan, although nothing recently. In non-fiction I like reading or studying philosophy and mathematics. The last couple of years I tried out some of the free online courses being offered: finished a Pre-Calculus course and was working on a Calculus course.

I like cooking. I used to have a roommate who was a professional chef and composer who liked describing certain chords as crunchy broccoli.

Music has the power to….


I compose music with the goal of....

…continually learning and expressing.